With Latter-day Responsibility coming out soon (see LatterDayResponsibility.com), I posed a few questions on this topic and have permission to share his responses.
The topic of personal responsibility is important to me and in my opinion is one of many significant aspects of LDS theology that can help people find much more meaning and happiness in life, particularly when infused with a sound knowledge of what the Atonement of Christ does. On the other hand, I've been disappointed to see the words "personal responsibility" used too harshly in dealing with people in great need. Yes, we must help people develop responsibility, must not create dependency, and must recognize that many times simply giving money is not the answer. However, in expecting responsibility from others, we cannot abandon our own personal responsibility to minister, to love, and to share, even with the beggar whose own irresponsibility may be (or may not be) the cause of his poverty. That sharing, of course, is most effective when it is done the Lord's way which, as I understand it is, is based on voluntary giving and service and not, as too often happens, through the compulsion of bureaucrats using concern for poverty as a pretext for seizing and controlling great wealth. Of course, there are no easy answers to how to best help the needy, which is why I think it is right for welfare issues in the Lord's kingdom to be handled individually, case-by-case, with leaders seeking revelation through the Spirit of the Lord to know how best to help feed His sheep.
Before sharing the Q&A, here is a snippet from the book:
Just as was the case during the war in heaven, it is imperative that we fight here on earth to defend our agency against any who might wish to inhibit it or take it away. As President Hinckley taught, today’s continuation of that protracted war is “between truth and error, between agency and compulsion,” and requires “that we close ranks, that we march together as one.” It is arguably more important, however, that rather than simply defending agency, we promote its wise use. This entails, among other things, making good decisions, obeying God’s commandments, and using our agency in a righteous and responsible manner. By acknowledging, accepting, and acting upon our personal responsibilities, and by encouraging others to do the same, we switch from playing defense to playing offense in the battle to preserve agency. We put Satan and his legions on the ropes, and we increase tactical advantages. We win battles and gain ground, rather than defensively trying to limit our casualties.
Responsibility is one of the three Rs of agency, the other two being right and results. The right to choose is paramount and precedes the others, since having the unfettered ability to weigh and choose between different options is what allows agency to even be possible. This right comes directly from God, who made his children “agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56) who are “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27) their course. The responsibility of choice requires taking accountability for one’s decisions, suffering whatever the consequences of those choices are, whether for good or for bad. This leads to the result of choice, where the consequences of one’s decision are brought to pass, whether immediately or in the future. The rights, responsibility, and results implicit in our agency are either a burden or a blessing, depending on how they are used. When we choose to fulfill our personal responsibilities—when we pay the price for the results we seek after—then we increase our ability to be free and independent. By choosing to abandon those responsibilities, the result will be much like what is occurring in the world around us: staggering debt, dependence upon the state, weak and broken families, and a general deviation from God’s commandments.
By being responsible, we become wise stewards of the many things God has placed under our care. As wise stewards, we protect our agency and promote righteousness. In becoming righteous, we ensure that our individual liberty has a strong and sure foundation upon which to resist the encroachments of the state. It is a virtuous cycle. In short, only by “supporting and defending the principles of truth, right, and freedom” can we truly preserve liberty. The cycle begins by choosing to be responsible.
This is such an important question to ponder and address. Latter-day Saints have a complex history of attempting to balance a life of self-reliance and yet service to (or rendered by) others. Many seek after independence, when the true ideal is interdependence. Our responsibility is not just to ourselves and those within our stewardship, but to those around us as well—to all of God's children. I love this statement by Joseph Smith: “A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."In the quest to be independent and self-reliant, I've observed many of Christ's disciples turn a cold shoulder to somebody in need, claiming that they didn't want to foster dependence in that person. I've even heard the "if you give a man to fish, you'll feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you'll feed him for a lifetime" phrase used to justify denying a proverbial fish to somebody in need. And yet in that case, no fishing instruction was given.I think sometimes we believe that those in need have to work harder and be more responsible, and if they applied themselves just a little more, they would not be asking for assistance. But going back to the previous question, regarding work/responsibility and grace, I think it's important that we remember one of the ways we see grace manifested in our lives, namely, through the work and fulfilled responsibilities of other people. God's hand is seen most easily through the hands of his servants.The general mandate to be responsible and self-reliant was not intended by God to be absolute, as if all of his children must independently provide for themselves and forge their own path. This mandate is, I think, contextualized by countless commandments to freely impart of our substance and succor the weak.We should recognize that God's desire for us to increase our personal responsibility is so that we can increase our agency. By dedicating our time, talents, and resources to building the kingdom of God (by building up others in need, both spiritually and temporally), we increase our power. In effect, as instruments in God's hands, we become more precise and effective the more we are used. Seen in this light, our responsibilities are not checklist mandates that carry condemnation for non-compliance, but opportunities to become like God.
This book aims to be a practical one—discussing the importance of these responsibilities, their application to our everyday lives, and specific things we can do to better fulfill them. While I don't refer much to repentance per se, I do heavily discuss the relationship between liberty, agency and responsibility. They are inter-related and co-dependent; we cannot defend and promote our liberty or agency without also fulfilling our responsibilities. I believe that each of these influences the other—as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.How can we help those trapped in sin? Are we all not in this situation? Remember that sin comes in two types, commission and omission. Most of us are familiar with, and primarily focus on, the sins of comission—adultery, theft, jealousy, violence, etc. These are easily identifiable, and therefore receive most of our attention when referring to sin. But personal responsibility deals in many ways with sins of omission, since we so very often fail to do things that we ought. We should have faith, be morally clean in action and thought, do our civic duty, serve those in need, get out of debt, be a more caring spouse or parent, and on and on and on. Falling short of these high standards is itself a sin, but a less recognizable one since it mainly involves a lack of action, and not an observable and identifiable action.We're all very familiar with the repentance required for sins of commission. In short, it involves simply ceasing to do the sinful action. But how do we encourage repentance for people trapped in sins of omission? "Many of us... have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission," said Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions."My goal in writing Latter-day Responsibility is to generate more conversation about this fundamental concept. To have liberty, or to be a better steward, or simply to obey God, we must rise to a higher level of action. Lehi's counsel is a clarion call to be a responsible people: "Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust."Personal responsibility is a fundamental (and largely unrecognized) pillar of our society. That pillar has progressively become weakened through increased dependence upon government, indifference towards those in need, and myriad distractions leading people to abandon their responsibilities and avoid accountability for their actions. This alarming and long-standing trend must be called out and confronted by Latter-day Saints willing to be a light to the world, showing what personal responsibility really looks like in practice. And so as I look around at my fellow Saints, and inwardly at myself, I think… we've got some work to do.
I don't really explore this angle in my book, as I contrast responsibility against individual liberty rather than grace. But it's an important question since responsibility is part of the "work" Christians are required to do, and therefore part of the larger work/grace debate that may never reach any satisfying conclusion for the general Christian community until His second coming.To answer the first question directly, no, I don't believe that the Latter-day Saint view of personal responsibility trumps grace. "After all we can do," said the prophet Nephi, "it is by grace that we are saved." Nothing should (or can) trump the enabling and healing power of Christ's atonement for mankind.When serving a mission in Honduras, I would often use the example of a drowning person being swept away in a fast-paced river. Imagine a friend on the shoreline extending a branch to save this person. All the drowning person has to do is accept and utilize the assistance being offered. Such a small amount of work is required to take advantage of a life-saving opportunity.It's our responsibility to extend such branches to those in need—to be the instruments in God's hands. But it's also our responsibility to be smart about not jumping in the river to begin with, or at least being mindful of the current and taking necessary precautions. And yet the miracle of Christ's atonement is that no matter how irresponsible we may have been, He can make up the difference.
Congratulations to Connor on the new book. May he keep writing, thinking, and sharing in this critical era when far too little real thinking takes place. He's a good example of someone who has demonstrated a great deal of personal responsibility in his efforts to make the world a better place.