Of What We Know and What We Are

Recently, while reading in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I thought back to when my two oldest daughters attended nursery during Sunday School hours at church. We were then members of a congregation with many young families. There were so many children that they divided the nursery into Senior Nursery and Junior Nursery. The dividing line was between those who had turned two by the start of the year and those who had not yet reached that august age. My older daughter—who is a real sweetheart and has since become the mother of daughters herself—was very proud that she was in Senior Nursery, while her sister was in Junior Nursery.

The mysterious relationship between my reading of the Romans and those events of not so long ago is that both emphasize how brief and transitory this life is. Whether our mortal life is allocated more than 70 years or fewer than 7, the time all told is rather short, and I dare say mercifully so.

This life is filled with the rich, the beautiful, as well as what is poor and ugly, and mostly what is very much temporary and does not matter. The emperors of Rome came and went so quickly, few living to die of natural causes. They scraped and fought and intrigued and connived to possess what they could not hold for long and which at the end left them nothing. The royal purple for the emperors at last was little more important than whether my daughters were in Senior or Junior Nursery. It all mattered about the same.

Some things do matter, greatly. While they can involve tangible things, all that in this life of lasting value is intangible and survives the universal tomb. Now I am watching my children cope with the mighty challenges that life concentrates into the years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Life’s calling, personal dedication, education, careers, marriage, family, truly life-changing decisions come at these young people inexorably in relentless and rapid succession. They have tangible elements of mortality to employ as tools to aid and markers to help measure the evaluating and making of these important decisions. They wade into deep problems when these material tools are mistaken for the real things.

As parents we watch, support, counsel, encourage, but the decisions are no longer ours. With no small amount of concern, and with generous measures of satisfaction, we can witness these whom we love the most exercise their own free will to lay out the remaining course of their mortality. For Mom and Dad, this period of life has been rich, sometimes painful, and frequently joyful. It is for us a harvesting time, even while for our children it is mostly a time of planting.

I am reminded that, with each graduation, one proceeds from the top of a staircase onto the bottom step of a new one. When my daughter left Senior Nursery, she was at the bottom of the classes of Primary. The seniors in high school become the freshmen in college. The college graduate becomes the “newbie” at work. In my employment I frequently am called upon to consider candidates for jobs. Shall I tell you how little impressed I would be to learn that a particular applicant had been student council president or editor of the yearbook?

I believe that so it goes in the heavens. We eternally progress from stage to stage, with Jesus Christ as our Guide, Leader, and Teacher, each stage well done qualifying us to begin the next, bringing us ever closer to become more like our Father in Heaven. The value is in this very real becoming. Our greatest worldly achievements of rank and fame have in heaven as little weight as our grade school awards convey into adulthood. With much concern God watches how we make our decisions, how we develop our character, with satisfaction and joy as we choose what is good and act well. Like wise parents, God cannot and will not choose for us, our choices at planting being part of His joy in the harvest.

Again, as I recall my children in nursery, and my grandchildren there today, I reflect that there is so much that I would tell them but which they would not begin to understand. There is a treasury of what I have learned in over 5 decades that I would share but that would be completely incomprehensible to a granddaughter or grandson in primary school.

Then I reflect that compared to my Heavenly Father, my treasury is the knowledge of an infant, that I even today am such a little child in terms of what I know. Indeed, were I to know all that there is available to know in this life, it would still be so very little compared with what our Father in the eternal worlds knows and has for us to learn when we once again live with Him. A modern Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks (a former university president), once remarked that an omniscient God is not all that impressed with our Ph.Ds.

But if I do well with what He has given and taught me, I have received the living hope from His Son that I may come step by step in the presence of the Father to know all that He would share, which is everything. That is humbling and exhilarating. I am glad that I have not really very long to wait, and that I can learn my first lessons even now.

Of Thanksgiving and Light

This Thanksgiving I am reminded of thoughts of just a few years ago.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It is a warm, pleasant, kind, family day. Not surprisingly, it is a day of reflection for me, despite of—or because of—all the family and busy activities involved with the day. As busy as the day may be, it is for my mind and spirit a day of rest, a very family day, a day when all is right because the family is right. It is a day during which I reflect with gratitude upon how, through the blessings of God, I have been able to provide for my family and that we have been able to enjoy so many good things. We gather rich in the mutual affection we have for one another, comfortable in how pleasant it is to be in each other’s presence. It is very appropriate that we celebrate with a bounteous meal shared by as much of the family as we can gather and often with fond friends, representing the bounties that God has bestowed upon us in the previous months.

Thus in our home, Thanksgiving Day is a time of reflecting on the abundant blessings of the past. It also serves as a gateway to our Christmas celebration, in which we celebrate all of the good things of life made possible through Jesus Christ. On Thanksgiving night, as soon as darkness has descended, we turn on the outdoor Christmas lights for the first time of the season. There is the apple tree, shining in brilliant white lights in memory of the Tree of Life, which Tree is a representation of “the Love of God, . . . the most desirable above all things . . . and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22, 23).

Beside that tree, red lights flame the upward and outward branches of a maple tree, symbolic of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in opposition to the tree of life. This illumined tree represents how by the exercise of our power of choice we also unleash our energy to become good or evil—and that we do not always exercise that power for good (see 2 Nephi 2:15, 16).

In the middle of the yard, our flagpole is transformed into a tall, narrow multilight cone topped by a bright white star of light, again representing a tree, our Christmas tree. This and the tree we decorate inside the house are bright reminders that through Christ we can obtain “every good thing” (Moroni 7:25), whether spiritual or material.

The doorway to our house is outlined with a garland of evergreen also illumined with light to proclaim to family or friends that they will find welcome inside. Similarly, our lamppost is trimmed with red and green lights as if to say, “Here we are, don’t lose your way. Come and celebrate with us.”

In many ways it is very appropriate that we initiate this holiday season with a celebration of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude is the foundation of humility, and humility is the first step to opening our hearts to receive the Christ. So bring on Thanksgiving, welcome the family and friends, and open our hearts and homes to Christ, who brings us every good thing.

(First published November 21, 2010)

Of Belief and Choice

Belief in God is a choice, and with all choices worthy of the name, there are results directly related to that choice. If you choose to believe, you receive the fruits of belief, and with belief strong enough to result in action you receive the fruits of faith. If you choose not to believe in God, you receive the results and consequences of that choice, also.

It is important to understand that belief or disbelief in God does not change the reality of God’s existence or change Him in any way. All it does is change your relationship to God. A major purpose of this life, for each person who lives it, is to develop and test faith in God, so your choice of belief matters a lot to you and how you live and succeed in this very brief and temporary existence we call mortality.

The principles of belief and faith in general are recognized for being so closely tied to action that the maxim is oft repeated that whether you believe that you will fail or that you will succeed in something you are likely to be right, since your belief will govern your effort. There is a similarity—but only a similarity—with regard to belief in God. Whether you believe in God or not in this life, the events of life are likely to seem to confirm you in your belief. Those who believe in God will, if they choose to persist in their belief, increasingly see His hand in everything. Those who choose not to believe in God will find many ways to convince themselves of their choice.

Those with faith in God see evidence of Him in all things and are increasingly able to draw upon the powers of heaven. The ancient American prophet Alma declared, “I have all things as a testimony” of God (Alma 30:41). Jesus Christ, after His resurrection, declared to His disciples that “signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17). In modern times the Savior declared again that “signs follow those that believe”, but He warned and added that signs come “not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:9, 10) God is not a machine, responding to direction and command, but rather a loving parent who bestows His blessings on His children for our benefit as plentifully as we will receive. Our belief enhances our ability to receive.

On the other hand, those who choose not to believe in God in this life can usually conjure up reasons not to believe and even to explain away what believers would consider strong evidences of the reality of God. These words spoken nearly a hundred years before the birth of Christ, by one who chose not to believe, sound very fresh in the twenty-first century:

Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so. (Alma 30:14-16)

It has been my observation that God usually leaves for those who choose not to believe plenty of room to apply their choice, to find an explanation that excludes God and His power. He rarely provides knowledge founded on hard, convincing evidence until after a person has made his choice to believe and exercised faith. Then the evidences come and with increasing clarity.

The Lord wants the virtues that are associated with belief—humility, patience, perseverance, trust, courage, obedience, and many others including broadness of mind and soul—to be developed in us, which would be scarcely possible if He provided the evidence of conviction before the development and trial of our faith in Him. As we grow in our faith, we grow in these other virtues.

Not only does the person who chooses not to believe fail to recognize the evidences of God before Him, but God intentionally withholds from him the greater evidences. In effect, the Lord rewards believer and unbeliever with what they choose, confirmation of belief or the withholding of what the unbeliever would consider verification. The unbeliever, as with the believer, has to come to the knowledge of God through faith.

Part of the grace of God, available in this life, is that the choice of unbelief is not final while mortality lasts, and those who believe are commanded by God to employ their faith to help stir belief and faith in others. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Believers are commanded to tell, to share their belief. God is ready to begin to lead to faith and from faith to knowledge those who will begin to hear. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15)

Of Joy and Prayer

According to my own experience—and others have given similar reports—the most fun, pleasure, and joy in this world come from the presence of the Holy Ghost. That influence enlivens the whole soul: body, spirit, and intelligence.

Some avoid prayer, or pray in a perfunctory manner, because they consider prayer to be boring, work, drudgery. Prayer indeed can be difficult at times, for it calls forth sincerity, faith, and humility, three traits that go against the grain of modern culture. So I will admit that prayer can require work, but I think that boring and drudgery apply only to prayer that is short on sincerity, faith, or humility. Fortunately, those elements are free and within the reach of any willing to apply them. They do take time, and so does effective prayer.

It is well worth the effort to take the time to apply these elements in prayer to the Father, in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ. There are few better ways to invite the presence and influence of the Holy Ghost. When that is understood and acted upon, prayer can become the most enjoyable activity in this life.

I recall a memorable recognition of that fact, when accompanying the missionaries who were teaching the gospel to a friend of mine. This friend had known some significant experience with drug abuse. The influence of the Holy Ghost was present in that discussion, felt by all four of us. The joy of that presence was noted by my friend with these memorable words: “This is better than drugs.” He was right.

(First published October 12, 2008)

Of Duty and Law

The concept of duty is worthy of careful consideration, particularly in its relationship to law. You genuinely subject yourself to law only after you consider it a duty to observe the law. This would also seem to involve an element of humility. When you humble yourself enough to recognize a duty to the law, the law then has force and operates within you (as contrasted with operating upon you).

Through the operation of duty the law becomes internalized. No police force or compulsion of any kind is then required. This is how true law, law in harmony with eternal justice, has a transforming effect, changing you for the better. Through continued growth in this process, of employing duty to internalize good law, you can actually “become” the law, even as Christ meant when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis added).

One who feels no duty to a law, but observes it only because of the coercion attached to it—from the fear of the consequences of breaking the law—has not yet submitted himself to the law. He observes the law only because it is enforced; when the enforcement is removed and no longer binds him to the law, he will do as he pleases regardless of the law’s mandates. Without a sense of duty to obey the law, he remains a law unto himself, subjecting himself when necessary to a greater force but not to the law.

Without this sense of duty, a system of laws becomes a competition of wills, of competing forces. It is not a system of rights and duties. Thus, the erosion of the sense of duty also erodes the moral and transforming force of law, and it erodes rights, that find their protection in law. Civilization is replaced with gangs and brutality.

(First published August 21, 2008)

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