Do We Love Good Because it is Good?

Mette Ivie Harrison is a critically-acclaimed writer of numerous books,including ‘The Bishop’s Wife’. We’re grateful for her thoughts.

In “The Education of the Human Race,” the great German writer and philosopher Lessing suggested that humans as a species have gone through three stages of development. The first stage was the Old Testament phase where we had to be punished or threatened with punishment in order to do what was not wrong. The second stage was the New Testament phase where we were rewarded or promised a reward (blessings or going to heaven—or a higher heaven, or resurrection) if we did what was right. The third stage, Lessing argued, was one in which we would do what was good purely because it was good and because we had become lovers of the good. We would love other humans (and perhaps the earth and all living creatures, as well) and would want to do what was good and right for them. We would want the good as much as we wanted food and light and air to breathe. And we wouldn’t need God to tell us what is right or not right anymore because we will have reached the stage where we know it instinctively and seek it out on our own.

Lessing talks about these stages very much like the stages of childhood that any parent has seen. A very young child often has to be told NOT to do certain dangerous things and may need negative consequences (a stern voice, for instance) not to touch a hot stove or to run into the street. A slightly older child might need to be rewarded for doing things well, like completing chores or homework or treating a sibling or another child kindly (though this reward might only be something insubstantial like a smile or a thumbs up). A teenager or an adult child no longer needs a parent to tell her what is the right thing to do because it has been internalized already and the adult child is ready to be an adult herself and perhaps also to become a parent herself.

Many of Lessing’s ideas from the 1700s are echoed in Joseph Smith’s Mormon doctrine of the 1800s about becoming gods, having the light of Christ within us, and in the idea of certain people becoming so good that they are translated and given the sealing power by God so that whatever they seal on earth will be sealed on heaven, apparently without direct consultation with God because they are so trusted by God that it isn’t necessary. What would it be like to be so good that even God trusts your sense of rightness and goodness to be equal to His? I’ve long wondered if this sealing power means that we would agree with God in every detail or if simply that our vision is acceptable, even if it is different. I lean toward the latter.

On the other hand, when I hear Mormons arguing about us being “the one true church” or that our prophets will “never leave the church astray,” that our scripture The Book of Mormon is “the most pure translation of any scripture,” I wonder if we are still in Lessing’s second stage of development. Are we more interested in getting rewards or bonuses by proving ourselves the best at religion or are we more interested in helping other people and making the world a better place?

A few more questions I’d like us to ask ourselves:

  1. Do we pay tithing because we’re worried we’ll end up in the telestial kingdom if we don’t?
  2. Do we follow the Word of Wisdom because we’re worried we won’t get our temple recommend if we don’t?
  3. Do we go to church because we want to “get something” out of it?
  4. Do we expect to earn blessings by upholding various covenants?
  5. Do we pass around stories about other people who are protected by their righteousness because that’s what we want our righteousness to do for us?
  6. Do we enjoy watching other people suffer because it proves that they’re wrong and we’re right?
  7. Do we do our visiting/home teaching because we’re guilted into it?
  8. Do we accept callings because we feel it is out “duty”?
  9. Do we teach our children about Mormon doctrine because we want the reward of being with them in heaven or because we want them to find truth?
  10. Do we try to engage other people and seek to love them, no matter what?

I’m not saying that I think I’m anywhere near the third stage. I don’t think I am. Mostly I’m in between the first and second stages. But what could I do to get to the third stage of humanity? How can I cultivate in myself and those around me the love of that which is good? How can I even know what good is in a world of gray?

I think one idea I’ve had is to stop congratulating myself on doing a good job, and also on the other hand, to stop castigating myself for doing a bad job. I think I need to love myself in all my parts in order to be able to love others for all their parts. Instead of reacting with fear to the idea that another religion is just as true as mine, I need to take a moment and think. Fear in general is something that tends to divide me from other people rather than making me feel at one with them. That’s a beginning, at least, but I hope that I continue to seek out more ways to find the good, to move along to the third stage of humanity where I can celebrate the divine in myself and all humans on the planet.


  1. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Mette. Your comments here remind me of something I recently read by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “[I]t is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon nay attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

    I think that something here starts to get at the third level you describe. Would you agree?

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I had a couple of thoughts as I read – the first was that seems to be a discussion of sanctification. And while the idea pops up in our scriptures, I don’t see too many people arguing for enduring sanctification in practice. That said the progressive impulse has been so rooted in our pedagogy for so long, we at least in theory are game, I think.

    Second is Moroni’s bit about if we give a gift for the wrong reasons it doesn’t count. On the one hand sure, but on the other, my kids still need to do their homework, even if they don’t want to.

  3. N.Bailey says:

    For this reason is life: above duty
    To find and love; beauty.

  4. Hedgehog says:

    Was reminded of my daughter’s frequent complaint that so many questions in the online seminary curriculum ask ask “what are the blessings of…?” She finds this to be a huge turn off, because of the implication that people are only going to choose to do good in order to be blessed.

  5. As a pedagogical matter I’m drawn to “love instead of fear.” There are threads in scripture, but it would be a change. In that sense I’m reminded of several of the Protestant reformers reacting to fear-based controls exercised by the Catholic Church.
    In the modern Mormon context I’m most aware of adults who recognize that they in fact have been paying tithing to secure a temple recommend and in fact have been home teaching out of guilt, and as they reject (grow out of) that reward/punishment paradigm also reject (grow out of) the Church that taught and encouraged such fear-based thinking.
    I’d like to say that the institutional Church should provide the higher vision, but I’m skeptical that there’s room in the curriculum–room in time, room in concept.

  6. My thought as I was reading this is that the third stage would help one better appreciate the moment they are in. In the first and second stages, they are concerned with a reward or blessing later, whether in mortality or not. But the third stage loves good and therefore that which is good now can be enjoyed now.

  7. I’m still in awe y’all got Mette Ivie Harrison as a contributor.

  8. Really wonderful — big Lessing (and Schiller) fan here.

    Hedgehog, I completely agree with your daughter (and you) about how much of a turn-off it is that our culture has gone so far down the path of teaching and talking about “what are the blessings of”, turning our religious devotion entirely (and inaccurately) into a cosmic vending machine.

  9. I wonder if there’s a similar pattern in theories of the atonement/soteriology. At one end, a ritual-based theology: If you don’t get baptized the right way, you’ll be damned. Then, a works-based theology: Baptism is a promise that God makes with you that he will save you if you keep the commandments. Then a grace-based theology: The gospel is a promise that God will save you because he loves you, and baptism is a promise that you make that you accept God’s offer of salvation by pledging that you will (try to) keep his commandments because you love him.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Reminiscent of Dallin Oaks’ first conference talk in ’84: “What are some of the reasons for service? By way of illustration, and without pretending to be exhaustive, I will suggest six reasons. I will discuss these in ascending order from the lesser to the greater reasons for service.” Fear of punishment, hope of an eternal reward, and love of God and man were the third, fifth, and sixth reasons Oaks elaborated. Desire for earthly gain, desire for good companionship, and sense of duty were the first, second, and fourth reasons.

  11. Sallyann says:

    Fantastic post. I have been thinking about it a great deal and it is very timely as I’ve been feeling pretty resentful of fear- and guilt-based motivators at church. This really opens up a path for me to continue to find meaning in attending church. Thank you. On a tangential note, it reminds of a way in which I heard​ the obey, honor​, and sustain​ described from the A of F. Obey is the lowest, out of fear of punishment, honor​ is based on respect for the lawgiver, and sustain is where the law is written on your heart and it is your own law.

  12. Thanks Mette (and Sallyann). We love the good because it binds to us as we seek it out. We are always, already blessed.

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