The Yellow Brick Road Syndrome

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 enjoyment 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’m not entirely sure I know the answer to that question. However, that hasn’t stopped me from taking a stab at at least one possibility. When we Enoch’s account about God weeping, 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. When Christ takes our inward-looking, self-centered lifestyle and mindset and morphs it into an outward-looking, other-centered lifestyle and mindset, the qualitative experience of pain changes dramatically. I’m now going to make a bold claim: I believe that both 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 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. … Behold, 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

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 top row.

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, and I actually believe that the happiness that we seek is better described by the word peace. Wether 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, and it can be experienced through joy or sorrow.

12 thoughts on “The Yellow Brick Road Syndrome

  1. Wow, great stuff once again. I would add that as you draw closer to Christ and become more selfless and humble experiences that used to be painful may be seen in a different light and may not be painful at all.

  2. I will agree, although I wish to emphasize that if we expect this to happen all the time, we are assuming that the Gospel takes away pain (which is the attitude that I’m trying to refute). I suspect that with most of our experience of pain, although we may experience it qualitatively differently, we would still call it pain. It may not be misery, because we will experience peace, but it will still be pain. For that reason, I can agree with your comment completely if your definition of “painful” matches the definition of “miserable” I use in the article. Yes, our experiences will no longer be miserable… but they will still be painful.

  3. Thank you for this post. It articulates something that I’ve been trying to put to words for a while now. Great stuff!

  4. Very good points.

    However, I feel that you can understand pain and happiness in the same positive way you describe here outside of Christianity as well. You can understand pain and sorrow to be just a part of human existence, you can understand pleasure as not the highest form of good, without the Gospel. I personally don’t live with an “avoid pain at all costs” mentality, even though I’m no longer a Christian. I completely understand and relate to what you’re saying here, even though I do not have faith in Christianity.

    Great post.

  5. @ ldsphilosopher – I think the pint is that the difference between misery and sorrow is that with sorrow, one still has hope, and the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” So I think the message is that, no, Jesus does not take away your pain, but will make your pain easier to bear.

  6. Macha, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your insights, and I agree: you can find a lot of this sentiment in non-Christian and Eastern religions as well. In fact, I imagine that even non-theistic worldviews can accommodate the distinction between misery and sorrow, and the fact that love qualitatively changes our experience of pain.

    As a Christian, I believe that it is Christ who changes our hearts and gives us love, whether we are Christian or not. I believe that Christ can work in our hearts and make us loving people, even if we aren’t Christian. But I fully accept the fact that others attribute that change to other reasons, and I love hearing other explanations for personal transformation. =)

  7. ldsphilospher – this is really great. Let me add a scripture to your comment #7 which sums up what you are saying about all men, not just Christians.
    Found in D&C 84:46-47

    And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.
    And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father.

    Emphasis on the spirit giving light to every man who comes into the world, and then how every man (woman) is enlightened by that same spirit as they go through the trials of this world — but if and only if they hearken to the voice of the that light which they have received. That doesn’t mean they only receive enlightenment from the spirit if they are baptized, but that if they hearken unto what light they have already received.

    Ultimately, everyone that follows the light can one day come unto God, but that is in his time, and not for us to judge.

    And Macha, your observations are good ones, and if I may say so, clearly born out of enlightenment from the spirit. I’ll add a scriptural reinforcement to what you said regarding Jesus not taking your pain, but making it easier to bear.

    Mosiah 24: 15
    And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.

    Their burdens were not taken away, but made light and they were strengthened. The one question I’d have for you is, with so much light coming from the Spirit of the Lord, please don’t be so quick to give up on faith in Christ. I think it’s clear he hasn’t given up on you.

  8. Chris, thanks for your comment! I love that scripture, and looking at it through the lens of this post, “making our burdens light” would mean turning our hearts and thoughts towards others. With this love comes strength and peace, and with peace, misery flees. So while in some cases our burdens may actually be lighter, in other cases our burdens may still be weighty, but our reasons for carrying them change, and for that reason they become endurable.

  9. If I expected the restored gospel to confer a lifetime of unending bliss, I would have left the Church long ago. A lifetime of chronic depression has forced me to lower my expectations to realistic levels, and I rejoice every time the Lord gives me strength to endure my burdens just a little while longer, and hope to look forward to a brighter future.

  10. Bless you, Charles. I will pray for you. I love constructive life changing posts like this one.

  11. ldsphilosopher,

    I enjoyed the post.

    You said: “What is the qualitative difference? I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to that question.”

    You go on to suggest the difference is “love.”

    I like this.

    One of the things that intrigues me about Mormon teachings is that sorrow is never eliminated. It seems to be a necessary part of joy. Even God continues to feel sorrow as attested by several scriptures. The goal is not to eliminate sorrow. Ever.

    This has given me some level of comfort in my own sorrows because it helps me understand why sorrow must exist. We simply can’t dispense with it. We can only learn to deal with it and — more importantly — triumph over it. God is the ultimate example of a being that continues to experience sorrow but has effectively triumphed over it entirely.

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