happiness and alma 41

As a child most of my happiness was anticipatory.  Looking forward to something seemed to bring, cumulatively, more pleasure than the thing itself.  I would look forward to Christmas for a long time, but once the gifts came, fear of loss (i.e. that the toy would break or disappear) negated most of the joy of possession, and I sometimes lost interest in what I had received in favor or the next thing I could hope for.  To this day I don’t really like surprises; I would much rather know something good is coming.  I think that much of the natural man’s happiness is wrapped up in anticipation. Hoping, wishing, and longing for the good things of this earth keep most of us rather pre-occupied. It also, as best I can tell, constitutes most of what I call telestial happiness.  It is imaginary.

Now of course this imaginary telestial happiness is often coupled with temporary telestial pleasure.  And the draw to such pleasures is strong.  This leads to the overeating and over-sexing and over-everything so prevalent in our modern-day babylonian culture.  Think about how much of your time, and in aggregate your pleasure, is wrapped up in these two different approaches to happiness, and I think you’ll realize that most of us spend vastly more time anticipating pleasure that we do experiencing it.  The cruel irony, as Elder Maxwell pointed out, is that the satisfaction derived from pleasure decreases in direct proportion to the frequency of indulgence; what we crave becomes less satisfying the more we partake. This phenomenon seems relatively well understood.

What we do not seem to understand as well is the remorse that naturally follows overindulgence–particularly consumption that exceeds bounds the Lord has set. We don’t have to consider heinous sins to understand this principle. Imagine eating a donut. For me, post-consumption regret typically overwhelms the momentary pleasure I get from eating a donut. For a long time, because the temporary pleasure and the almost always unavoidable regret (if not low grade nausea) from having eaten the donut were separated by time, I would ignore the post-consumption regret I had felt previously for a moment of gustatory revelry, hoping to somehow avoid the impending pastry hangover.  Happiness in that moment overwhelmed my desire for long-term happiness. Eventually, I came to prefer the long-term satisfaction inherent in non-consumption over the temporary pleasure of consumption. It is this turning point with regard to sin that I believe constitutes “coming to oneself” as described in the scriptures. We turn to God when we finally realize that the empty state of living without God in this world is not worth any pleasure Satan might use to tempt us.  It is in this sense that wickedness never can be happiness.

I remember a dark night in a dormitory at youth conference many years ago in which I shared a room with Larry and Jack. Larry’s dad had previously been the bishop of the ward, but had left the Church and (among many other things) purchased Larry a keg of beer for his 16th birthday.  Jack’s father, who was quite wealthy and whose brothers filled prestigious callings in the stake, had recently left his mother for a younger woman.  Due in part to poor parental examples, Jack and Larry had become, to put it mildly, extremely wild.  On that particular evening I expressed concern that my home teaching companion, our previous stake president, would smell the cigarette smoke wafting from our room to his (which was next door) as Larry smoked next to the window in our room.  In Larry’s defense, Jack cautioned me, “Back off man, he just got off heroin last week.”  I think my home teaching companion (who was also the Young Men’s President) had assigned me to room with Jack and Larry to be a good influence on them.  It did not work.  That same evening they started talking about the first times they had broken serious commandments.  These guys were already pretty hardened sinners, which is probably why something Larry said made a big impact on me.  After recounting the the first time he broke the law of chastity, he said, “afterwards I felt like shit.”  The stark contrast associated with forceful loss of the Spirit, even for somebody not very close to the straight and narrow path, made an impact on me. Larry ignored those feelings and they eventually went away. But his admission was telling.  Eventually Jack repented, went on a mission, and is now a bishop.  Last I heard Larry was calling bingo in Alaska.

In a different sense, God is really only interested in our happiness.  By happiness I mean giving someone what their heart desires. I think God is always willing to give us as much happiness as we can tolerate in any given moment.  So as we long to fulfill the desires of the natural man, we eventually give in and indulge.  We feel pleasure. And then we feel pain. Pain that lasts a long time. Or at least until we sincerely turn to Christ and ask Him to bear that pain away for us.  And He does. Over and over again. He loves us. He wants us to be happy. So he removes the guilt and pain and darkness and loneliness and we start again. The spiritually sensitive may only eat a single “donut” before deciding they never want to eat another again. For others it takens many dozens. But eventually all will come to know and confess the one way to happiness. That way is Jesus.

But for those who still long for the things of this world, happiness as described in Alma 41 is a very difficult concept to grasp. Last week at Church a kind and gentle teacher referenced the scripture that wickedness never was happiness.  One honest high priest asked a very telling question.  He said he believed what the teacher had said, but was confused because he knew quite a few wealthy, successful people that were breaking most of the biggest commandments and, by all accounts, appeared to be quite happy.  This conflicted brother admitted, albeit inadvertently, that he did not really believe what the teacher said (i.e. that wickedness never was happiness), and that he actually wouldn’t mind experiencing such “misery” if it didn’t violate the commandments. Eventually we will all have to chose, without social or emotional constraint, what really and truly makes us most happy.  And that is what we will get, worlds without end. God will give us what we want until we finally figure out that the only way to full and real happiness is to truly want what He wants. Not my will, but thine be done. That we have conflated telestial and celestial happiness into a single word (i.e. “happiness”) is a part of the problem.  Maybe a better word to describe celestial happiness is peace. The real issue is wanting telestial happiness while believing it’s celestial.

“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. And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness. And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful.” (Alma 41:10-13)

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