Of Love and Superheroes

Some years ago, one of my children gave me a very lovely replica. It is a ring. The ring is modeled from the description J.R.R. Tolkien gives of Sauron’s one ring, central to Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. The power of the legendary ring was awesome. Unfortunately, it was also altogether evil, so evil that no mortal could wield it without eventually becoming overpowered by the ring itself.

Just hefting the replica, holding it in my hand, and being fully acquainted with the story (the only books besides the scriptures that I have read more than three times), I have to confess that I would be sorely tempted to put on such a ring of power, conceited that I could hold and turn its powers to good—good as I saw fit. In the story, several mighty yet foolish ones were corrupted by the very thought of wielding the ring of power, while the wise were wise enough to recoil from the attempt. Tolkien had a keen insight into the varieties of human nature.

Similarly, perhaps you have at a dinner party or other casual conversation with friends discussed what kind of “super power” you would wish to have, were you given such a choice. Some say great strength, others the ability to fly, or the ability to see in the dark or through opaque objects, or the power to be invisible, among others. Immortality is a favorite.

These fanciful musings and entertaining discussions may not be as fanciful as we might think. Certainly modern technology is constantly making commonplace what would have been marvels in centuries past. Consider trying to explain to a George Washington of the 1780s a jet aircraft, or a phonograph (let alone today’s latest sound reproduction devices), or a personal computer and the Internet. He would have as much trouble believing as we would have explaining. Can we in turn conceive of the instruments and tools our grandchildren will someday have as everyday conveniences?

Yet the greatest miracles of man’s invention are trifles compared with the power of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

This was the same who, during His mortal ministry, calmed the storm at His will, brought sight to the blind with the touch of His hand, healed the sick with the word of His mouth, and restored the dead to life and vigor at His command. This was the same who perceived men’s thoughts, saw men’s hidden acts, predicted the future, and personally triumphed from death to immortality, the first of all who would be resurrected by His power.

This omnipotent God wants to give us of His power, far beyond that of the supermen of mortal imagination:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

Paul explained that this was promised us as heirs of the Father, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

The Book of Mormon tells of one Nephi, who had a mustard seed or more of faith and to whom God extended heavenly power. Because of Nephi’s faithful dedication and spiritual strength, the Lord had been able through Nephi’s ministry to bring tens of thousands of people to repent of their sins and follow Christ. A few years before the Savior’s birth the Lord declared to Nephi,

And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word . . .

The Lord then explained to Nephi that “all things” meant anything, from moving mountains to national calamities. All this the Lord would entrust, He said, “for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” (Helaman 10:5-10) God could trust Nephi with His awesome and infinite power, because Nephi would use it only for God’s purposes.

Can the Lord trust us with His power, or, like Tolkien’s mighty ring, would too much power turn us to evil and self-destructive employment of the power in devastation and sorrow? A hypothetical question? Look at what man has done with God’s great power of procreation. Designed to unify man and woman and raise children within the love, happiness, and security of families, the misuse of God’s power of life has led to hate, misery, broken families, degradation, despair, abused children, abortion, and many other terrors. The evils of the abuse of the powers of procreation are second only to murder in their consequences.

The example of family life is instructive. Families are intended as environments where wise parents prepare children for society, plying greater responsibility as children demonstrate—under parental guidance and correction—their ability to make good use of their opportunities. In this way, when children reach adulthood they are ready to take on adult responsibilities and bless their own spouses and children rather than abuse and lead them to grief.

God’s commandments are designed for the same purpose. As we obey them, not only are we blessed because the commandments highlight the paths of happiness, but through obedience to God’s commandments we obtain experience and gain God’s confidence that He can entrust us with His heavenly gifts.

The greatest of all the gifts of God, and His most heavenly, is charity, the pure love of Christ, the essence of eternal life. As we grow in the use and possession of this love, we become Christ-like.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

That is how we can each and all become real superheroes. As we want what God wants, because we love as He loves, we become ones on whom He can bestow His power to bless His children in miraculous and powerful ways, now and in the eternities—without the personality flaws and self preoccupation of the comic book superheroes that provide interesting plots as they inflict sorrow on those around them. We become fit for all that God wants to give us. Imagine all you can, your thoughts cannot reach it.

Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

Of Miracles and Modern Times

My son famously declared to his school colleagues in morning devotional, “Brothers, I believe in miracles.” I do, too. I have witnessed them. I have experienced them.

Believing in miracles supposes some understanding of what they are. I understand all miracles to have their source in the Divine. No connection to God, no miracle. That is to say, each miracle is an intervention into the world of mortality from the realms of eternity. That is why all miracles are to some degree other worldly, but not entirely other worldly, because part of the marvel is that they take place here. I suppose that what we see as miraculous on earth would not seem so miraculous to us or anyone else in heaven.

While God is the source of the power in each miracle, the essential feature of a miracle is its timing, not its substance. In fact, it seems to me that all of the miraculous quality consists in the timing. Is restoring sight to the blind a miracle? Certainly it was when it took place in 100 B.C. Today we have medical procedures that restore sight for many, perhaps daily, with techniques that we have learned but which were unknown anciently. These are marvelous procedures of great benefit, but we do not look upon them as miraculous. The difference is timing.

Curing a man of leprosy, ordinarily impossible in the days of the ancient Apostles except through divine intervention, is quite common today with the proper medicines. The difference surely is knowledge, but knowledge acquired over time. An antibiotic treatment would have been a miracle in the days of the Caesars.

As time goes by and medical and scientific knowledge advance, there is little that was considered miraculous in bygone eras that cannot be replicated today, and what cannot yet be done we can fully expect one day can and will be. That takes nothing away from the miracles of antiquity, but rather makes them all the more understandable. Increasingly as we look at miracles, we replace the question, “How could they do that?” with the question, “How could they know?”

There is no “magic” in a divine miracle. God does not nullify the laws of nature any more than we can. But He knows them better. He knows them all, and He exercises them as He pleases to do His work, which seems and is wonderful to our eyes.

God knew the powers of controlling vapor and flame in the days of Moses, but man’s knowledge of it was primitive. What was involved with the control of energy in the pillar of fire that guided Israel by night and the “pillar of a cloud” that guided them by day (see Exodus 13 and 14)? Is it something we could do 2,000 years after the birth of Christ? Very probably. The miracle was not in the substance, but in the timing, a very explicable exercise of fire control that was once beyond the skill of man.

But in this example there was an even more important display of the miraculous timing of God. The pillars of fire and vapor appeared exactly when needed, either to guide Israel or to keep the armies of Pharaoh at bay. They were taken away just in time to lure Pharaoh’s armies into the flood. With their back to the sea and the Egyptian chariots nearly upon them, Israel despaired. But not Israel’s prophet, as Moses declared, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day” (Exodus 14:13). The timing was all and everything.

In my own day and life, I have received the piece of information, just in time. The increase in salary has come precisely when needed. The new medical treatment became available none too soon but not a day too late. An acquaintance was made, too beneficial to have been by chance. Closed doors have been opened.

Others have witnessed greater than these, the recovery from terminal illness, the power to endure the unendurable, the inspiration to touch the hearts of one and of many, the means to build, to comfort, to restore, and to renew. Nearly all have come in answer to prayer, from a God who is easy to be entreated.

Should these seem small to you, especially when compared with the miracles of the prophets recounted in ancient scripture, bear in mind that miracles are not given to satisfy a popular appetite for spectacle, but rather they have always been employed by God to do His work, which is most usually done quietly.

Yet I would offer a couple of great modern works of God for your contemplation. Consider the translation of an ancient work of scripture from an unknown language by a young man barely literate in his own native tongue. And consider that this work, The Book of Mormon, would be so powerful in the testimony of Jesus Christ as to make millions of Christians on every continent of the world. Consider the miracle of thousands of these people crossing a thousand miles of 19th century American wilderness to an even more desolate and barren wasteland, carving out of the desert an empire of cities, farms, and enterprises, a successful effort unmatched by any other colonization effort in the history of the Americas. These are epic works of God worthy to stand alongside any of antiquity, no less powerful for happening in our time.

These and other modern miracles point to the truly greatest miracles in the work of God, the quiet transformation that takes place in the hearts of men by the power of repentance and forgiveness, which makes an ordinary man or woman full of kindness, someone who “envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45). That is the miracle that is the most awe inspiring of all.

(First published September 10, 2013)