Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Path

It is natural to wonder from time to time just how strait and narrow the paths of our lives are. We may ask ourselves if we are still as converted as we once were or whether we are enduring well. Are we still making progress or have we drifted-- even just a few inches-- from the iron rod?

Thankfully, prophets of ancient and modern times have given guidelines that we can use to evaluate our lives. The prophet Alma asked a group of members in his stewardship whether they still felt to "sing the song of redeeming love" (Alma 5:26). President Hinckley taught that optimism is another indicator of the strength of our faith and trust in God.

King Benjamin had this to say about knowing whether we are walking along the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life. If we are, we:

"...shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of... that which is just and true. And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due. And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another... And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor."

As you evaluate your progress in life during this General Conference weekend, and in sacrament meetings and on quiet Sunday afternoons to come, this counsel can be used to guide our evaluation. Are we growing in knowledge of things that are just and true? Are we generous and compassionate to the less fortunate, including in our fast offerings? Do we teach our children to obey?

These prophetic guidelines, and others like it, will help us know where we are along the path back to our Heavenly Father. What guidelines will be given at conference this year?

You'll have to watch and see.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Understanding and Edification

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord teaches: "He that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the spirit of truth[.]

"Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together" (D&C 50:21-22; italics added).

Elder Scott has clarified: "The verb understand refers to that which is heard. It is the same message to all. Edified concerns that which is communicated by the Holy Ghost. The message can be different and tailored by the Spirit to the needs of each individual" (Address to CES Religious Educators, February 4, 2005).

Understanding relates primarily to facts. The gospel of Jesus Christ is laid out in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon for all to understand. We may further understand doctrines doctrines like temple ordinances or priesthood keys that have been clarified by modern prophets. Independent of conversion or feeling, understanding happens in the mind-- often a necessary starting place-- so we may understand gospel principles just as we understand the principles of accounting or biology.

When we use our agency to be active in our scriptures, prayers and church classes, we may also experience edification. Edification occurs when the Spirit, having authorization from our righteous choices, instructs us individually. Then the truths that we understand may be carried down into our hearts. Then we may know how particular doctrines are to be applied in our own lives. Then and only then may we truly become converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Understanding and edification may come at any time and with any subject. As an economics student at BYU, I understood and was edified by the principle of sunken costs. My professor helped me understand, but it was the Spirit taught me while I sat in Econ 110 that I needed to make forward-looking decisions and let go of past mistakes. This truth-- of immense value to me at the time-- sunk into my heart and became a part of my testimony that God lives, that He loves and watches over me, and that the atonement of Jesus Christ is a reality.

On the other hand, our actions may limit the ability of the Spirit to reach the depths of our hearts. If we are unprepared, stubborn or not open to learning, we may miss wonderful opportunities to be edified. It does little for our spirituality to attend Sunday School and critique the performance of the teacher, for example. On the other hand, if we humble ourselves and approach learning experiences with a willing heart, the Lord can edify our hearts and minds through His Spirit, regardless of the teaching experience of the presenter.

If we are to be converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must have both understanding and edification. In other words, we must learn by study and by faith: through searching the scriptures and the two-way communication of prayer. As we do so, and as we use our agency to be edified in our church meetings and our daily lives, the Lord will reinforce our souls with spiritual strength necessary for our circumstance and the environment that may surround us.

"Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one my edify another" (Romans 14:19). That is your challenge and mine. How will you edify, and be edified, today?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Exercising Faith

We've all sat in a sacrament meeting or temple service or some host of other places when the request has come to 'exercise our faith' on someone else's behalf. If you're like me, most of those times you haven't been exactly sure how to do that. Yes, I have empathy for the afflicted. In any such moment I might say an extra prayer inside-- a kind of hoping really hard that the person will be healed, or find comfort or whatever else was requested. I might simply sit there feeling empathetic. Or, at most, I might decide to go home and make some cookies for whomever may be struggling-- because cookies solve most anything.

But my confession here is that I have too often misunderstood what it means to exercise my faith. I have too often not done-- or at least done only inadvertently-- what is necessary for the power of God to be active in my life. So I must learn and relearn this same, vitally important lesson.

President Eyring taught of unwavering faith, "Faith is not to hope. Faith is not simply to know God could do something. Faith is to know He will."

What is the difference? What changes when we believe God will act versus simply knowing that He could act? In the popularized terminology of Stephen Robinson, what is the difference between believing Christ and believing in Christ?

The greatest difference must be our behavior. If we settle for knowing only that God could do something, we will go through life with a lot of hopes-- and a lot of disappointments. We will not seek, nor will we find. We will know there is an all-powerful atonement, but simultaneously trudge along under the weight of our own heavy load. Our religious feelings will drift toward superstition and our life will be undermined by a lingering hope that maybe, just maybe, God will intervene and save us from our drudgery today.

Conversely, if we know that God will act on our behalf, our behavior will be very different. We will not fear, nor will we doubt or hesitate. Our actions will be intentional, confident and divinely directed. We will spend much of our time in prayer, scripture study and in doing good. We will happily obey the principles that lead to the Lord's blessings. Thus our loads will be lightened by the power of the atonement, through our faith, and we will have a sure foundation.

In short, exercising faith is behaving with the knowledge that God recognizes and responds to our efforts. It is acting with the knowledge that the atonement has already been successfully performed. It is moving forward with a firm belief that good things will happen if you are doing what you should be.

However much room for improvement I have recognized in myself, I understand and do know that God is real. I have felt the spirit of God confirm that the atonement of Jesus Christ truly happened, that salvation is available to all through the gospel of Jesus Christ and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God's organized church on the earth.

Our task, yours and mine, is to show our belief with our actions as well as our words. This is true faith. It is through our faith that God acts in our lives. May we then show our faith by our behaviors, that God may confirm it through his magnificent blessings. He can. And He will.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Duty of a Teacher

Whether at home or in the Church, all of us have or will have a responsibility to teach. Those who taught in Jarom's time provide an excellent example of how this should be done:

Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. (Jarom 1:11)

Those with teaching responsibilities labored diligently, as Jacob did:

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. (Jacob 1:19)

Each of these groups of teachers understood the requirement to motivate faith and repentance. They filled that requirement by teaching the intent of the Law of Moses, or in other words, by pointing their teaching to Christ. Focusing on Christ had the desired effect:

And it came to pass that by so doing they (the teachers) kept them (the people) from being destroyed upon the face of the land; for they did prick their hearts with the word, continually stirring them up unto repentance. (Jarom 1:12)

The same is true for us. Focusing on Christ in our teaching will save those we teach from being destroyed-- at least spiritually, and perhaps temporally as well. Thus, the duty of teacher is less about relaying facts, stories or historical details, and much more about inspiring faith and repentance in their students. As we do so, all will be edified of all and we will rejoice together (see D&C 50:22, 88:122).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Enos' Faith

The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Elder Eyring has taught that faith "is not simply to know God could do something," rather "faith is to know He will." Knowing God will do something will change our behavior.

Consider how knowledge of what God would do changed the behavior of Enos.

As is often the case, Enos felt compelled to apply to gospel to his life because of some sort of realization of his own weaknesses. He wrote, "And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens" (Enos 1:4).

Enos was motivated to pray through the day and night by his knowledge that God not only could, but would forgive him. This is confirmed by two statements, the first by Enos and the second by the Lord.

After being told he was forgiven, Enos, "knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away."

Then, in response to Enos' inquiry, the Lord confirmed that forgiveness was possible for Enos "because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou has never before heard nor seen... wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole."

What would have happened if Enos did not believe God would forgive him? He was the grandson of Lehi, a nephew to Nephi and the son of Jacob-- surely he would have known the doctrine that God could do it. What if he'd have wavered in his belief that God would do it? Would he have prayed as long? Would he have obtained forgiveness? Would there even be an experience worth recording?

Thankfully, Enos did know and God forgave Enos. This confirmation of the faith of Enos expanded his faith further, until Enos' faith "began to be unshaken in the Lord." Enos knew without doubt that God would do all that He had promised through scripture that He could. In the vernacular of Stephen Robinson, Enos not only believed in Christ, Enos believed Christ-- he believed Christ was who He said He was and would do all that He said He would do.

Consider a second example of Enos' faith, how knowing God would act changed his behavior and the result brought by Enos' faith.

Wherefore, I knowing that the Lord God was able to preserve our records, I cried unto him continually, for he had said unto me: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it.

And I had faith, and I did cry unto God that he would preserve the records; and he covenanted with me that he would bring them forth unto the Lamanites in his own due time.

And I, Enos, knew it would be according to the covenant which he had made; wherefore my soul did rest. (Enos 1:15-17)

What do you know God will do in your own life? Certainly He will grant repentance when it is sought diligently. God will keep His promises. God will bless your life for good, leading you on the best path and protecting you from the devil's snares. These and many other blessings are promised to us in the scriptures and through the ordinances and covenants in which we participate.

As Enos, knowing God will do these things should change our behavior. We should walk through each day confident the Lord is guiding us. We have every reason to be optimistic. Of course we should study and pray and repent and change, for the Lord will richly bless us in our efforts to improve and draw near to Him. This changed behavior, based upon the knowledge of what God will do, is true faith.

God is prepared to bless you and I with the things we desire. He will. Let us have the faith to act upon that knowledge, to move forward with trust in Him. As we do so, He will work miracles because of our true faith, just as He did for Enos.

We Must Raise Our Sights

Recently, I was told something of the sights and sounds of the modern high school. Not a school in the inner city, but a suburban school just a few miles from my house attended by the relative of a relative. It was astonishing to hear how much worse things have become since my own high school graduation eight years ago. The perversions children and teens see in their schools each day are the same abominations that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, worse than those that brought Noah’s flood and comparable to any dark corner of the world.

The leaders of the Church see and have foreseen the severe tests that face our youth. In 2001, Elder Henry B. Eyring taught religious educators that “the world in which our students choose spiritual life or death is changing rapidly… The spiritual strength sufficient for our youth to stand firm just a few years ago will soon not be enough. Many of them are remarkable in their spiritual maturity and in their faith. But even the best of them are sorely tested. And the testing will become more severe.”

This is an ominous prediction for the future generations. Thankfully, prophetic leaders like Elder Eyring have also taught us how to shore up the spiritual strength of our youth-- and ourselves-- against the severe tests that “will become a torrent of sounds and sights and sensations that invite temptation and offend the spirit of God.” The place to begin, he explains, is with our “vision of what we seek” in the lives of our youth.

“We must raise our sights… The pure gospel of Jesus Christ must go down into the hearts of students by the power of the Holy Ghost. It will not be enough for them to have had a spiritual witness of the truth and to want to do good things later. It will not be enough for them to hope for some future cleansing and strengthening. Our aim must be for them to become truly converted to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ while they are with us. Then they will have gained a strength from what they are, not only from what they know…

“What we seek for our students is that change… True conversion depends on a student seeking freely in faith, with great effort and some pain. Then it is the Lord who can grant, in His time, the miracle of cleansing and change. Each person starts from a different place, with a different set of experiences, and so a different need for cleansing and for change. The Lord knows that place and so only He can set the course.”

Members of the Church, particularly our youth, can protect ourselves against the difficult world around us by becoming converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As parents or in our callings, we can help strengthen our families and wards by teaching the pure gospel in plain simplicity. Pure and simple gospel teaching requires more of us—we must know the scriptures better and be more worthy of the Holy Ghost-- but the gospel will be relayed more powerfully as we teach with plainness. The Holy Ghost will carry the truth down into the hearts of our youth.

“But there is more. We can raise our sights by adding greater faith that the change promised by the Lord will come to our students… Faith is not simply to know God could do something. Faith is to know He will.”

The Lord will change the hearts of all those who diligently seek Him. He has intentionally given us experiences and relationships that will help us come to a converted conclusion. We must take advantage of the opportunities He gives us to build our faith, and we must be careful to fulfill our role in the conversion of those around us, particularly the youth of the Church.

Yes, the world is getting tougher. But we can help those coming after us to face it. We need only raise our sights.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cleansing the Inner Vessel

During the April Conference of 1986, President Ezra Taft Benson taught that “we must cleanse the inner vessel, beginning first with ourselves, then with our families, and finally with the Church.” We could do this, President Benson taught, through converted hearts, avoiding sexual sin, using the Book of Mormon and humbling ourselves before God.

After reminding us of the many programs and resources of the Church, President Benson counters, “We don’t need changed programs now as much as we need changed people!” The adversary will seek to pacify and lull away the people of the latter days that he may lead them away carefully down to hell (2 Nephi 28:21). We must awake, “awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell… awake… [and] put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust” (2 Nephi 1:13, 23).

With changed hearts, we must then avoid sexual immorality. “This, the Prophet Joseph said, would be the source of more temptations, more buffetings, and more difficulties for the elders of Israel than any other… If we are to cleanse the inner vessel, we must forsake immorality and be clean.”

We must also say and do more with the Book of Mormon. Quoting President Marion G. Romney, President Benson taught, “By [reading the Book of Mormon] we will fill and refresh our minds with the constant flow of that ‘water’ which Jesus said would be in us—‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’ (John 4:14). We must obtain a continuing supply of this water if we are to resist evil and retain the blessings of being born again… If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by reading the Book of Mormon…” Reading and heeding the teachings in the Book of Mormon will lift the condemnation of God pronounced on the Church (D&C 84:56-57).

Finally, President Benson expresses “grave concern” over the “universal sin” of pride. “Essentially,” President Benson explains, “pride is a ‘my will’ rather than ‘thy will’ approach to life… Pride does not look up to God and care about what is right. It looks sideways to man and argues who is right. Pride is manifest in the spirit of contention… It is the fear of man over the fear of God.” Pride is how the devil became the devil.

We are to combat pride with the opposite of pride-- humility. Christ removed self as the force in His perfect life. As our perfect example, he said, “not my will, but thine be done.” In the last days the proud will burn as stubble. The humble will “be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge (D&C 1:28), for the Lord is “merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts” (D&C 61:2).
President Benson concludes, “As we cleanse the inner vessel, there will have to be changes made in our own personal lives, in our families, and in the Church. The proud do not change to improve, but defend their position by rationalizing. Repentance means change, and it takes a humble person to change. But we can do it… We must first cleanse the inner vessel by awaking and arising, being morally clean, using the Book of Mormon in a manner so that God will lift the condemnation, and finally conquering pride by humbling ourselves.”

You and I remain bound to these words, these scriptures given to us through a modern prophet. May we cleanse our inner vessels, prerequisite to the development required of us for eternal life, through conversion, sexual purity, studying and applying the Book of Mormon and adopting selfless humility.