A Bunch of Penguins: A Case For Conformity


When I was a young missionary at the MTC, I was bothered by the idea that we were all expected to look the same, act the same, and even memorize the same lessons. At times I felt that the demands of conformity were stifling, as we seemed to be an endless parade of penguins, marching in lockstep.

My admittedly immature and cynical viewpoint faded as I immersed myself in the Lord’s service, and began to learn and grow. Now, more than 30 years later, I have decidedly moved to the opposite end of the conformity spectrum.  Now I get it.

When I use the word “conformity,” I can feel people bristle. Relax – it is not a bad word. Nor does it mean that the doors of the Church are not open wide to people of all nations, cultures, political persuasions, personalities, and mindsets. Everyone is welcome.

President Uchtorf even made it a point in 2013 to invite everyone to the Church, saying, “Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need you unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.” (link)

We all have our differences, and the very next year, Elder Oaks spent an entire talk teaching us how to love and live with each other’s differences. (link)

Before we get into the meat of this post, let’s stipulate 2 things:

1) Everyone is unique, and that is OK.

2) We need to love one another, even if we are different.

i gotta be me

(Hopefully these two stipulations will keep us on topic now, and in the comment section.)

Everyone who is in the Church, as well as everyone who enters the Church is different. We live in a society that extolls individuality, and great efforts are made to highlight those things that make us unique, or stand out.

But the main point of this post is something that I think we sometimes forget in our worry to embrace the diversity in the Church: As members of the Church, and followers of the Savior, our mission is to become more the same.

What? Yes, we are supposed to become more like each other. Sure, it is fine to be wildly different when we enter the Church, but as we progress, we should gradually become more alike.

Rather than try and explain it myself, I will use three examples from the scriptures to make my point.

1) I’m trying to be like Jesus

We sing the words “I’m trying to be like Jesus” from the moment we can sing, and rightfully so. They are based on one of the Savior’s requests:

“What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi  27:27)

That idea flows through so many of his teachings: “Come follow me,” “Be ye therefore perfect, even as I…” etc.

Here is the logic in favor of conformity: As we all strive to become like Jesus, we – by necessity – grow to become more like each other.

Chart 1.indd

While there might be billions of us that are all different, there is only one Savior, and we have been charged to be like Him, so it is inevitable that we become more alike as we take on more of His defined characteristics. (And that ain’t a bad thing.)

2) There is one path

The Lord has made it quite clear that there are not a lot of different roads to take to get to where he wants us to end up.

“Because straight is the gate, and narrow the way which leadeth unto life, and few be there that find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

Chart 2.indd

As we all merge onto the road that Christ has established for us, we see, once again, that it brings us closer together, until we realize…that we are all traveling on the same road. Not a billion different roads, all hoping for a similar destination, but ONE road. Pedefined, narrow, and only travelled by FEW.

We might come to the Church from all directions, as the diagram illustrates, but part of entering the Kingdom of God on earth requires abandoning the path that we travelled before – or any other path – and marching down the path Christ has for us.

— These two are the easy ones to absorb – we need to be more the same by being like Jesus and traveling the same path, but this next one could be a little harder for us to absorb and apply.

3) Striving for Zion

Christ not only defines Zion as the “pure in heart,” but he also explains what he called the people of the City of Enoch because they reached a rather amazing place: “…they were of one heart and one mind.” (Moses 7:18)

Heart Brain

“One heart” implies to me the idea of a unity of gospel, charity, obedience, Christ-like attributes, etc. But the idea of “one mind” opens a whole new conversation. Are you of “one mind” with your fellow saints? I’m not. Could Christ actually be endorsing a giant mind-meld wherein we all start to think the same thoughts?  In a way, yes, but not is a Star Trek kinda way.

For example: I have my agency to think that tithing should be 5%. You might think that tithing should be 15%, but we are both wrong, and will one day have to adjust our individual thinking to arrive at the Lord’s correct answer of 10%. (Because there is only one correct answer, and it is whatever the Lord says it is.)

–Important paragraph coming–

I cannot believe for a minute that the Lord wants us to set aside our thoughts and become mindless lemmings, marching to the beat of the Brethren. But I DO believe that he expects us to spend our lives thinking, studying and working towards adapting our thoughts to His thoughts. And again, as we all start to think more like Jesus, we will inevitably start to think more like each other- and the Bretheren. (And that ain’t a bad thing, either)

Conformity of desires, thoughts, and behaviors are all demanded of the Savior. I didn’t get this when I was a new missionary. I believed that somehow conformity somehow threatened my individuality. However, individuality comes to this earth with us, and we all have it. We don’t need to focus on it, or make it our life’s work to show the world how unique we are. Our uniqueness is not what will save and exalt us. In fact, our uniqueness might be the very thing we need to overcome to reach exaltation. It is our conformity to what the Savior requires of us that will save and exalt us.

Neal A. Maxwell dug into this idea much deeper than I ever would imagine. He said,

“So many of us are kept from eventual consecration because we mistakenly think that, somehow, by letting our will be swallowed up in the will of God, we lose our individuality (see Mosiah 15:7). What we are really worried about, of course, is not giving up self, but selfish things—like our roles, our time, our preeminence, and our possessions. No wonder we are instructed by the Savior to lose ourselves. He is only asking us to lose the old self in order to find the new self. It is not a question of one’s losing identity but of finding his true identity! Ironically, so many people already lose themselves anyway in their consuming hobbies and preoccupations but with far, far lesser things.” (link)

And this: “Having our wills increasingly swallowed up by the will of the Father actually means an enhanced individuality, stretched and more capable of receiving “all that God hath” (D&C 84:38).” (Link)

Focusing on our uniqueness, and focusing on setting ourselves apart from the rest of Zion is antithetical to the very concept of Zion, and the Gospel. It should be about looking outward, and striving for a unity of mind and heart.

This is not a quick, easy, and painless process. We bring some stubborn tendencies with us when we enter the Kingdom. Just two weeks ago, Elder Quentin L. Cook discussed the blessings and problems that come with the diversity of cultures in the Church. He made if very plain that there is only one culture that we should strive for.

“While we treasure appropriate cultural diversities, our goal is to be united in the culture, customs, and traditions of the gospel of Jesus Christ in every respect.” (Link)

This cannot happen if we are clinging to our uniqueness, rather than submitting to the Lord’s will.  Focusing on ourselves, our pride, or our vain ambitions put us squarely in that large and spacious building. that we dread. (1 Nephi 12:18)

Conformity is not something we have to fight against. It is something we need to embrace. It might take a lifetime, and the changes might be small, but it has to happen. In my experience, my cynical opposition to the “sameness” of the missionary force has given way to a respect, and an understanding of what it truly is: A mass testimony of the willingness to conform, to be obedient, and to follow the Savior. A desire to put aside personal desires and self-definition to be part of something bigger, and better.

Elder Neal A. Mawell put it into simple perspective when he said, “There didn’t seem to be any problem with conformity the day the Red Sea opened.” (link)

Funny? Yes. Thought provoking? Definitely. But if you think about it, it is a bit worrisome. The Church is replete with those who stand opposed to the leaders and the doctrines. Just last Conference we heard that opposition as some declared that they are not of one heart and mind. And it is not just those who vocally stand in opposition that struggle with conformity – we all do.

• We embrace ideas that put us outside the mainstream of the Church and in opposition to the stated Doctrine, and then hunker down, defending our beliefs, rather than work, study, pray and exercise faith to see if we can’t foster a shift in our own thinking.

• We take stances on issues that put us at odds with the Church and the stated Doctrine, and then shout to the world that it is the Church and the Doctrine that must change. Or we do the same thing quietly, and internally.

• We define ourselves in ways to show in what specific way we stand apart from the rest of the Church. I call this “Subdivided Mormonism.” We are a collective of many different kinds of “-ites.” Carving out our own piece of philosophical turf, and mingling it with our religion is not striving to be of “one heart and one mind.”

• We attempt to drive a wedge between Church and Gospel to justify our lack of conformity to parts of the Church culture that we don’t like, rather than look in the mirror to see what we need to do to get on the right path.

• When something is said in General Conference that conflicts with what we are doing, we immediately jump to defend ourselves, rather than ask ourselves how we can change.

Mawell may have been funny in his point about crossing the Red Sea,  but the Savior stated the need for conformity ever so bluntly when He said,

“I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine.”

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  1. I can relate with the MTC experience. I even had a hard time speaking Spanish with my fellow missionaries because everyone was supposed to be doing it. I now find I can also relate with the new perspective.

  2. It’s important to consider exactly what we should try to conform to or with. I’ve said to my children, who like me at times have struggled to fit in with their LDS peers, “There are all kinds of ways to be a good member of the Church. You don’t have to do it like everyone else.” The Mormonad with the daisy in the vase of roses comes to mind. The basic LDS tenets of Zion and following Christ are invaluable and worthy of conformity – it’s the culture of haircuts, white shirts and “we all have to root for BYU cuz it’s the LORD’S college” that I get hung up on, because they seem to get much more play than they deserve.

  3. Most of my adult life has been “conformity”, from a white shirt and tie to a standard uniform. It was always fun to get away with the little things, like wearing white tube socks with a camouflage uniform or a leather belt with a rodeo belt buckle instead of the standard web belt. Little things that nobody would ever notice unless they looked closely….kind of like what I assume are most of our sins….little things, but still there.

    On the other side, the argument of “I want to be different (like everyone else)” I can think of so many comparisons about being so individualistic that they miss being part of the group: Noah, Enoch, Laman, etc. It isn’t always a bad thing, depending on which group you join, but there are eternal consequences. Rationalizing that your argument is “just” or “inclusive” doesn’t change the fact if you are in opposition to our Father’s plan.

  4. “And it is not just those who vocally stand in opposition that struggle with conformity – we all do.” ~ Actually, since you don’t know every persons heart, you can’t actually say this accurately.

    1. Seriously? You know a group of people who have “arrived” at a Christ-like status and no longer need to repent? I haven’t. Sin is the inability to conform.

      1. what a thought-provoking definition!
        But it’s pretty clearly confirmed in the sacrament prayer that we commit to “take His name (and thus His identity) upon us”

      2. I do know that there are people who have arrived at the state where they “have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (see Mosiah 5:2) which to me means they are no longer struggling to against conformity, which is what your statement said to me.

  5. There is a big difference between people being *different* and people being *better* — those are two different axes. Hair styles, preferred hobbies, etc., are just differences, and are wonderful. Laziness, deceit, and greed, however are *bad* where hard-working, honesty, and thrift are *better*.

    The Lord made many different kinds of flowers, and they’re all beautiful.

    We are trying to conform by being *better*, more like the Savior, not by eliminating the differences that make us unique.

  6. The easy comment is, “Amen!” It’s the easy comment because it would have an implied, “You all need to be more like Jesus!” in there, pointing fingers all around me.
    But as I think about it more, I realize the correct answer is, “I’ll repent and try harder.”
    Thank you for the reminder.

  7. I sent the evening with the daughter of Elder Maxwell. She told many stories about him and his personality. Yet, upon his death bed, his request to those he so deeply loved was to obey the commandments and keep the covenants. So simple counsel yet we work our lives to really get this! We need to follow the Savior. I totally agree with the conformity. We don’t lose our personalities by following him. We really gain more. Thank you for the wonderful reminder!

  8. I like to look at it like this: we are all individuals and we should never expect, or want, to be the same in some ways, ie: favorite colors, favorite music, favorite recreation, etc. BUT, we should all be hoping and striving to be exactly the same in integrity, honesty, obedience, et al. So, on the one hand, we are all individuals, but to be truly Zion, we will also all be “one.”

  9. Interesting subject, Conformity. I liked this from Maxwell, “Ironically, so many people already lose themselves anyway in their consuming hobbies and preoccupations but with far, far lesser things.” The entire subject is worth pondering over. Thanks, MMM

  10. C.S. Lewis had something similar to say in the book “Mere Christianity,” as what he called “Christianity and…” His point is that many will take the portions of Christianity they like, and then blend those portions with some philosophy of men. We see this in our day everywhere.

  11. I always enjoy your insights and appreciate your sources. I have spent many years trying to “conform.” Most would say I have always conformed easily, but we all know that it’s the private thoughts and feelings of our heart that really are the test of conformity. I have come to understand that we have all been given strenghths and weaknesses and many times they are two sides of the same coin. So how do I magnify my Godgiven strengths, while eliminating my Godgiven weaknesses. The answer for me lies in Ether 12:27 “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

  12. Some of my favorite quotes by C S Lewis:.It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own. The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become

  13. Reminds me of a spin on Elder Pino’s jigsaw puzzle analogy from this recent conference. We will always be the individual piece we were designed to be; God is not asking us to become identical pieces. The question is: Will we try to force our way into a spot that’s not where God designed us to be? Will we refuse to participate and leave a hole where we should be glad to be? God asks us to unite and then use our differences to strengthen one another.

  14. I love this. Being of one heart and mind so reminds me of the Quorum of the Twelve. Here are all these great educated men who can discuss the topics and come together with one heart and one mind.

  15. I like to remember that even among the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency, there is a wide variety of experiences, talents, points of view, but as they work to become unified in their decisions and in their service to the Lord, they become one in heart and mind.

    This unity, and becoming a Zion society, is the focus of my stake this year. The work of becoming a Zion people is a long process, but we become closer and closer as we, individually, seek to become one with the Savior and submit our will to His.

  16. Oh, the problems that would be avoided if more people – members and non – were concerned with WHAT is right, rather than WHO. Conformity to Christ is never a bad thing.

  17. The whole point of the atonement is to become “At-one” with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and thereby, each other! I think that’s wonderful. It makes me think also of a lyric from on of my favorite song by Fleetfoxes, ” I was raised up believing, I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. But now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be, a functioning Cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”

  18. Amen and amen. I had this exact conversation with a ward member a few years ago. No one likes to be made to conform, but when we choose to think about our Savior and always remember Him, we fijd our will more aligned with His, until that is our whole desire. Like a rough stone rolling down the hill, our unique corners are knocked off and we become a smooth and polished stone – uniform with others who have passed similar tests. This is why talking about doctine changes behavior faster than talking about behavior will. We believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one in thought and purpose. Why should we think we will ever enter exaltation with any less unity of thought and purpose?

  19. I agree how important it is to be unified as a church. We should all be like Jesus: kind, loving, obedient, forgiving, etc. However, I firmly believe even when we are perfected that we will still have our own personalities: our own tastes in art, talents that we enjoy, or sense of humor. I think misunderstanding this is the reason the word conformity and even obedience in general is rejected by some. Obeying and becoming one does not mean that we lose our identity. We polish our identity. Buffing out the imperfections and making our strengths shine. We can still shine differently.

    1. Yes. I agree, and believe Maxwell would too. But I also think that coming to a common mind and heart does not begin only when we cross the threshold of the church. It apples to all areas of our lives.

      But, as my Grampa used to say, “If everyone liked the same thing, we would all be chasing your Gramma.”

    2. Are you sure about that, Nathan? Jesus said
      (Book of Mormon | 3 Nephi 11:27)
      that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.
      He repeated that over and over again.
      How can all of us inherit all that the Father hath if we inherit different strengths and weaknesses? My idea of exaltation is that we will all have the same strengths and no weaknesses.
      I am pretty sure that MMM is completely correct and is probably understating the truth.

  20. Well said!!! Just signed up to receive your articles. My friend has forwarded a lot of them to me and I have loved every single one.

  21. Thanks for sharing your timely thoughts on this subject. I struggle with my definition of “conformity” and this message has helped me looks at ways I can redefine my my own perspective.

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