When I was a teenager my family moved to Utah. That fall I experienced the novelty of watching General Conference on television instead of on a satellite broadcast at the church building. I snuggled up with an afghan and a pillow on our living room couch, thinking without fondness of those wooden-backed pews in our old stake center. It is entirely possible that I fell asleep for a few minutes during one of the talks that morning.
“This living in Utah thing certainly has its benefits,” I thought.
But when the session ended I was suddenly accosted by an advertisement for religious books. Two hours of reverent choir music and teachings of general authorities … and then a commercial?
I looked over at my brother and noted his disturbed expression. This kind of thing never happened in California. As the commercial ended he looked at me and said, in his announcer voice, “This book is guaranteed to increase your spirituality in 90 days — or your money back!” We both laughed.
“Buy yours today!” I said.
I wondered whether that book seller was trying to build God’s kingdom, or just trying to make a buck. Maybe both? Clearly there is money to be made by creating religious works targeted to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I was thinking of a statement by Dieter F. Uchtdorf in the October 2011 General Conference when I started this blog:
“With so many social media resources and a multitude of more or less useful gadgets at our disposal, sharing the good news of the gospel is easier and the effects more far-reaching than ever before. […] My dear young friends, perhaps the Lord’s encouragement to ‘open [your] mouths’ might today include ‘use your hands’ to blog and text message the gospel to all the world!”
At the time I was serving as a ward missionary, and I hoped that sharing my faith using medical stories and analogies would be a good way for me to reach people who were searching for the gospel. Over time I learned a lot about writing and maintaining a website. I also ventured into the strange and unfamiliar world of marketing, networking, and social media presence. This was fun and exciting, especially when my audience was first growing, but over time I found myself wondering why I was spending so much time on this project when I also had my family, career, and church responsibilities to worry about.
Motivations are like pendulums; they are prone to oscillate between extremes. Sometimes writing can feel like inspiration — there is hardly a more thrilling experience! But other times I find myself paying more attention to my traffic stats than to the still, small voice. Sometimes I ponder more about what topics will bring readers to my site than about what topics will bring the spirit to their hearts.
In 1787 AD, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, took a boating tour of Crimea, accompanied by foreign dignitaries. As the story goes, Grigory Potemkin, a Russian official, set up temporary villages along the shore of the river in order to impress the group with how industrious and prosperous the region was. When the boat tour moved beyond sight, the village fascade would be packed up, transported down river, and set up again. There are good reasons to believe that this story didn’t happen according to the traditional narrative, but the term “Potemkin village” somehow made it into common usage, especially in political writing, to describe elaborate efforts to make something look more successful, prosperous, and busy than it really is. Anyone who has tried to promote a new book, film, song, website, podcast, or social media page knows what that kind of work feels like. We are all Potemkin villagers from time to time.
Deiter F. Uchtdorf referred to Potemkin villages in the April 2015 General Conference, applying the concept to our personal devotion and church service when there is a temptation to make yourself appear better than you really are. Although we might just be trying to put our best foot forward, these efforts can easily cross over the line to hypocrisy. He warned that it is “especially dangerous when we direct our outward expressions of discipleship to impress others for personal gain or influence.”
That statement gives me pause, and I think it needs to be taken seriously. In my work as a religious media creator, what kind of “personal gain or influence” might I be seeking? Do I want my name to be prominent as a religious blogger or medical doctor? Or do I really just want to help people to believe and do what is right? Do I want my readers to turn to me for guidance on spiritual matters? Or do I really just want to help explain and demonstrate how to apply gospel principles to everyday life, because these principles have helped me in mine? Am I competing with the Church for the narrow bandwidth of people who are interested in reading religious viewpoints from Latter-day Saints? Or am I trying to increase that bandwidth and direct my readers towards the Church and towards the ultimate source of truth?
What President Uchtdorf cautions against is not just the sin of hypocrisy, but of priestcraft:
“He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29).
This wonderful and thrilling work of sharing faith through creative works has an “especially dangerous” pitfall. Considering the damage inflicted on Nephite society through priestcraft, we should be especially cautious as we proceed.
But aren’t we supposed to be voices of light? Aren’t we supposed to “let [our] light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works” (Matt 5:16)? How are we to be a light on a hill without setting ourselves up as a light?
The Sermon on the Mount is our essential guide to navigating this paradox. Here Jesus instructs us about having the right motivations for praying, fasting, giving alms, and other religious activities. Do we create religious content “to be seen of [men]” (Matt 6:1)? If so, then we have our reward in stats: sales, downloads, page views, shares, likes, and comments. But if we are sincerely motivated by a love for God and for our neighbors, then our acts of devotion are rewarded in Heaven. That’s where the real treasures are, and where they endure forever.
What Jesus taught here was the principle of consecration as applied to acts of devotion. Consecration, like love, is both a commandment and an attitude. It is a principle with promise: when we live our lives with an eye single to his glory — not ours — then we are filled with light (Matt 6:22). Our efforts are magnified by his power and we become instruments in his hands.
Our creative talents and skills are gifts from God, and he holds a majority interest in how we use them. If we are focused on building his kingdom then we will not be much tempted to take credit for his light, claiming it as our own. Thus, consecration is the antidote and prophylaxis for priestcraft.
Living the higher law is hard. Doing it consistently can be as challenging as keeping the good deeds of one hand a secret from the other. But over time the doctrine of consecration will channel and train our motivations, dampening their inevitable oscillations.
After teaching the Sermon on the Mount to the Nephites, Jesus added this explanation:
“Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do” (3 Nephi 18:24).
What have we seen him do? Consecrate himself to the Father, always showing reverence and deference to the Father’s will, and acknowledging the Father’s power and doctrine.
We can do the same in our works, by his grace.
Note: This post is a significant revision of a previous post.