Changed by Grace

The Doctrine of Christ teaches us in broad strokes what we must do to return to our father in Heaven. Yet, if we see the steps of faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end as merely a checklist of behavior, then we are likely to miss either the why or the how of the Gospel.

Elder Ashton’s talk on the Doctrine of Christ did not make that mistake. I especially loved how he focused on the process of sanctification or becoming more like our father in Heaven and explained how each of the steps in that process helps us to become more him and like our savior. I especially loved his description about the role of the Holy Ghost in the process.

“As our constant companion, the Holy Ghost gives us additional power or strength to keep our covenants. He also sanctifies us, which means to make us “free from sin, pure, clean, and holy through the atonement of Jesus Christ.” The process of sanctification not only cleanses us, but it also endows us with needed spiritual gifts or divine attributes of the Savior and changes our very nature, such “that we have no more disposition to do evil.” Each time we receive the Holy Ghost into our lives through faith, repentance, ordinances, Christlike service, and other righteous endeavors, we are changed until step by step, little by little we become like Christ.”

All of those little checklist things we do ultimately serves to allow the Holy Ghost into our lives. He is the force that heals, transforms, and changes us. We need to allow him in and show God a willingness to change. The Holy Ghost does the actual work of transformation – if we let him. 

Serving and Becoming Christlike

As a missionary, I experienced something that I have heard many other missionaries express. I experienced an incredibly deep love for the people that I served. At times, even in the face of rejection and scorn, I was able to see people as God saw them. I know that the gift of Christlike charity came because I was serving with all my heart, might, minds, and strength.

Elder Bednar described the process as follows

We come to know the Savior as we do our best to go where He wants us to go, as we strive to say what He wants us to say, and as we become what He wants us to become. As we submissively acknowledge our total dependence upon Him, He enlarges our capacity to serve ever more effectively. Gradually, our desires align more completely with His  desires, and His purposes become our purposes, such that we would “not ask that which is contrary to [His] will.”

Serving Him requires all of our heart, might, mind, and strength. Consequently, selflessly serving others counteracts the self-centered and selfish tendencies of the natural man. We grow to love those whom we serve. And because serving others is serving God, we grow to love Him and our brothers and sisters more deeply. Such love is a manifestation of the spiritual gift of charity, even the pure love of Christ.

I wonder how blessed our communities, and our homes would be if we served with the same degree of intensity once we came home. Somehow it is harder to feel that same fervor and intensity when not serving for 18 months to two years, but when living life. We lose sight of the savior as we slip more and more into the mold of the natural man. Constant and consistent service is the remedy to that tendency. We must give our all in all facets of our life just as we did as missionaries.

Passing through Trials

In recent years, I have frequently heard General Authorities suggest that the time will come when we will face increased persecution for our faith.

That’s a deeply sobering thought. We can increasingly see efforts to kick religious voices out of the public sphere and to label people of faith as bigots. Even adecade ago it would have been hard to imagine the rapid secularization of society.

President Eyring compared the challenges we will face to those endured by the people of Alma. This is an interesting comparison since they were compelled to hide their faith and prevented from external worship of God. So that is a rather troubling comparison But even if things got that bad, President Eyring offered words of inspiration and comfort:

The times we will pass through will have in them hard trials, as they did for the people of Alma under the cruel Amulon, who put burdens on their backs too heavy for them to bear:

“And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.

“And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.

“And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.”

You and I are witnesses that whenever we have kept our covenants with God, especially when it was hard, He has heard our prayers of thanks for what He has already done for us and has answered our prayer for strength to endure faithfully. And more than once He has made us cheerful as well as strong.

Even if we are required to go through great trials and persecution, God will be with us always and he will help us bear the trials cheerfully.

Judgment and the Natural Man

It can be easy to be judgmental of those far away and different from us. We are manifestations of that in the anti-refugee policies that the current administration is pursuing. However, it is sometimes even easier to be judgmental towards those closest to us such as our spouse or children.

As Elder Robbins explained, “The natural man and woman in each of us has a tendency to condemn others and to judge unrighteously, or self-righteously.”

At least for me, it is easy to get frustrated when things are not like I wish and to lash out in anger at those I care about most.

But that is not the Lord’s way:

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love” (D&C 121:41–43).

This scripture teaches us to reprove “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” not when moved upon by anger. The Holy Ghost and anger are incompatible because “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger” (3 Nephi 11:29). President George Albert Smith taught that “unkind things are not usually said under the inspiration of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is a spirit of kindness; it is a spirit of patience; it is a spirit of charity and love and forbearance and long suffering. …

“… But if we have the spirit of fault finding … in a destructive manner, that never comes as a result of the companionship of the Spirit of our Heavenly Father and is always harmful.

“… Kindness is the power that God has given us to unlock hard hearts and subdue stubborn souls.”

That is such a hard teaching and yet it is such a vital one. Unrighteous judgment is a deeply destructive force. Unconditional love on the other hand has immense power to heal and help.

Transformative Worship

I loved Bishop Davies description of how worshipping God with all our heart leads us to become more Christlike in our character:

“True worship transforms us into sincere and earnest disciples of our beloved Master and Savior, Jesus Christ. We change and become more like Him.

We become more understanding and caring. More forgiving. More loving.

We understand that it is impossible to say that we love God while at the same time hating, dismissing, or disregarding others around us.

True worship leads to an unwavering determination to walk the path of discipleship. And that leads inevitably to charity. These too are necessary elements of worship.”

True worship leads to emulation. Emulation leads to a sincere desire to be better. That desire leads us to be charitable to others. It helps us realize that we must serve others if we are to serve our God. This is a mutually reinforcing pattern of righteousness.

Satan’s plan is the mirror opposite. It involves emulating the pattern of the world and becoming more and more insular and selfish. He wants us to think onlyof ourselves and our rights and what we are owed by those around us. That is not the savior’s way.

Things Will Work Out

When I think back to my first months as a member of the Church, and reflect on how strongly I disagreed with the Church’s position on certain social issues such as gay marriage, I am amazed that I made it to where I am today.

As I listened to Elder Ballard’s talk this past conference, I heard him express what to me has become one of most significant pieces of advice I could offer to someone struggling with doubts about the Gospel: have humility and have patience. Be willing to accept that God understands a lot better than you do. It’s possible that the Church is wrong about a particular issue, but ultimately far more likely that the world is wrong. Be willing to consider the possibility that you are mistaken. Have the patience to wrestle with doubts without walking away. Have the patience to wait on answers to come.

Here’s how Elder Ballard explained it

For these and other reasons, some Church members vacillate in their faith, wondering if perhaps they should follow those who “went back, and walked no more” with Jesus.

If any one of you is faltering in your faith, I ask you the same question that Peter asked: “To whom shall [you] go?” If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do? The decision to “walk no more” with Church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now. There may be some doctrine, some policy, some bit of history that puts you at odds with your faith, and you may feel that the only way to resolve that inner turmoil right now is to “walk no more” with the Saints. If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.

Do not throw away what you have felt and experienced. Do not give up on sacred Covenants you have made. Wait on the Lord and he will wait on you.

I know that is why I was able to stay faithful until answers did come. I admit that my answers came relatively quickly, but I believe that was possible because of my attitude of humility and patience and my desire to hear not what I wanted but what the Lord wanted for me to hear.

America’s Divine Origin and Destiny

In October 1975, with the advent of the bicentennial of the United States, many of the talks from General Conference were focused on the theme of the Divine Origin of the United States.

Elder Paul Dunn spoke of the connection between the founding of the United States and the Restoration of the Gospel.  He emphasized that the United States was founded as a land of liberty precisely so that a restoration could occur:

You and I know, and you and I alone really know, the reason for this blessed and beautiful land. In a world where men have given up on this most vital question, we know the purpose of America.

For this country did not end in Philadelphia, even if Horace Greeley did mean that city when he urged us to “go west.” It was a new land, fresh, clean, unspoiled with a past. America included the frontier. In 1805 the Prophet Joseph Smith was born, and he grew up toward adolescence just like the new land. He fitted it. He was young, clean, unspoiled—a lad without a past, kneeling in a grove. This pristine land—this innocent young man—and thus the Lord reached out and kept his promise. He established his conditions over centuries; you see, God has time. His plan made it possible for the holy priesthood and the Church to be restored upon the earth—the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ—but only in America.

Can you understand the way God has worked? And if you do, will you join me this day in committing yourself to preach the message of the Lord’s glorious achievement in America and to teach it as missionaries wherever the opportunity allows? This is a time when you and I can afford to be patriotic, in the best sense of that term. There is reason to be proud that we live in an established land that has been conditioned by the Lord so that his gospel could be restored. The purpose of America was to provide a setting wherein that was possible. All else takes its power from that one great, central purpose. …

First, there was selecting and bringing the people. The next step was establishing a free nation. The third was inspiring a divine constitution. The fourth was opening the American frontier, new land, fresh and clean. The fifth step was calling young Joseph Smith to become a prophet in such a little time, God’s prophet, seer, and revelator, and later his martyr.

It appears to me that Latter-day Saints revere the constitution and the founding of the nation for a wide variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that this is the land of restoration. We recognize that link between the ideals of the Constitution and the conditions needed to allow a fertile ground for religious flourishing. We understand that no other conditions could have allowed for the restoration to survive and thrive.

It is difficult to imagine the restoration happening today. With 24-hour news coverage and an increasingly secular and skeptical populace, it would be difficult for a visionary like Joseph Smith to be taken seriously. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine a restoration even 50 years before Joseph Smith. The transportation revolution on the eerie canal and the Mississippi had not yet occurred. And in that setting, a visionary would have been excluded like a Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson. Under such conditions, a restoration would have been on tenuous grounds.

Truly, the Lord understood what he was doing when he restored the Gospel. He found a people prepared for a restoration.

There has never been a mythical period of utopian righteousness in the United States or elsewhere (Enoch’s society excepted). The same generation of restoration was also the generation of the martyrdom. Likewise, the generation that produced Christ’s twelve also produced the conditions of cruxcifiction. Yet, the generations after the founding were fertiel soil for a religious movement because the people hungered for spiritual salvation and longed to find truth. Today, I worry that we have moved so far from those moorings.

Elder Marrion G. Romney began his talk about the destiny of America with an increasingly important question and an increasingly urgent plea:

“Among the questions frequently raised in connection with our upcoming national bicentennial is “Can we maintain our basic freedoms, peace, and prosperity for another 200 years?”

The answer to this question is yes, if we shall individually repent and conform to the laws of the God of this land, who is Jesus Christ.”

More and more, we urgently need to hearken to that invitation and warning.