July 30, 2007

The First Great Principle: Improvement

Brigham Young February 6, 1853 The life of Jesus Christ serves as the grand example of what we all aim to do; namely, to progress and “fill the measure of our creation,” thus, to be “even as [He] is,” (see D&C 88:25; 3 Nephi 27:27.) The measure of Christ’s creation included the grand and infinite atonement, making any improvement on our part possible, should we seek that improvement. Brigham Young discussed this topic, calling it the:

first great principle that ought to occupy the attention of mankind, that should be understood by the child and the adult, and which is the main spring of all action, (whether people understand it or not,) [it] is the principle of improvement. The principle of increase, of exaltation, of adding to that we already possess, is the grand moving principle and cause of the actions of the children of men. No matter what their pursuits are, in what nation they were born, with what people they have been associated, what religion they profess, or what politics they hold, this is the main spring of the actions of the people, embracing all the powers necessary in performing the duties of life.
Just in case you, or the other saints missed the import of what he was saying, he continued:
…those who profess to be Latter-day Saints, who have the privilege of receiving and understanding the principles of the holy Gospel, are in duty bound to study and find out, and put in practice in their lives, those principles that are calculated to endure, and that tend to a continual increase in this, and in the world to come. All their earthly avocations should be framed upon this principle. This alone can insure to them an exaltation; this is the starting point, in this existence, to an endless progression. All the ideas, cogitations, and labors of man are circumscribed by and incorporated in this great principle of life.
Brigham said everything in our lives is circumscribed by and incorporated in the principle of increase, or progression. The very mainspring of our actions, which I interpret to mean the underlying motive behind what we do in life, deals with our own eternal progression. Is this a selfish viewpoint, then? Why do we do the things we do? Motive matters, at least, according to Moroni, who was quoting God:
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such. Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift (Moroni 7:6-10).
So are we following Christ to benefit ourselves, or are we following Christ to bless others? Can it be both? Do we have pure motives? This is the debate between egoism and altruism: Egoism, briefly, is the view that humans are- consciously or subconsciously- always motivated by self-interest. It holds that we never truly act in the interest of others. Altruism is a selfless concern for the welfare of others; the belief that motivation behind an action can, indeed, be selfless and without concern for one's own personal agenda. How can the subject of our own eternal increase be anything other than egoism: a motivation and concern for ourselves? One early saint recorded a conversation he had with Joseph Smith dealing with the subject of ‘self-aggrandizement,’ or what may be termed ‘egoism’:
Joseph Smith said that some people entirely denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement as wrong. 'It is a correct principle,' he said, 'and may be indulged [in] upon only one rule or plan--and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you will elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself' (quoted in Andrus and Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet, 61).
From this statement it seems we can both improperly and properly seek our own good. This paradox was expressed by Christ in the New Testament:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matt. 16:25; there are several other references to the concept, including one in the Doctrine and Covenants).
Jesus Christ had to live a sinless life in order to atone for our sins and elevate us. He lost His life in order to help us find our own, should we decide to follow him. Brigham said some people seek to “save” their own lives by coveting the things of the world while neglecting the things of God He said if they were inspired by God to see things as they really are they would look upon their current pursuits as frivolous:
When the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world illuminates the understanding and exposes to view the true order of the works of the Framer of the Universe, so that they can contemplate the great first cause of all things, and then look upon the groveling pursuits of mortals, and their anxiety to obtain that which will perish at the expense of the more enduring substance, every person must be struck with astonishment beyond measure.
Having an eternal perspective can increase the altruism of our motives. This perspective is gained through the Holy Ghost, as Jacob, the brother of Nephi, said:
… for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls (Jacob 4:13).
Brigham compares the desires of men to the desires of children, illustrating our tendency to neglect the most important things in life:

A company of little children at play is a perfect miniature picture of the life of man:

‘Give me this, and give me that; and I want to have the other thing;’ still you are not willing I should possess it; and the parent knows that often its possession would be an injury.

Or when one child sits down in a little chair another one will cry because of it without receiving the least injury.

If you place a plate of apples or plums before a child of three or four years old, he will not be content with one or two, or with as many as he can hold, but he will try to grasp the whole plate full with his little fingers, dropping one and taking up another, until he has scattered and wasted them; and at last be contented to sit down and eat one...or else cry when he has as many as he can hold, because he can not hold them all.

The little girl will cry for the needle she sees her mother working with and when she has got it, handle it to her injury; and the little boy will cry for the razor he sees his father using. It is so with many of the brethren and sisters; they cry for the razor.

These inconsistent desires of early childhood for trifling things, are exhibited in the human family, after they have arrived to maturer years. They may be reaching after things of weightier importance than the child, but when they are compared with eternal matters, they are just as trifling; and to the mind that is instructed, that has been touched with the light of eternal truth, they appear even more foolish than children, because we expect better things of them (Journal of Discourses 2:90-105).

An eternal perspective reveals that the most important things are the things of God, and many of our daily troubles don’t seem as daunting as they did before. So much for the first half of Brigham’s discourse dealing with what he viewed as the most important thing we could learn in life; namely, to find the way to eternal progression. Tomorrow, I’ll summarize excerpts from the second half, in which Brigham discusses working out our own salvation to ensure said progression through the merits of Jesus Christ.