Thursday, September 15, 2011

God: Good; Me: Bad? No!

I listened to a Mormon Channel Conversations podcast yesterday featuring Rodney K. Smith, former president of Southern Virginia University. I’d recommend the interview to anyone: Brother Smith is a legal scholar and educator and an experienced academic administrator. He articulated a unique vision for SVU that I had not previously appreciated, and his own conversion story was great to hear.

That said, Brother Smith mentioned a concept in relation to his own life and to one of the guiding principles for SVU that stuck in my craw. It’s not an uncommon idea, and it’s frankly one I have espoused in my life before. Basically, he said that when something good happens, he thanks God; when something bad happens, he blames himself. He calls it accountability. I used to call it humility.

Now I call it unhealthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I started this post speaking highly of Brother Smith. I do not intend to attack him or his ideas here, and I suspect I’ve drawn more meaning out of his two-second comment than it deserves. This post is about my idea, one that I myself used to espouse, not about Brother Smith. He simply reminded me.

We should be accountable for our failures and our successes. It’s healthy to examine what went wrong and what we have power to change in the future. But it’s equally healthy to examine what we did right that led to success so that we might repeat it.

Attributing all success to God and all failure to us robs us of a part of the blessing of the atonement, namely the power to improve.

Don’t get me wrong (again): We should praise God. We should thank him for every blessing in our lives. Without Him, His plan of happiness, the atoning sacrifice of His son, we would be nothing. As King Benjamin teaches, we are beggars, and we are regularly blessed, even in ways we do not see. We owe our Father in Heaven a debt of gratitude, and we should offer thanks continually. The very fact that we can improve is by the grace of God and through the atonement of our Savior.

Still, when I stay up late working on a project for my employer and deliver more than is required I want my employer to reward my efforts. I don’t go to work for the fun of it; I go to be compensated so that I can support my family (and I’m very fortunate – even blessed! – to have the job I do). So when I succeed at work, I also want the commensurate rewards. Do I also thank God for facilitating that success? Of course I do: He gave me opportunity in my life to learn; He gave me intellect; He gave me health. But I used those God-given gifts to the advantage of my employer. And so I want my employer to reward me (and I believe God does, too).

Attributing all success to God and all failure to ourselves is not humility. And it’s not accountability.

Accountability is reporting on my stewardship – good and bad. When the ruler gave various talents to his servants (see Matthew 25), they then accounted for their efforts – one returning ten for five, one four for two, and one returning only his original talent. Each of those servants was held accountable; two were rewarded and one was not.

Focusing only on my failures is false humility, and it is unhealthy. If I see myself as one who only fails, how can I enjoy the blessing of the atonement in my life? The Savior suffered that we might live. Failing to accept that gift suggests that it has no value to me.

In twelve step programs, participants engage in a fearless written moral inventory, including their weaknesses and their strengths. Most veteran 12-steppers understand the value of remembering our strengths as we engage in self-examination. There is something of value in each of us, something worth saving, worth building upon. If we seek to be like Christ, then we must also find his qualities in us, however weak, however small, so that those qualities may grow. As we see them grow in us, we recognize that the atonement is working for us and on us; we value the Savior’s gift.

Let me conclude with the words of Elder Uchdorf from the Priesthood session of conference in October 2010. He was speaking about pride, as a postscript to President Benson’s landmark address on that subject just over two decades earlier:

I also remember one interesting side effect of President Benson’s influential talk. For a while it almost became taboo among Church members to say that they were “proud” of their children or their country or that they took “pride” in their work. The very word pride seemed to become an outcast in our vocabulary.

In the scriptures we find plenty of examples of good and righteous people who rejoice in righteousness and at the same time glory in the goodness of God. Our Heavenly Father Himself introduced His Beloved Son with the words “in whom I am well pleased.”

Alma gloried in the thought that he might “be an instrument in the hands of God.” The Apostle Paul gloried in the faithfulness of members of the Church. The great missionary Ammon gloried in the success he and his brothers had experienced as missionaries.

I believe there is a difference between being proud of certain things and being prideful.

I do, too. I believe we can feel good about our successes. We can thank God for our blessings, but still recognize the value of what we, as His children, can do.


  1. There are a lot of different types of "things that go right" and many different types of "things that go wrong."

    I think recognizing that much of what happens is external is healthy, though I'm remembered of the Scotsman and the pastor who said "look what God has done with this field" and the Scot replied "you should have seen it when God had it to himself."

    With balance, his position is a good one. Without balance, well, it is like everything else.

  2. Good thoughts. Here's another: When something bad happens, sometimes it has nothing whatsoever to do with us - like a hurricane or a robbery or a miscarriage or losing a job.

    Sometimes bad things... just happen.

  3. Thanks for the comments (and the "+1", Rich!).

    Stephen, I like the Scotsman story. :-)

    Robin, your comment made me think about something I heard Elder Packer say once: rather than ask "Why me?" we ought to ask "What next?"

    I think you're right that sometimes bad things just happen, and all we can do is move on.

  4. I struggle with the same problem. Maybe I need to spend less time beating myself up when things go wrong. I do know of some who are quick to thank God for their adversities, and couch them as learning opportunities. I'm not there yet...

  5. MMM, I'm with you: thanking God for my adversity is not the first thing I think of. But sometimes I do get around to it, because I finally get a glimpse of what I could learn from it.