IntroductionThere are many good people in this world. These people expend a great deal of effort and introspection in attempts to have a positive impact on the world. Religious people tend to claim that one cannot be good without being religious. For those who are, this claim is both untrue and incredibly off-putting.
If the only benefit of the gospel was to turn bad people into good people, it would not be of value to those who are already good. This document presents a different perspective on religion, one that suggests the gospel is also a tool for good people to become better through providing a means to become aware of additional opportunities to improve and to procure a means for making those improvements.
The purpose of this document is not to convince you that God exists. Rather, under the supposition that he does, it explains what role he plays in how a good person becomes good, and how a good person becomes better.
It is difficult for someone who is invested in improvement to believe that belief in God will substantially increase their capability. Consider the following story.
When I entered high school I didn't need glasses. With each passing year, I found the chalkboards getting dustier. I had to keep moving closer, and it was annoying. At some point, after ~3 years, I complained. Someone suggested I needed glasses. One reason this had never crossed my mind was that I had eye checks as part of an annual physical that had not revealed degrading eyesight. The main reason I did not know I needed glasses was that I didn't comprehend what it would be like to not need glasses. I didn't know what perfect eyesight was like, so I couldn't realize what I was missing by wearing glasses.
Years later, I faced an alert order for deployment in the military. Knowing how hard it is to shoot accurately with glasses on, and knowing how pointless it is to try to shoot with a gas mask on when you require glasses, I thought it would be worthwhile to get laser eye surgery in spite of the cost and what I considered to be the cosmetic nature of the procedure. The procedure was very fast. The cover of my eyeball was opened, my vision got even blurrier than normal, some lights flashed, the doctor put an eye drop in my eye and put the flap back. Instantly, I saw perfectly clearly. Significantly more clearly than I ever had even with glasses. I actually cried because I was so astonished with how much better I could see. It was like being born again. I saw the world anew. Every morning I realized what it was like to be able to see right when I woke up. I had no idea how much clearer my perspective would be. I had no idea what I had been missing out on. If I did, I would have had the operation much sooner, and I would have been willing to pay a lot more than I did (at the time I think it cost me $8,000).
It is easy to preach Jesus to those who are broken and know it. It is very hard to preach Jesus to those who are already obeying that inner voice that tells them to do right. From their perspective, they can see the board fine. From their perspective, they already have their vision corrected.
What is the purpose of religion?Happiness is the object of the existence of man. Happiness exists in proportion to the possession of and adherence to truth. The purpose of religion is to provide a framework to discover and adhere to truth. Certainly, the many people in this world who have successfully acquired truth without belief in God prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the process is possible without belief in God. But is it optimal? In other words, the question is not whether truth can be acquired--and therefore happiness--without belief in God, but whether greater happiness is available through belief in God.
What does belief in God contribute to happiness? The differences over lack of belief include access to truth, rate of acceptance, and extent of truth.
Access to truthGod knows all things pertaining to our scope of existence, and therefore possesses all happiness pertaining to our scope. To the degree that we know God and are empowered to be like him, we can possess the happiness he possesses. God seeks to teach us everything he knows. He can do this to a great extent without us ever believing in him. All truth comes from God, whether the individual recognizes its source or not. However, by recognizing the source and learning the mechanism of seeking and receiving truth directly from God, one can access much more truth than is possible without belief in God.
Rate of acceptance of truthBelief in God provides a framework for seeking and accepting truth at a greater rate than non-belief. The gospel of Jesus Christ provides an understanding of how God is--his character--as well as how we truly are--the base tendencies of human nature. It also provides tools to help us overcome our innate nature and become more like God is. Because believers understand their starting point and the end goal, they are enabled to seek and accept truth at a faster pace than non-believers. While a non-believer may be content with a more passive approach to self-refinement, a true believer will not rest until they have overcome the character traits, attitudes, and actions that prevent a fullness of happiness in this life and in the world to come.
Can you routinely go through a preconceived notion inventory, and totally dismantle everything you think you know, rebuilding with only those things that withstand the fire of inquiry and introspection? The prospect of such a life is unpalatable to most, including those who try to be good people.
Extent of truth acceptedBelief in God presupposes that God, being perfect, possesses truths that are sufficiently advanced that they would be repulsive to the natural man. Whereas non-believers might be tempted to only accept truths that are somehow tethered to their present position, believers in God ought to assume that even their most prized positions have the potential of being supplanted by higher truths, even if they cannot presently anticipate exactly what these might be.
The path to truth will undoubtedly intersects difficult experiences. The gospel does not remove these. If anything, more trials occur in a life of a believer than a non-believer. However, the gospel provides a framework where one can remain in a state of happiness and internal comfort in spite of great external turmoil. Those who know God can understand the truth and beautiful reality of Jesus’ promise that his teachings make burdens light.
Can you endure the endless trials that are required to refine you into the likeness of God? To do it, you need promises--assurances from God that what you are going through is for your good. Do promises exist for those merely trying to be good?
God provides promises to those who keeps his commandments. For example, consider this promise given to a man who gave his all to live in accordance with new truth God showed him:
And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led. (1 Nephi 17:13)
Those who follow the Lord will always be good, but those who try to be good may not succeed in their objective: "And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works." (Alma 7:24) Sanctification, or becoming more perfect, will always happen as an individual yields their hearts to God:
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. (Helaman 3:35)
Peace within and peace without is completely possible. And a relationship with God makes it enduring no matter what may come, whereas an unbeliever may find themselves consistently or occasionally encountering situations that rob them of their peace.
What is the process of religion?If God is the embodiment of all truth, to obtain truth is to get to know him. The process of religion, like other non-religious pursuits of self-improvement, is to gain truth by seeking and finding ideas that contradict or expand what you already believe, and attempt to prove them wrong by putting them into action.
Why do people hate religion?For most, the purpose and process of religion are different than I have stated. To most, religion is the permanent and full acceptance of a set of traditions. This type of religion is not concerned with discovering truth because it believes it already has it. This type of religion does not openly seek something better, because it believes it is already perfect. Because this type of religion can never bring about the experiences promised in the scriptures, it always redefines and minimizes those experiences into something less. In far too many cases, religion is used as an excuse to do truly horrible things.
Many religions exist that can provide some benefit, but not anything more than one's own attempts at being good would provide. There are many people who claim to be believers of Jesus, for example, yet they demonstrate none of the capabilities promised to believers in the scriptures. They claim they believe in Jesus, but really they wish on Jesus. There is an important distinction. The difference is that when your beliefs are fixed and immutable, before encompassing all the truth God has to offer, you are prevented from actually getting to know the Lord, his will, and his character in full. The degree by which you fall short in knowing him is the degree to which you will fall short of experiencing his your greatest potential for happiness.
Most Christians' knowledge of God is sufficiently limited so as to prevent them from being more of a good person than any other non-religious good person. In fact, most Christians are so limited in their understanding and implementation of God's character that they are put to shame by many who are staunch atheists. It is like most Christians are beat at the races by racers on foot in spite of their possessing Ferraris, because their traditions prevent them from fueling, starting, and driving the car, so they resort to pushing it along the track.
The goodness of an anonymous GodAll good and truth comes from God. He said: "...I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world." (Ether 4:12)
God is so good that he radiates goodness to everyone, whether they have heard of or believe in him or not. Every breath you take and every ability you have is a gift from God, freely offered, without so much as a need to recognize him.
Humans are not, by default, good people. This is due to our nature, which is selfish and carnal. All good things come from God: "...good cometh of none save it be of me." (Ether 4:12) God’s good influence is constantly broadcast to all mankind in the form of inspiration to rise above the norm. These ideas can lead to a great deal of change in a person. Many have mastered the ability to listen to this influence, and have affected a great deal of good in this world, and many of them have done so without attributing this influence to God, or even recognizing it as external.
So what do you have to lose by limiting yourself to an anonymous God? Consider an analogy. If your purpose is to gather water, you can do so to a great extent by collecting rain in pots and collecting the dew from flat objects. But if limited to these incidental events, you can never generate water on demand. You are always subject to the weather or time of day and whatever quantity of water that happens to fall. Now imagine that you discovered a spring. At any point of the day you can collect water without any limit on quantity.
God’s truth is all around you, all the time, and you have access to it. Not accidentally, he describes himself and is described as a fountain of truth. “Therefore, with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” (2 Nephi 22:3) In spite of the limitless nature of truth, those who do not recognize God as the source of it are limited by their perception. Truth is broadcast from God like radio waves from a tower. Someone who thought music came from a radio would not be different in experience than one who recognized that a radio was only receiving the music transmitted from a tower. However, if the radio was a 2-way radio, the experience of those who know this and those who do not would differ in that those who viewed the ability to communicate back to the tower could influence the messages that came in return. Instead of being limited to the default programming sent to everyone, they could seek and receive information that guided them specifically beyond the default. You can bypass the limitations of default truth by accessing God--the source of all truth--directly.
The gateway to greater goodnessThe Lord Jesus Christ is the physical embodiment of all truth pertaining to our sphere. He said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) Although all the light and truth he contains is constantly accessible, we are limited in our access and even perception of it.
1 In the beginning [before all time] was the Word (Christ), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself
3 All things were made and came into existence through Him; and without Him not even one thing was made that has come into being.
4 In Him was life [and the power to bestow life], and the life was the Light of men.
5 The Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand it or overpower it or appropriate it or absorb it [and is unreceptive to it]. (John 1, AMP)
The Lord said that perception of his light is controlled by how well we listen to his words: “I will not show...my strength...save it be unto those who repent of their sins, and hearken unto my words….” (Helaman 7:23)
He said that those who come to him will be shown the things that they currently are unaware of: "...I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world. Come unto me...and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge of which is hid up because of unbelief." (Ether 4:12-13)
By following the teachings of Jesus, you will gain a relationship with him. This is much more than what most people think of when they consider a relationship with him. I mean a physical, visual, talking, touching relationship with him.
Jesus is the gateway to greater goodness. To enter into the gateway, one must learn of him and come to a willingness to fully submit to his influence. This isn’t easy. You must do what you realize is right in order to become better (good human), even though it's almost always the harder choice, rather than what's easy (selfish, carnal, bad). Obedience to truth increases the access an individual has to truth, from what is generally available to everyone to greater access, as described with the dew vs. spring analogy.
One who sees no need for greater knowledge will never fully openly seek it. One who doesn't find themselves wrong or flawed (and own this) will have no motive (and dedication) to seek to improve. Encountering Jesus provides us with an awareness of a need for greater knowledge and a startling awareness of our flaws.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3)
As we get to know the Lord, we find more and more of our flaws exposed--flaws we didn’t know existed. As we get to know the Lord, our motivation and dedication to seek to improve increases through the effects of the love he has for us, our knowledge of which increases as we get to know him better.
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)
It is worth noting that submission to God is not the same as submission to an organized religion, set of traditions, or group of people.
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name. (2 Nephi 9:41)
The effects of the Spirit of God on those who submit to GodThe pathway of becoming better through Jesus is a process, not an event. Here, one learns more truth, implements it, and repeats. However, several effects happen immediately.
Increased happinessHappiness is a subjective construct. However, as one obtains more truth, the depth of the experience and its independence from outward circumstances increases. Those who experience an outpouring of the Spirit of God experience a new depth and intensity of joy:
...he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. (Mosiah 4:20)
These feelings are a foretaste of the experience those who are reconciled to God experience after this life:
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)
A change in desire to do good continuallyThose who desire to do good generally may find that they still have desires to act in opposition to some aspect of what they know is right. The Spirit of God actually changes your desires: “...the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent...has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This is a uniform experience of those who enter into the pathway offered by Jesus: “...[their] hearts are changed through faith on his name…” (Mosiah 5:7 “...and they did all declare unto the people the selfsame thing—that their hearts had been changed; that they had no more desire to do evil.” (Alma 19:33)
Filled with love for all peopleThose who are filled with the Spirit of God are filled with love for all people: “...keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men.” (Mosiah 2:4)
The capacity to improve every faultThe Spirit of God enables a person to have the strength to overcome every weakness that besets them. “...the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7) “...Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness…” (Moroni 10:32)
Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day. (3 Nephi 27:20)
The strength to overcome every situation that might compromise your principlesThe Spirit of God strengthens our capacity to withstand the temptation to act against what we know is true.
And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)
Freedom from guilt over past mistakes.The Spirit of God removes guilt from our hearts as we sincerely strive to be better. “And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath...taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.” (Alma 24:10)
Will make sense of all things and prevent you from making huge mistakesThe Spirit communicates to us the truth we need to understand what is right and wrong in every situation and avoid being fooled.
...the word of God...divide[s] asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead[s] the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked— (Helaman 3:29)
The process of getting thereThere has never lived a man so good as Jesus Christ. As you get to know what he did and how he did it in his life, you will find that any other "good" person pales in comparison. The first step is believing that it is possible that God knows much more about being a good person than you do. The key to being shown just how good he is lies in remembering the limitations of your own goodness:
41 O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous....
42 And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.
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 9:41-43)
Those who recognize that God possesses all truth will humble themselves before him. They will “...Come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you.” (Jacob 6:5) They have the opportunity to agree to seek after and follow new truth as God reveals it to them in their lives, either directly through revelation or his written word, or indirectly through the experiences they observe.
Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism. (Alma 7:15)
This agreement occurs in the covenant of baptism, and allows the Lord to pour out his spirit more abundantly upon you, resulting in greater access to positive change in your life.
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you? (Mosiah 18:10)
At this point, you will experience the baptism of fire, which will change your heart and provide you a greater capacity to do good, recognize truth, and be a better person. You will receive increased connection to God through his spirit.
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost... (3 Nephi 9:20)
You will find that God will “pour out his Spirit upon [you]...because of [your] easiness and willingness to believe in his words.” (Helaman 6:36) Then, “...by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, [you will] exercise faith in Christ; and thus by faith...lay hold upon every good thing…” (Moroni 7:25)
The outcomeThose who pursue this path will not simply become good people. They will become like God himself, that is, they will approach perfection and holiness:
6 And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.
7 And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God; for he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men, the same today and tomorrow, and forever.
32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:6-7, 32-33)
The achievement of this level of character offers a greater deal of happiness than is otherwise available in this world.
Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God. (Alma 13:12)