Sunday, May 7, 2017

Continue in the Things Which Thou Hast Been Assured

Few ministries in the history of the world are as striking as the apostle Paul's. Originally known as Saul of Tarsus, he inherited Roman citizenship from his father and Jewish faith from his mother. Educated at the Harvard of his day, Paul became a pharisee and actively persecuted Christians, who he perceived to be perverting Judaism, until a vision of Christ changed the current of his life. He would go on to become a great missionary, teacher, disciple and apostle who endured a great deal of persecution himself and was ultimately martyred for his testimony of Christ in Rome.

Near the end of his life, Paul was kept in chains in a dungeon that was exposed to the elements. He was a long way from home and had very little contact with friends or family. He knew he was going to die. He decided to write a final letter to his friend Timothy, who was the first ordained bishop in Ephesus. A lesser person might have used this as an opportunity to vent about the grievances of justice he had endured or perhaps to give final instructions regarding his estate. Paul was inspired instead to share one final sermon that would prove more valuable to you and I than to Timothy.

After admonishing Timothy to stay faithful, he prophesied of the perils of the last days, or in other words, the perils of the times in which we now live. The people in world at that time, he writes, will be self-centered, irreverent, ungrateful, perverse, dishonest, undisciplined, faithless, traitorous, reckless and conceited. They will be people who love pleasure more than God and follow their appetites into all kinds of addictions and sins. All of these things would come because the people would deny the power of God; they would be ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth because they would refuse to consider spiritual evidence or learning from divine sources (2 Tim. 3:1-7).

Certainly this is the state of the world today. As morals fade and faith is increasingly unpopular, it might seem like the philosophies and ways and of the world will soon overwhelm the faithful. Church attendance is down worldwide; truths about creation and the sanctity of life have been banished from schools and replaced by worldly philosophies and courses that encourage students to commit moral sins; and those who stand up for religious liberty are often harassed and accused of being bigoted, hateful, fearful, or worse.

Paul concedes that the righteous will be persecuted in our times and that "evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived," but also prophesies that the folly of the world "shall be manifest unto all men" and overthrown just as the Egyptian priests who resisted Moses (2 Tim. 3:8-9, 13). He reminds Timothy, and all of us by extension, that "God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7).

While we wait for folly to be overthrown, we may wonder how we "press forward with a steadfastness in Christ" amidst worldly currents of chaos, immorality, deceit, violence, persecution and degrading values (2 Nephi 31:20). Further, how do we keep our faith when some of those worldly philosophies start to make sense or we feel our faith is maybe not as strong as it once was or as we feel it needs to be?

Paul, who had been both persecuted and persecutor, gives a two-part answer based on his experience: "Continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of," he told Timothy, "knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that...the holy scriptures [are] able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:14-15).

In another letter, this one to the believers in and around Jerusalem, Paul addressed those saints who were beginning to falter because of the difficultly of staying on the gospel path. To these ancient church members who thought testimony, conversion and baptism would put them beyond trouble, Paul counsels, "Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions... Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise" (Hebrews 10:32, 35-36).

Each of us have had sacred experiences that have been and are foundations for our testimony. These experiences are most often times when we knew God was speaking to us. Maybe it was how we felt when we were baptized or when we heard the prophet speak at General Conference. Maybe we were directed to go another way or make a different choice. Or maybe we felt God's love when reading a particularly meaningful passage of scripture, witnessing an answer to our prayers or enjoying the feelings of cleanliness that follow sincere repentance. Whatever those experiences are in our lives, we must not forget them now nor discredit their divine author.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has taught that we should, "first doubt [our] doubts before [we] doubt [our] faith" (Come, Join with Us, October 2013). "In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, [we must] hold the ground [we] have already won, even if that ground is limited" (Elder Holland, Lord, I Believe, April 2013).

Elder Holland adds, "If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don't give up when the pressure mounts. Certainly don't give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Face your doubts. Master your fears. 'Cast not away therefore your confidence.' Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you" (Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence, March 1999).

The second part of Paul's response requires that we acknowledge that God has also spoken to us through his prophets. We turn to God and begin our journey back to him through the study of his revealed words. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God," he explains, "and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be [complete], throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

When the world seems to suffocate us, or when we are offended by the evil around us, or when we are tempted to subscribe to worldly philosophies on love or life or anything else, we can find the strength, healing, comfort and answers we need in the Holy Scriptures. Honest study of the scriptures will build our faith, courage, resolve to act upon the truths we learn. We will more often find the inspiration to repent of our misdeeds until, step by step and habit by habit, we become complete and perfect in the sight of God in spite of all that is around us.

This was what Paul experienced as he sat in a Roman dungeon through heat and cold and storms and wind. He had given status and riches to be there. He had lost every worldly thing and would soon give his life. But he had also heard Christ's voice. He had felt God's assurance carry him through his most desperate hours. He knew it was true. He knew death was not the end. He knew he would see his family again and rejoice in the presence of God. And he knew it was possible for us as well, if we would hear God's words and stay on the path that leads back to him.

And so, instead of complaints or regrets, Paul writes to Timothy in the confidence of his God: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

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