The Perils of All or None Thinking—From One LDS Perspective


            A good number of Latter-day Saints seem to approach their faith, and live their lives, dominated by all or none thinking.  For those in this group, all policies and doctrines of the Church are considered to represent absolute and unchanging truth.  They pursue perfection in all or none terms; and absolutes govern their interactions with others.  This is an underlying reason why some full-time missionaries struggle unnecessarily and it may help explain why some in the Church experience a faith crisis; and/or why some fail at times to live the Christ-centered principles they espouse.  Following are a few ideas that might help those with the tendency to think in all or none terms.

 All or None Phrasing in Scripture

          There are a lot of absolutes in scripture; for example, “be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48. “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D & C 1:31.  “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing”.  “Wickedness never was happiness (Alma 41:10).  When we encounter scripture of this type, are we reading hyperbole or do these scriptures represent absolute, all or none fact?  Hyperbole is an exaggerated comment, intended to make a point; but not intended to be taken literally.  For example, when the scriptures advise us to “pray continually” (Alma 13:1), this is most likely hyperbole intended to help us understand the need for regular, on-going prayer.  It isn’t a plea for literal non-stop prayer; except perhaps of the general “pray always in your heart” variety.  If taken literally, continuous, focused prayer would obviously be so time consuming that it would make it impossible to earn a living, serve others, socialize with friends, or do other worthwhile things.

          Other scripture such as the comment made by Alma that “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10), if taken literally, contradict reality.  In fact, those who are doing wicked things are sometimes quite happy; and conversely, those who are consistently doing the right thing are sometimes depressed and unhappy.  This was certainly true of the Old Testament prophet Job.  He was righteous but quite unhappy and the victim of many unhappy circumstances.  His friends believing that wickedness never was happiness and vice versa, assumed that Job, even though he failed to admit it, must have been unrighteous in some way.   Job’s story makes it clear how wrong his friends were. 

          Job suffered greatly in spite of his righteousness; but at the end of the day, he received great blessings that more than compensated for his losses.  On the other hand, those who appear to be doing just fine in spite of their wickedness will inevitably experience the consequences of their poor choices.  As the Lord said, “But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return” (3 Nephi 27:11).  Notice that the Lord uses the word “joy” to describe the condition possible at times even for the wicked.  This sounds like real happiness; not just the wicked talking themselves into thinking that they are happy, or kidding themselves in some way. 

          The point is that wickedness literally never is happiness, but only if considered from a longer term perspective.  At any given point in time here in mortality, that may not be true.  The fact is that the Lord is on another timescale—eternity--and what we see and experience here and now is limited.  This, of course, is as it must be In order for agency to operate unhindered; and in order for us to be truly tested.  It’s easy to see what would happen if every time we committed sin we got a painful electric shock, or every time we kept a commandment we immediately received a bagful of money.  In order for the purposes of mortality to be fulfilled, there must be a delay between act and consequence so that we end up doing things because we know they are right; not because we have no real choice to do otherwise.  This fact requires us to wait until the end of the day and then judge whether God’s promises are literally true (see Malachi 3:14).

          Another problem with taking all scripture literally is that some commandments are expressed in absolute terms such as “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13); but there are approved exceptions.  For example, Nephi was commanded to kill Laban (1 Nephi 4:10-18); and soldiers, police officers, or other agents of governments are allowed to take a life under certain circumstances.  The prophet Joseph Smith explained this apparent contradiction as follows: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, "Thou shalt not kill"; at another time He said, "Thou shalt utterly destroy".  This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted--by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.  Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire....” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 255–56).  This being the case, we need to be careful when assuming what is absolutely true under all conditions.

          And what about commandments that are impossible to keep in this life such as “Be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48); or the instruction to missionaries to serve God “with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day” (D & C 4:2).  There doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room in these scriptures; yet all of us have periods in which we are disobedient to some degree, our faith lags, our motivation falters, we stop and rest when we could go on; or for whatever reason, end up not serving with everything we have.  Of course, God’s grace is sufficient to cover our inevitable shortfalls; which allows us, when partnered with the Savior, to become perfect.  But it’s also possible that such scripture is worded in absolute terms simply to indicate the importance of serving the Lord with our concentrated effort; while at the same time accepting that even our best effort need not and cannot be perfect.  Perhaps the point is that we need to be willing and consistently striving to follow the Savior’s example perfectly.  But thanks to our partnership with the Savior and His redeeming grace, as long as we have willing hearts; and as long as we continue to strive to reach the eternal standard set by the Savior, all will be well with us in spite of our inadequacies.    

          Finally with respect to taking scripture literally, there is the possibility that scripture may have been misread, misinterpreted, or expanded over time.  Historical details are sometimes sketchy and understanding the intent of the author and local conditions impossible to judge accurately.  This leaves us with the possibility that some of what we read in scripture might be metaphor—a story told to make a moral point; whereas the same story could also be an accurate description of real events.  Some question, for example, whether the Prophet Job referred to above was a real person; and whether or not his story represents actual events as opposed to just a good story invented to teach a moral point.  Because of the numerous references to Job in scripture, even comments by the Lord in our day (D & C 121:9-11), I have chosen to believe that Job was a real individual and, although some of the details may be exaggerated and are indeed metaphor, I believe that his story basically represents real events.  Like much in scripture, however, it is a matter of faith and can’t be proven absolutely.

 All or None Thinking and Testimony

           As suggested above, the words of prophets that have been canonized, and therefore are accepted as direct inspiration from God, may at times be stated in absolute terms to make a point; but not always to indicate an absolute truth.  The same, of course, could be true of non-canonized teachings of prophets and apostles.  But why is it important to understand the distinction between absolute fact in scripture and what is hyperbole or metaphor?  For one thing, it’s important because thinking in absolutes can sometimes lead to a faith crisis.  If, for instance, we believe in absolute prophetic infallibility, it is difficult to accept the reality when it appears that a mistake has been made, even by a prophet; or when changes in Church policy or doctrine occur.  If everything we have been taught or everything about the Church needs to be perfect, our faith can be tested when we encounter new information that seems to be contradictory; or at least contradicts what we have always believed.  Likewise we can undermine our faith if we take literally instructions in scripture such as those reviewed above which are not always true in practice.

          In a related way, since doubts along the way seem to be a part of evolving faith, those who need their own faith to be perfect can have a difficult time with testimony.  As President Uchtdorf has pointed out, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions” (Come Join With Us, Conference Report, October 2013).  Some important policies or doctrines change as directed by the Lord (polygamy vs monogamy for example) for reasons known to Him.  Some change occurs because errors were originally made and/or are because some policies and practices may be less appropriate or effective as cultures evolve and understanding grows.  Other doctrines remain a mystery simply because the Lord has not yet revealed the complete truth.  All of this means that most of us with testimonies may have complete confidence in most, but usually not every policy and doctrine of the Church.  A degree of confusion and lack of understanding is inevitable, and need not undermine basic testimony.

          Furthermore, there may be some who cannot honestly say that they know that the gospel is true—not because of some failure to do everything required to gain such a sure knowledge; but because they are not given that blessing.  In the Doctrine and Covenants we read that one of the gifts of the Spirit is to know that Jesus is the Christ (D&C 46:13, italics added).  But another gift of the Spirit is to merely believe on the words of those who know (D & C 46:14).  For whatever reason, those given only the second blessing may be required to build their faith over a lifetime without ever having a sure knowledge.  Since those in this category “…also might have eternal life if they continue faithful” (D&C 46:14), it would be unfortunate if they waited until they can honestly say that they know the Church to be true in all respects before committing to it.

          Acknowledging that there is room for interpretation in scripture could, of course, leave some with a weakened testimony.  Some might think that if I can’t believe this for sure, can I believe anything in scripture?  This, of course, would be a problem only for those who continue to think in binary or all or none terms.  Just because some scripture written in absolute terms cannot be taken literally, does not mean that all scripture is subject to various interpretations.  There is such a thing as absolute truth.  As examples, God’s love for us is absolute. He will absolutely keep His promises.  Faith in Jesus Christ is an absolute requirement.  The values taught by the Savior are the best way to live, absolutely; and they are an absolute requirement for those hoping to live with God in the eternities.  However, it appears that absolute wording in scripture need not always be understood in a binary or all or none sense.  Complex issues are well--complex.  They don’t boil down to simple all or none thinking.  We can trust that God has everything figured out; but it will take us a while.  In the meantime, we can be thankful for His understanding and love.  We can be grateful for the fact of continuing revelation through modern prophets and apostles; and for revelation that can come to us directly through the Holy Ghost.  Prayerfully using these resources to help us discover truth, and continuing to do our best to live as the Savior demonstrated, is likely to get us where we need to go.

 All or None Thinking With Respect to Living a Christ-centered Life

           All or none thinking can have a significant and often negative impact on the extent to which we live a Christ-centered life.  Some, for example, may put off serving a mission or accepting callings in the Church because they don’t think they know enough; or because they don’t have a perfect testimony.  Since the only requirements seem to be that we “have desires to serve God” (D&C 4:3), open (our) mouths (D&C 71:1); and give it a mighty, even if not perfect, effort (D&C 4:2); those waiting to serve because they aren’t perfect will miss out unnecessarily.  In a similar but more mundane way, we sometimes forgo charitable service because we can’t do whatever it is perfectly.  We may find an excuse not to teach a class if we don’t think we have time to prepare perfectly; or we might wait for the perfect way to follow-up on a charitable thought; which perfect opportunity then never comes.  In all such cases, something would probably be better than nothing. 

          Furthermore, thinking in absolute terms like “have to” or “must” can result in judgmental, uncharitable treatment of others.  For instance, a dedicated missionary may be so concerned about not breaking a rule that he or she gets verbally, or perhaps even physically, abusive with a companion who is making it impossible to do what “has to” be done.  Spouses might end up fighting seriously over an issue they disagree about because each is absolutely convinced that he or she is right; and that they “must” take a stand.  Parents might be unloving toward their children, and even physically abusive, when they think something like “I can’t/won’t allow him to do that.”  Setting standards and consequences with children is all well and good.  Taking a moral position in marriage can be healthy.  Trying one’s best to follow correct standards is always a good thing.  But we can get into trouble when we become rigid and absolute about it. When thinking in all or none terms, healthy discussion of important issues is impossible.  Unforgiving and uncharitable treatment of others is much more likely.  And, of course, absolute thinking blocks personal revelation. 

          Thinking in all or none terms can also have a negative impact on our health.  Anxiety is inevitable when something that “has to” happen doesn’t; or when something that “can’t” happen does.  In fact, anxiety levels go way up even when it simply appears that something that must happen may not; or when something that can’t happen appears to be possible.  High anxiety levels over time, in turn, cause physical problems such as high blood pressure; along with all of the problems associated with hypertension.  High anxiety levels threaten the immune system and thus dramatically increase the likelihood of all kinds of other ailments as well.  Too high anxiety over time also increases the probability of clinical depression. 

          Lastly, thinking in all or none terms is likely to get in the way of “enduring to the end” as we are all required to do (1 Nephi 22:1); and it can make it extra difficult to overcome bad habits.  Those who think in absolutes tend to have a one strike and you’re out philosophy.  That can lead to losing motivation if we slip up.  Achieving difficult goals usually involves missteps along the way and ongoing effort.  Continued striving to be perfect is required; not perfection now.  Continued repentance and experiencing the grace of Christ on an ongoing basis is needed; not a one-time balancing of the scales.  Because of initial and sometimes repeated failure, many have refused to improve themselves because they rigidly and incorrectly assumed that they lack the ability to reach the goal.

 If We Don’t Have to be Perfect, How Can we Know When we Have Done Enough?

           A common thread running through much of the previous discussion is that we don’t have to be perfect in some all or none fashion; but it is important that we give the gospel our best effort.  But how can we know that we are giving it our best effort?  With something open ended like our commitment to the gospel, it seems like there is always more that we could do.   When facing this question, it might be helpful to define our best effort as our best effort under the circumstances.  We sometimes define best effort in terms of the best possible effort; and/or what we have been able to accomplish or could accomplish under ideal circumstances.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately from God’s perspective) we don’t operate under ideal circumstances.  We are human.  Talents vary from person to person and even within an individual over time.  We experience peaks and valleys in our endurance, health, and other circumstances.  The Lord considers all of this in His judgments of us and it would serve us well if we would do likewise.

          From a somewhat different perspective, perhaps the answer is that we must simply be willing to follow the Savior and strive to keep His commandments.  As we do these two things, no matter how far we fall short of perfection at any given point in time, we will be on the right path.  And as long as we remain on that path, it will eventually lead us to our ultimate destination of exaltation.

Dr. Gary G. Taylor