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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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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The Joy of Reverence

rugged mountains of the Basque Country
The rugged mountains of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria) can easily instill a sense of reverence in a visitor. 
Fear and reverence are two different reactions to the unknown or the misunderstood. Historically speaking, no one or no thing has been misunderstood more than God, and sadly this has led to fear much more often than reverence. The irony is saddening, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). Instead God has given every human the gift of faith, which allows us to face uncertainty. Faith by definition, presupposes a certain amount of uncertainty, it is not “a perfect knowledge of things”, but it is to “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Through faith’s singular eye, we are able to perceive the goodness of God, and we “shall be filled with light” (D&C 88: 67). Whereas fear cometh from disbelief, not just from ignorance or misunderstanding; these bring darkness to our minds and hearts.

We are commanded to believe that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9). Yet, even within the faithful, for some not knowing everything, may be barely bearable, while for others it can be wonderful. Like Nephi, we can accept “not know[ing] the meaning of all things”, because we can “know that [God] loveth his children” (1Nephi 11:17). According to Nephi, this “love of God” is “the most desirable above all things”, and “the most joyous to the soul” (1Nephi 11: 22-23).

In the scriptures, the word joy is often used to describe the feelings of those who encounter the Divine. Joy can be traced back to the theoretical Indo-European root gau-, “to rejoice, to have religious fear or awe,”. For me, awe is an apt term to describe my response to those sublime moments of revelation, “when the arm of God is revealed” (D&C 123:17) or when in spiritual stillness I am made to know that He is God (see D&C 101: 16). This intense joy not only “passeth all understanding”, but also surpasses my ability to express them (Philippians 4: 7).

Although God is mysterious, He is not a nebulous cloud. He is real and revealable to those who diligently desire to know Him. He is tangible, with “a body of flesh and bone” (D&C 130:22). He feels, and therefore, in the scriptures we can see His wrath and His compassion; He has been seen to weep for our sins (Moses 7:27-33), to respond with tenderness to our pleas. Indeed, He loves us to the extent of allowing man the agency to inflict atrocities on others, and then He was willing to suffer the punishment for these sins, so that he could understand us and save us, if we would but listen.

And by this He understands humanity; and He will have us all stand before Him to give an account of our life here on earth. This is a monolithic event, one for which, if we are not prepared, we shall fear (see D&C 38: 30). This is one of our great missions on earth, to prepare to meet God. This preparation is done through repentance, the process of perfection, the remarkable gift given through the atonement of the Christ. For some receiving a remission of our sins is truly mysterious. Enos after crying unto God “in mighty prayer…for [his] own soul”, heard a voice tell him “[his] sins [were] forgiven”, in amazement, he said, “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1: 4-7).

Religious mystery is not mysterious, because religious truth is irrational or ineffable, but because it is sacred and wonderful, just like the experience of Enos. In fact, the word Mystery, for early Christians designated ordinances that were sacred. This connection between ordinances and mystery can be seen in D&C 84: 19-21:

“And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh”

This is the great mystery of the kingdom of God; that is, we come to know God and prepare to meet Him through the ordinances of the gospel. This begins with the ordinances of Baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. The covenants associated with them are renewed every time we partake of the sacrament. The sacrament is a sacred moment where we symbolically partake of the form of Christ in preparation for that day “when he shall appear” and “we shall be like Him” (Moroni 8: 48). Ordinances and their covenants whether baptismal or in the temple, all give us opportunities to glimpse the promises our hopes rest upon, this hope as Paul describes, “entereth into that within the veil” (Hebrews 6: 19).

Of course, it is not the ordinances alone, but our attitudes towards them and our faithfulness to the covenants we enter into, which allows our “confidence” to “wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121: 45), and then in turn makes it possible for his presence to wax strong in our lives.

At this point, we cease preparing to meet God, and are merely preparing to see him again, for we already know Him. He has made himself known to us, through our own actions.

As a young boy when we partook of the sacrament, I often mistook my Dad’s bowed head and silence as a sign of fatigue rather than of reverence. Upon completion, he would sometimes look at me with glazed eyes and an odd smile that I thought was an admission of guilt for sleeping. But as I have awoken spiritually, I have realized my dad’s expression was wrought by a renewal, a cup that was emptied and one that was filled till it ran over glazing his eyes with emotion. He has never told me this, but I know him well enough to understand the reasons for his reverence. For I too know that God lives, let us prepare to stand worthy before Him, so that we may enter into His rest.

A lightly edited version of a talk given in 2008.

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The True Order of Prayer


When we are first taught to pray, we are often given an order of things to say. We may be instructed to: first, address our Heavenly Father; second, express gratitude; third, ask for blessings we need; and lastly, close in the name of Jesus Christ. As we gain experience in communicating with God, our prayers may change. The order of our prayers may change too as we face disorder in our lives.

This is especially true when the last drops of our faith are being wrung out under the weight of our sufferings. When the gravity of our circumstances force us to weigh whether our desperate prayers are working or not, we should realize that “prayer is a form of work” (Bible Dictionary, p. 753). It isn’t supposed to work, we are.

In desperation, we might take the approach of “wrestling with God in mighty prayer” (Alma 8:10), but do it incorrectly. We may expend a lot of spiritual sweat before we realize that we cannot pin God down into giving us the blessings we want or think we need; rather, we need to “ask for things it is possible for God to grant” (Bible Dictionary, p. 753). This can be frustrating, because “we know not what we should pray for”; fortunately, “the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26). We can find peace in knowing that “it shall be given [us] what [we] shall ask” by the Spirit (D&C 50: 30).

We don’t wrestle against God, but with Him as we “labor[…] in the spirit” (Alma 8:10) to “feel” and understand the “still small voice” prompting us to ask for those blessings the Lord can give us (1 Nephi 17:45). Sometimes we need the rending wind, the earthquake, or the fire of our sufferings before we can hear this voice or even want to hear it (see 1Kings 19:11-12). Regardless of our circumstances, when we recognize His voice, we need to listen. Just like a child who initially repeats the promptings of a parent when he or she learns to pray, we can be open to the Lord’s voice and repeat His promptings in our prayers. This order of prayer may be termed a “true order of prayer”, because it reflects the true order of our relationship with God.

The awareness of our relationship with God should change our prayers. Our prayers might lengthen as we punctuate them with pauses to listen for promptings. They may grow beyond the bounds of discrete events into a lifestyle change where our “hearts [will be] full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually” (Alma 34:27). Even our grammar may change. Like the Savior, we may consider subordinating our own will with the adverb “nevertheless” from “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ plea and subsequent submission in the garden of Gethsemane was not a moment of weakness, but of strength.

Our submissive prayers may not change our circumstances, but they will change us, strengthening us to meet our challenges with “sufficient” grace (Ether 12:27). With God’s additional strength, our burdens can “[be] made light” (Mosiah 24:14-15) or at least lighter. Even our longest trials can seem more like a “small moment” (D&C 121:7) when viewed in the context of an infinite timeline. Additionally, spiritual perspectives can help us glimpse the good a bad experience is doing for us (D&C 122:7) and fill us with gratitude.

Part of the equation for gaining answers to prayers is to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been” to us (Moroni 10:3). In the same way that the Spirit can prompt us to ask for certain blessings, he can also help us be thankful by bringing “all things to [our] remembrance” (John 14:26). Gratitude is a natural pride softener. When we are thankful, we are more likely to accept the answers the Lord knows we need, especially those times when the Lord’s will is at variance with our own. Thankfulness diverts our thoughts away from our own problems long enough to realize that there are others struggling under the weight of life’s burdens too. Gratitude may also prompt us to “look unto [our] God” in the midst of our trials to consider what God’s concerns are for us (1 Nephi 18:6).

God may not be interested in the problem itself but how he can use our trials to make us more like him and his son. Prayers are on-the-job tutorials for becoming more like Christ. As we recognize and follow promptings in our prayers we train ourselves to think and act like the Savior. When we close our prayers “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen”, we are making the statement that our prayers reflect the mind and will of the Lord. We are saying things for him and a little as him.

Thank you to my friend Katherine for her editing suggestions on this article and to my friend Brandon for the photo. 

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Solving the Equation of Our Own Suffering

20160422_190517
Sometimes there are metaphorical boulders that fall in our path to peace, other times there are actual boulders that block our way.
When we suffer, the question we often ask is why. Why did event X happen? However, in the equation of our own suffering, why is not the variable we are trying to solve. The scriptures teach us why things happen. Nephi taught “[God] doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24). And the Lord himself revealed that “[His] work and [His] glory” was “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Thus the variable, for which we must solve, is how event X manifests God’s love to us or brings about His work and His glory through our experiences.

Instructively, the idea for the creation of algebra was not to dishearten future students, but to simplify problems so that we could solve them. The Lord does not give us problems we cannot solve either. Paul taught the Corinthians that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Nephi was okay with “not know[ing] the meaning of all things” because “[he knew] that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). Our faith in God can give us hope even amidst trials. This is likely why Nephi could be bound unjustly with cords helplessly watching the ship he built be thrashed around in a storm, and yet surprisingly comment, “I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions” (1 Nephi 18:16). Focusing disproportionately on comprehending what only the Lord can comprehend could be paralyzing instead of catalyzing our faith to action.

Although the word faith is more commonly used as a noun, in the grammar of the gospel, it is a verb whose object is God. Our faith in God inspires us to not only “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4), but propels us to make this world better-one faithful act at a time. Sadly, sometimes our understanding of gospel grammar might allow a trust in faith’s object if only the subject were different. We may think, “sure ‘all things are possible to him that believeth’ (Mark 9:23), because the “him” in this scriptural sentence surely means someone else’. Mathematically speaking; however, the scriptures can say all things are possible to you and I, because no matter how small we think our all is, anything multiplied by an “infinite atonement” would equal infinity (see Alma 34:8-12). Through the enabling atonement of Christ we can all “come off conqueror[s]” (D&C 10:5) against our trials, if we believe.

Photo provided by my friend Brandon. This article is under consideration by the Ensign for future publication.

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“The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”: Following the Spirit

In the Gospel of John we read:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

Here Jesus imaginatively employed the mysterious movement of the wind to elucidate the apparent elusiveness of the spirit. While we struggle to understand the Spirit’s movements—i.e., “whence it cometh, and whither it goeth”, the Spirit knows where it comes from and where it goes. Thus, ideally, we can trust the Spirit and exchange our desired destination for His.

But realistically, man is not always willing to part with his willfulness. The “natural man” is, after all, the natural “enemy of God”. He does not “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3: 19), but goes astray pursuing what he thinks is “his own way” (Isaiah 53: 6). And “his own way” it may be, at least in the beginning. But every step he takes away from the strait and narrow, is a step off the refuge of the rock of the gospel, and soon he will know what it means to be exposed to the forces of nature. For Satan’s storm will come with its “harrow[ing]…whirlwinds” and he shall “be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them” (Alma 26: 6). The natural man left to himself is just a natural disaster waiting to happen.

Man’s stripping off the armor of God for more unrestrictive movement, in the end just becomes a uniform change. Of course, the armor Satan provides is the type of chain mail that does not protect, but instead connects you to his misery, which is described as awful. And being bitter from sipping the bitter cup, the natural man wants nothing more than “to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38). The natural man does not become an enemy of God, just because he does not yield to the spirit, but because he yields to the quintessential enemy of God, “that awful monster the devil” (2 Nephi 9:19).

Sadly, Satan’s hold on man is so widespread, that this enmity with God is considered natural. Satan, the father of lies, is the world’s greatest salesman and advertiser. Who else could take fire and brimstone and package it as prime real estate? He is not only persuasive, but pervasive to the extent that there are few places you can go to escape his noisy sales pitches and eye-catching advertisements. Truly, with the enemy combined there are loud voices everywhere saying; “lo here or lo there”. Amidst this rowdy ruckus how are we ever to hear the still small voice?

We must often leave the world and go “into the wilderness to be with God” (Matt. 4: 1, Joseph Smith Translation). Sometimes this wilderness is no further than a finger movement to turn off some type of electronic device and sit in silence. We may be surprised at the many things that only silence can say.

Then again there are many who after expending much effort towards contacting the spirit are left baffled at the spirit’s elusiveness. Even so, let us not confuse elusiveness with aloofness. For God is very concerned about us to the extent that he has “the very hairs of [our] head[s] numbered” (Matt. 10: 30). I think that sometimes we confuse the promise of “always hav[ing] his spirit to be with [us]” (Moroni 4: 3) with the Spirit always waiting upon us or with the Spirit always speaking to us.

We cannot expect the spirit to answer at our beck and call, for it is us that must always be willing to be “led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [we] should do” (1 Nephi 4: 6). And perhaps we are meant to be baffled and to feel lost at times, but this does not mean the spirit is not with us. Perhaps, we are just having a Spirit-supervised moment where we are meant to understand that “man doth not comprehend all the things, which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4: 9), and must wait for his arm to be revealed (see D&C 123: 17).

Although we should not expect constant revelation, we are expected to be constantly ready for revelation, so that when it comes we are in a position to receive it. This requires us to be worthy. We all know that “the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples” (Helaman 4: 24). So if we have been wounded by sin, we must seek out the savior to be made whole again. The flaws or missing pieces in the armor of God that allow Satan’s fiery darts to pierce us are not existent in their original design, but occur due to our lack of maintenance or misusage. Continual repentance is a big part of maintaining our armor’s integrity. This way we can heal the wounds from past sins as well as mend the chinks in our armor, so we will not succumb to the same temptations in the future. A suit of armor that is whole is required to keep our souls holy.

Although everyone has the ability to feel the spirit, not many people develop this ability into a highly trained skill, and thus become highly sensitive to the Spirit. In fact, two of our best training exercises, scripture study and prayer are often under utilized both in frequency and in intensity. These exercises require us to regularly reach past our past spiritual plateaus to new peaks of spiritual awareness. This is true particularly of prayer.

Sometimes prayer can seem like a hit or miss phenomena. If we feel something is lacking, we should work on our prayer. We need to realize that “prayer is a form of work” (Bible Dictionary, 753), it is not supposed to be done effortlessly and by rote. Furthermore, we sometimes forget the purpose of using Christ’s name in prayer. According to the Bible Dictionary, “We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ…we then ask for things it is possible for God to grant” (Bible Dictionary, 753).

Prayer is not primarily a dialogue where we offer our list of wants and wait to hear if they are accepted. It is however a spiritually submissive activity from the start, where we seek the will of the Lord well before we rattle on about this blessing or that blessing. In prayer the “Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26). According to Doctrine and Covenants 50, when we are holy, “[we] shall ask whatsoever [we] will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask” (D&C 50: 29-30). Accordingly, our prayers are major opportunities to recognize and follow the Spirit.

But desire or will, in the end, is much more important than technique or ability. That is why the natural man falls short; he is unwilling to surrender his will to the father, because he sees it as a defeat, and it is—the defeat of the natural man that makes possible the birth of a spiritual man or woman. This defeat or surrender should happen in our prayers. Consequently, the purpose of mentioning phrases like “thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 5: 10) is for us. God’s will will be done whether we pray for it or not. But our praying for His will to be done, establishes an atmosphere during our prayer that makes it possible for us to know His will and be a part of it being done. Our prayers should be less about us telling God about our will, and more about us searching for His will and submitting ours to His.

Obviously it is okay to express ourselves to a loving Heavenly Father, but when we cry out for our will to be done, we should remember the “nevertheless” from Gethsemane. For it was not Christ’s will that was done in the garden, but Heavenly Father’s. Christ’s submission in the garden did not diminish Christ’s manliness, but rather makes him the kind of man that all mankind should follow. And when we follow his voice and his example, we are following the Spirit and are just like the wind…

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

A lightly edited excerpt of a Sacrament meeting talk originally delivered in 2010.

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Scriptural Landscapes

I recently drove by trees in full autumn splendor, their multi-colored leaves blurring as I sped past. The organic rustling of red, orange, and yellow was a fire around me that burned but did not consume. In this moment, as in many others, Earth became heaven in my eyes. I parted the painting and glimpsed the Painter, and I felt that I should take off my shoes as Moses did (see Exodus 3:1–5). God manifests himself through nature (see Alma 30:44 and D&C 88:45-47), revealing the Earth as a landscape of his love for those with eyes to see.

Like the Earth, the scriptures have their own vivid landscapes. However, just as we can move through the Earth’s environs and remain unmoved, so can we also miss the magic of scriptural landscapes.

Our experience with scripture is influenced by our approach. We can observe it from a distance with detached analysis. Or we can inhabit the text, walking in the words and making personal connections with the people and events. Our rhythm matters: sometimes there is value in skimming through a narrative for a quick overview. Other times, it is worth stopping to pluck a word from the contextual ground, to listen to the melody the words make as they run through the stream of our consciousness, or to feel the warmth of the Spirit spread in our hearts as the flame of our understanding is lit.

When we are moved by passages of scripture, we can create landmarks that help us find our way back to these features so that we can remember sacred moments. Then, if we are ever lost in the “valley of the shadow” (Psalms 23:4), we can find a path back to the light.

Throughout our explorations, new trails will spontaneously—almost serendipitously—link to the features we have marked, allowing us to map out a labyrinth of textual trails that teach us we are not alone in the word.

Though we sometimes confuse the life we bring to the scriptures as the only life they possess, scriptures are living documents. The “still small voice” of God’s spirit breathes life into them, giving us words we can “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45), allowing us to “testify that [we] have heard [his] voice, and know [his] words” (D&C l8:36). God’s light shines through scriptural landscapes; his voice cries out in the wilderness (D&C 88:66-68) beckoning us toward him.

If the Spirit hallows our passing through scriptural landscapes, even seemingly ordinary text can burn with sanctifying power. The landmarks and trails we weave through these landscapes will eventually lead us back to the Landscaper, who waits with open arms to receive us.

This article was published in Sunstone: Mormon Experience, Scholarship, Issues, and Art, Spring 2016, 59. A thank you to my mom for the picture of Whiteface mountain in Autumn.

This could be considered to represent part one in a series on the scriptures. Part 2 of this series is The Spell of the Gospel: the Convergence of Poetry and the Spirit in the Scriptures, or click here.

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