Sunday, November 11, 2012

Women in the Gospel

Each of us have been blessed by the women in our lives. Our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, daughters and friends have given us their unparallelled love, their wise counsel, and their gentle care. They have given us life itself and lessons on how to live it well.

The daughters of God have a sensitivity to the spirit, a giving nature, an unrivaled sense of loyalty, and an ability to create and nurture that is unique to feminism. So grand are their gifts that God has entrusted to them the guardianship and stewardship over human life. Nothing could be more grand, more majestic, or more honorable than womanhood and motherhood.

Women are the bedrock of any society. The love of a wife or mother motivates more courageous action than a presidential decree or act of Congress ever could. Wise leaders have always sought to protect women just as they would want to protect any great treasure.

Yet, through the annuls of time there have always been those who have twisted and misrepresented the heritage and destiny of women. They have tried to stereotype women as unintelligent, however beautiful, and have convinced too many that motherhood is little more than an insignificant biological coincidence.

Trouble for women seems to come in large part because of how our first mother, Eve, has been portrayed in art, humor and dogma as, well, the First Stereotype. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Modern prophets give us a different picture of the Mother of All Living:

There is no language that can do credit to our glorious mother, Eve. Eve--a daughter of God, one of the spirit offspring of the Almighty Elohim--was among the noble and great in [premortal] existence. She ranked in spiritual statue, in faith and devotion, in conformity to eternal law with Michael (Bruce R. McConkie. "Eve and the Fall". Woman. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979. p. 69).

Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam... and our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages (Joseph F. Smith, D&C 138:38-39).
We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve's great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done. Adam was wise enough to do likewise (Russell M. Nelson, General Conference, October 1993).

It was Eve who first transgressed the limits of Eden in order to initiate the conditions of mortality. Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life. Adam showed his wisdom by doing the same...

Some Christians condemn Eve for her act, concluding that she and her daughters are somehow flawed by it... Informed by revelation, we celebrate Eve's act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the fall (Dallin H. Oaks, General Conference, October 1993).

Eve is, 'honored by Latter-day Saints as one of the most important, righteous, and heroic of all the human family' (Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. 2:475.). Zebedee Coltrin related this insightful vision he shared with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, the prophet:

The heavens gradually opened and they saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a lighthouse, and on the throne were two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments. They were the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind he ever saw. Joseph said, 'They are our first parents,' Adam and Eve (The Words of Joseph Smith. Provo: Brigham Young University. vol. 6.).

That Eve would be exalted to a throne as the lucky consequence of what is often considered a clumsy or unrighteous 'mistake' is inconsistent with the gospel of exaltation, which requires each person to exercise both self-mastery and great faith in intentionally choosing to do what is right. Clearly, popular culture has been wrong about Eve.

Misnomers about Eve, and therefore women in general, may have their origins in both the story of the Creation and the story of the Fall. Others have written more extensively on these subjects, and their works are worth our time and consideration (see 'Mother Eve' by Beverly Campbell or this article by Valerie Hudson Cassler, for example). I will make only a single point about each event here.

First, oppressors of women often point to the verses in Genesis that say Eve was created from Adam's rib to be a 'help meet' for him. They interpret this verse to suggest women exist to serve men. Understanding that the reference to Adam's rib is, 'of course, figurative' (Spencer W. Kimball. Blessings and Responsibilities. Ensign. March 1976, p. 71), we can focus our attention on what it means to be a 'help meet' for someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'help meet' as being, 'even with or equal to'. In the article by Beverly Campbell referenced above, she reports that the Hebrew text uses the phrase to mean an equal saving power of some majesty. So President Benson confirmed, 'In the beginning, God placed a woman in a companionship role with the priesthood... She was to act in partnership with him' (To the Elect Women of the Kingdom of God. Woman. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. 1979. p. 69.).

The Lord confirmed the equality of male and female in another misunderstood verse from Genesis. Elder Bruce C. Hafen explains, 'Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to 'rule over' Eve, but... over in 'rule over' uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling with, not ruling over... The concept of interdependent equal partners is well grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel' (Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners. Ensign, August 2007. pp. 24-29.).

The truth that Eve was Adam's equal-- in intelligence, in spirituality, and in potential-- adds clarity to the account of the Fall. Gospel scholar Hugh Nibley explained that, '[Eve took] the initiative, pursuing the search for ever greater light and knowledge while Adam cautiously holds back... It is she who perceives and points out to Adam that they have done the right thing after all' (Patriarchy and Matriarchy. Old Testament and Related Studies. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. 1986. p. 92). Eve acted in courage and in faith to complete her mission on earth. This could only have happened as it did if Eve were both capable and involved in the process all along. The blessings given to her from God on account of her righteousness and courage are explained more thoroughly in the writings listed above.

The reality is that while many have used the events of the Creation and the Fall to subject women, these events justify instead a reverence, honor, and yes, a respect for the daughters of Eve who share the divine heritage and spiritual blessings of that great matriarch. This has always been the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ; it is the message of God's prophets to us today.

In the ministry of Jesus Christ, gospel scholars write that the term 'woman' as used by our Savior was 'highly respectful and affectionate', a usual way of speaking with the Jews when they showed the greatest respect to the person spoken to', and 'implying no severity nor disrespect'. Christ used this term tenderly when he spoke to his mother on the cross or when he appeared following his resurrection to Mary Magdalene before showing himself to the apostles.

Elder Quentin L. Cook confirmed in the April 2011 General Conference that 'the errand of angels is given to women'. He said:

Our doctrine is clear: Women are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves them. Wives are equal to their husbands. Marriage requires a full partnership where wives and husbands work side by side to meet the needs of the family... Sisters have key roles in the Church, in family life, and as individuals that are essential in Heavenly Father's plan.

Elder L. Tom Perry taught, 'There is not a president and a vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family... They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward' (General Conference, April 2004).

The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose....

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

With our gender comes specific, equal roles within the family and society. Some have argued that these roles undermine the equality of men and women. Two principles apply here: first, it is important to understand that 'equal' does not necessarily mean 'same'. Two men may have many differences from the other, yet they may stand on equal ground. Second, we drastically undervalue human life when we suggest that a woman is only a mother. There is no more important role in any organization than being a righteous mother. No CEO or political leader or academic genius can influence society or perform so hallowed a work as a mother with her children.

Elder Cook admonished: 'No woman should ever feel the need to apologize or feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children. Nothing could be more significant in our Father in Heaven's plan.' At the same time, 'we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate people's circumstances. Husbands and wives should prayerfully counsel together, understanding they are accountable to God for their decisions.'

Elder Ballard affirms, 'Sisters, we, your brethren, cannot do what you were divinely designated to do from before the foundation of the world. We may try, but we cannot ever hope to replicate your unique gifts. There is nothing in this world as personal, as nurturing, or as life changing as the influence of a righteous woman.'

In this light, we begin to see that 'in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a woman... occupies a majesty all her own in the divine design of the Creator' (Jeffrey R. Holland). We see the intent of her creation to be a power equal to that of men, her spiritual vitality in responding to God's law and moving His plan forward, the respect she has earned from the Savior himself, and her infinite potential. We also see the so-called 'battle of the sexes' as the work of the same devil who was outwitted in the Garden of Eden and seeks to cause oppression and misery on the earth.

No wonder it is the women's organization of the Church that so often leads the way in reaching out to friends and neighbors. No wonder we are commanded and given opportunity to marry, pairing priesthood and womanhood as the perfectly matched parents of God's spirit offspring. As we revere our own mothers for their selfless sacrifice in our birth, so the Spirit has taught prophets in every dispensation the reverence owed to Mother Eve and her daughters. The young women of the Church are reminded as they recite their theme each week; societies around the world would benefit from a similar education.

In the meantime, we can unite our prayers with those of Elder Ballard:

I pray that God will continually bless the women of the Church to find joy and happiness in their sacred roles as daughters of God. My dear sisters, we believe in you. We believe in and are counting on your goodness and your strength, your propensity for virtue and valor, your kindness and courage, your strength and resilience. We believe in your mission as women of God.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bridling Our Passions

Catholicism teaches of the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. These sins are considered the root of all other sin in Catholic doctrine and threaten the soul of an offender with eternal damnation because they destroy the grace and charity within a person. A person who is guilty can repent, however, and through the conversion of their heart and the gift of the sacrament they can regain the grace once lost.

Each of the Seven Deadly Sins is a concession of our will to the impulses and instincts of our physical bodies. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that these impulses are not in themselves sinful. Paul taught that our bodies were sacred, not unlike a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). They are a gift from God for our premortal valiance, a necessary tool in our progression on earth, and a part of our eternal reward as we are resurrected after death.

Indeed, our appetites can greatly benefit our overall wellness as they communicate to our consciousness which foods will satisfy our body's nutritional needs. Emotions add richness and depth to our lives as we mourn a lost friend, find pleasure in a job well done, gain trust others or even celebrate our team's game-winning score. Sex drive brings spouses together and preserves humankind. These and other impulses preserve our lives and and joy to our existence.

Yet, since the time of Adam, 'Satan hath come among the children of men, and tempteth them to worship him; and men have become carnal, sensual, and devilish, and are shut out from the presence of God' (Moses 6:49). If we allow our impulses to control our behavior, rather than training them to align with an overarching life mission to return to live with God and using our mind and will to make rational decisions, we surrender our agency to chance and submit our lives to be tossed to and fro by whatever cravings may come along.

For this reason, King Benjamin taught the people of ancient America that 'the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit' (Mosiah 3:19). Abinadi explained that 'he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him. Therefore he is as though there was no redemption made, being an enemy to God; and also is the devil an enemy to God' (Mosiah 16:5).

As we look around our troubled world, many of the tragedies and social plagues we observe are the result of surrendering to the carnal demands of our undisciplined flesh. Obesity has become an epidemic that diminishes our ability to serve others by restricting our movement, endurance and lifespans. Large political rifts divide countries and harden hearts as powerful emotions crowd out the rational thoughts that would help us resolve our differences, adopt a common vision and cooperate to find real solutions. Broken homes, broken hearts and shattered dreams lie in the wake of the millions upon millions who have been shredded by infidelity, pornography, fornication, sexual perversions, sex crimes and other abhorrent sexual behavior that is too often complicated by abortions, domestic disputes, and the crushing weight of shame and guilt.

It is a relief to know that God has provided commandments to steer us away from the kinds of actions that would, sooner or later, lead to our own misery. Paul taught:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are after the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, if it so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you... For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do subdue the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Romans 8:5-9, 13).

Like the boundaries of an athletic field, the laws of God help us keep our focus on the things we must do to be successful and happy in our lives. They do not prevent us from crossing the line; they only warn us that we cannot reach our goals or be successful in life if we do not keep ourselves in the field of play.

We remain 'in the game' as we heed the Lord's warning, given through his prophet, Alma, to 'bridle all [our] passions, that [we] may be filled with love'. A bridle on a horse does not debilitate a horse, but rather channels the horse's strength and power to move horse and rider toward their destination. We bridle our passions as we exercise discipline and focus our body's powerful appetites on doing good.

On the first Sunday of each month, we choose to fast for 24 hours and give of our incomes to the poor and afflicted. This bridle invigorates our spirits and gives us power to control our hunger.

We can combat carnal selfishness as we make conscious decisions to serve others. As with fasting, using the bridle of selfless service is often immediately rewarded with gratitude and joy.

Deciding to do good and exercising the willpower to follow through will provide many opportunities to bridle our passions and build spiritual strength. Consciously choosing virtuous thoughts can protect our souls from the threats of sexual sin. Putting aside a video game for a few days or leaving an inappropriate movie can provide an opportunity to find the same emotional satisfaction through a more meaningful activity. Staying productive will steer our souls through the temptations and carnal cravings that may seem louder when we are idle.

As we consciously choose to do right, our lives will be happy, our countenances will shine bright, and our carnal natures will give way to the divinity with us. The Lord taught Alma:

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, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

If we will rise above the carnal natures represented by the Seven Deadly Sins and choose to use our agency to live righteous lives, we will be able to rejoice as Alma when he said: 'My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more' (Mosiah 27:25-29).