In which a Mormon goes to a Bar and faces Temptation

A few months ago, a few of the fathers I’ve met while watching our kids in the park decided to get together, sans children. A location was chosen: a posh bar in the neighborhood. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in bars in my day — listening to music, playing music, meeting friends — so I didn’t think twice about meeting them there, especially as it was a warm evening and I knew the terrace would be pleasant. Is this the primrose path? Maybe.

I arrived late and the others all had beers. I was offered one as well, to join them, but I declined and asked for a Coke instead. It was quickly procured and glasses were duly clicked.

We started talking and laughing about families and what we did this summer, but at some point we started laughing about some of the other parents we saw at the park every day. We were all very witty and cutting, but I realized we were becoming a little judgmental and cruel. I wanted to change the subject, and looked for an opening. Before I had a chance, one of the other men said, ‘Ah, but I guess we’re all a little ridiculous, eh?’ and told a self-deprecating story. It shifted the mood and we all told stories about our own minor failings as caretakers for our children.

I don’t have the moral vocabulary to explain the difference between these two temptations, or rather the difference between the two commandments. Somehow the Word of Wisdom and similar laws require something of me, but being kind requires much more — it requires the control of my emotions and the internalization of Christ’s teachings. Somehow I feel like we spend all of our time talking about those more ‘behavioral’ commandments, but when I look at the topics of General Conference talks I see it’s not all they’re talking about. Perhaps the issue is that we define ourselves as food-storing tithing-paying Sabbath-keeping teetotalers, and being a decent bloke is alright, too.

Your thoughts and responses are welcomed.

Comments

  1. I have been thinking about the Wirthlin talk from last conference. It has been on my mind. These are things that I have heard all of my life, but recently I was bemoaning the fact that we haven’t had an elijah-fire-from-heaven-shock-the-prieast-of-baal prophet for a long time. But then I read Elder Wirthlin’s humble matter of fact statement:

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

    Nothing you do makes much of a difference if you do not have charity. You can speak with tongues, have the gift of prophecy, understand all mysteries, and possess all knowledge; even if you have the faith to move mountains, without charity it won’t profit you at all.

    I guess that this is the first time that it has hit me that I could be an uber-jedi mountain-moving super-priest but that if I am condescending, of belittling, or judgmental, or petty or small, that I have missed the point of all of this and, in the end, will ultimately learn that I have failed to fulfill the measure of my creation.

    It is humbling to understand that the problem is with me, with my attitudes and my thoughts and feelings and that I need to first take care of my side of the street before I tell stories about other people’s trash on the sidewalk. In fact, if ever I were to obtain some measure of charity, I would probably find that I no longer had a need to tell any such kind of story at all.

  2. I think people at church are most vocal about the commandments they feel they have mastered; it is easy to be 100% in tithing, WoW, Sabbath Day observance (however you define it). You can feel perfect in these.

    No one can feel perfect in kindness or being Christlike. So if the purpose of your Sunday School comment is to point out your relative superiority to the world around you, it is safer to do so with the WoW or missionary haircut than to say “hey, I’m really nice.”

  3. I guess my comment sounded equally superior. I am not immune from harping on particular commandments I think I have a leg up on. It is interesting to consider that in the Church we (the practicioners) often value the physical over the spiritual. Most people would be quite content that you are AT Church, no matter what your attitude about it. You can serve at a soup kitchen with a very hard heart.

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  5. You’ve hit on what is probably my biggest weakness. As an attorney for the military, my job all day basically is to tell people what to do. Sure, it is couched in terms like “counsel” and “advice,” but I tell people what to do. I have also developed a rather blunt manner in doing so–a necessity, since I am telling commanders what they should do, and if advice to a person whose job description is “command” is given timidly, it is often ignored. I am good at what I do.

    Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to take off the “attorney” hat when I get home or go to Church, and remember to put on my “husband” hat or “brother in the faith” hat, and I hurt a lot of feelings. I think I really am a decent bloke; I just forget to act like it sometimes. Thanks for this reminder.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I too go into bars often enough (lunch with a friend, that sort of thing). For me the beer is hardly a temptation at all, but joining in conversation with friends that is heading down a judgmental path would be very easy to do, and therefore the more daunting temptation to face, and the more important impulse to curb.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    Nice is different than good.

  8. Name (required) says:

    The church does seem to push the the food-storing tithing-paying Sabbath-keeping teetotaler lifestyle with less regard for actually being kind and charitable.

    If you want a temple recommend, you need to be a thithing paying teetotaler. Being a ‘decent bloke’ isn’t required. Charity? Though it is the greatest of all, its not something that has come up in any church interview that I’ve ever had.

  9. StillConfused says:

    I concur whole heartedly with #8

  10. This is a great post, Norbert. I’ve been there too, it’s easy to pass up the beer, harder to choose the high road with kindness and charity.

  11. The church does seem to push the the food-storing tithing-paying Sabbath-keeping teetotaler lifestyle with less regard for actually being kind and charitable.

    That’s not been my experience at all. Sure, there’s no “Are you kind and charitable” in the TR interview, but how could there be? How can you measure and judge a person’s kindness? At what amount of unkindness do we draw the line and say you’re too unkind to have the blessings of the temple?

    The lack of a kindness requirement for temple attendance is not evidence of a lack of stressing the need to be kind and charitable. If you haven’t seen and heard those things stressed in Church all I can say is you should pay more attention. President Hinkley is always talking about that.

  12. I disagree entirely with #8. You might consider the questions about honesty, about general worthiness, about relations with one’s family, for a start.

  13. Good one, Norbert.

    I had something like this happen to me on a campout with the young men from my ward. It was late, and the guys were all hanging around the fire talking and laughing, loud enough for me to hear them from my tent. A few times their conversation got to the point where I decided I need to say something, but just then one of the YM redirected the conversation. I was really proud of them.

  14. I like Norbert’s post. Certain commandments like tithing, word of wisdom, church attendance, food storage, etc. are fairly black-and-white (with some room for healthy debate over definitions). A person can work at these commandments to the point where they are more-or-less 100% “compliant.”

    But commandments like kindness and charity are almost impossible to completely obey. They present a lifetime challenge for every member. Perhaps that is why we don’t have specific temple recommend questions about being kind or charitable. Who could pass? (Although I guess leaders could ask, “Do you try to be kind/charitable.)

    I wholeheartedly agree with many others here that kindness and charity are more important than other seemingly temporal commandments. Jesus himself said that loving God and your neighbor is the most important of all commandments.

    It’s unfortunate that obedience to “secondary” or “subsidiary” commandments is often the easiest to measure (in terms of hours devoted or dollars spent). That makes it easier to judge others based on things that matter less.

  15. My wife and I have a long-standing agreement of “no spouse-bashing”. We have both found (as have I’m sure many of you) that when several people of the same gender get together (be they men or women), often-times the conversation turns to wife or husband-bashing. Typically it’s not *extremely* mean-spirited, but we’ve both agreed to not take part in that.

    As I have said before in those situations: “I like my wife. That’s why I married her”

  16. It’s unfortunate that obedience to “secondary” or “subsidiary” commandments is often the easiest to measure (in terms of hours devoted or dollars spent). That makes it easier to judge others based on things that matter less.

    It also makes it easier for certain people to feel self-righteous about things that matter less . . . or to judge themselves harshly over things that matter less.

  17. Dan- we have this same agreement. No spouse-bashing, even in good fun.

  18. RE: Dan (#15)

    My wife and I have talked about the same “spouse-bashing” habit and have agreed not to do it. I get tired of hearing “My wife never lets me . . .” or “My husband never does . . .” I get along great with my wife, and hope that she could say the same about me. So I make a conscious effort not to complain about little stuff around others.

  19. Thank you Norbert. I always need reminders to work on my kindness and charity towards others.

  20. Elder Wirthlin’s talk hit me hard as well, along with continued reading of the story of the sheep and the goats, and who is on the right hand of God that the Savior tells in Matt. 25.

    A lack of charity is my biggest worry, and I often find myself indicted by my own actions. Necessarily, TR and worthiness interviews focus on the objective, quantifiable standards. But our ultimate judgment will be based on the less objective standard of charity.

    Norbert, I often find it easy to slip into the sarcastic mode about others, and have to watch my conversations to try and limit it. I have also noticed many in the church for whom the acts of charity are second nature, like breathing, and I envy them their ease at it. I do think we need to pay more attention to these simple, but very difficult commandments.

  21. Name (required) says:

    I’m not saying that the church has no regard for the kindness issue, I just think that it takes a backseat too many times.

    Suppose that 2 guys (active members of the church) show up to a ward sporting event. One guy shows up and completely loses his temper after a questionable call. The other guy shows up with a 6 pack of beer, but is quite polite to everyone the whole time. Which guy gets called into the bishop’s office?

  22. Thanks for the kind words.

    Name, it’s true about the temple recommend interviews, but like I said, GC seems to be full of talks about forgiveness, being kind, curbing your tongue, controlling anger etc. Those aren’t measurable, and we’ll never be perfect in them … and so we don’t want to face them. But of course that’s why we need the Atonement.

    I like this statement by a spectator:

    You can serve at a soup kitchen with a very hard heart.

    It reminds me all good people probably struggle with this, not just us.

    Which guy gets called into the bishop’s office?

    Hopefully both.

  23. I used Elder Wirthlin’s talk as my starting point for my High Council talk last month. His comments were great when I first heard them and even more profound upon second and third reading.

    And MikeInWeHo #7: Thanks Little Red!

  24. Sam Kitterman says:

    I agree that members too oft have weighed their “spirituality” by such laws as tithing, Word of Wisdom (sorry, can not use WOW since that leads me to my other activity, playing World of Warcraft), etc. Yet, “spirituality” and one coming closer to Christ/God (at least to me) involves so much more, i.e., Paul’s testimony regarding the role of charity, the pure love of Christ, and when engaging in actions or inactions wholly/partially contrary to those principles but still believing oneself to be “in tune”.

    Moreover, it seems to me that for unknown reasons (and forgive me for this generality), Mormons as a whole seem far faster to judge others by their dress, their use of tobacco or alcohol, etc. which ignores Christ’s own criticism of those whose outward appearance is one of holiness but whose inner shell is a ghetto…

  25. As I think about my own life, too often, I want the easy way, a short cut, whatever is the minimum. It reminds me of what we read in the Book of Mormon- we are “less than the dust of the earth.” But I, and perhaps many of us, do not view myself with the appropriate level of humility and submissiveness, and as a result, I am too prone to do things my way instead of His way. This pride truly is a stumbling block to real growth and the joy that the gospel offers.

    When we are humble and willing to submit to the Lord, the outward things that we sometimes focus on become less important and we allow ourselves to become more Christlike. It really is less about what we “do” and more about what we are “becoming.” But as one of my favorite authors puts it, too often we want outcome and results instead of process.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 23 Yeah! Somebody caught the reference: Little Red Riding Hood discovers this truth (‘Nice is different than good’) the hard way in Steven Sondheim’s musical “Into The Woods.”

  27. Profound post, Norbert. I have a naturally sarcastic sense of humor, and I have had to focus consciously on not letting it get out of hand – as some here can attest, especially from months ago. I have been aware of this issue for some time, but it didn’t register fully until a few months ago.

    There is a YM in our ward who I respect greatly. Apparently, about 5-6 years ago, I told her that at a Halloween activity that she wasn’t supposed to wearing a mask when, you guessed it, she wasn’t wearing one. It was something my extended family said all the time completely in jest, and I was smiling when I said it, so it never registered that she would be hurt by it. I found out recently that it had – and that she still remembered that “joking” comment so long ago. She is ok with it now (and ok with me now), but I really did hurt her.

    I have tried very hard to curb that sarcasm, and I generally let it out in places like this much more carefully than I did when I first jumped into this forum.

  28. Mike, I caught the reference too, but didn’t have time to respond earlier. I love that musical and use that quote on my kids all the time.

  29. I think we could easily have a temple rec question about kindness: “Are you kind/charitable in all your dealings with your fellow men?” or “Do you refrain from gossip and evil-speaking?” or how about: “Do you do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” or “Do you treat all people as if they are your neighbor?” or even “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?”

    How is that different from the self-evaluation we are expected to make on honesty or other questions?

    I think we just choose not to ask the kindness questions. Why is that? Is honesty more important? Is WoW compliance? I’m thinking not.

  30. “internalization of Christ’s teachings”

    Jesus never taught anyone not to drink a beer.

    Really, now.

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