In mortality we commonly feel on the outside of everything that is important. We feel like foreigners and second-class citizens. We are not alone. The same has been true since this world’s first inhabitant. That is apparently how Zacchaeus felt (Luke 19:2–10) in spite of his wealth and prominence.
And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.
Most of us want to do something important, to make a contribution. Ironically we may be most vulnerable to this temptation when we are most inspired; when we are filled with heavenly fire; we want to change the world.
I will confess. I have wished God would give me a platform from which to share what he has taught me. I have wished to have a grand audience and the Holy Spirit to inspire the preaching. I have wished my books would sell. I have wished I could help move the grand latter-day work forward.
I identify with Alma who cried out “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). But that is not the way God works. Sometimes it seems that the best we can hope for is to get a passing glimpse of greatness—just like Zacchaeus:
And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
Little Zacchaeus must have felt small and distant as he perched in that tree. Like him, I would gladly climb a sycamore tree for a glimpse of Jesus. I would love to feel His hands on my head. I would love to look in His eyes. I would rejoice to hear His voice.
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house.
A rendezvous with the Lord. A call. An invitation.
And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
We are not told more about Zacchaeus and his life after that pivotal day. Later he may well have been called to be the membership clerk in the Jerusalem South Branch. His humble calling may have seemed insulting for one who had been chief among the publicans. But, fired by a sense of divine purpose, he must have tended the rolls with purpose and diligence. One day I hope to read The Autobiography of Zacchaeus.
And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.
Yes—that human tendency to judge. Even when Jesus has personally called someone, we wonder if He hasn’t missed something. “Doesn’t Jesus know what kind of fellow Zacchaeus is? Everyone knows he is a grafter.” But Zacchaeus pled for the Lord’s compassion based on his imperfect efforts to be useful and to be right.
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
We try very hard—though imperfectly.
And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
And there is the key to what Heavenly Father keeps trying to teach me. God has not filled the great halls or the bookstore shelves with my work. But when I pray to Him for an opportunity to serve, He sends a mama to me who asks what to do with her boy who still wets his bed. When I beg for a chance to be useful, I get an e-mail from an estranged member of the Church seeking words of hope. When I hunger to be of service, He invites me to bear my testimony to my Gospel Essentials class.
I have wanted to measure spiritual impact on the Richter scale; He measures it in heart beats. For Him, each soul is all of eternity. He would give His life to rescue just one child. His own ministry took place in an obscure corner of the ancient world. Yet it was filled with touching people in their daily lives.
Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).
I learn so slowly. I hope to be grateful for every opportunity to encourage a mama, offer hope to the hopeless and testimony to the new members of the Little Rock Ward. When I wipe away the smudges of mortal miscalculation, I discover that I see Jesus in Mark’s eyes. I feel Jesus’ grasp as I clasp Larry’s calloused hand. And I hear his voice when new-member Sara says, “I just loves to talk ‘bout Jesus.”
His ways are so different—and so much better—than mine. Who can measure the blessing to get to deliver telegrams of encouragement from the courts on high to His children?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40)
If you were told that a certain son of vagabond, ne’er-do-well parents had organized a rag-tag group of friends into crusaders who went around challenging the respected ways and, having no visible means of support, apparently financing their operation through stealing, you would likely be disgusted. If you were told that the leader of the group claimed to have magical powers that He reportedly picked up in his travels, your estimation might sink even lower. You might speculate that the description fitted some nefarious cult leader.
The description also fits Jesus as seen by many of His contemporaries (Nibley, 1965). Some detractors went so far as to say that Jesus was the result of an illicit liaison between Mary and a Roman soldier.
Those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God find it easy to dismiss such perceptions as unsavory and unfounded rumor-mongering. Yet there is a type here. Every story has many versions. Who is to say that the scriptural version of Jesus is more accurate than those of secular historians, or contemporary playwrights and filmmakers? How can we know the truth? “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (Joseph Smith—History 1:10).
Truth is rare
Truth may not be as available and commonplace as we assume. Maybe it is impossible to size up any meaningful truth using human means alone. Maybe all of our accounts of Jesus are narrow and provincial.
When I have read biographies of Jesus, it was often much like any book learning. Yet, once in a while, something surged inside me. The study of His life occasionally opened a window in my soul and a flood of light filled me. Several times I felt a profound sense of awe. I knew truly that He was the Son of God and I felt to kneel at His feet.
That is the kind of truth that cannot be conveyed in mere words. A study of His life can prepare us, but the flooding of our souls cannot be compelled or controlled. “The wind [of the Spirit] bloweth where it listeth” (John 3: 8). Truth is mystery
In the Church we commonly use the word mystery in two very different ways. One way is to describe an area of inquiry that is not fitting for human study or discussion. For example, the nature of marital intimacy in eternity is a mystery. We are not prepared to understand it and it is probably unproductive to speculate about it. It is enough to know that the union of two devoted souls in the eternal worlds must be lovelier than anything we can imagine here.
There is another meaning for the word mystery. A mystery is anything that can only be known by revelation. For example, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3). In the absence of revelation we can still respect Him. We can know much about His history. But we only know that He is the Son of God and Redeemer of the world when a window is opened and we are flooded with heavenly light.
In fact, maybe all the interesting truths are mysteries. We do not understand the “great plan of happiness” until the finger of God touches that stone of truth and makes it glow. We do not know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God unless we have a divine experience in which God opens our minds and souls. The mystery of other humans
Perhaps even the ordinary task of understanding each other is a mystery. We commonly size each other up and connect motivations with traits and develop a personality theory. We feel that we have a handle on other people. I suspect that we are mistaken. We are much like theatre-goers who dash through the theatre in the midst of the second act of a three-act play. We capture a few surface details. We hear a few lines of dialogue. But we see only a small slice of the second act. We have no access to the first act, that premortal world where God tutored and mentored us. Even as we observe those around us in this second act of mortality, we understand very little of the inner workings and histories of those we know best. As for the third and final act, “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) We do not—and, by our own powers, cannot—comprehend God’s amazing doings. Our view of each other and God’s purposes with each of His children is severely limited.
Even when we have lots of information about another person, our interpretation of the information is tainted by our own biases and assumptions. We simply have neither enough information nor enough perspective to assess each other. Think of Pilate standing face to face with the source of truth and asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Many of us, like Pilate, do not recognize truth when He stands before us.
Choice comes first
A pair of insightful scholars (Taylor & Brown, 1999) have observed that “humans act more like charlatans than scientists.” Rather than systematically gathering data on which to build conclusions, the human tendency is to form a conclusion and then look for data to support it. This human tendency can work for us or against us. Faith is a determination to see goodness and God in everything that happens. Faith can be based on experience but it always invites us to go beyond our evidence. We step into the darkness. We start the journey of faith with the resolve to see God in everything. With that resolve in place, we can consistently find the confirming data to justify our faith.
The same principle applies to disbelief. No one knows enough to disprove the existence of God. A person simply chooses to doubt. (Many call it “choosing to be honest.”) A person may have pains and disappointments that are the basis of the doubt, but disbelief is a choice. Then, looking through the murky lens of skepticism, a person sees darkness everywhere. The assumption is proved. It is just as self-fulfilling as faith.
In human relationships, we can base our attitudes and actions on a conscious choice. We can choose to love or to judge. If we make the stubborn resolve to love another person, we can find plenty of evidence that the person is deserving. Or we can choose to collect complaints with a predictable outcome. Or we can choose to “wait and see” which usually leads to something less than love—in a telestial world most people will disappoint our lofty expectations unless we have committed to loving them. Love does not come automatically in mortality.
Stress tries to pre-empt our choices
Captain Moroni was a model of valor and courage. He was also human. When the Nephite war for freedom was going badly, He “began to doubt” (Alma 59:11). He did not doubt God, but he began to doubt their ability to triumph in battle. Under such terrible stress, he shot off an accusing missive to Governor Pahoran. Moroni condemned him of being in a thoughtless stupor, neglect of duty, wickedness, slothfulness, idleness, even being a traitor. He threatened to bring the sword of justice and smite him.
Sometimes we are much like valiant Moroni. We put together our fragments of sense data and draw very firm conclusions. Since we know neither the full story nor the heart of others, we often miss the mark. But Pahoran was the one with heavenly moorings. In spite of the immense stresses in his circumstances and an undeserved rebuke from Moroni, he chose to see rightly. “In your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9). Oh! That we might all be Pahorans. His response stands in stark contrast to our usual human tendency to judge everything based on its effect on us. The Urim and Thummim of discernment
There is one way we can get a true measure of each other. It is when we have the mind of Christ. When we are filled with Him, we see as He sees and love as He loves. This blessed gift that the scriptures call charity does not come without effort. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48). When we partner with Christ, we will look on fellow travelers with love and appreciation.
We may know that we have properly sized up another person when we are filled with overwhelming, Christlike love for that person. Any time we feel otherwise, we are missing the mark. Any objective analysis of another person is simply mortal fiddle-faddle. My “truth” is really nothing but a parody, a caricature, a spoof of truth. It takes a small fragment of a person and views it through a dirty, distorted lens of my needs and my wisdom. The only true assessment is the one that Christ can give us. He has seen each of us in all three acts. He sees redemptively—an enormous and glorious bias! When we see others as He sees them, we are inevitably filled with awe.
This New Testament passage has priceless instructions on finding truth:
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
John equates following him with being in light and knowing the truth. (See also D&C 84:45–46; and 88:6 for more insight on truth, light, and Spirit.)
C. S. Lewis (1949) observed with inspired wisdom that “it is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal” (pp.14–15, italics in original).
The source of truth
We only get to meaningful truth about God or people when we set aside all our preconceptions and surrender to Him. He is the truth (as well as the way and the life) (John 14:6). He is the One who energized the first act of this eternal “play,” directs the second act, and triumphs in the third act. It is He who understands truth because He is truth. He creates the magnificent reality through His grace. He allows us to see things as they truly are through the lens of His redemptiveness. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:9, 10, 12)
Maybe in mortality we should be very modest in our claims to knowing truth about anyone or anything. We have tiny fragments of soiled suspicion. The only important things we truly know are those that are a gift from Him. We are wise, as Elder Maxwell has counseled, to “inventory our insights.” We can collect and cherish every divine truth given us. We can base our lives on His light. He is the reliable guide because He is filled with grace and truth (see Moses 1:6). He sees a bigger picture than we and He sees it through redemptive lenses.
“He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ” (D&C 88: 6–7).
We might also seek more truth by seeking diligently to be mentored by Him. While cherishing those truths He has given us we can deliberately seek His counsel in all things.
“Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (D&C 50: 40).
Lewis, C. S. (1949). The Weight of Glory. New York: Macmillan Co.
Nibley, H. (1965, January). Early Accounts of Jesus’ Childhood, The Instructor.
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 remember some years ago feeling bad for people who seemed to lack talents. People without social skills and conspicuous abilities appeared to be at a disadvantage in marriage, in the workplace, even in the Church. Maybe the meek shall inherit the earth, but only as a consolation prize after it has been desecrated by millennia of human contamination.
Or so I thought. While it may be true that talent, polish, and ability will triumph in this world, in the eternal worlds it is a different story.
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1 Cor. 1:27).
Meekness has vital importance for family life. For example, most marriage programs used to put a heavy emphasis on communication skills. But there is a growing body of research that suggests that communication is not the key to a satisfying and enduring marriage. A skillful person may use that ability to bless and support or to devastate and manipulate a partner. Skillfulness by itself is neither a blessing nor a curse.
But, according to research, there is a quality that matters very much in marriage: kindness. Kind people, even if they lack refined skills, will bless their partners. I think of meekness as a companion and necessary condition for kindness. A golden tongue is clearly less important than a heart of gold.
The New Testament words translated as meek can also be translated as mild, humble, and gentle (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible; Words 4239, 4235 Greek Dictionary). When I try to put a face to the quality of meekness, I think of a man named Walter who was in our ward many years ago. He was a short, quiet German immigrant with a distinctive accent. He was the custodian at the church and a part-time farmer. I remember seeing him ride from his home to the chapel on a little Honda 50 carrying a shovel; he carried the shovel just in case he discovered any problems with the irrigation canals as he rode to work. That shovel symbolized his readiness to help out. The polished floors in the hallways of the chapel bespoke his devotion. The other clear image I have of Walter is as a greeter in our ward. He stood at the entrance to the chapel and, as each person approached, would take that person’s hand in both of his and welcome them. He did not say much but his face beamed a warm greeting. He and his wife served two missions together.
In my mind I can see the final day when the redeemed are welcomed into heaven. I can picture Walter riding in the tradition of royalty on the back of an ass. Bank presidents, professors, and business people will be in the throng who cheer as Walter passes into the divine presence. Many of us will bow to honor the quality that will rule in eternity. Walter will wonder at the fanfare but will offer his traditional greeting of a warm and gentle smile. “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 19:30)
As a side note, Smith observes that “with us the ass is a symbol of stubbornness and stupidity, while in the East it is especially remarkable for its patience, gentleness, intelligence, meek submission and great power of endurance. . . . The ass was the animal of peace as the horse was the animal of war; hence the appropriateness of Christ in his triumphal entry riding on an ass” (W. Smith, 1948, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, p. 61).
Elder Maxwell has observed that “among the qualities to be developed in order to make that breathtaking journey, and to be more like him and later with him, is the quality of meekness. It is upon this quality that so many other things, in turn, depend.” (Meek and Lowly, p.3)
Each of us has limited vision in mortality. At best we “see through a glass, darkly.” Yet meekness is available to all. When we are meek, we are blessed to see not only our own view of the world through that dark glass but we are blessed to hear the observations of all others who have their faces to that window on eternity. Those who lack meekness may insist that their view is the only view. They see so much less than the meek. Further, meekness opens us to the precious perspective of He who “comprehendeth all things.” The meek are likely to see more of eternity because they are willing to be taught.
I remember a bishop we had who was a welder and handyman by trade. Some of our previous bishops had been prominent businessmen or professors. This bishop was not polished in his skills, including reading, which was an effort for him. He told me that he could hardly keep up with the correspondence from church headquarters. But he was clearly inspired. One day he told me the secret of his success. “Brother Goddard, I know I’m just not smart enough to do the job the Lord expects of me so I get down on my knees and I beg him for help.” It was clear to us that the Lord answered that humble man’s prayers.
While many people act as if meekness is weakness, the Book of Mormon teaches otherwise. We learn of an oppressed people that
. . . did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God” (Helaman 3:35).
Mortality inverts everything. The meekness and gentleness that reign in eternity are viewed in mortality as a curse to be overcome with assertiveness and effectiveness training. At the other end of the spectrum, the self-made man or woman who triumphs on earth will find that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
Many of those who will reign in eternity may go unnoticed in mortality. Many of us, had we lived two millennia ago, might have thought Jesus of no account, for the king of eternity “hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
The man who washed His disciples’ feet now reigns in eternity not because He is finished with meekness but because He has perfected it. While pride prevents service, meekness inspires and sanctifies it.
But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their God. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (2 Nephi 9:30).
Regularly, even daily, we get tested on whether we will be seduced by the vanity, luxuries, and prominence of this world or cherish the meekness and submissiveness of eternity. “For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Giving to the poor, including a generous fast offering, is one of the surest signs that a person has begun to understand the mission and Atonement of Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 4:26).
The curses of talent are self-sufficiency and self-absorption; the fruits of meekness are communion with God and charity for His children. In the final day the meek will inherit the earth not as a consolation prize but as rightful heirs of all that God has created. When the earth has become heaven, the gentle will rule.
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.
Sometimes the latter days look very bleak. Crime and ugliness are rampant. Iniquity abounds and love has waxed cold, just as prophesied.
One marker for social decline is found in the public schools. A list contrasting the school problems 50 years ago with those today has circulated widely. Reportedly the top problems in the schools 50 years ago were talking, chewing gum, running in the halls, making noise, getting out of line, violating the dress code, and littering. According to the provocative list, today’s school problems are drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, suicide, rape, and robbery. What educational progress!
There are two problems with the familiar school discipline lists. The first problem is that the lists are an invention. They are not the result of research or surveys. The “back then” list catalogues daily disturbances. The modern list is composed of items from a “Safe School” questionnaire. According to Barry O’Neill, who has studied the history of the lists, “as an overall portrait of American schools, this is sensationalist nonsense” (1994, p. 11).
The second problem with the list is more serious. “The natural reaction to this catalog of crimes is to throw up one’s hands in despair” (O’Neill, 1994, p. 11). We feel desperate and powerless. We feel gloom darkening the heavens.
For pilgrims in mortality, the situation has always been the same. The social landscape is littered with misery and foreboding. But believers are not troubled by the snarl and clutter of the mortal scene.
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; “persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9).
In the latter days it seems likely that Satan has unleashed a barrage of desperate ugliness that is unprecedented in the history of the world. But a gracious God never allows the playing field to be tilted in favor of evil. In balance of evil, God has opened the heavens pouring out a flood of truth, light, and goodness. Perhaps the Holy Ghost is more ready to comfort, bless, and sanctify today than ever in the history of the world.
In addition to the spiritual outpouring, there is also a remarkable increase in secular knowledge.
Never in the entire history of the world has there been anything to compare, even in slight degree, with the great flood of worldly knowledge that has swept the globe in modern times. Marvelous advances have taken place in every field—scientific, historical, sociological, artistic, medicinal, governmental, economic, inventive, atomic, judicial, and so on ad infinitum—all of which has been according to the great foreordained plan for man on earth. These advances were withheld and reserved for the final age of the earth’s temporal continuance” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, sv. Signs of the Times, p. 724).
This newfound knowledge can be used to bless or burden, to build or destroy, to polish or corrode. It is a blessing or a cursing as we choose. We may embrace soul-refining scripture and scientific discovery or turn to soul-destroying corruption. Either influence is readily available.
As part of the knowledge explosion, amazing new research on marriage confirms the vital role of kindness and commitment. At the same time Hollywood portrays a simpleminded and sexualized version of love. There has been a scholarly convergence on the importance of loving and attunement in parenting. But filth is delivered to our living rooms, family rooms, and bedrooms through television and web connections. We may choose to be filled with truths that edify or to walk in darkness at noon-day.
At a time of such moral confusion, Satan puts a magnifying glass to our misery; he magnifies foreboding, anxiety, and depression. In contrast Heavenly Father applies the Son to our challenges; when we feel His touch, all is love, joy, and peace.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
In spite of the latter-day challenges, these are the days long awaited by the ancients. Our experience of the latter days will depend upon the lens we apply in viewing the changing social landscape. This is the dispensation of the fullness of times. We will be full of despair or full of joy depending on our faithlessness or faithfulness.
Thomas Clayton Wolfe effectively described the human tendency to choose misery:
Poor, dismal, ugly, sterile, shabby little man . . . with your scrabble of harsh oaths. . . . Joy, glory, and magnificence were here for you . . . but you scrabbled along . . . rattling a few stale words . . . and would have none of them.
Today’s anxiety and despair have a multitude of practical implications for daily life. For example, it is popular for people to lament that “you can’t let kids play in the neighborhood anymore.” Yet a child is 13,333 times more likely to be beat up by a sibling than to be abducted by a stranger (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994). Clearly the consequences of abduction are more serious than most sibling assaults, but there are only six such abductions per 100,000 U.S. children. The discerning eye will see how evil has become sensationalized to become the common experience of our times—even if our closest brush with actual crime comes through television news. Even if we have real and personal confrontations with crime, we are unwise to let that become the focus of our lives. We will live in panic if we imbibe the spirit of the times; we can live in peace if we are guided by the Holy Spirit.
When our children were young we sometimes hesitated to make the day-long trek to the temple. We worried about their well being. The slightest hint of any problems caused us to scuttle temple plans. As a result we worried too much and went to the temple too little. Eventually we discovered a better way. When the dark cloud of doubt cast a shadow over our plans, we prayed, “Father, we want to go to the temple. We think we have a good babysitter and have taken every precaution. Will you protect our children while we are away?” Invariably the Spirit reassured us. So we went to the temple with quiet confidence. We were blessed by the temple worship and the children were protected. We may seek specific counsel and reassurance from Heavenly Father to deal with prospective evil; rather than live in fear, we can live by faith.
A latter-day prophet has suggested an approach that is not based on dread and fear:
I think it is incumbent upon us to rejoice a little more and despair a little less, to give thanks for what we have and for the magnitude of God’s blessings to us, and to talk a little less about what we may not have or what anxiety may accompany difficult times in this or any generation (Howard W. Hunter, An Anchor to the Souls of Men, Classic Speeches, p. 129).
Still as of old, the antidote for ugliness is beauty. The remedy for despair is faith. The cure for anxiety is faith. The answer to trials is God. The Lord’s latter-day invitation is brim with optimism, confidence, and joy:
Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. . . . And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers! (D&C 128:22–23)
Perhaps these are the worst of times; surely they can be the best of times.
Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). Victimization of children. American Psychologist, 49, 173–183.
O’Neill, B. (1994). The invention of the school discipline lists. School Administrator, 51, 8–11.
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.