I often view the Gospel in part as a set of well-designed cultural rules. Generally, cultural rules can include:
- Religious beliefs, such as a belief in a higher power(s) (i.e. the Godhead),
- Rules about how to interact with people in society (i.e. love one another),
- Rules about the types of families we create (i.e. marriage),
- Rules that guide our interactions with our families (i.e. love and nurture family members),
- Rules that define the types of clothes we wear (i.e. modest clothing; temple related clothing),
- Rules that define the type of food we eat (i.e. no coffee or tea),
- Rules that define the music we create and listen to (i.e. uplifting music, not vulgar),
- And rules that define the types of recreational activities we pursue (i.e. uplifting activities, not vulgar, no drugs or alcohol).
I believe that if we follow the guidance of Gospel cultural rules carefully, we can create a joyful, peaceful, and prosperous society, as in 4 Nephi 1, after Jesus visited the Americas:
15 And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
16 And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
17 There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
In contrast, if we do not follow these rules, then as the scriptures suggest, war, pain, and sorrow follow.
Unfortunately, Gospel culture is not the only cultural rules that exist in society. Instead, there are many different types of secular cultural rules that compete with Gospel culture. Some secular cultural rules very clearly contradict the teachings of the Gospel. For example, some culturally acceptable clothing styles in America often tend to be immodest. Furthermore, in American culture, it is not only acceptable to drink coffee, tea, or alcohol, it is encouraged.
It is easy to recognize and reject secular cultural rules that clearly contradict Gospel cultural rules. It becomes harder, however, when we encounter Satan’s counterfeits or cultural rules that mimic Gospel rules but are very much different than Gospel rules. As Elder Larry R. Lawrence of the Seventy pointed out in his article in the April 2017 Ensign:
“Remember, counterfeits are not the same as opposites. The opposite of white is black, but a counterfeit for white might be off-white or gray. Counterfeits bear a resemblance to the real thing in order to deceive unsuspecting people. They are a twisted version of something good, and just like counterfeit money, they are worthless.”
Elder Lawrence’s article really resonated with me. I have been thinking a lot about counterfeits cultural rules that exist today. One I have thought of deals with the Gospel based beliefs about self-reliance and the secular beliefs about self-reliance. Self-reliance, according to Gospel standards, is about (1) being spiritually and temporally secure, and (2) using our excess to help others who may be struggling. If you ever read the “Personal Finances” manual for the church’s self-reliance course, there is an image that tells you what you should do with your paycheck. The very first step is paying tithing and offerings. This is money that goes to help others with spiritual and temporal needs. Steps 2-4 deal with personal self-reliance. And then Step 5 goes back to helping others with your money if you have any left over.
It often feels like when we talk about self-reliance in a secular sense, we focus mostly on taking care of ourselves and leave out the parts about helping others. For example, when we encounter others that are poor and struggling, it is often culturally acceptable to assume that they put themselves in their own circumstances, and that we do not need to help them because if they just made better choices, things would work out for them. This is not a modern secular cultural practice/belief; King Benjamin also discussed how this practice of judging the poor was prevalent amongst his people as well.
While this cultural standard mimics the Gospel standard of self-reliance, it ignores the part where we are told to use our excess to help others. As Elder Holland so eloquently stated in the October 2014 General Conference:
“For one thing, we can, as King Benjamin taught, cease withholding our means because we see the poor as having brought their misery upon themselves. Perhaps some have created their own difficulties, but don’t the rest of us do exactly the same thing? … Don’t we all beg for forgiveness for mistakes we have made and troubles we have caused? … Little wonder that King Benjamin says we obtain a remission of our sins by pleading to God, who compassionately responds, but we retain a remission of our sins by compassionately responding to the poor who plead to us.”
At the end of Elder Holland’s talk, he did not advocate for members to give up all their means to the poor. He simply reminded us what the true meaning of self-reliance was. While we should try to be self-reliant, we should also seek out opportunities to help those who are struggling. This could be through financial means or giving our time to help others with their financial choices (such as giving advice or even babysitting so someone can go to a job interview.)
In sum, it is important for us to think about the cultural rules we live by. Often, we adopt cultural rules without thinking about it. We simply adopt them as part of living in a society. It is a “natural man” tendency. However, if we are aware that we have a natural tendency to simply adopt cultural rules in our daily routines without giving it much thought, then we can counteract that process. We can think about our values, and our actions. We can think deeply about whether our cultural norms and practices are based on Gospel culture or based on secular cultural rules. And because of our agency, we have the power to change our values and actions if they are not in accordance with Gospel standards. We get to choose the culture we want to be a part of.