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Trusting in the Arm of Flesh


Some time ago I was invited into a meeting to evaluate a new time- and life-management product developed by a prominent management company. I listened to the lively discussion among a score of bright people for a couple of hours. There were a few assumptions that seemed to undergird their discussion of time management and self-improvement.

  1. Every person fares in this life according to his or her management. If I can become a better manager I can overcome my weaknesses and become a better, more productive person.
  2. Every person prospers according to his genius. If we are to succeed, we must use our heads.
  3. Every person conquers according to his strength. I need to rally my willpower. I need to dispatch waste and maximize good.

Such statements are virtually articles of faith among business consultants. They seem also to be woven into our personal processes of self-improvement. They are just common sense. I believe that the statements are as cherished by most Latter-day Saints as they are by people in the secular world. That should cause us keen discomfort. Those statements were warmly endorsed by Korihor, the antichrist.

And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but [every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature]; therefore [every man prospered according to his genius], and that [every man conquered according to his strength]; and whatsoever a man did was no crime (Alma 30:17, emphasis added).

It could be argued that Korihor had woven in true doctrine along his path to false conclusions. But if those are true principles of change, they should show up throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon and all scripture. Neverthless, the scriptures recommend a different process of change. Notice the process that Alma describes and recommends to his son, Helaman.

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:17–18).

Alma was transformed from intolerable misery to inexpressible joy. He went from dreading the divine face-off to longing to be in the arms of heaven. He went from impenetrable darkness to marvelous light. His mighty change hinged on giving up self-sufficiency and throwing himself entirely on the merits and mercy of Jesus. Time management may give us a well-ordered life. Submission to Jesus provides us cleansing, transformation, and eternal life.

Are the lessons of Alma’s experience obscure, applying only to vile sinners? I looked to the Book of Mormon for answers. I studied King Benjamin, whose seemingly righteous people responded to his unequivocal statement of nothingness and dependence on God with a statement much like Alma’s.

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men” (Mosiah 4:2).

There is that plea almost identical to Alma’s, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” As I continued to explore, the Book of Mormon provided a whole chorus of testimonies. Ammon had never dared suppose that One would have been merciful enough to snatch him and his companions from their awful, sinful, and polluted state (Alma 26:17). Nephi was transformed from self-hating misery to joyful celebration because he knew in whom he had trusted (2 Nephi 4:19). Lehi summed his life as being redeemed from hell and encircled eternally in the arms of divine love (2 Nephi 1:15). At the other end of this amazing volume is Moroni’s invitation to come unto Christ and be perfected in Him (Moroni 10:32).

The more I studied the Book of Mormon the more I saw that it is relentless in its testimony that we must turn from our self-sufficient ways to Jesus, our only hope.

And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent (Mosiah 3:17).

Of course the same doctrine is taught in all scripture. One of the most dramatic examples is the Savior’s own counterintuitive definition of righteousness. He contrasted the self-made man, the Pharisee, with the detested publican who was swamped with his own inability to be what he yearned to be.

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13).

So Alma has given us a pattern for spiritual renewal—do his lessons also apply to practical life planning? The more I studied the scriptures the more I realized that this process applied to all activities of life. Amulek invites us to cry for mercy from sunup to sundown, in our fields and over our flocks, in secret and in public (Alma 34:17–26). The ancients may have been tempted to think that God had nothing to teach them about watering crops and tending fields; the modern presumption is that God may not be fully informed on profits and losses, NASDAQ and Dow Jones, management and motivation. Such moderns are mistaken. He knows.

When I was serving as a bishop, a new member of the ward approached me after sacrament meeting and asked for an interview. We made an appointment for that afternoon. At the appointed time she came. We prayed together. Then she launched into the tragedy of her life. She told of abuse and immorality and ugliness and betrayal that stretched from her childhood to her current life. I sat with a peaceful façade but inner horror and disbelief. I had never heard such a tale of awfulness. What could I tell her? How could her life ever be straightened out? What hope could she ever have of healthy relationships and a productive life? She had never been more than a marginal Mormon and she had no apparent resources. It almost seemed that suicide was her only hope.

The dreaded moment came. “Bishop, what can I do?” I was amazed to hear myself saying, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what those three things were. I took a blank piece of paper from the desk drawer and said, “Number 1 is . . . “ and the Lord dictated the first item of hopeful and specific counsel. In like manner the Lord dictated the second and third items. We discussed them and sent her on her way with a hope she had never before known.

After she left the office, I closed the door behind her and fell to my knees. “Lord, I didn’t know. I just didn’t know how much you love your children. I had no idea that you could make something fine out of the mass of confusion that is our lives. I didn’t know.”

That is His greatest miracle. He can make us divine. I no longer remember the three items of instruction that He gave me that day. But He has continued to teach me His model of life management, which is very different from the wisdom of the world.

1. Growth and renewal are less about setting goals than submitting to His will.

A friend observed that he saw more planners than scriptures at his high council meeting. “Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord”(Jeremiah 17:5). We are not to trust in the arm of flesh even when that flesh is our own.

The scriptures are packed with prophets who mapped out a plan only to find that their ways were not God’s ways. From Elijah to Joseph Smith, sacred history is full of surprises. Often He would have us have no goals nor objectives except to discover His will and do it. He does expect us to be wise. But the great tendency of humans is to replace His leadership of our lives with our own. As my friend Rebekah says, “God is a lot better at being God than I am.”

Jesus was approached by a man who wanted Him to intercede in the division of an inheritance. In response Jesus told the parable of the foolish man who built more barns to accommodate his wealth and go into semi-retirement. But his narrow concern about his needs made the act foolish in God’s economy and timetable.

But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20–21).

That teaching sets the context for Jesus’ teaching of his disciples: “And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on” (Luke 12:22).

The “take no thought” commandment appears several times in the New Testament. It appears to have special application to those in the ministry. But the bulk of scripture suggests that we would do well to attend to His will, to be guided by Him in all things. Our planning and goal setting can get in the way of His customized curriculum for us.

“Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day” (Alma 37:37).

2. Growth and renewal are less about fixing ourselves than being fixed by Him.

For Americans steeped in do-it-yourself and self-help, this may be the biggest challenge of all. In fact, I wonder if Father has blessed the Latter-day Saints with the Book of Mormon to help balance our American self-sufficiency. The doctrine of the Book of Mormon is very different from the American idea that we can fix anything with a little bubble gum, bailing wire, and determination.

Many of us come to salvation with the attitude that we can schedule our growth. We will work very hard to push sin out of our lives and, in those few areas where we need some extra help, He will add the finishing touches. But in scripture He invites us to yield, submit, and be made perfect by Him. Maybe the great passage in the Doctrine and Covenants suggests a true balance:

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully [The Lord loves a cheerful giver!] do all things that lie in our power [We believe in Him. Across our whole lives we keep trying in spite of our persistent weakness.]; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God [He does the saving.], and for his arm to be revealed [In fact He is in charge of all miracles, including the miracle of growth.]” (D&C 123:17).

A planner can be addictive, giving us a false sense of own power. A planner must never keep us from being available to Him—that is faith. Our only goal is to move toward Him—that is repentance. Then He keeps cleansing and refining us. He alone can make us into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

The great danger of being talented is that we may almost be able to sustain the fiction that we are doing quite well. Jesus’ appreciation for the untalented, the sinners, and the cripples was more than compassion for their difficult plight; He cherished their humility. When we get humble, He can do miracles with us.

3. Growth and renewal are less about using psychology (and management and finance and . . .) than about using covenants.

We may be inclined to trust an M.B.A. from Harvard or a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. more than the Lord. Does He really know about such modern, technical, and sophisticated things as business, science, and psychology?

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 28:31).

When we are tempted to sign on with some money-making scheme “in order to be of greater service in the church,” we are probably deceiving ourselves.

In ancient times the people wondered whether God could make any contribution to war and agriculture. Some things never change. We are tempted to be condescending toward God in our areas of “expertise.” The Book of Mormon reminds us at least a dozen times that we must submit to God’s commandments if we are to prosper in the land.

Using our narrow definition of prosper we may believe that doing our part in the Church will assure us wealth. But God thinks of “prospering” in a broader context. Consecrating our lives to Him guarantees us peace in this life and riches in eternity. There are many things that we focus on and fret about that God does not seem to care about. We do well to be concerned about only those things that He is concerned about. He can make us rich and powerful—if it will be a blessing to us.

Sometimes we are not so far from the Calvinists, who believed that prosperity was the evidence of God’s approbation. But God teaches us that we do well to center on obedience rather than bonuses. He invites us to travel in faith rather than conspiring for a finer car. He invites us to share with all rather than building more houses and barns. Certainly He would have us be honest and provident. But He knows that consecration has power to secure kingdoms while IRA’s only buy RV’s.

The central test of this life is whether we will turn to Him in all things. I am just naive enough to believe that, if I focus my life on learning His will and doing it, He will not only provide me blessings in eternity, He will also guide my career, help me with home repairs, and put manna on our table. Our test is everlastingly the same.

And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished” (1 Nephi 17:41).

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