A longer than expected Spiritual Sunday…

I recently listened to a podcast of This American Life entitled The Devil on My Shoulder. Initially they refer to The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis who describes the subtleties of temptations as compared to the cartoon version of the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other battling it out. These fictional explanations of behavior serve to illustrate the difficulty we have in attempting to explain why we do things (good or bad) not to mention trying to decipher the actions of others.

The podcast goes on to talk about two approaches to influencing kids to do good and avoid bad and prompts reflection on the question of why we do what we do. The first is a dramatic production called Hell House, initially done by Trinity Church in Texas and now spread across the States. It occurs around Halloween and basically depicts people doing bad things and then going to hell. It is expected that the fright of these scenarios will prompt the audience to stay away from certain evils and follow a righteous life. I might disagree with their specific methods but the idea of using fear to influence behavior exists in the scriptures.

The prophets often speak of the negative consequences (in this life and the next) of doing wrong. For example, the prophet Enos wrote, “And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them” (Enos 1:23). Even in the Psalms, which are usually upbeat we read, “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps 11:6).

The next part of the podcast was about rumspringa which refers to a period of adolescence for the Amish when they are encouraged to go out to experience any sort of worldly evil from electricity (which I don’t really think is evil) to drugs and immorality (both of which I agree aren’t good). After this period of rumspringa the individual then decides whether or not to return to the clean Amish way of life or leave it forever. I believe it is roughly 90% of these young people that decide the outside world isn’t for them and return to living the simple Amish life with their families. Although we are taught that inevitably we will all sin (and we should of course learn from our past misdeeds and strive to not repeat them), I’m not familiar with any scriptural teachings that encourage us to seek it out so we can really know what we’ll plan on staying away from for the rest of our lives.

These are just two examples of how religious leaders and parents are trying to influence young people to live a certain way. Will a teenager be motivated by such fear? Will an adult remember the negative experiences with drugs and immorality he had as a teenager and stay on the straight and narrow?

We’re constantly facing situations where we’re trying to influence other people to act a certain way. I can think of dozens of examples from today alone of attempting to influence other people’s behavior. Some aren’t terribly important like trying to get my kids to go to bed. Others are of greater importance – like having a conversation about how to influence someone to return to faith and religious worship.

Dallin H. Oaks once spoke of our motivations? (BYU Annual University Conference on 23 August 1998 – Why Do We Serve?). He was speaking of why we serve in the church but many of his comments could be applied to the general question – why do we do good things? He describes six different types of motivations from “the lesser to the greater.” It would be easy to see how these different motivations could be used to provide an angle for attempting to influence someone else.

1. For Riches or Honor – in parenting we would probably call this bribery
2. To Obtain Good Companionship – we often meet good people when we do good things
3. Fear of Punishment – man made punishments, the natural consequences of our actions and eternal judgments
4. Duty or Loyalty – I think this explains a lot of people’s behavior
5. Hope of an Eternal Reward – really the flip side of number 3 and the extension of number 2
6. The Highest Motive – Dallin Oaks explains this highest motive by stating, “If our gospel service [again, I would say this applies to any good act we do] is to be most efficacious, it must be accomplished for the love of God and the love of his children.”

I’ll make two points about appealing to the highest motive in others. First, from Abraham Lincoln, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” In other words, you must make your own motivations clear (i.e. becoming a sincere friend) before influencing another individual’s motivations. Second, Boyd K. Packer has said, “true doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior”. For anyone to act on a love of God they must first know Him.