People are often surprised to find that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Say Saints. I explain here why I choose to believe in a God that I have never seen, and why I am a member of my faith.
High School Physics Class
My high school physics class was full of hypothetical questions. I remember one in particular about two drivers traveling at 50 mph. One collides head-on with a rock wall that doesn’t break or budge in any way and the other driver collides head-on with an identical car traveling at 50mph the opposite direction. Which driver is worse off? My natural reasoning was the head-on collision with the other car would be worse because of the combined forces, like hitting a rock wall at 100mph, but in fact, both scenarios result in more or less identical damage.
After my intuition failed me a few more times with similar physics questions, I created a nearly flawless strategy to approach these questions. Come to an intuitive conclusion about what would happen, then pick the exact opposite answer. It worked! My natural instinct was of little use for understanding the truth in physics. Instead, my intuition frequently identified the wrong answer for me.
I came to understand firsthand what Neil deGrasse Tyson has noted, “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Science is full of completely counterintuitive laws and principles. Nearly all of quantum mechanics seem implausible to our reality. Even the first brush of the simple idea that two objects of different mass will fall at the same rate seems nonsensical. Einstein’s brilliance, in part, was discovering the counterintuitive properties of space and time. In particular, the faster you move through space the slower you move through time, in other words, time slows down the faster you travel.
A few years ago when I was teaching undergraduates in Harvard’s economics program, they had a humorous theme highlighting the value of counterintuitive discoveries, and the lack of them in the social sciences–“Harvard Department of Economics–making commonsense complicated since 1897.” The greatest discoveries in science have been counterintuitive because they are the hardest causal laws to find as they seem improbable to our own reasoning.
Similar to my physics class, my church teaches counterintuitive solutions for life that initially seem illogical–but I have found them to be true. For many who are put off by organized religion, it is common to ask, “Why do I need to be part of a church?” For me, this would be like trying to learn physics without school. Perhaps I could gain a rudimentary knowledge of physics teaching myself through books or running experiments like Mythbusters; but I could learn so much more, so much faster, in a structured course studying under the tutelage of an expert. On my own, I’d get a lot wrong, if in fact I progressed at all. Chances are, I just wouldn’t do it.
As with physics, if I were left to my own reason and natural instincts with religion, I would not have implemented my faith’s counterintuitive solutions which have improved my life. Here are a few examples of counterintuitive principles I have learned from my faith:
Serving others, instead of yourself –– Unlike what you might learn from a Broadway musical, it’s a tough decision to go on a Mormon mission. I was not going to be foolish about what the experience would be like. I was certain it would be nothing like the, “Best two years” description frequently offered by returned missionaries. I was leaving the prime of my undergraduate education to go talk to strangers about God– “best two years” sounded like a bad MLM/pyramid scheme pitch.
Yet, I found my two years as a missionary to be the single most important learning experience of my life. I attended Harvard, worked at Stanford’s Endowment, rubbed shoulders with world-renowned investors, professors (some Nobel Prize winners), and business people. I have started a business, raised 5 kids, and there is no experience of my life more important to my education as a human than my two years on a mission. I had no say to where I would go—Mormon missions don’t work that way, you go where they tell you to go. I was asked to serve in the Detroit Michigan Mission and while there I learned the truth behind the counter-intuitive promise–I gave up my own life and time to serve others and in doing so, found myself (Luke 9:24). A story from my final Christmas in Detroit will give you a sense of my experience as a missionary.
For several months, my companion and I had been working with Denise, a newly single mother of three that could not catch a break. We spent every week meeting and helping Denise with her tough list of problems which grew by the day. While working 2 jobs, Denise’s husband (a crack cocaine addict) abandoned the family. Denise had one son in prison. The back window of her car was shot out in a drive-by because Denise’s other son had tricked someone into buying soap shavings they thought was crack. That same son was arrested for robbing the corner liquor store, she had to pay for an additional landline phone so he could be put on house arrest. What’s more, most of this happened in the short time of a few months of knowing her. To make matters worse, Denise had lost her job because she was having problems with her transmission and could not get to work.
My missionary companion at the time happened to be an auto mechanic before his mission. We found ourselves, on Christmas day, outside in Detroit’s freezing cold windy and snowy weather fixing Denise’s transmission. We spent 10 hours in her driveway working on her car freezing our fingers off as we handled the frozen metal wrenches and screws—running inside frequently to get the feeling back in our fingers. I spent that Christmas evening, back at our apartment, opening a small gift box my mom had sent me, talking to my family briefly on the phone, and eating a small meal my companion and I cooked for ourselves. By all accounts, this would seem like a lousy Christmas. But the grateful tears on Denise’s face, when we turned over the engine with a working transmission at the end of the day filled our souls and made it one of the best Christmases I have ever had.
Family is more important than career—Making your mark and having an impact on humanity is a critical goal for many. Society promotes the greatest impact on humanity will be through your vocation and success can be measured by digits in a bank account, influence, or the job function. My church teaches a counter-intuitive point about life, joy, and impact, “The most important work that you will ever do will be the work you do within the walls of your own home” (President Harold B. Lee). Having been taught this principle, my wife and I put this principle to the test when we were young. I was just starting my career and had multiple demands at work. We were renting our home and I quickly realized that there would likely never be the “perfect” time to have kids, we were always going to need more money and more time. As a result, we decided to make the jump with faith.
Since then I have enjoyed some moderate vocational and academic success and impact. There is no vocational award that comes close to the utility that I get from working with my family. I have five kids, and my involvement in their lives has come to define who I am and what brings me the most joy. The relationships I have worked to create in this life are my greatest treasures and achievements.
Forgiveness — A few years ago, in the process of attempting to provide unsolicited help to a sibling, I instead offended them. Naturally, I was offended that they were offended. After all, I was only trying to help. In fact, I felt I should be given an apology. Convinced, of the rightness of my own position, I didn’t communicate with this sibling for years. Thankfully, my wife reminded me of a counterintuitive principle from my faith–forgiveness. Instead of following with the “eye for an eye” reasoning of justice, Jesus Christ had a revolutionary idea–love your enemies (see Matthew 5:44), forgive others (see Matthew 18:21-22), and mend fences in troubled relationships (see Matt 5:22-24). “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:10). After spending a few days thinking I realized my wife was right– needed to forgive and ask for forgiveness. I drafted and sent over a full apology. The response was amazing. I had no idea how my stubbornness was impacting me. It was an unexpected experience of joy and it came by going against my natural instinct.
Abstinence and Monogamy — Evolutionary intuition developed over millions of years pushes hard against the principle of chastity–but it is a true principle for happiness. Chastity is not intuitive to human evolutionary coding. The academic in me wants a perfect counterfactual to test the principle of chastity–but I don’t have one. I know this principle is true from the experience of my life. My marriage and relationship with my wife is better as a result of abstinence before marriage and exclusively sharing the most intimate experience of life with the most important person on earth to me (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). Intimacy takes on deep meaning beyond that of an evolutionary instinct creating a stronger level of closeness, trust and love.
Without the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would not have implemented many counterintuitive principles that have shaped my life for the better. Instead of apologizing to my sibling I would still be sitting in my stubborn confidence. Had I not learned the value of serious commitments to service and helping others on my mission, I would have missed out on many rewarding experiences I have had since meeting Denise in Detroit. Had I prioritized my vocation over my family, I would not have married and started having kids in my twenties. One reason I choose to believe is that without the counter-intuitive principles, I would have missed out on so much of the best parts of my life.
With so little time alive on earth, why waste time on religion or a God you can’t prove exists? My answer—no time has been wasted, it has made better use of my time. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “I do not believe as a child does; my hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.” To have no doubt and complete certainty in outlandish stories is not the requirement, it has never been a requirement (see Mark 9:14–29). The most salient question regarding faith is not about heaven or improbable stories. The question that matters most–How does faith impact your life? The promise of faith that is most important to me is that it will make your life better now! I found my faith’s counterintuitive principles enables me to make the most of my moments on earth.
If science is under no obligation to make intuitive sense to you, it seems natural to come to a similar conclusion about faith and life. My church provides the best source of counterintuitive information that helps me make the most of my short time on earth and enables me to receive more promptings mentioned above. As I study the Bible and the Book of Mormon to understand more what I should do in this life, I find that I am more receptive to moments of inspiration and clarity about the best paths to take in my life. The greatest bets of my life have been made with a seed of faith and an overwhelming amount of uncertainty. The surprising result is that I can look back on my life and say I have left nothing on the table. This is why I believe.
Link to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints