Love First, Love Last

As powerful as human love can be, it cannot compare with the unique love Jesus taught and exemplified. In fact, Christ’s love is so specialized the scriptures sometimes employ a different word to distinguish it from the ordinary concept. This word in the English scriptures is Charity. Unlike Charity, “which never faileth”, but “endureth forever” (Moroni 7:45, 47), worldly love is fickle, prone to fall in and out of our hearts depending on circumstances. Like ordinary love, Charity needs to be experienced to be understood. God shares his love with us, and after realizing how deeply he loves us, we might be inspired to reciprocate or even emulate His love. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  

Charity does not come naturally to the natural man. Instead it is a gift we receive through prayer. Prayer is a form of work, something we must exercise regularly; this is especially true for the reception and retention of Charity. The scriptures urge us to “pray unto the father with all the energy of heart” to be “filled with this love” (Moroni 7:48). The exercise of this type of prayer can have a cardiovascular effect, which increases the capacity of our hearts to love with more breadth and depth for longer. Receiving Charity trains us in the art of loving first. 

Although very common, measuring another’s interest in loving us as a condition to loving them is more shallow than the love we are capable of through Christ. Christ “first loved us” and his love pushes us to do the same (1 John 4:19). So before we have enough information about someone to judge whether they merit our time and effort, we can choose to love them first. We don’t have to wrap our minds around someone else’s world until we find common ground in order to love. We can push past loving people just because we can see in them things we understand and love about ourselves to loving them just because. When we pray for Charity, we can include an object, a specific person, for whom we can learn to love first. Sometimes this object we are praying to love should be ourselves.

Being “filled with Charity” is not an ability limited to loving others despite their weaknesses, but also ourselves. Sometimes we can learn to appreciate the sordid pasts of others and love them today regardless, but find ourselves loathing our own history so much that we become restlessly uncomfortable in our own skin. Christ’s love comes to us as a comfort, precisely because it comes to us through the “Comforter” (Moroni 8:26). The reception of Charity reminds us that we are not only meant to be the messenger of Christ’s love, but also a receptacle; we are meant to believe the message too. When we read that “[Christ has] loved the world, even unto the laying down of [his] life for the world” (Ether 12:33), the world is not some wholly abstract phrase here, we are the world to him. Spiritual syntax demands that his loving us first not only move us to love him in return, but also love ourselves more completely, which multiplies our ability to love, period.

When we believe Christ’s love for us, we naturally want to love like him (see John 13:34). Our role as an appreciative consumer of his love prepares us to become a distributor too as Christ’s Charity drives us to pour out our hearts in love for others; a marvelous work, from which we can grow weary. As we continue our commitment to loving others, we might fear to expend our coveted reservoir of God’s love, a reservoir carved out originally by our fervent prayers and miraculously filled by the Lord. Just like the widow of Zidon, when we faithfully use up our all for others, we will witness how God will not allow our reservoir to fail (see 1 Kings 17:8-16). Prayer, our connection to the power of loving first, will also enable this love to last, because “perfect love…endureth by diligence unto prayer” (Moroni 8:26). 

It can be overwhelming to realize the implications of an infinite love, but this weighty gift of Charity mercifully comes with a manual. The same Comforter that delivers the package of perfect love to us also is the manual for its correct application. Charity is not a mandate to become a perpetual doormat or an unflinching punching bag. The Spirit “will show unto [us] all things what [we] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5), including what we should do with this most precious gift of His love. The Holy Ghost will prompt us not only to turn the other cheek at times (see Luke 6:29), but also to “[reprove] betimes with sharpness” (D&C 121:43). This repeated spiritual process of seeking Christ’s love and wandering through paths unknown to deliver it, will one day walk us back to Him. In this way, “when he shall appear we shall be like him,” because Charity, above all other gifts, sculpts us most closely into Christ’s image (see Moroni 7:48). After all, Christ’s image needs to be seen on more than paintings and sculptures, it needs to be witnessed in our acts and on our faces as we choose to love first and love last. 

Special thanks to the editing wizardry of my friend Katherine.

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The Perils surrounding the Nativity Narrative

 The story of Christ’s birth is always in danger of becoming too pedestrian, so familiar it becomes trite. Sadly, the very commemoration of this story every year can sometimes lead us to bury it further into the dark recesses of our dormant memory instead of making it new again. We know how the narrative ends, so we often overlook the inherent peril in Christ’s coming to the world as a baby. 

 The whole process of bringing a savior to earth was fraught with inconceivable risk. Mortality rates for child birth and the probability of any child making it to adulthood in the ancient world were huge risks for an only begotten son; God only had one chance. In addition to the natural causes of death, Herod awaited the birth of Christ and, according to our Bible story, murdered the male infants of a whole town for the possibility to end the story of Christ prematurely. The world loomed so large and powerful in comparison to the fragility of the situation for the young Mary, Joseph, and child. At any point, the terrors of the world seemed poised to swallow the entire enterprise whole.

 The odds were against Christ then, and they certainly oppose him now. The story of Christ is still in danger. The world is still so large and seems bent on trying to stamp out any belief in the Christ. Many media voices spout out a logic that makes belief seem ridiculous. We cannot escape the megaphone of Christmas commercialism that can keep us so busy we don’t have time to savor the thought of the Savior. A Savior who lived and died to not only help us believe in him, but to enable us to be like him. With all the pressures of the season, we can spend so much time celebrating Christmas that we forget to be Christians.

 Our faith in Christ may begin as a fragile, faint glimmer in the terrifying darkness of the night sky, but as we follow the light of the savior in the service of each other, we can #lighttheworld with hope. 

 Check out this video for inspiration. https://www.mormon.org/christmas/light-the-world?play=hero

Message inspired by the faithful scholarship of Brevard S. Childs, see his The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 24-25.

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Christ: The End Worth Enduring For

Presented at the SMPT Conference held at Brigham Young University, October 2016.

It may seem like an understatement of sorts to say, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33), when hardship is the state of man in the world. Suffering is not supposed to be the end state for us though, “men are, that they may have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Christ is the end of our sorrows, not because he removes our sorrows, but through him “[our] sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:20). It is a process. As we sample life’s buffet, we will inevitably “taste the bitter”, not just so we can learn to “prize the good”, but so we can learn to metabolize the bitter and convert into something “for [our] own good” (Moses 6:55 and D&C 122:7). In life, we are meant to do more than just endure.

“Endur[ing] to the end” is the critical last leg of our overall journey to salvation (3 Nephi 15:9); however, when we talk about it, we often focus on endurance, as if white-knuckling the “rod of iron” was tantamount to enduring to the end. In actuality, understanding what the end is empowers us to “stand still” when “all things shall be in commotion” (D&C 123:17 and 88:91). More than merely understanding the end, the scriptures insist that we can know or even view the end through revelation. It is the through revelation’s lens that we can gain perspective on the end that is death, the end of our immediate sufferings, and the end who is Christ.

The scriptures, which are revelations themselves, beget further revelation for those seeking truth. It is important to know that the scriptures are living documents. We sometimes confuse the life we bring to the words as the only life the scriptures possess; as if the only voice the scriptures have is ours when we read. In addition to the ancient authors’ voices whispering from the dust, the “still small voice” of God’s spirit breathes life into the scriptures with words we can “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45). As a result of this interaction, we “can testify that [we] have heard [His] voice, and know [His] words” (D&C 18:36). The Lord entrusts us with revelation, so we will trust his words and follow him, especially in those times when we are confused.

Although not always evident and certainly not always appreciated, the precursor for revelation is often confusion. The promise “ask, and ye shall receive” presupposes a question. Life has a way of forcing questions on us that the scriptures seem ill-equipped to answer. Often solutions from the scriptures seem binary, where things are only right or wrong. Fortunately, revelation can convert scriptural binary, so it can be applied to solve the equations of our own suffering. The scriptures hold a power to transport us into an abstract world that can match the abstract confusion in our lives. A place where “all things whatsoever God has seen proper to reveal to us” he can “[reveal] to us in the abstract”. [1]

It is precisely through continuing personal revelation that the gospel is made “inexhaustible” [2] and we can begin to fathom such a thing as an “infinite atonement” (2 Nephi 9:7). Without the assistance of the spirit, we are easily confined to a finite world defined by the relentless rhythm of time. In his atoning act, Christ’s condescension to this world connected us to the infinite. We worship a God, before whom “past, present, and future…are continually” (D&C 130:7); therefore, God can and does “declar[e] the end from the beginning” to us (Isaiah 46:10). It is worth all the spiritual sweat we expend in understanding revelation from the scriptures and persistent prayer, if we can gain a glimpse of the sweet eternal perspective that the Lord can provide. Eternal perspectives enable us to correctly scope our current crisis.

The End that Is Death

Often our present problems can find relief through simply knowing that death is not the end. Christ “[is] the…life” that made immortal life possible for us (John 14:6). Christ’s infinite atonement not only extends our individual stories passed the finality of death, but also allows us to attain to a “knowledge…of the world to come” (Jacob 4:12, see also Mosiah 5:3). Our “hope and views” of the post-mortal world can allow us to face trials, suffering, and especially death knowing that we don’t have to face them alone.

When a loved one departs this earth, part of our solace can come from this knowledge that death is not the end of life. Additionally, understanding that death is not the end of our relationships can help us deal with life. The scriptures teach that “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there” (D&C 130:2). This principle is one of the more regularly confirmed revelations in scripture. The spirit hallows our daily precious moments with the people we love by adding a feeling of permanence that is nearly palpable to our associations. This spiritual witness of our enduring relationships is also part of our “knowledge…of the world to come” (Jacob 4:12). Our spirit-touched eyes can see what heaven will be like as we love others right now. This love, though not always “perfect”, can still cast out some of the fear that our vessels of faith take in as we traverse the swells of life (1 John 4:18).

Revelation offers us the awareness that we are not alone, especially at those times that we most fear that we are. “Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us” [3]; they are in the spirit world here “on earth, around us” [4]. By doing genealogy we generate more than lists of names and dates, we generate eternal relationships. Our efforts in family history invite the spirit to thin the veil that separates us from the dearly departed, so that our own ancestry can be the unseen ministering angels that “speak by the power of the Holy Ghost” to us in our times of need (2 Nephi 32:3) [5]. Genealogy generates power for us to overcome our difficulties. No matter how steep the odds we face in our trials here, the arithmetic of our own ancestry is such that we can count on there being “more with us than with [any of our figurative enemy armies]“ (2 Chronicles 32:7). It is very empowering to realize that the hosts of heaven, the great angelic army of the Lord, are our ancestors. [6]

Christ has “trodden the winepress alone” so we do not have to (Isaiah 63:3). His atonement can make our relationships eternal. The relationships we create here and through the veil are our “cloud of witnesses” to God’s love for us, a love that is perfect and “casteth out all fear” (Hebrews 12:1 and Moroni 8:16).

The End of Our Sufferings

Despite a growing knowledge of the world to come, when we are caught in one of life’s “mighty storm[s]” (Helaman 5:12), the end we tend to care about most is the end of our immediate sufferings. Trapped within the confines of our present circumstances, we are unable to see that there is “a way” prepared for us to “escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Christ “[is] the way” (John 14:6). His infinite atonement is the only way to escape the chains of the finite now to spiritually see “things as they really are, and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

The Holy Ghost is a comforter, because he is a revealer. Through the spirit, our faith and anxiety can qualify us to know what “things should happen” (Jacob 1:5). Revelation can comfort us; however, even knowing how something will occur does not necessarily trivialize the experience of living through it. Christ, who knew cognitively before hand what his suffering would be like was still “astonished” when his agony began in the garden of Gethsemane [7]. Because of Christ’s astonishing sorrow we can also be astonished at how personal a figure Christ can be in the path out of our own sufferings.

The Spirit’s witness of Christ is another way that the Holy Ghost fulfills his role as a comforter. The Spirit begins by confirming basic truths about Christ; that he exists and that he is the savior. Over time, the Holy Ghost personalizes Christ’s reality to us in ways that will deepen our awareness of the personal relationship we have with him. His reality can become so tangible, we will begin to feel “as though he had already come among [us]” (Mosiah 3:13, see also Jarom 1:11). This consciousness of his reality, his personal presence in our lives, gives us lasting comfort in our times of need. The numerous tender mercies we receive from God become more tender through an intimate relationship with their giver.

While speaking of theophanies, Moroni explained that the brother of Jared was one of those who “truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad” (Ether 12:19). The spirit helps us imagine the presence of God with our spiritual senses well before the day when “[we] shall see him” with our eyes (D&C 88:68). In this way, the Spirit, as the comforter, prepares us for the Second Comforter, who is Christ [8]. Coming into the presence of God is a process in which we experience his presence gradually as we learn to feel and follow the Spirit. Our sufferings are a vital part of this process.

When we are in pain, it is very easy to focus on causes instead of purposes for our trials. We can wallow in a multitude of why questions, before we begin to think about how to get through the quagmire of a particular problem. We often treat our problems like ends unto themselves, when really to the Lord our trials are a means to an end. Getting through a tribulation, though admirable, is not as important eternally as what we get out of it and who we become because of it. Life, including our sufferings, is a means to an end, and that end is for us to become like Christ. He is the end of our sufferings.

The End Who Is Christ

Christ himself said “I am…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6, italics added for emphasis). Christ is the end worth enduring to and his grace [9] supplies the power we need to reach him. It is our knowledge of Christ and our personal relationship with him that brings fuller purpose to our mortal pains and additional power to meet our trials. The spirit allows us such an intimacy in our relationship with Christ; however, this feeling of intimacy with Christ and a certainty of his existence, though related are different concepts. The scriptures use various senses to suggest progressive levels of certitude in our awareness of Christ’s reality; we can feel his spirit, we can hear his voice, and finally we can see his face. The scriptures similarly describe different degrees of divine intimacy or nearness, but the senses are ranked differently. From a distance we can hear him “as the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and we can glimpse him with an eye of faith, but the spirit allows a closeness beyond sound or sight, where we can feel his presence, and even “[taste] of his love” (D&C 88:66 and Mosiah 4:11).

The Lord does not want us to just know that he is, he also wants proximity to us. In scripture, he insists on intimacy, “draw near unto me, and I will draw near unto you” (D&C 88:63). The idea that we can taste of his love or goodness is a symbolically shocking way to describe how close we can come to the Lord through the spirit (see Mosiah 4:11 and Alma 36:24-26). To taste something, you have to be close enough to touch it with your tongue. As a brief aside, this is exactly what we do with the emblems of Christ in the Eucharist or the Sacrament, we put them in our mouth; it is supposed to be this intimate. Sometimes it is during suffering’s suffocating grip that we come to know Christ most intimately. His nearness can distance us from our pain, so that we can see our trials differently. At these moments, we can more easily enter into a Gethsemaneic mindset, where we are willing to accept the Lord’s will over our own. And having emptied out our wills, we will have more room for more of God’s power to do what was previously impossible.

Our sufferings can find their end in Christ, where his will can drive us to “finish[…]” our trials in a way that can also add finishing touches to us (D&C 19:19). Our submission allows the Lord to use our trials as tools to engrave his image in our countenances (see Alma 5:19). Our harrowing experiences prepare our hearts to receive the word, so that it can be planted there. Alma defines this word as Christ and his atonement, the capitalized Word, and suggests that as Christ grows in us, God may then “grant unto [us] that [our] burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son” (Alma 33:23, 22-23) [10]. Our suffering can lead us to such intimacy with the Lord that we end up becoming “like him” (Moroni 7:48). He is the end we endure life’s pains to reach and the end we can become. He is worth it and so are we.

Endnotes

To see the abstract for this paper, see “The End Worth Enduring for“.

[1] The Words of Joseph Smith: The contemporary accounts of the Nauvoo discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, ed. (Kindle Edition), 112.

[2] This phrase comes from a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on 18 August 1992 by Elder Neal A. Maxwell published in “The Inexhaustible Gospel”, in The Inexhaustible Gospel: A Retrospective of Twenty-One Firesides and Devotionals Brigham Young University 1974-2004 (Intellectual Reserves, Inc., 2004), 211-225.

[3] Ezra T. Benson, “Life is Eternal”, Ensign, June 1971. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/06/life-is-eternal?lang=eng

[4] Gospel Principles, “Chapter 41: The Postmortal Spirit World” (2011). https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-41-the-postmortal-spirit-world?lang=eng

[5] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament”, Ensign, January 1999. https://www.lds.org/liahona/1999/01/the-aaronic-priesthood-and-the-sacrament?lang=eng

[6] This is based on the principle that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it” (D&C 130:5). Joseph F. Smith also stated that “When messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow-beings and fellow-servants.” https://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/03/i-have-a-question?lang=eng

[7] “Later, in Gethsemane, the suffering Jesus began to be ‘sore amazed’ (Mark 14:33), or, in the Greek, ‘awestruck’ and ‘astonished.’ Imagine, Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, ‘astonished’! Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fulness, it was so much, much worse than even He with his unique intellect had ever imagined!” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit”, Ensign, May 1985) https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/04/willing-to-submit?lang=eng This idea is also hinted at in Alma 7: 11-13.

[8] The LDS Bible Dictionary defines the Second Comforter as the personal privilege of receiving the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/comforter?lang=eng&letter=c

[9] The LDS Bible Dictionary entry for Grace: “It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.” https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/grace?lang=eng&letter=g I also like this article on Grace by John Gee http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1466&index=10

[10] I am reading Alma 33:23, where Alma says “plant this word” as a referrer to Alma 33:22 for a definition of “the word” used in the famous allegory of Alma 32, which, from this point of view, is a process of certainty and intimacy with the Savior himself.

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Active Faith

Imagine for a minute a single rain drop accelerated through the sky by gravity. At the end of its descent, envision the rain drop’s sudden impact upon a patch of earth. You can predict the change the water can make to the ground as it is absorbed. If given the right conditions, it can catalyze the miracle of life. God’s words fall upon our hearts like rain and are specially designed to make an impact (see Isaiah 55:10-11). Sometimes God’s word is a falling mist that gently caresses the ground, and sometimes it is an impaling flurry that makes the flowers kneel before him, but in every occasion his word is calculated to change us, to bring new life to the sometimes barren wastelands in our souls.

His words are the beginning of our faith (see Romans 10:17). Revelation makes our faith possible, so our faith, which often precedes the miracle, is also a miraculous gift itself. At the most fundamental level it is a “desire to believe”, which essentially is a choice to believe (Alma 32: 27). We feel his spirit, his words, and we choose to act on them or not. Our choice to follow God’s revealed word is simultaneously a trial of our faith and its primary builder. Interestingly, humans are designed by nature to overwhelmingly prefer sight over our other senses to observe reality; therefore, faith as “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) or as a “hope for things which are not seen” (Alma 32:21), is something that will be a trial for us.

Faith is also different than optimism, where you just generally expect the most favorable outcome from a situation, it is a trust in revelation. Faith should not only push us to act on past revelation, but seek continual light. The Lord wants us to seek guidance for our own specific mission assignments here on earth. Sometimes we misunderstand faith and misapply our efforts, which can lead to situations where we are under-utilizing atoning power in our lives. We can treat our faith like optimism at times, where we might live with a generic belief in God, and believe he will take care of us, but do not seek him out for specific guidance in our lives. Our only prayers might be the infrequent, but urgent prayers of the desperate. This is a passive faith, where we are acted upon, instead of acting in faith first.

Active faith begins with seeking first the will of God. We approach him in prayer continually to ask for him to reveal his will to us. We seek out personal revelation in daily scripture study. As he reveals his will to us, and we act upon his words, we will be on “[his] errand” (D&C 64:29). In this way, we seek first the kingdom of God by building it errand by errand. His revealed will to us, his living word becomes “the substance of things hoped for” by our faith (Hebrews 11:1). His revealed direction in our lives is the promises we will have faith in; it is the context to an active faith. Having a revealed context for our lives gives us perspective, a frame of reference, so that we can see the events of our lives including our trials as a part of a bigger picture or as something playing a role in a grander scheme.

Faith, although not used as a verb in English, can transform us into a verb when we act as prompted by revelation.

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The End Worth Enduring for


“Endur[ing] to the end” is the critical last leg of our overall journey to salvation (3 Nephi 15:9). When we talk about it; however, we often focus on endurance, as if white-knuckling the “rod of iron” was tantamount to enduring to the end. In actuality, understanding what the end is empowers us to “stand still” when “all things shall be in commotion” (D&C 123:17 and 88:91).

Often our present problems can find relief through simply knowing that death is not the end. Christ “[is] the…life” that made immortal life possible for us (John 14:6). Christ’s infinite atonement not only extends our individual stories passed the finality of death, but also allows us to attain to a “knowledge…of the world to come” (Jacob 4:12, see also Mosiah 5:3). Our “hope and views” of the resurrection can allow us to face trials, suffering, and especially death knowing that they only last a “small moment” and ultimately we will “find rest to [our] souls” (Alma 27:28, D&C 121:7, and Alma 37:34).

Despite a growing knowledge of the resurrection, when we are caught in one of life’s “mighty storm[s]” (Helaman 5:12), the end we tend to care about most is the end of our immediate sufferings. Trapped within the confines of our present circumstances, we are unable to see that there is “a way” prepared for us to “escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Christ “[is] the way” (John 14:6). His infinite atonement is the only way to escape the chains of the finite now to see “things as they really are, and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

Our faith and anxiety can qualify us to know what “things should happen” (Jacob 1:5); however, even knowing how something will occur does not necessarily trivialize the experience of living through it. Christ, who knew cognitively before hand what his suffering would be like was still “astonished” when his suffering began in the garden of Gethsemane [1]. Because of Christ’s astonishing sorrow we can also be astonished at how personal a figure Christ can be in the path out of our own sufferings.

Christ himself said “I am…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6, italics added for emphasis). Christ is the end worth enduring to and his grace supplies the power we need to reach him. It is our knowledge of Christ and our personal relationship with him that brings fuller purpose to our mortal pains and additional power to meet our trials. The spirit allows us such an intimacy in our relationship with Christ that we can “look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11). We can begin to glimpse him with an “eye of faith” and be “glad” (Ether 12:19; John 8:56).

Sometimes it is during suffering’s suffocating grip that we come to know Christ most intimately. His nearness can distance us from our pain, so that we can see our trials differently. At these moments, we can more easily enter into a Gethsemaneic mindset, where we are willing to accept the Lord’s will over our own. And having emptied out our wills, we will have more room for more of God’s power to do what was previously impossible. Here our sufferings can find their end in Christ, where his will can drive us to “finish[…]” our trials in a way that can also add finishing touches to us (D&C 19:19). Our submission allows the Lord to use our trials as tools to engrave his image in our countenances (see Alma 5:19). In the end, we will see him and we “shall be like him” (Moroni 7:48). He is the end we endure life’s pains to reach and the end we can become. He is worth it and so are we.

Endnotes

[1] “Later, in Gethsemane, the suffering Jesus began to be ‘sore amazed’ (Mark 14:33), or, in the Greek, ‘awestruck’ and ‘astonished.’ Imagine, Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, ‘astonished’! Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fulness, it was so much, much worse than even He with his unique intellect had ever imagined!” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit”, Ensign, May 1985) https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/04/willing-to-submit?lang=eng This idea is also hinted at in Alma 7: 11-13.

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The Spell of the Gospel: the Convergence of Poetry and Spirit in the Scriptures

When I first began to seriously read scripture, I immediately noticed the magic of its language. Certain words or passages enchanted me “unto the overpowering of [me] to read them” (Ether 12: 24). The elevated language of scripture lends a certain power to the spell of the gospel’s message. It’s abstract phrasing is the perfect medium through which the Spirit can transform mere ink on pages into the living word within our hearts. Thus, the gospel is not only good because it is the story of God, but it is good because it is well-written. Like a spell wrought upon us, it can move us and change us.

The modern mind is accustomed to information on demand and fast moving prose, like instant messaging, memes, news articles or novels; therefore, the slow, ponderous poetry in scripture may bore, annoy, and confuse us in the same way that waiting a couple of seconds for a buffering video stream does. Although not always evident and certainly not always appreciated, the precursor for revelation is often confusion. The promise “ask, and ye shall receive” presupposes a question; the person praying wants to know something they currently don’t or to know something to a higher degree of clarity or depth than they currently do (John 16:24).

Poetry is the perfect medium for creating blissful bewilderment. The oddities of its language create textual speed bumps that pause our otherwise hurried ascent through a narrative. Our pauses to ponder allow the Spirit to conjure up concepts and images in the swirling potion of our jumbled thoughts. And in this abstract stew created by poetic phrasing, multiple, even contradictory, meanings are possible as we drink deep the “inexhaustible gospel” [1]. The gospel is made inexhaustible by an infinite atonement, but it is often inexhaustibly expressed through the convergence of spirit and poetry.

Poetry can magically transport us into the abstract spiritual world of “starkness” [2], a world full of stark contrasts, where realities are not clothed in language or time. A place where “all things whatsoever God has seen proper to reveal to us” he can “[reveal] to us in the abstract” [3]. Spiritual landscapes turn our world inside out making our understandings susceptible to more epiphany-catalyzing moments. Sometimes seeing something askew can change the way we perceive the world, like Dickens’ epiphany from seeing coffee-room spelt backwards-“mooreeffoc” [4]. In this state, the spirit can deliver our favorite, time-honored passages from an existence of continual triteness into novel applications with the suddenness and force of a lightening bolt.

The power of poetry, as it is paired with the Spirit, is not limited to merely transforming our perceptions of the scriptures, so that we can pull out an inexhaustible amount of applicable principles out of thin air. But the gospel’s spell can transform us from the inside out. Our God is a “God of miracles” who “answereth by fire” our scriptural inquiries and our “bosom shall burn” with the truth (Mormon 9:15-16; 1 Kings 18:24; and D&C 9:8). The scriptures are his tool to melt our hearts with poetic tender mercies and shape us into his likeness with repeated baptisms of spiritual fire. We can witness this magical transformation again and again as we seek God through continually studying his words that can be “made flesh” as we live them (see John 1:14).

References

[1] This phrase comes from a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on 18 August 1992 by Elder Neal A. Maxwell published in “The Inexhaustible Gospel”, in The Inexhaustible Gospel: A Retrospective of Twenty-One Firesides and Devotionals Brigham Young University 1974-2004 (Intellectual Reserves, Inc., 2004), 211-225 or click here.

[2] This term is defined beautifully by James L. Kugel as “the stark world of the soul” a place of “pitch-darkness and bright, bright light”. A “moonscape” a place “altogether eerie and uncanny”. A world that “is quite overwhelming”. For more on starkness, see Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York, The Free Press, 2003), 66-67, 140-142, 156-158.

[3] The Words of Joseph Smith: The contemporary accounts of the Nauvoo discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, ed. (Kindle Edition), 112.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien described the term Mooreeffoc, which is just coffee room spelled backwards, in this manner: “Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.” In “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 146. Here is a blog that talks about this word and also uses this quote from Tolkien, http://americanchestertonsociety.blogspot.com/2006/09/mooreeffoc.html.

This could be considered part two of a series on the scriptures that began with Scriptural Landscapes, or click here.

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Cell of Our Own Self-Esteem

Sometimes we incarcerate ourselves in the cell of our own self-esteem. We take our fears, insecurities, and sorrows and project them upon the actions and words of others including God. We read our own guilt into the silent glances of others and they appear to be judging us. We may feel that God is angry at us, when really we are angry at ourselves. We can become so defensive over our own issues that no matter the real motives behind what anyone else does or says, all we will see is offense. Like bars, these feelings prevent us from having real relationships, because we don’t see things or people “as they really are” (see Jacob 4:13), we see them as we are.

Seeing the world through the cell of our own self-esteem makes it difficult to see anything but ourselves. As we put ourselves in front of the correct focus it won’t matter how much light we have in our life, the world outside of us will blur from our developing myopia. Our own concerns are sharply in focus and overshadow everything else. In this way, it can become nearly impossible to see the sufferings or triumphs of those closest to us, because we cannot see past the bars of our own overinflated issues. We cannot be there for others, and it seems like no one is there for us. This extreme nearsightedness may also be termed as spiritual blindness, where we “walk[…] in darkness at noonday” (D&C 95:6).

Spiritual blindness is not a malady that is inflicted upon us, but something we do to ourselves; it is the equivalent of walking around with our eyes shut. This is not only foolish, but dangerous! Fortunately, it is part of Christ’s prophesied mission to “Go forth to them that sit in darkness” (1 Nephi 21:9), and he can free us from ourselves by revealing himself to us. If we allow Him into our lives, we will see His “goodness”, which should “awaken[s] [us]” to a deeper sense of the divine (Mosiah 4:5, see also Mormon 2:13).

Depending upon our circumstances, coming to know God can be an arresting, life altering, and a sudden stop on our own road to “Damascus” (see Acts 9). Sometimes repentance, our turning to him, can be as uncomfortable as the impact of a wrecking ball, a “mighty change” that can cause the walls to the cell of our own self esteem to “[fall] down” (Alma 5:14 and Joshua 6:20). It may also feel like a eucatastrophe, which J.R.R. Tolkien defined as a “sudden joyous turn”, a joy “beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” (*).

Although repentance is often portrayed in dramatic one-time occurrences in scripture, for many of us this mighty change happens, almost imperceptibly, in the “process of time” (Moses 7:4). The experience of coming to know Christ and His atonement through repentance and reconciliation is a singular experience meant to be experienced regularly. It is a personal experience of such spiritual intimacy that in the Book of Mormon it is phrased as having “tasted of His love” (Mosiah 4:11).

It probably does not need to be said, but to taste something you put it in your mouth, you touch it with your tongue. This is the poetic way of referencing how personal and intimate our relationship with God can be. It is also exactly what we do every week at the sacrament. We take the bread, a symbol of his body, and we take the water, as a symbol of his blood, and we eat and drink them in remembrance of Him. The portions are small, but enough for us to “feast upon his love…forever” (Jacob 3:2). Through the sacrament, we memorialize the day when, or perhaps more likely the process of time through which, “Christ hath made us free” from ourselves (Galatians 5:1). We can then step out of our self-esteem to love and be loved.

Endnotes

* J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 153-157.

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A Call to Arms

The scriptures are rife with war metaphors and depictions of battles, so much so that when we read “put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11, KJV), we may get overly excited. We may imagine ourselves answering a call to arms as a knight riding up, sword and armor immaculately shining, “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” ready to deal out judgment in holy battle (D&C 5:14). In our eagerness; however, we may not think thoroughly enough about the identity of the actual enemy of God.
We know that Satan is the enemy, yet our struggle against him is more focused on his influence than on a chest thumping, arms outstretched, “come at me bro” type of direct encounter. Our battle is not against “flesh and blood” either, like our neighbor, but against “spiritual wickedness in high places,” especially those mountains of pride built up in us (see Ephesians 6:12, KJV). It is the “natural man” inside us that could be the real “enemy of God” we need to fight (Mosiah 3:19, BofM).

Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable idea, one which we may “never had
supposed” (Moses 1:10, PofGP). Ironically, this uncomfortable idea was likely brought to us by the Comforter or the Holy Ghost. We have known the Comforter as the instrument of God’s “tender mercies”, but the Spirit could be called the Discomforter, because He is often prompting us to do things that are uncomfortable, like “be thou humble” (D&C 110:12).

As an integral part of the “whole” armor of God, the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17, KVJ) is often compared to “a two edged sword”. This comparison does not just emphasize the sharpness of the Spirit or its facility for slicing outward in multiple directions, but also the idea that one of those edges is to cut towards the wielder; to “prick [our own] hearts with the word” (Jarom 1:12, BofM). We may need a little snipping here and there to our pride, in order to bring us down to the right size. Otherwise, the call to arms could come, and our own armor might not fit, because we have become too “puffed up in the vain things of the world” (Alma 5:37, BofM).

We will need a spiritual diet to shed our excess pounds of pride. A diet where we “deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness” (Moroni 10:32, BofM) and “feast upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3, BofM). We must also “exercise [our] faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:17, BofM) “lay[ing] aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1, KJV), so we can “run, and not be weary” “…of well-doing” (Isaiah 40:31 and 2 Thessalonians 3:13, KJV). Our concerted efforts will enable us to go back to a time “when [we were] little in [our own] sight” (1 Samuel 15:17. KJV). Slim enough to fit in God’s armor and little enough for the Lord to “lead [us] by the hand, and give [us] answer to [our] prayers” (D&C 112:10).

As we approach the Almighty in mighty prayer, we will encounter his overwhelming and unfailing love. A love that, perhaps contrary to our expectations, we will often experience through chastisement and rebuke, for He has said, “whom I love I also chasten” (D&C 95:1). Enduring with humility the experience of repeatedly seeing our shortcomings allows God’s grace to “make weak things become strong unto [us]” (Ether 12:27, BofM). The ceaseless struggle against the worst in us builds us into a better us. Our defeat of the enemy inside us will make us a better friend to everyone. Like muscles that are broken down to become stronger, our faith is exercised and strengthened through trial. After all, we wouldn’t need an “anchor” for our faith, if we were merely meant to sail in smooth seas (see Ether 12:4, BofM).

The crucible of our sufferings reveals the integrity of our metal affording us the opportunity to refine compromises we have made against truth and recast our character. We demonstrate this newly recast character during our afflictions to set it*, to finalize “His image in [our] countenance” (Alma 5:14, BofM). Our trials, at times, will take us to our breaking point, where God’s atoning grace can multiply our last efforts to do what was previously impossible for us. We will see in His refining fire that although we are nothing before Him, we are everything to Him, and we can do anything with Him. We will see that God’s “marvelous work and a wonder” is us (Isaiah 29:13, KJV); we will see it not only because we have experienced His love for us personally, but we will also see His wonder in others. Our sufferings, when endured with faith, will create more compassion in us for the rest of humanity. We will be more suited to suit up in His armor and answer the call to extend our arms out in mercy.

The purpose of the refiner’s fire is to create in us the capacity to ignite a “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4, BofM) in the heart’s of others. We will cease to merely consume, but begin to produce “the pleasing word of God” (Jacob 2:8, BofM), so we can enrich the lives of the “poor in spirit” and feed those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:3 and 6, KJV). We can speak a symphony of sympathy for those with secret sadnesses, while the word “healeth the wounded soul” (Jacob 2:8, BofM).

In the end, vanquishing the enemy within us frees up additional space for caring about and caring for others. God’s call to arms is to arm us with His love, so we, like Him, can “[go] about doing good” (Acts 10:38, KJV).

I am grateful to my friend Katherine for her editing suggestions and my friend Jason for the epic picture, which is of him. -Nathan

Endnote

*This principle was taught to me by a home teacher based on the teachings of Elder Scott, “Faith and character are intimately related. Faith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character available to you in times of urgent need. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is intended to be used.” Elder Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign (November 2010) https://www.lds.org/ensign/2010/11/the-transforming-power-of-faith-and-character?lang=eng&_r=1.

Scripture Key:

KJV=King James Version of the Bible;
BofM=Book of Mormon;
D&C=Doctrine and Covenants; and
PofGP=Pearl of Great Price.

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The Power to Get Back Up Again

We live in a fallen world and so we encounter failure. We try to “take up the cross, and follow [Christ] (Mark 10:21), but fall again and again. Sometimes we get tired. We may feel it is too hard. We may begin to think that our failures are not mistakes, but we are, that we fail because we are failures. This is exactly what Satan would like us to think. When we recognize that we have failed in some aspect of the gospel or we have sinned, we may come in contact with two different types of sorrow: the “sorrow of the world” (2 Corinthians 7:10) also described by Mormon as the “sorrowing of the damned” (Mormon 2:13), or “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

The sorrow of the world comes from Satan, it is designed to crush us under its weight. This weight is unproductive and deliberately debilitating, because “[Satan] seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). He wants us to feel like him, like we are damned, and there is no way out. The sorrow of the world is paralyzing, but Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33), including its sorrow, so that he could give us a different way.

Christ’s way allows us to feel hope even in the midst of our sorrows. Unlike the sorrow of the world, the weight of “Godly sorrow” is meant to be lifted, so we can become stronger and better. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and links us to the power of an “infinite atonement” (Alma 34:12), which is the power to get back up when we fall, no matter how far or often. Part of the significance of having an “infinite atonement” is to teach us about infinite forgiveness, infinite healing, and God’s infinite love, which “faileth not” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The painful process of the atonement is itself an example of the power we can have over sorrow and sin.

The account of Christ’s agonizing atonement in the garden of Gethsemane progresses through a simple sequence of actions. The narrative in the book of Matthew reads, “and he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39, italics added for emphasis). The scholar Kent Brown* has taught that the three main verbs “went”, “fell”, and “prayed” as narrated in all the synoptic gospels use the imperfect tense in the Greek original. This tense is used to describe either an action that was customary, something someone used to do, or an action that was iterative, something done repeatedly. The intended meaning here is that Jesus repeatedly went forward, fell down, and cried out for the pain to stop. This cycle was repeated over and over again as he suffered for our sins and sorrows.

The critical verb that is absent, but implied in this sequence of suffering is that he got up. Jesus fell down repeatedly, but he also got up again and again, and so can we. We will fall and fail, often and hard, but we don’t have to stay down, we can get up. We can always rise from the ashes of our mistakes through Christ’s enabling atonement.

References

*From the documentary, “The Messiah: Behold the Lamb of God”, produced by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, accessed on May 17, 2016 http://messiahjesuschrist.org/episodes/atonement. The script, also available on line, has the following commentary from Professor Kent Brown:

“So Jesus arrives with the eleven. Judas has already separated himself. They come inside the garden, somewhere on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. He leaves eight near the gate, near the entryway, and takes three with Him farther into the garden. These are Peter, James, and John, those who have been with Him from the earliest days after He began to call the Twelve.

There are two basic things to notice about this. The first is the intensity of the suffering which now descends upon Him. And he, He says to the three that He is sorrowful even unto death. The weight of our sins, our mistakes, falling on a sinless man, in such enormity, brings Him to the point at which He wishes that He could push this away. He leaves them there, He goes farther into the garden and prays. And this is the second part. Each one of the synoptic gospels repeats his actions in the imperfect tense in Greek, which is the tense of customary action: he used to do this, she used to do that. And it also has to do with iterative action, repeated action. So that we read that Jesus went forward and fell and prayed, went forward and fell and prayed, went forward and fell and prayed.

This series of repeated actions that the verbs convey to readers indicates the intensity of the suffering He’s going through. He doesn’t just pray once. He must have straightened Himself up and trying to relieve Himself in some way, went forward and prayed again. This is a scene which is compelling to me, and tells me just in the way that it’s written, that Jesus suffers deeply, unfathomably at this moment, for you and for me.”

(http://messiahjesuschrist.org/messiah-the-narrative/messiah-script-episode-5/messiah-script-episode-5-part-2)

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A Burning Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Samoan Fireknife Dancers (1)
The Samoan fire-knife dance is a symbol of strength and fiery perseverance.
It can be hard to follow the Lord. At times it is easy to become “weary in well-doing” (Galatians 6:9). The gospel, as described in scripture, is pure and simple, until you try to live it. Life seemingly transforms elegant doctrine and principles into complex conundrums and sticky situations. In short, the gospel can get messy. For example, it is easy to love your enemies, when you don’t actually have any, but as soon as a loved one betrays you, a co-worker figuratively stabs you in the back, or a crazy driver cuts you off in traffic that principle gets exponentially harder to live. With the proper amount of pressure, we can grow faint and consider a full stop in our discipleship, but, a lot like the tragic prophet Jeremiah, we can also learn how to find strength for those times when we are without.

The Lord called Jeremiah to preach to a people who would not listen to him. He “[was] in derision daily” and mocked by “every one” (Jeremiah 20:7). His harsh message of repentance brought him into conflict with the most prominent people of power in his day. At one point Jeremiah felt that he had suffered enough, he declared, “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name” (Jeremiah 20:9). He was just going to stop, until he found that he could not.

He explained “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jeremiah 20:9). Jeremiah found that he could not stop as easily as he thought. The fiery insistence of the word overpowered his failing will. This is not an example of the Lord merely forcing someone to do his will against theirs; instead, this burning fire was a power reserve Jeremiah had stored for himself.

The word did not find its way into Jeremiah’s heart by accident, he had planted it there. He wrote in a previous chapter, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jeremiah 15:16). Jeremiah’s love of the word had given him light in his darkest hour and rekindled his faith in his time of doubt.

We also can populate a similar power reserve within us, when we relish God’s individualized, simple, and sublime revelations. Our love of the word, the Lord’s revealed will to us, can qualify us for additional power to persevere when our circumstances become severe, when living the gospel gets messy, or when our hopes shatter before our eyes.

The emphasis of our own role in this process is mainly for motivational purposes, because our efforts, no matter how critical, are merely the preparation of an altar, the fire has always “fell” from heaven (see 1 KIngs 18:38). Christ brings the word to life, and with our consent he can power us like “a burning fire shut up in [our] bones” to work miracles in his name.

Thank you to my Uncle Adolf in Samoa for providing the picture of the Samoan entertainer with the fire-knife. According to my dad, one of the ways of referring to this routine in Samoan is gaifi ailao. 

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