Saturday, July 13, 2019

Kicking Against the Pricks

The Apostle Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew (with Roman citizenship) born to a religious home in what is now Turkey. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, which was known for being military-minded, living in the area around Jerusalem and Jericho, and producing leaders like Saul, the first Israelite king.

Paul learned to read and write Greek in his hometown of Tarsus, but learned the scriptures in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, a doctor of the law and one of the leading rabbis of the day. Rather than carrying scrolls while he traveled, it is likely that Paul had memorized the Old Testament so he could recall verses quickly to ground or advance his arguments. Many scholars believe he also became a doctor of the law, having attended what would have been considered the Harvard of his day. Paul's future was bright and likely would have included service on the Sanhedrin, something like the Supreme Court for ancient Jews, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Gamaliel.

Like Gamaliel and his father, Paul became a Pharisee. This was no small commitment. Zealous Pharisees, like Paul, prided themselves on strict obedience to the law of Moses and believed they had a sacred prophetic right and duty to interpret the law and the oral traditions for the people. Christ came sharply into conflict with this belief, rebuking the Pharisees for reducing religion to the observance of rules without faith or conviction, rejecting their spiritual pride and calling on his disciples to serve and support others rather than burdening others with the requirement to support them (see Matthew 23, Mark 7:1-23, and Luke 11:37-44).

After the resurrection and ascension of Christ, Christianity was seen as a branch of Judaism the same way that Catholicism and Lutheranism are subdivisions of Christianity today. For Pharisees who believed in strict observance of the law of Moses, or their interpretation of it, Christianity and its teachings of revelation and a crucified messiah was an offensive and dangerous heresy. It was their duty, they believed, to address it.

Gamaliel is said to have defended the Christians among his fellow Pharisees. Paul, on the other hand, put the early saints in prison and approved of their execution (Acts 26:10). On one occasion mentioned in Acts 9, he obtained permission from the high priest to go on a crusade to Damascus and return with bound Christians from the churches there. Paul, who was originally known as Saul of Tarsus, was bent on the purging of all Christians-- heretics and apostates that they were-- from Judaism.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

And [Paul] said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou has seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom I now send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 9:2-5, 26:14-18).

Amid Paul's divine call to be an eyewitness of the Resurrection of Christ and later an apostolic minister of the gospel to the world, a calling he would embrace with the same diligence and vigor as he had his Pharisaical duties, is a brief statement: It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

A prick was a sharp spear used to drive animals. Often the animals would kick back when pricked, causing the spear to sink deeper into the animal's flesh (Come, Follow Me-- For Individuals and Families, 2019). In a similar way, parents and gospel teachers often share doctrines aimed at driving us to faith and repentance. The Book of Mormon prophet Jarom wrote that the prophets, priests and teachers of his day, "did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence... persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah... [and] by so doing they kept them 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 1:11-12).

Alma sought to prick the hearts of his people when he saw them turning to idolatry, perversions, iniquity and worldliness. He wrote:

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead people to do that which was just-- yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them-- therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. Therefore he took Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner... and Amulek and Zeezrom... and he also took two of his sons... to preach unto them the word (Alma 31:5-7).

The point of the gospel spear is the Holy Ghost. As we hear truth and the testimonies of the righteous, our hearts are pricked. If we follow the impressions we receive, we are led to do that which is just: to have faith in Christ, to repent of our sin and walk the covenant path. We can also choose to dig in our heels, to refuse to submit our will to God's, to harden our hearts, and to effectively kick against the pricks, or promptings, we receive.

Christ recognized Paul's righteous desire. He knew that Paul wanted to serve God with complete devotion. He knew that Paul, as a Pharisee, was taught, and likely believed, that his persecutions against the Christians were a service to the kingdom of God. Christ also knew that Paul, in his heart of hearts, knew what he was doing was wrong and that his extraordinary brutality toward the Christians was as much an effort to soothe his own conscience-- to salve the injury to his soul from resisting the promptings he may or may not have recognized as such-- as to purify the kingdom. So the comment, recognizing Paul's inner conflict: It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

We are no different than Paul. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote from Liberty Jail:

When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of righteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and... Ere [we are] aware, [we are] left unto [ourselves], to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God (D&C 121:37-38).

Each of us has known someone who has chosen the lonely path of kicking against the pricks. Our fellowship of these individuals is essential to preventing their destruction, if they will allow it, as our friendship and kindness continually provides direction back to the safe path.

Even more essential than our fellowship of the proverbial lost sheep is the internal evaluation of our own thoughts and behaviors. What has the Lord been trying to tell us that perhaps we have resisted? What favorite sin or vain ambition injures our souls and prevents our progress? What scriptures or General Conference addresses do we avoid because we know they carry messages that are hard for us to hear?

As Christ, our Redeemer, said to Saul of Tarsus, he says to us: Rise, and stand upon your feet. He has a purpose for each of us and he will qualify us to do his work. As we turn to him, and as we follow his direction, he will make us mighty, as sons and daughters of an almighty God, to the fulfilling of our life mission, the salvation of our souls and the completion of his work. He is directing us to greater happiness, peace, power and exaltation than we could ever claim for ourselves; we need only to stop kicking against the pricks.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

What is Our Heavenly Father Really Like?

Fourteen years ago, I sat on the second or third row of a chapel in Frankfurt, Germany, listening to prelude music and watching the rain roll down thick, cobbled windows. The whole mission was in the chapel anticipating the instruction we would receive from Elder L. Tom Perry, who had recently been assigned as the president of the European Central Area.

After the opening hymn and prayer, Elder Perry stood to address us. He did not use the microphone, but walked off the dais and stood in front of the sister missionaries in the first row. There was a short pause while he gathered himself, and then, with his typical booming voice, Elder Perry declared his testimony in two simple words: “God lives.”

I do not remember anything else he said that day, but this testimony seemed to pierce my soul to the very center. I remember the power I felt as he said it and I felt my physical frame trembling for several minutes afterward. I had been on my mission for over a year and could cite many instances before and during my service when I had felt the Holy Ghost testify of truth. I had also had many epiphanies as a high school and college student learning math, chemistry, physics, psychology and the arts. The feeling I had on that day surpassed all. I knew in that moment that God was real.

While I cannot pretend to give you the same experience here today, I can share my testimony that I know God lives. He organizes and governs all things in the universe. He knows all things, has all power, and is present in all places through His Spirit. He sees every sparrow that falls, knows every secret and wills the creation of stars, planets and solar systems. He lends each breath to all living things. All of time-- past, present, and future-- is laid before Him, yet he is not subject to our time or our timing. He is eternal, immutable and divine. We worship him as Elohim, a Hebrew name meaning the gods, but he prefers that we call him Father.

One of the great assignments of our lives is to come to know our Heavenly Father as he really is. During his great intercessory prayer on our behalf, the Savior lamented: “O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee… And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent” (John 17:25, 3).

Indeed, the world has not known Him. The Lakota tribes of North and South Dakota worshipped a “Great Spirit” they called Wankan Tanka, which means, “the Great Mystery”. Christian cultures are not any more clued in, often describing God with contradictions and portraying him in art and film as some variety of glowing orb, floating mist or unseen voice. Many people today are like those Paul found in Greece ignorantly worshipping at the altar of an "unknown God" (Acts 17:23).

This is not because God is hidden or hard to find. There is a great deal we can learn about God in the scriptures and the teachings of modern prophets. I will share some of those things here; but whatever we know about God, we really get to know Him by revelation as we draw near through prayer, serve his children on this earth, and diligently keep his commandments.

In other words, our personal relationship with our Heavenly Father, like any other relationship, requires our time and our attention. We should speak often with him, trust and rely on him and seek with a grateful heart to see his hand in our lives each day. Our testimonies will grow in proportion to our faith and our obedience; and if we look with sufficient faith, we’ll find that our eyes can be opened to see how He is in the details of our lives each and every day.

Now, with that introduction, I’d like to turn to the question suggested by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Who is the only true God, our Heavenly Father, and what is he really like?

Think for a moment about your idea of the perfect father. You may think of many traits your own fathers or grandfathers exhibited, or some things may be different, but I’d bet most of us are thinking of a lot of the same things. Let’s start simple and build up: he would be a man. He would be strong from hard work, but gentle with those he loves. He would love his children more than the whole world. He would respect women, especially his wife. He would be a man of faith and integrity. He would protect and provide for his family. He would teach his children discipline and help them to succeed. He would teach them how to be healthy and happy.

I have probably missed a few important things, but we’re well on our way to the point you know is coming.

Our Father in Heaven is an exalted man, separate and distinct from His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost who shares his influence. He has a body of flesh and bone just as we do (D&C 130:22). We look like him. He has a personality. He has feelings and emotions. He experiences great sorrow when his children suffer, when they sin, and when they commit horrific acts against one another. He also knows the thrill of watching his children overcome a difficult challenge or take a significant step in their journey back to him. Though he cannot always be physically with us, he loves it when we call.

Much of the world assumes that God has always been perfect; he has always been a god. We know that our Heavenly Father experienced mortality much as we do now and that he grew from grace to grace as we are are attempting to do. President Lorenzo Snow wrote the couplet, “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”

Through eons of experience and hard work, our Heavenly Father has completed his development, so we say that he is perfect. He is perfect in his knowledge and power, but he is also perfect in his compassion, his empathy and his love for each of us. He understands what we are experiencing and he encourages us to continue in our development until we are complete. “Be ye therefore perfect,” the scriptures direct, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Many in the world see God as harsh and vengeful. Martin Luther taught that “those who see God as angry do not see him rightly”. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

“For I am persuaded,” Paul wrote, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39). Nephi wrote that the love of God, “sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things… and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22-23).

You and I are literally children of God. “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8). Our Father in Heaven offers us all he has because he loves us more than the whole world.

Our Father in Heaven is not a respecter of persons. He’s not impressed by the color of your skin or the country where you were born or the job that you have or wealth you have accumulated. His commandments are in effect for those with busy schedules, those who are lonely, those who are ignorant and those who are proud. Every soul, regardless of their status or circumstance, is of great worth to him-- worth his time, worth his effort, and worth his love.

The love of God includes a profound respect for women. He does not allow us to make our Heavenly Mother a profanity and he warns against abuse of spouse or offspring with the most serious language. He has placed women in some of the most crucial roles in the plan of salvation and trusts them to nurture and prepare each generation.

One of my favorite quotes from Karl G. Maeser, considered the founder of what became BYU, is his explanation of honor. “I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor’”, he said. “I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls--walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground-- there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!"

Likewise, our Heavenly Father commits with his word of honor that he is bound to keep his promises when we keep his commandments. It may seem a little obvious to say that God is a man of integrity, but it is crucial to understand if we are to trust him and trust is essential to walking the path toward eternal life. God keeps every promise. He always does what he says he will do.

One of the promises God has made to each of us is that he will pour out the blessings of heaven when we pay our tithing. My wife and I put this to the test when I completed graduate school and we moved for an entry-level job in Virginia. We had two kids, no contacts, a lot of debt and not very much income.

I don’t remember a specific instance when we got a check for exactly the amount we needed or found the food we couldn’t buy on our doorstep; but I do remember that our clothes seemed to last forever. As our kids grew, and we added one more, someone was always looking to donate the size we needed. Our car never broke down. The five dollar pizzas at Little Ceasars tasted amazing. Though we were living in a small house with a possum in the crawl space, life seemed abundant and we came to know our Heavenly Father better as we earnestly prayed for him to help us provide for our family’s needs.

I testify that your Father, who is in heaven, knows the things that you need. “Therefore,” the Savior taught, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are you not much better than they?...”

“And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you?... But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:25-26, 28-30, 33).

In addition to providing for our physical needs, our Heavenly Father is anxious to teach us how to be successful and happy. Consider for a moment what you would do if Bill Gates approached you with an offer you couldn’t refuse. Pretend for a moment that the email and the Facebook scams we’ve all seen are true. Bill Gates does want to make you a millionaire or billionaire, and here’s the deal: he’s going to give you the strategy to get there and if you can try pretty hard at it and show some persistence, he will give you the capital to make it the rest of the way. Would you do it?

God has achieved more than any of us can imagine. Even Bill Gates’ money is no object for him. Worldly strength and power are insignificant by comparison. His lifestyle and his joy are the ultimate rewards of eternity. He has cornered the market on peace and happiness; these are his currency. Yet, none of this is proprietary information. Like every good parent, he has given us commandments to protect us and help us learn and grow. He has laid out the path to follow and offers to share everything freely with anyone willing to accept his invitation. We agree to try through five saving ordinances: baptism, confirmation, ordination, endowment and sealing. Lest we fear failure, he has ensured our success within the scope of our agreement; he will provide all that we cannot so long as we sincerely try. He provided a Savior to show us how this was to be done.

Sometimes as we try to follow in our elder brother’s footsteps, course corrections are needed. Paul explained:

“For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?... Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For… he [chastens us] for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness” (Hebrews 12:6-7, 9-10).

While God loves all of his children, status quo is not his goal. Rather, he is focused on maximizing our potential. He has retired from whatever profession he may have once had, he’s seen what there is to see and there are no distractions to pull him away from the work of helping you and I, his family, succeed. His ways and his timing are often different from our own, but he is keenly interested in this work and wants each of us to be wildly successful as he measures it: in joy, in peace, in love and in faith. He will not take away our agency, but he gently guides us toward decisions that will ultimately lead us to our rightful places as heirs of his kingdom.

If you will remember what you thought was an ideal father, I think you’ll find we’ve discussed many of the core attributes of that ideal in the last several minutes. Each of us has a Father in Heaven who has known us for eons of time. He has walked the path we walk, appreciates our differences and sees the potential we all have to become like him. He is our biggest fan, our protector and provider, our mentor, our counselor, our teacher, our friend, our companion and our parent. He loves each of us more than the whole world.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught, “It is one thing to know about God and another to know him. We know about him when we learn that he is a personal being in whose image man is created; when we learn that the Son is in the express image of his Father’s person; when we learn that both the Father and the Son possess certain specified attributes and powers. But we know them, in the sense of gaining eternal life, when we enjoy and experience the same things they do. To know God is to think what he thinks, to feel what he feels, to have the power he possesses, to comprehend the truths he understands, and to do what he does. Those who know God become like him, and have his kind of life, which is eternal life” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1965-73], 1:762).

I have come to know God as I have seen his influence in my life during and since my mission in Frankfurt, Germany. He has helped me find peace when all was lost, share my testimony when I couldn’t find the words, repent when I have fallen short and learn truth when I did not know the way. He has shown me what it is to be father. He has provided for my family and brought joy into our home. So it is with confidence and admiration and love and joy that I can share my testimony that God lives.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Promises and Plural Marriage

One of the greatest Old Testament prophets is Abraham, originally called Abram. The scriptures record that he was one of the most valiant spirits in the premortal world and chosen to be a leader in the kingdom of God before he was born (Abraham 1-5). Forced to leave his homeland after religious persecution threatened his life, Abraham would go on to receive great revelations and a special covenant from the Lord with promises of priesthood, property and posterity "as innumerable as the stars". Hundreds of millions that have and do live on the earth regard Abraham as the "father of the faithful" and many refer to the place of the righteous dead as "sitting down next to Abraham" or "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22-23).

Those who rightfully consider Abraham among the righteous have reason to consider the account given in Genesis 16: "Now Sarai Abrahm's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife" (verses 1-3).

The Lord has commanded the faithful in every generation to keep sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, to not commit adultery, to cleave unto a spouse and unto none else; yet here and hereafter the Lord seems okay with Abraham's plural marriage to not only Hagar but several other women as well. How can this be?

This is the question that the prophet Joseph Smith asked the Lord in the summer of 1843. "Inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines," the Lord responded, "Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter" (D&C 132:1-2).

The following 64 verses detail the Lord's doctrine of eternal marriage. "If a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law," the Lord instructs, "it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world... to their exaltation and glory" (D&C 132:19). Those married in holy temples by those authorized to exercise the appropriate priesthood keys can expect relationships far beyond the bounds of this life.

With that background, the Lord provided several reasons why righteous women and men obey the principle of plural marriage at certain times. The first is because God has commanded it and made it his law at those times.

"God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises. Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it" (D&C 132:34-35, emphasis added).

The Lord's perspective is different than our own. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). God's commandments are designed by an omniscient Father to execute his plan for his children and complete his mission for our immortality and eternal life.

At certain times, the Lord's commandment to a particular individual or group may surprise us because it is different from what we would expect it to be under normal circumstances. There are several examples of this in the scriptures including Nephi killing Laban, Moses killing the master builder, and several specific instances of plural marriage. "Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness" (D&C 132:36).

In the case of Abraham and Hagar, the Lord seems to be saying that the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham is of greatest importance. This is a powerful reassurance for us to whom the Lord has promised forgiveness, salvation and exaltation. As promised, the union of Abraham and Hagar has resulted in millions of posterity who revere their father Abraham.

The proliferation of children and grandchildren is another obvious reason for the Lord to command the faithful to practice plural marriage, particularly when their numbers are few. The Lord explained to Jacob: "For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none... For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things" (Jacob 2:27, 30). 

At such times, plural wives "are given unto [a man] to multiply and replenish the earth, according to [the Lord's] commandment"; but also "to fulfill the promise which was given [to the wives] by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men" (D&C 132:63).

Finally, the law of plural marriage is part of the "restitution of all things" promised before the Second Coming of Christ (Acts 3:20-21, D&C 132:40). As in other dispensations, the Lord required early members of the church in our dispensation to follow this law.

This was not a desirable or easy thing for those required to follow this commandment. Marriage has been weakened and redefined over several decades in modern Western culture; it was much less selfish and much more sacred in the 1840s. Joseph Smith delayed for a decade until the Lord sent an angel with a drawn sword who threatened to remove him from his place if he did not obey. When first taught the principle of plural marriage, Heber C. Kimball "became sick in body [from anxiety], but his mental wretchedness was too great to allow of his retiring, and he would walk the floor till nearly morning, and sometimes the agony of his mind was so terrible that he would wring his hands and weep like a child, and beseech the Lord to be merciful" (as told by Vilate Kimball, wife of Heber C. Kimball, in Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball [1967], 325-38).

President John Taylor recalled, "I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue, and I felt as a married man that [plural marriage] was to me, outside of this principle, an appalling thing to do... It was a thing calculated to stir up feelings from the innermost depths of the human soul... Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God, and the truth of them, could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this" (in B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, Third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [1963], 100). And Brigham Young summarized, "I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty nor failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin" (in "Provo Conference," Deseret News, Nov. 14, 1855, 282).

A restricted number of the early Saints were tested and tried by the principle of plural marriage. Those who obeyed the voice of the Lord and his prophet received the promised blessings of posterity, divine power and assistance, hearts full of rejoicing, forgiveness of sin and preparation for exaltation.

"Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in may ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population. Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a 'peculiar people,' covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition" (in Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, www.lds.org/topics).

We do not know all the reasons why the Lord sometimes requires the faithful to live the principle of plural marriage. We know that it is carefully guarded and governed by priesthood keys: "For I [the Lord] have conferred upon you [the president of the Church] the keys and power of the priesthood, wherein I restore all things... And again, verily I say unto you, that whatsoever you give on earth, and to whomsoever you give any one on earth, by my word and according to my law, it shall be visited with blessings and not cursings, and with my power, saith the Lord, and shall be without condemnation on earth and in heaven" (D&C 132:45, 48). Plural marriage is acceptable only when commanded of the Lord and authorized only through the keys held by the president of the Church. It has been strictly forbidden since 1904.

We are not asked to live the principle of plural marriage today, but we can benefit from the promises given as a result. We can see the Lord's pattern and restoration in modern times and have greater faith in the divine origins of the modern Church. We can see that the Lord always makes a way to keep his commandments and prepare our hearts to hearken to his voice, as Abraham did. Perhaps best of all, we can know and be assured that when we keep the commandments of God, he will always keep his promises.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Faith Amid Persecutions

One of my favorite words in the scriptures is "nevertheless". Nephi grieved his sin and weakness before proclaiming, "Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support" (2 Nephi 4:19-20). We can feel Nephi's faith and courage build as he then outlined the many instances when God delivered him from peril or gave him instruction when he did not know what to do.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, our Elder Brother plead with our Heavenly Father to remove the bitter cup of pain and suffering that was His Atonement for us all. "Nevertheless," he humbly submitted, "not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).

Joseph Smith makes a similar pivot in a letter to the Saints in 1842. Himself in hiding and following decades of persecution, the Prophet prompts his testimony with a modern "nevertheless":

"Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth... a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy" (D&C 128:19). After citing many of the most wonderful events of the restoration, he concludes, "Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad."

These and many other accounts inspire and uplift my soul when I'm weighed down with the corruption, sin and deception of the world in which we live. As more people abandon virtue, conscience and principle for doctrines of convenience, we may feel oppressed by the rising tide of manipulative voices trying to shame us into conformity. Indeed, those who are willing to speak up for truth and high morals are often persecuted on social media, in conversations and in the press.

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley stated in 1965, "We hear much in America these days of consensus. It simply means agreement, a meeting of the minds. The doctrine is abroad that whatever bears the brand of consensus is right and good. There never was a more serious fallacy. Fifty thousand Frenchmen can be wrong, as can 50 million Americans or 500 million Chinese... Consensus in matters of public and private morality is largely fruitless and often detrimental unless its roots are anchored in eternal, God-given truth" (Caesar, Circus or Christ, BYU Speeches. October 26, 1965).

Nevertheless, the Lord is mindful of us and hastening His work on the earth. The Lord revealed The Family: A Proclamation to the World in 1995 to prepare us and direct the Church through unprecedented confusion about love and gender that have arisen in recent years. The number of temples on the earth is growing quickly as faithful Saints increasingly need places to escape the claustrophobic crush of evil practices and philosophies. Prophets have been inspired to develop the Come Follow Me program to strengthen individuals and families against the increasingly targeted attacks of our adversary. Those prophets have been inspired again to say those things that the Lord would have us know at a General Conference broadcast around the world. Family history and temple work can be done with a few taps on a smartphone. The Church is reaching a larger and larger number of the world's poor and afflicted with its welfare program and partnerships.

As the Prophet Joseph Smith once said, "The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done" (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:540).

"What power shall stay the heavens?" the Prophet asked on another occasion. "As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints" (D&C 121:33).

Some days, when it seems we can see raging persecutions and mobs forming in even places of authority, it is valuable to remember our "nevertheless" that pivots our perspective toward faith in the eternal. The world may attempt to shame us into conformity, nevertheless the truth has been revealed to prophets in our day, and to each of our hearts, from God himself. They may threaten our prosperity, nevertheless the Lord has promised He will provide for those who ask Him. Ultimately, the world may take our lives, as opponents of Christ have done to the faithful in every dispensation, nevertheless we know the Lord will protect us and our days will not be numbered less because of oppression. The jaws of hell itself may gape open its mouth to swallow us, nevertheless it is little more than a man's puny arm attempting to redirect a massive river and cannot prevail if we remain true to the faith.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Finding Truth

Christ in Front of Pontius Pilate by Henry Coller
Toward the end of the final examination of Jesus Christ, the Savior testified to Pilate, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice."

"Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all" (John 18:37-38).

As a young missionary in England, John Jaques pondered this exchange and Pilate's inquiry: What is truth? It is a simple question, yet one that philosophers, politicians and theologians have struggled for centuries to answer with any real satisfaction. Jaques contemplated while he served in Stratford-on-Avon, the home town of William Shakespeare, then penned his profound reply in prose that was published in the original Pearl of Great Price in 1851. He mused:

Oh say, what is truth? 'Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch's costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.

Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
'Tis an aim for the noblest desire.

The sceptre may fall from the despot's grasp
When with winds of stern justice he copes,
But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast,
And the wreck of the fell tyrant's hopes.

Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o'er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

The Lord has defined truth as, "knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24). When we remove the filters of our perceptions and bias, truth is what remains. Truth is what is real. It is the pursuit of long investigations and scientific studies. And while even the most widely held scientific theories can be disproven, and there is much we do not know, truth continues to govern, to hold the stars in their place, to patiently wait for its discovery like flakes of gold that, bit by bit, eventually amass into a great treasure.

Truth exists in bold independence from what societies may want it to be. It outlasts empires and is more valuable than a royal treasury of precious gems. It is the reason for universities and think tanks and many government agencies.

We might reasonably ask: if truth is so sought-after by researchers and investigators and, ultimately, all of us, why is it so difficult to find? Why do so many of us struggle to find the principles of truth that govern health and happiness? Why isn't there a consensus about the existence of God or what good morals are or the value of all kinds of life? Where is truth?

Although truth is there for the taking, finding it can be a little like hiking in the dark. If we rely only on light from other sources around us-- the moon and the stars, as it were-- we may miss important details that cause us to take a wrong turn or even stumble and fall. On the wrong trail, and with the wrong timing, our inability to see in the dark could be fatal.

A flashlight or headlamp may not be powerful enough to reveal the scenery around us-- only the sun can do that-- but they can illuminate the trail ahead so we know where to step, where not to step, and how to safely reach our destination. In a world that often embraces the dark, we need a light to reveal the truths that will help us find peace, joy and direction in our lives.

Jesus Christ is the light of the world. He is willing to share that light with us if we will come to him. Scripture records:

And the light which shineth, and giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings... And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things (D&C 88:11, 67).

If we follow the light within each of us-- the conscience or inner voice that gives us life and law and understanding-- we will receive more light and be better able to recognize truth. "For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light" (D&C 88:40).

Likewise, the Lord taught, "that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers" (D&C 93:39). Isaiah wrote that, "[the devil] hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart" (John 12:40); and Jesus chided those who wanted more miraculous bread, "Having eyes, see ye not?" (Mark 8:18). When we choose to disobey or ignore that light, we turn off our metaphorical flashlights and are no longer able to find the path to the destination we intended to reach.

Jesus taught Nicodemus:

He that believeth on [the Son of God] is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God (John 3:18-21).

Oh say, what is that noble truth more valuable than rubies or diamonds? It is those deeds that can be done in the light. It is pure knowledge of divine origin, the fruit of the spirit, the source of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance (Galatians 5:22-23). It is the sum of existence, the Son of God in whom there is no fault, and its light shines within all of us who will listen to its voice.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Three Lessons from the Rich Young Ruler

The Rich Young Ruler by Liz Lemon Swindle
The gospel of Matthew includes an account of a rich young ruler who approached the Savior for counsel. Their short conversation is of such value to all of us that it was recorded by Matthew and has been preserved over thousands of years. At least three lessons in this account are of particular emphasis.

First, the young man was seeking what he desired. Matthew records, "And, behold, one came and said unto [Christ], Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Sincere desire is a first step in following Christ. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness," the Savior promised, "for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:6). Do we seek after the blessings we want from God as actively and as often as we seek for a sandwich or a cup of water? This is the first lesson.

The Savior responded to the young man's inquiry:

And he said unto him... if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and they mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Many of us would be content with this answer. The young man, evaluating himself, pressed for more, "All these things have I kept from my youth up," he continued, "What lack I yet?"

How often do we forfeit blessings because we stop asking for them? Are we satisfied with a surface-level answer or do we dig for how we can be better? And are we willing to sacrifice to make up for what we lack? This is the second lesson.

Again, the Lord, who knows all of our hearts, responded to the young man's inquiry:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect,go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:16-23).

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven," the Savior taught on another occasion, "but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). The apostle James, a half-brother of Jesus', added, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (James 2:26).

We must ask a question to receive an answer. We have to actively seek for blessings to find them. If we desire to enter into heaven, we must learn how to knock on the door and enter in by the way (see Matthew 7:7).

The need for faith and works to obtain the blessings we desire is frequently demonstrated in scripture.  When his steel bow broke, leaving his family without a way to find food, Nephi prayed for the Lord's help and then started crafting a wooden bow. When he had done all he could, the Lord showed him where to find game in the desert (see 1 Nephi 16).

Moses was commanded to free his people and wanted to obey. Facing the pharaoh was a perilous task, but he had trust in God and acted on the direction he received. His faith and works contributed to parting the Red Sea and other mighty miracles.

For those seeking blessings of health, the Lord instructs, "And whosoever among you are sick, and... believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food... And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name" (D&C 42:43). Blessings of healing include asking God and pursuing medical treatment.

Knowledge and learning requires faith and works. "Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom," the Lord commands, "yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). When we do all we can, the Lord will multiply our efforts. This is the lesson the rich young ruler missed.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can learn from the Savior's encounter with the rich young ruler. We can remember that we find the things we seek most diligently, so we should seek the kingdom of God like a starving person seeks a meal; We can learn to ask probing questions of ourselves and the Lord in order to find where we can improve and better qualify ourselves for salvation; And we can learn to follow through on the knowledge we receive from God by doing all we can to receive the blessings we desire.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sons of Perdition, Sons of God

Benedict Arnold was an American general during the Revolutionary War. He had led several successful military campaigns including the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and the Battle of Valcour Island, which allowed New York to prepare its defenses. Arnold had been injured in battle on more than one occasion and had proven himself a true American patriot. He had the full trust and confidence of George Washington.

In 1780, Benedict Arnold was given command of the strategic fortifications at West Point, New York. Shortly after his assignment was given, Arnold plotted to surrender his position for a cash payment from the British. His scheme was discovered and he fled for his life to the British lines, where he was given command of the forces fighting against the same troops he had once led.

Arnold lived the remainder of his life in exile in England. His name has since become synonymous with treason and betrayal. To this day, he has been removed or omitted from monuments and many historical records.

Like Benedict Arnold, the scriptures record that an angel of God, "who was in authority in the presence of God", "rebelled against the Only Begotten Son... [and] was thrust down from the presence of God and the Son. And was called Perdition, for the heavens wept over him-- he was Lucifer, a son of the morning" (D&C 76:25-26).

John the Beloved described:

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him (Revelation 12:7-9).

On earth, the devil and his followers, "maketh war with the saints of God, and encompasseth them round about" (D&C 76:29). They are the authors of the great lies in the world that deny the power of God and seek to destroy faith and families, the unity of communities and the peace of nations. They seek perdition, which is destruction and damnation, and rebellion against the throne of God and His church and kingdom.

Lucifer carries the titles of Serpent, Devil, Perdition and Satan in the same way that Jesus Christ is called the Only Begotten of the Father, the Prince of Peace, Eternal, Savior and Redeemer. The followers of the devil are sometimes called sons of perdition. None of them obtained this status in a rash moment of unclear thinking or by some kind of unfortunate accident. In the premortal realm, these rebelled in the presence of God. Those who join the ranks of the sons of perdition in this world choose to follow Satan in defiance of divine knowledge delivered through the power of the Holy Ghost. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that "the sin against the Holy Ghost [to become a son of perdition] requires such knowledge that it is manifestly impossible for the rank and file to commit such a sin" (The Miracle of Forgiveness [1969], 123).

The sons of perdition are traitors and mutineers. They are men and women who have experienced the favor of the Lord, who know of his blessings and goodness, who have been trusted and rendered service and yet would still betray him and us to crucify the Lord again if they could. They have received every possible opportunity to change and have defiantly remained toxic and rebellious in the most extreme ways. Our own salvation requires their influence be severed from our lives.

Speaking of the sons of perdition, the Lord said:

Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power-- They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born; For they are vessels of wrath doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity; Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come... And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power; Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath (D&C 76:25-38, emphasis added).

The "second death" refers to separation from the presence of God. Though none of us walk with God as we once did, we are sustained by the Light of Christ, our conscience, and can often feel of God's love and direction through the Holy Ghost. When we die, we will be judged and enter one of three kingdoms of glory. The Apostle Paul explained:

All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial is one; and the terrestrial, another; and the telestial, another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:40-42).

Even the liars, murderers and adulterers in the Telestial Kingdom, those who we might call the "children of their own desire", will be compelled to suffer for their sins in hell for a time and one day emerge from their redemptive process to live forever in a telestial glory. They will be resurrected and experience the presence of God through the Holy Ghost.

The sons of perdition have no such hope. They will be separated from God through all eternity in a dark and miserable hell comparable only to fire and brimstone. Such is the fate of traitors.

The treachery of Benedict Arnold is not in what happened because of his treason. His act was discovered, West Point remained under American control and the United States won the war a couple of years later. Arnold's treason was only directly responsible for one death: the messenger who carried the plot was caught and hanged.

Lucifer's treachery is arguably much more destructive, but the end results are unchanged. The Lord's plan is already accomplished. Christ has won the victory over sin and death. The outcome is certain.

The treachery of Benedict Arnold's treason, and of Lucifer's mutiny, was not the consequences of his choice but simply that he had a choice. He was an American patriot and hero. He needed only to remain loyal to be rewarded far beyond the 20,000 pounds he desired from the British. Instead, he abandoned what he wanted most for a cash payment he never received and a life of shameful infamy.

We also have a choice. In the true church of Jesus Christ, we covenant to take his name upon ourselves through baptism. As we do, we become "the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters" (Mosiah 5:7).

Paul said it simply: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27). "And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be glorified together" (Romans 8:17).

All Benedict Arnold needed to do was to stay loyal to George Washington and the United States. To receive celestial glory, we need only to become the sons and daughters of God, the children of Christ, through making and keeping sacred baptismal covenants. The results are known, we need only decide whose side we are on-- Perdition, who will lose, or the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Good Shepherd, the Creator, and the Prince of Peace, who has already won.