Better To Do Right Than To Be Right

A talk given by Daniel Theobald of the Cambridge 1st Ward. Daniel is a roboticist and entrepreneur.

The purpose of existence is joy. We exist, “that we might have joy,” We are taught this in 2 Ne 2:25 which reads “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” According to Elder Oaks in his talk on Joy and Misery this is one of the greatest of all of God’s revelations ever given to his children here on earth. Notice that this scripture didn’t say, Men are that they might be right. Joy is the purpose, not rightness. (October 1991 General Conference)

When might we have joy? We are that we might have it, but when? Some may believe that real joy is something to be granted to us in the after life as a reward from our benevolent maker. An externally bestowed trophy for learning truth, and then suffering through the consequences of living by it. That we are to sacrifice our lives as martyrs in a negative “do what is right let the consequence follow” sort of way. We have to realize that the battle spoken of in this song is with ourselves, our vanity and our pride, not with others, and that when we do right, the consequences, or fruits of doing right will be good.

The potential to misinterpret the gospel reminds me of an elder’s quorum lesson I heard while visiting my sister’s ward a few months ago. The lesson was on honesty. The the teacher’s thesis was that we are required to be 100% honest. He gave two examples: First, “If your wife asks you if she looks fat in that dress, you need to be honest and tell her yes, and it is up to her how she will respond to that.” I have a pretty good idea how she might respond, and there will likely be substantial misery involved for both. His second example was that “we need to just tell our non-Mormon friends that our church is true and theirs is wrong, because that is what it means to be 100% honest, and it is up to them how they decide to respond.” My guess is that they will almost certainly respond by no longer being your friend. I pray that we will not be so foolish as to put our rightness or our self-righteous honesty about our rightness above our joy, and more importantly, the joy of others, or it will be a stumbling block for many.

The prophet Gordon B. Hinkley corrects this type of folly by teaching us: “In all of living have much of fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured.” We are to have joy, real joy, now, not just after death. (“Stand True and Faithful,” Ensign, May 1996, 91.)

I want you to notice two things about what he says. First, notice that this isn’t a casual invitation to have some fun, rather he is expressing a commandment from God for us to have joy. Second, he doesn’t say “If you are lucky you might be able to enjoy life,” and he doesn’t say “Every now and then you might be able to enjoy life,” He says we are to do it “in all of living.” He is saying we should have joy in all we do.

Of course there is no denying that a significant part of life is suffering and there are times that simply require that we endure. My wife just lost her brother last week, as did her close friend Anna. (By the way, thank you all for the help while Debbie has been away, it is very much appreciated.)

We all lost Wilbur who was a dear friend to many of us here. There is no doubt that these recently passed suffered much discomfort, pain, and uncertainty, and their loved ones suffered with them. But even in these times of sorrow we are commanded to have joy.

In a recent talk in this ward, a profound person made a profound statement that in our Heavenly Father joy and sorrow can coexist simultaneously. That like him, we can feel sorrow for the pain in the world, and yet at that very moment also have joy. But how do we do it? How are we to have joy?

Joy will not come from wealth, power, fame, academic achievement, career growth, peer acceptance, nor recognition from those in power. Joy will not come from achieving the next level in a video game, nor spending hours watching that tv series, movie, or sports.

Joy will not come from reading that entertaining novel, surfing the web, nor satisfying our lusts. Joy will not come from expensive cars nor large, fancy houses.

Joy will not come from a cleaned house, achievement of fitness or weight goals, a bountiful vegetable garden nor a prolific beehive.

Joy does not come from daily scripture study, and not even from church attendance. Such things help us learn to have joy, but can’t inherently cause joy themselves if we don’t act on them. If we read scriptures and go to church but stop there, it is like reading the recipe again and again but never making the bread. We must do something.

Joy does not come from from being right. Joy comes from doing right. It is far more important to do right than to be right; and what does it mean to do right? The right that matters is doing right by others. This is what Jesus taught by his words and deeds. The Pharisees were very worried about being right, but had little interest in doing right. To what extent am I being like a Pharisee is an important question we should all ask ourselves? Worrying about being right can be a huge obstacle to doing right. It can be a beam in our eye, that is keeping us from seeing the right thing to do.

If we would honestly listen to the spirit, we would feel the prompting that the vast majority of things that we worry about simply don’t matter at best, and at worst are extremely destructive to our joy and the joy of others. We need to learn to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and let go of the pride that leads us to be judgmental of our brothers and sisters. Unrighteous judgment comes from focusing on being right, while selfless service is doing right. Doing right is usually simple, we almost always inherently know how we should treat others, yet many times justify ourselves or confuse the issue as we focus on being right.

It is far more important to do right than to be right. As we do right by others, with no expectation of reward, or even like treatment in return, we will have joy. We will learn that we can have joy despite all the sorrow and challenges on this earth, and that we can do it in “all of living” as we are commanded.

We will find that our joy in life, and in the eternities will be directly determined by the good we do to others. This is what Jesus taught, and we should have fun and laughter while doing it as revealed by the prophet. Taking ourselves or this life too seriously can hinder our progress towards becoming joyful beings.

I had a vision the other day. I was sitting on the side of a playground watching the numerous kids run around. They were running, and laughing, singing, and sliding, hitting, pulling hair, stealing toys, kicking sand at each other, helping each other and hurting each other, getting injured, and crying with all the anguish a little person can muster. There were parents calling their children home.

We are these children. We are on the playground of life. We think we are mature and understand things, but our understanding is nascent at best. These toys, the playground equipment, our lives, our families, our homes, our friends, our enemies, our careers, our nations, our wars, all part of a playground. All designed for the sole purpose of letting us play and giving us experience. None of it really matters, except for the one thing that does. We need to learn the one simple lesson. Hopefully we will learn it despite all of the distractions. Hopefully we will learn it before our parents call us home. It is that joy– the very purpose of our existence-comes from doing right.

It is far better to do right than to be right, and it is a good thing because our chances of being right are very small. We literally don’t know anything when measured on the eternal scale, we are all babbling infants. However, we do feel, and know deep in our souls that treating others– all others–with the same love and compassion that Christ showed us is how we do right, its how we build Zion. Our joy in this life and in the eternities will be determined by the right we do, and we only do right when we do good.


  1. Great talk from a great guy.

  2. Excellent thoughts.

    I think we often confuse “being right” with “doing the right thing according to some objective, non-inter-relational standard of Absolute Truth”. That’s a Protestant standard, and it confuses the issue, imo. Personally, I don’t think there is any difference between “doing right” and “being right”, when you get right down to the foundation – which is what I think you’re saying, if I’m reading the post properly.

    “Being right” means “doing the right thing in any given situation, even if that is different than what would be the right thing to do in a different situation”. I understand the unease with which many people view “situational ethics” (and I don’t like many of the logical conclusions that can be reached with such a perspective), but that sort of standard is the only one of which I know that can leave us “free to act and not be acted upon”. Part of being “agents unto themselves”, I believe, is what you describe in this post – the idea that we really do need to be aware of what we are doing at all times and act according to the dictates of our own conscience in each and every situation that is part of our lives.


  3. As for joy in the here and now, I agree totally. I absolutely loathe the concept that life is about suffering in order to be happy in the hereafter – and there are relatively few things I truly loathe. It is one of the most insidious and destructive teachings that can be embraced in this life, imo.

  4. This is excellent. I’ll be gladly sharing this with others.

    This line in particular seems eerily directed at SteveP:

    “Joy will not come from a cleaned house, achievement of fitness or weight goals, a bountiful vegetable garden nor a prolific beehive.” Oh remember, Steve.

  5. Steve, and the beehive thing as well, just to be thorough.

  6. stevetheobald says:

    Daniel, thanks for the great talk. “If we read scriptures and go to church but stop there, it is like reading the recipe again and again but never making the bread. We must do something.” Nicely said. Weekly religion attendance is nothing more than instruction. The why and the how. Then we have 6 days to “practice” on our family members and others. We talk about “gaining light” (truth and knowledge). I am firmly convinced that the “lumens” that I radiate are directly proportional to how well I seek to help those around me.

  7. Great post! It always amazes me how many people seem to be content with the thought of waiting for the eternities. Didn’t Pres Monson counsel us to find joy in the journey?

    #6 – “I am firmly convinced that the “lumens” that I radiate are directly proportional to how well I seek to help those around me.” – I love that!

  8. I love it when BCC posts the texts of church talks. We get so isolated in our various wards and branches; it’s nice to hear another’s take on things. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Amen, Brother Theobald.

    Thank you for posting this wonderful talk.

  10. Live the good life by living a good life.

  11. Nothing to add, but I just wanted to register my appreciation for these thoughts and insights.

  12. “That’s why I don’t take this very seriously down here. We’re just sort of dabbling around, playing around, being tested for our moral qualities, and above all the two things we can be good at, and no two other things can we do: We can forgive and we can repent. It’s the gospel of repentance. We’re told that the angels envy men their ability both to forgive and to repent, because they can’t do either, you see. But nobody’s very clever, nobody’s very brave, nobody’s very strong, nobody’s very wise. We’re all pretty stupid, you see. Nobody’s very anything. We’re not tested in those things. But the things the angels envy us for, we can forgive and we can repent.” (Hugh Nibley, “The Faith of an Observer”)

  13. Thank you!

  14. I agree with the main thrust, that doing right is more important than being able to win an argument. But in virtually every way I find to handle the words I’m reading, I disagree.

    Doing right is an extension of being right. It is impossible to do what you do not understand how to do. A good understanding precedes every good act – otherwise, we are only lucky. The old Mormon conversation, as I understood it – my religion – was that when God visits us, in various ways, He communicates knowledge to us. Joseph Smith taught that when a man received the Holy Ghost he would receive revelation because that is what the Holy Ghost does. That expands us and makes us the kind of beings that help others – not as a series of service projects – rather the expanded soul by nature cannot do other than expand others – if they will be expanded. Christ lights us because He is full of light – if we do not love darkness. Teach me all that I must know. Save me from do gooders that cannot see … me. The first commandment is to love God. We cannot love what we don’t have a correct idea of, as any number of suffering wives and girlfriends will tell us. Looking to God, that is, coming to understand Him, comes first. Loving our neighbors is second. Without light, our supposed love for our neighbors will hurt them again and again. This, in doing, and not in knowing, is where we are most likely to be infants. Our gifts come with stings, because we do not know the nature of God. Even in giving the most basic things: food, shelter, etc. we hurt. Men cannot be saved in ignorance, indeed.

    We are certainly not incapable little babies who can’t know anything meaningful and hence waste our time in trying. We haven’t been embryos for a long long time. Both Jesus and Joseph Smith taught that God is knowable and is to be known. Not in some far off eternity – no more is knowledge meant to be left for some far off time than joy is. We can understand, deeply and well, meaningful, grown-up, godlike things – and we are meant to. There is no unbridgeable chasm – we do not get the whole thing at first, but we make real, meaningful progress in knowing. Of course we don’t come to understand everything perfectly in this life – but it doesn’t follow that the things we are learning are in some insignificant either to this life or the next.

    The pendulum has swung to far – knowledge is now devalued in our religion, and we are well on our way to the creeds.

    The primary question is not ‘what should I do?’; the primary question is ‘what am I not understanding?’ When we have light, then we can give it. The kind of service we are meant to render far transcends the kind of service we are capable of giving, and that is due to our ignorance. The doing well will follow being well; the doing right will follow the being right. The idea that “selfless” service, service divorced from self, is the essence of our religion is the end of our religion. One is reminded that Paul taught that the Pharisees had a great zeal towards God, but not according to knowledge. It is hardly taught among us, at all, but the scriptures are full of it. If service lead necessarily to understanding then all people who served would come to understanding and that is manifestly not what we see.

    Good morals are founded deeply in good metaphysics. It doesn’t work the other way round. That is the Pharisee’s mistake, and out mistake. We think we can come to know God by obedience.

    I’m not a very good person. I’m a rather bad person. I hurt people everywhere I go. But I have had times in my life when I have been facing north, and in those times knowledge was pouring into me. I need to get back to that – then I will know how to help my brother.

  15. Sorry if this came off a little gruff.

  16. I agree with the post that joy is the purpose of this existence but do not necessarily agree that joy comes from doing good/right things.

    I believe joy does come from our achievements in life but more in the person they help us become. Two people can do the same things and one gain joy from the experience and the other not.

    Joy is in how we see the world. We can become joyful people. I believe to become celestial we will have to be joyful.

  17. Thomas, “Joy does not come from from being right. Joy comes from doing right. It is far more important to do right than to be right” — I gather your rebuttal is “to be right is to do right.”?? I’d agree.

    I would also agree that a common reason for not doing right is based in “the primary question is ‘what am I not understanding?’” — which is why the parable of the iron rod is so significant.

    Joy is in how we see the world. — in many ways, a decision, based on elements of remembering to have gratitude, exercising faith and hope, deciding to be active rather than acted upon. Nicely said Geoff.

  18. Brother Theobald,
    Thank you for one of the finest, most useful
    sermons I’ve heard or read in a very long time. Every true prophet, wise man, or crone preaches the same message; yours is so clearly explicated as to be indelible.

  19. Thomas, I appreciate your comments, but worry that you missed the main point of the talk.

    I am talking to my friend about religion, she says something that I don’t quite agree with. The light within me says that I need to make her feel good about wanting to follow God, the pride within me tells me to correct her because she is confused and I need to set her straight.

    Being right: I explain to her why her thinking on the matter is flawed and how she should think about it differently. (result, conversation ends poorly, no future conversation.)
    Doing right: I tell her I appreciate her insights and tell her how much I like talking to her about these things. (result, ongoing conversation over time which we both enjoy, both learning and being enlightened by the others experiences.)

    Knowledge and truth are extremely important, but true knowledge ultimately comes to an open mind that values good acts over being righter than someone else. Keep in mind that spiritual knowledge and intellectual knowledge are both valuable, but intellectual knowledge without the corresponding spiritual knowledge is as tinkling brass, or sounding cymbals.

    A big challenge for the church right now is that there is so much focus among the lay membership on being right (the only true church) that we miss the opportunity to do the right thing in the world and truly be the saints that God wants us to be. With the people and resources we have at our disposal, we could literally transform the world and take it significantly closer to the Zion that it should be. But this can never happen until we change the message from “We’re right, and you’re wrong” to “Lets build Zion together.” Lets start doing the right thing instead of being so worried about being righter than someone else.

  20. “Joy comes from doing right. It is far more important to do right than to be right; and what does it mean to do right? The right that matters is doing right by others.”

    What a great thought to start 2012 with. Thanks for a very profound post.

  21. Thanks for sharing this talk! and Amen to Samantha & Geoff!!

%d bloggers like this: