God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways

This post was inspired by the CK debate happening here.

I’ll confess that I find a certain amount of comfort in the idea that God is in some ways a different kind of being than we are. Humans, for all their beauty, are kind of messed up sometimes, and I love the idea that there is a being out there who is perfect and “good” and who doesn’t have the same kind of imperfections as the rest of us. I also love scriptures such as Moses 7:33–the moment when Enoch asks God why he weeps, He responds, “And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.” The idea that there is a perfectly loving and good being who weeps at the cruelty that we inflict on one another appeals to me.

At the same time, as many others have pointed out, there are some scriptures where God doesn’t come off as quite so loving. Remember all that death and punishment in the Old Testament? And what about Laban? I don’t think there are any easy answers to the difficult questions these scriptures pose.

As I ponder these scriptures, I often find myself asking: what kinds of “ways” are these (i.e. are they God’s ways), and are they “good”? The issue of God’s “goodness” came up on the aforementioned CK thread, and I really liked one of the comments by Jacob J (comment #68):

In the last paragraph of #62 there is the mention of whether God’s goodness is the same as our goodness. I feel like there are some fundamental aspects of our sense of goodness which are non-negotiable, which if God tried to tell me I was wrong about I would just reject the goodness of God. For example, if goodness really turned out to mean taking pleasure in the suffering of others or creating certain humans in an evil way so as to delight in their eternal torment, I would just as soon conclude there is no God as try to augment my view of goodness. However, it is fully expected that we will have to change to become celestial and this will inevitably require us to learn and gain perspective which could alter our view of some things. That said, I am at a loss to define a criteria upon which I can distinguish between deal breaker aspects of goodness and those I am open to adjusting.

This comment is something that I think many of us struggle with in some way at one time or another. What do we do when God’s “ways” don’t match what we think they should be? (I’ll confess I’ve gotten into quite a number of arguments with God about his ideas for my life vs. my own.) And beyond this, what happens when we see things happening in the name of God that don’t match our own sense of morality and goodness?

I appreciate the tension in Jacob’s comment: I think that humility and faith (i.e. recognizing that we are imperfect and have much to learn and that God’s vision is more all-seeing than our own) are important. But I also agree that there is a point where you have to draw a line and say, “if goodness and perfection mean _______, then I don’t want any part of it.” As Jacob says, some things are “deal-breakers.” As evidenced by the various comments in the thread, the “deal-breakers” are different for each person.

What are they for you?

(As for me, I’m guessing my biases are probably showing. For me, cruelty and meanness and the destruction of other human beings could never be goodness. And love is goodness. I also have a strong conviction that goodness entails recognizing each person as an individual, and making sure that all individuals are treated equally–whatever that means, which I am still trying to sort out.)


  1. Recently, I’ve become more and more bothered by the “chosen people” syndrome. For me, a big deal-breaker is if God really has this handful of people that are the ones he wants to save, especially if that is mostly because of their circumstances at birth, i.e., they were born into the right family or church. This is a huge generalization, but many, if not most religions have this type of attitude going on with some of their members and teachings. It is so exclusionary, and I don’t want to believe in a God that is exclusionary, even if the theory is that anyone can be one of the chosen if only they’re willing to join the club. I know this sounds like an attack, but it’s really just something I’ve been thinking about lately.

  2. the destruction of other human beings could never be goodness.

    I’m going to play into this tension a little and ask: What if their destruction saves them from further eternal condemnation? Or what if they are destroyed so as to prevent them from causing more destruction themselves, to themselves and to others?

    It seems to me that these lines are very, very difficult to draw, seeing as we have a very, very limited mortal perspective.

    These are interesting questions, but I can’t help but think that just as soon as we figure out a deal-breaking line, it would be possible to figure out a situation that might break our rule that we just made.

    For that purpose, I haven’t drawn any deal-breaker lines, because any time I think of one, there is a scriptural example of something that pushes or crosses that line — rare though these examples are, they still compel me to be willing to stay open to prophetic guidance and the guidance of the Spirit, which scripture teach are needed to be able to figure out what is ‘right’ in various circumstances. What is challenging is that what is right in one situation won’t always be right in another (e.g, Nephi and Laban).

    Never say never, right? That’s sort of my approach. Imagine if Nephi had drawn a hard line and hadn’t been willing to listen to the Spirit in spite of the commandment that, in almost every other circumstance, would reign supreme?

  3. “if goodness and perfection mean _______, then I don’t want any part of it.”

    That is a great way to frame it, and I’m really struggling to fill in the blank. I wish I could think of a good one. If this were dealbreakers from the church, with all the human imperfections, etc, it would be a little easier. But since we are talking about God, I am really at a loss. My apologies to Elder Oaks, but in my mind, it is not the apex of hubris to question and criticize church leaders. It is, however, very dangerous ground when we start questioning and criticizing God – so I think the safest approach is to acknowledge our limitations and explore the best that we can, resorting always to faith and hope – but a dealbreaker? I can’t think of one.

    Still, if I understand the connection between agency and the afterlife, this is a very legitimate question, because some people – and I am thinking of perdition – will make that choice and say “I understand it, but I don’t want any part of it” and God will let them go their way.

    if goodness and perfection mean suffering…
    if goodness and perfection mean inequality…
    if goodness and perfection mean persecution…

    But we already see all the suffering and inequality and persecution in the world (i.e. cruelty, meanness, destruction of other human beings). We talk about God as a loving father, but would any of us really raise our kids this way – intentionally putting them in terrible circumstances, surrounding them with all kinds of contradictions, sending often cryptic third-party representatives to lead them and guide them and walk beside them while we stay far, distant, giving warm sensations (sometimes very weak, sometimes very strong) instead of clear undeniable intervention?

    Sidenote: when I was five-years-old, my dad took me out into the desert, blindfolded me, and put me in the middle of a nice cactus patch. It was an object lesson. He wanted to guide me out to safety, like God guides us to safety. He wanted me to trust him without seeing what was around me, the way we are supposed to trust God (and the way we are not supposed to see what is really around us?). He, however, was neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and he unintentionally led me into a barely visible cholla bur (jumping cactus) which stuck me in the ankle just above my shoe line. It was an awful experience.

    if goodness and perfection mean a distant, hands-off parenting approach…

    Given the atonement, you can’t really say that God is completely “hands-off.” Still, the crucifixion and resurrection are really not much more than traditional stories we are taught in our culture – stories that we believe and celebrate and reenact through ritual and place great faith in, but they are still pretty distant when you think of it as a parenting technique (I’m going to get into all kinds of trouble for saying that, aren’t I?)

    Woundedheart, amen – I feel the same way. The “chosen people” thing is troubling.

    m&m, I love the way you put it in an eternal perspective. I completely agree that all our speculation and wondering is hampered by a very limited mortal perspective. But it kind of brings me back to this “fill in the blank” question with the goodness of God. If our perspective is limited and mortal, it is because God has put us in this position. Wouldn’t it have been kinder to NOT make us pass through the veil of forgetfulness? Wouldn’t there be a lot less suffering and inequality and persecution in the world if we all perfectly remembered our pre-mortal state, our connection to each other, and our connection to God? And why wait for the millennium for Christ’s personal reign on the earth? Why could he not have reigned and governed in person – unquestionably visible, unquestionably tangible – from the very start?

    When it boils down to it, the belief that keeps me from any dealbreaker with God is that I expect that when/if I ever stand in his presence, I will feel his goodness and his perfect love, and all the skepticism and cynicism I have now will melt away. It’s a pretty naïve believe – but it’s one I have to cling to.

  4. woundedhart, I have an issue with the “chosen people” mentality when it shows up in any religion (and I think Mormons have their own variation of it). I am definitely of the opinion that God is much more accepting and generous of people’s differences (including differences of belief) than we may think he is.

  5. m&m and Glenn, thanks for your thoughts on the difficulty of establishing any kind of “deal breaker.” It is a complicated issue, and I’m not a person who is tied to hard and fast rules. But, I’ll confess that thinking through this issue, there are some scenarios I’ve come up with that would cause me some serious concern (and might lead me to some different beliefs).

    First, if the church did something like starting to preach that slavery or the Holocaust was divinely inspired or that we should go around murdering people (none of which I ever expect to happen), I would have a really difficult time with these things, and I would probably come to the conclusion that the church was no longer inspired by God (I’ll confess that my trust in God is higher than my trust in the church).

    Second, if I felt like I had a direct revelation where God was telling me something like my hypotheticals above (again, not something I expect to happen), I’ll confess that in these circumstances, I would have a difficult time not turning away from God (as prideful or presumptuous as this may be).

    Still, I think that staying open and trying to figure things out on a case by case basis is a policy I generally like. And the trust that I have in God’s goodness (and that this goodness is not too far distance from my own moral sense) is something that also “cling to” and that gives me hope.

  6. This is a question I’ve wrestled with a lot. I am, I will confess, rather prone to the temptation to fall into the black hole of my own hubris, to decide that I simply know better than God, and to wonder why he doesn’t decide to consult me about how the universe is run. 😉

    But still, it’s a real challenge when God’s ways are not simply strange or confusing, but actually seem to contradict my deepest sense of right and wrong. Is it morally acceptable to violate your conscience if God commands you to do so? The traditional assumption is that Abraham and Nephi made the right choice. But I sometimes wonder. In any case, I find those stories deeply disturbing. Does God ultimately require you to give up even your integrity? Maybe it’s pride, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far.

    And yet, I’m well aware that my conscience is at least to some degree culturally constructed. What if I grew up in an environment which led me to believe, profoundly, that it was morally wrong for those of different races to mingle? What if God called me to give up this belief? I might well experience that demand as a violation of my integrity. So to what extent is my profound sense that women and men should be valued and respected equally (for example) a product of my growing up in an egalitarian culture? In refusing to accept any religious teachings which contradict this, am I stubbornly clinging to problematic cultural ideals?

    That’s a tough one for me. But I do think there are reasons to believe, from an LDS perspective, that the human sense of “good” is more than a cultural construct, as influenced as it might be by social and cultural ideals. And I think I need a line, a deal-breaker, in thinking about God’s goodness. Because it seems to me that if there isn’t one, the assertion that God is “good” becomes meaningless. In other words, if anything that God might decide to do is, by definition, good, then the assertion that God is good is an empty statement–it tells us nothing about his character, and gives us no reason to trust him.

    As a kid, I remember wondering how we knew that we weren’t worshiping aliens of some kind, who were monitoring our thoughts and occasionally answering our prayers in some strange sort of hoax. Which maybe isn’t all that different from the question of how we know that we aren’t worshiping a malevolent being. I do realize that’s where faith comes into play. But it’s still an unsettling thing to think about.

  7. The idea that I could ever get a message from God that would cross this deal-breaker line is based on two communication methods.
    1. God speaks through His servants, the prophets
    2. God speaks to me, through personal revelation

    While the first one is forthright, there are some questions about when a prophet represents God and when he’s just giving his own advice.
    The second has been discussed (here and elsewhere) in reference to how to interpret the Spirit. I believe it was Glenn who talked about being in the MTC and feeling the Spirit tell him to stand up in front of the wall. He later decided it wasn’t the Spirit, but his mind playing tricks on him.
    So I think I would only trust a message from both.
    Therefore, IF there was a message which violated my sense of right and wrong both from Spirit and from the Prophet, that would be very difficult.
    It’s possible that it’s already happened, and I haven’t been humble to change my mind about the issue (gay marriage, for example).
    But, a specific deal-breaker would be hard to establish for me because I would have difficulty telling if the thing God was asking was really from God or from a rogue prophet or my brain.

  8. Because it seems to me that if there isn’t one, the assertion that God is “good” becomes meaningless.

    I think I understand the need for a deal-breaker, but I can’t help but think that it’s not that the phrase “God is good” is meaningless without one, but simply that what God’s goodness is is an ongoing discovery. To draw a line in my mind possibly puts limits on that process of discovery, in a way.

    Also, in my mind, faith is about trusting God’s character to be perfect and good, even as I am in the process of discovering what that really means. And in a sense, the older I get, the more I feel that I have to be open to things that don’t make sense, life challenges that baffle me and test that faith, etc. And when I face those things and keep my heart open, my faith in the eternal nature of God’s love and perspective grows.

    I go back to Nephi. I’m sure he thought before that experience that the love of God would mean never taking a life. But after his experience, he was able to understand more that God works with a different kind of balance sheet. And can you imagine the love he felt when he realized that God had made it possible for them to have scripture before they went to the land of promise? That by so doing, He saved generations of His children from darkness and apostasy (which likely saved many, many lives…after all, we see what those in darkness do to one another).

    Anyway, just sort of thinking out loud….

  9. Jess — you remembered my MTC wall-standing experience. What a thrill! All that proves, however, is that God doesn’t really talk to me. 🙂

    But I was thinking along those same lines when reading Lynette’s comment (#6) — before you can judge any message from God as being either good or bad, you first have to judge that it is really from God. How do you do that?

    I know, I know. What does salt taste like. You just feel it in your heart and “know” right? Not me. I can’t do that anymore. So for me, deciding if God’s message is good or bad is something I still can’t get close enough to touch.

  10. Seraphine,

    I’m flattered to have been quoted in a post! Thanks. I already said I am at a loss to answer the question, but you said: “And love is goodness.” This is the one I always come back to as the most fundamental. I don’t mind if it turns out that God is semi-powerful and semi-knowing, but he absolutely must be all-loving. I like the way you said it. I guess that is why I can imagine a heaven where men and women have different roles, but I can’t believe in one where God loves women less than men. For me, that would be a deal-breaker.


    Because it seems to me that if there isn’t one, the assertion that God is “good” becomes meaningless.

    Exactly. Amen.

  11. Good questions, Seraphine.

    If I assume that God is smarter than I am and that he knows more facts and has better character than I do (all pretty good assumptions, btw), it is easy to see how, hypothetically, God may want me to do something that doesn’t seem right.

    The problem arises for me when I have to move from the hypothetical to the real. Even though I accept that God’s ways are higher than mine, I still need to be aware that my comprehension of God’s ways is muddled by my fallen nature, so it is difficult for me to have much confidence if I think God is telling me to do something I think is wrong.

    This is a long way of saying that if I ever think I am getting revelations instructing me to sacrifice a child, behead somebody, or marry an extra wife, I hope I have enough sense to get professional help before the nice people in white suits have to come and throw a net over me.

  12. I’m not sure why the Nephi beheading thing is such a big deal.

    I mean, the guy had already tried to kill Nephi and his brothers – more than once. He stole all their stuff. And now he’s standing in the way of Nephi obtaining a sacred record, the importance of which is highly obvious to Nephi.

    This ain’t rocket-science. What’s admirable is that Nephi didn’t want to do it at all. The idea that the guy ought to die wouldn’t have been that odd for the time period.

    This isn’t the same thing as me sitting in my bedroom hearing voices telling me to shoot a co-worker I don’t like.

    We modern liberal-minded wilting daisies would do well to keep a little perspective here.

  13. Nephi was no longer a part of that society, and none of the current systems of justice in place in Jerusalem would have done anything for him. Laban took their property because he could and no one in Jerusalem was going to tell him otherwise.

    So Nephi could have kept his hands clean. And we wouldn’t have the Book of Mormon.

    Would you have felt better if God had personally struck Laban down with a heart-attack rather than having Nephi do it?

    Again, I don’t think this is a matter of principle as much as it’s a matter of personal squeamishness.

  14. In short, I don’t think God is obligated to miraculously resolve everything, just so we can avoid having to wrestle with moral dilemmas.

  15. Seth, at the considerable risk of becoming a liberal-minded wilting daisy, and at the even more considerable risk of jacking this thread beyond recognition, I’ll venture to say that I think the Nephi story is problematic.

    I’ve heard that Laban robbed and attempted to murder them, and that Nephi was therefore justified in killing Laban. One of my reservations about this line of reasoning is that Nephi’s act is essentially one of vigilante justice. He takes the law into his own hands. Non-tribal societies have pre-established mechanisms of justice; the Old Testament lays out just such a legal code. There are very good reasons they (we) don’t allow the offenders to simply take whatever vengeance they see fit. Wronged he certainly was, but that’s essentially what Nephi does. There’s a world of difference between hauling an offender before a magistrate in broad daylight and finding that offender drunk and helpless in a dark alley in the middle of the night and availing oneself of the opportunity to quietly slit his throat. And I think the fact that he has something Nephi badly wants makes his act more dishonorable, not less.

    So I don’t think Nephi’s situation may be fundamentally all that different from sitting in one’s bedroom hearing voices telling one to shoot an unfriendly co-worker who’s perhaps stolen from you and attempted to run you down on the freeway.

    Thank you. That is all. Back to the more general inscrutabilities of God’s ways. Eve out.

  16. “I’m not sure why the Nephi beheading thing is such a big deal.”

    LOL. Next thing you know, Seth, you’ll be saying the same thing about waterboarding.

    “Would you have felt better if God had personally struck Laban down with a heart-attack rather than having Nephi do it?”

    Yes! I would.

  17. A careful reading of the text indicates that Laban had already been water-boarded before Nephi arrived on the scene. There is not any evidence that Nephi interrogated him that night in any shape or fashion.

  18. Lynnette, thanks for this comment:

    And I think I need a line, a deal-breaker, in thinking about God’s goodness. Because it seems to me that if there isn’t one, the assertion that God is “good” becomes meaningless. In other words, if anything that God might decide to do is, by definition, good, then the assertion that God is good is an empty statement–it tells us nothing about his character, and gives us no reason to trust him.

    I think our teachings that God is good because he is loving, has our best interests at heart, etc. (and that we should emulate those qualities in him) is significant. We define God in a specific way in order to engender the same kind of behavior in ourselves (to try and be more like him), and if everything is up for grabs, this would become quite difficult.

    m&m, I get the whole “process of discovery” thing (I think that’s what life is about). But I don’t think having lines or deal-breakers (as long as you’re willing to examine and question them) is a problem. I guess I don’t see the clear contradiction you seem to be seeing between “deal-breakers” and progress/discovery.

  19. jessawhy and Glenn, I agree that when you start talking about God/prophets saying things that go against one’s sense of morality, one of the things called into question (especially if you’re hearing things through the spirit) is whether or not something is actually coming from God or from your brain (or, if it’s coming from the prophet, if it’s coming from his mortal understanding). It certainly complicates things.

    Mark IV, I hope that if I ever start getting revelations like that too that it means it’s time for some professional help. 🙂

  20. Jacob J, thanks, and I mostly agree. 🙂

    Seth, ECS and Eve have already answered you much more eloquently (and snarkily) than I could hope to. I leave you in their capable hands.

  21. I think 1 Nephi 4 poses serious problems, and if Nephi is morally admirable for not wishing to commit murder, I’m not sure why he’s also admirable for committing it anyway. There’s a Hasidic saying that sin is anything you can’t do wholeheartedly. I like this idea, and I find it problematic that the Spirit asks Nephi to suppress his conscience. But perhaps there’s little role for conscience in Mormonism, and Mormons talk about it rarely. In any event, at the very least it seems ironic that Nephi has to commit murder because it’s so important for him to have a document that says “thou shalt not murder.” If God could get Laban drunk to set the stage for his knocking off, why couldn’t God just do him in with a heart attack?

  22. why couldn’t God just do him in with a heart attack?

    Why did they even need the brass plates in the first place? Why couldn’t God have just given another revelation to Nephi that was a duplicate of the brass plates? If he can give the Book of Moses to JS without any actual ancient text, why not do the same for Nephi?

    (and please don’t anyone say ‘language’ — not if you believe what supposedly happened with the Tower of Babel).

  23. I’m not sure why the Nephi beheading thing is such a big deal.

    It seems to me that it was a big deal to Nephi. He was clearly conflicted about doing it. And maybe I’m just reading my own angst into the text here, but I’m struck by the fact that he spends so many verses giving the details of the situation and his own thoughts.

    In any case, I find the rationale deeply troubling. Murder is justified when it’s for the end goal of bringing about scripture? Would we be okay with it Joseph Smith had been required to kill someone to get the Book of Mormon?

    Glenn, I’ve wondered too about why the brass plates in particular were so crucial. It seems to me that our belief in an open canon and continuing revelation makes us less tied to the necessity of any one particular text. Couldn’t Lehi, a prophet acquainted with the law, have written his own account of it? And with regards to the language issue, why wouldn’t the record kept by Nephi and those after him serve the same purpose?

  24. No good answers for the brass plates — just another one of those faith things. Besides, I’m pretty sure the Nephites only believed in the brass plates as far as they were translated correctly (which means through a liberal, feminist lense).

  25. “In any case, I find the rationale deeply troubling. Murder is justified when it’s for the end goal of bringing about scripture? Would we be okay with it Joseph Smith had been required to kill someone to get the Book of Mormon?”

    Umm… yeah.

    I mean… do you take this religion thing seriously or don’t you?

  26. Forget Nephi, reading the Old Testament, it seems to me that if even 5% of those stories are true, god is either mad, evil or both. And it doesn’t all go away in the New Testament either. And the evils of the world, past and present, demonstrate a god who is either malicious or apathetic, neither of which are attributes that constitute “good.”

    It seems to me that the combined history of the world and our understanding of god’s interaction of the world forces us to throw up our hands and trust that he has a good reason for all he does or to conclude that he does not exist at all.

    Strangely, I tend to think it’s meant to be that way.

  27. To me the Old Testament is about a loving God in the process of damage control over an impossibly messed-up situation.


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