President Joseph F. Smith observed that “obedience is one of the first principles or laws of heaven” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 65) It is no wonder that Satan wants to pervert the principle of obedience so that we do not claim the blessings and power associated with it.
The first time I was called to serve as a bishop I worked with youthful zeal. I spent many evenings in meetings, interviews, and in visits to the homes of the members. Years later I was called to serve as a branch president in Alabama. I spent fewer evenings on my calling than I had as a bishop. I felt that I needed to spend time with our teenage children. And my job demanded many evenings. But I felt guilty that I was not doing as much in my calling as I had in the earlier one. When I was released I had a nagging feeling that I had not done enough.
More than a year after my release I was talking about my feelings with an LDS friend. The months had not removed my self-reproach. Almost as a speculation I suggested that maybe Heavenly Father knew my circumstances had a different work for me to do in that branch in Alabama than that ward in Utah. A sudden and unexpected surge of the Spirit suggested that I was making an important discovery.
Maybe my offering was acceptable. Maybe God judged the later service by the specific instructions He had given for that calling rather than by the instruction He had given in the earlier calling. Maybe God wanted to me to spend more time with my family. I knew my service was imperfect, but maybe I had done the essential things as I was directed by Him. Suddenly a familiar scripture took on new meaning:
Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Maybe God was not evaluating my service as a branch president based on the total mass of my suffering. He wanted me to do as He directed. If I imposed my own expectations and standards on the calling, then I was no longer serving Him. He had specific imperatives for that specific calling at that specific time. Perhaps it was true in that calling as in the building of the Nauvoo House—
For that which is more or less than this cometh of evil, and shall be attended with cursings and not blessings, saith the Lord your God. Even so. Amen (D&C 124:120).
Each of us has been taught many rules. Don’t shop on the Sabbath. Don’t wear plaids with stripes. Be nice to your brother. Floss between meals. Never hit. Look both ways before crossing the street. Read the scriptures daily.
Rules are not all created equal. The mature saint seeks to do the will of God in all things. That often requires more judgment and inspiration than merely following rules. It requires us to seek the mind of God.
Filled with righteous zeal we may desire to do a great work. “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (Alma 29:1). Certainly it is good to declare the gospel to the world. But we judge by the dim light of our own understanding. Rightness is defined only by God. “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me” (Alma 29:3). Am I wiser than He that I know what is most important? No. He knows best. “Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6).
His customized commandments provide high leverage opportunities. While we imagine ourselves making big differences, He points us to inconspicuous but vital service. We may want to write a bestseller or support a hundred missionaries. He points us to one of his children who needs to be warmed by love and testimony. For Him each child is an eternity and each act of loving service fills the immensity of space.
When the Lord directs me to read a storybook to our preschooler, nothing in the universe is more important. When the Spirit beckons me to listen to my wife, it is the most important work I can do. Often those impressions and invitations are subtle. But we know the voice.
I know a man who likes to say that “it is our duty to suffer and die for the amusement of our creator—and I am doing my part.” Of course that is just backwards. God does not measure our devotion by our suffering but by our obedience to His counsel. Frenzied and fretful service is probably inspired by our own agendas rather than by God’s.
Further, the rewards of obedience always exceed the gratifications of following our own wills.
For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Psalms 84:10).
There is interesting fallout when we try to guide our lives by His specific counsel. We find it more difficult to sit in judgment of others’ service. While the scribes and Pharisees may have considered Jesus a Sabbath breaker because He healed on that hallowed day, we know that, from the heavenly perspective, He kept the Sabbath perfectly. We should be cautious about judging the inspirations God grants to others.
God’s specific directives will almost always be in line with his general commandments. The commonest surprise is that he directs us to specific and inconspicuous service.
Our son, Andy, served a mission in Paris, France. One day he and his companion were walking through a park on their way to tract. They passed an old man sitting on a bench looking desolate. They wondered how two American boys could help him. They hesitated. Then they joined him on the bench and asked about his troubles. He told them about losing his wife of many years and his profound loneliness. Those two servants of God wept with him. They did not leave a tract or give a discussion. The name of the Church did not come up. But I have no doubt that Heavenly Father often reaches across eternity to bless His children, young and old, in unexpected ways. Two missionaries grew in compassion and a widower felt peace. God knows how to do His work (see 2 Nephi 27:20–21.).
Our actions should not be directed merely by the accumulation of rules that fill our lives. We should guide our lives by His general principles and seek specific direction in our daily journey.
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Some time ago I was invited into a meeting to evaluate a new time- and life-management product developed by a prominent management company. I listened to the lively discussion among a score of bright people for a couple of hours. There were a few assumptions that seemed to undergird their discussion of time management and self-improvement.
Every person fares in this life according to his or her management. If I can become a better manager I can overcome my weaknesses and become a better, more productive person.
Every person prospers according to his genius. If we are to succeed, we must use our heads.
Every person conquers according to his strength. I need to rally my willpower. I need to dispatch waste and maximize good.
Such statements are virtually articles of faith among business consultants. They seem also to be woven into our personal processes of self-improvement. They are just common sense. I believe that the statements are as cherished by most Latter-day Saints as they are by people in the secular world. That should cause us keen discomfort. Those statements were warmly endorsed by Korihor, the antichrist.
And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but [every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature]; therefore [every man prospered according to his genius], and that [every man conquered according to his strength]; and whatsoever a man did was no crime (Alma 30:17, emphasis added).
It could be argued that Korihor had woven in true doctrine along his path to false conclusions. But if those are true principles of change, they should show up throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon and all scripture. Neverthless, the scriptures recommend a different process of change. Notice the process that Alma describes and recommends to his son, Helaman.
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:17–18).
Alma was transformed from intolerable misery to inexpressible joy. He went from dreading the divine face-off to longing to be in the arms of heaven. He went from impenetrable darkness to marvelous light. His mighty change hinged on giving up self-sufficiency and throwing himself entirely on the merits and mercy of Jesus. Time management may give us a well-ordered life. Submission to Jesus provides us cleansing, transformation, and eternal life.
Are the lessons of Alma’s experience obscure, applying only to vile sinners? I looked to the Book of Mormon for answers. I studied King Benjamin, whose seemingly righteous people responded to his unequivocal statement of nothingness and dependence on God with a statement much like Alma’s.
And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men” (Mosiah 4:2).
There is that plea almost identical to Alma’s, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” As I continued to explore, the Book of Mormon provided a whole chorus of testimonies. Ammon had never dared suppose that One would have been merciful enough to snatch him and his companions from their awful, sinful, and polluted state (Alma 26:17). Nephi was transformed from self-hating misery to joyful celebration because he knew in whom he had trusted (2 Nephi 4:19). Lehi summed his life as being redeemed from hell and encircled eternally in the arms of divine love (2 Nephi 1:15). At the other end of this amazing volume is Moroni’s invitation to come unto Christ and be perfected in Him (Moroni 10:32).
The more I studied the Book of Mormon the more I saw that it is relentless in its testimony that we must turn from our self-sufficient ways to Jesus, our only hope.
And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent (Mosiah 3:17).
Of course the same doctrine is taught in all scripture. One of the most dramatic examples is the Savior’s own counterintuitive definition of righteousness. He contrasted the self-made man, the Pharisee, with the detested publican who was swamped with his own inability to be what he yearned to be.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13).
So Alma has given us a pattern for spiritual renewal—do his lessons also apply to practical life planning? The more I studied the scriptures the more I realized that this process applied to all activities of life. Amulek invites us to cry for mercy from sunup to sundown, in our fields and over our flocks, in secret and in public (Alma 34:17–26). The ancients may have been tempted to think that God had nothing to teach them about watering crops and tending fields; the modern presumption is that God may not be fully informed on profits and losses, NASDAQ and Dow Jones, management and motivation. Such moderns are mistaken. He knows.
When I was serving as a bishop, a new member of the ward approached me after sacrament meeting and asked for an interview. We made an appointment for that afternoon. At the appointed time she came. We prayed together. Then she launched into the tragedy of her life. She told of abuse and immorality and ugliness and betrayal that stretched from her childhood to her current life. I sat with a peaceful façade but inner horror and disbelief. I had never heard such a tale of awfulness. What could I tell her? How could her life ever be straightened out? What hope could she ever have of healthy relationships and a productive life? She had never been more than a marginal Mormon and she had no apparent resources. It almost seemed that suicide was her only hope.
The dreaded moment came. “Bishop, what can I do?” I was amazed to hear myself saying, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what those three things were. I took a blank piece of paper from the desk drawer and said, “Number 1 is . . . “ and the Lord dictated the first item of hopeful and specific counsel. In like manner the Lord dictated the second and third items. We discussed them and sent her on her way with a hope she had never before known.
After she left the office, I closed the door behind her and fell to my knees. “Lord, I didn’t know. I just didn’t know how much you love your children. I had no idea that you could make something fine out of the mass of confusion that is our lives. I didn’t know.”
That is His greatest miracle. He can make us divine. I no longer remember the three items of instruction that He gave me that day. But He has continued to teach me His model of life management, which is very different from the wisdom of the world.
1. Growth and renewal are less about setting goals than submitting to His will.
A friend observed that he saw more planners than scriptures at his high council meeting. “Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord”(Jeremiah 17:5). We are not to trust in the arm of flesh even when that flesh is our own.
The scriptures are packed with prophets who mapped out a plan only to find that their ways were not God’s ways. From Elijah to Joseph Smith, sacred history is full of surprises. Often He would have us have no goals nor objectives except to discover His will and do it. He does expect us to be wise. But the great tendency of humans is to replace His leadership of our lives with our own. As my friend Rebekah says, “God is a lot better at being God than I am.”
Jesus was approached by a man who wanted Him to intercede in the division of an inheritance. In response Jesus told the parable of the foolish man who built more barns to accommodate his wealth and go into semi-retirement. But his narrow concern about his needs made the act foolish in God’s economy and timetable.
But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?
So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20–21).
That teaching sets the context for Jesus’ teaching of his disciples: “And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on” (Luke 12:22).
The “take no thought” commandment appears several times in the New Testament. It appears to have special application to those in the ministry. But the bulk of scripture suggests that we would do well to attend to His will, to be guided by Him in all things. Our planning and goal setting can get in the way of His customized curriculum for us.
“Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day” (Alma 37:37).
2. Growth and renewal are less about fixing ourselves than being fixed by Him.
For Americans steeped in do-it-yourself and self-help, this may be the biggest challenge of all. In fact, I wonder if Father has blessed the Latter-day Saints with the Book of Mormon to help balance our American self-sufficiency. The doctrine of the Book of Mormon is very different from the American idea that we can fix anything with a little bubble gum, bailing wire, and determination.
Many of us come to salvation with the attitude that we can schedule our growth. We will work very hard to push sin out of our lives and, in those few areas where we need some extra help, He will add the finishing touches. But in scripture He invites us to yield, submit, and be made perfect by Him. Maybe the great passage in the Doctrine and Covenants suggests a true balance:
Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully [The Lord loves a cheerful giver!] do all things that lie in our power [We believe in Him. Across our whole lives we keep trying in spite of our persistent weakness.]; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God [He does the saving.], and for his arm to be revealed [In fact He is in charge of all miracles, including the miracle of growth.]” (D&C 123:17).
A planner can be addictive, giving us a false sense of own power. A planner must never keep us from being available to Him—that is faith. Our only goal is to move toward Him—that is repentance. Then He keeps cleansing and refining us. He alone can make us into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
The great danger of being talented is that we may almost be able to sustain the fiction that we are doing quite well. Jesus’ appreciation for the untalented, the sinners, and the cripples was more than compassion for their difficult plight; He cherished their humility. When we get humble, He can do miracles with us.
3. Growth and renewal are less about using psychology (and management and finance and . . .) than about using covenants.
We may be inclined to trust an M.B.A. from Harvard or a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. more than the Lord. Does He really know about such modern, technical, and sophisticated things as business, science, and psychology?
Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 28:31).
When we are tempted to sign on with some money-making scheme “in order to be of greater service in the church,” we are probably deceiving ourselves.
In ancient times the people wondered whether God could make any contribution to war and agriculture. Some things never change. We are tempted to be condescending toward God in our areas of “expertise.” The Book of Mormon reminds us at least a dozen times that we must submit to God’s commandments if we are to prosper in the land.
Using our narrow definition of prosper we may believe that doing our part in the Church will assure us wealth. But God thinks of “prospering” in a broader context. Consecrating our lives to Him guarantees us peace in this life and riches in eternity. There are many things that we focus on and fret about that God does not seem to care about. We do well to be concerned about only those things that He is concerned about. He can make us rich and powerful—if it will be a blessing to us.
Sometimes we are not so far from the Calvinists, who believed that prosperity was the evidence of God’s approbation. But God teaches us that we do well to center on obedience rather than bonuses. He invites us to travel in faith rather than conspiring for a finer car. He invites us to share with all rather than building more houses and barns. Certainly He would have us be honest and provident. But He knows that consecration has power to secure kingdoms while IRA’s only buy RV’s.
The central test of this life is whether we will turn to Him in all things. I am just naive enough to believe that, if I focus my life on learning His will and doing it, He will not only provide me blessings in eternity, He will also guide my career, help me with home repairs, and put manna on our table. Our test is everlastingly the same.
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished” (1 Nephi 17:41).
Departure from reality is one of the standard markers for mental illness. On the other hand, mental health is based on a solid connection with reality. It makes sense.
But it’s not true. Research has demonstrated that the most realistic people are most miserable and depressed. It is common to assume that miserable people distort things negatively; research suggests that many of them see things accurately.
A solid body of research has demonstrated that the healthiest people are those who have positive illusions. Mentally healthy people tend to have three specific kinds of illusions (Taylor & Brown, 1999):
They have an unrealistically positive view of themselves.
They believe they have more control in their lives than they actually do.
They are unrealistically optimistic.
In each of these areas, depressed people tend to be more realistic than healthy people are. Healthy people actively maintain their illusions by filtering or discounting information that challenges their unrealistic view of matters. Some students of social psychology have observed that healthy people operate less like scientists who are seeking accurate information than like charlatans who distort the data to fit their theories (see Taylor and Brown, 1999). Apparently Pollyanna’s glad game makes good psychological sense.
All of this is nothing more than a puzzling quirk in human behavior except that it has a remarkable spiritual parallel. Consider how the three kinds of illusions listed above relate to core beliefs of a Latter-day Saint:
We believe that we have a divine heritage, parentage, and destiny.
We believe that we “can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth [us]” (Philippians 4:13).
We are optimistic; we face even tragedy believing that, “if [we] endure it well, God shall exalt [us] on high; [we] shall triumph over all [our] foes” (D&C 121:8).
Atheists have always said irrefutable-sounding things like: “The dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its meaninglessness” (Martin Esslin, p. 309 in Peters, 1977). Many traditional believers have felt that they were being pounded by philosophical pessimism. No more.
Martin Seligman, after decades of research on helplessness and optimism, observed that “optimism is good for us” (1991, p. 291). “The pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe” (p. 111).
Of course the believer does not see the universe as relentlessly indifferent but does have a massive defense against tragedy. Tragedy shall be finally and mercifully swallowed up by goodness. Even “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor.15:54). There is good reason that the Lord counsels us to “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
What is real in a telestial world is not at all real in an eternal world. Satan would have us take the pains and disappointments of mortality as an indicator for what is ultimately real. God would have us look through mortality to immortality and eternal life. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). What cause for optimism!
Seligman has argued that people need a “theory of tragedy” to help them make sense of their struggles. Believers have just such a theory in the good news of his redemption. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
A scriptural case study may clarify the points about illusion. It is hard to find a more glorious or detailed revelation than that given to Moses. God introduces himself to Moses by saying, “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3).
Why does God say such grandiloquent things about Himself? Is He trying to impress Moses? Does He love to show off? No. He is setting the stage for Moses’ understanding: “And, behold, thou art my son” (Moses 1:4).
I hope in a future world to sit at Moses’ feet and hear him tell how he felt when he realized the blessing of his divine heritage. Father showed Moses “the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold . . . . And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not (Moses 1:27–28; see also verses 4–5).
Why did God show Moses all the workmanship of His hands? To set the stage for another vital statement: “I have a work for thee, Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6; see also verse 26.).
Notice the tender way in which Father addresses Moses: “Moses, my son.” For each of us He announces a personal work. A person who is invited to partner with God in a divine work has reason for confidence, not self-confidence but divine confidence. Moses knew that he was nothing but he knew that in God’s power he could do all things.
It is in the context of this heavenly training that God taught Moses the doctrine that gives us greatest reason for hope: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
The focus and blessing of God’s work is to bring us home to be with Him once again. Surely that is reason for optimism.
God taught Moses those three principles described above: he is a son of God who can do all things in partnership with God and will one day return to His eternal home. The three illusions of mortality are the realities of eternity.
The realities of mortality are the lies of Satan: 1. We have no divine heritage. 2. We are at the mercy of an arbitrary world. 3. There is nothing to look forward to after this life.
Taylor and Brown conclude their classic work on illusion and well being by asking an intriguing question: If people are able to ignore or minimize negative feedback, where is the impetus for growth? But such a question implies that growth is driven best by negative experiences. Taylor and Brown hypothesize otherwise: “We suggest that change is often provoked by positive experiences” (p. 59).
Consider the implications of this idea for marriage and parenting. When we hope to motivate growth and change in a partner or child, we instinctively turn to telling them what they are doing wrong and how they ought to change . . . which usually results in defensiveness and a neverending cycle of accusation and recrimination. The new thinking on illusion suggests that it might be a better to thank family members for the things we enjoy about them rather than to prod them toward needed improvement. Maybe we are supposed to love rather than judge and criticize. Maybe the greatest motive for change is to be loved and appreciated. After all the Lord summed up all the law and the prophets in the commandment to love.
When the ancient disciples saw someone walking on the water toward their boat, they were troubled and cried out in fear. Jesus comforted them: ”Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (Matthew 14:27). Because of Him, all of us may be everlastingly of good cheer. When we are assailed by the storms of life, we can look to Jesus. The social psychologist’s recommendation of optimism is related to God’s recommendation of faith and hope. Elder Maxwell (1981, pp. 123–4) has assured us:
The true believer can read the depressing signs of the times without being depressed, because he has a particularized and “perfect brightness of hope,” . . . the true believer knows that in the awful winding‑up scenes, human deterioration will be finally and decisively met by Divine intervention. . . . Therefore, let us become [true believers] and proceed to make our way, righteously and resolutely, notwithstanding our weaknesses, to the beckoning City of God. There the self‑assigned gatekeeper is Jesus Christ, who awaits us out of a deep divine desire to welcome us as much as to certify us; hence, “he employeth no servant there.” (2 Nephi 9:41.) If we acknowledge him now, he will lovingly acknowledge and gladly admit us then!
Maxwell, N. A. (1981 ). Notwithstanding my weakness. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
Peters, L. J. (1977). Peter’s quotations: Ideas for our time. New York: Bantam.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1999). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), The self in social psychology. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
I should have known better than to tell Nancy that short-notice speaking invitations are a great opportunity for Heavenly Father to show His remarkable teaching ability. As I walked into Gospel Essentials class, I got my opportunity to test the statement. “The teacher is sick. Do you want to teach?”
So we had an invocation, a few minutes for people to share recent blessings and miracles, and I went to the board and wrote a question: “What is the key to perfection?” I clarified the question: “If you could use one word to describe the pivot point, the central issue, the essential focus for our perfection, what would that word be?”
Our class that day was a wonderful blend of full-time missionaries (both elders and sisters), new converts, Gospel Doctrine expatriates, and fellowshippers. In one corner of the room an elder translated the lesson for a sweet older woman who spoke only Spanish. In a chair facing the front row was a woman signing for a man who could not hear.
Our answer to the question about perfection captures our implicit theory of spiritual transformation. Sometimes our theories are clearly thought out; sometimes they are a jumble of old Sunday lessons, scripture phrases, and theological rumors.
The class promptly made several nominations: Constancy. Obedience. Self mastery. Discipline. Love. Charity. My wife. Faith. Hope. Humility. Prayers. Those are the answers just as they were given in class (though the “wife” one had a specific name). All of them are creditable answers. It was the twelfth answer that matched my nominee. Elder Myers said: “Jesus.”
Jesus. The answer to every important spiritual question. The beginning and end of all meaning. The light and life of every person in the world. While each of the first answers has an important place, which of them has power without Jesus? Which of them can save without his infinite and eternal Atonement?
We turned to Alma the younger as a test case. He and his companions were among the vilest of sinners (Mosiah 28:4). He was a “very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 27:8). He “had murdered many of [God’s] children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14).
Right in the heart of the Book of Mormon is the great story of Alma’s transformation. That great story captures the central theme of that great book. The account told in Mosiah 27 is told by the elder Alma and is focused on the younger’s effect on the church and the prayers in his behalf. Alma the younger tells his own account late in life after years of inspired reflection and careful structuring. It is addressed to his beloved son, Helaman. It is magnificent Hebrew poetry and perfect Christian theology. All of the elements of the Christian’s journey are captured.
Alma was confronted with the truth. He realized his own despicable state. Examine his expressive language: “eternal torment . . . harrowed up . . . racked with all my sins . . . tormented with the pains of hell . . . inexpressible horror . . . become extinct . . . pains of a damned soul . . . racked with torment . . . harrowed up.” Alma felt keenly his spiritual destitution.
“So then faith cometh by hearing the word of God” (to paraphrase Paul in Romans 10:17). Alma faintly remembered those childhood lessons planted by his father: “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 36:17). Thank heaven for those faintly remembered lessons! Sometimes it is only those threads of recollection that keep us from sliding into lasting darkness.
“O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). Those few words changed everything. When Alma unreservedly threw himself on the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, he was renewed.
“Joy . . . marvelous light . . . joy . . . sweet as was my joy . . . I saw God . . . exceedingly great joy.”
It might well be asked, how could Alma enjoy such heavenly manifestation when he was wicked? Didn’t he need years of repentance to set himself right with God? The answer is simple. When we throw our souls open to Christ, he cleanses us. Anything he touches is purified. When we are clean, we can experience marvelous manifestations of the Divine.
Alma’s transformation was clearly soul-deep. Alma spent the balance of his life after that day of transformation spreading the good news of redemption.
If we take too much responsibility for our own improvement or fail to let Him reign, we make ourselves the gods of our lives. That is clearly idolatry. While we must do all that we are able to do, we must never presume to have power to save. As we labor to make ourselves better, we do well to remember that only He can make us into something godly. As President Benson observed, “the world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Born of God,” Ensign, July 1989, p. 4).
I love Alma. I love his great exuberance that led him into youthful folly but ultimately left a lasting imprint on Christianity when he turned to good. I love his keen mind that paints vivid pictures of the mortal struggle. I love his rejoicing spirit that recognizes God’s goodness in everything.
Alma’s statement to his son, Shiblon, captures the essential message of salvation:
“And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness” (Alma 38:9).
A friend who had been raised as a Latter-day Saint once asked me why she felt so totally alive when she was involved in illicit sex. She apparently wondered why she didn’t feel miserable in the midst of sin as she thought she should. It is an intriguing question. The larger question might be, “Why is sin so often energizing while goodness often feels like struggling at piano lessons under the austere eye of Ms. Dour?”The promise of a great reward in some distant life is scant comfort. Many of us feel a gloomy dread at the prospect of meeting Father at the judgment bar. How can the perfect master be any more lenient than our mortal taskmasters? The best that can be hoped for in mortality is an uncomfortable resignation. The most we can hope for in eternity is a limited suffering and a modest reward.
Isn’t it only sensible to grab some pleasure along the way?
Satan uses bluster and lies to deceive us. Consider first the lessons of experience. Each of us can list pleasures that tug at us. Suppose we abandoned all restraint and indulged all those pleasures with absolute concentration (“total abandon” is the common and telling phrase). Imagine that, for the balance of mortality, we ate everything that looked appetizing, seized all sexual opportunities, and snatched all resources that came to hand, would our lives be better? Would we be happier? What does your experience say?
Not only have most of us had our experiments with spiritual irresponsibility, all of us know someone who has turned the experiment into a way of life. The oft-replicated result of those experiments is surprisingly consistent. No matter how skilled the experimenter, the result is thick darkness, soul-deep loneliness, and gnawing despair. Admittedly, for those who pursue the experiment half-heartedly, the result may be only partial misery but that misery is magnified by meaninglessness.
As Alma the younger, an early-in-life experimenter himself, wisely observed: “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). It never was. It never will be. It never can be. It is contrary to the nature of happiness (see Alma 41:11).
Overeating brings acid reflux and soddenness. Immorality always brings gloom, loneliness, and relational fuzziness. Coveting brings shriveled focus and restless hunger. Wickedness may stimulate but it never satisfies. That is the answer to the friend’s question. “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).
Sin is always a fool’s bargain. Just as cocaine energizes our pleasure circuits, it also destroys them. So also all forms of sin. Satan offers thrills but delivers addiction and desolation.
Sometimes we make the mistake of seeing God’s prescriptions as arbitrary dig-a-hole-here-and-fill-it-in-to-kill-time-and-to- make-me-feel-powerful exercises. That misjudges the Creator. It is His work, His glory, His joy, His only purpose to bless us. His great plan of happiness is designed to redeem us—not so we can be factory workers in heaven but so we can be filled with joy, partners in an eternal adventure with Him. Our wildest imaginations cannot comprehend what God has in store for those who love and trust Him. “Ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you” (D&C 78:17).
His “commandments” are simply the course to greatest joy. He charts the most direct path from where we are to the place of greatest growth, peace, usefulness, and satisfaction.
When one’s growth is presided over by One who is perfectly wise, perfectly loving, and perfectly committed to our well being, we may be fully confident. We may enjoy the peace of knowing that our limitations do not (cannot) put us beyond the reach of His saving power.
That Jesus who “is able to do his work,” testifies that “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 27:21, 26:24).
It won’t do to say we believe in Him while chafing and fidgeting against His purposes. To know Him is to trust Him.
Sometimes the journey seems too hard. Brigham Young compared the “sacrifices” we make to giving up an old, battered coat.
I have heard a great many tell about what they have suffered for Christ’s sake. I am happy to say I never had occasion to. I have enjoyed a great deal, but so far as suffering goes I have compared it a great many times … to a man wearing an old, worn‑out, tattered and dirty coat, and somebody comes along and gives him one that is new, whole and beautiful. This is the comparison I draw when I think of what I have suffered for the Gospel’s sake—I have thrown away an old coat and have put on a new one. No man or woman ever heard me tell about suffering… I have been growing better and better all the time, and so have this people (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 348).
A new coat. Warmth. Comfort. A fitting metaphor for wholly putting on our covenants. We do not have to carry the burdens of sin or the boredom of unrelenting emptiness. When we turn our lives over to God, we are encircled and comforted in the arms of His love (see 2 Nephi 1:15).
Maybe the fundamental lie in all of eternity is that Satan is a fun-loving, decent sort of fellow. While he may get us in some minor mischief, he will show us a good time and we will be dusted off when we get home. Satan does not want us to know that he is not only a liar and a cheat but also cruel and heartless. He is totally indifferent to our well-being. In fact, he has a strong preference for seeing us suffer, even those who are his “loyal” subjects. “Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom” (Moses 7:37).
The fundamental truth in all eternity is that Father wants nothing for us but our greatest happiness. His whole purpose is to bless all of us to the very limit of our capacity. “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 255).
Satan wants very much to keep us from the reassuring truth of God’s good will. That evil one knows that if we discover God’s desire to bless us, evil will lose its allure.
All of us who have felt the heartache of sin and the joy of goodness know that it is better (more meaningful, satisfying, purposeful, and rewarding) to wash dishes in God’s house than to party in Satan’s. The next time that lust, anger, and coveting call to us, we may recognize Satan’s lie. We may choose life over death, joy over stimulation.
Whatever the reputed “rewards of sin,” they are fool’s gold. They cannot compare with the blessings of discipleship. May we find joy in being led through mortality and on to Eternity by our Perfect Friend.
When I read my old missionary journal, I blush. I am sorely tempted to burn it. I am amazed how naïve I was! My fad diets were a nuisance to companions and the members who fed us. I was inconsiderate of companions and unwise in many decisions. Truly I was young beyond my years.
Yet recently I got a letter from my dear mission president—the man who had to sort out companionships and try to keep us all focused on spreading and living the Good News—in which he wrote: “you were a fine missionary and you deserve every blessing that you stand in need of.”
I had a jolt of joy. It was powerful. I stood and basked in his comment.
The jolt of joy wasn’t because I was convinced by President Rudd’s comment that I was a much better missionary than I remembered being. It wasn’t because I concluded that he didn’t remember my faults. It was because I felt his graciousness. He has forgiven me for being a nuisance. He has apparently filtered out the impurities from our experience and credits me with being earnest. He rummaged through our challenges and found some good.
The Power of Grace
What my mission president showed is grace, sweet grace. Even decades after my mission president continues to teach me the message of the Master as He treats me as if I were somehow remarkable.
For years we lived in Vernal. I have felt the same amazing grace when Nancy and I attended the temple there. In a small town there are always plenty of reasons for people to have unenthusiastic feelings about each other. The temple workers who dotted the path knew enough to judge me and resent me. Yet, many times as I climbed the stairs to the ordinance room, I fought back tears because of the graciousness of old neighbors who embraced us with love and warmth in that sacred place.
I knew I didn’t deserve their good will. So it was an act of grace when they chose to look beyond my fallenness and appreciate some hint of earnestness.
Lesser, Higher, and Heavenly Ways
In the course of our normal lives, we hurt, disappoint, and offend each other. The natural response is to fight back—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, until we are all blind and toothless. This is the law that governs international relations and family feuds. It is driven by the logic and emotion of hell.
The better course is to be fair—to give due credit but also just condemnation. We are good to our friends but tight with the untrustworthy. This appears to be the higher road because of the tight logic and apparent objectivity. This is the logic of the legal system.
The City of Zion operates on a different law, one given by Jesus: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus’ governing principle is grace.
Where is the Power?
In the great revelation on proper influence, God promised glorious rewards to those who do two things. “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men (1), and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly (2) . . . .”
Charity and virtue draw a flood of heavenly blessings: “. . . then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (D&C 121:45–46).
I think that Father is telling us that the simple and consistent practice of charity and virtue will reap us the greatest rewards in all of eternity. It’s a simple formula.
But it’s not very popular among humans. We are often ungracious with each other. We often offend both charity and virtue as we size each other up and resent each other. Even in our more objective moods we assess, judge, measure, evaluate, and thereby minimize our fellow travelers in the journey toward Home. “Well, he’s a nice guy but he sure isn’t very reliable.” “He’d be a good boy if he only did his chores.”
In this mortal world, no noble deed goes unsuspected.
Latter-day Saints should be familiar with damning by faint praise. Our accomplishments are often begrudged or discredited by those who see us as peculiar. It is rare in this world to receive wholehearted appreciation.
But the Lord teaches us that there is great power when we look beyond the layers of sludge and humanness to see goodness. While God has not asked us to be gullible, He has asked us to be appreciative. Joseph F. Smith’s words are a continuing challenge to me: “We all have our weaknesses and failings. Sometimes the husband sees a failing in his wife, and he upbraids her with it. Sometimes the wife feels that her husband has not done just the right thing, and she upbraids him. What good does it do? Is not forgiveness better? Is not charity better? Is not love better? Isn’t it better not to speak of faults, not to magnify weaknesses by iterating and reiterating them? Isn’t that better? . . . Is it not better to drop [weaknesses and faults] and say nothing about them—bury them and speak only of the good that you know and feel, one for another, and thus bury each other’s faults and not magnify them; isn’t that better? (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998), 180–81.
Seeing the Better Side
God recommends “kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul” (D&C 121:42). That recommendation is in stark contrast to the human tendency to analyze and categorize each other.
Traditional psychology feeds the monster. We have diagnostic categories for myriad disorders and our language is filled with labels for foibles. But Martin Seligman, a respected leader of the positive psychology movement, has said: “I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.” (Seligman, 2002, p. 13).
Our greatest successes as individuals come from using our strengths; our greatest unity in groups comes from appreciating each other’s strengths. We can justifiably see each other as flawed, diseased lepers. But when we have charity we see each other as beloved miracles.
Recently I was pained when a friend in the state hospital became very angry with me and treated me harshly. Fortunately I was still basking in the warmth of President Rudd’s praise so I prayed for the grace to respond with meekness and understanding. I tried to understand the difficulties of this man’s life and struggle. In spite of my hurt, I chose not to throw gasoline on the fire of indignation. Two days later he called and apologized. On my next visit we embraced again as brothers.
I hope God will teach me to be less objective and more gracious. Every time we show grace in our homes, neighborhoods, or wards, we bring our community a little closer to the City of Zion. There is great power in grace.
May we bear one another’s burdens and cheer for each other’s successes. May we, in our small ways, be messengers of the kind of grace exemplified by our Great Redeemer and Advocate, Jesus Christ.
Some time ago we were visiting a ward in a distant city. I do not remember the subject of the lesson in the high priest group that day. But I clearly remember a comment by a brother. He faulted some missionaries who had been in their ward some years previous. Their misdeed had been to go for the “easy baptisms” that now were a hardship to the ward. “Our unit has been burdened by all the handicapped people that a few overzealous missionaries brought into the Church. How can our ward beexpected to carry so many burdens? We had to back off those missionaries.”
My spiritual hair stood on end. Something felt terribly wrong. Something whispered within me that the “lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or . . . withered, or . . . deaf, or . . . afflicted in any manner” are a great treasure in any ward or branch. The idea was so involuntary and so foreign to logic that it had to be true.
The people in our congregations with the biggest challenges may be our greatest blessings. They are a constant reminder to us that Jesus always favored the broken honesty of the humble to the polished assurance of the prominent. He was “a friend of publicans and sinners.”
Chris is hampered by cerebral palsy but every Sunday he inspires ward members with his cheer. For more than 30 years he has been confined to a wheelchair—and he reads with difficulty—yet he blesses the sacrament. His father lifts him to his knees. Chris slowly and deliberately recites the prayer, mostly from memory. He enunciates every syllable the best he can. His father prompts him when he falters. Every heart is touched by his valiance.
Chris also leads the music in priesthood meeting. His father wheels him to the front of the gathering. His arm will not move far, his hand will not open fully, and many words are difficult for him to pronounce, yet he leads us. His face radiates the joy that is only known by the pure in heart. I am grateful to Chris for a weekly reminder that joy is the natural fruit of service and goodness. I remember years ago visiting a rural Utah ward sacrament meeting with a friend. The Sunday I visited happened to be the first Sunday that 12-year-old Tommy passed the sacrament. He had the timidity and awkwardness that is common in 12-year-olds. In addition he was completely blind. He struggled along, carrying the sacrament tray and feeling the ends of the rows to get his bearings. He was not smooth nor confident. But he was sincere.
In our current ward we have more people with disabilities than any ward to which we have ever belonged. What a blessing! We are regularly blessed by those who are “lame, or blind, or halt, or withered, or afflicted in any manner.”
One sweet sister in our ward is completely blind. She lives alone and cares for a horse, three dogs, two cats and two birds. She is a faithful visiting teaching supervisor and stake missionary. She trains other blind people how to adapt. I remember a Sunday when she was sitting at the end of a row near us. When the deacon offered her the sacrament, she did not respond. She could not see it. Then someone noticed. A sensitive sister nearby came to her aid and drew her hand to the tray. I resolved to be less blind to others’ needs.
Due to the wide array of physical and emotional disabilities in our ward, members regularly reach out to guide, sustain, encourage, and love each other. Several give rides to the car-less. Some push wheelchairs. Many offer heartfelt love. What a great tutorial in compassion! This is an environment where Christ-like charity can flourish. Each of us in turn leans on that compassion as we make our own halting spiritual progress.
My life is blessed by many “disadvantaged” people I have known over the years. George has very few good teeth, very little education, very little reliable work, and only a hut to shelter him and his family, but he stands ready to help anyone in need.
Clif may not have much, but he provides his roof, his old truck, his tools, and his time to any troubled traveler. Most importantly, he offers encouragement even when he is despairing.
I have studied the people to whom the words “thy sins are forgiven” have been spoken in scripture. In some cases the recipients were sinners who yearned to be better. We are not surprised that they were granted cleansing for their repentance. But other recipients were lame or diseased. It catches us by surprise that Jesus should offer spiritual healing for physical maladies. What qualified them for the sweet blessing of having their sins removed?
The man sick of palsy is a case in point. When he sought healing, Jesus remitted his sins. For the benefit of the disbelieving scribes; Jesus also healed his palsy. But we ask, “What was it about the palsied man that qualified him for a forgiveness of sins?” The answer is central to the gospel message: He had humility.
Disability often ministers to our humility. And humility is the gate to heavenly goodness. As those with disabilities struggle to do the ordinary, they may experience sustaining grace and come to know—better than most of us—our universal dependence upon God.
And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord” (Mosiah 24:15).
Jesus holds up the broken and misshapen as moral models to those of us who glide through life. I would not be surprised if a scientific study found that there is a direct correlation between the number of disabilities in a ward and that ward’s spiritual strength. Any pre-resurrection city of Zion is likely to have more wheelchairs than sports cars.
Perhaps those who limp through life volunteered in an earlier life to take more conspicuous and painful limitations than the rest of us. Perhaps they are the best among us. Perhaps they have special claim on the promise that the last shall be first.
They are poignant reminders that we all bear infirmities and none can be healed without divine ministrations.
. . . he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18).
To be aware of our disabilities can lead us to the Healer. Those who appear unflawed may go unhealed.
I thank God for the sweet souls who have taught me so much. How we should welcome those with disabilities—financial, educational, emotional, physical, or spiritual—to our number! May Heavenly Father send us more of the sick and troubled and make us equal to the lessons they will teach us.
I remember riding in the car years ago with my beloved Grandpa Wallace. I was only a boy at the time. My brother, Alan, and I sat in the front seat with him. Grandpa took a pocketful of coins and divided them between my brother and me. I suppose that Grandpa wanted to provide us with a little spending money. My first instinct was to count up Alan’s take and compare it with my own. I still remember being anxious that I got my fair share.
That is the mindset of mortality. Comparison. Score-keeping. Competition. But it is not the mindset of heaven.
A Challenging Parable
In a parable that challenges our mortal mindset, Jesus tells of a householder who hired laborers for a penny per day (Matthew 20:1–16). Apparently the laborers were glad for the work and accepted the proffered wage as reasonable. The householder also hired laborers at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours with the understanding that he would treat them fairly. At the end of the day, when those who had worked only a few hours each received a penny, those who had worked all day hoped to receive more. When they got only a penny, they complained. The irony is they got exactly what they had contracted for. They had been treated fairly. Their discontent was aroused because others got just as much for fewer hours. They begrudged the short-timers their good fortune. So the householder asks: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15).
God seems to ask: “Would you feel richer if others got less? Why would you begrudge someone else his good fortune? Do you want to set limits on my goodness? Are you glad for the grace that saves you but resent the grace that rescues others?” The Prophet Joseph observed that: “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty” (Smith, 1938, p. 320).
Jesus concludes the parable with this observation :“So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16).
Are We Truly Followers of Christ?
Could Jesus be saying that the final test for those who have labored many years in the kingdom is the grace they offer those who are latecomers? Could He be challenging us to be glad when a soul repents? Is it possible that the final test for entrance into His kingdom is that we are gracious in the same spirit He shows? Is it possible that many who were first in the earthly kingdom will fail this heavenly test of jealousy? Could the ultimate test of our discipleship be a recognition that all of us are paid far more than we deserve and, therefore, our deserving is insignificant in any formulation of pay?
Elder Holland has powerfully challenged us to overcome our shrewish envy in his discussion of a parable of two brothers, one of whom we call the prodigal: “Who is it that whispers so subtly in our ear that a gift given to another somehow diminishes the blessings we have received? Who makes us feel that if God is smiling on another, then He surely must somehow be frowning on us? You and I both know who does this—it is the father of all lies. It is Lucifer, our common enemy, whose cry down through the corridors of time is always and to everyone, ‘Give me thine honor.’ How can we overcome such a tendency so common in almost everyone? For one thing, we can do as these two sons did and start making our way back to the Father. We should do so with as much haste and humility as we can summon. Along the way we can count our many blessings and we can applaud the accomplishments of others. Best of all, we can serve others, the finest exercise for the heart ever prescribed. But finally these will not be enough. . . . So we pray that They will help us, that They will ‘come out’ to meet and embrace us and bring us into the feast They have prepared” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Other Prodigal,” Ensign, May 2002, 62).
Returning Good for Evil
A colleague and I recently worked on a joint project. When the project did not go in the direction she preferred, she became upset. I tried to find a mutually agreeable solution. She balked. She tried to have the project shut down. Our leader concluded that there was still merit in the project. It seemed that I was vindicated.
And there is the test. Will I smugly laugh at her misfortune? Will I gloat over my victory? Will I arm myself for future battles? Will I talk of her with colleagues to undermine her power base? If there is a turn of events, and my pet approach loses favor, will I be bitter? If I do any of these things, I am demonstrating clearly that the doctrine of the Atonement has not reached my heart. If I act in any of those ways, I may spout the words, but I do not live the redemptive doctrinal truth of the gospel.
In contrast to small-minded responses, Jesus set the terms for true discipleship. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). I have heard it said that Satan does not have the gift of discernment. He knows our individual weaknesses because he hears us talking about each other’s weaknesses endlessly. We open the door for Satan’s work when we speak ill of anyone. Living with Grace
When that colleague and I work together again, am I prepared to bless her with graciousness and heartfelt kindness? Am I willing to yearn for her good fortune? The task is daunting. Having been personally hurt and offended, I confess that I cannot do as I am commanded. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I can only act as I should if I am filled with Him and His goodness. It is not enough to merely love the loveable. “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the publicans so?” (Matthew 5:46–47).
God has a higher standard. Much higher! “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Or as Luke expressed the goal: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
A More Perfect Way
Fortunately God is a Heavenly Father rather than a Heavenly Accountant. The more we become like Him, the more we will wish well to all people, even those who are different from us or who persecute us.
It is easy to see that a culture filled with competition, trophies, hierarchies, and double elimination tournaments may not help us think the way God does. That does not suggest that competition should be done away. But the more we understand the gospel, the more likely we are to be glad for excellence on all teams. We appreciate good ideas from all political parties. We value good ideas even when they undermine our preconceptions. We are genuinely glad for any goodness regardless of the source. We must be gracious just as God is. Exactly as He is. For we are to be filled with Him.
Richard L. Evans described God’s exemplary attitude. “Our Father in heaven is not an umpire who is trying to count us out. He is not a competitor who is trying to outsmart us. He is not a prosecutor who is trying to convict us. He is a Loving Father who wants our happiness and eternal progress and everlasting opportunity and glorious accomplishment, and who will help us all he can if we will but give him, in our lives, the opportunity to do so with obedience and humility and faith and patience” (Conference Report, October 1956, p.101).
I confess that I am surprised to find myself still so unskilled at so central a task so late in life. I am a 55-year-old toddler. Yet I know to what source I must look. I know that this vital lesson can still be learned if I let Him teach me.
May we all seek the mind of Christ (See I Cor. 2:16) that we may see each other—even the annoying—with love.
A bright, sensitive young man told me about his recent battle with his brother. Harsh words and threats were traded. The young man told me, “If he apologizes sincerely, I will forgive him. But I rather like being estranged. It is nice not to have him around.” It seems that all of us enjoy some occasional recreational resentment. We love to nurture our grudges and culture our complaints.
Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:9).
Sometimes we’re tempted to accuse God of hyperbole. He couldn’t possibly mean that, if someone commits a grievous sin against us—perhaps murder, rape, theft—that we will be guilty of a still greater sin if we do not fully forgive that person. Maybe He is exaggerating for effect.
There is another possibility. Maybe unforgivingness is a presumption of epic proportions. Maybe the failure to forgive suggests that we think we should be able to regulate the flow of His grace. “No one should be redeemed unless we approve.”
Perhaps God is telling us in that remarkable scripture that we do not have veto power on His acts of redemption. When we presume to declare someone undeserving, we show our pettiness and ingratitude. We clearly do not understand our own dependence on His grace.
Thus, when brilliant Jesus teaches about a debtor who was forgiven a vast debt (estimated to be billions of dollars in today’s money) who would not forgive a puny debt (estimated to be pocket change), the ungracious man incurred divine wrath.
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 18:34–35).
Lately the Lord has blessed me with opportunities to view the significance of forgiveness. In one case, a young couple found themselves divided, resentful, and at the brink of divorce. The young man revealed that his attitude toward his bride had been severely damaged when she revealed a past indiscretion. He punished her for months with sullenness, harshness, and absence. To his eternal credit, he finally recognized the error of his ways. He admitted, “I need to fill myself with the gospel to change my attitude and behavior.” It was marvelous to see the transformation as he turned toward the light.
In another case, my sweet companion was asking me about making copies of the tape of our daughter’s mission report. Not having taken time to understand her request, I misunderstood her need. We swapped misunderstandings until I reacted impatiently. It is amazing to me that I can so quickly become impatient with the kindest, most considerate person I have ever known. I am sorry, Nancy.
We all have just cause for resenting each other. In a telestial world, we are all offenders. Whether we do or don’t resent the offenders around us is the measure of our conversion. Loving the undeserving is the evidence of our change of heart.
When our view of life is limited to our own puny needs and peevish complaints, we begrudge others any good fortune or heavenly grace. But when we understand the great gift that has been given us, the gift of His loving sacrifice, we are filled with love and patience for the entire human race. Judgment is transformed into charity.
It is popular for us to soften the boundaries of the commandment “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1; 3 Nephi 14:1) by invoking the seemingly more liberal Joseph Smith translation “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment” (JST Matthew 7:2). Apparently we are free to judge if we do it righteously. And so humans from the beginning of time have smote one another with the commandments: “He is a sinner.” “She falls short.” “They are no good.” (What an irony that we smite each other with the commandments that God designed to bless us!)
The trouble with the broadening interpretation of the judging commandment is that it does not account for several other scriptures, including these two:
Behold what the scripture says–man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay (Mormon 8:20).
Leave judgment alone with me, for it is mine and I will repay (D&C 82:23).
How does one reconcile the different counsel on judging? There is actually no discrepancy between the seemingly more restrictive (“Do not judge”) and the more liberal commandments (“Judge only righteously”) if we understand them rightly. None of us is righteous (see Romans 3:10). Our telestial minds are not capable of righteous judgment.
But when we are filled with He who is truly righteous, we can see rightly. When our only judgment of others is His assessment of them, then we “pass righteous judgment.” In the final analysis, only One who knows everything and loves perfectly has the right to judge.
It is supremely appropriate that we are judged on the same principle that we judge. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2).
If we see others through the lens of His love and compassion, we will be seen in that same way. If we apply our shriveled, shrewish judgments to others, we will be judged in that way. If the grace and goodness of Christ is not our standard as we measure, it will not be the standard when we are measured.
It is not hard to tell when we are imposing our own miserable sentences on one another and when we see with the “mind of Christ”(I Corinthians 2:16). The indicator Joseph Smith gave us is compassion: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241).
There is one scene in literature that still haunts my weak efforts at charity—the bishop’s candlesticks from Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. The kindly Catholic bishop of Digne gives shelter to an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, much to the dismay of his housekeeper and sister. He feeds and gives a bed to the brooding man. In the dark of the night, the troubled Valjean rises, makes his way to the silver, fills his bag, and departs. On the morrow, gendarmes drag Valjean and the silver back to the bishop.
The bishop has every reason to be indignant that his kindness has been repaid with thievery. His word would send the man back to prison. He might have thought it gracious to recover his silver, deliver a lecture, and send the man on his way. But he holds a higher standard.
He greets the sullen thief: “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?”
Valjean was thunderstruck. He had only known a world of cruel legalism. He could not comprehend a man who heaped goodness on his tortured and undeserving head. That act of grace transformed Jean Valjean’s life and rippled through the balance of his years.
If we think of God’s commandments as a ruler, they are intended to chart our course back to Him. They were never intended to whack fellow travelers on the head. In the press of daily commerce, how often do we rap heads with the ruler of our legal judgments when we could change history by following the perfect example of one who taught forgiveness? He invites us to the highest standard.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–4).
God invites us to join Him in the sweet process of blessing His children.
It is hard to imagine Jesus nagging the apostles: “You guys need to get out there and spread the word. My ministry is half over and we haven’t reached our goals. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you!”
Yet when we want to “inspire” better performance in any church or family endeavor, we commonly scold, chide, admonish, chasten, and lecture. It is only natural. “Natural.” It is good to remember that our instinctive or natural actions make us enemies to God (Mosiah 3:19).
Maybe we chide and scold because such methods seem to work, at least in the short run. But the Lord suggests that they are not effective. And they are not right. He instructs us to use persuasion, gentleness, kindness, and love (D&C 121:34–42).
I have a dear friend named Myke. Some years ago he was a district scout leader. Part of his responsibilities included periodic meetings with troop leaders. Because of his determination to do his duty with honor, he did several things to be effective. He would send reminders to those who should attend. He was always well prepared to provide good material at the meetings. When someone did not come to the meetings, Myke would organize sets of materials from the meeting and visit the home of each of those people and share the materials.
One of Myke’s fellow scouters in district leadership chided him: “You’re only teaching them to be irresponsible when you take the materials to their homes. They’ll never come to your meetings if you keep taking things to them.” Myke rose to the challenge. He invited his colleague to make a test: “You use every means you know to get leaders to your meetings. I will continue to use the method I use. Let’s see who has better attendance.” Over a period of months each used his method. Would it surprise you to know that Myke’s attendance improved over time while his co-worker’s meeting attendance declined?
There is a “natural” interpretation to Myke’s delivery to non-attenders: “Well, if you don’t come, I’ll run everything over to your house. Don’t worry if you don’t want to come.” But the non-attenders seemed to get a different message: “When you don’t come, you are missed. Your work is important enough and the materials I prepared are important enough that I will bring them to you.” I think Myke was also saying, “I will do everything I can to support you in your vital work.” Such messages translate into better performance.
Jesus taught the same kind of leadership when he counseled us to “leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray” (Matthew 18:12). Was Jesus worried that the ninety and nine would wander off, hoping for the extra attention that was given strays? Apparently not. Maybe Jesus hoped the ninety and nine would follow His example and become rescuers of lost sheep. Maybe scoutmasters who have been supported reach out to scouts who are lost.
Rather than scold the straying sheep, Jesus carried it upon his shoulders. Yet think of the many times that we scold one another. “Brethren, the month is half over; you need to do your home teaching.” “We now have a temple in our area and we aren’t using it as we should.” “SHHH! Be reverent!” We do a lot of scolding.
I know a bishop who had a monthly interview with the ward elder’s quorum president. One of the regular items of business in their meetings was to review home teaching. If there were any brethren who had not regularly contacted all their families, the quorum president would make a note and arrange to visit with them. If they did not improve their home teaching within the next month or two, the bishop would make individual appointments with the home teachers. The bishop and home teacher would begin their meeting with prayer and then the bishop would say: “As a priesthood home teacher, you are the vital link between God’s church and some of His precious children. Some of those children are not getting visited; what can we do to support your home teaching?” If changes needed to be made in companionships or assigned families, they were made. But that was rare. Usually the erring home teacher simply needed to be reminded how important his work was. He needed to be invited to be a partner with God.
Inviting is better than scolding. Inviting is what God does. “His hand is stretched out still” is the repeated message of scripture. Our bad deeds may bring on calamity that can humble us. Yet He always invites us to return to His Way of Life:
“Every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God” (Moroni 7:13).
Scolding, especially in groups, poisons the spirit of the gathering. It does not motivate spiritual behavior and it may engender resentment. For example, a high councilman assigned to talk about home teaching might use his sacrament meeting time to review the ward’s dreary statistics, threaten eternal consequences for slackers, and urge reformation.
There is a better way. Recently I heard a man tell about his home teaching. He said that he was teaching a brother who used to be a bishop but has not been to church for years and does not live the Word of Wisdom. The man reported about his home teaching: “I don’t know how it happens. We visit the man. We talk about his projects. We share our message. We have not gotten him to come to church. I don’t know if we’ve done him a bit of good. But we sure do love him! God has given us a love for that man that I cannot comprehend. I look forward to every visit.” Such a message could make a great talk on home teaching. It is more effective than the customary scolding.
The first principle of leadership is love. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). During His mortal ministry, many people responded to Jesus because He reached out to the blind, He touched the leper, He wiped away tears from the sorrowing, and He saw beyond sin in the confused. If we want to motivate better performance, we must first love. Love for God, His work and His children, is both contagious and energizing.
A while back our stake president made an appointment with Nancy and me. He invited me into the office first and asked if I would support Nancy as the new stake relief society president. I didn’t know whether to groan or to laugh. Nancy does not like to be on stage. She does not like to boss people around. She does not like to make lots of decisions. She simply wants to help people in need. That is why she is such a great leader! She does not care for any of the trappings of leadership. She only wants to love and serve.
Effective leadership is motivated by love for those served and for the work. Meaningful home and visiting teaching is energized by the same love. Inspiring classroom teaching is animated by love for students, for God, and for His sacred messages.
Of course our most significant leadership roles are within the family. An acquaintance at work once asked me how to deal with her 4-year-old having scratched a neighbor child. I asked what she had already done. She said she had scratched her daughter and isolated her to her room for three days. I still remember the mother’s words: “She must learn that it is not acceptable to scratch.” I am confident that the 4-year-old learned many things in that encounter. I doubt that she learned not to scratch.
My personal reaction to such behavior has been mellowed by my grandparental stage of life. I recommend that the mom comfort the injured neighbor child and then take the offending child to a quiet place. The mother could hold the child close as they rock together. She could soothe the child with gentle strokes. She could hum a favorite tune. She might even call on her deepest feelings to express love to the child. Would kindness after misbehavior convey to the child, “I just love it when you are a terrorist!” I don’t think so. I think they would convey, “I love you, Dear. I’m sure you’re very confused right now. I’m sure you feel bad about hurting your friend. You must not hurt people. I want to help you get to that place in your soul where the holiest impulses can be found. From that place will come all the right actions.”
That seems to be Jesus’ message to us in the story of the prodigal son. Though the son had been ungrateful, wasteful, and immoral, his model father responded to the son’s return with love: “when [the son] 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).
The second principle of leadership is love. So are the third and fourth. That is not to say that there is nothing else that matters. Somewhere around number 73, other principles show up: wisdom, stewardship, delegation, etc. But if we have not charity, the pure love that comes from Christ, we are nothing (see 1 Cor. 13:2, 2 Nephi 26:30, and Moroni 7:46.).
As Myke says, “Sheep herders scold and drive. Shepherds lead and love.”