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Wilt Thou Not Place a Stumbling Block in My Way

"Wilt Thou Not Place a Stumbling Block In My Way"

Brothers and sisters aloha,

I’m grateful for my wife and her great example to me. Ever since I first started to get to know her about 15 years ago, I have always been impressed by her Christ-like attributes and her concern for others. I will often be going about my day thinking about me and what I have to do, when she will bring up someone going through a hard time, wondering how she can help them. Her concern for others often catches me off guard. It has been a wonderful experience being close to someone who truly cares for others. It motivates me to be better, to change.

One of the greatest benefits of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement is giving us the opportunity to change. In a devotional address at BYU, Brad Wilcox says the following in defense of our perspective of Christ’s grace:

“I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”

I say, “No, we are not earning heaven... We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). ...”

They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”

I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”

Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” ... [G]race isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).”

I want to focus my remarks today on how we can change and become who our Lord and Savior wants us to become.

After making a bad choice, I often analyze when I decided it would be okay to make that choice. For example, I might lose my patience with one of my kids and say or do something hurtful. I can never pinpoint a moment when my conscious thought went off track. It is like things happened automatically. I often find myself feeling like Nephi:

... O bwretched man that I am! Yea, my heart csorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.”

I have realized that many of my choices are made by habit, not by conscious thought. To illustrate how this happens, I want to use a sports example. In American football, teams have a chance to score points by kicking the ball through the goal posts at the end of the field. Most of the time, this is done by a field goal kicker, whose only job is to kick field goals. When games are close, winning or losing the game often comes down to a field goal kick in the final seconds of the game. As you can imagine, this puts a lot of pressure on the field goal kicker to win the game for his team.

Now, I have never been a field goal kicker, or any sort of professional athlete, but I assume that field goal kickers spend most of their time in practice kicking field goals. As they practice, they train their body, and their brain, to know exactly what to do to make a field goal. They want to develop a perfect habit of making field goals.

I think that the worst thing a field goal kicker can do when kicking the winning field goal is to overthink it. They want their body to do exactly what it has practiced thousands of times. They want their habit of making field goals, developed through hours of practice, to do what it always does. They want to turn on an autopilot that just automatically makes the perfect kick.

Often, opposing coaches try to “ice”, or disrupt, the field goal kicker by calling a timeout right before the kicker is going to kick the ball. This forces the kicker to wait another minute until they can kick the field goal. The idea is that the kicker will be forced to overthink it, causing him to deviate from what he has done thousands of times in practice and miss the field goal.

By repeating a task over and over again we develop habits. Neurologists, who study how the brain functions, have noticed that the nerves in our brains form neural pathways as we repeatedly do an activity. Neural pathways are like an autopilot for our body. One example of this is learning how to type on a computer. At first, we have to focus on how to find each letter. After a lot of practice, we can get to the point where we do not think about where a letter is, and instead we can focus on what we want to type.

Think about your morning routine. How often did you have to fully concentrate on getting ready? How many times can you pinpoint a time that you had to completely focus on the task at hand? Or, how often were you able to think about something else, while your brain’s autopilot took over causing you to complete your task without much thought? It’s wonderful that, through repetition, our brains can develop an autopilot. It frees up our consciousness to think about greater things while doing things we have practiced before. We can think while we exercise; we can have a conversation with a friend, spouse, or child while going for a walk. We can review our day while doing the dishes or cleaning the house.

This autopilot is great when we programmed it with good habits. However, when programmed with bad habits, it makes it really hard for us to change.

Dopamine is a chemical that interacts with our nerves. Whenever we do something that helps us survive, like eating a good meal, exercising, or even learning something new, we receive dopamine as a reward. This serves as our primary motivator to survive, learn, and do something. Dopamine also plays a role in addictions.

Whenever our brain senses something is off balance, or not quite right, it will search for something that will release more dopamine in hopes to fix the problem. For example, when we are hungry, the brain causes us to search out food to solve the problem, knowing that when we eat, it will get more dopamine which will restore the balance in our brain. The brain uses past experiences, or neural pathways, to accomplish its task, a lot of times without much conscious thought.

If we get bored, stressed, hungry, or tired, our brain feels out of balance and searches for a neural pathway that will help release more dopamine to fix the problem. Without thinking much, it automatically searches for a neural pathway that it knows, from past experience, will release dopamine. We automatically head down the neural pathway towards the dopamine reward at the end.

As I have said before, this is great when our brain is programmed with good habits. However, we often develop habits that work against our best interests. All too often, I find myself repeating Nephi’s words, “O wretched man that I am!”, at a loss for why I so easily fall into patterns I have hoped to change.

Just as an opposing coach calls a timeout to disrupt a field goal kicker, it would be nice to have someone watching over my life, calling timeouts at just the right time to disrupt my bad habits.

In this technological age, we face additional challenges as we try to mold our habits so that they serve our best interests and help us change to become like Christ. The virtual world that modern technology creates through video games, social media, and smartphones has given us the ability to obtain dopamine without much effort.

Social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been designed to keep your eyes glued to the screen. In the beginning days of social media, as you scrolled through the posts you eventually hit the bottom of the page, and had to click next to get to the next page. I’m sure social media companies noticed that a lot of users stopped looking at their site when they arrived at the bottom of the page.

Knowing what we know about neural pathways and dopamine, we can see why the bottom of the page became a stopping point for a lot of users. As we are browsing we are stuck traveling along a neural pathway that leads to some dopamine every time we find an interesting piece of information. Hitting the bottom of the page was like someone calling a timeout. It gave us a moment to think.

To fix this “problem”, social media companies invented an infinitely-scrolling page. As you scroll, more and more posts are constantly loading so that you never reach the bottom of the page. They have worked hard to remove anything that could give you time to realize that your main focus should be somewhere else. Not only that, social media companies have developed many other ways to increase the addictiveness of their apps. I think that, as users of social media, we should know we are not their customers, we are their product. The more they can keep us staring at their app, the more product they have to sell.

However, social media can have a positive impact on our lives. It can help us stay close to family, help us spread the gospel, and connect us with others. We just need to make sure we do not let it become a stumbling block from achieving our goals, finding happiness, repenting, and ultimately becoming like the Savior.

In fact, in a study published in April 2017 in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the authors found that cell phones distract us just by being in the same room with us. Even with the phone shut off and put away in a pocket or bag, participants performed worse on a cognitive test, than those who left their phones in another room. This means that if our phone is in the same room as us, we will be distracted.

Perhaps, by placing our phone in another room, we can more fully dedicate ourselves to listening to the spirit of the Lord. With our devices sitting right next to us, they are constantly calling for our attention. Even when shut off, our phones will distract us. They need to be in another room to be completely free from their distraction.

This leaves us with difficult trade-offs as to when we should bring our phones with us versus leaving them behind. We need to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider times that we can safely leave our phones behind. Can you do without your phone as you attend your church meetings? What about attending classes? Can you leave your phone in another room as you sleep, eat, or exercise? Can you separate yourself from your phone when interacting with a spouse, child, or friend? Are there other times and places we can separate ourselves from our phones? The answers to these questions will be different for everyone.

However, I strongly encourage everyone to find at least one time per day to physically separate yourself from your phone and other devices like computers and TV’s. Please prayerfully consider when and how you can find time to disconnect. I know that finding time to disconnect from the digital world, will give you more time to connect with your friends, family, and most importantly your Lord and Savior. How can we expect the Savior to help change us, if we never fully give him our undivided attention?

In a CES fireside by Elder David A Bednar, he cautioned us by saying:

"Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”

I am sure that I am not the only person who, after reflecting on my daily accomplishments, hasn’t suffered at least a little guilt when I realized I spent more time staring at a screen than I should have. Today, we have a unique challenge to balance our physical and digital lives. Due to the addictive nature of our digital lives, it is so easy to procrastinate the day of our repentance, as Alma warns:

“... I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.”

So, how do we balance our digital and physical lives? How do we prevent our digital lives from becoming a stumbling block from coming unto our Savior?

In the scriptures, we are warned about the stumbling blocks on our path towards righteousness. Nephi pleads with the Lord: “Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.”

Nephi pleads with the Lord to not only remove his stumbling blocks, but also to place stumbling blocks in the path of his enemy. Can we use stumbling blocks to trip us on our way towards distractions and pitfalls we find on our journey to become like Christ? Just as an opposing coach calls a timeout to ice a field goal kicker, I suggest we place stumbling blocks along the “neural pathways” we would like to avoid. We can place obstacles in our way that will disrupt our habits and give us the chance to think about our choices.

For example, if we find that we often spend too much time on our favorite video game or social media app, we can set a timer before we launch the app. Then when the timer goes off, we know it is time to switch tasks.

If we find ourselves needlessly checking our phones for new notifications, distracting us from what we really want to focus on, we can:

1) Change the wallpaper on our phone to something that will remind us to stay on task. We can use a picture of our family, the temple, or the Savior.

2) Change the password on our phone. Since we repeatedly type in our passwords, we often develop neural pathways and can do it with muscle memory. If we change our password, we will have to think more about typing it in. We can use that time to remind ourselves to stay on task. If we can unlock our phone with a fingerprint, then change which finger can unlock it.

3) We can rearrange the apps on our phone. We can move the apps that often distract us to a different screen, or into a folder.

4) We can disable notifications for apps that do not need our immediate attention.

5) On iPhones with the latest OS, we can take advantage of the new built-in screen time feature, and set appropriate limits. If you find you bypass the reminders, then set a passcode. If you bypass that then have a spouse, roommate, or trusted friend set the passcode for you. On Android phones, there are several apps that can help you monitor and control your screen time. On computers, we can install browser extensions and apps that limit the time we spend on certain websites. On Chrome, you can use extensions like StayFocusd or WasteNoTime, which allows you to block and set time limits on what sites you visit.

I believe we should strive for intent driven digital usage. Instead of our devices telling us what we should focus on, we should control our devices to serve our best interests. If we do not focus on intent driven device usage, our devices will continue to be stumbling blocks as we try to come to Christ.

As we remove these digital stumbling blocks, it is important to replace them with activities that will improve our lives. During the Savior’s ministry, he gave the following parable as a warning when we attempt to change:

“When the unclean spirit [or a bad habit] is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out.

And when it cometh, it findeth the house swept and garnished [or left empty].

Then goeth the evil spirit, and taketh seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

In this parable, the evil spirit is like the stumbling blocks we are attempting to remove from our lives. However, if we do not fill our lives with new good habits, then our old habits will come back even stronger than before.

So, we shouldn’t focus on reducing the amount of time we are connected to the digital world. Instead, we should decide what activities will provide more happiness in this life and the life to come. Then we should use these activities to replace the time we would have spent in the digital world. Instead of focusing on who we do not want to be, we should focus on who we want to become.

In Ether 12:27, the Lord instructs Moroni about changing:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

One way we can apply this verse is by seeing that our weaknesses are stumbling blocks that prevent us from becoming who we want to become. To remove these stumbling blocks, we need to humble ourselves before the Lord and have faith in Him. Through our faith, we can remove these stumbling blocks so that they become our strengths.

If we truly want to change, we need to come unto the Savior in humility and faith. He can change us. Pray to Him for inspiration on what you need to do to make your weaknesses strengths. With a little creativity and His help, you can be inspired to know how to place stumbling blocks in the way of bad habits and how to create new habits.

To demonstrate how this might look I want to give a simple example of something I did to help improve my life. A few months ago, I felt like I could do a better job connecting with my wife and kids. I realized that after I came home from work that my phone was distracting me from being completely focused on them. This is something I wanted to change. So, I set a reminder on my phone so that I would remember to leave my phone in my bedroom. Once I separated myself from my phone, I was able to focus completely on being with my wife and kids. This simple change has blessed my life, knowing that I am now able to get to know my wife and kids better and be more present in their lives.

As I conclude, I want to challenge you to make sure you find a time, each day, where you can separate yourself from your phone and any other device. Use this time to connect with the Lord, so He can guide your life.

President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.”

I testify that if we turn our lives over to the Lord, he will bless us with happiness and the ability to change our lives for the better. I have focused mostly on our digital habits, but these principles apply to all aspects of our lives.

I wrote most of this talk before I knew I would be giving it “in the digital world”. I think it is amazing what the digital world has allowed us to do. These technological advancements are the result of countless hours of work from chemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists. These advancements most certainly represent a great deal of inspired revelation to many people. In the past few weeks, most of us have turned to these technologies to continue our lives. I also hope that we can also find moments to temporarily disconnect from these amazing technologies so that we can experience a closer connection to our Lord. I believe this closer connection can motivate and inspire us to make the changes we need to make in our lives.

I know the Savior lives and that through His atonement, He has the power to save us and change us. And I say these things in His name, Jesus Christ, amen.