Monday, October 14, 2013

Growing Up Unto the Lord

On a certain occasion in Capernaum, Christ called a little child over to a group of his disciples and set him in the midst of them. 'Except ye be converted, and become as little children,' he explained, 'ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.'

Many in the world would argue that the requirements set forth by the Lord in this verse of scripture are mutually exclusive. Children are too ignorant and immature to be converted, they argue, and a mature Christian would not behave as a child. Thankfully, Christ explained a little further: 'Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me' (Matthew 18:2-5).

Hundreds of years earlier, the Lord had asked King Solomon what he needed most. Solomon responded, 'I am but a little child... Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people.' The Lord granted Solomon 'wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore' (1 Kings 3:7, 9; 4:29). Elder Derek A. Cuthbert has explained that 'wisdom, understanding, [and] largeness of heart are signs of maturity. When Solomon acquired these qualities, he was no longer 'but a little child''.

We can reconcile these two accounts and their contrasting views of childhood by realizing attributes, not age, are desirable. Unlike physical maturity, spiritual maturity is not a given-- but it is necessary. We must be innocent, humble, simple, faithful and loving as children; but we must also develop wisdom, leadership, accountability, dependability, and self-mastery. Christ himself had to undergo a process of increasing in wisdom and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophet Helaman wrote that his sons, the same Nephi and Lehi that would become prophets and missionaries, 'began to grow up unto the Lord' in their youth (Helaman 3:21). They began-- a choice-- and continued the process until they were able to testify so powerfully that none could deny their words.

Becoming spiritually mature is a process worthy of our attention. Sociologists have long noted an increase in people putting off family responsibilities, so-called 'failure to launch' or 'extended adolescence', declining civility, and other indicators of general immaturity. In a world where 'going with the flow' would stifle our development, Elder Marvin J. Ashton counseled that moral conduct is, 'generally developed through self-discipline, resilience, and continuing effort.' Consider two more scriptural accounts:

A certain man had two sons. One day, the younger son approached the man and asked to receive his share of the inheritance. The man granted his son's request and the son moved away from home. Immature and unwise as he was, the son wasted all of his money on parties and indulgences he ought not to have allowed himself. When the money ran out, the son fell on tough times. He tried to get a job feeding pigs, but it was barely enough to live on. After much pondering, the son 'came to himself' with this epiphany: he would repent of his sins and return to live with his father. Though he came back empty handed, through the hardships of life he had chosen to become wiser and more mature. He was, as Joseph Smith once said of himself, a rough stone shaped and polished in the stream of life. The prodigal was received into his father's house with much rejoicing.

Compare the parable of the prodigal son to the account of Nephi in the Book of Mormon. Like the prodigal, Nephi was a younger son of his father, Lehi. Nephi was 'wise beyond his years' because he was humble and worked hard to know and do the will of God. When his father received revelation for the family, Nephi prayed for confirmation; and when the Lord asked Lehi to send his sons on a long, life-threatening journey to retrieve the brass plates, Nephi resolved to, 'go and do the things which the Lord has commanded'. Nephi's life wasn't easy and, like Joseph Smith and the prodigal, his maturity came at great cost-- his family moved into the wilderness leaving his friends behind, the family valuables were stolen, he walked hundreds of miles, he manually constructed a massive ship and the tools to build it, he had to search for food and sometimes went hungry, he was hated and beaten by his brothers-- but because of his maturity from a young age, the Lord showed him 'great things' and called him to be a leader of a prosperous people.

The fact that maturity is a choice may not be more apparent in all of scripture as it is in the account of Nephi. Nephi's brothers shared many of the same experiences, yet remained bitter and angry, or in other words, spiritually immature. They confused physical and spiritual maturity, believing they were entitled to the blessings Nephi received just because they were older. They had no tolerance for Nephi's faith nor the discipline to have strong convictions of their own. Their unwillingness to 'come to themselves', to turn to the Lord, or to learn from their hardships only exacerbated their unpreparedness and immaturity. They metaphorically removed their stones from the stream so they could remain rigid on the shore.

Paul taught that the first choice we make on the path toward maturity is to 'put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). In a 1987 address to the Church, Elder Ashton explained that we put away childish things when we abandon abusive arguments, temper tantrums, demeaning or painful criticism, self-judgement, positive or negative labels of ourselves or others, fruitless complaints, disrespect, threats, malice, resentment, retaliatory practices, hard-heartedness, and contention. 'Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice,' Paul wrote to the Ephesians, 'And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you' (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Contentious debates are increasingly prevalent in religion, politics, and sports. President Uchtdorf has recently reminded us that, as mature disciples of Christ, 'we must realize that all of God’s children wear the same jersey. Our team is the brotherhood of man. This mortal life is our playing field. Our goal is to learn to love God and to extend that same love toward our fellowman. We are here to live according to His law and establish the kingdom of God. We are here to build, uplift, treat fairly, and encourage all of Heavenly Father’s children.' By these fruits, we can gauge our spiritual maturity.

Elder Ashton gave a few more examples of spiritual maturity:

Some will chide and belittle leaders and students of higher education for participating in code of conduct guidelines, but those appropriately involved in the wholesome process of mature behavioral discipline welcome the environment. Responsible student conduct on any campus is applauded. A pledge of 'on my honor I will do my best', either in writing or when self-enforced, can make the difference in character development. Making and keeping commitments may seem restrictive and outdated in a world where 'play it loose' is the pattern, but the benefits are clear to the mature.

He continued:

Those who are immature resent counseling or having to report in. They may feel that such interviews are juvenile. Those who strive for continual growth realize that counselors can help one analyze himself and find solutions to personal problems. In our church, counselors are a great source of strength for the prophet as well as for all of us... Moral maturity and scholastic maturity must be blended to produce a truly adult person. A commitment to improve on a daily basis should be a high priority in the lives of those who would move in the right direction.

In his most recent General Conference address, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught that we should be respectful of the beliefs or nonbeliefs of others, obey the law of chastity by abstaining from sexual relations outside of traditional marriage, strive to understand God's plan and gain perspective from it, follow the higher standards of the Lord's commandments, and have the courage to stand on principle. These are all part of being spiritually mature, as is a willingness to face the challenges of life and determined service to others.

Choosing to become more spiritually mature brings blessings of wisdom and understanding that will improve all of our other decisions. Many times, it will mean choosing to do the right thing even when it is very hard for us. We may be called upon to face the unknown, to repent from sins that damn our progress, to stop making excuses for not doing what we ought, to lose something or someone we hold dear or to press forward amid seemingly insurmountable odds. As we choose to be shaped and polished by the stream of life each day, and as we seek maturity through obedience, scripture study and prayer, we will find that it is only when we learn to grow up that we can really become like a little child and secure our entrance to the kingdom of heaven.

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