The Yellow Brick Road Syndrome

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I believe that, usually without realizing it, we sometimes adopt the philosophy of hedonism, which is the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of individual desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. There are many variants and nuances to the idea, but it usually comes down to an elevation of pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction as inherent goods, and the dismissal of discomfort, pain, or disappointment as inherent evils. I believe that many of us may inadvertently take this position in the way we talk about God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the purposes of religion. Does Christ really offer us a life free of sorrow, suffering, and pain? Few of us would explicitly answer yes” to this question, but many of us, I think, implicitly answer “yes” in the way we talk about suffering, happiness, and the blessings of Gospel living.

Example #1

Many theologians have successfully reconciled the existence of a benevolent God with the reality of moral evil. The common solution is that God is not the source of moral evil—mankind uses moral agency to rebel against God. God does not prevent moral evil because because He does not what to deprive us of moral responsibility, but in His infinite benevolence He has provided us with a Redeemer to rescue us from our rebellions and restore us to purity and righteousness.

This explanation of moral evil doesn’t apply, however, to what philosophers call “natural evil.” Examples of natural evil include “cancer, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes,” and other tragc circumstances that have “no human perpetrator to blame for it.” ((“Natural Evil,” Wikipedia)) Theologians have a really difficult time reconciling the existence of natural evil with the existence of a benevolent God, because it seems inconsistent for a good God to let people suffer illness, bereavement, and tragedy for which only God can be blamed. Intervening in natural disasters, physical illness, and suffering due to natural causes wouldn’t violate mankind’s moral agency.

For this reason, theologians spend a lot of time trying to rationalize the existence of natural human suffering that can’t be linked directly to moral rebellion. The idea that the existence of suffering, pain, and bereavement is itself potentially inconsistent with a benevolent God implies that these experiences conflict with basic goodness in some way. In fact, the term “natural evil” itself implies that this kind of suffering is inherently bad, and is an evil in and of itself.

Example #2

A related example includes most common understandings of Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden of Eden. Many Christians, including some Latter-day Saints, assume that “natural evil” (and all the pain and suffering it entails) resulted from the Fall of Adam and Eve, and that their subsequent mortality (again, with all the ordinary pains of mortality) is the product of a sin of some kind. In other words, we assume that if it weren’t for sin, there would be no sorrow, sadness, disappointment, bereavement, pain, or suffering.

I can see where this assumption came from. After Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, God cursed Adam, saying, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” ((Genesis 3:17-19)) God cursed Eve, saying, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” ((Genesis 3:16)) One possible implication here is that at least some sorrow and hardship in the world could have been avoided had Adam and Eve entered into mortality without violating God’s commandment. By linking all pain, sorrow, and suffering to sin, we again imply that sorrow are ultimately and always a ultimately and always a byproduct of sin, and as such are inherently bad (or at least inherently unnecessary, to the extent that sin is unnecessary).

Example #3

Another example includes the unfortunately common but misguided belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to take away pain in our lives. Many Latter-day Saints assume that living the gospel and turning to Christ will lead to a life of uninterrupted enjoyment and happiness. We often, and correctly, teach others happiness and peace is one of the fruits of Gospel living, but we sometimes go further and promise that all sorrow, suffering, and pain can be prevent or relieved through repentance and Gospel living. Carlfred Broderick, a therapist and a stake president, describes a perfect example of this:

While I was serving as a stake president, the event occurred that I want to use as the keynote to my remarks. I was sitting on the stand at a combined meeting of the stake Primary board and stake Young Women’s board where they were jointly inducting from the Primary into the Young Women’s organization the eleven-year-old girls who that year had made the big step. They had a lovely program. It was one of those fantastic, beautiful presentations—based on the Wizard of Oz, or a take-off on the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy, an eleven-year-old girl, was coming down the yellow brick road together with  the tin woodman, the cowardly lion, and the scarecrow. They were singing altered lyrics about the gospel. And Oz, which was one wall of the cultural hall, looked very much like the Los Angeles Temple. They really took off down that road. There were no weeds on that road; there were no munchkins; there were no misplaced tiles; there was no wicked witch of the west. That was one antiseptic yellow brick road, and it was very, very clear that once they got to Oz, they had it made. It was all sewed up.

Following that beautiful presentation with all the snappy tunes and skipping and so on, came a sister who I swear was sent over from Hollywood central casting. … She looked as if she had come right off the cover of a fashion magazine—every hair in place—with a photogenic returned missionary husband who looked like he came out of central casting and two or three, or heaven knows how many, photogenic children, all of whom came out of central casting or Kleenex ads or whatever. She enthused over her temple marriage and how wonderful life was with her charming husband and her perfect children and that the young women too could look like her and have a husband like him and children like them if they would stick to the yellow brick road and live in Oz. It was a lovely, sort of tearjerking, event. ((Carlfred Broderick, “The Uses of Adversity.”))

This implication here is that there is a formula, or a lifestyle, of Gospel living that will allow us to sidestep all of the sorrows, suffering, and pain that others experience in this life. We offer the Gospel to those who suffer with the expectation that their troubles will be over if they would just accept Christ and His church. We describe “happiness” as the ultimate blessing of living every commandment. That is what we are all searching and seeking for, and we assume that if we can just live the Gospel fully enough, we’ll find find that state of bliss that we’ve all been promised. Based on Broderick’s example, I call this the “Yellow Brick Road Syndrome.” I think that the Yellow Brick Road Syndrome borrows from the same basic philosophy as the firs two examples—the idea that pain and suffering are inherent evils, and are ultimately the consequence sin.

On Hedonism and the Gospel

In summary, hedonism is the philosophy that pain is an inherent evil to be avoided, and pleasure, satisfaction, comfort, and enjoyment are inherent treasures to be sought after. There are many nuances and subtle variants of this philosophy. It doesn’t always lead to gluttony, sexual perversion, or any of the other character flaws we normally associate with hedonism. I think that instead, it can simply manifest itself in a feeling that we are, by virtue of our goodness, entitled to a life free of adversity. It can simply manifest itself in an expectation of a life of ease, if we but live rightly. It can simply manifest itself in the way we associate all suffering and hardship to moral rebellion of some kind (either our own, or Adam and Eve’s).

The truth is, I don’t think Christ offers us a life free of pain, sorrow, and suffering. Yes, sin does lead to misery, and sin does increase and exacerbate suffering and pain. Sin has nasty consequences. However, life gets difficult and ugly at times whether we live the Gospel or not. The righteous suffer as well as the wicked, and not even always at the hands of the wicked. I think we sometimes misunderstand, in a fundamental way, the relationship between joy, sorrow, suffering, happiness, and Gospel living. In the next article of this series, I’m going to map out what I believe is the real relationship between sorrow and Gospel living, which I believe can be succinctly summarized by Broderick’s remarks, “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.” ((Ibid.))

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