Every generation of Mormons joins a different church. For example, in the earliest, frontier days it was blood and thunder, ‘thus saith the Lord’ hellfire preaching. conquest, gods, defiance and determination, building-a-kingdom thinking prevailed. Folk crossed oceans and continents to be part of it.
The late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries saw a mad dash for respectability and acceptance as Mormon leaders looked east again, seeking investors for their rebuilding project after a regenerate and reconstructed Utah was received into the Union.
Gone were the temple oaths of vengeance against the US Government and people for the death of the prophet, gone the isolationism, in came the warm handshakes in Washington, the cordial invitations to look and see how American we really are. And what could be more American than the thrusting philosophy of self-help?
This chapter of Miracle of Forgiveness (MOF) represents a time when the Mormon Church was most influenced by the self-help philosophies prevalent in 19th/20th century America. Of the twenty three chapters in this book this is the least theological and most typical of its time.
A Brief History of Self-Help
As popularly conceived the self-help movement can be said to have begun with Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1736) with its mixture of seasonal information, folksy tales, practical household tips, etc. Over 100 years later the Scottish author Samuel Smiles saw the publication of his famous Self Help (1859).
in 1937 Napoleon Hill published his Think and Grow Rich, and that same year Dale Carnegie his How to Win Friends and Influence People. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was published in 1952.
Today, the “Self-Help and Actualisation Movement” can be divided into two camps. Based on more modern publications such as Thomas Harris’ I’m OK-Your OK (1967) and M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978) there is the victim model. In this view we are products of breeding and environment and our ills are not our fault. The sooner we recognise this, stop judging each other and ourselves, dump our guilt, and move on the happier we will be.
The more traditional view, based on the earlier works of Hill, Carnegie, et.al and carried on today by people like Tony Robbins (Unlimited Power, 1987) is the empowerment model. In this view you are fully responsible for what happens to you and by changing your thinking you can change your circumstances. A famous dictum of this view is, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe he can achieve.” This is the view espoused by Kimball in his book and continues today in the late Stephen R Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, a self-help model based on Mormonism.
Mormonism, the quintessentially American religion, fully embraced this self-help philosophy. In MOF Kimball, on p.107, quotes an ‘unknown’ author on the power of man to effect the world positively through the radiation of positive thoughts. The power of Google shows the author to be William George Jordan.
Jordan was an essayist of some repute and in 1902 published a positive thinking book, The Power of Truth. So impressed was Mormon president Heber J Grant, that he purchased the copyright and plates in 1933. The familiar ‘can-do’ attitude and pop-psychology in such books typifies the Mormon attitude to life, lending itself to the peculiarly Mormon idea that men can become gods.
Both victimisation and empowerment models are anathema to the Christian because neither recognises the true fallen nature and plight of man, his accountability before a holy God, his need of a Saviour, and the promise of new hearts and minds through faith in Christ. I want to concentrate on three points that arise from this chapter.
1. Higher Beings
Kimball builds up a picture of the exacting, uncompromising judgement we will all one day face. Citing Rev. 20:12, “and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works,” He reminds us:
“Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgement, For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt.12:36-37)
He goes on to show that, where the Old Testament commands, “Do not kill,” the higher law insists, “do not be angry” (Matt.5:21-22); where the Law says, “love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy,” the higher law demands, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…” (Matt.5:43-44); where it was once said, “Do not commit adultery,” God now insists, “Whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery in his heart…” (Matt.5:27-28)
There is nothing secret to God, he insists, and he describes how he imagines our every thought, word and deed is recorded in heaven. This is where it gets peculiarly literalistic, demonstrating the very earth-bound way he looks at things.
Describing how modern technology already has the ability “almost to annihilate man’s personal privacy,” he writes of lie detectors, wire tapping, bugs and transmitters, direction microphones (remember this is 1969) and even dream analysis before contemplating how much more powerful would be the ability of heaven to record all we think, do, and say:
“In light of these modern marvels can anyone doubt that God hears prayers and discerns secret thought?..If human eyes and ears can so penetrate one’s personal life, what may we expect from perfected men with perfected vision?
Every day, we record voices on recording machines. Every day, pictures are taken and voices recorded and acts portrayed in live transmission over television…Surely it is not too great a stretch of the imagination in modern days to believe that our thoughts as well will be recorded by some means now know only to higher beings!”
Higher beings? Kimball’s Mormon cosmology sees God as an exalted man, and men who have died faithful to the Mormon message as “progressing” further towards this exalted state of higher being. This thought reflects the peculiarly Mormon idea that men and gods exist on a continuum from a premortal existence, through an earthly time of trial and testing, to a place of exaltation as gods. If gods are “just men made perfect” (Heb.12:22-24) then the ways and means of these gods are the ways and means of men perfected.
More troubling still is the idea drawn out from this thinking that Mormon leaders are endowed with a portion of this higher means of discernment and perception.
“A similar power of discernment and perception comes to men as they become perfect and the impediments which obstruct spiritual vision are dissolved.”
This is not prophetic ministry described here but shamanism.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is.55:8-9)
“Higher” here does not mean progressed further, developed to a higher plain. God declares his ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts. When man’s ways are compared to God’s then it is always God’s ways that are the plumb line against which man is judged and the notion that some perfected technology/psychic ability is responsible for keeping the records of heaven is strange indeed.
Self-help thinking finds comfort from ancient texts of all kinds, suggesting they have tapped into some common ancient wisdom. Scripture from all over the world is pressed into service to make this point and is often badly interpreted to achieve this end. Instead of using sound principles of interpretation, the disciplines of hermeneutics and exegesis, they take the translated words at face value and fit them to their preconceived message.
Kimball uses a classic example here in quoting Proverbs 23:7, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” He goes on to write, “Not only does a person become what he thinks, but often he comes to look like it.” But is this what the writer wants us to take from the text?
“Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats; For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with you.” (Prov.23:6-7, KJV)
“Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. ‘Eat ands drink,’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you. (Prov.23:6-7, NIV)
Do not eat the the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies. For he is like one who is inwardly calculating. ‘Eat and drink,’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you.” (Prov.23:6-7, ESV)
It is true that, What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean…” (Mk.7:20-23) But the proverb is not giving us a formula for helping ourselves by changing our thoughts and, as we will soon see, neither is Jesus. The message of the Proverb is that a stingy man can appear generous but we shouldn’t trust appearances, rather recognise that what appears to be generosity is calculating and we will regret our association with him (Prov.23:8)
The same trick is pulled on a quote from Jude, “…Filthy dreamers defile the flesh…” Ellipses here cover a multitude of sins. When taken in context, these five words mean something quite different:
“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority and blaspheme the glorious ones.” (Jude 7-8, ESV)
This text is about false teachers leading people astray by relying on dreams, prophecies, subjective experiences, claiming that God leads them and has spoken to them. They defile the flesh (sexual sin, adultery, fornication, polygamy) and reject authority (the established truth of God); sound familiar?
What he, and many others, do is take the words and make them mean whatever they wish them to mean. Never mind what Jude is writing about here (Jude 3,4) here is a text that appears to be about our thought lives so that is what we will make it about.
The Bible has much to say about our thought lives.
Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians that our thoughts should be on higher things:
“Whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philip.4:8)
This will be familiar as it appears in the Mormon 13th Article of Faith. Does this affirm all that Kimball has been saying? One of the first lessons of Scripture interpretation is that we never build a doctrine on one verse. What does the Word of God have to say about our minds, our thoughts, and our words?
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set your mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Ro.8:5-8)
This seems to affirm what Kimball is claiming. To fix things, simply change your mind, your thinking, and set your mind on God. But the text tells us that the mind cannot submit to God. Why ever not? Earlier in the same letter Paul describes those who minds cannot submit to God:
“For when you were slaves to sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death…” (Ro.6:20-21)
The mind that is set on the flesh is so set because that mind is a slave to sin. It cannot set its mind on God because it belongs to another, obeys another. All the positive thinking in the world will not change this state and Scripture tells us that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ…” (2 Cor.4:4) The Romans text goes on to explain:
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ro.6:22-23)
How is the mind that is enslaved to sin set free and become slave to God, and what empowers it to change the focus of its gaze? Paul explains in Ephesians that until we are born again we walk in the futility of our minds, our understanding is darkened, we are ignorant and hard-hearted. It is when we have learned of Christ, put off our old selves, been renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on our new selves, created after the likeness of God, that we walk in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph.4:17-24)
The writer to the Hebrews helps us:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant I made with their fathers…For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Heb.8:8-10)
This “new covenant” was established by Jesus (1 Cor.11:23-26) and is marked by those who come to faith in him being “born again” (John 3:3) and renewed in their hearts and minds (Eph.4:22-24). Only renewed minds can think of heavenly things. Self-help and positive thinking can achieve much I am sure but it cannot free what is enslaved by Satan, it cannot tear the gaze of the unregenerate from the flesh it craves, and it cannot effect the miracle of new birth in you, creating new hearts and minds in a new people of God, made fit for the kingdom not by our own righteousness but by the righteousness of Christ:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph.2:1-10)
When Jesus urges us to avoid sin, even in our thought life, when Paul urges us to set our minds on things above, it is not by our own, herculean effort that this is achieved. Rather, it is the regenerate soul, the renewed mind, enabled by the power of the Spirit, set free from sin’s iron grip, it is this mind that increasingly thinks heaven’s thoughts and seeks God’s kingdom come in this world.
He ends with a familiar quote often used by David O McKay:
Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
If someone dead in their sins sows a thought, be it ever so positive, good and helpful, it will die on the vine because sin will wring the life from it. If someone is born again, renewed in mind, then the thoughts sown will live and thrive, not because of any inherent power, resolve, or determination in the thinker, but because that person is made new in Christ.
Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust, a ministry he is now leading since the death of its founder Doug Harris. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues The Mormon Chapbook