When God gives us a potted miniature rose in full bloom, many of us feel both blessed and cursed. Where can I put it? How long will it stay in bloom? Do I know how to care for it? What if I make a fool of myself by killing it?
There is hardly any blessing that we humans cannot easily turn into a cursing. Our natural minds make us enemies to God and gratitude.
I consider myself something of a specialist at this. When I was in high school, I asked my Sunday School teacher how to get a testimony. I didn’t recognize the cloud of witnesses I had already been given.
After serving as a bishop, I remember still asking myself, do I know that our message is true? I knew—but I was looking for some state of never-disturbed certitude.
I remember years later when we were talking about being born again in a Sunday School class. Even after serving twice as a bishop, I found myself wondering if I had been born again. Sure, I had had marvelous experiences. I had witnessed miracles. I felt an overwhelming love for God. But I also knew that I still had a disposition to do evil in many areas of my life.
If being born again means that we never falter and we have no interest in Satan’s invitations, then I have not been born again. Just a few weeks ago, while discussing the subject with a respected friend, I found myself wondering still, have I been born again?
A theory of spiritual development
I would like to suggest a theory of spiritual development. I think I have discerned two major stages, each with a distinct task in the developmental process. In the first stage, the central task is to move from childhood dependency to adult independence.
It is clear that God does not want us to remain self-centered toddlers demanding that all around us dedicate themselves to ministering to our needs and wants. That won’t do. God wants us to become active, capable, even anxiously engaged people. We must learn to take responsibility.
Many of us spend much of mortality working on this. It is not easy to relinquish our dependence. In fact, one reason it is supremely painful to lose our parents is that we must then be self-sufficient. We will have no one to wipe away our tears when we are mistreated on the playground of life.
The second stage is, in some ways, antithetical to the first. The second stage is surrendering to God. In this stage we become again like children—described by King Benjamin as “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
But this return to dependence is not to garden-variety, childish dependence. It is a very special kind of dependence. In the verse immediately preceding that quoted above, King Benjamin provided the oft-neglected key:
. . . men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:18)
The second stage
Just as a child depends completely on earthly parents for protection and nurturance, so, in this second stage of human development, we must depend on our heavenly Parent for our protection and nurturance. Though we have learned to be strong and independent, we must now surrender. This seems to be the core message of Jesus’ familiar teaching:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24–26, emphasis added)
In my view, this is the core message of that great latter-day guide, the Book of Mormon. Returning to King Benjamin:
And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:17)
There are many case studies of spiritual development that could be provided. One of the most dramatic is that of Alma the younger. He was a very energetic and charismatic man who wielded great influence. Unfortunately he used his God-given abilities to undermine God’s work. Yet, though he was among the “vilest of sinners,” he was transformed. He went from a wretched sinner to having a heavenly vision that matched father Lehi’s (Alma 36:22, 1 Nephi 1:8). And the change happened in a matter of minutes or hours (depending on how you reckon the beginning and the end of the change).
His dramatic experience distills the essential elements of spiritual development that are often obscured by our confused spiritual histories into one key element: He emptied himself of himself. He turned from spiritual self-sufficiency to God-dependency. The related elements of the change were described in his autobiographical account (Alma 36:17-19).
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins,
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.
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. [also joy, marvelous light, etc.]
Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance.
Alma was born again. He had been born as a baby into Alma the elder’s family. Now he was born again into his Ultimate Father’s family. By submitting to God completely, Alma became a new creature, a child in the Kingdom of God. By continuing to lean on Christ, he grew steadily and surely into spiritual manhood.
The advantage of using Alma as a case study is that his dramatic change clarifies the essential elements of the process. The very real danger of using Alma as a case study is that each of us may look for the same kind of total and sudden transformation in our own lives.
Most of us do have moments of uncomfortable confrontation with our badness and humanness as Alma did. Yet most of us do not have a single earth-shaking experience. Most of us must decide thousands of times to move toward godliness. The elements of Alma’s story that are not obvious in his dramatic account are the thousands of times that Alma chose again to turn his life over to Christ. His mighty change began a process that involved thousands of mini-changes.
A second, non-scriptural case study
In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis described his life and conversion. This great Christian apologist was a solid atheist before his change. In his early adulthood he mastered self-sufficiency. He says that “what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. . . .[I saw God as a] transcendental Interferer” (p.172).
But the time came when he felt that he “was holding something at bay, or shutting something out” (p. 224). he realized that he was “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion” (p. 226).
Sometimes it takes a while before we are worn down enough by life to submit to heaven. At the age of 31, Lewis “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? . . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation” (pp. 228–29).
Lewis puts fascinating words to the transition: “There was a transitional moment of delicious uneasiness, and then—instantaneously—the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days” (p. 217).
The essential element in the mighty change
In the cases of Alma and C. S. Lewis—in the case of every disciple—losing self is the heavenly task, the culminating task of young development. It introduces us into another world entirely apart from that we have known.
We are born again. And, once again, we are children. But not the demanding, self-centered children. Quite the opposite. We are serving, God-centered children. We share with pre-accountability children that we are redeemed from the fall and made innocent before God (see D&C 93:38). But otherwise we are very different.
Born into this new world, everything is different. We are less anxious but also less careless. We are bolder and more assured but softened by charity. We are more like Christ.
We may not, as suggested by an incredulous Nicodemus, return to our mother’s womb in order to be born again. We go into another womb, the womb of the Spirit. This change is beautifully described by Alma immediately after his change:
Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea,born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becominghis sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit thekingdom of God (Mosiah 27:25–26).
We become new creatures—like little babies. We still must learn to walk in His way. We still must learn to talk in His way. We still must learn many lessons “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We have so much to learn before we will be like him!
Being born again does not mean that we have reached spiritual maturity. It simply means that we have felt the power and are cooperating with God in our second life, the life of holiness.
Some, like Alma, will grow quickly toward spiritual maturity. Some will stagnate. Some who are born again will regress into the old world. That is why Alma asks whether those of us who have felt to sing the song of redeeming love still feel the same way. Have we kept our minds and hearts in the spiritual sphere or have we regressed to the natural world where God is subservient to reason and self-will?
Any time we are spiritually self-sufficient we regress to the carnal, natural man or woman. And every time we throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace, we step into that world where God reigns.
Any time we acknowledge our dependence on God, we are in the new world of spiritual new life. That is the core lesson of the spiritual life.
How is it done?
There is much to understand concerning how we can advance our maturity. Surely the process must include faith, repentance, and covenanting. God’s process is well known if not well applied.
There are also clear signs that we are progressing in the new life. We regularly go to him to be taught and renewed. We feast on the sacrament. We rejoice in Christ. We are filled with charity. We enjoy the fruits of the spirit, especially those at the forefront: love, joy, and peace.
Just as we mature gradually from our physical birth toward mature adulthood, it would seem that there is a maturing process after the new birth. So we can define four critical points in our development: natural or human infancy, natural or human maturity, spiritual infancy, and spiritual maturity.So I have discerned two major stages in God’s method of spiritual development. In our earthly families of origin we are taught basic skills and move toward independence. Yet life leaves us with a nagging sense of inability, a cosmic insecurity.
If and when we submit our souls to God, then we are born again into the family of God. In that family we learn the skills of heaven: loving, serving, blessing. We enjoy a “confidence in the presence of God.” This is very different from the flimsy and artificial self-confidence that we strove for before being born again. Now we are partners with God in His glorious work. Everything is new. Everything is right.
Of course Satan would like us to feel insecure at all points in our journey. He hopes to arouse our efforts at self-management. He wants us to become natural men and women again. He wants us to grab the reins of power. But God invites us to be different—to use His power, His goodness, His truth.
How does this knowledge help me on my journey?
Being “born again” isn’t a single event that concludes all spiritual striving. It is the beginning of spiritual growth. It’s a process of progression. Just like our developmental progression as human beings, we as spiritual beings also should expect a developmental progression over time. Spiritual maturity isn’t a state attained in one fell swoop; it is a journey—coming ever closer in our relationship with God and feeling him ever more active in our lives.
So I offer reassurance to myself and all those like me who are prone to disappointment with themselves and their progress: The process is begun, it is progressing, and it is supervised by a Parent who knows how to help His children mature. Maybe each of us who is trying has reason to be patient with ourselves and trusting of Father.
There is no journey that promises more perfect timing and auspicious reunions than our mortal sojourns planned and supervised by the Perfect Travel Agent. We can enjoy each new day knowing that He will fit it into a perfect itinerary. Our job is to be as a little child—completely open to every new day and every new adventure.
Isn’t it wonderful that He continues to beckon and teach and lead us towards a greater state of spiritual maturity and joy! One day our mortal photo albums will all unite to testify that He is able to get through the mishaps of mortal experience and back home reformed in His image!