I have two very wise mothers. My own mother will often be heard to say, “We’re all a mess,” which is meant to be a graceful equalizer, not a criticism, to remind herself and me to cut other people some slack. As well, my mother-in-law will often be heard to say, “We’re all doing the best we can,” which is also a graceful equalizer. She uses it to remind herself and others (including me) that though we may want more from others, (or sometimes ourselves) that we should understand that with few exceptions, we are all doing the best we can—or all that we’re presently capable of. And I would add my mother’s phrase…because we’re all a mess.

It’s the truth. Even those of us who look put together on the outside are a mess on the inside due to weakness, trials, past hurts and future fears. Even those of us who seem to do the outward commandments well struggle to bat .500 on the more internal commandments. And it goes the other way. People who seem to be a mess on the outside are not always the mess we assume them to be on the inside. Even those who may not seem to do all the outward commandments well may be much better than we could ever be on the internal commandments.

We’re all a mess—in some way. We’re all—with few exceptions—doing the best we can, or all that we’re presently capable of, despite the fact that we’re a mess.

We all sin differently. We all try differently. Most of keep trying even when we struggle or fail.

My very wise mother and I recently talked in detail about a very popular scripture.

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to be believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Ne 25:23)

The problem with this scripture in the conversation of grace, is that it is horribly misunderstood and falsely interpreted. So many people beat themselves up day in and day out trying to earn grace by doing their “best,” hoping that it will be enough for God to accept so that He’ll do “the rest.” As if it’s solely a cause/effect relationship. It’s not.

This is not an accurate interpretation of this scripture—in this limited sense. The reason it is so inaccurately interpreted is because it is so often quoted out of context. Nephi goes on to talk about how he and his people keep “the law,” because it points them to Christ, “For this end was the law given…[to point us to Christ]” and “we keep the law because of the commandments” (2 Nephi 25:24-25, brackets added).

Two key doctrines here:

  1. The law of ordinances and covenants brings us to Christ and points us toward Him
  2. The commandments of God point us to Christ and help us obtain ordinances and covenants with God

Nowhere in these verses in the implication made that the law, or commandments, save us. Paul was right. The law, by itself, is dead (Galatians 2:21). It is Christ who saves us through grace. It is the law, ordinances, covenants, and commandments that bring us to Christ, point us toward Him, and help us become like Him—through grace. They have a purpose, just not the one we often think.

Do you keep your covenants perfectly? No, you’re a mess, remember? We all are. Do you keep every commandment perfectly? Of course you don’t. But, you are pretty much doing the best you can within your present capability, most of the time. So, if we had to do the “law” and “commandments” perfectly before God would save us or even help us, there would be no purpose to this life, or the atonement of Jesus Christ. It would be a silly system because there would be no chance for ultimate salvation and exaltation.

So, why did God allow us all to be such messes and yet give us a law asking us to not be a mess?

I take you to another frequently misquoted and possibly misunderstood scripture:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)

When most people read this scripture they say, “weaknesses.” And yet, it doesn’t say that. So, what’s the difference between the possible interpretations and doctrines to be found in this scripture by ensuring we read it as weakness and not weaknesses? Here’s one that I suggest may be helpful, after many years of discussions with my wise mother and husband.

In comparison to God, what is our greatest weakness? My answer to that is mortality. And, by mortality I mean the conditions necessary for us to have and maintain agency in this life. These mortal conditions are:

  1. Mother nature acts independently and indifferently to us. No mortal can control or gain favoritism from Mother nature.
  2. We can be hurt, or killed, (mentally, emotionally, and physically) by everything and everyone, including ourselves. The actions and reactions of every person on the earth impacts us (and nature).

Now, if we read this scripture with the word mortality in the place of weakness it reads quite a bit more powerfully (in my opinion):

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their mortality. I give unto men mortality that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make mortal things become strong unto them.

So, what’s the big deal?

Well, we’re all a mess because we’re mortal. God didn’t give us specific weaknesses. He didn’t make some people blind and some lame and some short and some fat. But, He did give us mortality, which in its indifferent state (which is necessary to maintain our agency and power to choose and be fully accountable) brought about the individual weaknesses we all suffer. Did God know which weaknesses mortality would bring upon us? Yes. But that is not the same thing as handpicking weaknesses for us. And for me, that has incredible impact on my ability to trust and have faith in God. And to understand both His plan for me and His over-arching plan for us all.

God didn’t purposefully choose for me to bust out my two front teeth in fourth grade (right after getting my permanent teeth). But, He did make me mortal which meant my teeth were capable of being busted out by sufficient impact with asphalt. Will I get them back someday in the resurrection? Yes. But that moment is not now and so it’s a huge physical weakness. I’m always worried about my dental work. That song All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth is often one I sing in my head. No joke.

God gave us mortality so that we could progress in His ultimate plan for us to become like Him. Mortality is a gift. But, it is also our primary weakness. We can’t prevent eventual death. We can’t prevent natural disasters. We can’t prevent all the symptoms and results of most diseases. We can’t predict genetic mutations (due to nature and our independently functioning DNA). We can’t go in and reprogram our bodies. There is so much about mortality that leaves us weak. It is in this weak state that mortal things, mortal problems bring about myriads of weaknesses (plural here). Thus, we are all a mess so that we can humble ourselves and submit to the godly learning process.

No matter our mortal things, we can become strong in Christ—through grace. That is what God is saying—at least to me.

Now, the last thing my mother and I talked about recently, was what has come to her. And, for her, she words 2 Nephi 25:23 a little bit differently to reflect this understanding about the grace we all constantly receive because we really all are doing the best we can. She words that final phrase like this:

It’s by grace we are saved after all the obedience we are capable of.

This really rings true as we consider God’s own words about the innocence of children. He does not say they cannot be taught to repent and to keep His commandments, but He is very clear that their accountability is dependent upon their ability to commit sin.

So it goes with us all. Each of us has differing levels of capability, knowledge, instruction, etc. God, through grace, not only enables us to obey Him—when we desire to do so—He slowly perfects us and increases our capability to obey as we try. This is what some people misunderstand. They procrastinate obeying or only partially obey because they don’t feel they can, or can’t maintain it. Not knowing that the effort made will be amplified by grace and increase their capacity to obey over time. Covenants and obedience to God are how we receive more grace and power to become like Him. It’s a beautiful system…all powered by grace.

Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin… Behold baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins… For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent… (Moroni 8:10-11, 22)

People forget that sin is rebellion. I’m not saying we shouldn’t repent of transgressions, omissions, or mistakes. But it is quite a different thing to truly desire goodness and react unfavorably to stress, provocation, and trials than it is to purposefully and knowingly act out against God and others. Obviously, we still need to recognize these transgression and work to be more godly. But because we are all a mess, God accepts even our weakest efforts. He knows we are always doing pretty much the best we can, or what we are presently capable of. And He consistently offers to increase that capability through His grace.

Now, lest anyone panic and think that people can become like God without ever becoming accountable. Simply remember God’s mandate to preach the gospel to both the living and the dead. Eventually all must be taught and become accountable, because we cannot be saved in ignorance (D&C 131:6; 136:32).

Double exposure of beautiful thoughtful girl portrait and colorful flowers

My final thought on this scripture (2 Nephi 25:23) is tearing apart the word AFTER.

Some definitions of the word AFTER that I particularly like to place in this scripture are:

In pursuit of or in quest of; behind; next to or following in order of importance.

Now, let’s put this all together:

It is by grace that we are saved in pursuit of or in quest of all the obedience that we are capable of.

OR

It is by grace that we are saved following in order of importance of all the obedience we are capable of

Aren’t these cool! We are all in pursuit (or have been given the opportunity to pursue) godhood. To be even as He is, joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). Grace saves us while we are in this pursuit of learning to reach the level of obedience of God!

Or, grace follows in importance our obedience. Why is obedience first? Because it is an act of will, of agency. God won’t force anything on us—not even His grace. We must choose it. Obedience points us to Christ, as Nephi so clearly points out in 2 Nephi 25:24-25. Obedience is not how we earn grace. It’s how we say “Yes,” to increasing portions and levels of grace. God has far more grace to offer, more power to offer, as we desire to increase our capability to obey—and become godly. Thus, we must first accept—through the obedience we are capable of—before we can receive more grace, and more grace, until our capability to obey reaches that godly fullness, or perfect day (D&C 93:19-20; 50:24).

So, yes, we’re all a mess. But, if we really are all doing the best we can, or offering all the obedience we are presently capable of, then God will not only remit our sins, He will give us more grace and increase our power and  capability to obey. It’s such a beautiful thing.

BT

Doctrine: There is a difference between doing good and becoming good. We cannot truly become good, or as God is, until our motivation for doing so transcends expected, or even perceived rewards and blessings. Our sole motivation has to be personal peace. When we gain control of ourselves, instead of trying to control everything else, we are closer to “becoming” than we ever dreamed possible. This is spiritual independence.

  • How many of your words and actions, each day, are based upon your reaction to the words and actions of others?
  • How many of your words and actions, each day, are based upon aspects of life that are outside of your control?
  • What was the most recent thing you said, or did, in reaction to life, that you felt justified in doing, but which didn’t make you feel happy or peaceful afterward? It might even have made you feel worse-even though you were justified.
  • Finally, how much of what you do is because it’s a commandment with an expected or perceived blessing?

In the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, Christ gave sermons which we often call the beatitudes or the sermon on the mount. We often assume that the word “beatitudes” means BE ATTITUDES. But, the term beatitude is not English. It’s  a term adapted from the Latin: beatitudo, a noun meaning “state of blessedness.”

In other words, a beatitude is a “state or condition of being that results in blessedness.”

If you read the sermon on the mount, you’ll note that Christ doesn’t give instructions on how to “do” the beatitudes. He merely states in many different ways, “blessed are they who <blank> for they shall <blank>.” He seems to be implying that some blessings are not simply achieved by going through the motions or checking something off a list. Indeed, He makes it quite clear that some Christlike characteristics cannot be earned and that the blessed results are simply that: a natural result of becoming or embodying that attribute.

It is true that doing does lead to becoming IF our motivation becomes pure. So, let me restate that: the blessedness that accompanies each beatitude is a natural result of the person not simply doing certain actions, but becoming or embodying that Christlike attribute. It comes naturally to them. It IS who they are. They don’t have to sit down and think about BEING in these states. They simply are them and the natural blessedness results. For example, Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

So, what is the difference in doing righteous actions in expectation of receiving a blessing or actually becoming, or embodying a Christlike attribute and blessedness following as an natural result?

BECOMING = ACTIONS ARE INDEPENDENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS, INCITING SITUATIONS, OTHERS’ ACTIONS, AND INFLUENCES.

When we act based upon who we want to be and not based upon what we think such actions will bring us, our actions become independent. They become fully ours in a deep and inexplicable way. Such actions then become able to be assimilated into our very being because the full power of our choice is behind them. We become literally spiritually independent.

Note: I said the full power of our choice is behind them. No one is bribing or persuading us to do such choices. No one is promising to behave a certain way if we act a certain way. We are giving all that we are to a choice that is not motivated by anything other than personal peace and conviction. Our action is fully independent of anyone or anything (even God, in a sense).

DOING = ACTIONS ARE VARIABLE AND BASED ON A PERCEIVED REWARD, BLESSING, OR OUTCOME FOR OURSELVES, OR AN EXPECTED ACTION OR RESULT FROM OTHERS (OR GOD).

To act in the pursuit of a reward is not evil. It is a beginning grace. But, it is not sustainable. We must grow from grace to grace (D&C 93:11-20).

If we are going through the motions, and reacting to our environment based on perceived outcomes and expectations; then we will continue to alter our actions and words in an attempt to arrive at a certain, desired result. We will act to feel justified. We will act expecting others to change or alter their actions toward us. We will act expecting a certain blessing or spiritual result within a certain time frame or during particularly rough parts of our lives.

This type of action does not have sufficient power to help us become godly because the full power of our agency is not behind it. It is still dependent on some other factor. We have not committed to behaviors for the best reason, only for a good reason. And, ultimately, we are willing to alter our actions if a better reward is offered or if the expected or perceived blessing goes unmet (or delayed). Thus, we do not become, and we cannot be trusted to remain the same. We are changeable, and as such are not able to merit the natural results of blessedness that accompany becoming like Christ.

The problem with this kind of thought-process determining our actions is that it often leads to despair, spiritual temper tantrums, unrighteous dominion, and agnosticism.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf said in the recent General Women’s session of conference about the Authentic Disciple:

She lived joyfully not because her circumstances were joyful but because she was joyful.

He also said:

We are responsible for our own discipleship, and it has little—if anything—to do with the way others treat us. We obviously hope that they will be understanding and charitable in return, but our love for them is independent of their feelings toward us.

He goes on to say:

There may be many things about life that are beyond your control. But in the end you have the power to choose both your destination and many of your experiences along the way.

A few years back I read a book called The Story of Utopias. And, I found it incredibly interesting. Not because of the many different kinds of utopias that people had envisioned over the years. But because they all had the exact same flaw. They all wanted to create a perfect society and then place people in it, assuming that the perfection of the society would then make the people perfect by default. They expected that people going through the motions of their perfectly planned society would indeed create a perfect society. But, as the author (Lewis Mumford) pointed out, human nature was never a factor in any of their experiments. The one problem none of them could solve was creating the kind of human that could live happily and contentedly in that perfect society on a consistent basis; that wouldn’t eventually rebel, leave, or coup.

It occurred to me when I finished the book that, in a sense, this is the flaw God has conquered with the plan of salvation. He doesn’t give us a kingdom of glory and hope that we’ll conform to it. He asks us to become the type of person who will be happy in His kingdom. We become, and the blessedness of celestial glory is a natural result.

And then, if we do not ultimately find peace and joy in becoming as He is (independent of all other perceived rewards and outcomes), He has provided other kingdoms in which many of us will feel comfortable—because such a kingdom will correspond to the type of person we have actually become. It will be the natural result.

I find it interesting that the scriptures say, “God IS love.” They don’t say, “God does love perfectly.” They say, “God IS the same yesterday, today, and forever.” They don’t say, “God goes through the same motions yesterday, today, and forever.” God doesn’t have to run through a checklist of righteous actions each day to make sure He remains God and remains perfect. He doesn’t have to remind Himself to BE a certain way because He has BECOME a certain way. It is NATURAL TO HIM. He is in a constant state of blessedness because of what He has become.

Concept Development and hidden features. Paper Boat which casts

My Experience With Learning How to Find the Power to Become

So, I’m the mother of a toddler, and, as each of you know, toddlers can try even the most saintly of individuals. A few months back, I increasingly found that I based my actions on the results I wanted from my daughter. I wanted her to do certain things and so I kept altering my methods in order to get her to act how I wanted. After months of struggles, I realized I wasn’t making any progress in becoming more loving, kind, patient, and a host of other Christlike attributes. I felt, in fact, that I was digressing at a rather alarming rate.

As time went on, other expectations in my life and blessings seemed to be either denied or delayed beyond what I felt both emotionally and mentally was possible for me to continue to endure. I was trying to be righteous because that was what I wanted to be, but also, still much of my motivation was fueled by the idea of future blessings and relief–none of which seemed remotely close to being fulfilled. Adding this all together, I passed several rather wretched days and nights. I’m sorry to confess that my actions during this time continued to reflect my desire and expectation to see certain results not only in my daughter, but from my poor husband, and especially from God. I was acting in ways that I thought would force God’s hand and make Him do what I was expecting. Becoming godly was not on the top of my mind. I was merely trying to exert control on my environment and “get what I wanted.”

On the third morning, I recognized, somewhat blearily, that my actions were not going to bring about any of what I desired—especially not peace. I remember pouring my daughter some cereal and making an effort to be patient and kind with her sweet little soul. It was in that moment that the thought occurred to me, “This is not the kind of person I want to be and it’s not working. It’s not forcing God’s hand. It’s not helping my toddler act how I want. It’s not helping my husband. It’s not helping me. And, even if none of them ever do what I want, and even if God never blesses me how I want or expect, I cannot be happy this way. This is not who I want to be. I want to be kind, patient, loving, etc. because that’s who I am, not based on what I think will happen, or what even could happen. I want who I am to be independent of my circumstances.

It wasn’t a literal pillar of light. But, it was a spiritual pillar of light that has changed my life. It has been so freeing! I thought I had to gain control by controlling the uncontrollable things in my life. It turns out, the way to gain control and peace was to gain control of myself. To decide who I wanted to be and to BE that, regardless of every other external factor. I don’t know if God would call my current state of being “blessed,” but I certainly feel empowered to become godly where before it seemed far more impossible.

By deciding who I want to be and mentally removing all other variables (aside from myself). Becoming is all of the sudden quite possible! I have always been spiritually independent. But, now that I know it, I can finally make use of it.

This, I believe, is what Christ meant when He taught the beatitudes. There are natural results that come from BEING godly. We simply have to decide who we want to be and practice being it. We have to own our issues and alter then independent of all other factors. Then will we find the power to actually become blessed and receive the natural result of that blessedness.

WE HAVE THE POWER TO BECOME. 

BT

How often have you thought you wanted something only to find that after having it, it didn’t bring with it the impact or delight you had expected? Yet, somehow, prior to possessing the thing, you were convinced, even certain, that it was going to delight you far beyond the present moment and affect all the threads of your life. Then, it simply fell short. So, you have to ask yourself, why did you think that to begin with? How come you didn’t know that it would fall short; that it would fail you?

How often do people pursue a certain college degree and a specific career, only to find shortly in that they hate what they do and money isn’t a sufficient draw. They’d rather do what they love for a far lesser paycheck than do what they hate for the big bucks. Why did they go into the original degree and career path in the first place? Why did they waste all that time and money in the wrong path? Because they thought that was what they wanted. It took experience for them to realize it wasn’t.

I could make an endless list of scenarios where our expectations about ourselves and life continually throw us for a loop. But, it all boils down to the main point of this blog.  And that is this…

There comes a time in our lives when we start to realize, a little at a time, that many of the things we supposed about ourselves aren’t actually true. We thought we loved being the life of the party only to realize now that in all actuality, it has always worn us out. We thought we hated sappy romance novels only to realize after finally buckling down and reading one recommended by a friend, that we like them better than the crime thrillers we have read for years. Or, perhaps we thought our dream life was living in a home on a lake or golf course and sailing around on a yacht, and now that we have those things, they are kind of cool, but they pale in comparison to eating out at the one favorite restaurant with our significant other and playing board games with our kids.

I remember the movie The Runaway Bride where the bride (Julia Roberts) kept running way from the altar. Why? Because when the long-awaited moment arrived she didn’t feel like she thought she should. It failed her expectations and assumptions despite all the glitz and glam. Yet, time after time she’d get proposed to, make it to the wedding day, and then she’d bolt. In the end, it came down to the fact that she was always trying to be the woman these men wanted because she thought that was the woman she was, or the woman she wanted to be. It wasn’t until she took some time to figure herself out that true love became possible.

And, this is the point of this blog. The gospel, the real deep down gospel, only becomes truly possible for us when we know who we really are and what we really want—for eternity.

God knows who we are and what we really want. But, in reality, we don’t. And I have always felt strongly that this life, God’s plan, is actually about us coming to a realization of what God already knows. Why did He send us down here, then, if we already knew? Isn’t that sort of unkind and unfair to put us through this often miserable mortal experience just for us to come to the same conclusion He’s already got?

Well, imagine the premortal world. We were God’s spiritual offspring, but we weren’t exactly as He is. He had godly qualities and attributes that we had not yet attained. And, in fact, we got to a point where we couldn’t progress to become like Him without this mortal existence.

It had to be frustrating, after progressing for eons, to suddenly come to a point where we couldn’t rise higher. So, God says to us, “Do you really want to become like me? It’s tough stuff. Sure, I have powers and capabilities you don’t have, but to be like this requires a lot of hard things.” Without a thought, “Ya, we want that,” we all said. Because we really thought we did. We didn’t have the experience to know ourselves any deeper. And, though most of us were inherently very good, we weren’t yet perfect. And, therefore, we were incapable of knowing ourselves perfectly. That was why we were no longer progressing.

Think about it: God could have said, “Cindy and Mark, you actually don’t want to be like me. I know you don’t realize that yet, but in reality, you both prefer to bowl and drink beer for eternity and would be much happier doing that, rather than to spend it creating worlds and working eternally to exalt your spiritual offspring.” Then, He could have turned to Cain and said, “Cain, you think you want to become like me, but once you’re down there you’re going to murder your younger brother out of jealously and greed and then be damned for all eternity.” Then, He could have turned to all of us and said, “So, as you can see, rather than put you all through this whole testing and proving thing, I’m just going to consign you to your eternal destinations because I know you better than you know yourself.”

No longer sounds loving, does it. And it wouldn’t have been because we would not have had the ability to know if He was being fair to us. To us, it would have sounded unkind and unloving because we would have truly believed we wanted to be like God, and no amount of God telling us otherwise would have solved our lack of knowledge, understanding, and experience.

No, it is far more loving to bring us down to this life and let us learn by experience to know the good from the evil; to let us learn from experience whether we prefer self-sacrifice or selfishness, whether we prefer keeping the Sabbath Day holy or playing golf, whether we prefer to be perceived as right or actually doing what’s right despite others’ perceptions, etc. Because then, when we stand before God at the judgment we won’t be offended, or even sorry, when He sends us off to play golf for eternity, because we will know that we prefer that over the other options available to us. We learned from our own experience who we are and what we really want for eternity. There won’t be any bartering for a higher glory, because we won’t want it. By experience we will come to know that we don’t want it…or that we do.

Allowing us to learn the truth about ourselves for ourselves—that is true love. And, it’s not easy.

.photo with a man and a questionmark mask

I get a little annoyed at times when I hear people talk about how God is testing them to see if they can get back home to Him. First of all, they forget that it’s not just about getting home to God, it’s about becoming like Him. There is a big difference. Second, saying, “God is testing me to see if I can get back home to Him,” makes God’s character sound untrustworthy—as if He’s up there treating us like white lab rats, sending us through mazes, all just to see, through some morbid curiosity what choices we’ll make and if we’ll make it. No, sorry. I simply dislike that wording and what it implies about God. That’s not the God I know.

So, it’s fairly simple.

God knows us better than we will ever know ourselves. Why? He knows everything, past, present, and future. (2 Nephi 9:20)

Then, that’s predestination, right? That means He knows who going to make it (to become like Him) and who’s not, right? Yes. He sure does.

Well, then that totally refutes my agency, doesn’t it? I mean, what’s the purpose of life if God already knows what I’m going to choose? Good question. Keep reading.

If this life is about God testing me, doesn’t God’s omniscience cancel out the test? Great question. No.

This life is not about God testing us for His knowledge and benefit. The word “testing” is shallow and insufficient to encompass the purpose of God’s plan. It implies merely ticking off right answers. The real purpose of life is for us to be “proved” (Abraham 3:25 which implies providing evidence or real life data), to learn by experience who we are what it is we are going to choose. God knows, but we don’t. And, because we don’t truly know ourselves this existence is entirely valid, no matter what God knows. It’s also why He doesn’t interfere, because it’s not about having a perfect world. It’s about us “becoming godly” nor choosing to not become godly. The atonement has taken care of all the rest.

So, now you may ask:

But, if God knows what I’m going to do, does that mean He refuses to bless me because He knows in 10 years I’m going to apostatize and fall away from His plan? No.

God is bound to bless us if we keep His commandments irrespective of past or future sin (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10; 130:20-21). If He deviated from that law He would cease to be God. This is why being a god is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to be bound so tightly by law and covenant (see previous blog post, God’s Power is Not Absolute). So, no matter what you have done or what you will do, God will bless you when you keep His commandments. The same applies to the opposite. No matter how righteous you’ve been or how righteous you may be some day, you will still lose blessings and suffer consequences if you sin now. That’s God’s eternal law.

So, when I imagine the premortal life this is what I see.

We knew God was the father of our spirits. We also realized that He was God. And, He was a bit different from us in a few important ways. He had a glorified, celestial body of flesh and bones. We didn’t. He had an eternal family unit (including an eternal marriage with a glorified, celestial woman). We were only children. We did not have spouses and children. And, while we were basically good, God was perfect. He was perfectly kind, loving, merciful, just, etc. We were not. Finally, while we had some power, God’s power to influence not only His environment, but the entire universe was infinitely greater than ours (except perhaps when we acted under His direction—and thereby His power and authority, not so much unlike this present life).

So, it stands to reason that we all wanted to be “like God, our Father,” or we thought we did. So, God presented a plan. That plan was “how to become like God.” But it was also, “how to determine if becoming like God is what you really want.”

Why do we have to go through a plan? Because being 100% like God is super-duper hard. It requires being bound by covenant and law. It requires all the traits God has that we yet do not have. It’s a worthy goal and we can do it IF we follow God’s plan and use this “proving environment” to become; which it is designed to help us do.

However, IF, while we’re down here in this proving environment, we learn for ourselves that while being exactly like God sounds great, it isn’t actually what we want (something we didn’t know previously); then, His plan provides for some alternative glories. Which, is actually pretty cool!

Before we came to this life, becoming like God sounded great. We knew it would be hard. But, we believed we wanted it. However, now that we are here, we—by our own jaunt through God’s godly proving environment—learn for ourselves if being like God is truly what we do want. So, again, the testing and proving isn’t really for God. It’s for us. Or, at least, that’s my opinion.

And, if this life is about getting to know ourselves. Then, it means it’s entire framework is meant to help us conquer our false assumptions and get to the crux of what really rules our hearts and minds. It means learning through trial and suffering to peel back our outer shells and take a gander at who we really are, what we really want, what we are really willing to do, what we are really willing to sacrifice, and IF that matches up with what it requires to become like God.

I feel that when we think about life this way, it makes so much more sense. It stops looking like some masochistic game on God’s part and all of the sudden looks like a sifting sieve. That sieve has three main tiers (scripturally). Some people are ultimately too “coarse” to fall through the telestial sieve onto the terrestrial sieve. And, though refined enough to get to the terrestrial sieve, many more are too coarse to make it down to the celestial sieve. Even fewer will be refined enough to make it to the actual “like God” tray at the bottom of the mortality sifting machine.

It still means we teach the ideal—to become like God. But, it also means we have more respect for individual agency. It means we allow people the same privilege to worship how, where, or what they may (11th Article of Faith). It means we don’t condemn others when they seem to be choosing another path than the one God would want them to choose. Because, that is the point of this life. If the path they are on doesn’t lead them to godhood, then we should certainly encourage them to reconsider, but ultimately, they may learn more quickly that they want godhood if they first experience a different eternal option. Mortal experience is the most beautiful and powerful teacher in the universe. That’s why we’re here.

If we see life (and God’s plan) in the context of coming to know ourselves, it answers a lot of currently difficult or unanswered questions. For example:

Human pain and suffering seems too cold and indifferent as a test for God to figure out what we’re made of. But, if we look at it as a test for us to see what we’re made of—for ourselves—and whether or not we’re up for godliness, it makes a ton of sense.

Why does God allow any human suffering? Because even if we suffer unfairly, it refines us and helps us have Godly sympathy. I mean, after all, who wants a God who doesn’t understand pain and suffering? He or she would make a very poor deity.

Why does God allow imperfect people to be His prophets, apostles, and other leaders? Because their service is as much about helping them to come to know themselves as it is about us coming to know ourselves. You see, it isn’t about perfection, it’s about grace.

Why does God not answer every question or fix every seeming contradiction in life, the scriptures, etc.? Because having all the answers is not what matters. It’s whether or not we are willing to exercise faith—the faith necessary unto eternal salvation—and trust in what we do know. Consequently, when the answers are made clear our own knowledge of our own power, capability, and righteousness is strengthened and solidified!  Thus, we learn the truth of principles by experience prior to being told them. It works best that way!

Think of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac! That was a psychotic request IF it was for God’s benefit. But, if it was for Abraham’s knowledge of himself (and Isaac’s knowledge of himself), then it makes perfect sense. God said to Abraham, “Now I know that thou fearest God…” and yet what He meant is, “Now Thou knowest that thou fearest God…” Hugh B. Brown said: “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham” (Five Scriptures that will Get You Through Anything).

Consider for yourself: what do you know about yourself but keep pretending you don’t know? What did you learn about yourself in your last trial or struggle? Or, what are you learning currently in a trial or struggle? What weaknesses and struggles have you overcome to date that have changed your for the better as a person? Have you given yourself that chance to try to live up to God’s covenants and laws? Do you yet know if you want to become like Him? Or, are you still in suspense about your own ability to be faithful and godly because you’re afraid to try? Do you know, as Abraham came to know, “That thou fearest God, seeing thou has not withheld thy <fill in the blank>”

For more on this line of pondering, see previous blog post The Solution to Utopia.

BT

Doctrine: Free will has one specific goal and purpose: God’s desire to help us become like Him and to have all that He has. It allows us to decide, and ultimately prove to ourselves (through experience), if we desire what God desires for us. To enable its purpose, free will (agency) has set conditions; which if we try to obscure or alter (superficially) results only in misery and suffering. Moral agency may be the highest law of heaven because it has sponsored the greatest applications of God’s love: His plan for us to gain access to His life and power, and the atonement performed by Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

Agency, i.e. free will, is one of those doctrines that many people believe they understand. And yet, I find that they understand it very little. Some think free will means no law, no guidelines, no rules, no restrictions and no consequences. Others believe laws, commands, rules, and consequences are necessary but then they use unrighteous dominion and fear to enforce them.

These are extremes, but many of us struggle to find the middle ground and thereby fail to understand our own moral agency and how to treat others as moral agents. Because we don’t grasp the doctrines behind agency we end up frequently misapplying it. We adopt false doctrines that guide our behaviors and impact our relationships. But, there is a correct place to sit along the spectrum of communication and treatment of others. And, it all comes down to understanding Moral Agency.

Moral Agency is the product of one specific goal or purpose: God’s desire to help us become like Him and to have all that He has. Our agency is a gift from Him. Moral Agency is what allows us to decide, and ultimately prove to ourselves (through experience), if we desire what God desires for us. That’s its purpose.

In order to preserve the purpose of God’s gift or Moral Agency, we need several conditions in place These conditions allow us to have free will and exercise to figure out if we want to become like God:

  1. Law defining right and wrong choices that will lead us toward godhood or away from it; and the blessings and consequences that accompany those right and wrong choices
  2. Knowledge of good and evil (established by the law) communicated to us and taught to us
  3. Enticements to do good and enticements to do evil (marketing from God and Satan)
  4. Ability for our actions to have tangible impact, or in other words, the mortal conditions (of pain and joy) that make our choices matter (this is not a simulation or a video game)
  5. Sufficient autonomy to act without interference (this includes the environment/world and even God, Himself out of our immediate presence)
  6. Ability to learn from mistakes and sins without being condemned by those mistakes and sins when we learn to do otherwise

I don’t have the luxury of going into great detail on these items without writing a book. But, suffice it to say, if God removed one of the above items, our agency would become null and void; of which the final consequence would be that our choices wouldn’t matter. And, if our choices don’t matter this life becomes pointless. If our choices don’t matter, they lose power to damn us or exalt us. No agency = an eternal limbo without sorrow but also without joy. No agency = the state of constant suspense with no hope of any fulfillment. Yuck.

God has established a world where we have true agency (Abraham 3:24-28). And, He never changes the above conditions. Agency has the power to help us become like God. Preserving agency is the truest form of love God can give us. And, it is the primary reason there was a need for an infinite atonement. The atonement allows us to exercise our agency in the godly learning process without being condemned by that process. Thus, moral agency may be the highest law of heaven because it has sponsored the greatest applications of God’s love: His plan for us to gain access to His life and power, and the atonement performed by Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

So, here we are. And, purposefully, life isn’t ever fair or idyllic. We have marriages suffering. We have parent-child relationships suffering. We have sibling relationships suffering. We have friendships suffering. We even have cultural and societal relationships suffering. And, they are all suffering because of the lack of understanding of God’s plan and the conditions of Moral Agency.

Neal A. Maxwell said (The Great Plan of the Eternal God, 1984):

So vital is this framework [of God’s plan] that if one stays or strays outside it, he risks provinciality and misery. In fact, most human misery represents ignorance of or noncompliance with the plan. A cessation of such mortal suffering will not come without compliance to it [the plan]. Hence, the Lord, who has freely shared this vital knowledge with us, has urged us to teach the fundamentals of this plan “freely.” (Moses 6:58)

So, let’s look at the issues that happen when we fail to teach the fundamentals of Moral Agency and its critical purpose in God’s plan. If we superficially change even one of the conditions, all sorts of extra misery and suffering results.volunteers with hands up

First, society keeps trying to change the law defining what is right and wrong in order to remove guilt and the idea of moral consequences. But, all removing such law does is prevent people from taking the time out to see if they want to become godly or not. Changing the societal law doesn’t actually change God’s law or the very real and inescapable moral consequences (both immediate and eternal). It only keeps people from understanding why they are here on earth and deciding if they want to be like their Heavenly Father or not.

Second, a lot of religious people do more than enough instructing and informing their children on godly laws and yet fail to also inform and instruct their children about the “other side,” accurately. They apply blind generalities that canvass the real experiences of sin thinking it will prevent their children from experimenting with evil. And, they do so because they are worried their children will be more curious if they are more informed. Yet, what they accomplish is removing the power their children need to make an educated and accurate choice.  It’s difficult to make a honest choice without honest information. They are too worried (and afraid) about what their children will do rather than trusting them with all the information so they can determine the true desires of their own hearts.

These parents give the knowledge of good (in detail) and then only the knowledge of bad (in generalities and statements/threats using fear) and believe that this will keep their children from choosing the evil. However, what this well-intentioned plan does is leave children blind to their own hearts and desires until they are truly confronted with the sin. Then, when actually confronted with sin’s enticements and realities they are unprepared to fight it properly. They don’t know their own hearts and so they are more likely to succumb to such sin. If not in their youth (while at home) then possibly later when out of their parents’ purviews.

Knowledge increases the power of agency. And, relationships that are managed by the withholding of knowledge are those in which one party does not have a true testimony of the atonement, its accompanying grace, or God’s actual plan. In Alma 12:32 we read:

Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption, that they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second death, which was an everlasting death as to things pertaining unto righteousness; for on such the plan of redemption could have no power, for the works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God.

In this verse we can see that God didn’t give rules, guidelines, or commandments until AFTER expounding to Adam and Eve the fullness of the plan. I’m pretty sure God was thorough with His information. Yet, so often we give rules and commands without helping our children to understand the purpose of the rule and the full, detailed information of why breaking said rules will hinder their progress in God’s plan.

Third, Some of us are afraid of being too religiously pushy. Thus we err by eliminating proper and godly enticements and invitations to do good in order to not “impose” upon another’s free will. All the while Satan’s side has no qualms about imposing and inundating all of us with enticements and invitations to do evil. Thereby, our reluctance to invite and entice leaves our beloved ones overwhelmed by all the wrong propaganda. Now, granted, if we entice or invite in ways that stifle moral agency, such as: using fear tactics, coercion, manipulation, guilt trips, etc., then obviously we need to learn to entice and invite as God does. But then we should do it! By eliminating enticements to do good we decrease the power of an another’s agency because they have little chance of choosing the right because they are unaware of it or have forgotten it.

Fourth, some people, albeit understandably, would like to remove all the pain and suffering from the world. And, I don’t blame them. But, unfortunately (and fortunately) pain and suffering (all of it) is what makes this life and our choices matter.

Think about it. A tornado strikes. You can get mad at God for letting the tornado strike and deprive people of their homes (and possibly their lives), or you can gain peace in the fact that it generates an opportunity for Christlike service, gratitude, perseverance, sacrifice, long-suffering, etc…(all godly attributes). Take away the calamity and you take away the refining conditions it provides. As well, Christ has overcome death. Death is tragic, but it is not permanent. Such an event should arouse our relief and gratitude that God has already, in a past sense, reversed the calamity.

Or, a woman has an abusive husband. After years of verbal and physical abuse she finally gets out. Was the whole experience a total loss? No. First, because the atonement will eventually completely heal all of her mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds. Second, it’s not a loss because she will understand Christ’s suffering better than most—innocent suffering. And by understanding Christ she will feel greater love for Him and have a chance to draw closer to Him and become like Him. Third, she will be able to entice others to get out of their abusive situations sooner than she did. She will be able to counsel them, comfort them, and understand their struggles. Her own experience has granted her power to become a Savior of others.

There is deep doctrine attached to all suffering. Suffering makes wrong choices wrong and also means that justice has to be paid. And, though Christ paid for all wrong choices, for those who don’t repent, they will eventually have to suffer, even as Christ did, because the ability to be hurt and to hurt others makes the hurt they caused matter; and it’s what makes it necessary for them to pay for it if they do not repent. (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19)

Fifth, and finally, people want God to step in and stop all suffering. They want Him to interfere and remove our necessary autonomy…especially in major crimes and catastrophic suffering. Little do they realize that removing the impact of choice removes the reality of choice. God can’t condemn those who sin if He stops them from sinning and removes the impact of their choices. And, if He steps in to stop a murder then He must also step in and stop you from gossiping, committing adultery, and other sins. There is no middle ground. Either we are allowed to condemn ourselves by our actions (and access grace by our actions) or we are not. And, if we are not allowed to choose and be impacted then there is no need for an atonement. (Alma 14:10-11; Alma 60:13; Helaman 14:29; 1 Nephi 18:11; Doctrine and Covenants 136:39)

Additionally, removing the negative also removes the positive. If the impact of choice is removed or preempted, then the good we do won’t matter either. If only the good matters and not the evil then there is no true free will (because we only have one choice) and there is zero power to become godly—which, do not forget, is the whole purpose of being here on this earth under these conditions and circumstances in the first place.

The atonement of Christ did not take place to remove all suffering. It took place to pay justice for the suffering we would all experience for all the various variables (conditions of morality) that cause suffering. It took place to bring us back into the presence of God, so that we don’t have to remain out of His presence forever—if we repent. It took place to resurrect us and get us out of these fragile and corrupted mortal bodies after using them to learn to become godly, or not. The atonement took place to give us the chance to learn to become godly (which requires agency) while also ultimately allowing us to change, repent, and improve. Without the atonement there is no agency and there is no plan and this life would never have happened.

As a last note, I have to mention that many Latter-day Saints take to heart the command found in Doctrine and Covenants 68:25-29. And yet, they subconsciously and inadvertently change the word “teach” to “coerce, threaten, manipulate, guilt, shame, or force.” God commands us to “teach” not to exercise unrighteous dominion. He commands us to “persuade,” not to threaten (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-46).

People who struggle with this tendency to change the meaning of the word “teach” to “coerce…” need to ask themselves, “What does a teacher do? How do they help their class master a topic? How does a teacher encourage application? How does a teacher determine the level of understanding students have and their ability to apply that information and understanding?” As parents, are we teachers or taskmasters? Just food for thought, here.

So, as we consider how to treat people with love, and as moral agents, we need to be certain we maintain the conditions of agency (i.e. God’s love) (as listed above). As well, a study of Christ’s ministry and His treatment of people in the scriptures will reveal many principles and applications for “how” to apply our knowledge of true Moral Agency. If we are prayerful about our scripture study and want to know how to treat others as moral agents and invite and entice them to come unto Christ, then we will find guidance in abundance.

BT

Doctrine: There are two things faith cannot do: it cannot violate another person’s agency, and it can’t force our will upon God. Agency is the preeminent doctrine of heaven and earth–it cannot be overthrown. Covenants can only secure/bind us individually to God when we keep them. Our kept covenants cannot bind others to God. Sealing covenants bind eternally only those family members who keep their covenants.

The Abrahamic Covenant. It’s something most Latter-day Saints have barely thought about, let alone studied. It’s something they’ve heard bits and pieces of and like to quote ideals from; but they have no idea of the context of what they are quoting. And, most often, this covenant is misunderstood in regard to wayward family members.

Next, Agency. It’s another thing Latter-day Saints claim to understand—better than most, even. And yet, they only understand it as far as they like it. The parts of agency they don’t like, they disdain, ignore, or push away and purposefully remain ignorant of. And, the one place people like to pretend they can remain ignorant is in regard to wayward family members.

The word “wayward” means: difficult to control or predict because of disobedient behavior, having turned, or turning away from what is right or proper, etc.

Now, when I say “wayward,” I mean the children, or grandchildren, or other descendant posterity (from a man and woman who have been sealed in the temple and who are bound by the Abrahamic Covenant i.e. the New and Everlasting Covenant) who have rejected the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, gone inactive from it, or who even actively fight against it.

So, what is the big misunderstanding? Many people who have been sealed in the temple falsely believe that if they (meaning the two of them) keep their sealing covenant and are faithful, that their wayward children will be forced by God to someday repent and “make it” to the celestial kingdom. And, they think that this will happen because of the Abrahamic Covenant by which they are bound. They mistakenly believe that their covenant with God will save their children despite the actions of their children. [See Elder Bednar quote and reference at the end of this blog post for the reason many people have strayed into this belief.]Bored Teenage Girl Being Told Off By Mother

It’s the hard truth, but this is simply not the case. It can’t be the case because it is contrary to all the foundational doctrine upon which the gospel is founded—upon which this life is founded. In Doctrine and Covenants 82:10 and 132:21 teach quite clearly that kept covenants are what bind us to God and give us access to His fullness. We cannot bind others to God by our kept covenants (Matthew 25:1-12). They must make and keep their own.

So, not only is this mistaken belief not part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but it totally goes against the whole plan of salvation which is designed to allow, encourage, and protect agency. God makes no covenant with any of His children which overrides the agency of any of His other children. If agency was that easily sidestepped then the Atonement of Jesus Christ would never have been necessary, or God’s plan, for that matter.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently taught in his October 2016 General Conference address, Fourth Floor Last Door:

Faith is powerful, and often it does result in miracles. But no matter how much faith we have, there are two things faith cannot do. For one, it cannot violate another person’s agency.

One woman prayed for years that her wayward daughter would return to the fold of Christ and felt discouraged that her prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. This was especially painful when she heard stories of other prodigal children who had repented of their ways.

The problem was not a lack of prayers or a shortage of faith. She needed only to understand that, as painful as it might be for our Father in Heaven, He will not force anyone to choose the path of righteousness. God did not force His own children to follow Him in the premortal world. How much less will He force us now as we journey through this mortal life?

God will invite, persuade. God will reach out tirelessly with love and inspiration and encouragement. But God will never compel—that would undermine His great plan for our eternal growth.

The second thing faith cannot do is force our will upon God. We cannot force God to comply with our desires—no matter how right we think we are or how sincerely we pray. Consider the experience of Paul, who pleaded with the Lord multiple times for relief from a personal trial—what he called “a thorn in the flesh.” But that was not God’s will. Eventually, Paul realized that his trial was a blessing, and he thanked God for not answering his prayers the way he had hoped.

Christ himself said to the Jews (the blood descendants of Abraham) who continued to reject Him (Matthew 3:8-9; JST Matthew 8:35-36):

Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Why is it that ye receive not the preaching of him whom God hath sent? If ye receive not this in your hearts, ye receive not me; and if ye receive not me, ye receive not him of whom I am sent to bear record; and for your sins ye have no cloak. Repent, therefore, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance; And think not to say within yourselves, We are the children of Abraham, and we only have power to bring seed unto our father Abraham; for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children into Abraham.

Christ declared that being of the literal blood of Abraham was not sufficient for salvation or Priesthood authority. The Jews had to also bring for fruits meet for repentance in order to fulfill their calling as God’s people.

So, what is the Abrahamic Covenant for if not to force people back to God?

The Abrahamic Covenant is THE COVENANT God made with Adam and Eve, and all the righteous who lived thereafter. It was renamed after Abraham because of his faithfulness. The Abrahamic Covenant contains many smaller covenants, promises, obligations, powers, and assignments; which, if undertaken will help us become like God. That is its sole purpose: TO BECOME LIKE GOD.Hipster girl with beanie hat showing attitude

The following covenants are all a part of the Abrahamic Covenant:

Baptismal covenant (Abraham 2:9-11)

In the baptismal covenant we agree to try to become like God by keeping His commandments, serving our fellow men, and sharing God’s plan with others. We accept the command to receive the Holy Ghost and live worthy of His companionship. By entering this covenant, we become the seed of Abraham (whether we are already blood descendants or not).

The Gift of the Holy Ghost covenant (Abraham 2:9-11)

When we enter the baptismal covenant we are commanded to receive the Holy Ghost. This power is the baptism of fire. Different from the power of the Holy Ghost, and the Light of Christ, the Gift of the Holy Ghost is what cleanses us and changes us—over time—into a godly being. As we exercise our agency to do good, the “fire” of the Holy Ghost is able to make permanent changes in our nature (like a blacksmith using a forge to heat metal and change it into something; the heat is necessary to create the malleability needed to make long-term change to the metal).

Priesthood Ordination covenant (Abraham 2:9, 11)

Both men and women act under the authority of the Priesthood of God. Therefore, the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood (found in Doctrine and Covenants 84:5-44) applies to all; especially endowed members (who have gone to the temple to receive “the fullness of the Priesthood”. We are to live by every word which proceedeth forth from the mouth of God. We are to receive, embrace, and keep our baptismal covenants and temple covenants.

Part of having access to the Priesthood is using it to spread the gospel and offer its saving ordinances to all mankind. This is one of the chief responsibilities of the Abrahamic Covenant—of God’s people. It is not just to preach the gospel, but to make available its saving ordinances to all. This is a responsibility and a command. It is not just a nice thing to do.

Endowment covenant (Abraham 1:2-4; 2:8-9)

A primary part of the Abrahamic Covenant is taking upon us deeper covenants to live in such a way that we can become like God. The endowment is not just about “living with God.” It’s about “becoming like God.”

The covenants that accompany the endowment are critical to us binding ourselves more firmly to God (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10) and His plan for His children, and for us. As we receive greater knowledge and power to be righteous and godly, we become “like God.”

Sealing covenant (Abraham 1:2-4; 2:8-9)

God promised Abraham eternal seed (family). This is what God has. If we want it also, we must enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. It doesn’t guarantee that all our children will be exalted. It does, however, guarantee that those of our children who keep their covenants with God will be bound to us forever, as we are bound to God by keeping His covenants.

Contrary to the generalized belief that most Latter-day Saints have, getting married in the temple is not “about them.” The sealing covenant is an individual covenant made with God to live worthy of having eternal family. It is a covenant made in the pursuit of receiving godly privileges. Even if one member of the marriage fails to keep their covenant, the covenant is still in force for the person who remains faithful. Those who take upon them the New and Everlasting Covenant agree to join God in His work and glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. That’s what the sealing covenant is!

This is the covenant that so many people think means God will force their posterity to repent and live the gospel. This is not the case. The sealing covenant, however, does provide something that often gets mistaken for God forcing people to give the gospel. What is it? Well, let me tell you.

In Jacob 5 we read the olive tree allegory. This allegory is long. Most people skip over reading it. They are overwhelmed by its symbolism. But, this allegory is a strong visual of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Throughout the allegory we see God do everything He can to get his olive trees (the primary tree being the House of Israel) to produce good fruit (or to be righteous). He takes wild (wicked) branches and grafts them into good (righteous) trees. He takes good branches and grafts them into wild trees. He takes good branches and plants them in different places and soil trying to preserve the righteousness of the tree they came from. He slowly prunes away wild branches trying to give those that remain a chance to turn good.

Back and forth, and back and forth, the Lord goes trying to save The House of Israel, the Covenant People, the Children of Abraham so that they might “salt/save” the rest of the vineyard. The House of Israel carries the responsibility to preach the gospel and carry the ordinances to all the rest of God’s children! So, the Lord promises, because of the covenant, that He will work extra hard to provide conditions for those “children of the covenant” to choose to fulfill their covenant responsibilities. But, He will not force them to change. He will merely go back and forth, back and forth, pruning, grafting, dunging, planting, etc. trying to get “His people” to keep their covenants and bless the lives of each other and the rest of His children.

“For of whom much is given, much is required (Doctrine and Covenants 82:3)” which is why the Lord works extra hard to make sure that those of us who have entered into, or who have been born into, His covenants, don’t end up with “greater condemnation.” This is also why He tries to encourage us to make those covenants only when we are prepared to embrace them. God’s covenants are not just membership in a church, or saying we want to be affiliated with the church. They are a firm contract between we and Him about our responsibility to do His will and learn to become like Him.

Divorce in the family
Divorce in the family, the husband leave the family

Now, let’s talk about agency.

In order to have agency we must have:

  1. Law defining right and wrong
  2. Opposing choices
  3. Opposing enticements
  4. Power to choose (to act and not be acted upon)
  5. Environment that does not interfere with choice

If we take away wrong choice in order to make things nice and to keep people from feeling bad, then we also take away right choice. Law defines both. Remove law, neither exists. Remove wrong, the other disappears also. So, we can’t say, “But, I love my son/daughter. I cannot imagine heaven without them. Even if they are unwilling to keep such and such commandment, surely God will still let them in—for my sake.” Not going to happen, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:13).

Notice God said He cannot look upon sin with the least “degree” of allowance. That’s why they are several “degrees” of glory. The degree of sin any of us is determined to hold onto, and not repent of, will also determine the degree of our glory (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15, 18-24, 33-39).

But, here’s something else to consider: if we love our children more than we love God…or if we love our version of God’s plan more than God’s version; so much so that we would force our children to live in a kingdom of glory they would not be prepared for, would not like, nor appreciate (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33), then perhaps we don’t really understand what degree of glory we really desire.

If our children don’t succumb to the pruning, grafting, dunging, etc.; if they don’t succumb or submit to the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost, then we cannot manipulate them into becoming godly. It’s terribly sad. It’s heartbreaking. But, that is simply not the plan. We cannot override their power of choice. God is the one who has given it to them, and who are we to try to fight against God?

If there is anyone out there who still struggles with this concept, please read, Faithful Parents and Wayward Children: Sustaining Hope While Overcoming Misunderstanding by Elder David A. Bednar.

But, here is one quote from it:

The statements by Joseph Smith and Orson F. Whitney are construed by some members of the Church to mean that wayward children unconditionally receive the blessings of salvation because of and through the faithfulness of parents. However, this interpretation is moderated by the fact that the most complete account of the Prophet’s sermon was not available to Church historians at the time they compiled an amalgamated version of his teachings from the notes of Willard Richards and William Clayton. In the more complete set of notes recorded by Howard and Martha Coray, Joseph Smith is shown to have qualified his statement to make the promised blessings conditional upon the obedience of the children:

“When a father and mother of a family have [been sealed], their children who have not transgressed are secured by the seal wherewith the Parents have been sealed. And this is the Oath of God unto our Father Abraham and this doctrine shall stand forever.”

So, I’m posting this blog, not to dash hopes. But, to hopefully influence the actions of those lovingly, but sadly, misdirected parents. Salvation is dependent upon our individual relationship with God (St. John 17:3; Matthew 25:12). We cannot make our children have a relationship with God. If they are to have His image in their countenances, then they must do their part to become like Him.

So, if you’re a parent and you’re trying desperately to be more righteous, in an unbalanced way, in order to save wayward posterity, then you are missing the point. You can’t be more righteous on their behalf. You can only be righteous on your own behalf.

So, what can you do?

You can focus your faith and your energy on what you can control. You can focus your faith and energy on helping them come to know God “through you” by showing charity, grace, and love to them where they are in their spiritual journey and no matter what degree of glory they choose. You can invite them to serve and love you and their family and friends. You can pray for opportunities to speak to them by the Spirit. You can focus on using your agency to invite (not manipulate or coerce) them to use theirs—to choose God.

You cannot visit the temple an extra ten times, or read your scriptures an extra fifteen minutes, or serve yourself into exhaustion in order to force the Lord to save your children despite their agency. What a useless burden to carry? How little trust in the Lord and His plan? How selfish to force our desires on others?

The beautiful thing about God’s plan is that we will all get exactly what we want. Sure, those of us with a testimony of what’s best will always mourn when others choose less than the sum that’s available to them. But, ultimately, we all end up exactly where we want. And that, alone, should give us peace.

Alma 29:4:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.

So many people have often said to me, “I wish I could do <fill in the blank> like you.” But, they don’t really want to. They think it would be nice to do <fill in the blank> without any practice, study, or effort. But, when it really comes down to it, they put the effort into the things they really want. And, if they wanted to do <fill in the blank> just like me, then they’d put the effort into it. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what God is asking of all of us, whether parents or children. We must bring forth our own fruit.

BT

Doctrine: When we are purposefully unkind, abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally), manipulative, demeaning, belligerent, hateful, rebellious, blame others for actions, and constantly cite our good intentions as justification or excuse, etc., we are setting ourselves up to exercise, or are exercising, unrighteous dominion.

unrighteousdominion-convertedUnrighteous dominion is one of those scriptural phrases we have trouble equating with normal life. So, let’s define it.

  • Unrighteous = not righteous, or wicked
  • Dominion = sovereignty, or control

So, we could also say: unrighteous control, wicked control, unrighteous sovereignty, or wicked sovereignty.

Wicked and unrighteous are also taboo-type words to those trying to be faithful Christians. We are very hesitant to label a person wicked or unrighteous even if they do something wicked or unrighteous; whether for a moment, a few days, or even a longer while. Therefore, if a normally good person does something unrighteous or wicked, we hesitate to call it what it is.

The Lord is not afraid to call wickedness what it is. When Martin Harris, a normally faithful and wonderful man, tried to take the translated record from “the prophet”, Joseph Smith, the Lord said, “And for this cause I said that he [Martin] is a wicked man, for he has sought to take away the things wherewith you have been entrusted; and he has also sought to destroy your gift” (Doctrine and Covenants 10:7). Martin Harris, and Joseph Smith, had been told “no” by the Lord several times when they asked to take the translation and show it to Martin’s family. But, Martin manipulated and guilted Joseph into going back to the Lord again and again. Joseph did so because he was afraid and aspired to Martin Harris’s friendship and financial support over the will of the Lord.  Both had great justifications which were nonetheless unacceptable to the Lord and full of pride. Both acted wickedly.

The Lord also said in Doctrine and Covenants 121:33-40 that when we:

  • “aspire to the honors of men” or, in other words, “seek for and desire the recognition and praise of the world/people over that which comes from God”
  • “cover our sins,” or delay repentance, or pretend we aren’t sinning
  • “gratify our pride,” or indulge or seek to please our own pride
  • “gratify…our vain ambition,” or indulge a useless and ultimately unproductive desire

…we are set up to “exercise control or dominion or compulsion” in unrighteousness. Or, in other words, UNRIGHTEOUS DOMINION.

We are all wicked and unrighteous in those times that we are doing purposefully unrighteous things. When we are purposefully unkind, abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally), manipulative, belligerent, hateful, demeaning, rebellious, blaming others for our actions, etc., which we all do or have done at times, we are being wicked. It doesn’t mean our innate nature is wicked or unrighteous. But, until we repent and cease from such behavior, we are, in effect, wicked men and women. And, even more importantly, when we are doing purposefully wicked things we are setting ourselves up to exercise unrighteous dominion.

Unrighteous dominion is often brought about by aspects of pride that most of us don’t think of. The first is fear. What are we afraid of? We are afraid we won’t get what we want. We are afraid someone else will do something, or not do something, that will affect us negatively. We are afraid others will get what they want and we won’t. We are afraid of being overshadowed, forgotten, unappreciated, etc. We are afraid sacrifices we’ve made will go unnoticed or unrewarded. We are simply afraid.child caught in the middle isolated on white

Another aspect of pride that creeps in and causes us to practice unrighteous dominion is a lack of faith in the intelligence and abilities of others. It is related to a fear of things not happening that we want. But it is also a feeling that we need to exert force, compulsion, or control in some manner to preserve our idea of what is best, or right. We are certain that our compulsive actions are “just” because we are doing them to “make up for” the weaknesses, issues, unrighteousness, or struggles of others.

The problem with these fears and a lack of faith in others is that is based in a lack of faith in God. Yes, a lack of faith in God. Ultimately, we try to wrest control from God when we fear the things we will not get and the things that others will not do. We step in and manipulate, abuse, guilt, badger, and the like, to compensate for our own fear and lack of faith that God has things in hand. We can see only what we will lose which blinds us to everything else. We can’t see others will and choice as their own. We can’t see or trust God’s compensations. We can’t see anything but what we can do and what others cannot.

When we can only see ourselves and what will or will not benefit us, then we can’t see clearly the feelings, needs, or capabilities of others. We judge in-righteously and exercise unrighteous dominion.

  • Unrighteous dominion has no respect for moral agency (i.e. free will, agency, freedom of choice, independent thought, etc.)
  • Unrighteous dominion tries to avoid, maneuver around, and ignore the natural consequences of choice by self and others (“I’m just trying to protect you from…”)
  • Unrighteous dominion is the momentary or complete absence of Christlike/godly love
  • All unrighteous dominion is fueled, in some form, by fear, self-love, and pride

God has said (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-45, brackets added for clarity and understanding), that in order to avoid unrighteous dominion:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained…only by persuasion, by long-suffer [patience], by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned [or not pretend love];

By kindness, and pure knowledge [or full, complete, untainted or altered], which shall greatly enlarge [edify] the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile [selfish, personal agenda]–

Let they bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly…

As well, in the final verse God says that IF we do these things we will have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, and that our sovereignty (leadership or control) will be one of righteousness and truth…without compulsion…and that it will last forever. In other words, it will be godly.

Conversely, if we try to lead or hold sovereignty in any office or relationship WITHOUT the means listed above, then we can’t have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, which by default means that our leadership or control is unrighteous, full of deceit, full of compulsion, and that it will be short-lived. In other words, it will be like Satan’s control—satanic (which is the opposite of godly).

God does not exercise unrighteous dominion. He invites, entices, persuades, waits in patience, is gentle with us, and loves us. He waits for us to learn from the natural consequences of our choices. He blesses us with grace as we repent and change and strive to do what’s right. Certainly He can get righteously angry, but that anger never leads Him to compel us to repent…and He gives us plenty of warning if our actions are no longer to be tolerated (“reproving betimes with sharpness” means reproving or warning of consequences before we sin). If we learn to exercise righteous dominion, as He does, then we will be well on our way to becoming like Him.

Most of us exercise unrighteous dominion accidentally from time to time. When this happens, the reactions of those we are trying to dominate and control usually serve to check us in our actions. For those who have made it a way of life, the people around them are generally used to being dominated and controlled and either they submit (whether happily or unhappily) or they eventually rebel and leave.

Certainly verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are the worst forms of unrighteous dominion. Verbal abuse is manipulative, coercive, insulting, demeaning, threatening, and purposefully unkind. Emotional abuse is neglect, abandonment, withholding praise or compliments, giving dirty looks, exuding unspoken anger or disapproval, etc. Physical abuse can be as small as unnecessary pokes, punches, and shoves to outright pushing, hitting, slapping, and beating. It is all damaging. It is all unrighteous.

Almost without exception, those who exercise unrighteous dominion will apologize at some point. They will claim they were only doing it because they loved you. They will blame you for causing them to get to the point where they had to exercise unrighteous control. They will say they were doing it for your safety from yourself or others (excluding safety from them, of course). The excuses will mount, and they will all have the same tenor…they were doing it for you.unrighteousdominion2-converted

It is important to note that if such instances of unrighteous control/dominion were extremely rare; meaning once every five years…or something like that (excluding physical or sexual abuse, of course, because these are NEVER justifiable or acceptable). Perhaps you might understand that they were trying to do what was best for you and you could let it go. But, the blame is never yours. You do not have to repent that they acted wickedly against you.

If, however, such instances take place daily, weekly, monthly, or multiple times a year. This is NOT okay. It is never okay for a basically good person to justify unrighteously trying to control you no matter how strongly they may feel that it is in your best interests. If you allow them to continue dominating you unrighteously, you are standing partially (because they are responsible for their own actions, no matter what you do) in the way of them recognizing their faults and taking the necessary steps to repent and change.

Even God, who is ALWAYS right, never tries to compel us to do His will. His plan is that we “act for ourselves”, NOT for us “to be acted upon.” And anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is momentarily, or consistently, being duped by Satan, the Adversary.

If in the course of reading this you have identified areas in your life where you exercise unrighteous dominion, then I hope you will take the time to ponder these areas and make a plan to repent and change. Do what it takes to learn to react and act differently. Study how to “teach/lead by the Spirit.” Seek God’s help. Through the Gift of the Holy Ghost and your sincere efforts, God can effect permanent change in your very soul as soon as you truly desire it.

If, however, by reading this you have recognized that you are the victim of unrighteous dominion, then I hope you will take the time to ponder what you can do to help those you love see they are acting wickedly, and/or put yourself in a situation where you can be safe from such treatment, heal, forgive, and move on. Seek help.

BT

 

 

Doctrine: The Light of Christ is our basic conscience, but it can be dulled or altered. The Power of the Holy Ghost is a momentary burst or intense “glow of truth” that is temporary so that we can choose to act upon it, but not be compelled. However, the GIFT of the Holy Ghost is an endowment of POWER that makes our imperfect efforts and sincere righteous desires effective in actually changing us into a godly beings.

For many Christians, there is a clear deficit in understanding the role of the GIFT of the Holy Ghost. I think this is because there are so many ways in which the Holy Spirit functions that most of us fail to see the distinctions between His several functions AND how we are supposed to take advantage of those functions for our own journey back to God. In fact, most people don’t understand and can’t differentiate between the Light of Christ, the Power of the Holy Ghost, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

The Light of Christ is something that comes with us when we are born into this world (Doctrine and Covenants 93:2; St. John 1:9). It is in our flesh, blood and spirit. In fact, it cannot be separated from us because it is tied directly to the power by which we were organized and made. Christ created the earth. Every particle of it is under His command and is given life and purpose by His divine influence. God, our Heavenly Father organized our spirits. Therefore, the innate goodness and godliness from which we originate has been preserved in our very nature. It is a part of who we are, eternally. Which, is why every person that comes into this world has a basic understanding of right and wrong and a sense of guilt. The Light of Christ is our basic conscience.

However, the Light of Christ is not sufficient to perfect us. It is an innate sense but not an active source for help. It can be warped or altered by our environment and life experiences as we actively choose to override it. Alone it is insufficient to help us become like God.

Unlike the Light of Christ, the Holy Spirit is an active source of guidance. The Holy Ghost is a member of the godhead. He is omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly loving, perfectly just, and so forth. He is exactly like God the Father and Jesus Christ. The only difference between Him and Them is that the Holy Ghost does not have a body of flesh and bone (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22-23). This bodily difference is necessary so that He can communicate directly with our spirits.

So, how is the Power of the Holy Ghost different from the Light of Christ?

Before we receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost through confirmation (after the ordinance of baptism), the Power of the Holy Ghost can descend upon us and give us what I like to call an intense “glow of truth.” This glow may be an injection of pure reason or logic that connects some spiritual and intellectual dots for our life. It can be a feeling of comfort or peace that something we have been taught or that we have read is true. It can be an unmistakable feeling of love or assurance that God is with us. But, the key to all of these things is that they are significant moments. We know during this intense “glow of truth” that something is God’s will, or that something is true, or that we need to make a little, significant, or a big change in our life.

But, while the glow is intense and something we are infinitely sure of while we feel it, it doesn’t stay with us. Why not? We’d certainly like it to, wouldn’t we? Because often when the glow is gone we doubt or lose sight of what we felt. But, the glow can’t be permanent. This is because once we know something God isn’t going to attach strings to our arms and legs and make us act on that knowledge. And, having a permanent intense “glow of truth” is akin to doing just that. No matter how great it feels when we feel it, to make the glow remain with us at that intensity is an act of compulsion.

Once the Holy Ghost has given us a clear witness, He has to step back to allow us to use our free will to follow it. The glow was an obvious and blatant invite to recognize and follow God’s truth and will. But, after the invitation has been delivered, we have to be free to choose (2 Nephi 2:27). God will not act upon us (2 Nephi 2:14-16).

So, what about the Gift of the Holy Ghost? If the Power of the Holy Ghost teaches us truth with an intense glow, what does the Gift of the Holy Ghost do?

Both before and after confirmation by the laying on of hands (see 4th Article of Faith), we experience the Power of the Holy Ghost (the glow) which is like a shot of veritaserum for our mind and heart (pardon the Harry Potter reference). But, it doesn’t last. However, the Gift of the Holy Ghost is a much more subtle experience. Rather than a sporadic shot it is a consistent, subtle flow of direction.

For those who want the “constant glow,” they can get something even better through the Gift of the Holy Ghost by accepting the covenant of baptism and being confirmed by the laying on of hands (see 4th Article of Faith). This is because they have exercised their agency/free will to enter into a covenant to serve God and keep His commandments. Covenants are how God protects and dispenses His power (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33-36). Meaning, we can’t get access to certain aspects of His power without making a covenant with Him. Therefore, a condition of the baptismal covenant—wherein we agree to give our will to God and keep His commandments and take His name upon us—is that God provides us with the constant guidance (not compulsion) we want.

However, this constant guidance isn’t a gigantic glow. It is more like a trickle of constant truth that will aid us in our designs to become godly. It also doesn’t compel us to be godly. But, it puts forth subtle invitations that alter our path a little at a time toward a godly end. This trickle is meted out to us in greater or lesser degrees as we continue to exercise our agency in keeping commandments, seeking for more knowledge and understanding, becoming Christlike, and receiving and entering into more covenants. If we don’t keep our end of the covenants the trickle is slowed to an occasional drop and eventually will leave us if we fail to repent and keep trying. We don’t have to be perfect to have the guidance of the Holy Ghost. We only have to be sincerely trying.

So, what good is a constant trickle of truth? How do we use it? What does it do?

Now, I don’t wish to diminish the experiences of those who claim to have been preserved physically by the Holy Ghost’s promptings. And yet, the fact is that those inexperienced with the Gift of the Holy Ghost often seem to preach about such physical-saving experiences as if this is the most common and important purpose the Holy Ghost serves. It is not. In fact, if indeed the Holy Ghost prompts us to take an action that will preserve us physically (which He can and has done at times but certainly doesn’t do often), it is the least important function to hope for. And, if we are not preserved from physical accidents and calamities, it rarely has anything to do with our ability to listen to the Holy Ghost.

Consider this, Christ overcame death with His Atonement for all of us, regardless of how we choose to live in this life. Therefore, no matter what happens to our physical bodies, they are guaranteed to become perfected and resurrected. However, though Christ overcame sin for all of us with His Atonement, access to that portion of grace is guarded and protected by covenants and conditions, like all the rest of God’s power. We can’t be forgiven without sincere action on our part. To offer it otherwise would be a grand mockery of the sacrifice Christ gave. Therefore, in order to receive the spiritually perfecting power of the Atonement we have to use our agency to choose to repent, keep God’s commands, and follow the nudges we get from the Holy Ghost.

The Gift of the Holy Ghost differs from the Light of Christ and the Power of the Holy Ghost in that the Gift of the Holy Ghost has POWER to enact permanent changes in our very emotional, mental, spiritual, and psychological selves. This is what Christ was referring to when He said that we must be born, not only of water, but of the Spirit (St. John 3:5). Baptism is an ordinance and takes place in a moment. But, being slowly changed by the Holy Ghost over time is baptism by fire.

For example, if we have a temper problem but we desire to be better and exercise our agency to try to be slower to anger and more quick to listen and love; over time, the POWER of the GIFT of the Holy Ghost can take our sincere intent and make it powerful enough to actually change our innate nature. If we take any temptation or weakness and exercise our agency to change it or overcome it, the GIFT of the Holy Ghost has the POWER to help us to actually overcome and change.

It doesn’t matter if we have a very debilitating psychological or physical addiction. It doesn’t matter if we are encountered with something that isn’t very tempting to us at all. The amount of temptation or the level of the weakness doesn’t matter. In order to be released from that temptation or addiction we must exercise our agency to overcome it. That act, combined with the POWER of the GIFT of the Holy Ghost, is what gives us the power to change and overcome. It may take one time of saying no and steering away from a temptation. It may take thousands of attempts to say no and steer away from a temptation. Depending on who we are different struggles and temptations will be harder for us. But, a sincere effort, over time, combined with the Gift of the Holy Ghost is what actually purifies and SANCTIFIES us and helps us become more like our Father in Heaven.

This is the amazing role of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. And, combined with our basic conscience and occasional glowing bursts of the Power of the Holy Ghost, each of us is capable of using our agency to become like God. However, without the Gift of the Holy Ghost, even the Power of the Holy Ghost testifying of truth cannot make us godly. We need the POWER of the GIFT to enact real spiritual change in our very beings.

Because of the sacredness and the power of the GIFT of the Holy Ghost, it is guarded by covenant. So, the Gift of the Holy Ghost is not a power to trifle with. He is a member of the godhead. We can’t take His companionship and help for granted.

So, the Light of Christ is basic and beneficial. But, it can’t change our very beings. The occasional bursts and intense glows of truth we get from the Power of the Holy Ghost can help us know God’s will for us and help us recognize His truths. But this burst of truth is an isolated experience that abates in time so that we can exercise our agency to accept or reject it. But, the GIFT of the Holy Ghost is a gift of POWER to become better, until someday we can become perfect. This GIFT is the power by which we become sanctified and holy. And, it is guarded by sacred covenant and only dispensed to those who try to keep that covenant.

BT

Doctrine: 1) We don’t have to be perfect to receive blessings from God and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Our righteous desires and intent validate our imperfect efforts. 2) Guidance from the Holy Spirit will always be recognizable.

So, life’s in general pretty good. But, perhaps today, or the last several days, weeks, or months, you feel as though you are in a spiritual limbo. Or, maybe you’re in the middle of a mentally and emotionally taxing trial, and now it’s getting to you spiritually. Or, maybe you feel like you’re spiritually okay, but you’ve been seeking an answer or guidance in something and it seems to be elusive. You’re not really wondering if there’s an end, but when. You’re not really wondering if God’s going to help you out, but when…and what your role is in getting there.

There are many kinds of spiritual dilemmas, and I can’t list them all here. But, for the anxiously engaged Latter-day Saint, I find there is a common dilemma.

So, what’s this dilemma? It’s placed firmly between the rock of agency and the hard place of God’s grace. It’s the constant struggle to be anxiously engaged in righteousness while still turning our entire life over the will of God. It’s trying to do your part to get blessings without forgetting to submit to God’s plan for you. It’s trying to figure out when to let go and just let God handle it, or when to take more responsibility in the exercise of your agency to arrive at the righteous desires of your heart. It’s the rock and the hard place many good Christians find themselves between when blessings and guidance seem prolonged or well beyond the horizon.

Between a rock and a hard place
A paperclip figure standing between paving stone and a marble stone

We who have slid down into this dilemma often start over-self-examining our lives, our prayers, our Christian service, our past sins, our current weaknesses. Often we ask ourselves ridiculous questions…but they don’t seem ridiculous to us.

  • Have I forgotten to pray for the right thing? Did I get the wording wrong?

  • Have I failed to look in the “right place” for the right job, the needed information, or the answer?

  • Did I stop being anxiously engaged and so the blessing is being withheld?

  • Has God said no, or wait, and I simply missed the signal?

  • Did I respond to my own feelings and not a real prompting, because I thought it was a prompting, but now I’m not seeing any effect?

The list could go on for eternity. I know, I’ve made several such lists.

The problem, however, with such over-zealous self-examination and question lists is that we are ignoring, unaware of, or have forgotten two clear doctrines when it comes to how God works in our lives.

#1: The first doctrine that is misunderstood or misapplied is of our ability to earn blessings and grace. Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21 teaches us that there is an eternal law “upon which all blessings are predicated. And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” God has also said, “I the Lord and bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10). Again, we also read, “But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned [or stopped in progress]” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:29).

The anxiously engaged Latter-day Saint often takes these scriptures to mean that if a blessing isn’t coming, then they must have failed to cross a “t” or dot an “I” somewhere in their commandment keeping; that somehow they have been “unknowingly” slothful; that their “unintentional” weaknesses are keeping them from God’s grace, answers, peace, comfort, and blessings.

The big deception here is that God expects us to be perfect commandment keepers before we can receive blessings and grace. This, is 100% untrue. We don’t have to be perfect. We only have to try to keep the commandments, and to do it with the right intent. “For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (Doctrine and Covenants 137:9).

Note, that God does say that our works matter, but that they are given validity (despite our inability to do them perfect) by the intent and the desire behind it. Our intent is like a seal of approval on a University Diploma or a watermark on a check: it validates that our efforts are not counterfeit or fake. Intent and desire for good validate good actions offered imperfectly. Jeffrey R. Holland said in this year’s April (2016) conference:

“With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed…

I love that doctrine! It says again and again that we are going to be blessed for our desire to be good, even as we actually strive to be so…” (Tomorrow the Lord Will Do Wonders among You).

In Moroni 7 we learn that if our intent and desire is righteous then we can only give a good gift. On the other hand, we also learn that we can go through motions of goodness, but that if our intent and desire aren’t righteous, then those pretend motions of goodness don’t count in our favor. They’re fake, or counterfeit.

So, here’s the deal. If you are trying God isn’t going to hide some mysterious phrase from you that if you only used in your prayer, He would bless you. God doesn’t have a big labyrinth full of actions that only if you find and complete each and every one, He would bless you. God, our Heavenly Father, “delights to own and bless us, as we strive to do what’s right” (LDS Hymns 96, Dearest Children, God Is Near You).

#2: The second doctrine we often either have not yet come to understand or study is that promptings and inspiration from the Holy Ghost, while still and small, are NOT wisps of smoke that we can easily ignore or miss. They will carry significant emotional, spiritual, and mental weight; for God will tell us in our mind AND our heart—both (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2-3). Inspiration and promptings are not hidden under layers of odd images and symbols. God “doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men” (2 Nephi 2:26). (There are some more references to this “weight” further down.)

In other words, God doesn’t play games with any part of our life whether small or great. He doesn’t hide messages from us. He sets very basic conditions upon receiving such messages. If there is something important we need to know or do, the Holy Ghost will make sure we “feel” the weight of such a prompting if we are meeting the conditions for the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

Now, if you miss a day of scripture study due to sickness or sheer exhaustion; or if you by accident forget a morning prayer, or you were lax in your visiting or home teaching this month, you have not forfeited your right to guidance from the Spirit. Such thinking is rooted in issues mentioned in the first doctrine. You have to openly rebel against God, on purpose, and with evil intent to completely block your reception to the Holy Ghost.

However, if you want to get detailed, then let’s do so. The scriptures teach us that the mysteries of God are kept hidden and are only revealed unto us according to the heed and diligence we give unto that which is revealed to us (Alma 12:9). So, the more in tune our lives are to the Holy Ghost, then the more delicate promptings we can receive. So, there are differing levels of spiritual reception and guidance, but God has given very clearly such conditions: if we listen to and heed a prompting, we will receive more and more until our knowledge and righteous grow brighter and brighter, until the perfect day (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24).

While there are differing levels of spiritual instruction (based upon our heed and diligence) we’ll never be uncertain whether something IS a prompting. It won’t be that elusive. Think about it. We have to know we’ve been prompted or we can’t be accountable for not following the prompting. If we aren’t sure, we can’t be held accountable. Therefore, if you’ve received guidance, you will know.

Now, I don’t know how everyone feels the Spirit. But, most of the scriptural descriptions of the feelings of the Holy Ghost imply a significant “weight of feeling” that is unmistakable. It’s not always a burning in the bosom. Enos said, “…and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, SUNK DEEP INTO MY HEART.” Joseph smith said of James 1:5, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more POWER TO THE HEART of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to ENTER WITH GREAT FORCE into every feeling of my heart.” Joseph F. Smith said of the first epistle of Peter, as he read prior to his vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138, “…and as I read I was GREATLY IMPRESSED, MORE THAN I HAD EVER BEEN BEFORE…”

Sometimes, our natural righteous inclinations lead us to do God’s will without Him having to reinforce it with a big feeling. An idea may just “sit right” with us. God doesn’t have to prompt us to do every good thing (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-27).

Recently, of my own accord I felt the desire—based on my knowledge of her situation and struggles—to write a letter to a dear friend. I agonized over the letter for a few days, but worked hard to write it by the Spirit. Then, I put it in an envelope and put it in the mailbox. I certainly felt a little bit of trepidation about what was in the letter, but never at any time did I feel constrained not to send it. It “sat right” with me to send it, like the two opposing ends of magnets snapping together. I didn’t have to force the idea upon myself, or force myself to ignore any feelings of confusion or spiritual discomfort, like forcing the two same poles of two magnets together—without force they will push apart.

I didn’t feel remorse or guilt for writing the letter. And, I knew the testimony I had borne in the letter was true. Two days later, the very day this friend was receiving my letter, I received a letter from her asking the very questions I had answered in the letter I sent. It was then that I felt an immense weight of relief, joy, and confirmation that my righteous actions—taken without a big prompting—were inspired. Not because God had compelled me to send the letter, but because I had been anxiously engaged in doing something I desired which was right; and because I had sought to do it by the Spirit. As well, God didn’t have to compel me to write the letter, because if I hadn’t sent it, I would have received my friend’s letter eventually and been able to respond. So, it wasn’t a one-time-chance pass/fail thing either. God doesn’t work like that.

Consider, if it was so hard to know what God wanted or expected of us, then choice and accountability would be shot, as well as agency. What confidence could we have in the Holy Ghost if we believed He always spoke so small and still that we had to be perfect, and in perfect silence in the middle of a desert to hear him?

Do we need to live in a such a way to be open and receptive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost and to receive the blessings we desire? Yes. But, if we’re making a consistent effort, not just token offerings, then we don’t have to destroy ourselves with guilt and misery that somehow we missed a light that flashed while we were accidentally blinking.

So, you don’t have to worry that God is playing games with your blessings, help, or answers. His promptings and guidance are clear and recognizable EVERY TIME. If you want deeper promptings and information, live a little closer to the Spirit and heed whatever guidance you receive. And, sometimes you just have to wait for your blessings and answers a little longer. Usually, when you are patient enough they end up being well worth the wait. At least, that has been my experience.

“Therefore, dearly beloved brethren [and sisters], let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power [with righteous desire and intent]; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:17).

BT

Doctrine: Politics has never been about picking the perfect leader. There is only one perfect leader, and that is Jesus Christ. Therefore, national and world politics has always been about our responsibility to seek to support good, honest, and wise candidates, and to uphold moral agency in the land that all may be accountable for their own sins in the day of judgment.

I have always loathed politics, and I’ll tell you why. Politics seem to breed contention, back-biting, slander, dissension—even among friends—and a long list of other negatives. In fact, I struggle so much with the political “environment” that I often check out completely. When it is time to vote, I seek out the least biased material I can find and research the issues and the candidates for myself. Then, I make my selections based on some very clear gospel doctrines—which will follow.

Politics, however, are not completely bad. In a very real way, government is a godly institution. God is our King. He is a perfect ruler, but He does expect us to be subject to His laws if we are to gain the glory of His divine leadership both now and in eternity. Learning to be subject to law is something we must to do learn to become like God, and to live with Him.

So, though earthly government is a poor substitute, it is indeed an actual substitute, therefore it is godly-instituted. God has said, “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:22)

However, though government is a form or substitute of being subject to God, it is intended to be enacted and carried off in such a way that moral agency is preserved. Moral agency is our right to choose between opposing choices of all kinds and to be accountable, as an individual, for our choice. That accountability includes consequences, whether positive or negative.

God “raised up men” to design our current constitution and He has commanded that the constitution: “should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment…And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land…” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80).

God has also said in Doctrine and Covenants 98:6-11:

Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land: and as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this [constitution], cometh of evil.

I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.

And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.

In the scriptures, God always tried to set up governments that preserved moral agency and allowed for as much individual choice and accountability as possible. That’s because, ultimately, in God’s plan, we do not approach Him as a nation, state, city, or town. We approach Him as individual children. Every choice we make is, in the end, individual.

So, in the scriptures, laws and consequence were dispensed from God through His prophets. God intended to have His people governed by prophets, apostles, pastors, teachers, etc. However, almost without fail God’s people always wanted to be “like everyone else.” They begged for kings and monarchs—absolute rulers. They wanted governments led by men. Not God.

In the Old Testament and Book of Mormon there are several accounts where the righteousness or wickedness of the ruling monarch often caused, by default, the subjected people to be righteous and or wicked. That’s because if a wicked king said something wicked in God’s eyes was okay, people could engage in it and avoid godly consequences (for the present), and the rest of the people had to bear with it. Therefore, as well, the king or ruler carried the majority of the accountability for the righteousness or wickedness of the people. There was still individual accountability, of course, but not quite full accountability.

In the Old Testament God tried to give the Israelites what they wanted through a compromise. He instituted judges. The judges were public intermediaries (similar to a democratic system) and unlike prophets were not always as righteous or as fair or as helpful as they could have been. And because of this they often failed in saving Israel and were often destroyed themselves. In the Book of Mormon, during a particularly righteous period the Nephites had a very righteous king, Benjamin. When he died his son Mosiah became king. He was also very righteous. The people enjoyed both righteousness, peace, and prosperity. Then, when Mosiah was dying there was contention about who should be the next king. To avoid the political turmoil, Mosiah encouraged the people to elect a system of judges instead.

“And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; that if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.

For behold I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their king. And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land…but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike…that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part.

And now it came to pass, after king Mosiah had sent these things forth among the people they were convinced of the truth of his words. Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.”

So, politics and the type of government we choose are something God certainly cares about. However, He can counsel us on what to seek for and then the accountability for our choices is left up to us. He will allow nations to fall or rise based on the consequences of our political choices.

However, it seems in our country, that we long ago forgot about what was most important in choosing a candidate. We have gotten caught up in financial concerns, welfare concerns, and many other worthwhile and interesting issues. And these issues are critical and important. And yet, in the concern for these issues we have cast aside the importance of individual moral agency. We still talk about it and preach it, but we sidestep it when something else we want for our city, state, or nation takes precedence in our mind. We place some other objective in the line of importance over agency when agency is the one objective/right God will never breach.

C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, Book 1, Chapter 2 Some Objections, roughly paragraph 5:

“…The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.  There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.  You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not.  If you leave out Justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”

In the place of “man” I might insert “nation.”

While our nation and its main political candidates preach equality and opportunity and the love of humanity, they absolutely and unequivocally leave out the need for honesty, justice, and personal moral agency and personal accountability. In fact, much of the legislation in the past years has been about protecting people from the power and the personal effects of moral agency.

Currently, we have a very strong two-party system—though it seems to be weakening a bit based on this most recent presidential election. People are afraid to step outside this two-party system. In fact, people limit themselves to two choices because any other choice, they argue, won’t matter. Why vote for someone I like who won’t actually have a chance to get elected? So, people justify voting for a candidate they really don’t like because they feel that their vote has to change the election outcome in order to matter. But, what people have forgotten is that the vote is about trying to elect a good and honest person to office—as God commanded. It’s about doing our part to support moral agency—as God has commanded—for “more or less than this cometh of evil.” In fact, we are to “forsake all evil.” We are not to support a lesser evil.

So, if there is no good or honest person to elect, do we simply pick the best of the worst? Do we vote for someone who is not good or honest and wise simply because that’s all there is to pick from? Do we vote for someone to keep someone else who is less terrible out of office? What motivation are we placing as the justification for our vote?

Each person must answer these questions for themselves. I can’t tell anyone how to vote and I would never dare. I can only state the doctrine. That God has commanded us to seek good, honest, and wise men (and or women). He has commanded that we forsake all evil, not just some of it. He has never suggested that we settle for evil simply because good can’t be found. He has asked us to uphold moral agency. He has said that if the majority uphold evil (even a small bit of it), then we will individually, and as a nation, mourn.

Finally, as a last note. Popular vote is not what elects our president. It is the electoral college. And even though those who sit in the electoral college are supposed to uphold the popular vote, they don’t have to. We have elected them to uphold our best interests and if they don’t agree with what we’ve chosen, they can choose differently. So, does our vote matter if it doesn’t actually contribute to or effect who gets elected?

Yes. And I’ll tell you why.

Each of us is accountable for our political choices to the same being for which we are accountable for everything else: God. God has given clear guidance on how His people are to act politically. Whether our vote contributes to the election of an official we like or dislike; whether our vote keeps the greater of two evils out of office, won’t matter in the eternal scheme of things. What will matter is our intent behind our votes. Did we seek to uphold good and honest candidates who would also maintain the doctrine of moral agency? Did we uphold God’s laws? This is what matters about our votes. This is a hard doctrine to swallow, but it is nonetheless true.

Our votes are about our souls. Our votes are about our willingness to follow God. We are commanded to make these votes. We are encouraged to choose honesty and goodness. When honesty and goodness cannot be found, our votes still are a part of our individual eternal makeup. If we make them so that we are in good conscience with our God, then we can have peace that He will manage the rest. Nations come and go under His all-seeing eye, and yet we know that the Kingdom of God will break down and absorb all the rest (Daniel 2:44). So, what are we so afraid of?

Though politics make me upset and frustrated and frankly, I can’t stand them. I know my role as a citizen of this country, and more importantly as a child of God. That is how I make peace with the current political environment. That is how I weigh what matters most in my individual political contribution. I do what I feel is right in my standing before God; and I don’t just hope He’ll take care of the rest. I know He will.

BT

This is a 4-Part Blog. At the end of each part, if you want to continue you’ll be able to click on a link that will take you to the next part.

Doctrine(s): #1) The witness we receive from the Holy Spirit is more valid than any other source.

I learned long ago that everyone has their own path to truth and joy and that they must take it. The whole purpose of agency is not about preventing people from taking paths you think they shouldn’t take. It’s about sharing what you know to be true, in love, and then letting them exercise their will to find out what’s true for themselves. This is how we all arrive at a witness of truth.

So often we think what we know, if said in the perfect way, will fix other’s issues and doubts. So often we believe that we can micromanage or even help people with the perfect paragraph of proof. We will try persuasion. Then, if that doesn’t work, we try compulsion. Then, if that doesn’t work, we move on to other ways where we try to make/force others to see what we see. And it seems so simple. It seems that it should work. But, it doesn’t. In fact, if it was that easy, then I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

There is only one source that can teach people absolute truth—the truth of all things (Moroni 10:5). That source is the Holy Ghost. And, the Holy Ghost can only teach people things if they want to be taught. If we want to believe something that is not true, or that is only partially true, the Holy Ghost will not force us to believe the actual truth. Our agency is so sacred and personal that it is like an impenetrable block in our minds and hearts that God, nor His Holy Spirit, will attempt to break—unless we invite Him to break it (1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Nephi 33:1). A witness from the Holy Ghost is also so special and sacred that it can only be received when we want it and when we are willing to believe, and receive it. And, it is not a witness that comes without significant effort (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-33).

Each and every person has personality traits, psychological characteristics, life experiences, and ways of reasoning that only God knows and that only God can fix or change for those willing to follow His guidance. And only God knows what path will best lead each of us to the full measure of what blessings and truths He wishes to give us. Consequently, there is no choice that we make or path we can take that God can’t turn to our glory in our discovery of joy—if we let Him.

So, what is my goal with this blog post? My goal is to show what things I think about when I see those I care about, or who I have known well, leave the church. I can’t change them. But, I mean, let’s be real. Anytime anyone we love or respect has a crisis of faith—of any kind—it makes us question our own faith, or at least ponder and solidify it. So, here is the thought process (more or less) that I often go through when I see others struggle with their belief, their faithfulness, their activity, and who eventually make an exit from the church.

The first thing I think of is that the church doesn’t want people to accept things without asking questions or receiving their own witness of truth from the Holy Ghost. On the whole, a fundamental doctrine of Mormonism is seeking a personal witness and not only of the church being true as a whole—but a witness of each and every principle and doctrine we teach (Alma 32, St. John 7:17). That is the greatest strength of the church. We don’t live as we do and believe as we do because it’s nice, or good, or easy. Because it’s not. We don’t do it because some old men have threatened us. We rarely do it as a social thing, though some do. Even if someone has been born into the family tradition of being a Latter-day Saint we still encourage and expect them to gain their own witness.instagramquotes2

So, in general, we are in this church because we were invited to seek a personal witness of The Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, and of current Living Prophets and on-going revelation, of God’s specific and powerful plan for us, and of a Living Christ who is active in our lives. And, we received that witness from the Holy Ghost. That’s why we joined, and most often why we stay. The Holy Spirit said, “Yes, this is true.”

If a person’s witness from the Holy Spirit is called into question by fear, doubt, trials, offenses, mid-life crisis or other crisis of faith, or the philosophies of the world mingled with half-truths, by persuasive and well-meaning friends who don’t have our same witness, or other concerns or issues; then this is when many people leave the church or, minimally, become inactive.

 

I have had many times in my life where I had the opportunity to question my witnesses of truth. Whether it was a trial or struggle I was facing personally, or whether I saw others whom I respected struggling, I have had many opportunities to fear, doubt, to take offense, or to grab hold of worldly philosophies that, at the time, seemed to make much more sense and would lead me to happiness. So, why did I stay?

Well, I had one clear and unshakeable witness that held the glue together on all my other witnesses. What was that witness? That there is no more powerful witness than that which comes from the Holy Ghost. He is a member of the Godhead and as such He is omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly kind, loving, etc. He sees better than any mortal, no matter how intelligent, informed, or educated that mortal claims to be. So, if the Holy Spirit has told me something is true, then how can I let some mortal person or some worldly commentary undo it?

I have studied the doctrine (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). I have lived the gospel. And, I know the doctrine to be true in the same way I know the church itself is true. The Holy Spirit has witnessed to me that it is true. I know this independent of my own struggles, doubts, and trials. And, I have had my share.

Click here to go to PART TWO