The word real gets used in many ways. “Get real!” is a common invitation to confront ugliness. For example, in the course of a conversation about life’s challenges we might express an optimistic sentiment. In reply a battle-hardened soldier of life might snort, “Get real!”
Real. What is real? Is the real found most truly in the gritty, sharp-edged, crushing experience of life?
I remember a ward member asking me a “real” question in an interview when I was serving as her bishop: “This stuff I’m doing is supposed to be wrong, yet it is the most real stuff in my life. I feel most alive when I am sinning.” Clearly a challenge hung in the air: “How do you explain that, Bishop?”
Choosing a reality
What are the “real” moments on your emotional landscape? Are they the supposed thrill of sin and excitement of misdeeds? Or have you discovered the serenity of faithfulness and the sweetness of gratitude? Do you see God moving in majesty and power (D&C 88:47) and feel the awe? Do you sometimes feel an unexpected heavenly embrace as you march through life? Does your soul ever flood with gratitude as you sense that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world” (Robert Browning, “Pippa Passes,” pt.1)?
Each of us chooses Satan’s troubled reality or God’s serene one. We can predict the effect of our experiences by their source. Satan is the father of grim, pained awfulness. Father is different. Father creates love, joy, and peace—which are infinitely varied yet unfailingly enriching. Everything He creates is intended to “please the eye and to gladden the heart” (D&C 59:18) even as it enriches our souls.
To the young woman who claimed that sin was the most real thing in her life, I might recommend hooking two wires into an outlet and grabbing hold of the bare ends. 120 volts can provide quite a jolt. Very energizing. Memorable. But it kills us as it energizes us. The pleasure surge that draws people to cocaine also damages the circuitry that makes pleasure possible. Sexual immorality damages our ability to feel trusting and loving with anyone. Greed dampens the ability to enjoy the commonplace. The more we follow Satan, the more miserable, empty, desperate, and despairing we become.
If we want satisfying lives, we must choose to follow God.
An outbreak of little realities
The landscape is littered with heavenly miracles when we see through the eyes of faith. God invites us to notice them and to celebrate them. His gifts may be modest, but they are wonderfully real. They fill our lives with meaning, purpose, and sweet assurance.
Standing at the edge of the Arkansas River with a dozen saints, we celebrate the sweet blessing of covenants as Dylan is led into the chilly waters by a fellow student who, over the course of months, recognized his earnest spirit and pointed him to God. As we sang hymns and spoke of covenants, passersby gawked. When John compared Naaman’s healing from leprosy through bathing in the waters of Jordan with our healing from sin through washing in covenants with Jesus, I felt the shock of truth. While a glass bridge in another part of Little Rock was drawing the attention of the world, this covenant bridge to eternity was built without fanfare. Though we were a ragtag and obscure company of pilgrims, somehow this little event seemed historic, even cosmic. It felt beautiful and true. Real.
A few weeks ago I met with Harold Lewis, my high priest group leader, for a personal priesthood interview. It doesn’t happen often that my priesthood leader takes half an hour to provide a spiritual check-up. he asked simple questions: “How are your prayers going?” “How do you feel about the scriptures?” “Are you current in your repenting?” “What great experiences have you had with the Spirit?” The questions could have easily been answered with monosyllables: Fine. Good. Yes. Uhhh. But they evoked a groundswell of joy. I felt myself wanting to burst as Harold invited me to reflect on the sweet gifts of a mortality supervised by a perfect Father. Very real.
A colleague at a breakfast meeting was talking about her family and the challenges of working with a daughter with disabilities. Yet she exploded: “I am wild, crazy in love with my daughter.” It was a simple statement in the midst of a long conversation. Yet again came that surge of joy. It felt more real than all the citrus in Florida.
In a regional priesthood leadership meeting, Elder Russell M. Nelson told stories of home teaching. There were no magical moments or amazing miracles in his stories. Only consistent, loving care. The results, over the course of decades, were changed lives. It felt real.
Sitting in a meeting with work colleagues, I unexpectedly felt peace.
Slogging down the concourse of the airport I notice tired parents dragging exuberant children who still think that life is an adventure. I perk up because of their vibrance.
None of these events is likely to be recorded in a history book. They are simple experiences easily forgotten. Yet they are messages from heaven. They are letters from God. They are hints of eternity. Unlike the thrill of sin, the realities of heaven leave us peaceful, refreshed, hopeful, and loving. Happiness—sweet, enduring happiness—is found only by following Him.
So, in the marketplace of life, how do we discern that which is life-affirming from that which is life-destroying?
When Alma teaches us how to cultivate faith in our spiritual gardens, he provides us great measures for testing the truths that can guide our lives:
swell within your breasts
enlarge my soul
enlighten my understanding
delicious to me
swelleth and sprouteth
swelled your souls
understanding doth begin to be enlightened
mind doth begin to expand
These measures have one thing in common: They all describe edification. God teaches about edification in latter-day revelation: “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light” (D&C 50:23–24).
Brother Dayley has wisely observed that “edification is characterized by a perception of goodness, a noticeable enlarging of the soul, and enlightenment of the mind. Those who desire to learn by faith must continually reject darkness and seek light” (K. Newell Dayley, 1994 “And Also by Faith.” Brigham Young University 1993–94 devotional and fireside speeches. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University.)
Alma teaches the same principle. The real is that which is Light. “O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good” (Alma 32:35).
Maybe God is teaching us, “I have planted a garden in your soul. Water it with faith. Tend it with patience. It will ‘take root in you’ providing ‘the fruit . . . which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst’” (Alma 32:42).
It is intriguing that the Lord compares truth to delicious fruit. A feast. Life-sustaining joy. God might counsel us: “Don’t become malnourished. Come to the feast of goodness. Partake gladly. My creations will delight your senses and enlarge your soul.”
The way to grow a life-sustaining garden is to tune in to the heavenly instructions in our souls, to notice and value that which is Light. The flowers in our gardens give us both the reason and the power to deal with weeds.
I agree with Alma, that which is most real is light. Jesus, the Light of the world, is the Good News of existence. He lights the path of mortality. He is the Manna from heaven that sustains us on the journey. He is the Water that can slake our thirst. He is our Advocate who will open the gates of heaven.
May we see him and His goodness in every corner of His creation. May we choose His reality with all our hearts, might, minds, and strength. And may gratitude be our heartfelt response to all that He offers.