For this study I wanted to take a broader topic, one that I expect will take me to a plethora of different scriptures and examples. The motivation for this particular topic stems from a conversation I had recently, where I spoke about how scripture study agitates my conscience into wanting to be better, and how I still struggle to meet that desire.
With this study, then, I want to examine how one develops the power of actually doing. How does one take the knowledge in their mind, the desire in their heart, and turn these into the actions that they actually do? For it is abundantly clear to me that having knowledge is the first step to changing oneself, yet one can have a sound understanding of right behavior but not live a single piece of it.
Ecclesiastes 11:4, Doctrine and Covenants 64:25
He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
Wherefore, if ye believe me, ye will labor while it is called today.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap
I believe that most of us can relate to hearing a sermon that stirred our hearts, or having a our conscience pricked towards improvement, or having our minds taken by a thought of something good to do…but then saying to ourselves “not right now, though…I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”
And in that is a most pernicious lie. For each of us knows from experience that when tomorrow comes, we do not make the change then either. The deceit is in thinking that we can even make a decision for what we will do tomorrow. We can not. Indeed we never make choices for future events. We have before us only a single moment called “the present” in which to make all our choices, and everything else is off the table.
And thus there is only one choice that we are making when we say “I will do it tomorrow.” What we really mean is “I will not do it now.” That is the one choice. “I could do it now…but I will not. I could be someone different here in this moment…but I will not be.” And if we will not be someone different now, then how could we hope to be the sort of person tomorrow that would make the good choice instead? Rather we will be the same procrastinator then that we are today.
Wherefore, if ye believe me, ye will labor while it is called today
The only way that any of us will ever change who we are, the only way that we will ever improve in the ways that we must, is if we make the decision to do so right now. There has never been a person in all of history that changed their life “tomorrow.” Do it today, or it won’t be done.
Luke 9:61-62, Matthew 7:21
And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.
And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
I will follow thee; but let me first…
I can certainly relate to this idea of “I’ll follow, but let me first…” I want to improve, I want to do right things, I am convinced in my head of what those right things are, but I am not yet converted to them in my heart.
And I think it helps to recognize and differentiate between these two stages of becoming an active disciple. It is true that before anything else, we need to be convinced of the truth. Before we can worry about the problem of not following our conscience, we first need to become sensitive to what our conscience is even saying. Simply being able to identify what is right and giving a name to it is an essential first step.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father
No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God
But having that knowledge is not enough. Intending to do good simply is not the same as doing good. As we see from this verse, intending to do good alone does not make one fit for heaven.
And it is important to understand that there is no hateful retribution in Jesus’s proclamation of one being unfit for heaven. This isn’t about punitive punishments. The simple fact is that God is a doer, He is a being that has intentions and follows through on them. His kingdom, therefore, is one of doing, one of following through on intentions. If we haven’t developed within ourselves the same trait, then we simply will not fit in with that atmosphere. We wouldn’t feel that we belonged.
So if we want to join the society of the celestial, we must learn how to be doers.
Ecclesiastes 11:4 (NIV), Matthew 6:34
Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap
Take therefore no thought for the morrow. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof
I often find that when I feel the urge to make a change for good I have no shortage of reasons to not do it quite yet. I say to myself “I will do it, for sure, just as soon as I get past this really busy time. Then I’ll be able to make that change.”
Now, even if things did work out that way–which they never do–then what would I have as a result? A soul that does whatever is right…when it is convenient to do so. So maybe tomorrow would be more ideal, and I would do what was right. But then when the day after tomorrow was hard again? I just give up once more? That is a far cry from the quality of character that I, or anyone else, yearns for.
Each of us wants be the one who persevered in spite of great opposition, the one who did what was right when it was hard to do what was right, the one who stuck to their principles no matter how much fire they came under, the one who is unconditionally good. And that sort of character just cannot be developed by waiting for fair weather. We have to plant today, whatever today’s conditions may be.
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.
Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many
In the story of Gideon’s army, we learn how the Lord filtered his forces down, then filtered them down again. The first cut, in which all the soldiers with any fear were sent home, was not enough, there was more purifying that needed to follow.
In my own life I have also found that I am purified by degrees. For today there are certain practices that I must strive for, and if I accomplish them then that is well for today. But tomorrow…it is time to be purified even further.
There is a temptation when we have achieved our goals to not set new ones that extend further. It is all too easy to say that now we are “good enough” and this half our progress. The problem with this is that complacency is soon followed by deterioration. Rather than let a milestone be the end of our journey, it is better to let it be a signpost pointing still onward.
John 21:3-4, 15-17
Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.
But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter reverted back to the lifestyle he knew before. I can certainly relate to that. Very often I try to instill a new behavior in my lifestyle, and sometimes I start to see those changes come to fruition and get excited, but then, more times than not, a few days later I’ve lost what progress I had, and am back to my old default behavior.
Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?
What did Jesus do when he found Peter back in the fishing boats? He asked him to verify his love, and called him back to caring for the Lord’s flock. And then he did it a second time. And then he did it a third.
There are two things I want to note here. First is that just because Peter had abandoned his post once did not mean that he had lost his calling. If we try to do what is right, make some progress, then fall back, the story is not over. We can always get back in the saddle.
Which leads to the second point: what truly matters is that we pick ourselves up and try again. I believe many of us think of discipleship as exercising our “do it perfectly” muscle. However, as we see in this example, discipleship is instead about exercising our “try it again” muscle. If you are to be perfect at anything, be perfect at picking yourself back up and trying again.
Galatians 6:9, Mosiah 4:27
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not
There is a reason I titled this study the doing “muscle.” Holding oneself to self-improvement takes a very real energy. And that energy is not infinite, it runs low and it runs out, it is more available after a good night’s sleep, and less so when exhausted. Sometimes we feel energized to do that work, and other times we just don’t have any resolve left in us. We can exercise this muscle, but we can also overdo it and crash.
And see that all these things are done in wisdom; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength
And frankly I have many times burned myself out because I didn’t view my resolve like a muscle. If I consider my literal muscles, then I know that if I sprint for too long I will feel fatigued, and I will know to bring my pace down to a more sustainable level. But how many of us have over-the-top New Year’s resolutions, ones where we don’t recognize the fatigue until we’ve completely fallen off the bandwagon?
In addiction therapy they caution against “white-knuckling,” where you try to force yourself to be totally perfect by sheer force of will. Force of will expends itself until it just isn’t there anymore, and then you fail again.
Yes we should improve and yes we should strengthen our moral muscles, but we will have much more success doing it in a measured, sustainable, steadily-improving sort of way.
Isaiah 40:31, Isaiah 41:10
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength
For I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee
I just spoke of our moral resolve as a muscle, and the need to strengthen it without trying to overwhelm it. It is fine to acknowledge that we have limits and temper our efforts according to them.
But…we also need to pair this prudence with a faith in miracles. God has promised to give us strength beyond our own, the ability to stand against storms that we simply do not have the power to face ourselves. It is possible to both set realistic goals for one’s growth, and still leave the door open for divine intervention.
In my own path of addiction recovery, I took care to set manageable, attainable goals for myself. I did not try to muster up the strength for perfection, only to keep my commitments for each new day. And while in the process of taking these small steps by my own power, I found myself being swept forward by the grace of God to beyond what my own efforts could accomplish. My mind and heart healed in degrees that made no sense. I found a restoration of the soul that I had not even come close to earning.
So it can be with all practices of self-improvement. You do what you can do, and you let God do what He can do.
Prevention vs Cure
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Apparently Benjamin Franklin was referring to fire safety when he gave the above quote, but I find it is applicable to many situations, including that of self-improvement.
We have examined previously in this study how our moral resolve is like a muscle, with limited capacity, and a need to exercise and grow before it is strong. But it might be stronger than we realize, if we just started directing it more towards an ounce of prevention than towards a pound of cure.
In addiction recovery they teach that the best way to have a strong moral resolve is simply to not test it. The best way to overcome temptation is to be tempted as little as possible. Consider an alcoholic who goes to the bar with his friends for social reasons, but now must struggle the whole time to not get a drink. He will be quickly depleting his reserve of grit. Once every so often he might be able to pull off some moral heroics and keep himself sober, but most nights he will cave. Consider how much easier it is, then, for him to instead say “I’m just not going to the bar,” and never face its temptations to begin with. He is more sober by not testing his sobriety.
There is still some effort in that, of course. He must look his friends in the eye and say he can’t go when he used to go before, but it is an easier thing to do than see the beer and smell the beer, but not taste the beer.
In my own life I found that once I identified the unnecessary ways in which I was expending my moral fortitude, and circumvented those situations, that suddenly I had far more energy for actually making myself a better person. God works in miracles, it is true, but He expects us to work in prudence and reason.
Proverbs 28:13, Romans 10:10
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.
For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper
The effort of self-improvement is too great to also be burdened by unconfessed wrongs. I have had personal experience in trying to make myself a healthier, better balanced, more faithful person…while also harboring secret shames. It simply didn’t worked. I felt that I was running on frictionless ice, flailing my arms and legs about valiantly, but all to no effect. My system was broken, and I simply could not prosper.
But whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy
And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation
Eventually I made confession to God, to my family, to my spiritual leaders, and started attending therapy for my addictions. Shortly thereafter one of my spiritual leaders asked me how I was doing and I expressed that I had felt a wall breaking down. Suddenly all my efforts weren’t cursed anymore. Suddenly striving to improve myself actually felt like it was going somewhere.
Yes, confession had brought me mercy, and it had put me on the path of salvation. I had anticipated that. But what had come as a surprise was that now when I sowed, I finally had the opportunity to reap.
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for the rent is made worse
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break
Have you ever tried to make an improvement in your life and found that you not only fail to meet it, but also move backwards on other practices? Like a juggler who can keep three balls aloft, but when a fourth is added they drop the whole set.
I have certainly had the experience of feeling like I tried for too much too soon, and as a result lost what progress I already had. I have learned the wisdom of adding one small improvement at a time instead, keeping things manageable from one step to the next.
But they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved
But sometimes incremental improvements are not the solution. Sometimes the solution is realizing that the structure of your life will never be able to hold the changes that you need to make.
And so I have also learned the wisdom of occasionally throwing out the old bottle and starting again with a new vessel. I just let go of all the things that I “think I have to do,” resulting in a daily schedule that is devoid of anything at all. And then I start putting things in, the most important ones first, and being sure to include the new improvements that I know I need. At the end there are many old things left behind, but that is better than trying to cram it all in until the bottle bursts.
1 Corinthians 10:13, Matthew 6:33
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man
If there is anything that keeps us from doing the things we want to do, it probably exists under the umbrella of temptation. Temptation to go back to our old ways, temptation to procrastinate, temptation to just plain be lazy. If it weren’t for friction we would all do exactly what we intended to do, and temptation is the greatest source of friction out there.
But God is faithful, who will with the temptation also make a way to escape
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness
But fortunately for us, temptation has its cure. It’s easy to think that self-improvement can only be done by–well–the self. We assume that it is our personal cross to bear, unable to receive any outside help. However this isn’t the case. A change of heart does require effort from us, but it also requires a miracle from God.
And so the guidance in these verses is to seek the kingdom of God first. We should build up our connection to him, learn how hear His voice, learn how to invoke His blessings in our lives. If we build on that foundation first then we can work with Him on every other element of self-improvement together.
1 Corinthians 6:19, Matthew 21:13
What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
Know ye not that your body is the temple, which ye have of God?
My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
When I have sought to improve my well-being the thought has often occurred to me that I ought to consider the temples in my life, and whether they are places of sanctity. Is my house a shrine to God, or a place where His spirit would be offended to dwell? Is my room a place of focus, or a place of distraction? Is my body well cared for and nourished, or is it deprived of its basic needs?
Sometimes having the strength for self-improvement requires looking inward and outward. Maybe we’re making things harder on ourselves by not cultivating an environment where the spirit can thrive. The Holy Ghost is meant to bring to us the mind and will of God, meaning that when it is present our thoughts and desires are more easily aligned to the virtues we are trying to emulate. In other words, having a sacred space invites the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and having the companionship of the Holy Ghost just makes doing the good things easier.
We all have wished that we more consistent at doing the things that we know we should. If each of us was able to be our best self each day, the world would already be a divine place to live. Indeed, one might argue that the best thing any of us can do to right the greater wrongs of the world, is to simply improve our own selves instead. How can we help the world live by the principles that we think are important, if we’re not even fully living them ourselves?
Doing this study was a great help to me. It helped me to understand why it is so hard for me to consistently be my best self and what I can do to be more successful. It also has helped me to be more patient with my own imperfections.
Not only have I better understood these principles by conducting this study, I would say that I have seen my behavior improve as a result. By implementing these principles and practices in my life I have found I am more successful at doing the things I already know I should be doing. Let’s take a look at what some of the principles and practices are.
The Self-Improvement Hierarchy
One truth that stood out to me was the need to put first things first. Forming ourselves into our best self is a very monumental undertaking, not unlike trying to erect a great building. And as when trying to erect a great building, it is absolutely necessary to begin with a solid foundation. One might stack toothpicks up very high for a brief moment, and for that brief moment it might appear quite impressive, but sooner or later a tower of toothpicks is destined to fall. So too with heroic efforts to be morally perfect one day, only to then binge on all of one’s indulgences the next.
Jesus, himself, taught the importance of establishing a solid foundation before building upwards. He spoke of storms of life that will try to blow down our progress, and how they will succeed unless we are rooted on something sure.
So before we try to tick off our personal-perfection-checklist we need to get down into the basement and see what the conditions are like. Are we prone to addictions? Do we have unconfessed sins adding unnecessary strain? Are we desecrating our homes and bodies (our temples) with things that degrade the soul? Are we trying to found our success on our own strength only? If the answer to any of these is yes, then we’re never going to make any long-term progress. We need to establish a far better foundation first, and only then we can start building in earnest.
Matthew 5:23-24- Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 7:26-27- And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Failure is Part of the Process
Of course, even after we’ve got our foundation taken care of, that doesn’t mean the act of building ourselves higher is an easy process. Even those that have bridled their appetites and established a core of strength still make mistakes, still doing things that they know they shouldn’t, still leave undone that which their conscience tells them they should do.
And as we look at the scriptural narrative it has always been this way. At the height of their work the prophets and apostles were still making mistakes. Moses struck the rock, Peter was reluctant to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul got into heated disagreements with his fellow missionaries. Yet none of them are defined by their failures, because they continued trying to do right in spite of them.
If we try and fail and then give up, then yes, that will be the final, defining note in our journey. But if we try and fail and retry, then it is the “retry” which defines our legacy instead. It isn’t about reaching the full destination in this life, it’s about staying on the road.
Galatians 6:9- And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Philippians 3:12, 14- Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Divine Help is Necessary
The final principle I realized was that, ironically, that which we call “self-improvement” is most likely to fail when it is performed only by the self. I believe many of us have a personal pride, and want to make ourselves into the ideal man or woman without any help from anyone else. Or perhaps we might feel that humbly relying on God is only meant for that first step, the one where we were trying to sort out our foundation, overcome our addictions, and confess our major sins. We might feel that God needs to save us, but once He has, now it is all on us to make something beautiful out of the new life we have been given.
But that simply isn’t the case. The steps that take us from sinners to the repentant turn out to be the exact same steps to take us from the repentant into saints. Just as much as we needed to plead with God to sponge away our guilt and shame, we again need to plead with Him to give us the strength to become more like Him. It is a dangerous journey before us, and we were never meant to take it alone. This has to be a partnership, for that it is the will only it will ever succeed.
Isaiah 40:31- But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 41:10- Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.