Some of the most common advice I hear in a typical Sunday School lesson is one or all of these three: pray, read your scriptures, and go to church.
They are so common that they are often referred to as the “primary answers,” because LDS members collectively have grown up since primary being taught that these are the activities that will, in short, solve all of our problems.
Need more charity? Boom. Primary answers. Want to do better on your next test? Bam. Primary answers. Need help overcoming an addiction? You guessed it. Primary answers. Want to know how to help your wayward children? Well, primary answers of course.
Missing the mark
I’ve begun to recognize that in my haste to jump to these activities as the basic foundation of my spiritual worship, I often entirely miss the mark in my journey to become like Christ.
There is no question that prayer, reading scriptures, and going to church are essential ingredients in the life of a disciple of Christ. So what could possibly be wrong with focusing so much on performing these activities?
Focusing on activities for activities’ sake opens the door to the destructive, deceptive feeling of shame.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at a shame cycle that I have experienced first-hand regarding prayer, reading scriptures, and going to church.
There have been many times in my life when I have struggled to maintain a regular cadence of prayer and scripture reading. And while I’ve never been “inactive” in my church attendance, there definitely have been times I’ve been “inactive” in my church participation and involvement. During such times, the following cycle has been very prevalent:
At some point, I recognize that I’m not praying or reading every day, or going to or participating in church each week. This awareness can come about in many different ways. Some of the ways for me have been listening to a general conference talk, attending a Sunday school or priesthood lesson, having a temple recommend interview or other interaction with ward and stake leaders, and sometimes it is as subtle as receiving a spiritual prompting.
Once I have become aware that my recent actions (or lack thereof) aren’t up to the “golden standard,” I feel guilty. Guilt in this sense is the natural feeling of responsibility or remorse for wrongdoing (guilt is a good thing).
More often than not, my guilt turns into shame. I begin to entertain negative feelings about myself and my identity. I get down on myself for having weak willpower. Shame in this sense is the unnatural feeling of inadequacy about one’s self (shame is a bad thing).
At this point, there is a fork in the road, and the cycle for me goes one of two ways.
Path A — Willpower
I commit to become more regular and consistent in these activities. I make plans and set goals to focus on doing these activities more.
I exercise sheer willpower over a period of time to reinstate a habit of consistently integrating these activities into my daily routine. My approach is similar to that of a satellite being launched into orbit. It takes tremendous force and effort to break out of Earth’s gravity, but once it is in orbit, it takes little focus and effort to keep it in orbit. I tell myself that once it has become habitual, I am in good shape.
Sometimes my habitual process of doing these activities “stays in orbit” for prolonged periods of time. Other times, it only lasts a few weeks. I’ve found that inevitably, I start imperceptibly missing a day here, and a day there. And before I know it I find myself at stage 1 again, becoming aware that I am no longer consistently praying, reading my scriptures, and/or going to or participating in church.
Jumping back, there sometimes is a negative response after stage 3 (Shame).
Path B — Giving Up
4b) Giving Up
Sometimes the messages I tell myself (that I am not good enough or strong enough) weigh me down so much that I can’t muster the energy or willpower to make a commitment to do these things regularly.
I start to feel that I just don’t have what it takes to be one of those “read and pray everyday” types of Mormons. I settle for my current situation and try to bury the guilt and shame and go on with my life. At some point, I reach stage 1 again and repeat the cycle.
For me, the result of this cycle is either spinning in circles or spiraling downwards. Either way, I always feel like something is missing, keeping me from reaching my potential.
Understanding how to avoid this cycle requires identifying the problems that get me there in the first place. In a nutshell, I’ve learned that I launch into this cycle when I am more focused on doing spiritual worship activities (like prayer, reading, etc.) for the sake of doing them instead of utilizing anything and everything I can (including prayer, reading, etc.) as tools to help me become more like Christ.
The first is focusing exclusively on the “what,” where the second is focusing on the “why.” I fear that the use of the “what vs. the why” contrast has become cliché enough that it merits a deeper dive.
Let’s take a look at a less common, progression cycle regarding prayer, reading scriptures, and going to church that I have also experienced first hand.
Similar to the shame cycle, I recognize that I’m not praying or reading every day, or going to or participating in church each week.
Also similar to the cycle above, I feel guilty for not doing something I know I should be doing.
At this point, there is a significant change in perspective. Instead of interpreting my inconsistency in doing these activities as a sign of weak willpower and feeling shame, I view it as an indicator that something is missing in my spiritual well-being.
I recognize that were I already like Christ, I wouldn’t need willpower to be consistent in my worship activities. Praying, reading scriptures, attending and participating in church, among many other things would be a natural part of who I was. I wouldn’t have to force myself to do these things, but I would enjoy them so much that I would be eager to do them.
Since this isn’t the case, I recognize that there is a gap between my current spiritual state and my desired state of being like Christ.
I take personal inventory to find the areas of my spirituality that are missing or deficient. It is absurd to think that the only thing that is keeping me from becoming like Christ is regularly performing the actions of praying, reading scriptures, and going to church.
Maybe I have an unresolved resentment that God didn’t answer a prayer in a way I wanted or expected. Or perhaps I underestimate my value to God and think I am too insignificant to receive an answer or attention from Him. In other words, I seek to understand why I’m not naturally incorporating these activities into my daily life so I can identify where to focus my attention.
Having understood, or at least having identified a few possible culprits for why I’m not doing the “primary answers,” I make a plan to fill the gap.
If I don’t read every day because I don’t feel I get much out of it, I focus on how I can get more out of it. I might study specific scriptures or general conference talks about how to study the scriptures effectively and “liken” them to me. I pipe up in Church with my question (not worried about what others will think) to ask for advice.
I start asking God specifically for what I may be doing wrong and how I can improve. There are a million other things that may help. But herein lies the irony.
Focused prayer, studying of the scriptures and church materials, and participation in church are inevitably among the best ways to fill any spiritual deficiency. The difference is the motivation and meaning fueling these activities.
Instead of being the end-all way to become more Christlike, they become vehicles to get to a specific destination. All of a sudden, my time praying, reading scriptures, and going to church is much more meaningful and fruitful, because it has a clear purpose and specific focus.
I then exercise a combination of faith and willpower that executing the plan above will result in spiritual improvement and progress. And here is another key difference.
Just as before, willpower will fade. It was never meant to be a sustainable force of action. But because my efforts have been focused on improving my spiritual state, when willpower does fade, my spiritual deficiency will have been filled (at least to some degree) and I will have gotten that much closer to becoming like Christ.
Taking the actions of praying, reading the scriptures, and going to church will have become incrementally more enjoyable and natural to me.
And the cycle will continue. But this time it will result in an upward spiral of spiritual improvement.
President Packer taught years ago,
“A study of doctrine will change behavior quicker than a study of behavior will change behavior.”
In other words, telling someone to “just pray more” isn’t likely to result in them changing their behavior sustainably to pray more. It is likely to send them into the first pattern, resulting in an increase of shame and negativity.
But working with them and helping them identify why they aren’t praying more naturally, and then helping make a plan to improve in the area that is holding them back is likely to result in them spiritually becoming more like Christ. And a byproduct of becoming more Christlike is an increasing desire to naturally pray more regularly.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe taught,
“When we treat man as he is we make him worse than he is. When we treat him as if he already was what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”
Message to Church Leaders and Teachers
So, stop telling me to “just pray, read your scriptures, and go to church more.” Ask yourselves, is your ultimate goal really to get me to pray, read, or go to church more? Or is it to help me become like Christ?
Teach me that instead of feeling shame for not doing certain behaviors, I should recognize this as an indicator that I have room to grow spiritually in my path to become more like Christ. Then trust that as I focus on growing spiritually, Christ-like behaviors will follow naturally.