In second Nephi, we find the last messages Lehi left with his sons before he passed away. His message to Jacob carries a lot of meaning to me. Of course, the most often quoted phrase from the second chapter is likely to be:

“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25)

In my opinion, there is much more in the message to Jacob than this simple phrase. I also believe that it is the formula for the joy and happiness that Lehi referenced.

As Lehi talked about the necessity of the creation, here are some of the points that continue to inspire me to seek a better understanding of the purpose of life and the joys and sorrows it brings:

  • By the law, no flesh is justified (verse 5)
  • Redemption comes through Jesus Christ to those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit (verse 7)
  • No flesh can dwell in the presence of God except through the mercy and grace of Christ (verse 8)
  • We will be judged by Him (verse 10)
  • Opposition in all things (verse11)

All of this is leading up to what I consider a key learning that I have taken away from this scripture. Without opposition, good/bad, there would be nothing. So we all should expect face opposition in our lives; the continual battle between self and God, the seeking of happiness or the reaping of sadness. In this drawing of contrasts in these verses, one that has taken on much meaning is found in verse 14:

“…for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.”

Being one of God’s creations, we also either act or are acted upon. As I look back on my life, I recognize that I have, in large part, received joy when I have acted while sadness has come when I have let other things act upon me. The conflict comes because, as Lehi said, in verse 11, ‘all things must needs be a compound in one.’ Sometimes, I act, and sometimes, I am acted upon.

We have, in this day, many conveniences; one that stands out in my mind is the much maligned remote control. Pushing a button on the remote produces an immediate and well-defined response. I push the ‘on’ button and the TV turns on; push it again and it turns off. This stimulus/response is ‘hardwired’ into the equipment.

If we allow it, we have buttons also. Certain conditions, words, images, or circumstances that trigger the expected response. What are the triggers for your addiction/character flaw? What is your response to being cut off in traffic? Ever have a ‘bad day?’ Have you ever said: ‘you make me so mad?’ This statement is typical of the perspective of life when we allow the stimulus from our environment to determine our response. In traffic, do we allow another driver to determine our happiness? Do we let our friends or family members to ‘make’ us mad and by so doing remove our ability to decide if we want to be mad or not?

Our ability to inject analysis in between the stimulus and response is what allows us to control our response. We are not hardwired unless we allow ourselves to be, unless we are acted upon. This idea is not new and is well covered in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey.

I would suggest that allowing ourselves to be ‘acted upon’ detracts from our ability to acquire joy. As in the 13 step programs around us, one of the keys is the recognition of triggers and consciously redirecting our thoughts and actions away from our ‘programmed’ response. As it states in verse 26, God has given man the ability to ‘act for themselves and not be acted upon.”

One of the stories the found in Covey’s book is about Victor Frankl who lived through the second world war. He was a psychiatrist and a Jew who was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where he experienced things that were so repugnant to our sense of decency that we would shudder to even repeat them. His parents, his brother and his wife, all died in the camps. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among the temporarily saved who would clean up.

Frankl writes:

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. . . . It is this spiritual freedom–which cannot be taken away–that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life.” (From Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor L. Frankl. Revised edition)

One day, alone in a small room, Victor began to develop this concept of the “last of the human freedoms” They could control his entire environment. They could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself could decide how all of this was going to effect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

What is the simple lesson we can learn?

Just as Victor Frankl had the ability to determine his response to the events around him, so we can determine our response to the events around us. We have been given the gift to choose, whether we act or be acted upon.
This gives us the opportunity to analyze our own situation. What are stimuli or “buttons” that we encounter in our day to day activities that we allow to control us? Can we begin a transformation, to break that automatic reaction that binds us to a particular behavior or attitude? It can be as simple as recognizing when one of our buttons is pushed and refusing to allow it to control our actions.

I would submit that we can find as much joy in this life as we allow ourselves. Joy comes from our ability to not react to our environment but to decide how, if at all, the stimulus will affect us.

What think ye?

8 Responses to “To Act or Be Acted Upon”

  • I think this is a powerful and important message.

    One thing I struggle to understand is why some people seem to suffer so much. I think we all know people who are always sick or victimized or otherwise afflicted. I really wish that I could heal people of pain and disease and mental illness. For many it seems to become a cycle of being acted upon.

    On the other hand, we all know people who have had terrible ordeals in their lives but who don’t dwell on it and seem as happy as anyone can be.

    It’s so funny that we look at other people’s trials and say “I could never do that.” But the truth is we can! You just do it. What is the other choice?

    So, I guess I would like to believe that we all have the power within us to heal and find joy and peace. But, how does this play out for those suffering from chronic pain, disease and mental illness?

  • TST,
    I currently hold a rather unconventional view on the answer to your question. Let me state it this way:

    How many lifetimes do you think it would take to learn all the lessons we would need to learn to be complete/perfect?

    I have no confidence that one lifetime is enough.

    What would it take to fully comprehend and have true empathy for someone who is suffering from the myriad of mind or body problems that mortality bestows upon us?

    I have no confidence that one lifetime is enough.

    What does it mean that there is ‘one eternal round?’

    If you look down upon a spiral staircase, you see a circle. If you look at it from the side, you can see that with each succeeding round, we are a little higher and a little closer to the goal. I believe that our life is like one round on a spiral staircase, each round bringing us a little closer to the top.

    Could it be that there are eternal lessons to be learned in all the different challenges that life presents to us? Could it be that we need to continue to experience some aspect of our ‘training’ over and over until we have really learned the lesson? Only to find we are now ‘ready’ to move on to the next experiential lesson?

    How many times have I prayerfully asked: What am I supposed to learn from this experience? Sometimes I understand the answer and sometimes I don’t…


  • Ah, Spek, you open up a whole world of possibility!

    I have been dabbling with such an idea, too. Perhaps we are stuck here until we truly become One with God. Until we realize that I AM my neighbor. Can you imagine how we would change if we truly internalized the fact that we are one with everyone else?

    Now, I am assuming by “lifetime” you mean mortal probabtion. Right?
    Going with that train of thought how would men treat women if they knew they would have the opportunity to live as one? How would the races treat eachother knowing it could easily be switched next time around? I’ll never look at a naked African orphan the same again.

    Eternal life has already started. This is often overlooked in the LDS faith.

  • Yes, I do mean mortal probation. I have often wondered why there is a conditional statement (if, then) at the end of Alma 34:33

    “And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.”

    IF we don’t improve in this life, THEN no labor can be performed. The reverse could then be true also: If we improve in this life, THEN we can continue to labor.

    Why are we blessed with ‘eternal lives’ in the temple? I’m sure it is just a typo…


  • Thanks for sharing that scripture! I’ve never read it that way before. Now I have the movie “Groundhog Day” stuck in my head.

  • TST,
    I might add that the scripture in Alma 34:33 is often misquoted. For example, Bruce R McConkie, in his ‘Seven Deadly Heresies’ sermon given in 1980 stated the following:

    “There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation. This life is the time and the day of our probation. After this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.”

    As you can see, he removed the conditional statement; in other words, he twisted the scripture to fit his belief rather than seeking to understand what God intended us to receive.

    There is a lot of speculation as to how much Joseph Smith taught on the topic of multiple mortal probations. There are several talks that have been presented at Sunstone touching this doctrine.

    In response to Robert Beckstead’s talk on reincarnation at the 2006 Sunstone Symposium, the Tribune quoted Gae Lyn Henderson as saying, “‘A belief in reincarnation, [or] what we might label second chance theology’ takes the fear out of religion, and that fear-free religion loses its power to strictly control human behavior.”

    Of course, the church doesn’t use fear to try to keep us in line…


  • Hello. I think the article is really interesting. I am even interested in reading more. How soon will you update your blog?

  • KM,
    I probably won’t be going back to this topic for a while. What aspects are you most interested in? Let me know and I will try to point you to some more information.


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