I did not have a positive reaction to Elder Rasband’s talk in the most recent General Conference, and I wasn’t happy when our Elder’s Quorum teacher announced we would be basing our lesson on it last week, either. But I decided to try re-reading the talk with an open mind, and I’m glad I did.
The main reason the talk, By Divine Design, rubbed me the wrong way when I first heard it, is that I associate people who see God’s hand in numerous, small, every-day coincidences with the same class of superstitious belief that finds meaning horoscopes. This is, more than anything else, a cultural prejudice.
The secondary reason is that I find the idea of a micro-managing God theologically vexing. Let’s start with the simplest question: how do the mechanics of divine intervention work out? When you pray to get the job you’re interviewing for, what exactly are you hoping that God will do for you? Send the hiring manager a vision, or contact HR directly on your behalf? And what happens when you’ve got multiple people praying for the same thing. Does the greatest faith win?
But the most noxious question is this: if we have to give credit to God for the good coincidences, then why aren’t we giving Him credit for the bad ones? Sometimes a one-in-a-million convolution of circumstance saves a life. Sometimes it takes a life. If we’re giving God credit for the former but not the latter, on what basis?
What I’d like to draw your attention to here is that all of my complaints have been laid on the table before referring to the text of the talk a single time. That’s pretty much how my reaction went to the talk when I heard it live as well. There were certain phrases that pushed my buttons, and that was basically all I heard. From there, my negative reaction was entirely pro-forma. All the arguments were pre-loaded, and they took flight entirely on autopilot.
Just as an example of the kind of phrase in this talk that set my teeth on edge, consider:
Our lives are like a chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another… Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.
The idea that I’m a pawn in a godly game is great for humorous fantasy, but not actually the way I want to live my life. Or compatible with Mormonism’s pretty staunch emphasis on free will. And if we only see God’s hand when “looking back”, then it’s the worst kind of post hoc rationalization, which is a pretty flimsy substitute for faith.
Now, here’s the thing. The paragraph I just cited has an interesting clause that I omitted. I must have heard it when I listened to the talk the first time, but it got lost between the chess board and the “looking back”. Let me give you the paragraph again, but this time the entire thing.
Our lives are like a chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another—if we are responsive to spiritual promptings. Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.
Instead of moving us around like so many pawns, the idea that we participate in God’s plans contingent on our receptivity to direction changes the game. For one thing, it goes a long way towards answering the mechanics question. When God intervenes, he will usually do so through willing human agents. There are exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases, God’s microplans unfurl through everyday inspiration. (It also short-circuits the contention about good vs. bad coincidences, since if God’s primary method of intervention is through inspiration, it would logically lead exclusively to benevolent outcomes.)
Once you start thinking about it this way, the entire nature of a divine design changes as well. Instead of a script written before the curtain rises and imposed on the actors regardless of their own decisions, a divine design that incorporates willing participants is an interactive divine design. It does not override our will; it incorporates our will. This is not a tyrannical decree; it’s a masterful improvisation. This is not to say that God is making things up as He goes along, simply that the give-and-take of improvisation more closely matches the spirit of an interactive divine design.
There are still parts of the talk that I find challenging, especially the emphasis on micromanagement and foreknowledge. For example:
Through the experience of my own life’s journey, I know that the Lord will move us on that seeming chessboard to do His work. What may appear to be a random chance is, in fact, overseen by a loving Father in Heaven, who can number the hairs of every head. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s notice. The Lord is in the small details of our lives, and those incidents and opportunities are to prepare us to lift our families and others as we build the kingdom of God on earth. Remember, as the Lord said to Abraham, “I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.”
Addressing those topics is outside the scope of this blog post, but now that I’ve come back to this talk I have productive thoughts about these challenges to my own views rather than an unproductive mental gag reflex.
I know the talk still irritates some of my friends, especially the showcase example that Elder Rasband picked, which was when his granddaughter ran into his grandson (her brother) while she was on a tour and he was serving a mission. To read the Lord’s will into this can rub salt in the sounds of those who have had tragically inverse coincidences in their own lives. I respect that. And it does some like a kind of trivial thing for God to be concerned with.
Then again, this is the same God who keeps track of individual sparrows. Besides which, there may easily be quite a lot of private backstory to this incident that would explain to us–if we had the details–why this apparently trivial incident really had a much more import than we recognize.
I do have more thoughts about Mormonism and divine providence. Maybe I can write about those sometime. But for now, I’d just like to express the most important thing about this change of heart for me. When I was able to return to this talk with an open mind and an open heart, I learned a lot that I had otherwise shut myself off from. Here’s how Elder Rasband concludes his talk:
When we are righteous, willing, and able, when we are striving to be worthy and qualified, we progress to places we never imagined and become part of Heavenly Father’s “divine design.” Each of us has divinity within us. When we see God working through us and with us, may we be encouraged, even grateful for that guidance. When our Father in Heaven said, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” He was talking about all of His children—you in particular.
The Lord’s hand is guiding you. By “divine design,” He is in the small details of your life as well as the major milestones. As it says in Proverbs, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; … and he shall direct thy paths.” I testify that He will bless you, sustain you, and bring you peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I’m not fully convinced of Elder Rasband’s vision for a micromanaging God. It seems to me to be one of those issues where you can find differing perspectives within General Conference talks. But I definitely see a path forward in potentially being able to reconcile his vision with my own understanding. And, more importantly, I can more fully appreciate how his vision reaffirms core teachings of Mormonism, such as our divine natures and our particular worth to Heavenly Parents.
Prophets are not perfect, and General Conference talks are not infallible. But the role of a prophet is to challenge us, and–in my experience–it always pays to go back and re-engage with their words. Even–maybe especially–when you don’t like what you’re hearing.