When I was a teenager, if someone asked me about Mormonism, about what differentiated it from other faiths, I usually listed off a few outward expressions of what made our church stand apart:
- Three hours of church
- No drinking or smoking
- No sex before marriage
- Dressing modestly
- No rated-R movies
Since these things tended to outwardly distinguish me from the rest of my friends quite notably, they became what I thought were the “biggest deals.” They came to define my religion, becoming the benchmark of a successful Mormon in my mind. No coffee or beer? Wore sleeves to prom? Didn’t see American Pie? Check, check, check. I’m a success!
I see now that these things easily became my standards of success because they were measurable. They were the outward stuff. Anyone could see them and check them off lists.
Inner vs. Outer
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to see the gospel as much, much more than those “outward” commandments. I’ve grown to trust and love the inward ones as well:
These inward features have largely formed my new standard of “successful” righteousness. But there is one main problem with these new measurements: they are almost impossible to measure!
Do I have enough humility? faith? Do I love enough? I don’t know! How much is enough, anyway?
I think it is human to want to know how we’re doing, how we’re measuring up. We yearn to know if we are doing OK. As humans we also crave acceptance and validation. Often in this quest to know where we stand, we gravitate toward that which is easiest to measure—outward commandments.
Additionally, in order to know where we stand, we want to know where those around us stand so we will have points of reference, so these outward commandments become further ingrained as benchmarks. It is easier to see if someone is showing their shoulders than to determine how much faith they have, so we tend to judge that instead—both in ourselves and in others. (Facebook makes this brand of judging so easy!)
This isn’t a new phenomenon. The people of Christ’s time became so focused on those outward measurements of righteous success that they forgot almost entirely the inward stuff, which is why Christ spent most of His efforts preaching and discussing inward improvement.
So often this realization wants to make us reject all the outer (bad measurement—not as important). But it’s not a contest between the outward commandments versus the inner commandments. Neither should be neglected. Certainly they go together, but the danger for the Pharisees is the same for us—when the outward stuff is our primary benchmark, we miss the mark—both in judging others (which we really should leave to God) and in judging ourselves.
As President Uchtdorf recently warned: “How easy it would be to select our favorite gospel topic, draw a bull’s-eye around it, and then make a case that we have identified the center of the gospel. … The two great commandments are the target.” Those two great commandments he’s talking about are loving God and loving our neighbors. Unfortunately, neither of them can be easily measured with a checklist.
Seeking the Spirit
Wanting to know how we stand with God isn’t a bad or unworthy desire. So if we can’t measure our success on the outward stuff, how do we measure how we’re doing? The best answer I’ve found to this quandary I found in Preach My Gospel. Perhaps at no other time in my life was I as desparate to know if I was successful than when I was a missionary (since those outward standards of success, like baptisms, were not working out for me). Then one day I read, “You can feel certain that the Lord is pleased when you feel the Spirit working through you.”
Huh, that’s it? That’s so easy! I felt the Spirit all the time!
I found myself equally eager and frightened to believe this statement. But it stuck in my mind. I read it, reread it, printed it, and laminated it. Satan knew just how to get me down, and that was by making me feel like I was a constant failure. When I was tempted to believe that, each time I felt the Spirit I would think, “I’m not failing right now. I’m succeeding. I feel the Spirit.” That helped me keep things in check because it was shocking how often I was tempted to feel like a failure and how often that feeling kept me from feeling the Spirit.
How do you know if you are successful? You feel the Spirit.
Can it really be that simple?
Well, it depends. “Feel the Spirit” may be an overly simplistic measurement, since a feeling could be a one-time event. Living with the Spirit, praying for the Spirit, repenting regularly so we can keep the Spirit, and loving the feeling of having the Spirit would all be better measurements. Because when we feel the Spirit, we feel God. Done with regularity, we become close to God. And if we’re truly close to God, we’re treating ourselves and others as we should. Since at the end of our days God is going to put us where we are most comfortable, if we are most comfortable in His presence, that’s where we’ll end up. And that is the ultimate success, right? Eternal life with God.
So, yes. I think our relationship with the Spirit is actually an excellent way to measure our success (thanks, Preach My Gospel!) since with it comes all those inward and outward commandments included in the package, with loving God and loving our neighbors at the forefront.
The funny thing is, even after all this good lesson-learning of success-measuring I did on my mission, I seem to have completely forgotten it in my life as a mother. I find myself having to relearn and reteach myself these exact same lessons over and over again. Life is funny like that.
What makes the success of a mother? Righteous, obedient, clean, happy, non–fit-throwing children?
What marks the success of a day? Checking off everything on my to-do list? A clean house?
Based on these outer criteria for success, guess how often I feel successful? (If you guessed often, you were sadly mistaken.)
I’m always tempted to measure my success in any realm on the outer measurements, particularly on how much I accomplish. Unfortunately, I’ve found that obsessing over accomplishing the outer as my primary goal almost always comes at the expense of working on and valuing the inner (a change of heart, love, gratitude, feeling the Spirit).
So instead of making my only benchmark of a successful day/month/year “How much did I get done?” maybe better questions would be:
- How deeply did I love?
- How grateful did I feel?
- Have I helped anyone in need?
- Have I made someone feel awesome about themselves?
- Have I worked hard toward a worthy goal?
- Did I get up when I fell down?
- How often and how deeply have I felt the Spirit?
As Mother Teresa says: “It’s not how much we do, but how much love we put into the doing. It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into the giving.”
And again, it’s not inner versus outer. I still need to get things done. But a focus on the outer at the expense of the inner is where things get dangerous.
So if you, like me, find yourself tempted to measure your own success on the outer stuff, remember these wise words:
“Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
When you’re working on getting your heart right and feeling the Spirit, you, my friend, are a great success.