In this episode, we speak with Adam Miller on the subject of sin. Adam has a really unique perspective on this—to quote his book, he says “God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.”
We dive deep on those ideas with Adam, one of our favorite Latter-day Saint thinkers and authors. Adam is Professor of Philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, and author of several books, including Letters to a Young Mormon, published by Deseret Book.
You can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, watch the interview above, or read the full transcript below:
Tim Chaves: Hi, and welcome to the Faith Matters podcast. This is Tim Chaves. In this episode, we speak with Adam Miller, professor of philosophy at Colin College in McKinney, Texas, and author of several books including Letters to a Young Mormon, published by Deseret Book. We got to speak with Adam on the subject of sin. Adam has a really unique perspective on this. To quote his book he says, “God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to Him, preferring your stories to His life is sin.” Ever since we first read that, Aubrey and I knew that we had to have Adam on to talk more about it. This was a really fun conversation for us to have and we hope that you enjoy it.
Aubrey Chaves: Okay, my name is Aubrey Chaves and I’m here with my husband, Tim. And today we’re so excited to have Adam Miller with us. Adam is a professor of philosophy at Colin College in McKinney, Texas. He earned his BA in comparative literature from BYU, and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Villanova University. He’s the author of eight books, including Letters to a Young Mormon, which we’ll be hopefully talking a little bit about today. But Adam, thank you so much for talking with us. We’ve been really, really looking forward to this interview.
Adam Miller: My pleasure. Thanks for the work that you do with Faith Matters.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, absolutely. And Adam, if it’s okay we’d love to introduce our listeners a little bit more to you and your background, your personal faith journey. If you wouldn’t mind just kind of telling us more about what you’ve gone through faith-wise throughout your life from growing up to kind of where you are now, and how you’ve navigated in particular your faith life.
Adam Miller: Well, I grew up in the church in Pennsylvania. My father grew up in the church; my mother joined the church after she married my father. Very small church experience. When I was a teenager, we lived in a branch in northern Pennsylvania. We met in a small house that the church owned that was repurposed for church meetings. We had sacrament meeting in the living room, and Sunday school in the bedroom, and the prieststood, of course, in the kitchen.
Tim Chaves: Of course.
Adam Miller: And there was maybe 30, 50 people there on Sunday. But if you didn’t come, everyone noticed and something didn’t get them. And it was a very, in the beginning I think it was a very do-it-yourself Mormon experience for me that I found from the beginning to be pretty empowering. The church for me growing up wasn’t a big, monolithic thing up in Salt Lake City. The church for me growing up was a house that was repurposed for 30 to 50 people who were in many ways clearly making it up as we went along just to do it from week to week.
And so I’ve always kind of felt empowered to do that as I went, right? And to think for myself and to make my own decisions, and to do the best I could with what I had, and to keep my expectations for how it was supposed to look and how it was supposed to work; keep those expectations realistic. And to find in the process itself a lot of the beauty of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.
Tim Chaves: That’s interesting. Now did you remain in that sort of rural setting throughout your teenage years and your first experience going into a larger church community? Was that in college or how did that transition happen?
Adam Miller: We were in that branch the entire time I was in high school. After that, I attended the University of Pittsburgh for a year before my mission at branch campus, where I was the only member of the church. And during that semester, I took over spring break, I took a trip out to Utah, to BYU for the very first time, and it was a little bit of a revelation…
Tim Chaves: I can imagine.
Adam Miller: …to me. And I’d chosen to go to that branch campus of Pitt mostly because they wanted me to play basketball. But after that trip to BYU, I decided that after I returned from my mission I would prefer to go on a date rather than play basketball, which was a tougher choice than it probably should have been. So yeah, maybe my mission, of course … I served my mission in Albuquerque and that was a bit of an introduction for me to a larger experience of the church. But I think it was really coming back from my mission and spending those couple of years at BYU that I got a feel for the church as something bigger.
Tim Chaves: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Aubrey Chaves: Did you feel like your faith development was fairly constant, or did you have a particular turning point where you sort of adjusted your understanding of the Gospel and your relationship with it, or has it been pretty steady?
Adam Miller: I would describe it as a pretty steady process of transformation. I came back to BYU after my mission wanting to study religion, looking for some way to do that, and I majored in comparative literature as an undergrad, and then I ended up doing my graduate work as you said, my masters and PhD in philosophy and theology in Villanova. But I feel like that kind of professional academic training in thinking about religion and thinking philosophically about big issues, about what it means for something to even be real; like what it means for something to be good or what it means for something to be true. What does that even mean in the first place?
I feel like a lot of that philosophical work kind of prepped me with the tools that I would need to be more flexible and open-ended with my own experience of faith as at grew and changed. It’s deepened I think in important ways over time, but I think it’s also going to merit in important ways over the time. And a lot of the things I might have worried about as a 21-year old returned missionary are not, tend not to be issues that I find especially relevant to my experience as a Latter-day Saint now.
Tim Chaves: Now it’s interesting to me, I’m curious how Letters to a Young Mormon came to be because your experience, it sounds like this sort of overriding sense of individuality and flexibility is quite different than a lot of members of the church that just grew up right smack out in the center of Utah like I did for instance. And I feel like maybe in the culture that I was raised in, there is more of a general sense of conformity and correlation and rigidity perhaps. And it seems like your book, Letters to a Young Mormon, is written so perfectly to address the sort of thoughts and feelings that someone like me that came out of that culture is having, that it almost seems like you must have a deep understanding of it. Or did it come about from some other direction?
Adam Miller: The church is still the church, even in Pennsylvania or even in Albuquerque, and so that desire to fit in, to measure up, especially to please people in positions of power and authority, both church leaders and thinking about God in that same way. Those were certainly fundamental parts of my religious experience, too, and that’s not a bad place to start necessarily, but I suspect that in the end that’s not a very satisfying place to live your religious life.
How does Adam Miller define sin?
Aubrey Chaves: We were hoping to sort of focus this conversation specifically on sin, because your chapter in Letters to a Young Mormon about sin was so interesting and felt really different than my understanding of what sin is altogether. And so I think we kind of came from this idea that you get baptized and you’re perfect, and you try to make it through the day without yelling at your little brother or sister. And then you’ve sinned and you feel really guilty, and then you repeat and then you’re back to zero again, and you’re just kind of constantly fighting this battle of falling short of God’s expectation and then feeling terrible. And then you get back up into His good graces and …
Anyway, and so I love your … I felt like you had a really different way of looking at what sin is completely. So could you just sort of give us an overview for someone who hasn’t read the book, or for someone who did and is still trying to figure it out? What is sin?
Adam Miller: Well, I would include myself in the category of people who are lining up to hear that. I mean my own thoughts on this area are a work in progress. But I think it’s important and helpful to make a distinction between two different kinds of sin, or between sin operating at two different levels. That on the one hand, there’s the way that we normally talk about sin in terms of our breaking individual commandments in ways that end up hurting us or hurting other people. And that’s a problem and we should pay attention to those sorts of problems.
But I think there’s a deeper, more global problem with respect to sin that has to do not with our just breaking particular commandments, particular elements of the law, but that has to do with the way that we’re positioned in relationship to the law as a whole. Right? There’s a way in which sin at root has more to do with the way I’m holding the law and what I’m trying to do with the law, than it has to do with particular commandments I happen to be good at keeping or not. And I try to describe this partly in the book in terms of the way that we all have a kind of story we want our lives to tell. Right, we have a kind of vision of how the pieces are supposed to fit together, what’s supposed to happen next, what kind of rewards we’re supposed to get on the basis of the goals that we’ve achieved, or what kinds of punishment we’re supposed to get on the basis of the things we didn’t succeed at, and all those things are supposed to add up to a kind of story about what our lives are supposed to look like and how they’re supposed to go.
And everybody had different versions of those stories that are made out of bits and pieces that you think of at church or from your family, or from magazines or from television, or from capitalism writ large, whatever. A thousand different sources, we’re going to patch these stories together for ourselves about what our lives are supposed to like, and religion in the end in the kind of thing that happens, that really gains traction in those moments in our lives when the stories collide with those lives; like when we discover that our lives are much bigger and much messier, and in some ways much more beautiful and much more substantial than the story, the little, teeny story that we were trying to use that to tell.
And when in those religious moments of contradiction, of conflict, we end up choosing our version of our stories about how our lives are supposed to go over the actual robust and messy life that God is trying to give us, that’s called sin. And when we let go of our version of our stories of how our lives are supposed to go and surrender them to God, and accept instead the big, messy, beautiful, substantial life He’s trying to give, that’s what a religious life looks like. That’s what a life in Christ looks like.
Can the Law be a form of sin?
Aubrey Chaves: I have one thousand questions, but can you talk more about the law and using the law in your story? I really liked that part in that chapter, but if you could explain it a little more. So the idea that the law can be your sin just by the way you’re interacting with it, I guess is what you were saying, right? So you can use the law to feel good about yourself because you’re meeting those standards, in that then it could be a sin even though you’re keeping those rules? Or you can use the law to feel bad and feel like the law’s accusing you, and in that sense you’re still trying to tell this story. Is that … can you talk about that? Is that what you’re saying?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I think you’re on the right track. The way that we normally think about sin in terms of breaking individual commandments I think is kind of thinking about sin in terms of symptoms. The fact that I tend to break particular commandments in particular ways on a regular basis, those are symptoms of a deeper problem in terms of how I’m, in a fundamental way, positioned in relationship to the law, not in terms of what I’m trying to do with the law or by way of the law. So there are sins plural that I think are symptoms of a deeper problem that we can just describe as sin, singular, which is the kind of language I think that we get in Paul’s Epistles. Paul doesn’t tend to talk about sins plural so much as he talks about sin singular as this kind of deeper problem out of which the symptoms grow.
Now I think we can pretty neatly describe the difference between a sinful relationship to the law and a Christian relationship to the law in terms of what you’re using the law to do. And a simple relationship to the law, I think what you’re using the law to do is that you’re using the law to tell a story about what you or other people deserve. Now you may be using the law to tell a story about the fact that you deserve bad things because you’re a bad person, or you may be using the law to tell a story about how other people deserve bad things because they’re bad people. Or you might be using the law to tell a story about how you’re a good person, and thus you deserve good things.
But whenever you’re using the law to tell any kind of story, good or bad, about who deserves what, then I think your position in relationship to the law in a way that is fundamentally sinful. What a Christian relationship to the law looks like I think is instead of using the law to tell a story about what people deserve on the basis on their past actions, what happens is that you start instead to use the law as a way of deciding what is needed here and now in light of life’s circumstances so that the law becomes a kind of guide in the work of love rather than fundamentally a tool of reward or punishment. And that in the end is the only way to actually fulfill the law because the law can only be fulfilled by love, and love’s fundamental job is to respond to what’s needed regardless of whether or not people do or don’t deserve the kind of help that they need.
Now I think we can add a quick addendum here and say now what some people need in some circumstances is to be punished. But if what they need is to be punished, then you’ve punished them because they need it not because that’s what they deserve. Those are two very different ways of understanding and approaching the law. And undergoing that kind of basic transformative shift in our relationship to the law is that conversion I think at the heart of the Christian experience.
Tim Chaves: Now I’m interested, I love that phrase that the law is a guide in the work of love. It makes me question, though, if we break the law into individual commandments, there are some … I think it’s easy to look at most commandments and say yeah, there’s a way to trace this back to love. Pretty straightforward, but at the same time there are some commandments that may seem a bit arbitrary; that maybe … maybe less in the New Testament, but especially like if you look at the law of Moses, which we’re not living today. But was that law a guide in the work of love as well, or is that something else entirely? And if someone were to look at a commandment today and not be able to trace those steps back to love, then why does that commandment exist? Or are they just missing how it does trace back to the law?
Adam Miller: Well, I think the law of Moses is a pretty good example of the law used as a tool for the sake of love, or at least it can be or could have been. Paul’s pretty explicit about the fact that he saw the law of Moses as a schoolmaster to train us up, to tutor us in the work of love. Clearly the law of Moses is a much more elaborate, a specialty ritual system than the kind of thing that you and I rely on religion for in our day, in our time and our place, but I think a lot of it has to do with the way that, especially if you’re Nomads living in the desert, the work of love requires a lot of scaffolding. It requires just a lot of social, cultural scaffolding for the sake of creating the kind of binding communities in which love can freely circulate. You need just a kind of minimum infrastructure for love to circulate and communities to form, and a lot of that infrastructure in terms of the Old Testament was simply not available in any other way at the time or the place.
You and I can rely on all kinds of infrastructure in terms of our social-cultural relationships the church itself doesn’t have to provide. Whereas the law of Moses in a sense had to bootstrap the whole community into existence from ground zero. And so I think our religious experience in terms of what we need in terms of religious laws can be more spare and compact and compressed and flexible, and less ritually rigid because religion in general doesn’t have to the same kind of work in my life as has to do in the life of a 6th century Palestinian Jew.
But in either case I think it’s not hard to read what’s at stake in the law, at least potentially as tools that are available for the work of love. And I think it’s pretty clear from the perspective of the Scriptures, and Jesus hammered us with this point again and again, that regardless of the details of the law, the only way to fulfill the law is by way of love. And if sometimes the details of the law get in the way of the work of love, then Jesus set a pretty clear example of being flexible with how he treated those details.
How should we navigate obeying the law and loving others? Are they at odds?
Aubrey Chaves: I would love to hear you talk more about that. What happens when you really do feel like the law is at odds with the work of love? How does obedience in your mind play into this, well into that kind of sin that you were talking about? Or is there a place for obedience? What do you trust? Do you trust the law or do you trust your conscience, or the spirit, or what is it that you listen to when it feels like there’s a conflict and it’s not a clear ‘thou shalt not steal or kill’ or things that are obviously going to help you love your fellow man better, that makes sense. But when it doesn’t feel that way, then what?
Adam Miller: That’s a good question. I think one of the things that the work of love depends on in the end, one of the things it depends the most deeply on is our willingness to inhabit a place of profound humility. On the one hand, the kind of profound humility in terms of my own grasp of the situation and what God wants, and how clearly I do or don’t understand what the law is asking for, and why it’s asking for it. So for instance if I find myself in a position of disagreement with a position that the church has taken, then I think the work of love enjoins me first of all to be pretty humble in the face of what I can do in light of what prophets and Apostles are saying.
On the other hand, I think that humility extends not just to my relationship to the church. That humility ought to extend in terms of my humility in the face of the complexity of the human experience. And I think it’s obviously pretty clearly true that lots of times our very useful, very powerful, prophetically given principles need to be tailored to the complexity of the human experience, both in terms of our individual relationships and in terms of the church’s own ongoing position and the relationship to the complexity of these issues.
Tim Chaves: I remember, and I wish I had the quote with me, I remember that there was a teaching that I think was from Bruce R. McConkie That talked about Jesus and his interactions with the Sabbath day and was accused by the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath, but it seemed like what he was doing with his Apostles was truly in the service of love. And the response I believe from Bruce R. McConkie was that, and I can’t remember exactly how the logic worked, was that it was impossible that Jesus would have broken the law, and that there was some way in which Jesus both kept the law perfectly and served the work of love. I’m curious if that’s the way you see it. Like, is there a situation, is there any situation in which breaking the law and the work of love coincide? Or does the work of love always go hand-in-hand with the law if we take it as a given that at least that we understand the law, and that the law is what God has truly commanded in a general sense?
Adam Miller: It’s not as if I’m in a position to speak authoritatively about Jesus’s own life and what He did or didn’t do, or why He did or didn’t do it, but that’s never stopped me from saying things before. I mean, I think I can’t make any sense of a Christian life lived from the inside out in terms of perfectly and relentlessly matching my life up in every detail to a set of prescribed in advance rules about what to do and exactly how to do it. That doesn’t make any sense to me in terms of the description of a religious life that’s filled with a kind of vibrant, living connection with God.
Again, clearly we need some scaffolding to live that kind of life and those commandments are helpful. But if you live your Christian life from that perspective, I don’t see how that’s a Christian life at all. In fact, it seems to me to be in lots of ways fundamentally opposed to the kinds of transformation that in Christ puts us in proper relationship to the law. Maybe it’s the case that Jesus’s thoughts and feelings and actions never once ran afoul of all the details prescribed by the law, but to me it seems as if the important thing to say would be something like Jesus, no matter what he did, was never wrongly positioned in relationship to the law. And in that respect, whatever He did was the right thing to do. He did whatever was needed in that moment regardless of the person who He was with did or didn’t deserve it, and regardless of what it did or didn’t cost Him, He did what was needed and that’s what the law requires in order to fulfill its end in love.
Aubrey Chaves: So I’m curious how you, what you recognize as the law. I mean, do you take the Scriptures and it’s just anything you find in the Scriptures, or are we talking about one general, overarching principle or are you talking about 10 Commandments and advice you get in Sunday school. Like, what is the law?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I’m comfortable of course with the conception of the law that’s maybe centered on something like the 10 Commandments. I’m comfortable with the conception of the law that includes all your standard Temple-recommend type questions.
Aubrey Chaves: Okay.
Adam Miller: I’m comfortable with the conception of the law that kind of bleeds out into all the different expectations and rules and laws that shape our social relationships and smooth those connections with other people. I would probably for philosophical reasons tend to think of not the law and something more like a common law fashion that grows out of tradition itself in a way that is a little bit messy and empirical and a work in progress than something that started before the world began and handed down [inaudible 00:27:52] from on high as an ideal to which my life must then conform. I think the law itself is something real and alive and substantial, and that it’s part of the world with us other than something that’s separate from the world used to judge it.
What roles can guilt and shame play?
Aubrey Chaves: Wow. So in that, maybe this is a really good place to talk about guilt then, and I think we have language in the church for guilt and shame. We call it ‘Godly sorrow.’ It’s like we talk about it like it’s this thing we’re supposed to feel. So will you talk about that, and do you think that God gives us that feeling of guilt and shame to help us repent? And if not, what is the catalyst for repentance or for some kind of change that will help you be more in alignment with that love?
Adam Miller: Guilt and shame can be a positive thing. They can be part of the story of my transformation. They can be like the experience of pain, a call to change and do something different, and be something different, and shift in a fundamental way my relationship to the law and the story of my life, and the expectations that I have then to better meet the needs of the people that I love and the people around me, and even my own life, my own body, my own spirit. It’s also I think pretty clear that things like guilt and shame can often do exactly the opposite sort of work; that I can experience that pain that arises from a mismatch between my story about my life and how my life is actually going. I can use that pain in ways not to meet the needs of my life but instead to make things worse. Right? That kind of pain can end up fixating me on myself and on my own worthiness, and on what I do or don’t deserve in a way that deepens the problem of sin rather than waking me up to it.
It doesn’t matter whether I’m using the law to decide, “Oh, I really am in good shape and I deserve whatever kinds of blessings God gives,” or whether I’m using the law to say, “I don’t deserve any of this and God should take it all away.” If I’m using the law to decide who deserves what, I’m using it in this simple way. And if guilt is part of that story, either in my own experience or imputing it to other people, then the law is confirming me in my sinfulness rather than liberating me from it.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow.
Tim Chaves: So in your mind then, where is sort of the inflection point between I guess what you might call a healthy use of guilt; something that drives you to become better; or something that either spirals into a consistent sort of self-image of shame; or something that, like you’re saying, that leaves you positioned wrongly relative to the life that God has for you? When we’re speaking in practical terms, how do you actually use the feelings of guilt or Godly sorrow that you have in a productive way?
Adam Miller: I think we could take the following as a rule of thumb: if my experience of guilt turns my attention, fixes my attention even more firmly on myself, then I’m in trouble. Right? If my experience of guilt turns my attention away from me and towards the people who I feel guilty about having hurt, then it’s working in the right way. It’s turning me in the right direction. Right? If it turns me back toward myself, then I’m going to be stuck in this loop of asking questions about what I do or don’t deserve, right, and that is itself the Satanic loop, the loop of accusation. The word Satan literally means the accuser. Satan is the one who gets you stuck in this loop of accusation in which you’re always trying to decide who does or doesn’t deserve what, maybe yourself especially included.
But if that experience of guilt wakes me up to the fact that I’ve been hurting someone else and then motivates me to change my relationship to them such that I’m not hurting them anymore but meeting whatever needs it is that they have, then that kind of outward spinning turn that follows from my experience of guilt will have been Godly sorrow. If not, we can discover as a kind of Satanic sorrow that just locks you in that loop and makes the religion about you when the whole point of your religious experience is to make your life not about you anymore. And a lot of the liberation that we experience in terms of living a Christian life follows from not having to live my life anymore under the burden of making it be about me and making it be about my story turning out the way I wanted it to.
Tim Chaves: I love that. And if we’re speaking from a pure nomenclature standpoint, Brene Brown has done a lot of work on shame. And her definition, and Aubrey correct me if I’m wrong because you know this stuff better than I do, of guilt is that for her guilt is ‘I did something wrong’ or ‘I did something bad,’ and for her shame is ‘I am bad.’ And so that’s almost that inflection point that you’re speaking about to me, where you did something bad, that’s externally focused. It’s on the action that affected someone else. And ‘I am bad,’ that’s shame; that’s internally focused and therefore unproductive, and I think that’s in line with what Brene is saying. She says guilt is okay because it helps you become better. Shame is an internal spiral of negativity. Am I getting that right, Aubrey?
Aubrey Chaves: That sounds like Brene Brown to me. But it feels like kind of an energy thing, too. I mean that kind of guilt or the shame that you were talking about, that to me feels like so draining; like I can’t be better because it just sucks the life out of me. And I think whatever you want to call it, maybe it’s guilt, but that feels more energizing, like I want to get out and I want to fix it into something to do better, and that feels like a totally different energy to me. I like that differentiation.
Adam Miller: Yeah, the energetics are profoundly different.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah.
How does sin relate to punishment?
Tim Chaves: Adam, we can’t really speak about sin I don’t think without also talking about punishment. I think from a very traditional standpoint, sin is sort of a fork in the road where either you repent; like Aubrey said, in the end you get back into God’s good graces. Or you don’t repent and you’re headed toward punishment. And in some ways, I think in at least a traditional Christian point of view, that punishment is not necessarily just an actual consequence. It’s not just something bad that happened to you or someone else because of what you did naturally. It’s actually projected into the future. It’s some kind of, it depends on the religion, how you actually imagine this, but there’s some hellfire and damnation that’s coming later that’s inflicted upon you separate from the natural consequence of the hurt that you’ve cause. And I’m curious, Adam, if that’s the way you see it. Like is sin …
Actually, Richard Rohr in his book that I finished recently called The Universal Christ, he talks about this. And one of the ways that he phrases it is that he believes we’re punished by our sins rather than punished for our sins, so he’s making an argument on the side of natural consequences. Do you have thoughts around this subject?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I would lean in that direction for sure that we are punished by our sins much more than for our sins, though I think it’s fair to say that that’s the majority position in the Christian tradition at large; Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, all the way up through here; that the majority position is the sin is itself its own punishment; that even if you could get away with your “sins” you wouldn’t want to do it because doing it is itself the thing that you didn’t want to get. I think that’s true. Though for me, I would want to push it maybe a step farther in terms of what we’ve already said. But if I think about punishment as what is deserved as a result of my having acted in a certain way, then I’m probably thinking about the law in general in the wrong way.
If I’m thinking about the law in terms of a mechanism for rewarding and punishing people, then I have from the start misunderstood how the law works, and I’ve misunderstood how the law works in a way that will prevent me from ever fulfilling the law. Because if I use the law to divide the world up into people who do or don’t deserve my help, then I will never be capable of the kind of love that actually could fulfill the law. So you get stuck in a kind of tract there in terms of how you’re using the law in a way that prevents you from ever actually fulfilling it, and that I think is a pretty good description of sin.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow, yeah. That is so profound. So what about the atonement? Can you talk about the role that the atonement plays and what that actually looks like in our life? I don’t know, wherever you want to take that. I’d like to hear the atonement applied to this way of understanding sin.
Adam Miller: Well, I think the atonement is a description of how Christ makes possible this fundamental change in my relationship to the law. And how Christ makes it possible for me to fulfill the law in Him in a way that frees me from the burden of the law and thus empowers me to fulfill the law. Right? As long as I experience the law as a kind of burden in terms of reward and punishment, in terms of whether the law can help me to fulfill my story or not fulfill my story, then I’ll be stuck.
But what Christ accomplishes by way of the atonement is opening a door to a change in my experience in the law that allows me to no longer carry it as a burden, but instead to take up a different kind of yoke with Him, which is not the yoke of succeeding or failing but the work of loving, which you can’t measure in terms of succeeding or failing.
Prayer, stories, and the ego
Aubrey Chaves: Wow. So how do you get past this idea of your own story? Because I get that that is … I think at some point you talk about it like it’s a shadow. That’s in the book, where you talk about the shadow, right? I love that analogy because it just, it’s so much a part of me. It’s so hard to rethink what do I need to be because of my own ego. And so how do you, just like everyday things, how do you separate yourself from that kind of forum and needing to live up to this thing that you’ve created?
And maybe specifically, I would love to hear you talk about prayer because that’s where I feel like it gets really muddy for me. Like I want to pray to ask God to fix and change, and tweak these things so that my story is more my story. I get that, that doesn’t work. How do you pray? What do you pray for? For me, it started to look more contemplative because I don’t know what, I don’t know how to act. I don’t know how to separate what’s my story and this idea of reorienting my life around complete acceptance and love without asking … I don’t know how to ask for change and be oriented that way. So help me.
Adam Miller: That was 15 very good questions.
Aubrey Chaves: This is my ultimate question for Adam Miller. I’ve been dying to ask you this for like a year.
Adam Miller: I think you’re right that ego is something like my attachment to my story. Ego is something like my attempt to identify with my story when my story’s always going to be way too small and fragile a thing to ever, ever hold something like the messy complexity of a real, substantial, beautiful human life. But the ego is the attempt to force my life to fit that narrow mold, and there’s a lot of attachment that gets wrapped up in that.
Now your question was … I’m losing my thread here.
Aubrey Chaves: Daily things, like what does it actually look like, like boots on the ground; how do you not stay so attached.
Adam Miller: Right, right. Okay. Number one, you’re not going to get rid of your story. You’re not going to get rid of the stories. To get rid of stories all together would be to no longer be a human being. Part of being a human being is that your mind is going to endlessly, relentlessly generate these stories, these scenarios, these little fabricated fantasies in which your desires and worries get played out in advance. The law is itself something like a mutually codified story, and stories are fine. The law itself embodies this set of ideals for how we would like a life to unfold, and that’s good. We need them, we have to have them. And again, we wouldn’t be human without the law. We wouldn’t be human without these stories.
But the trouble arises again in terms of when we are positioned wrongly in relationship to those stories. I want to get attached to the law, I want to get attached to my stories. When I want to chose the law or chose the stories over my life or life in general, or the lives of the people that I love, then those stories are no longer tools for the sake of love but they end up producing death rather than meeting the needs of life. So as a practical … that’s from 30,000 feet. As a practical, daily religious practice, the work of a religious life boils down to not expunging those stories from my life, but kind of constantly reminding myself that those stories are just stories.
My mind is going to produce them, that’s inevitable; the law is there, it’s kind of a repository for our shared stories, but that my life is not the same thing as those stories. And those stories can be put to work for the sake of love, and when I do, they’re good. But when those stories are put to work for some other purpose; for instance, to decide what is or isn’t deserved, then those stories are part of the trap that religion itself is designed to liberate me from. And it’s the question in the end not so much of whether or not I can successfully get my life to match in every respect all the details of those stories, that very version of what a religious life looks like is problematic. I think it’s a question of whether or not I can change my relationship to the demands of that law and of those stories. Can I change my relationship to those demands in a way that frees them up to be used for the sake of love rather than for the sake of hurting myself and other people.
Tim Chaves: I’m curious, and I was thinking about this as you two were talking, if maybe like a mindfulness practice of some sort may have played a role here. I think in Mormonism or in the Restored Gospel tradition, we have a very keen sense that we are much more than just our bodies; like we’re not just our body, there’s something more there. But I don’t think we necessarily have a keen sense that we are not our thoughts. Like I think for a lot of us, whatever’s going on in our heads, that’s us. And I think the idea that we’re not our thoughts either; we’re not just not our bodies, we’re also not our thoughts is rooted in Eastern tradition, but has been popularized in recent years here in the US and elsewhere by Elkhart, Tolley and others; and there’s this idea that plays into it of mindfulness where we’re actually making a thoughtful practice or not thoughtful by definition, but we’re making a deliberate practice of sort of saying there’s nothing going on in our minds right now. Is that, could that potentially be useful in disassociating ourselves from our stories as well as our thoughts? Or are our thoughts our stories? Is that the same thing?
Adam Miller: I think Jesus it turns out is a good model here for what a Christian life looks life, and Jesus encapsulates this very clearly and very simply and very straightforwardly in the prayer of all prayers in the Garden of Gesthsemane when He patterns for us not just what a prayer looks like, but what a religious life looks like. And a prayer looks like saying this: it looks like saying Thy will be done, not mine; Thy life be lived, not my story. And that work through the course of a day of putting down again and again my attachment to my will in order to meet the needs of the world as it presents itself to me in love, that’s a religious life. That’s what the actual work of a religious life looks like.
Now we have formal practices that help us to do this, that help us to shift our position in relationship to our own stories and to the demands of the law, and that put us in a position to love other people, and there are things like praying, where you try not to do that just in a general way but you literally set aside time to say, “Not my will today. Not mine.” Or you set aside time for devotional reading, which instead of doing what you want to do or reading what you want to read, you read really old stories about God that maybe you can barely get your head around, that disabuse you of the idea that your way of thinking about the world is the only way, or maybe especially God’s way. Right? And you look for opportunities to serve, and you gather the whole family together as complicated as it is, and then you do that together for five minutes despite the children bouncing off the wall.
Or you put people in white shirts and ties, and you take them to church on Sunday, and you make them sit still for an hour and a half, and maybe even deny them Cheerios for the length of the entire meeting to disabuse them of the idea that it’s their will that’s done, not yours. You look for a thousand ways, right, in the course of your day and it comes back pretty straightforward. We do all the things that we always say that you have to do in order to live a religious life; to read and to pray, and to go to church, and to do your ministry, but to take them up as a way of meeting other people’s needs and even your own, rather than taking them up as a way of proving to God that you do or don’t deserve something.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. It’s such a small adjustment. I just love that. It could look exactly the same from the outside and it’s just the world looks different.
Adam Miller: One is an experience of freedom and one is an experience of sin and captivity.
Aubrey Chaves: Yes, oh my gosh. Yes. So the “Thy will be done” thing, I just want to … will you just talk about this a little bit more. Like I’m wondering when something personally, when something comes up and you just, you’re resisting it; like you can feel the tension, you can feel the resistance; you just want this thing to be different. Is faith putting all your hope in this idea that God could change it for you, or is faith putting all your trust in just you don’t know what’s going to happen? I always feel this, like I don’t have enough faith so my prayer isn’t going to be answered.
But is that even faith to trust that God could change this for me? And is faith just even … it’s like on a next level. It’s an even bigger faith which is that I can trust God with my life, period, so I can totally, I need to totally accept this thing happened. Do you know what I mean? I’m always worried about this last, that I just don’t have enough faith to change the thing I want to change because I’m not sure that that’s what I’m supposed to be believing and hoping that God will change. You know?
Adam Miller: No. I do now. I think we can take it for granted that God is interested in changing the world, and I think we can take it for granted that God is interested in changing us. But I think the ground for any meaningful transformation begins with a kind of deep and humble acceptance of how things are and what has been given. Because the very first thing that has to happen in order for me to meet the needs of this present moment, the very first thing that would have to happen in order for me to meet the needs placed on me by this conversation would be to accept the context and premise of the conversation, and you can’t meet the needs of the thing that you haven’t acknowledged and recognized and accepted. If you begin from a position of denying the way things are, that prevents you from changing and transforming. If you begin from the position of accepting things perhaps in a pretty radical way as they are, much of it entirely outside your power, that empowers you to do what is possible with your own small power, with your own small expression of God’s power to meet the needs of that situation and change it in ways that be positively changed.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow, I love that. Faith is acceptance; acceptance first.
How can I teach my children these things in a healthy way?
Tim Chaves: Adam, just really quickly. I know we’ve got to let you go here soon, but Aubrey and I are parents of young children.
Adam Miller: Congratulations.
Tim Chaves: Thank you. Well, it’s been 11 years though. We think a lot about obviously how to help our kids have a healthy relationship with what we’re calling in this conversation the law; a healthy relationship with sin.
Aubrey Chaves: Guilt.
Tim Chaves: With guilt in particular, for sure. I don’t think my relationship has always been that healthy with those things. I think what I called guilt a lot growing up and throughout even a lot of my adult life was actually shame. It was inward-focused rather than outward-focused. Do you have thoughts on raising children or teaching concepts that would help others for whom we care and love to think about these things in a way that’s productive and healthy?
Adam Miller: From that line comes back to the substance of our conversation for the last hour here. I wouldn’t want my children to have a healthy relationship with sin because I think that sin is in the end having an unhealthy relationship with the law. But I would want them to have a healthy relationship with the law that would involve kind of transformation of the way that they experience guilt; not as a condemnation, but as a call; as a call for help, as an expression of need, that they could help me.
Part of that involves saying the right things and teaching the right things, and maybe taking a crack at it if you have the time and the disposition at writing a book for your kids, in which you try to say some of the things that you’ll actually have a chance to say out loud. But most of it, I think in the end, boils down to modeling for them what that kind of life looks like; modeling for them what it looks like to have a healthy relationship to the law; modeling for them what it looks like for you to have a healthy relationship in terms of your expectations for them in relationship to the law. And they will feel that right away. They will feel that immediately, they will feel that deeply, they will feel it in their bones in terms of whether or not you are treating the law as something that they have to measure up to in order to deserve something from you, and whether or not you’re using the law continually in your relationship with them to simply judge what they need in love from you.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow.
Adam Miller: None of this is revolutionary, right? I mean, it boils down to loving your children. It boils down to that love being an important place, unconditional, and showing them how the law has made us healthy.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow. I think that’s a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much. I’m going to have to listen to this like four more times and keep letting it soak in.
Tim Chaves: Thanks so much, Adam.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, thanks for your work and for taking an hour with us. That was so great.
Adam Miller: My pleasure. Hopefully, our paths will cross again.
Tim Chaves: Yes.
Aubrey Chaves: Yes, I hope so.
Tim Chaves: Thanks so much for listening to this episode and we hope you enjoyed it. If you want to support Faith Matters, we’d love for you to subscribe to this podcast, like our Facebook page, or subscribe to your YouTube channel. We’d also love a rating on Apple podcasts or a thumbs up on YouTube if you feel so inclined. Thanks so much for listening, and as always you can check out more at faithmatters.org.