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Love, Counterfeits, and Motivation

Brothers and Sisters, Aloha. In the Book of Mormon, there are numerous conversion stories; two amazing stories involve a father-son pair, Alma the Elder and Alma the Younger. They had very similar life stories, one was a priest of wicked King Noah and led people to do evil. Several years later, as his father was a prominent church leader, Alma the Younger went about fighting against the church of God and its members. Still, father and son experienced a mighty change and became righteous church leaders and men of God.

Years later, after his conversion, Alma the Younger is worried that the apostates known as Zoramites will defect from the Nephite nation, join forces with the Lamanites and help bring destruction to the Nephites. He wanted to do something to save the Zoramites and also protect the Nephites. Listen to his plan:

“And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just – yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.”[1]

It is unimaginable that national leaders of our time would ever even consider using the word of God in addressing concerns of desertion and terrorism. No, this would not happen today. Think about how we are motivated to keep the laws of our lands. Most are motivated to comply because of fear. We drive the speed limit because of the fear of receiving a speeding ticket, we file our taxes on time because we fear of being fined if we don’t, we refrain from stealing because we fear of going to jail. What has interested me is that even the fear of death by the sword in Alma’s deliberations was not considered as an effective motivator as an experience with God. You may recall that just a few chapters previous to Alma’s dilemma with the Zoramites is the account of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah. These missionaries preached the word of God to wicked kings and other Lamanites, convincing them of their wrongdoings so thoroughly that they buried their weapons of war and would kneel in prayer while their enemies killed them rather than to defend themselves.[2] That is some change!

Let me give you a more recent and relatable illustration. This story is about an experience I had with a student I will call Jen. I was teaching at a private Catholic college, but Jen, if Catholic, was only a Catholic by record. Jen was a philosophy major and an adamant atheist. She would go about campus and challenge the faith of others, telling them that their faith made no sense and trying to convince them how illogical their beliefs were. For some reason, she was interested in taking some psychology classes. So during her junior year, Jen took classes from myself and another professor who also was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She noticed we seemed to be happier than other professors and also how we mentioned regularly with confidence our knowledge of God. She would challenge me saying you can’t prove there is a God. I would talk to her about spiritual ways of knowing.

At the end of the academic year in May, she came to my office just before she left for a philosophy internship at Oxford University. I spoke with her again, telling her if she had an honest desire to know if there is a God, it would happen. She asked how she would know. I simply said, you will know.

At the end of the summer, Jen excitedly entered my office. I asked how her internship went, and of course, she reported it was great, but then she got quiet and simply said, “it happened.” I knew she knew God existed. It totally changed her behavior and attitude. The next several weeks and months, Jen walked from class to class with a smile handing out small pieces of paper with encouraging, kind words expressing her love and God’s love. She was excited and happy.

All these stories are similar in that individuals were somehow motivated to completely change their thoughts and actions. So, what is the motivating component in hearing the word of God that brings about changes in individuals and drives them to not only be happy but to endure suffering? We have all been in awe of the accounts of early church converts quitting jobs, homes, friends, and even family, to leave Europe cross an ocean at great cost, trek across a continent knowing they are risking it all, even their very lives. We have read what the apostle Paul was willing to endure because of his hearing the word of God:

“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”

The answer to the question, what is the motivating component in hearing the word of God, I believe, is found in Lehi and Nephi’s visions recorded in 1 Nephi chapters 8 and 11. In Lehi’s vision of the tree of life he says: “I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.”[3] Later Nephi desiring to know the things that his father had seen, is visited by and an angel who shows him a vision and asks, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying Yea, it is the love of God which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is the most desirable above all things. And he spake unto me, saying Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.”[4]

The answer is God’s love! God’s love is the reason Jen and the Almas changed, the Anti-Nephi- Lehies choose death over shedding of blood in their own defense, why pioneers voluntarily sacrificed and risked everything, and why Paul endured suffering time and time again. I believe this is absolutely true, but let’s think for a moment. If this is true, then logically, we would expect that most people would be adamant lovers and followers of God, and more people would be joining the religious ranks than are leaving. But that is not what is happening in the world today.

On the contrary, those professing atheism and agnosticism is increasing[5], how can this be? Well, either people don’t know where or how to have an experience with God, or something else is going on. I do believe many do not know where or how to find God. But I also believe there is another reason.

My professional training is in biological psychology, or the study of how bodily mechanisms influence our mental processes and behavior. One of the interesting areas in psychology is motivation. There are pathways in our brains to help us maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of balance of internal, physical, and chemical conditions. A homeostasis state is important because during this state, the organism is at optimal functioning. Homeostasis includes body temperature, fluid and electrolyte levels, energy levels, and so forth. One system to help maintain homeostasis is the reward circuit of the brain. For example, if the individual’s energy levels are low, then homeostasis is disrupted, and the energy deficit causes a number of physiological conditions that we experience and label as hunger. When the organism is in the state of hunger and eats, the act of eating causes a release of the neurochemical dopamine into an area called the nucleus accumbens, which gives us a rewarding or pleasant feeling. So, in the future when the hunger sensations are felt, the organism desires and seeks out food with the intent to eat and once again have that pleasant, rewarding feeling; thus, the energy deficit is corrected, and optimal functioning returns.

Our endogenous reward system is beautiful and functions very well at motivating us to engage in behaviors that are vital to our survival and the perpetuation of our species. However, some substances and behaviors like drugs and pornography can activate the reward system so powerfully that along with a profound rush of euphoria comes a disruption of homeostasis and a decrease in optimal functioning. Repeated experience with these substances and behaviors and their profound euphoria can motivate an organism to do almost anything to get another dose of euphoria, leading to drastic changes in behaviors and thought processes. I see these as counterfeits or rivals of God’s love in motivating individuals. But unlike God’s love, these counterfeits do not lead to happy long-term outcomes.

Let’s look at how chronic experiences with counterfeits compared to experiences with the love of God has on an individual. For example, common effects of repeated long-term drug use include a constant preoccupation with the availability and supply of the drug, a contentious demeanor, dependency on the drug to function, a lack of control in stopping drug use, and a disruption of normal duties and relationships. In contrast the effects the love of God include; the person has no desire for contention, there is a freedom from fear, no more disposition to do evil, feelings of charity and hope, a desire to do good continually, love towards all, and feelings of joy.

As you can see, the counterfeits do not lead to optimal levels of functioning and certainly do not come even remotely close to being described as being most desirous or joyous in the long run.

Fortunately, our omniscient God knows our vulnerability to these counterfeits and how easy it is to get ensnared by them. Because of His love for us, He provides ways for us to get an experience with His love. He calls prophets, apostles who invite us to come to Him. He forms a church through which we can receive opportunities to experience His love, as well as receiving guidance, direction, and warnings regarding the dangers of these counterfeits and aids to those who are enslaved by them. As members of the church, it is imperative we understand the importance of staying in what Brigham Young and Elder Ballard call “the old ship Zion,”[6] the Church.

I learned a valuable lesson about staying in the boat. One summer, I took a 10-day break from my graduate studies to raft the Colorado River. Two of my friends who were working as summer guides on the river invited me to be a boatman on one of their trips. Even though the boatman is the person who ends up doing the duties that everyone else does not want to do, like setting up and taking down the portable latrine each day, I was in. A few days into the trip, after having experienced exciting rapids and gentle waters, we approached a rather small rapid, I do not recall the name of the rapid, but it was small. One of my guide friends suggested I join him in jumping off the raft and floating the rapids with just our life jackets. I was a bit hesitant, but he assured me he had done it a number of times in the past and that it would be fun.

I had been down rapids in smaller rivers on inner tubes and sometimes even without a life jacket or an inner tube. So, I excitedly said yes. As we approached the rapids and the spot where we were to jump in, my friend told me to put on an additional life jacket. I quickly followed his example and put on the second vest. Now at this point, any rational human being would pause and say, “if this is so safe, why do I need two life vests” and would question if this was a good idea. But in we went. These rapids were not like others I had been in, they were larger, the waves more closely packed together, and it seemed instead of going up and over the wave, I went through the waves requiring me to hold my breath for long periods of time and exerting tremendous effort to get my head out of the water. It seemed like the waves were just right on top of each other, not giving me enough time to catch my breath and resulting in drinking a number of mouthfuls of dirty, brown river water as I gasp for air. Finally, after what seemed to be forever of a constant struggle against the forces of the river to get life-giving air, I was through the rapids and into what I believed was safe, gentler waters. The raft was about 75 yards downriver, but that didn’t concern me. I thought oh I’ll just relax and float down to it. To my surprise, the river had other plans as I was sucked into a whirlpool and pulled under. I fought with all my energy to get back to the surface, which I did long enough to get a small gasp of air before being sucked down again. This happened three or four times. Finally, for some reason, I escaped and was in calm waters again. Fortunately, others on the boat saw me struggling and made their way to me. When the raft was finally within grasp, I was physically exhausted, requiring others to pull me from the river into the safety of the boat.

You may think that all was well, no harm done, and it was exciting, to say the least. But the consequences of my decision continued. Hours later, my gastrointestinal tract was reacting to the swallowed dirty river water, you know Montezuma’s revenge. This prevented me from participating in what was one of the highlights of the trip. Riding donkeys or burros up to the rim of the Grand Canyon to a ranch for a barbeque, an evening of fun, and a donkey ride back down the next morning.

I have learned from this and many more experiences that staying in the boat is the best decision. We all have been lured into doing something that leads us metaphorically out of the boat, thus failing to fully keep our covenants to keep the commandments, such as partaking of counterfeits because it looked fun, or everyone was doing it, or we thought we could handle it. We soon find out these counterfeits did not deliver what we expected. But the good news of the gospel is that because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we can repent and be drawn back into the boat and free from the bands of the counterfeits.

It is so vital that we comprehend the effects these counterfeits can have and keep ourselves connected to the aids God has provided if we want to have true joy. It is imperative for your safety young people to partake of our Heavenly Father’s love because you are the most venerable. Science has found that the human brain is not fully mature until the mid to late 20s or even early 30s. The frontal lobe areas are the last part of the brain areas to develop. The frontal area is the part that keeps the reward circuit in check, in other words keeping it from running rampant and calling all the shots. The frontal lobe influences that decisions be made based on expected outcomes and long-term planning, unlike the reward system that is hyper-focused on pleasure and short-term desires. Science also shows that the chronic indulgence of these counterfeits before or during the maturation of the brain will delay or even prevent proper brain development and how the brain will operate in the future. This failure of the normal maturation of the frontal lobe can lead to long-term pathological consequences that are extremely difficult to overcome.

God knows of your susceptibility, and I think that is why we have so many opportunities in the church designed for the young people to experience God’s love, such as Sunday school, young women and young men, youth camps, youth conferences, firesides, seminary, institute, ministering, family home evening, church service and church-supported schools. These programs are time-consuming and expensive for the church, but God loves you, and so they are offered in the hopes that you will feel of His love and be motivated to form thoughts and behaviors that bring true happiness and joy. And if this is not enough, consider how He has placed the Godhead on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to hear from you through your prayers and scripture study.

My friends, if you feel sad, alone, persecuted, overwhelmed, discouraged, anxious, lost, rebellious, exhausted, confused, angry, hurt, ashamed, or troubled in any way, don’t settle for knockoffs or counterfeits to make you feel better. “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son,”[7] “and he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sickness of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities”.[8]

If you have left the good ship Zion for any reason and now question if you have the strength to get back in the boat, I assure you that just like I experienced on the Colorado River, there are people eager and willing to pull you back into the boat. They will lovingly assist you. They will throw their arms around you and be thrilled for your return. Jesus Christ knows how to succor you because he has experienced it all, and because of his atonement, He can offer you the enabling grace to change.

I know God lives more assuredly than the scientific findings I have spent years to discover and learn. I bear my personal witness of God’s love and the soul-satisfying happiness and joy it brings. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1] Alma 31:5

[2] Alma 24:17, 21

[3] 1 Nephi 8:10

[4] 1 Nephi 11:21-23

[5] Pew Research Center, 10 Facts about Atheists, December 6, 2019

[6] Elder M. Russell Ballard, Stay in the Boat and Hold On, Oct 2014 Gen. Conf

[7] John 3:16

[8] Alma 7:11-12