Sunday, July 10, 2016

Staying on the Path with the Word of Christ

Follow in His Footsteps
by Liz Lemon Swindle
If you knew your time on earth was coming to a close, what would you tell your children, your friends and your loved ones to help them with their sojourn here? If you could write just two or three pages that you knew would be read by faithful seekers of truth for thousands of years, what would you include on those pages?

In the final chapters of 2 Nephi, the prophet for whom that book is named had that very opportunity, which he used to summarize the gospel plan. The primary purpose of our life on earth is to qualify to return to live with our Heavenly Father. Our physical bodies, the tests and trials we endure, and everything else that is part of living here on earth is ancillary to this main objective.

Nephi explains in 2 Nephi 31 that the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father begins with living the gospel. Scripturally defined, this means we are striving each day to have faith, to repent of our sins and correct our mistakes, to make and keep sacred covenants such as baptism and to be worthy of and willing to listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost. This is how we find the path.

“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay: for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Nephi emphasizes here that we find our faith through the word of Christ and that, once we have found the path that leads to eternal life, we start walking along the path by “feasting upon the word of Christ” and enduring to the end. He emphasizes this again in Chapter 32, in which Nephi explains how to stay on the path once you have found it.

“Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.

“And now I, Nephi… am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given to them in plainness, even as plain as word can be… But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 32:3, 7, 9).

As we begin walking the strait and narrow, we will undoubtedly find it is not a well-groomed trail. Rather, it is a wilderness trail and there are obstacles along the way. We should not be surprised if, from time to time, our trail has a strenuous incline or we are required to cross a stream of doubt or the way becomes rocky and it is difficult to know which way we should go.

In such times, it is critical that we stay on the path. As a teenager, my father, brother and I endeavored to backpack across the Uintah mountain range in Utah. The first couple of days went well. As we reached the summit of Bell Pass however, my dad suggested we leave the path and take a shortcut. He had been looking at the map and he was confident he had found a better way. My brother and I were less confident, but we agreed and began walking across the rugged mountain tundra. After about three hours of walking, we came to a large cliff. There was no way around it, we were unequipped to repel down it and we were now out of water and nowhere near reaching our camp.

To make a long story short, with great effort we eventually made it back to the trail and found drinkable water, but our so-called shortcut put us so far behind schedule we never made it to our planned destination. Ending up in “some other place” is not the outcome we want for our life’s journey. We must stay on the gospel path, as Nephi directs, by receiving the words of Christ delivered through the Holy Ghost in response to our study and our faith. As we study the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets and ask the Lord our questions in prayer, we will learn the principles and receive the revelation we need to stay on or return to the path despite the obstacles.

Finally, in Chapter 33 Nephi explains that when we have entered the path and made some progress, we will have the charitable desire to share what we have found with our families, our friends, and the world. The first thing I usually do after I have found a great hiking trail is text my brother or post pictures on social media so my friends and family can share the incredible views. In essence, once we are converted, we will want to do missionary work to bring others onto the trail and help convert all of God’s children.

Not coincidentally, all of these principles are illustrated in Lehi’s dream. The faithful in the dream felt their way toward the truth and then clung to the iron rod, which is the word of God, through mists of darkness and the mocking of the world. Then, when Lehi tasted of the fruit to which the word of God led him, he immediately turned and looked for his family so they could taste it, too.

Now I’d like to remind all of us of Nephi’s words and suggest a few things we can do to lengthen our stride and improve our rate of progress toward the kingdom of God, whatever that rate might presently be. “For ye have not come thus far,” Nephi taught, “save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him… Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Sometimes when you start to get tired on a long hike, it helps to think about how far you’ve already come. On my own spiritual journey, that includes a time when I was 17 and I decided to take Moroni up on his promise regarding the Book of Mormon. I was working three jobs at the time and would often come home very tired, but I wanted and needed to know for myself. I found that it took some time before I could really settle into the text without my mind wandering, so I committed to read four chapters each day. I would pray before I read and I would pray after I read. By the time I crawled into bed the cares of the day had melted away, but after weeks of reading at least four chapters each night I still didn’t feel I had received an answer.

Then it came. One of my jobs was delivering pizza and I had just dropped off a pair of pies for someone in my ward. I was listening to the radio, as I often did. As I drove past the cemetery, suddenly my soul was illuminated with a powerful and clear impression that the Book of Mormon is true and that I needed to prepare to serve a mission. For a few moments these thoughts drowned out my music and I knew my prayers had been answered because I had been studying and developing my intent and capacity to act when an answer did come.

Three years later I sat in the kitchen of Brother and Sister Gruenewaelder for a simple evening meal. I had been studying Joseph Smith History and somehow that topic had prevailed at the table that night. After dinner, my missionary companion and I recounted again the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. As I testified that Joseph Smith had, in fact, seen God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the spirit again came powerfully to my soul and I knew for certain that these things were true.

This summer it has been my privilege to be studying the New Testament. Reading in Luke Chapter 19, I read a version of the parable where the Lord gave his servants ten pounds, five pounds or one pound and then went away for a while. This was, I assume, long before Brexit, when it may have still been reasonable to be dealing in pounds. As you know, those with ten or five pounds doubled their investments, while those with only one pound did not act and lost what they had been given.

Reading Luke’s version, the Lord’s command before he departed stuck out to me. “Occupy till I come,” he told his servants; or, as the Greek translation in the footnote advises, “Do business till I come.” The words of another scripture came to my mind as I read and I remembered that the Lord has told us in our dispensation to be “anxiously engaged” in good causes, and particularly in establishing Zion preparatory to his Second Coming. In that moment I also had a few ideas of things I could be doing to be more anxiously engaged in the Lord’s work.

When the going gets tough and I start to feel spiritually tired or doubt starts creeping into my thoughts, it helps me to remember that the word of Christ has taught me and guided me as often as I would listen. He has led me to the gospel, to the Church, on a mission to faraway Germany, to a wife that is beautiful in every way, to a family that brings me joy, to meaningful work I enjoy, to truths that keep me grounded when the world is in commotion, and to be here speaking with you today.

Now, if we have found our way to the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father, it is my responsibility and yours to start walking and keep walking. It’s not enough to stand at the trailhead and it’s not enough to have a good couple of days and then decide at the top of a pass that we’re going to head off in our own direction! If we are going to reach our desired destination, and I hope none of us would aim for anything less than exaltation, we must press forward along the path by feasting upon the word of Christ.

The word of Christ is found in the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets, and the personal revelation we receive through the Holy Ghost. When we feast upon the word of Christ, we will do more than simply read the words. Rather, we will use divinely inspired resources like the topical guide, the bible dictionary, scripture cross references, seminary and institute manuals, and so forth, to seek to understand the stories and details in the scriptures. Then we will seek to identify and better understand both stated and implied doctrines and principles in the text.

A doctrine is a fundamental, unchanging truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, 1.3). Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior” (“Little Children,” Ensign, November 1986, 17). As we learn and apply the doctrines of the gospel in our scripture study, we are more likely to live consistent with the laws that govern our happiness.

Likewise, Elder Richard G. Scott has taught that “Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances” (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge”, Ensign, November 1993, 86).

For example, as a freshman in college I learned in my introductory economics class about the principle of sunken costs. That principle says that if I spend $25 on nonrefundable movie tickets for Friday night and then learn there’s a party where I’d rather be, I should go to the party. I’ve spent the $25 either way and so the best choice is the one that brings me the greatest utility or makes me happiest. More generally, decisions are best made looking forward rather than looking backward.

The same principle holds true when we have sinned. We compound our sin when we decide what to do next based on the sins and errors committed in our past. The Lord invites us to come to him, to let our scarlet-sin-stained garments be cleansed white as snow, and to be anxiously engaged in doing good moving forward rather than turning to salt looking backward.

Another principle I have learned is that a study of the doctrines and principles of the gospel in scripture and prophetic teachings unlocks personal revelation. I’ve heard it said that if we want to talk to God we should pray; and if we want God to talk to us, we should read our scriptures. I have experienced this in my own life, as illustrated earlier, and I testify now to you that it is true.

As we seek to find and understand doctrines and principles in our study, we will be like the young woman who began digging in the sand at the beach. Very soon, she found a precious gem in the sand and held it up to the sun to inspect its brilliant light. Thrilled with her discovery, she put the gem in her satchel where it would be safe and continued to dig. She soon found another gem, and another, and another. Some of the gems were only just below the sand’s surface, others were further down, but each shone brilliantly when the young woman held it up to the light of the sun and added it to the collection she had in her satchel.

The sand in this parable is like the stories and contextual details in the scriptures. As we begin to ask questions and search for greater understanding, we are digging in the text and we will soon find that the Holy Ghost will illuminate shining principles that will lead us down the path toward our Heavenly Father. We may have to dig longer for some and less for others, but all the principles we need for our lives are waiting in the word of Christ for us to find them.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Brothers and sisters, the scriptures offer us so many doctrinal diamonds. And when the light of the Spirit plays upon their several facets, they sparkle with celestial sense and illuminate the path we are to follow” (“According to the Desires of [Our] Hearts,” Ensign, November 1996, 21).

Just as digging at the beach every day could soon build a collection of treasures, a regular study of the scriptures brings edification.

The word edify comes originally from the Latin roots aedes, meaning a dwelling or a temple, and facere, meaning to make. Therefore, to edify relates to building a temple and means to build or strengthen spiritually. A temple is built brick by brick or stone by stone, but when it is completed it is a beautiful and sacred refuge where God himself may dwell. Physical strength comes workout by workout or day by day filled with hard work, but over time we find we are able to do more without tiring. Likewise, as we consistently study the word of Christ, we will find that with edification comes also joy, peace, enlightenment and desires for righteous living that we can use to build a happy and fulfilling life.

In addition to our regular scripture study, sometimes we find ourselves on rough patches of trail that we don’t know how or don’t have strength enough to cross on our own. These patches are given to us as a gift to help us seek and obtain greater edification that the Lord is ready to give us. At a recent BYU-Idaho devotional, Sister Sheri Dew taught that “once [we] have received a spiritual witness of the truths that form a testimony, even [our] thorniest questions about our doctrine, history, positions on sensitive issues, or the aching desires of your hearts, are about personal growth. They are opportunities for [us] to receive personal revelation and increase [our] faith” (“Will You Engage in the Wrestle?, May 2016).

Some of those thorny questions might include things like:

- Why am I the only one in my family who struggles to believe?

- Will the Lord ever forgive me for breaking my covenants?

- Why is life so hard sometimes?

- Is a prophet infallible?

- Did Joseph Smith really have more than one wife?

- How do I know if I’m receiving revelation?

- Why can’t women be ordained to the priesthood?

- What if the Church’s position on gay marriage bothers me?

- How do I understand the temple when I can’t ask questions about it?

- How do I raise my children to be righteous in an evil world?

We can approach these spots in the path as doubters, who look for a quick excuse to turn around or leave the path altogether, or as seekers ready to put forth the effort to learn by study and by faith. Seekers know that they have not “come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him” and that questions or hard times do not erase the word of Christ we have already received into our testimonies. On the contrary, rough patches in the trail provide a renewed opportunity to spend some time digging at the beach, as it were, to be edified, and to take a few more steps toward our ultimate goal of returning to live with our Father in Heaven.

Please don’t misunderstand here: the decision seekers make to use difficult questions or experiences to enhance their gospel study is not only about preserving past investment, though we should not easily decide to walk back down the path, but like my decision to go to the party instead of the movie I’d already paid for, it is a forward-looking decision. Seekers know that what may be a small difference of attitude today can determine whether they reach their destination at the end of the trail or find themselves lost in the wilderness at the top of an impassable cliff. Seeing the future on the horizon with an eye of faith, seekers know that rough patches are just rough patches, that the gems they need are already on the beach, as it were, and that, like the view from the top of a mountain that I am anxious to share with all of Facebook, the best is yet to come.

In summary, brother and sisters, I submit that each of us have only come as far as we have along the trail through the word of Christ and our future progress is dependent upon our willingness to feast upon the word. We enhance our study as we seek to understand the context and content, identify and understand doctrines and principles, and then ultimately gain a testimony of and apply those principles.

What good is a satchel full of gems relegated to the attic of our minds? Rather let us do business until he comes, anxiously applying what we have learned to our lives, that the treasures we find may be added upon at his return. As we press forward with a firm grasp on the iron rod, we will be edified and find the strength and joy we need for our lives.

Sacrament Meeting Talk (as written, at least) 7/10/2016

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