"Efficiency" isn't that important to God

As a software engineer, it's my job to find the optimal way to do things. I'm constantly looking for the most efficient method to sort a list, store stuff in a database, and speed up a program. And once my brain is set to "optimization mode," it's hard to turn it off.

For example, recently, as I waited for a Temple session to start, I found myself mentally inventing ways to increase the throughput of proxy ordinance work. I came up with a way we could do 10x the number of names per endowment session with just a few minor tweaks and no degradation of the experience.

But the Spirit interrupted my silent design session with a gentle rebuke: "This is the Temple. Look around. What gave you the idea that 'efficiency' is what's most important here?"

As I pondered on this experience later, many stories and insights from the ancient and latter-day scripture flooded my mind. What did I learn? That by mortal standards, God operates very inefficiently. Because He's operating with a completely different set of priorities. Here are several seeming "inefficiencies" I'm grateful for.

Inefficiency #1: God asks us questions when He already knows the answer

We learn from the Book of Mormon that "the Spirit knoweth all things," including the "thoughts and the intents of [our] heart." So it's significant that Nephi's grand, panoptic vision begins with the Spirit asking him "what desirest thou?" Throughout the vision, Nephi's divine guides ask him a whole series of seemingly pointless questions: Do you believe your father? What do you see? What do you see now? Do you understand the condescension of God? How about now?

Nephi talking to the Spirit

Nephi wasn't the only one whom the Lord peppered with seemingly unnecessary questions. Adam, where are you? Adam, why are you offering sacrifices? Cain, where's your brother? Moses, what is that in your hand? Elijah, what are you doing here? Where are you going, Hagar? Where were you, Job, when I created the world? What's your name (Jacob)? David, do you really think you're the right one to build a Temple for me? What do you see, Jeremiah? Why are you scared, Brother of Jared? Did you see more than My finger?

The Lord continued asking such questions throughout His mortal ministry: What do you think of Christ? Why do you call Me good? Why are you troubled? Whose face is on this coin? Who is the good guy in this parable? How many loaves do you have? Who touched me? Can you see yet? How has your fishing been going? Have you tried casting your net on the other side of the boat? Simon, do you love me? No, really, do you love me? John and the Three Nephites, what do you desire most in your heart?

This practice continues into our day. Next time you do an Endowment session in the Temple, pay attention to how many times the Lord or His officiators ask questions to which they already know the answer. It's the pattern of the entire Temple experience.

Why is it that God often spends more time asking than He does speaking? It would be far more efficient for the Lord to just tell us the answer. But it's beneficial for us mortals to reason through the answer ourselves, actively participate in the teaching process, and put the nebulous thoughts or desires of our hearts into concrete words. Abraham wasn't commanded to offer Isaac because God needed to learn something about Abraham but because "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham."

Inefficiency #2: A divine stamp on a suboptimal solution

The Brother of Jared sees the finger of the Lord

We're familiar with the story of the Brother of Jared. How the Lord revealed advanced boat designs and solved all the technical hurdles of the cross-oceanic voyage… except one. He left it to the brother of Jared to come up with a solution for the problem of light. When the prophet returned, I don't think it was just reverent humility that prompted him to apologize for the crudeness of his approach like Doc Brown. No, the brother of Jared knew that his idea was nothing compared to the solutions the Lord could have dictated.

The Lord could have given the brother of Jared nice, recessed LED lights with 100 different color/brightness settings he could control with an app. Instead, the Lord accepted and adopted the brother of Jared's comparatively crude approach, ensuring that it got into the scriptures for millions to read like a parent proudly hanging up a child's finger painting on the fridge all to see.

Why did the Lord settle for such a suboptimal approach? Because God was less concerned with the physical light in the boats than the spiritual light in the boatmaker. Insisting on the best possible option would have deprived the brother of Jared of the opportunity to pierce the veil and learn.

I think of the hours I spend reminding my kids to do their chores, teaching them how to do their chores, and inspecting their chores when they say they are finished. That process takes far longer than the few minutes it would take me to just do those chores myself. And my kids can't get things as clean as I can, even with my coaching. Why go through all that hassle? Because developing the habit of work in my kids is more important than the quality and timeliness of the work itself.

We see this principle play out in the Church today. The Lord is at the head of this Church, and He will never permit His leaders to lead it astray. However, He often also doesn't micromanage His leaders. He trusts His servants to do their best, allowing them to use their mortal judgment, even when He with His perfect knowledge would have done things differently.

Letting mortals exercise their judgment means we sometimes get some extra bureaucracy, some unnecessary programs and policies (especially at the local level), and even some doctrinal confusion in the ranks once in a while. This makes for a bumpy road sometimes, but the Lord is okay with that because having the members work in the Church is more important than the quality of the work they produce.

Inefficiency #3: A divine stamp on a wrong solution

Suboptimal solutions are one thing, but sure the Lord would never let things go flat-out wrong, right?

Well, not so fast. Consider the parable of the olive tree in Jacob 5. No one knows the vineyard and the industry better than the Lord of the vineyard– He knows every branch of every tree. Yet throughout the allegory, the Lord brings His problems to His servant and asks for His advice. Some have interpreted the servant to be Jesus Christ, acting under the direction of Heavenly Father. Others see the Lord of the vineyard as Jesus Christ and the servant representing His prophet. Others see the servant as more of a narrative dialogue device, not specifically representative of any one particular being. While the servant is loving of the vineyard, I don't think the servant represents the Savior because:

  1. The servant isn't always of the same mind as the Lord of the vineyard, and
  2. Because the servant gets it wrong sometimes– with sometimes harmful consequences.

In verse 25, the Lord shows the servant a tree that had diverged in two parts: one part grew good fruit, the other, bad. He then commands the servant to remove the branches that grow bad fruit so all the energy of the tree can be focused on growing good fruit. But the servant urges the Lord to instead spare the bad branches, and give it more time. The Lord yields to his counsel.

The Lord and servant of the vineyard speak to each other

The servant's advice in this case wasn't just suboptimal– it was deadly. The bad branch predictably and aggressively took over the tree like a cancer and killed the good branch. Listen to the words of what I feel was the Lord lovingly correcting His mistaken servant:

Thou beheldest that a part thereof brought forth good fruit, and a part thereof brought forth wild fruit; and because I plucked not the branches thereof and cast them into the fire, behold, they have overcome the good branch that it hath withered away.

The Lord of the vineyard knowingly adopted the solution put forward by His mortal servant even when He knew it would make things worse. Likewise, the Lord allows teachers and leaders from the ward level to the First Presidency to make mistakes, even when He knows it can make things worse for His Church. Missionaries, youth teachers, Gospel Doctrine teachers, and leaders are all unpaid, untrained mortals. We get it wrong sometimes, and not just at the local level.

And so the Lord made water come from the rock even when Moses smote it unworthily. He had Samuel choose a king even though He warned the Jews it would harm them (an event that repeated itself twice in the Book of Mormon). He delivered deep doctrines to the Jews, even when He knew it would only serve to their condemnation. He permitted Joseph to share the 116 pages, even though He knew millions would regret that choice.

Why would the Lord allow even harmful mistakes? Because the Lord is just as interested in pruning and nurturing His servants as He is in pruning and nurturing His vineyard. Our Savior knows the end from the beginning, He knows the mistakes we will make, and He knows how far He can permit our mistakes– even harmful mistakes– to proceed without impeding His Plan. Yes, that means His children would have to suffer through a race-based priesthood and temple ban and members who spout off wild theories in Sunday School and scare away recent converts. But we can rest assured that Jesus Christ has, through the Atonement and the Plan of Salvation, already put in motion the fix to compensate for every single one. No blessing will be withheld in the eternities due to the mistakes of others.

The efficiency behind the inefficiency

It's true, from our imperfect vantage point, God's work is messy. You are guaranteed to be dissatisfied when you measure the Master by the metrics of mortals. But when we recognize that "God's ways are higher than our ways," we can start to see the divinity behind the messiness.

For example, consider the reduction in the minimum missionary age implemented in 2012. From Pres. Nelson's biography:

Some young men, swept up in the eighteen-year-old movement, went on missions before they were ready. Some sisters, caught up in a wave of “Why not serve since we can go so much earlier,” were not adequately prepared. The number of missionaries not completing their missions increased [and] though the number of missionaries had increased dramatically, the number of baptisms had not.

By every mortal metric, this move was a failure. But that's because we're not "measuring what matters." Convert growth of the Church is not the primary goal of the missionary program. If it were the goal, we wouldn't put it in the hands of teenagers. Ask any mission president– the primary goal of the missionary program is the conversion of the missionary, not the conversion of those he or she may teach:

The MEC [Missionary Executive Committee] had begun exploring the possibility of an age change for several reasons, [including that] some young men weren’t as pure at nineteen as they had been a year earlier and subsequently disqualified themselves from serving.

In one meeting, where the pros and cons of lowering the age requirement were aggressively explored, Elder Nelson cited the various reasons youth, particularly young men, were choosing not to serve and then drew on his medical background to characterize the situation: “We are losing the lifeblood of this Church,” he said, “and in my world we’d call that a hemorrhage.”

This is no exaggeration. I felt we had a strong group of youth in our ward. One day during college, I looked at a picture of my ward youth group. Looking at those vibrant, smiling faces was painful. In the few short years since that picture was taken, 90% of those youth of Zion had deserted the Covenant Path– often during that first year after high school. Yes, the conversion rate is about the same. But, as Pres. Nelson pointed out:

We did not make this change because we expected more converts. We did it to stop the hemorrhage and to save the lifeblood of the Church… Remember why we made these decisions. We made them to save the next generation.

Is it working? I have only anecdotes to go on, but I think so. I've personally seen less loss of the young men and women during those critical years than I saw in my youth.

It's an awful way to move a rock, but a great way to build muscle.

Reacting to mistakes and inefficiencies

When we see the mistakes or inefficiencies of Church members or leaders, Satan, the "accuser" will always tempt us to magnify the issues we think we see, constantly pick at them, and set ourselves up as the correction to their supposed inadequacies. This spirit of criticism can quickly turn into the spirit of apostasy and we soon find ourselves like the man in Elder Renlund's analogy, jumping off the safety of the boat because we are troubled by the boat's dented hull and peeling paint.

Instead, when you perceive inefficiencies in the leadership of others, or of yourself, consider these words from Elder Christofferson:

As weak and imperfect as we are, it’s a wonder the Lord lets us touch anything. But He does, you know, and Him letting us help is what helps us grow…

We’re like a little three year-old; he sees his dad painting a door and it looks like a lot of fun. So he runs up: “Dad, let me help, let me help.” And Dad’s thinking, “Well, I know what kind of 'help' this will be.” But he loves him, so he gives him a brush…

We’re this little child, painting as long as our attention span lasts, and then off we go and Dad’s left to fix the 'help.' Sometimes I think that’s kind of how the Lord mops after us in a way when we make mistakes, but He’s always looking to build us as the work goes on.

And in the end, of course, we are the work.

And as Elder Holland eloquently put it:

Be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.

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