Doctrine: God may know our hearts, but we can’t know our own hearts or the true extent of our spiritual devotion without outward action and ritual. Such ritual creates mental, emotional, and spiritual landmarks, memories, and grooves that change us fundamentally. Passive, inward, devotion alone cannot produce the faith and power necessary for us to lay hold upon the full measure of God’s grace and glory.
We live in a time where people shun organized religion and ritual. To them the ritual of attending meetings and doing prayers and other formal outward acts of devotion are outdated and unnecessary. They may even consider them ridiculous and empty. Their defense against such things is that God (if there is a God) knows their heart and therefore doesn’t need such things. And, I cannot disagree with that.
However, I can promise these people that while God knows their heart, they, themselves do not know it. They think they do. But, they don’t. I can also promise that while God doesn’t need their rituals, they do, and that they cannot be true Christians without it.
Ritual Teaches Us About Us
Those who profess to know God and to follow Him without ritual and organized religion do not know the extent of their devotion to Christ, the depth of their feelings about Him, or the breadth of their capacity to follow Him. To put it bluntly, they don’t know anything about their spiritual power and capability. They don’t really know if they want to live with God forever. They don’t really know if they want to live like God forever. They can’t know these things without such devotion being tested. Ritual illustrates, tests, and teaches us about the level of our spiritual devotion and desires.
My Mother-in-law has what she calls a “God Box.” When she bumps into something in her life that she cannot control or change and she is struggling to let go and give it over to God, she writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in her God Box.
“What good is that?” a skeptic may ask. She can just tell herself in her head and heart that she will let it go. Why then go through the hassle of writing it down and putting it in some random box?
But let me suggest that by going through the ritual (however small) of putting those things in her God Box, my Mother-in-law has created a spiritual groove in her soul, and also a mental and emotional groove in her heart and mind. The very act of doing something ritualistic and outward creates a powerful memory. It becomes personal evidence. Then, when she is tempted to stress about it, try to control it, or try to carry it, her spirit, mind, and heart trip on those grooves. She is then reminded, and knows for herself, that she has given this burden over to God. It then becomes easier and easier to let it go. Going through the ritual has the power to create unshakable knowledge and thereby unshakable faith.
Note the principle: by ritualistically writing something down and putting it in the box she has a clear memory of giving the burden over to God. She knows, perfectly, without a doubt, that she has given it away to Him. Because of this perfect knowledge because of her ritual, she also knows perfectly that God knows she has given it away. Thus, she can trust Him completely to carry it.
The ritual is an outward signification that marks, and shows to herself, her inner desires to accomplish or do something. It sounds simple, but by going through the ritual, she makes it nearly impossible to go back on her desires and intent.
Let’s now ask, “If she hadn’t gone through the ritual, what would she have lost out on?” She would have lost out on the chance to give meaning to her individual devotion and resolve. She would have lost out on the chance to know the extent of her intent to give such burdens to the Lord. By doing she gained a testimony of her own ability to act on her intent. She would have also lost out on receiving the power that comes from making an outward commitment to herself and God. By making it physical and outward, she made it real. She gave her desire life and to go back on it would be destructive to her spiritually and emotionally. That’s how powerful ritual is.
Ritual is the Evidence of Faith and Gives Our Faith Power
It is one thing to believe in Christ. It is another thing to act on that belief. Without the action, there is no evidence of our belief, it is only potential belief, or dormant belief. We can say we believe in Christ but there is no evidence or proof that we can offer, especially to ourselves. On the other hand, it is possible to go through the motions of belief and not actually believe, but it exceedingly rare and usually temporary. If such a course is pursued in a cursory way, it will in time transform and unbeliever into a true believer if they continue. That is the nature and power of righteous action.
Thus, we cannot say we have faith unless we also have works. Faith without works is dead (James 2:20, 26). Let me explain fully what that means.
Abraham, in the Old Testament, is asked by Jehovah to sacrifice his only covenant son, Isaac. Abraham could have said all day and night in his mind and to his relations, “I will do whatever God asks of me, withholding nothing.” And, God knew that Abraham would do anything he was asked to do. But, saying it was not sufficient for Abraham to know for himself that he really would. It wasn’t until Abraham was about to put a knife to Isaac that the Lord provided a ram in the thicket. It was in that moment, in what was sure to be the most godly trial any mortal man has ever had to carry, that Abraham knew, for himself, the depth of his love of God and his devotion to the Almighty Jehovah (President Hugh B. Brown in Truman G. Madsen, The Highest in Us , 49). And Abraham could not have known it without the physical ritual.
So, why do works? Why get married if it could end in divorce? Why get baptized? Why repent openly and before authorized representatives and judges of God? Why get married or enter into covenants accompanied by outward ritual? Why pray out loud? Why get on your knees? Why pay your tithing and offerings? Why sacrifice the things of the world for the things of a better? Why go to church? Why partake of the sacrament? Why, why, why…
It’s for us. It is all for us. And doing it has everything to do with us and what we know about our own souls. For without doing we can only suppose or guess about our love of God and devotion to Him. But, with the doing we then come to know about our love and devotion to Him.
God doesn’t need our sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22). We need them. God doesn’t need our prayers. We need them. God doesn’t need our money. We need to offer it for our own knowledge and understanding of our willingness to sacrifice and obey God, no matter the outcome (though God’s blessings are absolutely, universally, and eternally guaranteed for the sacrifices we make to do His will: Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21; 82:10).
The whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is set up for us to learn about the depth of our spiritual commitment, desires, and goals and to grant us power to be saved.
In Lectures on Faith we learn that in order to have faith in God, one of the critical components is a “an actual knowledge that the course of life which one is pursuing is according to His will (Lecture Third).” That means that we know, for ourselves, without a doubt, that the course of our life is as God would have it be. It means we know we are sincerely trying to do what God wants us to do. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but it means we know we are sincerely trying and that we never stop trying—even when we continually mess up.
In order to exercise the full power of faith; the kind of faith that precedes miracles; the kind of faith that moves mountains and compels martyrs to die for Christ; the kind of faith that can save us; we must know we are on the right track for ourselves. And, we can’t know that for ourselves without outward ritual and organized religion. We need that outward ritual and devotion as evidence for ourselves—not for God.
Christ said (Matthew 7:21):
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Why do we have to DO God’s will in conjunction with our inward devotion?
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life. (Lectures on Faith, Lecture 6, italics added)
Our faith in Christ’s grace and offer of salvation is dead without our efforts at the accompanying works. Faith without works cannot save us and it certainly cannot exalt us.
When we KNOW, without a doubt, the extent of our spiritual devotion (and we can know it without a doubt by the evidence we give to ourselves through ritual and outward devotion), we have confidence before God—the kind of confidence that can call down miracles from heaven and bear life-changing testimony to those we meet. And this is because this confidence in our own righteousness (not pride) and heart removes all fear. It creates in us a well of grace that simply cannot go dry (St. John 4:13-15) on our own behalf or others—if we maintain it.
Lack of Ritual Decreases our Spiritual Power
Just as people gain godly power from proper ritual and outward devotion, so also many lose power the moment they cease such efforts. “Well, I got baptized, served a mission, and got married in the temple, so I’m good.” BEEP. Wrong. “I went to Seminary for a couple years, so I’m good.” BEEP. Wrong. Etc. That’s like saying you’ve worked hard for several years to get to the peak of your physical capacity and now that you’ve reached it your body will simply stay at that peak of fitness. BEEP. Wrong.
All of us know that mundane physical exercises and stretches must be performed by even the most fit of individuals, and that those mundane exercises and stretches are the foundation of their fitness. Thus, the same applies spiritually. The small acts of devotion and ritual that we do to become spiritual to begin with are the very things that help us maintain our power to remain so. We may build upon them from time to time, but those minimal acts should never cease if we expect to maintain our knowledge of our faithfulness and our power to continue faithful.
It’s strange, the moment I get out of shape, I suddenly start to believe that I’ll never get in shape again. It happens long before I’m actually totally out of shape. That’s because I’ve lost momentum. And, getting that momentum going again is difficult. We all know what it’s like to “suck air” for a week or so of running until we build up our lungs and muscle endurance again.
The moment we realize we’ve gained some weight, we suddenly start to believe that we’ll be overweight forever. We see others who are in shape and we mourn. Yet, there is no evidence that our silly depressed emotions are true. There is, in fact, only evidence that we have complete power over our ability to lose weight and get fit. So, why do we start believing something so false? Because we have stopped doing, we are no longer certain about ourselves any longer.
Without outward action, devotion, and ritual we can never have any certainty about spiritual selves. And, so it is a lie to think that one can be devoted to God without it.
We all need a God Box. We all need ritual.