Finding Christ Together

Sometimes in life, we face things before which we don’t just bend or break, but shatter. And all that we are fractures and falls upon the floor of our own worlds come to naught. Our stories that make up who we are, the contradictory puzzle pieces of our personalities, cease to unify us, but splinter us into bits. We lose the satisfaction of knowing who we really are. Being lost, truly lost, is terrifying. We grasp at our stories that reflect the brighter moments in our lives; they are brilliant, comforting, and full of hope. However, they are connected to those villainous vignettes that mirror the darkness, times when we chose deceit, betrayal, violence, and malice, or someone chose these for us. We don’t want these stories anymore, but they cling to us anyway, even as we fragment because of them. Our very efforts to deny them pull us down into an abyss of sorrows.

We may cry out for help or we may sit in the stillness of our secret sadnesses alone. Either way, we need someone to identify us, to tell us who we are, and to remind us of our value that we have meaning. We don’t just need a savior, we need the Savior; however, despite his promise, “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come for you” (John 14:18), he doesn’t seem to come. Instead, we may only receive an encouraging smile from a stranger, an unprecipitated kind word from a co-worker, or the listening ear of a friend or a family member. As appreciated as these gestures are, they are not Christ’s infinite and perfected empathy. So, we are puzzled when, in his place, he sends the broken to the broken to find wholeness again.

And there, scattered and broken, but together in our imperfect attempts to help each other, we find the Savior. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). And there he is moving between the creases of our broken pieces bringing us all together into his wholeness. With Christ, our brokenness allows us to fit together like a puzzle; our broken pieces become the mosaic, the portrait of the Messiah’s infinite love for us. Our many seemingly separate lives become one story of how we each find him together. He came, he was always there, and he will always be there when we are there, with and for each other. Let’s find each other, and we will find him together.

Thanks to my friend Katherine and brother David for their helpful comments in grammar and content!

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When Facing Doom, There is Room for Opportunities

Paul prophesied that “in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1). Especially in our current pandemic experience, it feels like those perilous times are already here. At times like today, it is important to remember that with every prophecy of doom there is room for opportunity; opportunities to bring salvation to you, me, and others. While “the whole earth shall be in commotion” (D&C 45:26); and “many hearts shall fail” (D&C 45:26), we should “sanctify the Lord God in [our] hearts and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh [us] a reason of the hope that is in [us] (1 Peter 3:15). Hope is always in short supply, when fear barks out its demands. 

Sustained anxiety and fear have a powerful effect on the human psyche. The continued commotion caused by sensationalized media from news outlets and social media feeds can blind people to the truth. “[T]here are many yet on the earth…who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men…who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12). In this age, we can easily confuse truth with information and be “ever learning,” but “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Being inundated with data is not the same thing as having “[our] whole bodies [being] filled with light” (D&C 88:67). What I am suggesting today is for you and me to find our light. If we have “misplaced” it under a bushel (see Matt.5:15), then let’s get it back, and rush out into the darkness to those who feel alone on an island of isolation surrounded by a sea of fear.

One need only to crack open the scriptures to feel that heavenly light chase away the darkness. Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that “[t]he scriptures hold the keys to spiritual protection…they offer hope.”[1] Sharing this hope through the scriptures can open up the “windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) to those “walking in darkness at noon-day” (D&C 95:6). The Book of Mormon is particularly relevant to our chaotic circumstances. As pointed out by the church scholar Grant Hardy, Mormon spends most of the Book of Mormon’s space on times of conflict.[2] It is informative to note that it is in those same times of conflict in the Book of Mormon that there are so many narratives about miracles. Mormon and the other narrators in the Book of Mormon knew our day, they knew we needed to know how to find miracles within the most dysfunctional times of our lives. Somehow, the Book of Mormon creatively blends stringent didacticism and literary artistry into a piercing message of hope in the face of the tragedy of its own narrative—the entire destruction of its own people. It is a miracle in its own right that we can read this heart-rending narrative and come away healed, full of hope, and rejoicing because of the Savior. I know the Savior, because of the Book of Mormon. He is real and I love him.  

It was during the years of continuous warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites that the sons of Mosiah convert thousands of their mortal enemies to Christ. This once bloodthirsty people, have such a mighty change in their hearts that they end up burying their weapons of war as well as “the weapons of their rebellion, that they did not fight against God any more” (Alma 23:7). They make an oath never again to take up arms against another soul—an oath they never break. Their conversion was so thorough that despite all the trials that continuously materialized on their covenant path,[3] they “never did fall away” (Alma 23:6). Such is the power of a Christ taken seriously. Christ was not an abstract concept to these converts. He visited them. They were “washed bright through the blood of the Son” (Alma 24:13). They came to know personally that “[God] love[d] [their] souls” (Alma 24:14). I often use the following pleading from their king as a spiritual ruler to measure my own devotion to the Savior:

What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. (Alma 22:15)

And then this same king prays:

O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. (Alma 22:18)

When was the last time I prayed with such fervor? Am I willing to change, to give up the me of today in order to follow God? I love Alma’s question to the people of Zarahemla, “if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love…can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26). If quarantine has caused you to distance yourself not only from others, but from God, “now is the time and the day of your salvation” (Alma 34:31). “Draw near unto [him] and [he] will draw near unto you” (D&C 88: 63). We are at our closest to God when we are on our knees. We don’t even need to don a mask before we “call on his name,” he will “converse with [us]” anyway (Alma 12:30).  

It is in a population of defiant dissidents that Alma and his group of missionaries rescue a group of humble converts for Christ. For these converts, “their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word” (Alma 32:6). Our current quarantine has likewise humbled many and prepared us for the word. The word is Christ. And we have no idea how many people our words about Christ could change. His redemption is “immediate[…]” (Alma 34:31) and life altering. Although the converts from Alma’s party at this time were limited, their effect was lasting. 

In a dark prison 40 years later, a man recites their words to a cowering crowd, who asked “what shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us?” He responds:

You must repent, and cry…even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you. (Helaman 5:41) 

As a result of this dialogue and the ensuing miracles that followed, the “more part of the Lamanites were convinced” and “did lay down their weapons of war” (Helaman 5:50-51). On top of this, the Lamanites “did yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possessions” (Helaman 5:52). Church scholar Michael Perry points out that this recovery of territory was something that years of war could not bring about (compare with Helaman 4:18-19).[4] This is the power of the word, which “had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else” (Alma 31:5). Like Alma, we “should try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5) in our own lives and share this power with others.  

As it was with them, so it is with us. Under our despairing circumstances, living in a world prophesied to be the end of days with commotion, contention, persecution, disasters, diseases, and the worst of human behavior, we can expect to see most clearly the tender mercies of the Lord. And even more, we can expect to be the instruments of his tender mercies delivered to others! Serving the Lord has never been comfortable, but sometimes God needs to discomfort us so we will bring comfort to the comfortless. We can be emboldened to “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power…with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17). Let’s let the Lord into our lives to lead us to reach out to someone today and every day his voice comes to us. If we listen, he will call us on his errand. I know this. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Endnotes:

[1] Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Key to Spiritual Protection,” October 2013: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/the-key-to-spiritual-protection?lang=yap

[2] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 107-108.

[3] “My dear brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ invites us to take the covenant path back home to our Heavenly Parents and be with those we love. He invites us to ‘come, follow me.’” President Nelson described it this way in his talk: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/46nelson?lang=eng

[4] Michael F. Perry, “Supremacy of the Word: Alma’s Mission to the Zoramites and the Conversion of the Lamanites,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, v. 24 (2015), 135-136. 

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The Interpreter to Publish, “Joseph Knew First: Moses, The Egyptian Son”

The Interpreter will publish my article “Joseph Knew First: Moses, The Egyptian Son” soon on their website (https://www.mormoninterpreter.com) and in print. Here is the abstract for the article:

After about 1500 years of slumber, ancient Egyptian was brought
back to life in the early 19th century, when scholars deciphered hieroglyphs.
This revolutionary success opened the door to a  reevaluation of history
from the viewpoint of ancient Egypt. In the wake of this new knowledge,
the first scholar posited the idea in 1849 that the name of Moses stemmed
from the Egyptian word for child. Subsequently, this idea was refined,
and currently the majority of scholars believe Moses’s name comes from
the Egyptian verb “to beget,” which is also the root for the Egyptian word
for child, or in the case of a male child, a “son.” Before this discovery and
certainly before a scholarly consensus formed on the Egyptian etymology
of the name of Moses, Joseph Smith restored a prophecy from the patriarch
Joseph that played upon the name of Moses and its yet to be discovered
Egyptian meaning of “son.” This article explores the implications of this
overt Egyptian pun and its role as a key thematic element in the restored
narratives in the Book of Moses.

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.

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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