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When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows. Not the flower.
-Alexander Den Heijer
I sometimes hear from my college students the general sentiment that “high school drop outs are unmotivated”, “homeless people are just lazy,” or “criminals are born evil.” Inaccurately viewing “the least of these”1 as deserving of their unfortunate situations is a dangerous attitude which leads to inaction rather than seeking to understand, change, and prevent problems.
If students are intentionally choosing to drop out of school because they are lazy, then society is justified in giving up on them. If homeless people choose not to work, then it’s acceptable to exclude them from physical or mental health resources. If criminals are born evil, they can be locked up for excessive amounts of time, treated inhumanely, and labeled as felons indefinitely. Are there individuals who can overcome poverty and other hardships with their own ambitions? Certainly. Can this be expected of entire classes of people? No.
Human behavior is a complex web of inherited genes interacting with the environment. Simplifying it as solely the result of one’s deliberate choices allows society to give up on those who need help the most. One of the most profound examples of understanding the nuances of behavior is Jeffery R. Holland2 stating:
I openly acknowledge the unearned, undeserved, unending blessings in my life, both temporal and spiritual. Like you, I have had to worry about finances on occasion, but I have never been poor, nor do I even know how the poor feel. Furthermore, I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education, and economic opportunities vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I also know that although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother, and “because I have been given much, I too must give.”
This message deeply resonates with me because I am one with unending blessings that are unearned and undeserved. I did not choose to live in a stable, two-parent household. I did not earn my way to a childhood in a safe neighborhood with clean water. I did nothing to deserve a home with soft mattresses, working toilets, or a solid roof, just as many living in other places did nothing to deserve to live in grass huts with dirt floors.
King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon3 asked his people to stop assuming the needy have brought their misery on themselves. In my interpretation, he was advocating to stop simplifying behavior to internal factors when he said:
16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
It is my duty to impart of my substance to the beggar, just as Jesus Christ has forgiven me of my sins when I have begged for his mercy. I have fallen time and time again. I do not deserve God’s forgiveness, yet He gives it anyway. I did not earn His love, yet He engulfs me with it anyway. It’s only God who understands the circumstances of each human and can know who has truly brought his misfortunes on himself.
God has said, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”4 He can decide who to forgive, who to bless, who to curse. But to his followers he has asked, “Love your enemies”5 God wants all His children to be watched over and return to Him. “Remember, the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.”6
Situations such as dropping out of school, homelessness, and criminal behavior typically occur for reasons that are intricate. Often it is circumstances that create many of the world’s troubles, not inherited traits. Criminals, delinquents, and loafers are made, not born. Each human is born with the light of Christ. It is up to society to explore the nuances of behavior with compassion and empathy as many do when analyzing their own behaviors, and just as the Savior asked His people to do to others. With collective actions, all of God’s children can be watched over and cared for.
- Mosiah 2:17
- Are We Not All Beggars? October 2014 LDS General Conference https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/are-we-not-all-beggars?lang=eng
- Mosiah 4: 16-20
- Doctrine and Covenants 64:10
- Matthew 5:44
- Doctrine and Covenants 18:10