Yellow Brick Road Syndrome

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Jeffrey Thayne

Is the path of the gospel a flower-strewn, smoothly-paved, uninterrupted straight-shot to constant happiness?

I would like to talk today about sorrow, joy, misery, enjoyment, pain, pleasure, and love. It’s ambitious project, I know. However, I would like to present a fresh perspective on how each of these terms relate to each other. However, please note the recent post by Nathan Richardson called “Go Away… I mean, Come Here,” and realize that I use these terms differently in this post than they might be used in other contexts, such as scripture.

The Problem

In a couple of previous posts (Challenging the Pleasure Principle and Sorrow versus Misery), I’ve addressed the issue of hedonism, which is defined as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. I believe that many of us may inadvertently take the hedonist position that pleasure (or positive emotion) is inherently good, while pain (or negative emotion) is inherently bad.

Here’s an example: one of the challenges of theodicy is that of explaining what some philosophers have termed “natural evil.” Examples of natural evil include “cancer, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes,” and other tragic circumstances that have “no human perpetrator to blame for it.” The name “natural evil” implies that the pain that accompanies such tragedies is inherently bad, and is an evil in and of itself.

Another example includes most common understandings of the Fall, and of Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden of Eden. Many Christians, including some Latter-day Saints, assume that the “natural evil” and pain that resulted from the Fall of Adam and Eve and their subsequent mortality is the product of a sin of some kind. Latter-day Saints will claim that God wanted Adam and Eve to violate His will (and thereby experience the pain of mortality), but they nonetheless assume that it was an evil act that caused the Fall, and that only an evil act could have caused it.

Another example includes the unfortunately common but misguided belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to take away pain in our lives. Some Latter-day Saints assume that living the gospel and turning to Christ will lead to a life of uninterrupted enjoyment1 and happiness, and do not realize that living a pure life can lead to pain. In a subtle way, this is a hedonistic outlook, because it assumes that pain is inherently bad and is always the product of evil.

Positive and Negative Experiences

First, I believe that pleasure and pain are morally neutral. One can experience both with either a pure heart or an impure heart. I don’t believe that pain is always the product of sin or transgression (either on our own part, or on the part of Adam and Eve). I think a chart might help clarify:

I believe the chart is pretty self-explanatory. Simply put, good people can suffer, and that suffering can have little to do with sin. As I mentioned before, I think that many people assume that living the gospel of Jesus Christ will take us out of the right hand column, and into the left hand column, as illustrated below:

I call this assumption the Yellow Brick Road Syndrome. A quick purview of almost any scriptural story will demonstrate that it is false. Almost every righteous individual in the scriptures suffered far more than I ever have. In fact, modern-day revelation includes a story when God Himself weeps with sorrow. Enoch reports that he saw the “God of heaven [look] upon the residue of the people, and he wept.” The idea that righteousness inoculates us against pain is not only of non-Christian origin, it defies some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

I love the comments of Carlfred Broderick, who said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not insurance against pain. It is a resource in the event of pain, and when that pain comes (and it will come because we came here on earth to have pain among other things), when it comes, rejoice that you have resource to deal with your pain.” Spencer W. Kimball also challenged the idea that the gospel is designed to move us from the right-hand column and into the left-hand column:

Being human, we would expel from our lives sorrow, distress, physical pain, and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort. But if we closed the doors upon such, we might be evicting our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery. The sufferings of our Savior were part of his education.

So, if Christ doesn’t take away our pain, what does He do? I believe that although Christ doesn’t always remove pain from our lives, He does make the experience of pain qualitatively different. For example, I believe Christ can turn what I would call misery into something I would call sorrow instead. Here’s how this could be diagrammed on the chart:

Christ can purify our hearts, and by so doing change the way we experience pain. While the amount of pain may not have changed, the kind of pain we experience is different. I believe that sorrow (as opposed to misery) is a kind of pain that is much easier to endure than misery. I would never call it a “pleasant” experience (it is certainly a negative one), but I would also never call it an “evil” experience.

Modes of Love

What is the qualitative difference? I know there is a difference because I’ve experienced it, but I’m not entirely sure I know how to articulate the answer to that question. However, that hasn’t stopped me from taking a stab at at least one possibility. When we read Enoch’s account about God weeping (Moses 7:28–31), I believe we see that God’s sorrow is born of love. God is experiencing sorrow because He loves His children. I think that is the qualitative difference that Christ makes in our own experience of pain. Here’s how I might label the two different rows on the chart:

In other words, when Christ purifies our hearts, He redeems our pain by turning it into love. I’m now going to make a bold claim: I believe that joy and sorrow are both modes of love. This is because joy experienced with a pure heart is always centered on others. Sorrow experienced with a pure heart is always centered on others. The other-centric nature of joy and sorrow is what makes them pure.

In this way, I believe that joy is not altogether separate and distinct from love, but is rather a subset or form of love. Consider, for example, Ammon’s experience of joy after observing the success of their missionary work: “ I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God. … How many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, … therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?”

Likewise, sorrow is also a subset or form of love. God’s tears of sorrow for the sins of His children is just one of many examples of other-centered sorrow in the scriptures.

We can see that the converse may also be true: enjoyment and misery could both be forms or modes of self-centeredness (or malice). I’m not going to go into detail at this point, because I wish to avoid any potential controversy on this issue. My main point is that a crucial part of our experience on this earth is to experience pain, because God is teaching His children how to love, and sorrow is one of the modes of love.

Why We’re Here

The Savior promises us peace, but by peace, he does not mean the absence of conflict, which is how the world often defines it.

We came to earth to experience pain. However, this does not mean that we came here to experience sin. Pain can be experienced without sin (and often is). Adam and Eve crossed over into a different world (the literal meaning of the word transgress) in order to experience the difference between joy and sorrow (the two ways of loving), but this does not mean that sorrow is the result of sin or evil. Of course, part of mortal life includes the capacity to sin, and we all indulge in sin on a daily basis. However, the consequences of sin are found in the bottom row of the chart, not the right column.

The consequences of sin certainly provide an occasion for the pure of heart to experience sorrow. But so do other kinds of pain, such as pain which results in illness, death, accidents, or acts of nature. It seems clear that the central lesson we need to learn does not require the existence of sin—only the possibility of sin. Now, because we all sin, God has provided us with a Savior who can rescue us from the impurities in our hearts. But sin is not why we are here. The real lesson we’re sent here to learn is love. Of course, we can’t get into the top row of the chart (the row of love) without giving up sin, so repentance is at the heart of our purpose here.

In summary, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about pulling us out of the bottom row of the chart, and inviting us into the top row. We talk a great deal in the Church about happiness, but it’s important to remember that that word is sometimes used ambiguously, and the hearer might have the wrong definition in mind; we don’t want to give people the impression that living the gospel will guarantee that they have no more negative experiences. I actually believe that the happiness that we seek in the gospel is better described by the word peace. Whether we are experiencing love in the form of joy or sorrow, I believe we are also experiencing peace. God, even in the midst of His sorrow and weeping for our sins, still experienced peace. I believe that the way Christ makes our pain more endurable is by turning it into love, and by doing so we can experience peace, even in the midst of our pain. I think the peace that comes through love is what constitutes the happiness that God promises the righteous (John 14:27), and it can be experienced through joy or sorrow.


1. While a variety of words could be used on the chart, when referring to the pure and impure types of pain, I chose the terms sorrow and misery, in part because of Lehi’s choice of words in 2 Nephi 2. When referring to the pure type of pleasure/positive experience, joy seemed like the obvious choice, but I had a harder time deciding on a term for the impure type. I considered happiness, but that could have gotten confusing, because several of the most important prophetic statements on this topic use happiness to refer to the pure form of pleasure/positive experience (synonymous with how I use joy). For example, Alma 41:10 says that “wickedness never was happiness,” and Joseph Smith said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence” and that God’s commandments lead to it. In the end, I chose enjoyment, which may be a little awkward, but it’s less-used and therefore doesn’t carry pre-determined connotations.


  1. Hi. I think this post is a great conversational piece to get people talking about what we expect from life, what God has told us will happen here, and what we need to prepare. This article introduced me to the theory of hedonism. I think like most theories or terms, they are what they are in a definite sense. However, it’s the people that attach the connotations to it. Is hedonism against the nature of God? Well, it depends on what a person’s pleasure, passion, and satisfaction are wrapped up in. However, it’s all relative. Here are some scriptures that speak on pleasure:

    The Lord taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation. (Ps. 149:4)

    I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Cor. 12:10)

    It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isa. 53:10)

    This topic is of interest to me, considering I have been pondering what the gospel is to me. The gospel hasn’t cured my being mortal in the least bit. Rather, it has remedied certain “ailments” and offered coping mechanisms of hope in the resurrection, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and charity as a way of life. Also, I would like to second the notion that living the gospel can lead to pain. I know that because of the loss of my own family since I’ve joined the Church. However, because of the gospel I know my family will be restored unto me a hundred-fold, whether it be by adoption or literally.

    When I joined the Church I was naive, young, and all I had was faith. I have had experiences since living in Utah, Idaho, and California that have removed the yellow brick road syndrome from my desires. Don’t get me wrong—I want to be “peaceful” and I am as hopeful as ever. Yet, I now hope more than ever to be in the first resurrection instead of a life without challenges. Thanks for this article!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Jennifer. It’s inspiring to hear how you’ve transferred your hopes to eternal promises instead of earthly expectations. I think you’re right that the language of hedonism can often sound like the simple descriptions of righteous desires; it probably depends in part on what a person means.

  3. This a very interesting discussion on theodicy. The idea of Christ transforming the phenomenology of pain rather then removing it, is a very interesting interpretation, which I prefer to the idea that God removed it. However, I do have a couple of questions.

    It seems that you set up the framework with your conclusion already in mind. You are right in saying that pain and pleasure are experienced by the good and the bad, but I don’t think you can so neatly draw a distinction between an impure and pure experience of them which your chart sets up. At least, not without providing a justification as to why they should be seen as two distinct ontological categories. Misery can be experienced by both the pure and impure, as it is a feeling of distress of discomfort. A righteous person can be in misery because they have been stuck in a cold, damp dungeon. Likewise a pure person can enjoy watching a wholesome film, and an impure person experience joy. The unrighteous can feel sorrow as well. I just don’t think your distinction between pure and impure phenomenological states is workable. What would be your response as to the justification for separating them into distinct emotional states?

    Your right in drawing a distinction between self-centred emotional states, and other-centeredness, there is definitely a quantitative distinction between them, the love for others is very different from the love of self, personal pain is very different to empathy and sympathy. I just don’t think that this can be argued for in using a separation of pure and impure, as I can’t see a robust justification for it.

  4. Jacob, thanks for your comment! =)

    Jacob Halford: Misery can be experienced by both the pure and impure, as it is a feeling of distress of discomfort.

    For the purposes of this article, I’m actually defining “misery” differently. For the purposes of this article, misery is not the same as suffering. A person sitting in a dungeon may indeed suffer. However, they can suffer in one of two phenomenologically different ways. They can be miserable, which I define here as a self-centric suffering, or they can suffer for the sake of another, or other-centric suffering. A righteous person in a dungeon may be suffering for the sake of Christ, or for the sake of their family or friends. I argue that this way of suffering is phenomenologically more “pure” than suffering centered on the self.

    Hopefully, by clarifying that I’m using the terms differently, I’ve been able to explicate what I mean more clearly.

  5. I enjoyed reading and pondering over your thoughts. Er, um, I mean I found pleasure, or wait, maybe it was joy? Whatever words are appropriate, these are some great thoughts!

    I completely agree with your concepts. I think our LDS culture, and most of the rest of Christian culture, (notice I said “culture”, not “doctrine”) feeds the notion that when we are good we are blessed and when we are bad we are punished. I find traces of it still in my own thoughts. Many people are baptized, or “come to Jesus”, thinking their problems will now go away. Then, too often, they go away angry or offended when the expected blessings don’t materialize. “Hedonism” is a good word for it, I think.

    It seems that the promised blessing, that the obedient will “prosper in the land”, and the wicked will be cursed, are more obvious when viewed on a large scale; when the population is righteous they prosper, and they decline when they are wicked. But on an individual level those blessings still come, but they may not come as wealth and worldly prosperity; they may not be so obvious. A changed heart is the best blessing anyone can receive, but how do we measure that? If charity is the most enviable gift, then what else could be a better blessing?

    Again thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. It’s true, we’re always blessed. I guess the way we define blessing would probably be different from how it would be done from a hedonistic perspective. Your examples of charity and a changed heart are good ones.

  7. I think this is very true, and I applaud your efforts and talking about something for which we have rather inadequate words.

    There is something that I don’t quite understand, though. Perhaps I am reading the concept backwards, and it doesn’t work that way. It seems to me that if one is then feeling misery, one is by definition sinning. I hope that’s not true, because there is an external situation in my life that causes me repeat, cyclical pain. Knowing that I have no hope of escaping this situation without worse consequences for those I love, it still manages to make me miserable, feeling trapped and desperate.

    I’ve been fighting that feeling, but I’m afraid that I may never be free of it, I may never feel safe again. I would dearly love to transform from misery to sorrow, but I have spent years wracking my soul for what I am doing wrong, how I am not applying the Atonement properly, or what sin I am carrying. Pleading with the Lord leaves me with no more answers. I truly have no idea what I am doing wrong.

    Perhaps I am only suffering, but it feels more self-oriented than that. So I suppose I’m not sure what the difference might be between suffering, sorrow and misery.

  8. Perhaps it’s because self-oriented isn’t the only or best way of conceiving of the difference between sorrow and misery. When I first read this post, I loved the chart and fully believed in the distinctions Jeff was making (the four quadrants). I’m still pondering whether self-centric/other-centric is the key difference between pure and impure experiences.

    I think it’s safe to say, even if self-centered or selfish is the key difference, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all thoughts about oneself are bad. I think Jeff is using self-centric more narrowly.

    For example, in college, when I prayed and pondered and thought very hard, for weeks on end, about what I wanted to do in my future, for my job, where I’d live, etc., I initially felt bad for having prayers that were so self-centered. I eventually gave myself a break because it occurred to me that there’s a difference between something having to do with oneself, and being self-centered.

    I know that’s very vague; I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate the difference between pure/impure ways of being. But I do know that (1) there is a difference, and (2) you probably don’t need to assume that your pain is caused by sinful attitudes or desires. It’s true that sometimes that kind of pain is, and that despair itself (I believe) is a sin (á la Marilla Cuthbert). But there are also other possible explanations.

  9. Perhaps, like nearly all of human experience, there is blend of good and bad contributors to your suffering. None of us is all good or all bad, and our suffering probably comes from a combination of the trials themselves and consequences of our own imperfection that can sometimes make things harder than they need to be.

    Many years ago I went through several years of helpless frustration. I did everything I knew how to do to extricate myself from it, but it seemed the more I struggled, the deeper I became. It was like quicksand. It was effecting every part of my life and snubbing out the joy I should have been feeling in all the other parts of my life. One night as I prayed in my closet (literally) pouring out, yet again, my agony and frustration, D&C 122:8 came powerfully to mind “The son of man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than He?”. Then the first few verses of section 121 and all the verses of 122 came to mind, and I pictured Joseph, (who of course was much more worthy of blessings than I’ll ever be, and was experiencing challenges that made my situation seem trivial), receiving that gentle rebuke, and I considered what the Lord must think of my complaints, and it settled me for a time. I knew my trials were nothing compared to what others had suffered, and were even now suffering. I knew the trials were to give me experience and would be for my good. Yep, there was my answer.

    I would love to tell you that fixed everything for me. But I didn’t have the maturity to hang on and trust the God of the universe to allow things to work out for my good. As I said, this went on for years, and after another year or so, I was sinking again, only faster. In my case, a series of small miracles, tender mercies, and a patient wife helped me change my heart.

    I had been active in church all my life, had served many leadership callings that gave me a sense of “doing everything right”, but I had missed the core of everything our patient father in heaven wants us to learn; He wants us to love and trust Him. That’s it, I think.

    There was one night, after an extended “discussion” with my wife, that something she said just clicked. A switch went off in my soul, and it was like someone pulled a plug and all my anxiety and frustration just drained out. That was a miracle. But it came after 7 years of suffering. The miracle is that nothing else had changed; the only difference was my attitude. My despair was gone, my fear, my anger, my helplessness, and all the associated suffering was washed away. And I could not take one bit of credit because it wasn’t anything I did to make it happen. It was a gift. Grace is the best word I can think to describe it.

    My life is much better now, years later. That specific challenge never went away, but other avenues opened up that I could work around it. Life is better. Our family has grown and they have families of their own and all are doing well. I could never have seen how that was going to work out back in those dark days years ago. And you know what is the most important thing that is different? I’ve learned, better, to trust the God of the universe. The one who created it all is still in charge of it all.

    When the Nephites living in the land of Nephi were conquered by the Lamanites after king Noah was killed and Limhi was their king, they were frustrated and went to war against the Lamanites, 3 times, until they had lost so many of their strong men that they were totally helpless. They finally stopped fighting against their circumstances and after years of living that way they were set free by Ammon who had come up from the land of Zarahemla and helped them escape. They could take no credit for their deliverance, they just had to wait for the Lord’s “due time”. Probably would have been set free the same way anyway, without all the lives lost, and perhaps sooner, and they could have “suffered” less if they hadn’t been so impatient. The Lord’s purposes were fulfilled and the people suffered both from the circumstances put upon them as well as what they brought upon themselves.

    In a parallel experience, over in the land of Helam, you have other Nephites, from the same families, also put into subjection under the Lamanites, and maybe even worse because you have Amulon who knew and hated Alma and his followers, putting added burdens on them just to be mean. But there is a sigificant difference in the experience of the two groups. The people in Helam prayed for deliverance, but accepted their situation. Then, after demonstrating their patience they were promised that they would be strengthened that they could carry their burdens with ease (I’m sure that’s a relative term, considering what they were being put through). They too were delivered in way they could not take any credit for themselves.

    The Lord said he will try his people. We’re going to have hard things in our lives, and some of us get some really awful things in our lives, and I believe it is all designed to change our hearts, to trust Him, to love Him and to stop focusing on what we have (or don’t have) and what’s happening to us (or not). He can’t do anything in our lives until we trust Him, and the more we trust Him the more He is able to do. The opposite of faith (trust) is fear. The opposite of love is selfishness.

    What does this have to do with your situation? Maybe nothing. I don’t know what is happening to you or where your heart is. I’ve shared some of my own experience on the chance that you might find something that applies to your own. There is some indication from your words that this miracle, of being able to trust that the Lord knows what He’s doing in your life, hasn’t happened yet. I’m confident that God knows what’s going on in your life; He didn’t suddenly discover your situation one day and exclaim “Wait a minute, when did this happen?!” There is purpose in your struggle, whatever it is. Your opportunity is to use it to your best advantage (perhaps to teach your children how to deal with difficulties, patience, faith, or a multitude of other possibilities).

    Oh and one more thing (I can hear you sighing..) I don’t think that feeling misery means you’re sinning. We may cause ourselves to miss some better things while we allow ourselves to grieve or we may commit sin because we give in to the natural progression that often follows misery, but I don’t think feeling it is a sin. Weakness is not sin. But that’s an entire topic of it’s own (that weakness is not sin) that would be fascinating to take up another time.

  10. Thank you, Nathan. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Brian, I hear that response most of the time when I talk about my feelings with people. In essence, that I need to trust God. And while that is true, I think it is not God that I distrust, it is myself. When you combine the doctrine of the predication of blessings with a strong feeling of personal failure, it is difficult to believe that you can ever be a person whom God will be able to bless.

    God has offered specific blessings, and it is easy to believe that if I don’t have them it is because I am not worthy. Getting back to the OP here, if one feels miserable, there is only one conclusion to draw.

    I suspect it is all too much of a mess for me to understand right now, and I’ve been trying for some time. The difference between joy and enjoyment seems clear to me. Because even in my darkest emotional times, I feel joy underneath it all. But the difference between sorrow and misery is far less clear.

  11. It seems to me that resentment is probably one of those emotions that, like despair, is closely tied to impure or unfaithful thoughts/attitudes. At times in my life when I’ve resented someone, I’ve realized later that I hadn’t been letting myself feel Christ-like charity, including submission to my circumstances.

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