The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
THE FALSE DOCTRINE OF UP
Chapters 30 through 32 of the book of Alma combine to form a fascinating exploration of the perils of thinking that happiness depends on feeling up or good about oneself. Approximately seventy-four years before Christ, the scripture says that “there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies . . . concerning the coming of Christ.” This man, Korihor, traveled from city to city attempting to, in his view, rescue the people from the oppression of their beliefs. “O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope,” he boomed, “why do ye yoke yourself with such foolish things?”
In essence, he admonished, “Don’t bind yourselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances laid down by ancient priests.” Instead, he preached, we should “lift up our heads” and “look up with boldness.” “And thus he did preach unto [the people],” we are told, “leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness.”
Notice all the “ups” and “downs” in those references. Korihor criticized the church on the basis that the practices and commandments of the church had the effect of making people feel bad. For one who believed that it is always bad to feel bad, this meant that the church was necessarily mistaken. His advice to those who were feeling burdened was to lighten their load by rejecting anything that felt like a burden. Free yourself! he urged them. You’re great! Being down is just a downer. Look up with boldness! In this view, happiness is achieved by escaping the oppressions that would cause one to feel bad about oneself and instead focusing on-even glorying in-one’s strengths.
What depressing business it is to have to look to another for the remission of your sins, he taught. He called it the effect of a “frenzied” and “deranged” mind. Don’t hang your head down, he told the people, don’t feel bad, and certainly don’t feel guilty. That is no way to happiness. His was a philosophy, “pleasing unto the carnal mind,” that is repeated in many books one would find on the self-help shelves of our modern bookstores. And the people of his day, as well as ours, bought it. Alma tells us that this philosophy led away “many women, and also men.”
And yet, the end of this man verifies the truth not of his words but of the divine paradox that counters them. For this great believer in the happiness of “up” was “trodden down,” we are told, “even until he was dead. And thus we see,” the scripture concludes, “that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.” The chief preacher of the doctrine of up was, by his efforts, dragged down to damnation.
It is a brutal irony that the people who killed Korihor were those who perhaps most followed his philosophy. Indeed, for the Zoramites, Korihor’s approach was not just a philosophy but a religion. “They had a place built up in the center of their synagogue,” we are told by Alma in the very next chapter, “a place for standing, which was high above the head.” One by one these Zoramites ascended this stand or “Rameumptom” and repeated the same vainglorious prayer, a prayer in which they thanked God that they were better than other people. “Holy God,” they prayed, “we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children . . . and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.”
Clearly, these people felt very good about themselves. They were positive and confident. They believed that they were favored of God. They were “up.” And yet, in reading the story, the Lord makes it unmistakably clear that this way of feeling good about oneself is not at all a good thing, and that this way of feeling up is actually a spiritual downer.
Now, if we’re not careful, we can easily begin to look down at the Zoramites from our own Rameumptoms. I know that I, for one, have at times ascended my own personal towers. For example, looking back, I can see how I sometimes turned something my parents taught me into a kind of Zoramite creed. “You’re a Ferrell,” my father would say to me, when speaking about the way one should live. “That means something. It means you don’t do things like this and that, and that you do, do things like that and this.” He would look at me sternly and then ask, “Do you understand?” I would nod and then, as children sometimes do, find somewhere to go or something to do to escape from the teaching.
I think that I sometimes internalized a lesson from these experiences that my father wasn’t teaching. Instead of learning about better and worse ways to behave, in some ways I learned, instead, to think that it was better to be a Ferrell than it was to be a Schmidt or a Dixon or a Cabrera. (I’m trying here not to name any people that I actually knew!) I had built a little Rameumptom of my own.
As I’ve grown older, I like to think that that bit of up-ness has fallen away, but what if I find that I am struggling with someone in my personal life and am upset that he or she is always so unreasonable! And what if I find myself complaining to and about them and praying to God that they will change (because, obviously, I’m not the one who needs to)? At that rate, it won’t take long to build the tower anew.
The Rameumptom approach to happiness is so antithetical to the truth that the scriptures tell us not only that Alma was “astonished” by it when he witnessed it in the Zoramites, but that he was astonished “beyond all measure.” “Behold, O God,” Alma cried in anguished faith, “they cry unto thee, and yet their hearts are swallowed up in their pride. Behold, O God, they cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness.” Up is not up, Alma is teaching us through his reaction and prayer. Happiness cannot be found by learning to glory in oneself. “Whosoever shall seek to save his life” in such a way, the Savior taught, “shall lose it.” So it turns out that Korihor’s up doctrine is ultimately a downer. Happiness comes in a different way altogether.
Which begs the question: How? What if I’m feeling stuck in a really bad situation? What if I’m feeling worthless or overlooked or condemned? In these and other cases in which I might be feeling down, I might relate to another group of Zoramites-those who were themselves overlooked and made to feel worthless. It is to this humiliated group that Alma reveals the truth that completes the divine paradox.
Check back next week for the next installment in this series taken from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness.