Individual change is more important than trying to change society

I would like people interested in this post to watch the first half of the video above. To summarize: a climate activist asks Jordan Peterson what can be done to change society, and Jordan Peterson says people should concentrate on changing themselves first. The climate activist is very unhappy with the answer.

Setting aside the triumphalist nature of the above interchange, I believe there is a very important Gospel-related message for the Church of Jesus Christ audience: what is more important, trying to change society of trying to change yourself? The answer is clearly the latter, ie, trying to change yourself should take precedence. All you have to do is listen to one session of General Conference — or read a few chapters of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament or read the Book of Mormon — to see that the Church of Jesus Christ concentrates on self-improvement over societal improvement.

And the reason is that true followers of Christ believe that self-improvement will naturally lead to societal improvement.

Now this does not mean you should not be involved in societal improvement. Far from it. The Church encourages its members to be involved in politics and in their communities. But the emphasis is clearly and emphatically on self improvement first.

Readers will be familiar with the Book of Mormon pride cycle. To summarize, society is doing well, people get filled with pride, things go down hill, people suffer, people are humbled, they turn to God in sincere prayer, and things get better. And then people get filled with pride again, and so on.

How does society get better? When individual people humble themselves and turn to God to overcome individual sins (such as pride).

What do the scriptures say? Jesus’ teachings concentrated almost entirely on individual improvement, not societal social justice. He called on his followers to improve themselves, and when Jesus was asked to take political stands, such as answering whether people should pay taxes, he said, “”Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). Jesus’s message: God cares about individual improvements and individuals turning to God more than he cares about secular government.

Why do prophets and the scriptures concentrate on individual improvement? Because this is something we can control. I am not saying it is easy (far from it), but an individual has much more power to change himself or herself than to change society. On a local level, you may be able to organize hundreds of people to oppose that new development, and therefore change the society around you, but most people seem to care about big, national and international issues that they cannot control instead of the local issues they can effect.

The classic case of worrying about something that is beyond your control is of course the climate change movement. There is nothing we human beings can do to change the climate in the short term, and in the long term the amount of collective action needed to make any significant change is massive. The IPCC reports indicate clearly that collective action could only change the climate by a few tenths of a degree C over decades, and even then we see significant problems with all of the IPCC projections. There are serious reasons to believe that even collective action cannot change the climate. Yet we see people like the woman in the above video and people like Greta Thunberg spending a huge amount of energy on a issue they cannot control or change.

Satan loves it when people concentrate on things they cannot change, rather than the things they can change. Satan does not want us to improve ourselves. He wants us to spend our energies on causes that are the least important things so we will not have time for the most important things. Elder Oaks discusses this in his classic talk, “Good, Better, Best.”

Modern-prophets constantly ask us to improve ourselves through individual action: observe the Sabbath, go to the temple, spend more time with our families, study the scriptures, do ministering visits, teach Come Follow Me with your families. Notice that prophets concentrate on things that members of the Church are able to do — they don’t give us impossible to reach goals.

So, to summarize, there is nothing wrong with being concerned about international trends and national politics. I certainly am concerned about these things. But where are our hearts? Do we spend most of our time and energy on things we cannot control or on things we can control? That is the key question.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

9 thoughts on “Individual change is more important than trying to change society

  1. great thoughts. I am a little disappointed that the video leaves out the fantastic rebuke by Peterson when the audience member initially tried asking her questions

  2. Recently, as the result of the near fatal illness of his wife, Peterson was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that had a severe effect. Recognizing the problem, he began rehab and eventually went to Russia where he was finally successfully treated. Many who take exception to his prescription for individual responsibility, and some who had set him up on a pedestal that admitted no personal failings, regarded this as proof that his message was flawed and should be ignored. Although I have tried to live the Gospel all of my conscious life, there were areas that seemed beyond my grasp. Several tools I gained from reading Peterson’s writing, watching his video taped psychology lectures and utilizing his personality assessment program profoundly affected my life. By addressing my immediate surroundings, ‘cleaning my room’ before taking on the troubles of my extended family, let alone the world, I found myself able to expand my sphere of meaningful action, and being far better at striving to be like Christ. Thank you for this thoughtful examination.

  3. I’ve seen this before, and agree with Peterson. One of the problems with societal solutions is they require force. One person or group with power seek to establish their solution/will by imposing it upon everyone else.
    These same climate change organizers fly private jets to their gatherings, live in large homes, and claim they are okay because they buy carbon credits. What they are doing is imposing their will on others, while justifying their own poor behavior. Imagine how many more people Al Gore could get on his side if he changed himself and his lifestyle!

    In the early 1970s, we discovered our rivers were catching on fire. We changed our personal behavior and cleaned up America. Yes, getting society involved helped work, but it was first and foremost a change in personal behavior. With climate change, it has all been about society making forced change. Today, I see many young people who are not focused on taking care of the environment, because they believe government will fix it. That just isn’t true. We’ve trained our kids to believe that government is the solution to education costs, environment, and a whole list of other things. In reality, it often is government that destroys things as it reflects society as a whole!

  4. This is not a new phenomenon — read “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens to learn all about telescopic philanthropy. There have always been those willing to focus on issues half a world away (because it makes them feel virtuous) and ignore their own behavior and the crying needs of those immediately around them.

    If your telescopic philanthropy — your efforts to make the world a better place — end up making you wretched and causing the people around you to suffer that should be among the fruits to know the wisdom of your choice. So, instead, turn yourself to God. Take care of your family. Reduce the suffering in your community by some small degree. And if you haven’t done that, then forgive me if I am not anxious to hear your opinion on how the world should be run.

  5. A thought I had regarding this and the current Corona Virus/Covid 19 threat:

    China, as a society/government, is welding people inside their homes to force quarantine compliance.

    Meanwhile, here in Indiana, we had a teacher return from a trip to Italy. She self reported and self quarantined. Another person just found here with Covid 19 self reported.

    Personal responsibility is much more important than trying to forcibly change things through government.

  6. I agree with Gerald Smith, above, as well as Dennis Prager, et al:

    Big government = small citizens.

    I believe there is an inverse correlation in the two.

  7. I never considered becoming an environmentalist until Living in SLC five years ago, and I’ve been a Republican 4 20 years. The pollution downtown, then seeing the factories literally up against the mountains, and then reading local news articles blaming individual homeowners for burning wood in their fireplaces… I couldn’t see across the street, because of literally smog, drove up to park city and could breathe again (asthmatic and hadn’t needed an inhaler in years, I now am more diligent even though it’s exercise induced and rare that essential oils don’t open my lungs up alone). I wanted to picket those factories in downtown salt lake and bountiful… I got it, for a minute, then I move to a bigger city, with exponentially more cars… and never seen pollution that bad since (OC, near the ocean…). Unless I’m inland towards Riverside, I just don’t see the polluted air, or unless a fire is nearby, I can breathe fine… I’m with Romney, We can’t ignore pollution, it is real, yet… it’s all going to burn at Jesus’s second coming, so I individually do my recycling and avoid living in polluted cities… yep. Others can’t leave their relatives in such and such city (like SLC, trust me I met so many people who hated SLC but couldn’t leave, “family”, me- “your in a singles ward, just move, I moved all over the US for the heck of it bc I’m single). But seriously, why have HUGE factories right up against those mountains? Move ‘em. We have local government and logic for a reason. 😀

  8. I wish it were as simple as Prager makes it seem. (I think his arguments present a false dichotomy rooted in several logical fallacies, that unfortunately could be used to justify the moral oppression of the seemingly wicked at the hands of the meritocratic. But that’s besides the point.) What happens when ones self-improvement is inhibited by the morals and values of another, as is often the case in religious settings where strict obedience and conformity are given precedence over individual process and divine nature?

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