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Monday, October 13, 2014

Abasement and Ascension: Happiness and Sorrow

"As a child, I thought I could live 
without pain,
without sorrow." (Dream Theater)

Every day I grow older, I better comprehend the extraordinary wisdom of Solomon, son of David. It used to be that this admiration of knowledge centered on the Proverbs. However, with maturity comes an ever-growing admiration of the gems contained in Ecclesiastes. Though I can't say it from a historical basis, Proverbs reads to me as the things he learned and said in his youth, and Ecclesiastes as his parting words.

What do we have in Ecclesiastes? For starters, one of my favorite verses in all of scripture: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." (Eccl. 1:2)

Here is a man who had sampled everything the world has to offer. He quite possibly had greater wealth, power, fame, etc, than any man before or since. And what does he make of it? It is all vanity! This is the sense of the word that connotes emptiness and falsehood---an eventual decayed outcome.

How much of this life is simply vanity? To begin with, everything the world has to offer. It all evaporates with the sunrise of wisdom: the realization of things as they truly are.

As Dave Mustaine wrote,

"Throughout all ages of history,
The one thing we found out,
Sweet taste of vindication,
It turns to ashes in your mouth."

I wanted to quote sample verses from this book highlighting everything Solomon covers, but I would basically be quoting the whole thing. It is worth a read.

Essentially, if you could do it, Solomon tried it. He tested everything that men do under the sun. He made money, he spent money, he had many, many wives, he enjoyed the entertainments of the day, he had building projects. He realized that none of these pursuits brought lasting happiness. Most pleasure was fleeting, and that which endured (such as his buildings) would go to another at his death. He realized that this world and all it has to offer is essentially an illusion, evaporating when you rely on it the most.

Therefore, the only joy that is lasting in this life is that gained by obtaining and knowing Jesus Christ, and the love and peace that abides in him. Of all this world has to offer, this is the only thing that really matters. Everything else is simply meant to either be a vehicle that leads us to that (through repeated failures and suffering) or an illusion to distract us from it if we head not the master's call.

There is a false notion that obedience to God yields happiness. I say false notion, but what I mean is that the preceding is a true statement, provided the definition of happiness is correct. Countless prophets (all?) lived their days out in sorrow. Joseph said, “The world always mistook false prophets for true ones, and those that were sent of God, they considered to be false prophets, and hence they killed, stoned, punished and imprisoned the true prophets, and these had to hide themselves ‘in deserts and dens, and caves of the earth’ [see Hebrews 11:38], and though the most honorable men of the earth, they banished them from their society as vagabonds, whilst they cherished, honored and supported knaves, vagabonds, hypocrites, impostors, and the basest of men.” (History of the Church, 4:574)

If these men, who were closer to Christ than most, experienced so much bitterness, is it not logical that as we seek to become more like Christ, we will be exposed to a greater portion of the bitter cup that he himself drank? Yet, they rejoiced in Christ. What we are told of one group of disciples is true of all:

"And the Lord provided for them that they should hunger not, neither should they thirst; yea, and he also gave them strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ." (Alma 31:38)

It was not that they would not suffer afflictions, but that their afflictions would be swallowed up in the joy of Christ. This is one of the many scriptural descriptions of true happiness---the pattern of ascent and descent.

What does happiness mean?

(1828 Webster's) HAP'PINESS, n. [from happy.] The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good; that state of a being in which his desires are gratified, by the enjoyment of pleasure without pain; felicity; but happiness usually expresses less than felicity, and felicity less than bliss. Happiness is comparative. To a person distressed with pain, relief from that pain affords happiness; in other cases we give the name happiness to positive pleasure or an excitement of agreeable sensations. Happiness therefore admits of indefinite degrees of increase in enjoyment, or gratification of desires. Perfect happiness, or pleasure unalloyed with pain, is not attainable in this life.

Interestingly, I see two divergent definitions above. The first agrees with what I found in the modern definition: "The state of feeling or showing pleasure or contentment." The other, relief from pain, seems to agree more with what I find in the scriptures, but is still rather lacking.

There is the confusion about what happiness actually is. Laman and Lemuel are a great example of this. They said, "Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy." (1 Nephi 17:21) Meanwhile, Lehi and Nephi had sacrificed much to lug them along on a journey to the real source of happiness, the love of Christ (see 1 Nephi 8:10). You see, "to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." (Romans 8:6 and 2 Nephi 9:39) We can say these words and still not get what they mean. When we prioritize the so called happiness of this world with the joy of Christ, we demonstrate that we do not understand what those verses mean.

Among Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jeremiah, Job, Moses, Adam, Enoch, Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, Christ himself, and all the faithful, will you find a single person who went about cheerfully, always finding "happiness" (the lack of suffering) and favor in this fallen world? You will not. Not among the righteous.Their joy, as Christs kingdom, is not of this world (John 18:36) meaning not that it is not to be found here, but that it is not defined as the world would define it.

And so we see that the indications of joy in Christ are intentionally very different from the way Babylon experiences happiness. Their happiness is an illusion.

So what is to be done? How can we mitigate our sorrows? Once, when Alma Jr. found himself in a particularly hopeless situation, he offered a powerful prayer. The Lord responded to it by blessing him with "strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ." (Alma 31:38) Note the very important fact that God did not remove their afflictions from them. Rather, he blessed them that their joy in Christ could surpass their sorrow. Disciples of Christ have always and will always have more earthly sorrow than most. However, their joy in Christ surpasses those sorrows. This is the ascent-descent pattern.

Examples of scriptural happiness

Alma Jr.: "Now Alma, being grieved for the iniquity of his people, yea for the wars, and the bloodsheds, and the contentions which were among them; and having been to declare the word, or sent to declare the word, among all the people in every city; and seeing that the hearts of the people began to wax hard, and that they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word, his heart was exceedingly sorrowful." (Alma 35:15)

10 Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. (Alma 41:10)

Jacob: "...the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days." (Jacob 7:26) What spiritual blessings did he receive? What earthy sufferings did he go through? The more knowledge you have, the more sorrow you have. It is that simple. "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." (Eccl 1:18)

 Ammon: 16 And it came to pass that as Ammon was going forth into the land, that he and his brethren met Alma, over in the place of which has been spoken; and behold, this was a joyful meeting.
 17 Now the joy of Ammon was so great even that he was full; yea, he was swallowed up in the joy of his God, even to the exhausting of his strength; and he fell again to the earth.
 18 Now was not this exceeding joy? Behold, this is joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness.
 19 Now the joy of Alma in meeting his brethren was truly great, and also the joy of Aaron, of Omner, and Himni; but behold their joy was not that to exceed their strength. (Alma 27) Why? Because of their toil. This is the same pattern displayed by the Lord, whose ascent above all was made possible by his descent below all:

The Lord:
"He shall see the toil of his soul and be satisfied;
because of his knowledge,
and by bearing their iniquities,
shall my servant, the righteous one, vindicate many.
12 I will assign him an inheritance among the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
because he poured out his soul unto death,
and was numbered with criminals—
he bore the sins of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:11-12)

Nephi vs Jacob:
It is interesting to compare/contrast these statements by Nephi and his brother Jacob.

Nephi:  27 And it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness. (2 Nephi 5:27)

Jacob: 26 And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old; and the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore, I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7)

Jacob: 43 But the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever—yea, that happiness which is prepared for the saints. (2 Nephi 9:43)

If they lived after the manner of happiness, how could Jacob describe it so negatively in his concluding verse? And how could he simultaneously call it "the happiness prepared for the saints"? Why is it hid? Because the reconciliation of these two definitions of happiness is only evident to those who have comprehended this mystery: the pattern of ascent and descent.

Ascent / descent

Happiness is the path of ascent after descent. It is the receipt of exaltation after you have sacrificed yourself through abasement for the benefit of others who did not merit it.

 11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
 12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
 13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2)

In order to obtain eternal life, you must descend to a very low point, and prove faithful all the while. This always occurs in steps of ever-increasing abasement followed by ever-increasing exaltation. Every step forward requires you descend below your previous lowest point. This is a pattern we see all over scripture.

Abraham: The father of all righteous was born in a comfortable life steeped in false tradition. His family was well-off and had a vested interest in preserving the false traditions they espoused. However, he willingly sought descent as a condition to acquire knowledge. There is no other way.

2 And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers. (Abraham 1:2)

Happiness is the acquisition of knowledge, meaning the completion of an ascent/descent iteration. The more knowledge you have, the more sorrow you have. It is that simple. "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." (Eccl 1:18)

You are raised commensurate with the degree to which you abased yourself. This happens through the justice of God. Although you can be justified (forgiven, cancelled out debt) through mercy, you can only be sanctified (exalted, increased) through justice. God looks upon your condescension on behalf of those who did not merit it and blesses you by judging you in absence of your sin for which you have been forgiven by and through Christ.

You can only progress as far as you've descended. If you quit, you merely are postponing what will eventually have to be done, anyway. Brigham Young once said "if the people have not an opportunity of proving themselves before they die, by the ruler of their faith and religion, they cannot expect to attain to so high a glory and exaltation as they could if they had been tried in all things." (JD 4:90)


There is a bar representing every stage of eternal progression. For instance, a bar associated with gaining the presence of God. A bar associated with becoming a Christ. A bar associated with being a Heavenly Father, and so on. Those who obtain salvation (however you define it) do so be conquering all the challenges associated with that level of blessing. They must live that law, which requires a discrete amount of condescension equal to the exaltation that follows.

"Salvation is nothing more nor less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them
under our feet. And when we have power to put all enemies under our feet in this world, and
a knowledge to triumph over all evil spirits in the world to come, then we are saved, as in the
case of Jesus, who was to reign until He had put all enemies under His feet, and the last
enemy was death." (TPJS)

Interestingly, the culmination of this pattern is always greater interaction with heaven. Joseph teaches in the Lectures on Faith that the required amount of abasement to merit exaltation requires that one encounter Jesus personally, and receive the promise of eternal life. Without this promise, it is impossible to endure the depth of descent required for eternal life.

41 And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it.(Mosiah 2:41)

Hold out faithful till the end of what? Till the end of the descent pattern required for eternal life. You have to endure all the things God has to throw at you before you are able to live the law required for eternal life. It is an annealing process.

In summary, happiness is not the absence of sorrow, but the accumulation of knowledge earned through sorrow incurred through righteous intercession on others' behalf.

(The images in this post started from my friend John with many additions by my wife Nicky. Thanks to both.)