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Category Archives: Religion

Does God know our future choices? Part 1

The Judeo-Christian scriptures seem emphatic: God knows everything. But what does it mean to know something?

Can God know something that isn’t true? Can He know something that will never happen?

Does knowledge mean understanding, or the acquisition of a piece of information, or something else?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but the fact that they are hard to answer proves that it is possible to interpret scriptural divine omniscience in different ways.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2015 in Musings, Religion

 

What will you give in exchange for your soul?

I’m writing this in frustration of my own recurring tendency to sacrifice worthwhile opportunities for the sake of ephemeral instants of pleasure.

I am reminded of the very meaningful and symbolic biblical story of Esau selling his birthright for a good meal. Although it is easy to judge Esau by saying that he was short-sighted and impulsive, how often we tend to act that way!

When we are in a moment of crisis or weakness as Esau was, it is natural to lose sight of long-term goals and our core values. We feel terrible and all that seems to matter is to resolve the immediate situation.

How often I have sold an opportunity to spend quality time with my wife for an hour of television! How often I have sold meaningful service for selfish indulgence; health for a treat; self-respect for a moment of pleasure…

It is so hard to deny myself of these pleasures when the world is shouting at me that I am entitled to them, that I somehow deserve them, that saying “no” is a sign of weakness! Yet, how many times do I need to learn that indulging leads to no lasting satisfaction or happiness?

In the words of Jesus Christ: “It is better that you should deny yourselves of these things, whereby you take up your cross, than that ye should be cast down to hell”.

Hell is the state of mind in which you are when you act against your better judgement and knowledge, when you commit acts of self-betrayal. It involves remorse, shame, guilt, self-loathing, and is adequately described scripturally as unquenchable fire. No one “casts” us there but ourselves.

Conversely, acting in harmony with our growing knowledge involves daily trials and challenges, but is accompanied by a soothing, healing backdrop of inner peace of conscience. That peace is what Christ suffered for, that treasure for which it is worth denying ourselves of worldly pleasures and, as he did, take up our cross.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Musings, Religion

 

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The receptacle of pure and virtuous principles

King Lamoni’s father asked Aaron, his teacher:

“What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess […] that I may receive this great joy” (Alma 22:15)

To which Aaron replied:

“If thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and […] call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest” (v. 16)

Latter-day Saints sometimes tend towards a certain provincialism, and talk of people of other faiths as though they were utterly confused, lost, and hopeless. They often refer to the Gospel incorrectly, equating it with the church. For example, I often hear:

“I’m grateful I belong to this Gospel”

or

“I’ve been so happy since I’ve been in the Gospel”

The Gospel is a message, not a group, a status or an organisation. You can’t belong to it, you can’t be in it, and you can’t own it. It is a grave mistake to believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the sole property and monopoly of our church. The principles of faith and repentance are available to everyone, members and non-members alike. When Lamoni and his father knelt and prayed for forgiveness, they received it, before their baptism and confirmation.

However, they needed to be baptised, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, to retain a remission of their sins from day to day (Mosiah 4:12,26; Alma 4:14), and begin the process of lifetime conversion. Their desire to sin would have inevitably returned, no matter how hard to tried to fight it, unless they entered into a covenant with God to follow the Saviour, and receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost as a constant guide, purifier and testifier of truth.

As the Saviour taught the Nephites:

“Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptised in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:20)

Jesus Christ single-handedly overcame all sins, weaknesses and even death. Although we can’t do that ourselves, the purpose of our mortal existence is to enable us to achieve the same purity, the same holiness, as that achieved by the Saviour. This can only be done through the atonement of Christ, and we can only receive the full blessings of the atonement by exercising our faith in Christ, repenting of our sins, being baptised and confirmed, and enduring to the end (2 Nephi 31:17-21).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, then, is the glorious message that, through His atonement, we may overcome the natural man, become the receptacle of pure and virtuous principles, and become one with the Father and the Son. “Those who reject this glad message” are aptly designated as “damned”:

“And if they will not repent and believe in his name, and be baptised in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it.” (2 Nephi 9:24)

They are not called “damned” because they go to an endless hell of fire and brimstone, but because they stop progressing, as water is stopped by a dam. This doesn’t just apply to people who refuse to join our Church. It happens to us on a regular basis.

We refuse to let go of the ungodliness and impurities in our hearts, we cling to the natural man, we want the mansion in heaven and the holiday home in Babylon. Unlike Lamoni and his father, we are unwilling to give up all our sins. Why is that? Because we lack faith in Christ and in his promise:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I used to think of the words “labour” and “heavy laden” in this scripture as our earthly trials and tribulations, and thought that the teaching was that we could turn to the Saviour for comfort. Recently, I’ve started to see this scripture differently. These heavy burdens we carry may actually be our sins, bad habits, addictions, vain ambitions, or our worldly idols. Although it may appear easier to obtain happiness through pleasurable activities, the accumulation of wealth or the cultivation of popularity, these do not give “rest” to our souls. By doing these things we “labour for that which does not satisfy” (2 Nephi 9:51), and they are a heavy burden that just keeps on getting heavier, the more we seek happiness through them.

The yoke of Christ is easy, not because it requires little effort, but because it is simple. It is as simple as Moses’ staff raised for the healing of the poisoned Israelites who would merely look at it (Numbers 21:6-9; Alma 33: 19-22; 1 Nephi 17:41); as simple as Naaman’s washing seven times in the Jordan river to be healed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:8-15); as simple as following the directions on the Liahona to find food or the way to the promised land (Alma 37:38-46).

The hard part of the Gospel isn’t doing the Lord’s work. It is letting go of the feeling that we are entitled to our share of worldly distractions from doing His work. We can’t give away “all our sins” if we refuse to acknowledge them. We can’t let our hearts become the receptacle of pure and virtuous principles unless we first cleanse the inner vessel (Alma 60:23-24) through daily living the first principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Religion

 

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What is it like to be a God?

The following is a talk I gave at church a few months ago.

Mormonism stands out amongst the Christian denominations by its belief in everyone’s potential to become gods. What is a god, and why would we want to become one?

Ancient and modern mythology

Religions throughout the earth’s history have attempted to understand deity, often using common objects and concepts to try to make sense of such a supernal being. For example, ancient Egyptians worshipped a host of gods such as Ra (the sun god). Ancient Greeks and Romans also had their pantheon of gods, each of whom had a mixture of supernatural abilities and human frailties.

Modern culture has been inspired by these ancient myths and legends, as can be seen in the current popularity of superhero movies, comics and television series. Our lives are surrounded by mythology, and we can easily find it alluring, entertaining or even inspiring. However, this mythology can confuse us as to the attributes of our Heavenly Father, the one and only god we worship.

Common (mis)understanding of godhood

In the Church, when the topic of godhood comes up, comments usually revolve around the ability to create worlds and populate them with spirit children, thus taking on a role similar to that which our Heavenly Father currently holds. Critics of the Church often use a caricature of this belief, stating that we believe in creating and ruling our own worlds, being worshipped by their inhabitants. We may speculate until the cows come home, mostly without the support of scriptures. Ultimately, however, we really have no idea what we’re talking about, unless we are intimately acquainted with God the Father.

How do we come to know the Father?

Short answer: Through the Son and the Holy Ghost. John 14:5-11

5 Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?

6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the away, the btruth, and the life: no man ccometh unto the Father, but by me.

7 If ye had aknown me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.

8 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.

9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the aFather; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?

10 Believest thou not that I am in the aFather, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.

11 Believe me that I am ain the bFather, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.

And in John 18:9:

Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

Finally in John 5:19-23:

19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he aseeththe bFather do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

20 For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel.

21 For as the Father araiseth up the dead, and bquickeneth them;even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.

22 For the Father judgeth no man, but hath acommitted allbjudgment unto the Son:

23 That all men should ahonour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that bhonoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.

The Father never intervenes personally amongst his children, he always does so through His Son, Jesus Christ. Within this simple pattern is an important lesson: if we know the Son, we know the Father. Their unity is so perfect and complete that the discovery of Jesus Christ is literally the discovery of the Father of our spirits.

Here is yet another lesson: it is the unity between the Father and the Son that defines godhood. Even before He took on mortal flesh, Jesus was a “God” (see chapter 4 of Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage). Did he reach godhood through worthy deeds? Did he receive special powers and abilities that gave him this lofty title? No, he became God because he was One with the Father.

Christ’s invitation has always been, and always will be, to become one with Him and the Father. That is godhood: unity with God. The concept of becoming a supreme being with mighty powers, independently of God the Father, belongs to the realm of Hollywood and makes no theological sense. Godhood is not about abilities and powers, it is about knowledge, purpose and identity.

Since all of God’s children have the potential to become gods, and godhood requires a perfect unity with God the Father, what does it say about the relationships between each other? As Jesus explained, we are to become one with each other, just as He is one with the Father. Godhood is not an independent pursuit. It is not the prize of a competitive race. Instead, it is the ultimate community project, the result of unlocking the infinite human synergy.

Does unity entail a loss of identity? This is similar to asking whether a husband and wife who are intimately united have lost their individuality. To the contrary, each of their individuality is enriched by the individuality of the other. That is the beauty of the plan of salvation: each intelligence that participates in it is unique and distinct from all others, including the Father of our spirits, God the Father!

This diversity is so glorious and beautiful that the Father, God himself, seeks to become One with us, giving us all that He has so that we may join in this ever-increasing richness and beauty.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Religion

 

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What will heaven be like?

Relatively frequently, the topic of “heaven” or “eternal life” comes up in conversations with members of my faith and other Christians. We who believe in an after-life often wonder what it will be like, what we will do, what we will feel and so on. I would like to share my recently updated perspective on this subject, then ask you what you think.

A child’s view of heaven

As I grew up, I was taught by my parents about God, Jesus and the purpose of our life on earth. I was taught about what happens after we die: if we’ve been good during our life, we go to a lovely place where everything is beautiful, peaceful and happy. No more death, no more pain, no more sadness: just happy all the time!

But what do you DO in heaven?

Apart from the occasional mention of singing praises to God and resting from worldly cares, there isn’t much information in the scriptures about what we will be doing in this wonderful place. So when children ask this very sensible question, they don’t usually get a satisfying answer, or they get a made-up one. I got a bit of both.

When I ask teenagers what they think they’ll be doing in heaven, they often talk about doing the things they love doing here: playing computer games, eating lots of cake, watching movies etc. Their idea of heaven is a place where they can indulge in their pleasurable activities without parental or societal restraints.

Things get even more interesting when you ask adults.

Adult views of heaven: happiness?

Most adults who believe in heaven associate it with pure and uninterrupted happiness. I think that, if this is our idea of heaven, we need to think a bit deeper.

LDS doctrine includes the notion that God is a glorified man, and that heaven is living the kind of life that God lives. Mormons are unified in this belief, it is a central tenet of our faith. Now comes the big question:

Is God continuously happy?

If He is, then does He never experience sorrow for our pains? Does He never experience disappointment, anger, sadness, frustration or grief? Does He only ever do things that are pleasurable, or does He occasionally perform difficult work?

The Bible attributes many of these negative emotions to God, so why do we seem to believe that our eternal existence will consist of uninterrupted bliss? Is that what really brings happiness? The absence of negative emotions?

An analogy

Have you ever looked at a painting whose beauty completely overwhelmed you? Think about it, I hope you have experienced this before. If you have, what made the painting beautiful to your eyes? If the first thing you could think about was “the shadows”, I would say you don’t think like most people do. It’s generally the things that catch our eyes like bright or bold colours, that first come to mind. An experienced artist, however, will look at the painting as a whole, and will be able to describe why the painting looks good.

The answer is: everything. It’s not any individual aspect of a painting that makes it sublime, it’s the whole package. The composition, the technique, the texture, the contrast, the subject, the saturation of the colours, the richness of the shadows etc.

So it is with heaven: it’s not just the positive, pleasurable emotions that make it such a desirable state of existence, it’s the whole package.

What does that package contain? I believe that the single most important aspect of a heavenly existence consists of relationships. Imagine living in a country where everyone is a close, intimate friend who loves and respects you, and who responds with tenderness and deep emotion each time you reach out for them. Imagine never having to worry about what people think, because you know that everyone respects you. Imagine a place completely void of hatred, jealousy, pettiness, crime, selfishness, greed and prejudice. Everyone relies on each other, complements each other, and is attuned to each other.

Can such an existence include things like disappointment, grief, and worries? I believe it can, indeed I believe it must.

Heaven is not just the icing on the cake. It’s the whole cake. It’s also doing the dishes when you’re done, and sharing the recipe with friends so they can enjoy it too.

Have a say!

Please answer the following poll, to share your perspective of what heaven will be like!

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2011 in 750words, Musings, Religion

 

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Waiting on the road to Damascus

Well I haven’t written for a long time, and I’m starting to miss it! I’m back at school since the beginning of the week, which means assignments, readings, and most of all a lot of work to do for my PhD candidacy! It’s becoming difficult to juggle all my responsibilities in a balanced manner, and I’ve let some important slip down in my list of priorities, including my calling, house work, journal writing and contacting my family. It’s time to get back on track!

Tomorrow I am teaching the high priest group in our ward, the lesson is based on President Dieter F. Uchtdorf‘s talk “Waiting on the road to Damascus“. He made some very pertinent comments, some of which I highlighted.

I want to ask myself whether or not I am waiting on the road to Damascus, in some fashion. I think that sometimes I am, but I find it difficult to explain how. I rarely feel that I’m doing enough in my various roles and responsibilities, and I’m very often reminded of my capacities and opportunities. I sometimes get an inspiring vision of the earth-shattering improvements I could effect in people’s lives, of positive changes I could put into place in organisations and systems. However, I’m usually frustrated either by the realisation that my aspirations are far too lofty, or by the loss of enthusiasm that naturally accompanies the passage of time.

Nevertheless, I continue to hold a deep belief in every human’s potential to perform miracles. With time, I am starting to see that, although miracles are impressive and awe-inspiring, they take time to perform. I think that if I can guide and shape Joshua in a way that will protect him against harmful ideologies and behaviours in his future life, give him a solid foundation of core values, and provide him with healthy psychological, emotional and social development, that will constitute a miracle, though one that has taken millions of small acts of sacrifice and conscious effort. The way I see him develop already gives me nigh daily reminders that I am at least doing some things right!

Another way in which we can figuratively wait on the road to Damascus is by delaying important decisions until we are sure that our choice is the right or best one. It always amazes me how uncomfortable humans are when faced with uncertainty! We want answers to everything, and can be more satisfied with an obviously wrong answer than with no answer at all! Sometimes we can only see one possible choice, and we conclude that it must be the one to take, since no other is available, even though we feel right down in our bones that the choice is wrong. We are impatient, we can’t tolerate not knowing NOW what we should do. Just like little children, we stomp our feet in rage and demand an answer right now.

However, one of the purposes of mortal existence is precisely to learn to deal with uncertainty, and to make some choices based on feelings and inspiration rather than on solid facts. That’s sometimes called faith, and it’s never easy, but sustained, meaningful and positive personal growth is impossible without it.

 

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2011 in Musings, Religion

 

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The power of self-talk

Language is very powerful.

Besides spoken or written language, our thoughts are also mostly made up of language. We use words to think about ourselves, other people or the world in general. We use words to plan what we are going to do or say, and to make sense of our memories.

Before you read the rest of this article, please answer the following poll:

Now on to the meat of this article:

The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the way we feel about ourselves.

Human beings are amazing. Our brains are constantly active, even when we are asleep. We are constantly thinking, whether we are aware of it or not. Our emotions are directly influenced by our thoughts. Whenever we feel anger, excitement, anxiety, joy or sadness, it is usually because of some thoughts we’ve just had.

Our brains can think very quickly, and some types of thoughts can become so automatic that we don’t realise we’re having them. These automatic thoughts, however, were not always automatic. We learned them at some stage. For example, if our parents constantly told us that we were clumsy when we were little, we probably believed them. Later on, when we would make little mistakes, we would have been more likely to attribute them to our clumsiness than to other factors, because we started to believe that we were clumsy. Little by little, that belief can become reinforced until it is well-established and completely automatic.

While I was writing this article (took me a couple of weeks!), I came across the following video which I thought was excellent and very relevant to my topic. I don’t agree with everything Daryl Cross says, but I love the way he puts things across. It makes a lot of sense to me.

What happens when we have acquired an automatic thought of being clumsy? We knock our glass of water at the restaurant, and almost immediately we feel overwhelmed with shame and anger. But it wasn’t the spilled drink that caused the anger, it was the following automatic thoughts: “I did this because I’m clumsy. My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous. I’ll always be like that”.

Often, the negative automatic thoughts we have about ourselves don’t stand up to simple reasoning. If we were really aware of them, we could easily debunk them because they’re usually very exaggerated. The thoughts I just mentioned are unreasonable:

  • “I did this because I’m clumsy”: are there no other possible reasons? What about being nervous? Perhaps someone actually pushed us? Or perhaps it was just bad luck, and this kind of thing happens to everyone from time to time!
  • “My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous”: How do you know that? Do people tell you that you’re ridiculous when you do clumsy things? Many automatic negative self-thoughts assume that we can read people’s minds. We can’t.
  • “I’ll always be like that”: What a sad prophecy! Fortunately, we don’t know the future, and that includes what our future self will be. We just don’t know.

Here is a quote by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the 12 apostles of the LDS Church:

In all of this, I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable .

April 2007 General Conference, The Tongue of Angels

The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the ways we think and feel about other people.

If we are in the habit of criticising ourselves, we will tend to think that other people also have similar thoughts as we do, and silently criticise everything we do. This makes it difficult for us to trust others, because we think they are always judging us.

We can’t read anyone’s mind, so it’s impossible to know for sure what people are thinking or planning. To deal with this huge amount of uncertainty, our brains are naturally inclined to make lots of assumptions, so we don’t have to spend every waking minute worrying about what other people might think or do to us. One of these is to assume that other people think the same way we do. This is a very useful assumption, and often it works just fine: humans have many things in common, including some of the ways in which we think.

However, this assumption can be a problem unless occasionally challenged. If our thoughts are extreme, for example if they are very negative towards ourselves, assuming that everyone feels and thinks the same way about us is not only very inaccurate, it’s also very dangerous. Why is it dangerous? Because of something else we tend to do as humans: notice and remember the things that confirm what we believe, and ignore those that don’t. This is called the confirmatory bias.

As our self-talk becomes more negative, and we assume that other people are equally as judgemental towards us, we tend to notice the things they say and do that confirm our assumptions. This is made obvious when two people hear a third person say something, but when they talk about it later they remember something completely different. Let’s have an example: George is meeting his friends Lynn and Michael at school and is excited to show them his new shoes.

George: Hey, guys, what do you think of my new shoes?

Lynn: They’re not bad.

Michael: They’re awesome!

… later …

George (speaking to Michael): I can’t believe Lynn was so rude to me today, I don’t know what I’ve done to upset her!

Michael: What do you mean? She said she liked your shoes!

George: What are you on about? She hated them!

Michael: I’m sure she said they were nice, or something…

George: I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was obvious she hated them. In fact I think she hates me, I’ve been noticing little things she says, and she’s always talking and laughing about me when she’s with her friends…

Michael: I think you’re imagining things. She always says the nicest things about you when you’re not there, I’ve heard her lots of times. In fact I think she likes you!

As you can see, George has a fairly firm belief that Lynn doesn’t like him, and tends to look for things that confirm that belief. He believes that Lynn thinks that way, because that is the way he thinks about himself. This is leading him down an unfortunate path, because he may very well be destroying a potentially very strong friendship.

What we can do about negative self-talk

Once in a while, we need to step out of the comfort zone of our established beliefs about ourselves and others, and be willing to challenge them. This can be very difficult to do, especially if we have fed these beliefs for many years by consistently picking out bits of information that confirm them, and ignored those that go against them. Sometimes, these beliefs are reinforced by other people, the most powerful example often being our parents. However, we can challenge any belief we have if that belief is leading us to have a distorted and negative view of ourselves.

Before we can challenge them, however, we must identify them. They’re often so automatic that we’re not even aware that we’re thinking them. They’re like a psychological reflex, a mental shortcut that reduces the amount of mental effort we have to spend in reaction to events around us. If we want to change them, to “re-wire” our brain, we must be willing to spend that extra mental effort until our automatic thoughts have been modified to something less negative and more helpful.

One way to do this is to keep a little notebook and pencil in our pocket all the time, or to have a mobile phone that allows us to quickly take some notes for later. Every time we have a strong negative feeling like anger, depression or anxiety, we write down what triggered that emotion, and describe briefly how we’re feeling at that moment. Then, when we get home later on, we can go through our notes and spend a bit of mental energy to figure out what we were thinking at the time of our negative emotion. There’s always an automatic thought that gets activated by the trigger. It may be hard at first, but eventually you’ll start getting the hang of it.

So, once we’ve managed to identify some of the negative, automatic thoughts that we have about ourselves, we can start writing them down and challenging them. Writing all this down is essential, because if we try to just do it mentally, the automatic thoughts will win. It’s their domain, and they don’t like to be challenged. If you start writing them down, it gives you the opportunity to look at them at different times, when your mood is different, and when you’re likely to get more insights into them.

The truth about our worth

Thankfully, for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it’s quite easy to challenge automatic negative self-talk. We have strong beliefs in the individual worth of every human being, as literal children of God. Our worth is not determined by our actions, or by the attitudes or thoughts of other people. Our worth is fixed and equal to everyone else’s.

Don’t be fooled by the vain promises of the gods of beauty, fame, pleasure and possessions. They would have you believe that your worth is determined by how devoutly you worship them, how much time and money you pour into their bottomless treasuries. The true God, our Heavenly Father, has made it clear that our worth is not determined by our actions. We are his children and he loves us, no matter what we do. We are the offspring of deity from the time we are born until we surrender our last mortal breath.

The most important belief for which we should seek confirmation is the belief that God is literally our Father, and that we are literally His children. The degree to which we believe these simple truths will determine how well we can challenge and re-program our negative self-talk.

 

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