A Personal Relationship with God and Christ

One persistent criticism that I have heard Evangelicals level at Mormons is that we do not believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That argument is based on a BYU devotional given by Bruce R. McConkie where he denounced a then prevalent philosophy among the BYU faculty focused on developing special closeness to the savior at the expense of other members of the Godhead. Some have taken this talk to mean that Mormon's cannot draw close to Christ. That is of course utter nonsense. As Elder McConkie himself said during his devotional:

Now I sincerely hope that no one will imagine that I have in the slightest degree downgraded the Lord Jesus in the scheme of things. I have not done so. As far as I know there is not a man on earth who thinks more highly of him than I do. It just may be that I have preached more sermons, taught more doctrine, and written more words about the Lord Jesus Christ than any other man now living. I have ten large volumes in print, seven of which deal almost entirely with Christ, and the other three with him and his doctrines.

In October 1976, a few years before Elder McConkie's devotional, Elder James Faust, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy spoke about developing a personal relationship with the savior in moving and powerful terms. Some might see his remarks as contrary to Elder McConkie's speech, but I see them as wholly compatible.

There is a great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to speak about coming to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Recently in South America, a seasoned group of outstanding missionaries was asked, “What is the greatest need in the world?” One wisely responded: “Is not the greatest need in all of the world for every person to have a personal, ongoing, daily, continuing relationship with the Savior?” Having such a relationship can unchain the divinity within us, and nothing can make a greater difference in our lives as we come to know and understand our divine relationship with God.

We should earnestly seek not just to know about the Master, but to strive, as He invited, to be one with Him (see John 17:21), to “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16). We may not feel a closeness with Him because we think of Him as being far away, or our relationship may not be sanctifying because we do not think of Him as a real person.

President Faust spoke of the need to truly come to know Christ because knowing him will "unchain the divinity within us. And as we come to know about Christ, and feel of his love we also come to know our father in Heaven. This is the pattern of the Gospel. We learn of him and are then transformed by him.

Interestingly, President Faust's message was reprinted in the Ensign in 1999 with a slightly different focus on coming to know Jesus Christ AND Heavenly Father.

There is great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to discuss coming to a personal knowledge of God, the Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Critics might suggest that this was a white wash of President Faust's talk in light of Elder McConkie's criticism. But I rather see that President Faust's decades of service made it even more clear to him that our relationship with God and our relationship with Christ are inexorably intertwined.

Or perhaps it is true that Elder McConkie's words influenced others to avoid using the "personal relationship with Christ" language. Nevertheless, the message is the same and in complete harmony. Come to know God and know the Savior because your eternal life depends on it.

True Beauty

Elder Sterling W. Sill spoke about the somewhat unusual topic of death and dying well. But what I really enjoyed in his talk was his discussion of true beauty.

I am going to quote at length because it allows Elder Sill’s unusual insight to shine:

We sometimes imagine that Jesus is different than we are, but the Prophet Joseph Smith tried to describe his some fifteen or sixteen visits with the angel Moroni. Moroni was a soldier who lived upon our continent. For the last thirty-seven years of his life he lived alone. He said, “My father hath been slain [as well as] all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go. “Wherefore,” said he, “I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.” (Morm. 8:5, Moro. 1:3)

He didn’t have a warm bathroom to go into every morning or someone to get him a good breakfast or provide him with clean clothing. We might imagine that during these many long and lonely years he had allowed his personality to run down a little bit. And then we see him for the last time as he stood there on the edge of his grave, writing us his last paragraph. In closing his great book he said, “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” (Moro. 10:34.)

And then there followed a long silence of fourteen centuries. For 1,403 years we heard nothing more, until on the night of September 21, 1823, this same old man, now resurrected and glorified, stood by the bedside of Joseph Smith. And the Prophet tried to describe him as he then appeared. And while he said that was impossible, yet he tried. And here are some of the phrases he used. He said, “His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.” (JS–H 1:32) Not only was his person glorious, but even his clothing was brilliant. “Beyond anything earthly I had ever seen,” said he, “nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant.” (JS–H 1:31)

We all know the things that we do to make this body a pleasant habitation. We bathe it and keep it clean; we dress it in the most appropriate clothing. Sometimes we ornament it with jewelry. If we’re very wealthy we buy necklaces and bracelets and diamond rings and other things to make this body sparkle and shine and make it a pleasant place. Sometimes we work on it a little bit with cosmetics and eyebrow tweezers. Sometimes we don’t help it very much, but we keep working at it all the time.

Now if you think it would be pleasant to be dressed in expensive clothing, what do you think it would be like sometime to be dressed in an expensive body–one that shines like the sun, one that is beautiful beyond all comprehension, with quickened senses, amplified powers of perception, and vastly increased capacity for love, understanding, and happiness. And we might just keep in mind that God runs the most effective beauty parlor ever known in the world.

As Elder Sills describes, true beauty is more than skin deep. True beauty comes from the soul. 

One of the most radiant spirits I’ve ever known was a 90+ year old member of the church living in Krasnoyarsk Russia named Taisia. Taisia was one of the first and strongest members of the Church in the area. When she spoke of the gospel and the savior, her face glowed and her countenance shone. Each week, we went to her and blessed the sacrament for her, and as we did so her radiat expression lit the whole room. I loved basking in her light. It was one of the most edifying and powerful experiences of my life. 

Taisia was not beautiful by earthly standards valuing youth and physical beauty. But she had truly internalized what it meant to be a beautiful soul. She had met the measure of her creation. May we do likewise.

Now I don’t know what it would be like if we sometime discovered that we had missed the goal of life and had allowed ourselves to become only telestial souls. I do know that it would be as far below the celestial as the twinkle of a tiny star is below the blaze of the noonday sun.

In a Single Bound

One thing I love about General Conference is being able to read excerpts of inspired poems written by non-member authors who nevertheless were moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

In the October 1976 conference, Elder William H. Bennett quoted from the poet Josiah Gilbert Holland to speak about the need to press forward unto perfection by our daily efforts. Holland was a favored poet around this period, as this poem called Gradatim and another poem entitled God, Give us Men, were frequently quoted by General Authorities.  (According to the Corpus of LDS General Conferences, God, give us men was quoted 17 times from 1912-1974, while Gradatim was quoted at least 6 times in addition to this talk).

I was really moved by the full text:

GRADATIM

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit round by round.

I count this thing to be grandly true:
That a noble deed is a step toward God,
Lifting the soul from the common clod
To a purer air and a broader view.

We rise by the things that are under feet;
By what we have mastered of good and gain;
By the pride deposed and the passion slain,
And the vanquished ills that we hourly meet.

We hope, we aspire, we resolve, we trust,
When the morning calls us to life and light,
But our hearts grow weary, and, ere the night,
Our lives are trailing the sordid dust.

We hope, we resolve, we aspire, we pray,
And we think that we mount the air on wings
Beyond the recall of sensual things,
While our feet still cling to the heavy clay.

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit, round by round.
Josiah Gilbert Holland

 

I especially loved a portion of the poem that was not quoted by Elder Bennett but that really fit his theme well:

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

I love the poetic usage of the theme of wings as a metaphor for our natural desire to soar above our mortal and frail imperfections. I love the image of ladders drawn from Jacob’s ladder, suggesting a smooth and eternal climb.

In our moments of spiritual uplift, we feel like we have angels wings. And through revelation, dreams, or temple worship, we feel like we ascend up a smooth ladder up to heaven. And then, we leave the temple or step back to reality.  Our weak and carnal nature reasserts ourselves.  We wake up on an uncomfortable pillar of stone.  And then we have to go to work and build our own imperfect path through small and simple steps.

This poem sirs up for me a desire to do better at achieving angelic lift more frequently. I know that I need to be lifted on angel wings and climb up the celestial ladder more frequently in order to be more fully guided as I attempt to build my own ladder.