Monday, January 09, 2006

Life as a Test

I actually attended Gospel Doctrine yesterday (don't fall over in shock, anyone), and there was much discussion of this scripture:

"And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them." (Abraham 3:25)

I've heard all my life that life is a test. But I'm not entirely comfortable with that way of talking about it, and I've been thinking about why that is. Maybe it's that a "test" sounds to me like something being given by a neutral, disinterested party— as if God were a scientist running us through mazes and observing whether we or not we succeed. It strikes me as rather similar to the notion that God is responsible for all the trials in our lives, an idea which I've always found tremendously disturbing. (To clarify, I do believe that God can bring good out of even awful situations, but I don't think that's the same as saying that God is the one responsible for such situations.)

Perhaps I also dislike the metaphor because it sounds so external. I do think our choices matter, but I think they matter because they make us into the people that we are— not because God is going to assign us a grade at the end. "Sorry, you almost made the 90 percent cut-off for the Celestial Kingdom, but unfortunately you sometimes skipped your visiting teaching." (Minus the 90 percent bit, I actually once heard a statement along those lines in Relief Society.)

But I think my biggest objection is that life seems less meaningful somehow if its most fundamental purpose is about passing or failing. I believe that our experiences here have some kind of intrinsic value, that they're more than just lines to be added to a celestial resumé. It seems to me that the purpose of this life must be closely tied to experiential learning, in that we have experiences here that we couldn't have in the premortal world— such as being embodied, or having to make decisions in a situation of ambiguity. And perhaps my problem with the test idea is that I don't really associate tests with learning; I see them more as a kind of arbitrary hoop-jumping. My sisters and I have often discussed that feeling of wishing you had the time to genuinely learn the material you were studying in school, instead of frantically choking it down. Is it possible, I wonder, that focusing on life as a test which you have to get right could lead you to miss out on a lot of what is actually most rich and valuable about this experience of mortality?


Anonymous Pops said...

I stumbled across this blog, and thought I would share a thought or two. (I taught that same lesson yesterday, but we didn't really spend any time on that particular verse.)

You seem to worry that your opinion on the "test" business is somehow out of kilter with what the mainstream belief is. Well, don't worry, I think you're right on target.

Think of it from another perspective: the ability to dwell in the presence of Heavenly Father is not a question of what we've experienced or whether we've passed some test. It is a function of what we are (or will be at that time). Because our experiences play an important role in what we eventually become, it is easy to focus on that aspect. But, in the end, if we are not fit for the Celestial Kingdom, we cannot dwell there because it would physically destroy us--the glory is literally too great.

I've had the experience of sending children away to college rather than letting them live at home and attend a local school because of the growth that will come with it--because of what they will become through the experience. Isn't that the same thing that is happening to us here in mortality? I'm not responsible for the specific challenges my children face while living on their own for the first time, but I do know they will grow and develop as a result of whatever comes their way. (I'm also accessible if they need advice or get in a jam...)

I think the most important thing we can accomplish in this life is to be filled with the pure love of Christ, to be found loving others as he loved us. If we accomplish this, I think everything else falls into place as a consequence of what we've become.

And I also agree that if we focus on the mechanics of attending Church, doing our Visiting Teaching or Home Teaching, and so forth, we may well miss out on the value and richness of our experience in mortality. I have seen some make the mistake of abandoning those activites as being non-essential and suffer as a result. I think the best response is to "turn the tables" and use those experiences to help us achieve our own goal of personal growth, keeping in mind the paradoxical aspect of human nature that we achieve the most personal growth when we focus on serving and loving others.

1/09/2006 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

I wonder to what extent our reading of words like "test" and "prove" is conditioned by their contemporary associations with the impersonal and reductive apparatus of empiricism. Just out of curiousity, I ran a search on the word "test" (on's gospel library site) and it doesn't appear in the standard works, only in the Bible Dictionary and Guide to the Scriptures. I certainly don't claim to know exactly what Abraham 3:25 means--but maybe we need to disentangle the word "prove" from our contemporary "life is a test" rhetoric and its baggage.

1/09/2006 08:53:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Pops, I'm glad you happened to stumble upon our fledgling blog; thanks for your insights. I like the comparison to sending your children to college. That makes sense to me as a way to think about mortality, that it's not just an arbitrary hurdle to clear, but an experience which gives us the opportunity to grow and develop, to at least potentially become better human beings.

I very much agree that the most important thing we can do in this life is develop charity (though I admit that I can't write that without feeling twinges of conscience ;). And I'm thinking that living in a fallen world, with all that goes along that, might well be a necessary part of coming to understand what the pure love of Christ entails. So going along with what you're saying, perhaps it's not that we're thrown into mortality as a way of ascertaining or "testing" our charity levels, but that it's the experience of this life which gives us the opportunity to develop that charity in the first place.

Eve, we must have been thinking along similar lines, because I also did a search for the word "test," and was interested to note that it wasn't scriptural. And I think your point about the contemporary association with empiricism is a good one. On kind of a related note, I've been wondering whether some of our discourse about this might be connected to a desire to quantify, to turn the purpose of life into something that can be measured.

1/11/2006 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger Ziff said...

I agree with Lynnette in not liking the idea that life is an arbitrary test, or that God specifically plots out all the trials in our lives just to see how we'll react. I like to believe that most trials in life are pretty much random. I'm sure God still wants to know how we'll react to them. But I don't think he specifically sets them up, at least not generally.

I wonder if part of the problem with the word "test" is that it implies a tester, someone who manipulates the conditions under which we're tested. Might that be why "life is a test" makes God sound like a disinterested tester?

Another word used in the scriptures to describe mortality is "probationary" (Alma 12:24; Alma 42). I like its connotations better than those of "test." "Probation" doesn't seem to imply the arbitrarily manipulating tester that "test" does. It's more like a time of observation in which conditions aren't manipulated, but the person on probation and the authority watch to see if the person is ready to progress to the next step. In legal probation, the next step is getting off probation. In our mortal probation, the next step is living with God.

1/11/2006 04:51:00 PM  
Blogger Starfoxy said...

The problem I have with the word test is it often feels like an attempt of the one administering it to disqualify you, or trick you.
Like those sorts of test where they say, "You have one minute to complete this exam. Read all of the questions through before doing any of them." Then what follows is a long list of complicated instructions involving poking holes in the paper, saying things out loud etc. You find that the last task says to ignore all of the previous questions, and write your name at the top of the page. Every time I've seen this test administered the teacher gets a knowing grin and says "See? it's easier when you follow instructions." That is the imagery 'test' conjures in my mind. I agree that Heavenly Father saying at judgement day, "See, you should have done your visiting teaching, and you failed the test."

1/13/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger mindy said...

"Life is a test," falls into the same category as other platitudes so popular & common in the church, such as the ever beloved "I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it." Nothing like sticking words in our Saviour's mouth. It's not like He didn't say enough worth quoting. Anyway, I digress.

Life teaches us what we are capable of accomplishing in a way that we could never learn in the spirit world. We are given the chance to let the "inner us" out, as we don't feel the continual presence of our Heavenly Father. We are here, continually enticed by good or evil, and these choices will lead us in one direction or the other. I think the idea of the war in heaven is interesting because we have no idea how far on the right side of the "line" we were. A quote from Elder Wirthlin, which I think he quoted from an author whose name I forget is, "Life is not about finding yourself, Life is about creating yourself." We come to the earth with certain characteristics and talents. This is our chance to use them or, as the parable says, lose them.

1/13/2006 09:51:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Ziff, that's a great observation about "probation" as opposed to "test." I think you're right that part of the problem with "test" is that it suggests a "tester," and the idea that God is my examiner make me feel more than a bit wary of him. But I like your example of legal probation, particularly because at least ideally I would think that the authority and the person on probation would be working together toward the same goal (to get the person to the next step.)

Starfoxy, I remember taking those "trick" tests in elementary school, and like you, I think that those kinds of experiences with tests that seemed designed more to befuddle you than to measure your knowledge (while someone chuckled in the corner) are probably a lot of why I'm so wary of the term.

(On a bit of a tangent from that, when people talk about needing the right religious beliefs to be saved, sometimes I feel the same way. Is God really going to say, "Sorry! You failed the test; you should have been a Mormon/Muslim/evangelical Christian?")

Mindy, I like that quote about creating yourself, as opposed to simply finding yourself. That sounds much more hopeful to me, because what if I "find myself" and run away screaming in terror at who that self is? ;) To me, that's what grace is about— that we're not stuck where we are, that we can change and develop and become different people.

Thanks for all the interesting comments!

1/20/2006 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger ed said...

My problem with that scripture is that it purports to describe the purpose of life on earth, but it doesn't really apply to most of the people who have ever lived. What about the billions of people who didn't have a chance to hear about "whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them," who vastly outnumber those who did? The purpose of life must go beyond the simple "test of obedience" described in the scripture.

2/08/2006 12:34:00 PM  

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