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Marriage as an Act of Love


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Perhaps the most pernicious sins are those that make us feel virtuous while we devastate our fundamental Christian professions. For instance, the Pharisees were famous for painstakingly observing the law while failing at basic compassion.

There is a modern and proximate sequel to that hypocrisy. It is very common for a marriage partner to vent his or her spleen at the spouse’s expense and justify it under the banner of honesty. “I have to be honest, dear. I just don’t find you to be attractive as a woman or a human.”

That particular cruelty has a close cousin: “If I can clearly paint a picture of my partner’s faults for her, then she can overcome them.” The idea that we continue to be foolish and sinful because no one has systematically portrayed our faults for us has been discredited by thousands of years of sad, mortal history. Cool, scornful objectivity is not the world’s greatest need.

There is still another relative in that dismal family. “My anger is a special kind of indignation. It signals when someone has done something wrong and needs to be chastened.”

One last relative. “Lately I have noticed that you seem to be very self-centered. In fact, now that I think about it, it seems that you have always been self-serving.” It is common to let today’s discontent eclipse years, even decades, of struggling together.

As always, the perfect example of the right attitude toward fellow travelers (especially our spouses and children) is provided by Jesus. There may be no more poignant, elegant and dramatic contrast between the condescension of the natural man and the compassion of the Gods than in the encounter between Jesus and Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50).
Simon invited Jesus to dine with him apparently for no other reason than because Jesus was the talk of the town. He did not show Jesus the minimal gestures of hospitality. He treated him with cool disdain.

As they sat on couches at a low table in the open courtyard, a woman of the city who was well known as a sinner brought an alabaster box of ointment and began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.

The Pharisee acted even worse than an uncivilized natural man who might have considered the woman a temporary annoyance. He judged both the woman and Jesus, saying within himself: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” In one condescending swoop he condemns the woman as unworthy of contact with civilized humans and Jesus as uninspired for failing to discern her loathsome sinfulness.

Jesus, ever gracious, invites Simon to think differently by telling him a story. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” Simon acknowledged that the one who had been forgiven the greater debt would probably be more grateful.

Then Jesus did something wholly unexpected: he held up the sin-burdened woman as a moral model for Simon.

And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little (verses 44–47).

For all the inhabitants of the eternal worlds, Jesus set the example of graciousness. “And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. . . . Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”

As if the contrast were not already perfectly clear for us mortals, there is one concluding irony. “And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” Even in the face of perfect graciousness, they did not recognize it. They judged it as foolish and presumptuous.

What a great message for marriage. By nature we follow the lead of the Pharisee. We hoard our good will and measure each person by the measuring rod of our own remarkable rightness.

In marriage we may make our expectations and needs into the standard of judgment. Being “honest” with our partner always presumes that our version of reality is the right one, best one, true one. It does not show the humility to honor our partner’s unique view and experience of the world. Our anger and indignation spill out as a rebuke to those who are not as committed or fine as we.

Jesus is different. He knows that the injuries of mortality are healed by love rather than diagnosis. He knows that the weaknesses of the flesh are strengthened by compassion and mercy rather than by autopsy. The only person in the universe who has the right to judge us and condemn us chooses instead to redeem us and justify us. He who might be our accuser chooses to be our Advocate (D&C 45:3–5).

John Gottman has done revolutionary research on marriage. Based on his work in his love lab in Seattle, Washington, he recommends that couples find the glory in their marital story. He observes that

In a stable marriage . . . the partners tend to view each other through “rose-colored” glasses. They assume that each other’s positive, admirable characteristics are an intrinsic part of their personality rather than occasional flukes. . . . The good things about their relationship are considered stable and far-reaching while the bad patches or areas of tension are considered to be fleeting and situational (pp.118–19).

A successful marriage is based on the choice to see a partner with love and compassion. The Lord gives very clear instructions to govern our relationships.

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [or, presumably, by virtue of parenthood or husbandhood or wifehood], only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

By kindness, and pure knowledge [a very special kind of knowledge: pure knowledge. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,” perhaps even in their marriage partners], which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121: 41–42).

When I was teaching a marriage class for the university, a young woman in the class asked, “My husband had a very painful childhood. Whenever I try to bring up any problems in our relationship, he retreats. He won’t talk. What can I do?” What she might not have known was that she was already doing the most important thing: She was seeing him with compassion and love.

Of course compassion, by itself, does not solve all problems. It is worth remembering, as Wile, a wise marriage counselor, observes, that every marriage has unresolvable differences. Some of our differences simply will not be set right in mortality. That is not cause for alarm. It may be cause for amusement or patience or charity, but not alarm. Fortunately many of the irritations in relationships are not so hard to bear when we are peaceful and loving.

There will also be times when that sweet young woman can gently invite counsel from her husband. In a time when things are peaceful, she can ask, “Sweetheart, will you teach me how to get your input when I am perplexed? I want your counsel. Yet I’m not sure how to bring up my problems. Will you teach me how to do it?”

The greatest revolution in research on marriage may have been the movement from communication and problem-solving orientations to a kindness orientation. As Gottman observes:

Even in strong relationships, too often people focus on the negatives in an effort to make the relationship all the better. But by dwelling on what is wrong in your marriage, it’s easy to lose sight of what is right. This is a primary reason that admiration is often the first thing to go. . . . Nor do bad times wipe out all the good times . . . look through picture albums from past vacations, or reread some old love letters . . . you need to become the architect of your thoughts. It’s up to you to decide what your inner script will contain. You can habitually look at what is not there in your relationship, at your disappointments, and fill your mind with thoughts of irritation, hurt, and contempt. Or you can do the opposite . . . If you can learn to think empathetically rather than negatively about what your spouse is going through, and maintain your admiration for your spouse’s good qualities, you will not be plagued with overwhelming distress-maintaining thoughts that trigger defensiveness and harm your marriage . . . Make a list of your partner’s positive qualities . . . Memorize this list and think about how much harder life would be without these positives. When you find yourself following a critical train of thought about your mate, use elements from the list to interrupt your thinking. Make a habit of this process and the change can be [a] dramatic . . . “rethinking” [of] your marriage (Gottman, p.183).

Good marriages are not built so much on “honesty,” disclosure, and frankness as they are built on kindness, patience, and love—just as the Lord has always said.

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35).

When we have learned to love as Jesus loves, we are likely to rejoice in our marriage partner.

References

Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wile, J. (1988). After the honeymoon. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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When Being Right Isn’t Good Enough


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Almost twenty years ago Nancy and I were planning the landscaping around our new house. A landscape architect had recommended a cluster of three fruit trees at the corner of our property. We wondered if that was too many trees too close together. We talked about it. We stepped out the area. We looked up the mature size of the specified trees. Finally, the day before the trees were to be delivered, we decided to follow the landscaper’s suggestions and plant all three trees.
When I arrived home from work the next day I went to inspect our new trees and found that we had just one tree where I expected three. I asked Nancy about it. She responded, “Well, three trees just seemed like too many. I told the men that we wanted just one.”

I wish I could say that my response was, “Well, it was a hard decision. We have vacillated back and forth. It is probably just as well that we have one tree there.” Unfortunately I did not say that. I was mystified and indignant: “Why did we spend hours researching and discussing the question to have you change it on a whim? When we have decided something together, we should stand together by our decision!” I was angry. And the more I talked and thought about it, the angrier I got. (Anger requires very little encouragement to grow.)

In some technical sense I was right. A couple should stand by their joint decisions. Before those decisions are modified, they should be discussed together if possible. I was “right.” Nancy had upended our decision process. But a feeling deep in my conscience haunted me.

To justify my stern reaction, I might have hunted for the beatitudes that say, “Blessed are the right, for they shall be top dogs. Blessed are the logical for they shall inherit the computers.” Of course I would have hunted in vain for such beatitudes. The real beatitudes would only have made me uncomfortable: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

It is worth switching perspectives on the fruit tree fracas from our provincial, earthly one to a heavenly one. I feel sure that the heavenly hosts were not nodding assent to my lectures. There were no immortals joining in the finger wagging. I rather suspect that heaven wept. Why should a priesthood-bearing son belittle and berate his covenant companion whose greatest fault is gentleness? Is her vacillation a greater sin than my acrid accusation?

It all seems clear in retrospect. The Lord’s new command is that we love one another as he has loved us. He, with his infinite patience and perfect goodness, is our model. The command to love as he loves must have special application (and particular challenges) in marriage. In fact, scriptures offer a remarkably challenging standard for husbands:

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).

That is a high standard! We are to be guardians, protectors, and defenders of our wives in the same spirit that Christ loves and sustains the church. Petty differences, so common in marriage, should never eclipse that guardian role. Irritations over toothpaste, vacation spots, and fruit trees must be seen merely as distractions. We express our preferences and even make requests. But we never burn the family home just to make our point.

There is a vital line in a modest little film, Martin the Cobbler. A hungry little boy has stolen an apple. When the boy is caught, the owner of the apple threatened to beat him within an inch of his life. She was interrupted by Martin, the cobbler, who asked:

If he should be whipped for an apple, what should be done with us?

The question haunts me. If Nancy should be whipped for an apple tree, what should be done with me? Are my many offences to be dismissed? When we become executors for the law of justice, we invite sterile judgments for our acts. If we live by the sword, we will surely die by the sword.

God recommends that humans cultivate mercy and leave judgment with One who knows everything and loves perfectly (see Mormon 8:20). When we will not forgive each other our pocket-change debts, how can we hope to be forgiven our staggering debts against heaven? God’s counsel to the unforgiving debtor challenges us:

Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:33–35).

We must keep the bridge of mercy in good repair. Each of us will surely need to cross it.

Apparently our human obsession with being right often obscures his command. He asks that we focus on being good and worry less about being right. How many wars might be averted, how many lives spared, how many estrangements might be avoided, and how many misunderstandings renounced if we let goodness govern over rightness?

The intimacy of marriage is ideal soil for cultivating charity. We may be irritated and annoyed by mannerisms and limitations. Or we may wisely surrender selected judgments, preferences, conveniences, and even our advanced knowledge in order to prosper a relationship. I can value an activity or perspective because my spouse values it. I can adjust my schedule to accommodate her. I can modify expectations to celebrate the patches of sunshine in our lives.

Redemption can be a very demanding business, as Jesus can attest. Sometimes being right just isn’t good enough.

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Marriage and the Parting of the Red Sea



There is nothing quite so helpful for mortals as total desperation. As long as there is even a sliver of hope that our efforts might remove us from our dilemmas, we are likely to keep floundering along. But when we come up against impossibility, then we discover the power.

It certainly was true for Moses. Imagine how he felt with the Red Sea in front of him, millions of clamoring children of Israel behind him, and bloodthirsty Egyptian troops behind them. Faith is always much easier in retrospect than prospect; From our historical vantage point it seems obvious what Moses needed to do—especially if you have seen the Cecil B. DeMille version of the parting of the Sea.

But when Moses came face to face with utter hopelessness, he did not have the benefit of the Bible in movie form. He knew that he was hopelessly over his head. And, when their own efforts cannot possibly save them, that is when mortals are most likely to turn wholeheartedly to God. If they have faith.

When caught in the squeeze, Moses’ faithless people complained bitterly: “For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Their complaining must have added pressure to Moses’ dilemma. Had Moses been shown their path ahead of time? Was he spared soul-stretching pressure because of his foreknowledge?

My suspicion is that he, like all of us, was required to lean on faith for support. “And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:13–14). What a powerful declaration of faith.

Based on four decades of wilderness tutoring Moses knew that God would deliver them, but did he know just how God would do it? Did he wonder if an earthquake would swallow Pharaoh’s army? Did he hope for lightning to frighten them? Or maybe heavenly chariots to destroy the armies of Pharaoh? Or did he already know that God would part the Red Sea?
It seems that only after Moses had exercised and announced his faith that the answer was revealed: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:15–16).

Crisis presses us to stretch our faith and enlarge our character.

A woman sought my advice about her marriage. “After 25 years of disappointment and pain, I think there is a 90% chance that we should simply divorce. We have tried everything. I see no way to redeem our relationship.”

Ah, the blessing of desperation! Unfortunately, even when cornered, humans would rather do almost anything but throw themselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of him who is mighty to save. It is popular to blame others. “My husband is an insensitive lout who would rather fish than care for his family.” Other people have a strong bias toward blaming themselves: “This is exactly what I deserve: total misery and hopelessness.”

Yet he stands and waits and waits and waits for an invitation to rescue us. For each of us he is as the father of the prodigal who waited through many seasons for his squandering son to return to him. Despite the son’s wastefulness, “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Even when we are far from God, after we come to our senses and turn to him, he runs to us and embraces us just as he did the prodigal. When we are ready to turn our lives to him, he prepares the feast for us.

Marriage is an especially fruitful area for God’s growth-promoting purposes. Is there any enterprise that we enter with such ridiculous hopes? Is there any relationship where we take so personally the simple humanness of another? Is there any situation where we are so regularly tempted to think we have made a mistake? Is there any place where annoyance is more likely?

While there are hints of trouble early on—even before marriage—it takes most people some time to reach cosmic dismay. After two years it is obvious to the mildly alert person that the spouse has certain disagreeable behaviors that do not change readily and have become more difficult to wave away with infatuation.

But there is a special kind of despair reserved for those who have been together for a couple of decades or more. After investing so much, it seems absolutely intolerable that we should get so much less than we deserve. We amass the evidence of our abundant sacrifice. We itemize our partner’s offences. We calculate the deficit. The answer is clear: “I must get out in order to save my soul. This person will destroy me.”

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Desperation is just the place where God does his best work. He will work a miracle for us if we, like Moses, declare: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the [spouses] whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again [in the same way] no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.”

When we have given a relationship the best we have and find that it is not enough, we may turn to God. The One who heals the lepers, blind, lame, and palsied also knows how to heal the disenchanted, bored, resentful, and alienated. But we, like Moses, must be willing to let God do his work. We must want him to transform us with a mighty change of heart, renew a right spirit within us, and give us the mind of Christ.

I wonder if the commonest form of latter-day idolatry is the worship of our own abilities. We do not turn to God because we assume that we (self or partner) must try harder and be better. We heap scorn on ourselves for our failures or our partner’s failures. We commit to fix things. Yet we fail to acknowledge that we are less than the dust of the earth. We are worthless and fallen. As long as we depend on our own arms of flesh, we are enemies to God. That is latter-day idolatry.

When we stand at the edge of the marital Red Sea with a multitude of disappointments clamoring for something better, we should call on God. I like to use Alma’s words: “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 36:18). If we give him place in our souls, he will fill our minds with compassionate understanding, our souls with earnest helpfulness, our mouths with charitable words, and our spirits with steady resolve. He is able to do his work.

The One who calmed the storm can quiet our squalls. The One who multiplied the loaves and fishes can magnify our charity. The One who cast out devils can remove resentments.

Satan must laugh as we discard covenants and relationships for the honorable-sounding cause of self-protection. While there are certainly those who must leave a relationship because their agency has been removed by a spouse, the majority of divorces would be prevented by drawing on heavenly resources rather than our puny, human ones.

Even among family scholars there is a growing alarm that many of us are so filled with individualism that we trade our covenants for a mess of self justification. Bill Doherty has observed that marriage can be like living in Minnesota. When the bitter winter comes, we are tempted to head south. Even friends and therapists warn of getting frostbite in flawed marriages. We should “trust our feelings of unhappiness.” Yet every relationship will have its winter. While we could leave our marriage with hopes of instituting a better one, that relationship will inevitably enter its winter. If, in contrast, we stay together and warm each other, “the next springtime in Minnesota can be all the more glorious for the winter that we endured together” (2001, p.105).

Michele Weiner Davis suggests that our culture is biased against the sacrifices of marriage. Even in very troubled cases, divorce “doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. In fact, in most cases, divorce creates more problems than it solves” (p.12).
John Gottman has observed that most (he calculates 69%) of the things that irritate us about our partner are not going to change. As to the 31% that can change, he observes that “one of the great paradoxes in therapy is that people don’t change unless they feel accepted as they are” (1994, p.184). Gottman has provided solid, research-based recommendations for strengthening marriage. His recommendations are different from those prescribed by the natural man, natural therapist, or natural society.

None of this should be understood to say that science now has better answers than God. Father has always known how to succor his children. However, it is my view that, in these times of great temptation, God has unleashed a flood of truth even through scientists so that the very elect do not have to be deceived if they will turn to better ways. God has always taught those better ways. Now they are confirmed by good research. God invites “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).

Marriage has not become, in the last few decades, more difficult and treacherous than ever before. What has changed is not the nature of marriage but that our commitment has lessened while our demands to have our needs met have escalated. That is not a celestial combination. If, when we confront the impossible Red Seas of marriage, we turn to God, to his power and his principles, we will find a miraculous way opening before us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply the most under-utilized resource in the universe. Faith, humility, kindness, and charity are the timeless virtues that strengthen relationships.

Recommended reading

Davis, M. W. (2002). Divorce Remedy. New York: Fireside.

Doherty, W. J. (2001). Take Back Your Marriage. New York: Guilford.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Crown.

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Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Peace



Nancy and I have some friends who have been married for a few years longer than we have been. They are earnest, good people. But they are human. A few years ago the husband was dragging home from work every day at dinner time. He was ready for peace and order. But things were not always in order at home. He nagged his wife. “Why can’t you have dinner ready when I get home? Why can’t you have the kids do their chores? Why can’t you have the place straightened up?” The day came when his good wife had had enough. “You know you have some faults, too.” He pondered that. “Yes, but they don’t bother me like yours do.”

The trouble with most conflict resolution is that it starts in the wrong place. It takes us when we are tired and irritated and puts us toe-to-toe with the enemy. But by the time that irritation and judgment have filled my mind, I am not in a good place to solve our problems. I am not even in a good place to know what the problems are. And I am not in a good place to show the respect that you deserve.

I have a friend who likes to say that “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” That idea can be extended. You can no more win a fist fight than you can win an automobile accident. You can no more win a family argument than win a house fire. When we choose to fight, we all lose. That is why Satan recommends fighting so highly.
So, what is the gospel remedy for conflict? “Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). God recommends that we be messengers of peace. Three steps to being agents of peace come to mind.

We can see each other with charity

Irving Becker has said that “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind” (Reader’s Digest. (1975). Pocket treasury of great quotations. Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader’s Digest).

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Often we allow a combination of irritations to fester. Judgment and discontent infect the injuries. Poison fills the system. Disease is a normal part of a telestial world, yet we are all choosing to be something more than telestial.

We cannot overcome irritation by ourselves. That is why Mormon encourages us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” (Moroni 7:48). Divine love springs only from divine wells. We may love as he loves only when we are filled with him, when we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

I don’t have the right to correct anyone I do not love. When I love them with Christ-like love, I feel inclined to bless, help, encourage, and support them.

We can take responsibility for our own feelings of irritation

Elder Christensen has recounted a powerful story about irritation.

As a newlywed, Sister Lola Walters read in a magazine that in order to strengthen a marriage a couple should have regular, candid sharing sessions in which they would list any mannerisms they found annoying. She wrote: “We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off. . . I told him I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange! After I finished, it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me. . . . He said, “Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey.” Gasp. I quickly turned my back because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face. . . . Whenever I hear of married couples being incompatible, I always wonder if they are suffering from what I now call the Grapefruit Syndrome (Joe J. Christensen, Ensign, May 1995, pp. 64–66).

I used to invest a fair amount of energy encouraging Nancy to keep our kitchen counters clear and clean. As the years passed, it gradually occurred to me that my obsession with tidy counters is not her problem. It is mine. If something is irritating me, I can take care of it. I do not have to make my preferences into universal commandments.

I have noticed that I am far more likely to be irritated by other people’s faults when I am tired, frustrated, or lonely. I can become, as George Bernard Shaw says, “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making [me] happy.” If I am humble enough to accept my own contribution to the storm, I can take action to minimize it. I can ask for heavenly help. I can slow down and breathe deeply. I can isolate myself if I am unusually antagonistic.

One trap that prevents peace is the need to be right. We condemn others for their ignorance. But any divine mandate to be smart is superseded by the command to be loving. It is better to be good than to be right. “Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid” (Harlan Miller).

We can act in ways that encourage growth.

Many psychologists have observed that Americans express many kinds of irritation in one way: anger. “Why can’t you ever think of anyone else?!” “What is wrong with you?!” “Why are you so selfish?!” Such statements do not invite peaceful sharing.

Rather than complain, “You are so wrapped up in your life that you never make time for anyone else!” I can invite, “I feel lonely. I miss doing things with you. Could we do something together this week?”

Love also sets people up for success. If I know that Nancy likes time to think about decisions, rather than stand tapping my toe, pressing her for decisions, and wondering why she doesn’t learn how to make decisions, I will anticipate the need and will provide her time to reflect.

While it is true that people must bear the painful consequences of unwise decisions, we need never rejoice at another’s suffering. We can always offer the healing balm of understanding. A misbehaving family member may have sorrowful encounters with the law. Yet our charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).

When an elderly woman was asked at her fiftieth wedding anniversary what the secret of her long and happy marriage was, she responded that she had decided at their marriage to forgive her husband ten faults for the sake of their marriage. “I never got around to listing the ten but every time he did something that made me mad I thought, ‘It’s a good thing for him that that is one of the ten.’”

Love, forgiveness, and wisdom bring peace to our families. Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.

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The One Source for Happiness



It was always nice to sit with my Dad and talk of the gospel, his favorite topic. From time to time his words come back to me. “Many decisions are difficult because we have not made up our minds to do what is right.”

The things he taught become truer and truer, more and more meaningful as the years pass. His wisdom was reaffirmed for me recently. A friend called and asked for my advice. He told me of many years in a loveless marriage. At work he has become friends with a wonderful woman with whom he has beautiful gospel conversations. She is also in a loveless marriage. Recently they have shared their feelings for each other: They would love to be together. “What should we do?” he asked me. The next day she called me and asked the same question.

From the phone conversations it was clear that both of them were ready to do almost anything to open the way for their relationship. Their fondness and closeness had grown out of dozens of hours of talking and being together. Friendship had grown into something far more. Both had begun to think about ways the Lord might open the way for them to be together.

My initial questions to them may have seemed quite unrelated to their dilemma: “Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you trust him completely? Do you know that he will always act in your best interest?” Affirmative answers to these questions are liberating. Submission to God is the path to happiness.

And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; . . . and save they shall cast . . .away [learning, wisdom and riches], and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them (2 Nephi 9:42).

We often walk away from sacred promises for alluring prospects. We turn our backs on yesterday’s impressions in order to grasp today’s whims. We devalue past joys as we lunge at prospective satisfactions. We reduce covenants to mere options.
The woman described above imagined that the Lord might end her husband’s life so that she could marry her co-worker. She even imagined a specific timetable. After all, her husband was insensitive while her co-worker was attentive. She had tried to make it work. Certainly the Lord wanted her to be happy.

Brigham Young taught us boldly:

There is no enjoyment, no happiness, no comfort, there is no light to my path, for me there is no real pleasure or delight only in the observance of truth as it comes from God, obeying it in every sense of the word, and marching forward as a good faithful soldier in the discharge of every duty (Journal of Discourses, vol.19, pp. 42–43).

Dishonor does not lead to goodness. Wickedness never was happiness. The only path to enduring peace is obedience. Working at our appointed station doing the pick and shovel work of relationship building may seem unglamorous and unpromising. But those who are faithful in duty will enjoy eternal rewards that are unimagined—even unimaginable—in our mortal way of thinking. Even as we labor along, God will hum hymns of comfort and joy to our souls. Duty does not have to be drudgery.

I recommended to both the man and the woman who called that they do everything in their power to make their respective marriages work. After they had done all they can, they still should pray for the Lord to provide miracles to open further ways to bless their marriages. Only as we honor our promises with our best efforts and heaven’s help can we expect to find happiness.

When we imagine happiness to be in some exotic place outside our mundane commitments, we will be everlastingly disappointed. When we chase happiness, we will be frustrated. When we obey with full purpose of heart, a peace beyond understanding distills upon us. Brigham Young gives the example of Lyman Johnson who left his covenant obligations for something that seemed more promising.

Lyman E. Johnson said, at one of our Quorum meetings, after he had apostatized and tried to put Joseph out of the way. . . . “Brethren—I will call you brethren—I will tell you the truth. If I could believe “Mormonism”—it is no matter whether it is true or not—but if I could believe “Mormonism” as I did when I traveled with you and preached, if I possessed the world I would give it. I would give anything, I would suffer my right hand to be cut off, if I could believe it again. Then I was full of joy and gladness. My dreams were pleasant. When I awoke in the morning my spirit was cheerful. I was happy by day and by night, full of peace and joy and thanksgiving. But now it is darkness, pain, sorrow, misery in the extreme. I have never since seen a happy moment (Journal of Discourses, vol.19, p. 42).

What a keen irony! We often do something because it seems best, wisest, or truest—even though it may not be in total harmony with the counsel of God and his servants. We imagine that we know better than they or that unusual circumstances justify our desertion. For example, we resolve to pay tithing after the bills are paid. We determine that food storage is folly. We take on debt with disregard for counsel and conscience. We minimize those parts of the Book of Mormon that do not agree with our advanced educations or humanistic philosophy.

O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish (2 Nephi 9:28).

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As I talked to the woman, I saw a miracle. She originally called with the desperate sense that she could not be happy without the companionship of her co-worker; when I encouraged her to honor her promises and entrust her happiness to God, she did not resist. She embraced God as the only true source of happiness. She trusted him. The miracle grew—as it always does when we trust God. She called the next day to report that she had gone home and apologized to her husband for her coolness and unkindness. They had spent a joyous evening together—something she had never imagined possible. Their marriage is not suddenly idyllic, but there is hope.

Submission came more slowly for the male co-worker. His marriage seemed hopelessly vacant. The prospect of losing his co-worker’s affection seemed intolerable. Slowly he resolved to throw himself on the merits, mercy, and grace of him who is mighty to save. His marriage may or may not work. But exercising faith in the giver of life, he cried out for mercy following Alma’s pattern, “O Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” His marriage is not changed. But he moves forward feeling heavenly peace.

And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions (Mosiah 24:14).

There are, of course, marriages that must end because of abuse or betrayal. But Satan would lead millions more than the unavoidable few out of their sacred promises by prospects of something better, sweeter, or finer. But Satan is a liar. He will “not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell” (Alma 30:60).

There is only one source of enduring happiness. When we act contrary to promises, covenants, counsel, and impressions, we are acting contrary to the nature of happiness.

…for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal head (Helaman 13:38).

As Dad taught, when we make up our minds to be obedient to the counsel of heaven, we will find peace, joy, consolation. We will be happy. Forever. God knows the path to happiness. He will lead us there if we will obey.

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“I Could Not Believe it Myself”


You don’t know me—you never will.
I don’t blame you for not believing my history;
had I not experienced it
[I] could not believe it myself.
(Words of Joseph Smith, p. 343)

Nancy and I recently saw the movie Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration at the visitors’ center in Nauvoo. It was a wonderfully appropriate setting for experiencing Joseph’s life, service, troubles, and martyrdom. Mercifully the lights did not come up quickly at the end of the production. Those of us who know and love Joseph Smith were working to staunch the flow of tearsand to regain our composure.

I loved the movie.

Yet I wondered how those who do not already know and love Joseph might react. What claim does the movie make on a stranger’s interest or faith? Would a non-believer wonder if Joseph’s only claim was his amazing capacity to tolerate persecution with apparent good cheer? Certainly many or most of God’s prophets have suffered persecutions. But so have quacks and fakers.

I suggest we test Joseph’s claims by his fruits—we shall know others by their fruits (Matt. 7:16–20). One important fruit is the character of the people who follow Him. Any demographer can tell you that the Latter-day Saints are a peculiar people—high in education, morality, charitable giving, and longevity. And the Church continues to grow at a rate that is either disturbing or satisfying—depending on your orientation.

In my view there is an even better fruit to test: Doctrine. Did Joseph Smith give us nonsense doctrine as many suggest?

Are his teachings a mass of confusion, a hodgepodge of speculations and inventions? Do his teachings make a mockery of

God in heaven?

Or did Joseph Smith deliver the most coherent, sensible, defensible, and breathtakingly gracious doctrine taught on this earth in almost two millennia? Let’s test Him. If he is truly a prophet, he can stand the test. If he is not, the evidence will be clear.

The doctrines that matter most

Some doctrines matter more than others. The nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is interesting—but not essential for our spiritual well-being. The body temperature of translated beings might provide stimulating fodder in high priest groups, but the knowledge is not vital for our salvation.

I think there are three doctrines with eternal consequences for each of us:
1. What is God like?
2. How does He guide us?
3. What must we do to be with him?

If we are going to test Joseph Smith—or any other professed messenger for God—why not test him with key doctrines?

1. What is God like?

The vast majority of the Christian world sees God as the supreme creator. As part of His creative efforts, He created us out of nothing. What a miracle! According to the common Christian account, if we accept him as our God, He will adopt us into His family and we will become His children.

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Joseph Smith gave us a different vision of God. First, according to Joseph, God did not create us out of nothing. We have always lived! God did something analogous to what earthly fathers do. Earthly fathers take our spirits and add a body. Before we came to earth, God took our eternal intelligences and gave them spirit bodies. And, like the best of earthly fathers, God loved, nurtured, and taught us in our development.

This different account of His fathering makes a profound difference in at least two ways. First, God is not merely our Father if we choose to follow Him. He is already and literally our Father—the Father of every single person on the face of the earth. He is deeply and eternally invested in us. Which leads us to a second profound difference.

We are not created out of nothing. We had an identity that He has nurtured and advanced from the beginning of time. So we are not mere craft projects for Him. He does not merely spend an eon in the shop turning out pot holders and masonry bowls and then cherish and display those that turned out well and cast off those that disappoint.

He is our Father! We have seeds of His nature planted in our souls. He is committed to every one of us—not just the best of us.

Of course our usual areas of contention related to the nature of God are whether He has a body, is separate from the Son, and is knowable. While much mainline Christian theology attests that He is an ineffable mystery, Latter-day Saints invite the world to experience him as a devoted, personal, real, all-loving, and all-powerful Father.

Joseph upended the familiar and accepted formulas and doctrines about the nature of God. He returned us to the simple truths taught by the Savior and the early church fathers.

We could show how Joseph Smith’s understanding of God opens our minds to the New Testament passages about the father of our spirits (hebrews 12:9) and the command to become perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We could quote dozens of passages in the Bible that are more readily compatible with Joseph’s teachings than with those of mainline Christianity. But my objective here is not apologetics. It is simple contrast.

In my opinion, an open-minded student of the theology that Joseph delivered must be stunned! Joseph made God more real and personally invested than any modern theologian of Christianity. His teachings, while different from the understandings of his contemporaries, are in perfect agreement with the original commonsense teachings of the Bible.

2. How does God guide us?

In the area of divine guidance of our lives, there are two major competing world views. The Catholic view is an epistemology of authority. God guides His people through a central spokesman, the Pope. Catholics are supposed to follow the Pope’s counsel.

The second world view, espoused by most Protestants, is more communal. God guides us through the body of believers. Having cut themselves off from a spokesman for God, Protestants are left with a document, the Bible, and the faith community to interpret it.

Neither Catholics nor Protestants have a vibrant prophetic tradition. Official scripture is limited to that delivered centuries ago. The apostles were the last messengers of scriptural truth. While there are skirmishes as to the merit and authority of different books (e.g., the apocrypha) and councils, the canon is closed. The heavens are silent. The tradition of prophets is ended—fulfilled by the coming of the ultimate prophet, Jesus Christ.

No one was more surprised than Joseph Smith to learn otherwise. He did not go into the grove of trees in 1820 expecting to see God and be called as a prophet. He merely hoped for some guidance in his spiritual journey. But God surprised Joseph and all the world. The Father and the Son appeared to the boy prophet! The heavens were opened once again.

With the opening of the heavens came a string of heavenly messengers: John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Elijah, and others. God is serious about having humans taught from on high.

Through a modern prophet God brought us the amazing Book of Mormon. Those who have not made serious study of the book may see it as mere scriptural meanderings. Those who have studied it recognize the Book of Mormon as a resonant, insightful, and powerful testimony of the atonement of Christ. Those who have looked earnestly for God and His plan in the Book of Mormon have been flooded with soul-edifying truth. The insight and invitation of just the great atonement chapters in the Book of Mormon justify all the “sorrows, sacrifices and toils of [any] life,” to paraphrase Parley P. Pratt’s exuberant utterance.

But there is more. Much, much more. We are taught that there are more peoples and more records—far more than we know. Not only do we have the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but we are challenged to be ready for the records of lost tribes.

And there is yet more. The Book of Mormon reinforces the pattern of heavenly involvement in human experience. We accept as doctrine the full invitation of heaven to be taught from on high.

And there is still more. Latter-day Saints have a remarkable personal epistemology. We believe that the Lord will reveal vital truths to every single seeker through God’s third in command, the Holy Spirit. Father invites: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (D&C 8:2). Notice the amazing and safety-providing redundancy in God’s process of personal revelation: He tells us in our minds and in our hearts. Revelation must stand up to both reason and feeling.

And then God gave us through Joseph Smith explicit teaching and case studies on how to test revelation:

And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:23-24).

God is quite determined to teach the lessons of eternity to those who seek them. God is not only more real and invested in human affairs, He and His helpers are more involved than any human imagined. Joseph Smith is himself the evidence that the heavens are open. With the coming of the Restoration, we do not have a peephole on God’s truth, we have a picture window on His perfect purposes. Anyone who reads Joseph Smith’s story (Joseph Smith–history) with an open mind must conclude that this was an honest boy who was as surprised as anyone at all that God stood willing to do for His children.

And there is still more. In general conference, President Faust renewed the invitation to draw angelic help to our lives. “We do not consciously realize the extent to which ministering angels affect our lives. President Joseph F. Smith said, “In like manner our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful, and worthy to enjoy these rights and privileges, may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction, to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh. Many of us feel that we have had this experience. Their ministry has been and is an important part of the gospel” (James E. Faust, “A Royal Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2006, 50–53).

So, how does God guide His children? He does it abundantly through all the classical epistemologies. He uses authority and revelation (modern prophets and continuing revelation), intuition (the whisps of the Spirit), empiricism (learning from experience), and reason (“study it out.”). The human experience can be flooded with the knowledge of God. Indeed, all things testify of Him.

God’s methods for guiding us are awe inspiring. They are also consistent with the ancient precedent. All I can say is, “Wow.”

3. What must we do to be with him?

There are at least three insurmountable difficulties in most Christian plans of salvation. First, they offer only two, vastly different eternal destinations. Every person will go to heaven or to hell. As Catholic doctrine has moved away from limbo and purgatory, they now suffer this problem with the Protestants. It is simply indefensible to argue that humans can fall tidily into two categories of deservingness.

Many Christian theologians now recognize the problem and write about different levels of blessedness (See insightful observations at: the Christian Courier ). Joseph Smith went a step further. He taught us that there are various degrees of glory. He takes Paul’s hint of diverse outcomes (1 Cor. 15) and gives us a panorama of purpose. He details three degrees of glory and describes the paths that lead to each. The restored plan of salvation shows God’s amazing creativity and relentless goodness. And every element of this plan is implicit in the Bible. The prophet of the restoration made it explicit.
The second intractable problem in mainline Christian plans of salvation is the improbability of salvation. After most churches lay out their requirements, it is clear that most of God’s children must go to hell. Most of this earth’s residents over its tortured history never heard of Christ. Most have not accepted His message because they have not heard it. Most eschatologies condemn all of these people to endless hell. That is outrageous. It cannot be true that a perfectly loving and perfectly wise Father would allow the bulk of His children to be lost without even a chance at salvation. The idea is grotesque. Yet mainline theologies offer no hope to any but a select few. They may hint at hidden purposes. But that is all.

Joseph Smith did exactly what a prophet is supposed to do. He taught us about a perfect Father with a perfect plan. He invited all hearers to come and feast on it. He showed us in detail how God intended to rescue every one of His children who was willing. Jesus’ visit to paradise and the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) is no longer a mystery but rather an inspiring, hopeful, and specific assurance.

A third insurmountable difficulty of mainline plans of salvation is their theocentricity. They insist that the residents of heaven will be so focused on praising God that they will be unaware and uninterested in any association with their fellow residents of heaven.

If we reason by analogy, the problem with this doctrine becomes obvious. Does a good earthly parent want his or her children to do nothing but adore him or her? No. The opposite is true. The best parents are focused on teaching, helping, encouraging, and challenging their children.

This is exactly the truth that God delivered through His latter-day prophet. God’s work and glory is to help us advance (Moses 1:39). “he doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24). That is exactly what we would expect of a great Father.

Latter-day Saints look forward to an eternity filled with loving associations and productive activity. That is the hope written in the souls of most people. It is the official doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Was Joseph Smith a wild and creative dreamer of doctrine who spun a web of clever ideas to ensnare the gullible? Each person can judge for him or herself. Each can test the doctrines with the Bible. Each can ask God if they are heaven-authorized doctrines or mad impositions.

The fact is that the teachings delivered by God’s latter-day prophet and his successors are magnificent and awe inspiring. Joseph himself stood in awe of the truth that was delivered through him. Note his statement about that greatest of all revelations, the vision recorded in D&C 76:

Every law, every commandment, every promise, every truth, and every point touching the destiny of man, from Genesis to Revelation, where the purity of the Scriptures remain unsullied by the folly of men, go to show the perfection of the theory (of different degrees of glory in the future life) and witness the fact that the document is a transcript from the records of the eternal world. The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation may confess the Lord and bow the knee; the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.11, emphasis added)

Yes. It came from God. I know it is true. While Satan draws cruel caricatures of LDS beliefs, those who earnestly study them and faithfully test them through study and prayer will know as we know. God has opened the heavens and poured out blessings of knowledge from heaven. I am grateful to Joseph Smith for being the bearer of all this incredibly good news.

The most important part of the Restoration story is also the most difficult to portray on film. It is not what happened in Kirtland, Far West, or Nauvoo. It is what happens in individual minds and hearts as seekers experience the dawning of a new day of truth about God and His plan.

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The Mystery of Jesus



Jesus is and was a mystery. He just kept doing things that people didn’t expect and couldn’t deserve. He treated the adulterous woman at the well as if she were royalty. He frankly forgave the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee. He honored as righteous the publican who professed to be a sinner. He healed a man at the pool of Bethesda who He knew would violate His trust. He forgave the Roman soldiers who crucified Him. He made the fisherman who thrice betrayed him the president of His post-Resurrection church.

The mystery of Jesus includes the observation that Jesus was aloof towards the civic and religious leaders of the time. He stonewalled Herod. He defied the Pharisees. He challenged the Sanhedrin. Their positions meant nothing to Him. He made personal friends of the worst class of people: publicans and sinners. He treated lepers with more personal warmth than He treated kings. His ministry was packed with such violations of religious discipline and social order.

Jesus is a mystery. How do we explain His reckless disregard for decorum? How do we make sense of His dispensing goodness to people who were so patently undeserving while acting without regard for those who claimed to be good and powerful?

Jesus is a mystery. How can we design the formula that will explain His unexpected behavior?

The formula

Actually, He has already given us the formula: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Those who come unto him are blessed with rest. Those who do not come unto him do not enjoy His unique and life-changing peace. That is the formula that explains His mysterious behavior.

The challenge for earthlings is that we tend to act according to standard spiritual practices rather than according to His example. Following the counsel of Satan, we hide ourselves after we sin—just as Adam and Eve did. Before we let him in, we want to get our spiritual houses in order. The problem is that everywhere we go, we make things dirtier. So, as we rush around working ever harder, our houses get ever more uninhabitable—until we collapse in spiritual exhaustion. Try as we might, we cannot make ourselves clean. But we, like our First Parents, can go to Him.

He is Mr. Clean. He is the One who is able to set things right. He does not ask us to make our own houses completely clean. Of course He expects us not to throw dinner on the wall, and He encourages us to keep farm animals outdoors. He asks that we do our best to keep things in order.

But only He justifies. Only He sanctifies. Only He perfects. He says, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are burdened by the dead weight of sin. I will give you rest. I will set your house in order.”

There is no other way, no other means, no other path, no other name under heaven whereby we can be saved. We must come unto Him.

Who could have supposed?

But something inside us objects to this wanton goodness. How can He possibly make friends of those who are tainted? Shouldn’t we be noble and good? Shouldn’t we push sin out of our lives? The woman at the well at first thought so—as did Simon Peter. But Christ invites all to come unto Him, no matter how unworthy.

I hope not to be misunderstood—we must cheerfully do all that we are able to do. We must. But we must not be confused. We will never cleanse ourselves nor save ourselves. After we have done all that we are able, we must “stand still with the utmost assurance to see the salvation of God and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17). He is the One who does the miracle of saving.

The key is coming to Him. That matters more than anything else. It changes everything. Ask the woman with the issue of blood, or the woman taken in adultery—or anyone you know who glows with quiet hope. Coming unto Christ changes everything.

His personal invitation to us

Consider His sacramental invitation:

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14–16, emphasis added).

Think about His invitation to come boldly to the throne of grace anytime we need healing or cleansing. Satan prefers that we hide. But Jesus invites us to come to him! He is able and willing to give the needed blessing.

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Running from goodness

Maybe every sin is, ultimately, the sin of resisting God. We may resist God because we want to be self-sufficient. Or maybe we resist him because we find a perverse comfort in our sins. Whatever our reason for resistance, we cannot heal until we go boldly to the throne of grace and receive mercy in time of need.

But how can we come to him when we are filthy? He cannot tolerate filth one whit.

The good news is that the very act of turning to him and putting ourselves in His hands is the requisite act of humility. When we come to Him, He cleanses us as He embraces us. What a friend!

Two kinds of pride

So it turns out that one of the greatest enemies of righteousness is not sin itself but spiritual self-sufficiency. President Benson called it pride. He also said it was the universal sin. It is the state of mind that keeps us working on ourselves endlessly and fruitlessly while Jesus beckons: “Come unto me. I can set you right. I can renew a right spirit within you. I have already paid for your sins. Please let me toss them to the side and make you clean.”

Pride has another face. The people we usually call proud are those who are too self-sufficient to have faith in Christ. Yet pride also includes those exhausted do-it-yourselfers who know their houses are filthy but do not want to come to him until they can make the place presentable. We can never do it. So it is not enough to be humble—we must be humble and also go to him for help. Anything that keeps us from going to him is sin.

Christ’s spiritual prescription is to fill ourselves with Him. Study the stories of His healings. Cherish every experience of His goodness. Celebrate His willingness to pay the price of sin.

When we study the scriptures with new eyes, we see that, at the heart of every great story, Jesus is giving someone something that they didn’t expect and could never deserve. And He does it just because they came to Him.

Collapsing into His love

I compare my own spiritual plight to experiences with little Vivian, our beloved, curly-headed granddaughter. She will toddle and play all day long. We laugh with her. At some point she needs rest. But she fights it. She tries to keep going. She gets cranky. We put out our arms, but she runs from us. She toddles and flops and whines until she can go no farther. I pick her up and hold her close. She immediately nestles her black curls against my shoulder, and I rejoice in the love I feel for this little one. I put a blanket over her and we sit in Grandma’s chair and rock. I whisper love in her ear.
And finally she is at rest.

“Come unto me.”

Let’s all go to him where He sits ready to hold us close, speak words of love, and rock us toward eternal life. The greatest surprise of my life is that, when I go to Him, He welcomes me, besmirched as I am. He doesn’t ask me to go through a hundred decontamination steps. He grabs me and pulls me close, leaving me weeping with the mystery of His love.
I join my testimony with that of Ammon, a believer whose sense of the mystery of Jesus led him to rejoice:

Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel.

Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?

Behold, we went forth even in wrath, with mighty threatenings to destroy his church.

Oh then, why did he not consign us to an awful destruction, yea, why did he not let the sword of his justice fall upon us, and doom us to eternal despair?

Oh, my soul, almost as it were, fleeth at the thought. Behold, he did not exercise his justice upon us, but in his great mercy hath brought us over that everlasting gulf of death and misery, even to the salvation of our souls.

Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo. Yea, blessed is the name of my God, who has been mindful of this people . . . I say, blessed be the name of my God, who has been mindful of us, wanderers in a strange land.

Now my brethren, we see that God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in; yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth. Now this is my joy, and my great thanksgiving; yea, and I will give thanks unto my God forever. Amen. (Alma 26:16–20, 36–37)

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The Lesson of the Washing Machine Hose

Okay. So the plumber inspected the house we had just bought. Among other things he told Nancy that it would be a good idea to replace the hoses on our washing machine. They could burst and flood the house. (It is worth noting that we paid him good money to replace the washers in all our faucets. They still leak just as they did before his visit.)Nancy was quite worried about the plumber’s dire predictions. She was reluctant to leave the house for a vacation without getting the hoses changed.

In contrast, I inspected the hoses and found that they seemed solid and supple—reliable, black-rubber hoses. I found no cause for alarm.

I searched my memory trying to remember anyone I had ever known whose washing machine hoses had burst. I know it can happen. (And I am sure I will hear from many readers who have had the horrific experience.) But, on the great scale of likely calamities, it seemed to rank just a little lower than getting attacked by a marauding band of armed squirrels.

The course of duty

Yet I want to be a good husband and I knew that Nancy was worried. So, when we were at the home Improvement Store (otherwise known as the Money Pit Store), I asked the clerk for replacement hoses. He led us to a set of hoses that looked like woven steel in a space-age sheath–the kind that feeds liquid oxygen into an Atlas V booster rocket. In addition to being burst-proof, they also had an automatic shutoff feature that sensed extraordinary water flow and acted to protect your home and holdings when they suspected a leak. And they were endorsed by AARP.

Naturally we bought a set.

It was several days before I had a chance to install them. One Saturday afternoon I had a few spare minutes. I grabbed the hoses and the appropriate tools. I entered the laundry closet, shoved the dryer to the side, and wrestled the washer into a more-accessible position. I removed the old, perfectly serviceable hoses, trying to catch the loose water in a bucket. Of course the water went everywhere except in the bucket.

I put on the new hoses—which stretched my resolve to be patient almost to the breaking point since the spaces for the connections are too cramped for hands or pliers. Good design.

Automatic features

I turned on the water. I pushed the washing machine back into place, put clothes into the washing machine, and turned it on. Nothing. Not a drop of water. Only a low growl from the washing machine. I read the instructions again. No clues. So I went to the website. Not a hint of practical guidance.

However, the website does suggest that if the hoses sense a sudden flow of water, they will shutoff. They can be reset by disconnecting them. So I wrestled the washer around, shut off the water, and disconnected the hoses. Of course water dripped and sprayed here and there. Then I reattached and tried again. Nothing. I tried this several times as if I could reasonably expect a different outcome. Finally I detached, reattached, and turned the water on verrrry s-l-o-w-l-y.

They worked! Eureka! Intelligence conquered brute machinery. Civilization advanced.

Of course, as soon as the washer got to the rinse cycle and tried to refill the washer tub, the water shut off again. Apparently the automatic shutoff feature thinks that any use of water is suspect. This is a new kind of conservation.

The human reaction

When the hoses shut off again, would you guess that I found my way to my comfortable easy chair and mused on the ironies of mortality? Do you think I reflected on the Lehite challenges in the wilderness and considered myself fortunate? If so, you are mistaken.

I was mad. I was mad at the manufacturer and the plumber. But I did not write them salty letters. No, I did what any red-blooded man would do. I blamed my wife.

Why did she listen to that idiot plumber? How many people had she personally known whose washer hoses had burst? What harm could a flood do to a house built on a slab? Why didn’t she trust her wise husband? Etc., etc., ad nauseum.
I don’t want to misrepresent my wrath. I am just civilized enough that I do not yell. I just provided a slow, scorching heat rather than an explosion. So civil!

By now I had wasted more time than I could afford. I thought about removing the lovely new hoses and selling them to NASA for a handsome sum. But I intended to get my money back from the home Improvement Store. If I could just find my receipt. I dug in the closet where I stack them and found lots of receipts—but none for the hoses.

New hoses

So we drove to the store and confronted the lady at the service desk. She meekly gave us a store credit. And we went looking for hoses. We were sent to aisle 27. Nothing. Then to an end cap on aisle 24. Nothing. Finally found some hoses tucked behind the appliance section in a corner. They had plain hoses without the automatic shutoff feature.

Of course the simple hoses cost more than the fancy hoses with the automatic feature. We bought them and installed them and found that the washing machine worked great. I had wasted a lot of time, scraped my knuckles, squirted water everywhere, spent additional money, and hurt my wife’s feelings. But the machine worked.

Yet this is not a simple victory. I do have nightmares that the hoses are not tight enough since the pliers couldn’t reach the connections very well. I wake in the night thinking I should check the connections. And I wonder if we damaged the washing machine when we ran it without any water. Every groan of the old machine makes me worry.

It seems that we never have any simple victories in mortality.

A new definition of victory

My guess is that you can recount numerous disasters more harrowing than my encounter with the washing machine. They are universal.

But let’s tinker with our assumptions. My default assumption in my run-in with the washing machine was that good sense and patience will triumph in our many challenges in life. If we live wisely, our lives will go smoothly.

Latter-day Saints may be especially vulnerable to the rosy world view. We expect to be blessed for doing what is right. Then the sky falls. We don’t marry. Or our made-in-heaven marriage falls apart. Our children stray. Our careers flounder. We ask, “What did I do wrong? Didn’t I have enough faith? Is God mad at me? Is the ‘good news’ really a deception?”

It turns out that doing good does not guarantee a life of contentment and fulfilled dreams. We may be blessed for our efforts with the gift of serenity—or with new challenges. God will provide precisely the experiences that can lead us to greater faith and a closer relationship with Him. We can shake our washing machine hoses at heaven or we can move resolutely and peacefully to our next rendezvous with God.

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The rosy assumption does not hold up very well when we look at the lives of saints. Suffering Job. Joseph Smith. Jeremiah. Adam. Spencer W. Kimball. Jesus. These are good people who gave life their best and still got pummeled.
So maybe we should try a new assumption. Maybe life is designed to deliver a solid and growing measure of failure for each of us—especially the valiant. Maybe the Grand Designer wants us to be humble rather than self-sufficient. Maybe He wants us to learn firsthand our dependence on Him. By systematically inserting failure into our experience, we are likely to become either discouraged and bitter or relentlessly reliant on the One. We can learn to trust Him.

Any time we chafe at life, we have a need to submit to heavenly tutoring.

Trusting in the arm of flesh

We have had trials more troublesome than the encounter with the hoses. In the course of over 20 miscarriages, Nancy and I tried medical help, priesthood blessings, and raw faith. Nothing seemed to help. The miscarriages became more regular. At one point I confronted and threatened God. “Why would He do this to two young people who were trying to do good?”

In process of time I learned a life-changing lesson. God does not have to explain or justify His doings to me. I simply trust Him. I thank him for every miscarriage without understanding their purpose.

I do not believe that God caused our miscarriages. But I believe that He only allowed them because they could bless us. Out of our big disappointment came refining, consoling, soul-filling faith. I am thankful that He was not intimidated by my threats.

Whatever we come to depend on—our minds, our talents, our money, our connections, our bodies—will be taken from us. In the end, only one thing is left–there is only one thing we can depend on: Him.

We expect everything to work the way it should. Yet the world is designed so that nothing works the way we expect it to. But this is not random meanness. This is a perfect design that invites us to depend on God.

Each of us can anticipate our customized rendezvous with growth: The thing that we lean on and hate to lose is the thing that we must be willing to put on the altar. If we have any other gods but Him, we are not ready to join Him in His work.

Our exemplary first parents

After Adam and Eve lost everything and yet continued to trust God, they were taught. Our inspired First Mother expressed her discovery with perfect perspective:

Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. (Moses 5:11)

Exemplary Eve said that our challenges are blessings carefully designed to help us recognize our need for Him. Everything in mortality will work against us, fail us, or disappoint us. We must not trust any thing. But God is the sure foundation on whom we must build.

Notice how beautifully this truth harmonizes with God’s invitation:

 

I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and ; or if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, hen will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27, emphasis added)

Surrender to conquer

If we want our talents to be refined and enlarged, we must be willing to surrender them to Him. Because of His great goodness, He will not simply strip us of everything. Instead, with perfect discernment, He takes only as much as He must in order to teach us where we will find salvation.

President Kimball is a remarkable example to all of us. He went from mere submission to actively seeking the tutoring of heaven. After suffering throat cancer and heart trouble, he is reported to have cried to God, “I have strength yet. Give me one more mountain to climb.”

If I am wise, I will call out, “Father, I have more to learn. Give me another repair encounter with the washing machine.”

I hope to do better next time.

Categories
Uncategorized

Toddling toward Godliness

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When God gives us a potted miniature rose in full bloom, many of us feel both blessed and cursed. Where can I put it? How long will it stay in bloom? Do I know how to care for it? What if I make a fool of myself by killing it?

There is hardly any blessing that we humans cannot easily turn into a cursing. Our natural minds make us enemies to God and gratitude.

I consider myself something of a specialist at this. When I was in high school, I asked my Sunday School teacher how to get a testimony. I didn’t recognize the cloud of witnesses I had already been given.

After serving as a bishop, I remember still asking myself, do I know that our message is true? I knew—but I was looking for some state of never-disturbed certitude.

I remember years later when we were talking about being born again in a Sunday School class. Even after serving twice as a bishop, I found myself wondering if I had been born again. Sure, I had had marvelous experiences. I had witnessed miracles. I felt an overwhelming love for God. But I also knew that I still had a disposition to do evil in many areas of my life.

If being born again means that we never falter and we have no interest in Satan’s invitations, then I have not been born again. Just a few weeks ago, while discussing the subject with a respected friend, I found myself wondering still, have I been born again?

A theory of spiritual development

I would like to suggest a theory of spiritual development. I think I have discerned two major stages, each with a distinct task in the developmental process. In the first stage, the central task is to move from childhood dependency to adult independence.

It is clear that God does not want us to remain self-centered toddlers demanding that all around us dedicate themselves to ministering to our needs and wants. That won’t do. God wants us to become active, capable, even anxiously engaged people. We must learn to take responsibility.

Many of us spend much of mortality working on this. It is not easy to relinquish our dependence. In fact, one reason it is supremely painful to lose our parents is that we must then be self-sufficient. We will have no one to wipe away our tears when we are mistreated on the playground of life.

The second stage is, in some ways, antithetical to the first. The second stage is surrendering to God. In this stage we become again like children—described by King Benjamin as “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

But this return to dependence is not to garden-variety, childish dependence. It is a very special kind of dependence. In the verse immediately preceding that quoted above, King Benjamin provided the oft-neglected key:

. . . men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:18)

The second stage

Just as a child depends completely on earthly parents for protection and nurturance, so, in this second stage of human development, we must depend on our heavenly Parent for our protection and nurturance. Though we have learned to be strong and independent, we must now surrender. This seems to be the core message of Jesus’ familiar teaching:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24–26, emphasis added)

In my view, this is the core message of that great latter-day guide, the Book of Mormon. Returning to King Benjamin:

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)

Case studies

There are many case studies of spiritual development that could be provided. One of the most dramatic is that of Alma the younger. He was a very energetic and charismatic man who wielded great influence. Unfortunately he used his God-given abilities to undermine God’s work. Yet, though he was among the “vilest of sinners,” he was transformed. He went from a wretched sinner to having a heavenly vision that matched father Lehi’s (Alma 36:22, 1 Nephi 1:8). And the change happened in a matter of minutes or hours (depending on how you reckon the beginning and the end of the change).

His dramatic experience distills the essential elements of spiritual development that are often obscured by our confused spiritual histories into one key element: He emptied himself of himself. He turned from spiritual self-sufficiency to God-dependency. The related elements of the change were described in his autobiographical account (Alma 36:17-19).

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,

Alma was humbled by the inadequacy of self-sufficiency.

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.

Alma turned to Jesus.

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 threw himself on the “merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8)

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. [also joy, marvelous light, etc.]

Alma became a new creature in Christ. He was born again.

Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance.

Alma spent the rest of his life serving God and growing stronger in his humility and firmer in the faith of Christ. (See helaman 3:35.)

Alma was born again. He had been born as a baby into Alma the elder’s family. Now he was born again into his Ultimate Father’s family. By submitting to God completely, Alma became a new creature, a child in the Kingdom of God. By continuing to lean on Christ, he grew steadily and surely into spiritual manhood.

The advantage of using Alma as a case study is that his dramatic change clarifies the essential elements of the process. The very real danger of using Alma as a case study is that each of us may look for the same kind of total and sudden transformation in our own lives.

Most of us do have moments of uncomfortable confrontation with our badness and humanness as Alma did. Yet most of us do not have a single earth-shaking experience. Most of us must decide thousands of times to move toward godliness. The elements of Alma’s story that are not obvious in his dramatic account are the thousands of times that Alma chose again to turn his life over to Christ. His mighty change began a process that involved thousands of mini-changes.

A second, non-scriptural case study

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis described his life and conversion. This great Christian apologist was a solid atheist before his change. In his early adulthood he mastered self-sufficiency. He says that “what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. . . .[I saw God as a] transcendental Interferer” (p.172).

But the time came when he felt that he “was holding something at bay, or shutting something out” (p. 224). he realized that he was “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion” (p. 226).
Sometimes it takes a while before we are worn down enough by life to submit to heaven. At the age of 31, Lewis “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? . . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation” (pp. 228–29).

Lewis puts fascinating words to the transition: “There was a transitional moment of delicious uneasiness, and then—instantaneously—the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days” (p. 217).

The essential element in the mighty change

In the cases of Alma and C. S. Lewis—in the case of every disciple—losing self is the heavenly task, the culminating task of young development. It introduces us into another world entirely apart from that we have known.

We are born again. And, once again, we are children. But not the demanding, self-centered children. Quite the opposite. We are serving, God-centered children. We share with pre-accountability children that we are redeemed from the fall and made innocent before God (see D&C 93:38). But otherwise we are very different.

Spiritual maturity

Born into this new world, everything is different. We are less anxious but also less careless. We are bolder and more assured but softened by charity. We are more like Christ.

We may not, as suggested by an incredulous Nicodemus, return to our mother’s womb in order to be born again. We go into another womb, the womb of the Spirit. This change is beautifully described by Alma immediately after his change:

Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea,born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becominghis sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit thekingdom of God (Mosiah 27:25–26).

We become new creatures—like little babies. We still must learn to walk in His way. We still must learn to talk in His way. We still must learn many lessons “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We have so much to learn before we will be like him!

Being born again does not mean that we have reached spiritual maturity. It simply means that we have felt the power and are cooperating with God in our second life, the life of holiness.

Some, like Alma, will grow quickly toward spiritual maturity. Some will stagnate. Some who are born again will regress into the old world. That is why Alma asks whether those of us who have felt to sing the song of redeeming love still feel the same way. Have we kept our minds and hearts in the spiritual sphere or have we regressed to the natural world where God is subservient to reason and self-will?

Any time we are spiritually self-sufficient we regress to the carnal, natural man or woman. And every time we throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace, we step into that world where God reigns.

Any time we acknowledge our dependence on God, we are in the new world of spiritual new life. That is the core lesson of the spiritual life.

How is it done?

There is much to understand concerning how we can advance our maturity. Surely the process must include faith, repentance, and covenanting. God’s process is well known if not well applied.

There are also clear signs that we are progressing in the new life. We regularly go to him to be taught and renewed. We feast on the sacrament. We rejoice in Christ. We are filled with charity. We enjoy the fruits of the spirit, especially those at the forefront: love, joy, and peace.

Natural/human infancy Natural/human maturity Born again Spiritual infancy Spiritual maturity
Unable to move efficiently Efficient movement Move as directed by God Able to do all things with God as partner
Unable to communicate well Communicate efficiently Hints and spots of heavenly communication Taught and guided by the Spirit
Depends on others Depend primarily on self Turn to God and draw on His power Draw on God’s power constantly
Random thinking process Logical thinking Inspiration and revelation The mind Christ

Just as we mature gradually from our physical birth toward mature adulthood, it would seem that there is a maturing process after the new birth. So we can define four critical points in our development: natural or human infancy, natural or human maturity, spiritual infancy, and spiritual maturity.So I have discerned two major stages in God’s method of spiritual development. In our earthly families of origin we are taught basic skills and move toward independence. Yet life leaves us with a nagging sense of inability, a cosmic insecurity.

 

If and when we submit our souls to God, then we are born again into the family of God. In that family we learn the skills of heaven: loving, serving, blessing. We enjoy a “confidence in the presence of God.” This is very different from the flimsy and artificial self-confidence that we strove for before being born again. Now we are partners with God in His glorious work. Everything is new. Everything is right.

Of course Satan would like us to feel insecure at all points in our journey. He hopes to arouse our efforts at self-management. He wants us to become natural men and women again. He wants us to grab the reins of power. But God invites us to be different—to use His power, His goodness, His truth.

How does this knowledge help me on my journey?

Being “born again” isn’t a single event that concludes all spiritual striving. It is the beginning of spiritual growth. It’s a process of progression. Just like our developmental progression as human beings, we as spiritual beings also should expect a developmental progression over time. Spiritual maturity isn’t a state attained in one fell swoop; it is a journey—coming ever closer in our relationship with God and feeling him ever more active in our lives.

So I offer reassurance to myself and all those like me who are prone to disappointment with themselves and their progress: The process is begun, it is progressing, and it is supervised by a Parent who knows how to help His children mature. Maybe each of us who is trying has reason to be patient with ourselves and trusting of Father.

There is no journey that promises more perfect timing and auspicious reunions than our mortal sojourns planned and supervised by the Perfect Travel Agent. We can enjoy each new day knowing that He will fit it into a perfect itinerary. Our job is to be as a little child—completely open to every new day and every new adventure.

Isn’t it wonderful that He continues to beckon and teach and lead us towards a greater state of spiritual maturity and joy! One day our mortal photo albums will all unite to testify that He is able to get through the mishaps of mortal experience and back home reformed in His image!

Categories
Self Development

New Year Resolutions

The new year invites us to make resolutions. But too often resolutions merely accentuate our failings. Are we ever enlarged by our aspirations—or only reminded of our chronic failings?

For years my solution has been to avoid the whole mess. I just kept trying but without setting specific goals. I did not suffer the pain of failed aspirations.

Yet, as the annual temptation to make resolutions arises again, I have resolved to take a new approach. I want to try renewable resolutions.

I will make those resolutions that beckon to my soul. I will recklessly commit to no anger, unrelenting compassion, and unflagging faith. My resolutions will be less timid than any time in the past.

I know that I will yet again lose my temper, judge another, and espouse the narrow view. But this is where my new approach will be different. My resolutions will not be some misguided commitment to henceforth be perfect. No. I will work at the resolutions knowing that I will fall short. And when I do, I will follow the scriptural pattern.

The publican stumbled to the temple and cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). When I fall short, I will do the same. I will cry out for God’s mercy: “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 36:18).

I know that my only hope for any real reformation of my character is in Jesus. I will, more than ever, turn to Him for the changes that will gradually make me what He invites me to be.