(For those picking up here, you may want to read the overview first.)
The LDS view of mortality is not nearly as unique as our teachings on our existence prior to and following it, but is, perhaps, more clearly defined than most other religions’ teachings in terms of purpose.
As I noted in the previous post on the pre-mortal existence, the long-view purpose of mortality is to gain a physical body, and to learn how to independently use our agency. Inasmuch as we learn to do these things in ways that are in harmony with God and His plan of happiness, God will help us. He has provided a way for us to return to His presence.
Many of the events traditional Christianity consider tragedies of God’s plan having been derailed by people, we consider to have been part of His plan all along. From the Fall of Adam & Eve to the Crucifixion of Christ to the Martyrdom of the prophets, we see God using the agency of people to provide conditions that He could not directly produce as they would be contrary to His nature. Though the Fall and Crucifixion were central to the plan, the various martyrs throughout the Bible were necessary to testify of the Gospel and were allowed because His plan was really more about agency than anything else. To punish or prevent wickedness overtly would have been to diminish agency. His justice is delayed to allow us to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them.
These major events in Christianity were central in making his plan work, but the plan is ultimately meant to be applied individually. Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. We must all choose to follow the path Christ provided for us. We can and should try to help others come to Christ, but we cannot force them. We are responsible for our positive and negative influences on others, but only as this is part of our individual responsibility for our own actions given our individual circumstances.
Inasmuch as God wants us to become like him, and becoming like Him will bring joy and happiness to our lives, He has provided teachings and ordinances to guide and help us. As we follow the teachings, we develop attributes that bring us closer to God. It is the development of our character to be in harmony with God that is the true purpose of this life and is also what brings us the greatest joy.
This is made difficult both by temptation and by what Mormons refer to as the “natural man.” “The natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) To develop godlike attributes usually means overcoming our natural tendencies and instinctive desires. It is not easy to follow God’s teachings, and it is not enough to be better than someone else, or good at only one thing. We must improve ourselves constantly. This is at the core of what the Church calls “eternal progression”. We are instructed to be perfect (Matt. 5:48), which is ultimately impossible in this life, but, used as the goal, provides the target for our daily improvement.
Humility is an essential attribute as we strive to become closer to our Savior. Through it, not only do we recognize our need for our Redeemer’s assistance, but we also increase our compassion for others. Recognizing our own mistakes and character flaws is not always as easy as it perhaps should be. Sometimes it is easier to see these things others. However, when we truly have a desire to become better, and to repent of our mistakes and imperfections, we begin not only to become better through that process, but are also able to understand the illusion of perfection — that is at once unattainable and required by so much of our society — and gain an appreciation of the difficulties others go through in reconciling behavior to that standard.
Another trait that is essential in finding peace and happiness in this life is gratitude. The modern world runs on generating discontent for the purposes of enticing people to buy things in an attempt to satisfy that discontent. By design, this does not work. The only way to find contentment is to choose it. When we are grateful for the things we have to the extent that we do not feel the need for anything else, we are by definition, content. Gratitude is a matter of discipline. To increase our gratitude, all we need to do is consider the things we have that we appreciate. Our discipline can become powerful enough that we can even be substantially content when real needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met.
Above all, the attribute most important to our progression is love. Not just the love of a partner or within a family, but the true love of Christ, or as the scriptures call it, charity. It is a love that extends to every living thing: our friends, colleagues, strangers, enemies, even animals and plants. It is manifested in respect, compassion, care-taking, courtesy, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, sharing, service, and kindness. It is through love that we will find the greatest happiness in this life. Without love, we will never find true happiness.
Though those attributes are the most important in terms of what to develop, through faith we can learn how to develop these characteristics. It’s our faith in Christ that keeps us going and motivates our progress. It is so very easy to get discouraged and become cynical. Faith helps us maintain our optimism about both the future and our own capabilities. It motivates us to develop Christlike attributes, and gives us access to His help to do that.
Through our faith we are able to access the power of the atonement. This is what changes us to the core. When we have truly experienced the change of heart associated with a conversion to follow Jesus Christ, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This does not mean that we are perfect or that we do not make mistakes, it just means that we truly and deeply desire to do what God would have us do. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a permanent state. As Mormons, we do not believe that people so converted are “saved” in the same sense that many other Evangelical churches teach. We believe that after conversion we must also “endure to the end.”
As a devout theist, it feels somewhat heretical to say this, but, there is no proof of God’s existence. What I mean by that is that for all of the evidence of God’s existence, even taken together, it is not sufficient to incontrovertibly prove, once and for all, to all the world that God exists. There have been individuals to whom God has proven his existence, but for most human beings, if we choose to believe in God, there is an element of faith required to continue that belief.
I suspect this proposition is obvious to many who don’t believe in God, while some believers may resist it being stated this way. However, this is actually a very important point in LDS theology for three reasons.
First, we believe that one of the primary purposes of this life is to prove our character by how we act when out of God’s presence. Because the nature of God allows him to know our every move, the only way we could achieve the required independence was to be put into a situation where we could believe God was not there.
Second, in a world where all will inevitably sin, we will be judged with respect to our knowledge and understanding of what is right. So, it is a mercy to withhold this knowledge from those who would be condemned by it.
Third, the process of gaining faith is also central to our purpose in life. “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think.” The same is true for our spiritual education. Learning to use faith in order to gain understanding and to grow as an individual is key to progression. Having the central tenet of religion be unknowable except through faith demonstrates the central importance of faith.
Ultimately, all of these points boil down to something central to what we believe is the purpose of life. We are here not by random chance or for God’s amusement. We were sent from God’s presence to prove our character and improve our minds. The final judgment will not be based on an arbitrary checklist, but rather on the person we have become through our life on this planet. For those who have chosen not to believe, God will use the same criteria, and has structured His intervention on this planet to give us the best opportunity He could give.