Of Resolutions and Getting Past Frustration

Several years ago I wrote the following about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t despair about how yours are going, or even if you have not made any.

Not to discourage you from making New Year’s resolutions, but how are your 2012 resolutions coming? Are you still on track? Given up on them? Thinking about it? They can drive you nuts.

The problem is not so much with making resolutions at the start of the year. Psychologically, a new beginning that is tied to a new beginning of the calendar can be a good motivator, particularly to get started. Neither is there a problem with choosing to change something or do something for the better. Given a minute or less, every honest person can identify a habit in need of change or a practice in need of adoption. The problem is usually not even that the aim is too high, the goal too unrealistic, the resolution too ambitious.

If anything, the real problem is that the resolution is too narrow, too small, too unimportant, particularly if taken without a greater context. Each of us should be self aware enough to recognize plenty of material to work with to create a depressingly long “needs improvement” list. The question of where to begin—if we persist—may soon be overwhelmed by the question, where does it end? There are too many for any one to hold our attention. We need to look beyond the individual sin or foible, on to why we are willing to sin.

Martin Luther was in large measure driven away from the Catholic Church because of its emphasis on specifically repenting of each and every sin, correcting every personal flaw, large and small, with particularity. There was no apparent end in this life to the correcting, no bottom to the list of sins, especially with a list being added to each day. Repenting of each and every sin, he never made enough progress on his own list.

Fortunately for Luther and for everyone else, the God of Heaven has never called upon us to repent of each of our sins seriatim. Neither have His prophets. That is a man-made idea, and one that is sure to lead to deep moral frustration.

To be sure, God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). Heaven is the ultimate “white room;” not a speck of evil can be tolerated there, no room for anything unclean in the least degree (see 3 Nephi 27:19).

God does not require us to repent of each sin. He requires that we repent of all sins. There is a difference, all of the difference in the world. The first suggests that we can repent of sins in some kind of order, working on some sins while still playing with some of our favorites, even if only temporarily. The true doctrine is more demanding and more liberating: God wants us to give up sinning, the willingness to do evil. The focus on individual sins is misplaced, as if the source of the problem is in the act itself, what we do, whereas the real source is found in why we do what we do. God wants us to change our hearts (and will help us to do so), knowing that with the change in their nature of our actions will then take care of themselves.

Carefully search all Christian scriptures, ancient and modern, and you will find God consistently calling upon His children to repent of all of their sins. He does not ask for or condone a selective repentance that focuses on this or that individual sin or ever ask us to work down our personal list of evil. He asks us to give it up, all of it. What the Lord requires of His children to be acceptable to live with Him again is a change of life. The ancient American prophet Alma described this repentance, this change of heart, as a man who has “desired righteousness until the end of his days” (Alma 41:6). John, the Apostle of ancient times, referred to this change as walking “in the light” (see 1 John 1:5-10).

This change of heart comes from belief in Christ, a powerful wholehearted belief that manifests itself in our actions. Another ancient American prophet, Samuel, declared it with these words:

And if ye believe on his [Christ’s] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits. (Helaman 14:13)

Notice that it is true, vitalizing belief that brings about the change of action. A modern prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, explained true repentance in this way:

In connection with repentance, the scriptures use the phrase, ‘with all his heart’ . . . Obviously, this rules out any reservations. Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.203)

One last point: note that perfection is not required to enter into the light. As the Apostle John taught, those who enter into the light are in the process of making themselves pure (1 John 3:3), Christ giving them the power to do so through the soul-enriching influence of the Holy Spirit.

Make your resolutions and do them now, but put them in the context of changing your heart and thereby your whole life. Aim for the highest of all. Then we know where to begin and where it all ends. And keep in mind, Christ allows you to start over when you slip up.

(First published January 1, 2012)

Of Vanity and Christmas Gifts

The prophets, ancient and modern, are clear that this life is a very artificial thing. The earth and this mortality did not just happen. They were carefully planned in the sphere of the eternities, for very specific—and lasting—purposes.

Abraham reported this, from a vision wherein he saw God speaking of us, His spirit children, before He created the earth:

We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)

Some centuries later Moses had a related vision, in which the Lord told him,

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

Our glory appears to be the Lord’s glory. It is the Lord’s work and glory that we grow and progress forever. The mortal mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ were all part of His work for our immortality and eternal life. I am not sure that the Lord cares anything at all about anything we do other than what we do that affects His work and His glory. I do not find any evidence in the scriptures that anything else that we do matters to Him. Of course, in an eternal context, nothing else we do really matters to us, either. All of that other stuff is what the author of Ecclesiastes refers to as “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

That vanity, the key theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is what many people seem to think that this life is all about. Many people live this life as if this life really mattered much, when in truth, all that matters about this life is how it affects the true reality, which resides in the eternal worlds, beyond this world and life. Lasting value and meaning are found in what we take with us when we leave this world.

That is a good filter, if we wish to discern what in this life is imperishable and real and what is temporary and vain. If you take it with you past the grave, it matters. If it does not, fuhgeddaboudit. Or, at least, do not set your heart on it or waste much time with it.

That might be a good guide for Christmas gifts. By that I mean, consider the purpose behind the giving of the gift. Is its purpose to transfer possession of vanity, that has no reach beyond the grave? Or is it instead intended to communicate and strengthen ties of love, friendship, to show kindness, to build relationships, to facilitate personal growth and progress, to memorialize pleasant shared experiences, to express and transmit value? Consider how it may be tied to this list of eternal verities that stay with us:

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

There is a lot of Christmas Spirit in that list. Such solemnized gifts are not likely to break and never grow old. They are very real. To the extent they embrace such virtues, I think we remember them.

Of Coming to Heaven and the Lord’s Supper

The lyrics to a Spanish song that I enjoy listening to include this line:

Para entrar en el cielo, no es preciso morir.

That translates into, “In order to enter heaven it is not necessary to die.” Of course, that is true. I have often said and know from some experience that eternal life can begin even in mortality, since the core element of eternal life is to possess the spiritual gift of charity, meaning the pure love of Christ (see Moroni 7:47), the one spiritual gift that never ends.

While it is not necessary to die to receive eternal life, we do need to come unto Christ. Eternal life means living with God the Father, in His presence, and inheriting all that He has. To qualify for that existence where perfect love and goodness prevail from this world of imperfection, corruption, and sin, it is necessary to come unto Christ, who has overcome all and who offers to help us to overcome all.

We come unto Christ only on His terms. We cannot command that He come to us on our terms. He is the perfect being, and we are very much short of that. We are the ones with distance to cover. Christ condescended to come as mortal man into our presence and our world of evil, but He did not condescend to partake of the evil. We have. He left our world through death, as we all will, but then was resurrected, which none were before Him, but because of whose resurrection all will follow.

Following resurrection, we will all be judged by the Father to determine whether we may remain in the Father’s presence and continue to grow and develop under His care. At that judgment, Christ will identify for the Father those who have come to the Son and thereby qualified to remain in heaven.

How do we come unto Christ? What are His terms? Just these, that we solemnly promise by covenant with Him and the Father that we will accept Him and keep His commandments. That is, we promise that we will follow Christ and stay with Him. How can coming unto the Savior mean anything less? Either we come unto Him or we do not.

The Savior has declared that this solemn promise and covenant is to be made in such a way as to be unmistakably imprinted on our minds, rich with the symbolism of washing away sin, burying the unrighteous way of life, and then rising to newness of life in accordance with the laws and ways of heaven. This covenant and symbolism are present in the ordinance of baptism. We place ourselves in the Savior’s hands via those whom He has personally chosen to represent Him. We are buried in water, washed and cleansed from sin, and arise out of the water in the image of the resurrection into a Christian life.

The person who approaches baptism truly repentant of all of his sins, genuinely committed to a complete turning away from all evil, will feel the powers and joys of heaven filling his heart. He will enter into the presence of God through the power of the Holy Ghost. In fact, shortly after baptism, the next step in coming unto Christ is to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands of Christ’s representatives, just as the Samaritans anciently, who were baptized by Philip and soon thereafter were given the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands of the Apostles Peter and John (see Acts 8:12-17).

I have experienced those steps personally and testify that it works just that way. Through faith, repentance, and baptism, sins are washed away, and through the gift of the Holy Ghost the heart is changed and filled with the gift of charity, the pure love of Christ.

Sad to say, and I would not excuse myself by noting that it happens to us all, not long after the covenant is made the covenant is broken, and it is not broken by God. He perfectly fulfills His part. On our part, sins are once again indulged in, old or new ones, or both. The Spirit is grieved and withdraws, the gift of charity is also withdrawn, the man is left back on his own. With the covenant broken what are we to do?

With a graciousness that far surpasses the patience of any mortal man, God allows us to remake the covenant and come unto Christ again. We need not be rebaptized. God has provided another ordinance that allows us to reaffirm the baptismal covenant and reclaim its powers and blessings. As with baptism, it is a physical action that embodies a spiritual commitment. Also, like baptism, it is designed and prescribed by God in a symbolic form that reminds us of Jesus Christ through whom our redemption is possible.

I refer to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As with baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in two parts. In the first, we partake of broken bread, reminding us of the Savior’s body broken for us and soon after resurrected. In the second we partake of water or wine to remind us of the blood shed by Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross.

As we partake of the sacrament with the same intent and spirit with which we were baptized, the whole baptismal covenant is reaffirmed and renewed, and we resume our Christian life. We return to Christ. We need this sacrament or our baptism would be nullified by our later sins. We need it to retain the effects of our baptism.

It is astonishing, really. It is a marvelous manifestation of the grace of God that He offers us this opportunity, weekly, to renew our solemn baptismal promises that we not so solemnly break. While we renege, the Lord does not. In fact, He offers us the second, third, and hundredth chance, which by all rights and justice He need not do. Which of us would have such patience with those who broke their promises to us?

Because of the Lord’s patience, to enter into heaven, the presence of God, again and again, it is not necessary to die. It is necessary to live, and to do that we must come unto Christ, and He beckons to us, all the time. Why wait to answer His call?

(First published August 26, 2012)

Of the Meaning of Life and the Purpose of Love

Does life have meaning? If so, what is that meaning? The answer, to be valid, must discover meaning for lives lived 70 years and longer as well as those lived for 70 minutes or fewer. That is to say, that it must reveal meaning for all members of the family of Adam and Eve. I have to admit that I cannot fathom an answer that life offers meaning only for some people but not for others, that the others are just stage props for those fortunate humans for whom life really matters.

I would also posit that in order for life to have meaning for man, then man’s existence cannot end with the end of mortality, that life must have an eternal character for there to be meaning to it. Temporary meaning is no meaning in the end. If there is an end, then in the end what does it matter?

I will add that, if there is eternal existence, that whispers to me a strong intuition of the existence of God, the existence of a being who has it all figured out, who has used eternity well. I do not offer this point as a proof at this moment, but rather as a likelihood. There are other proofs that I know and could offer for the existence of God, for God has not hidden Himself from His children who want to know Him. He sent us here to find out which of His children really want to know Him: that is one of the purposes of this life, closely related to the central purpose of life. The process of coming to know God is an individual work that necessitates the personal development of what is also God’s defining characteristic. That development involves the process of living in this life on earth.

That is to say that one way of describing the central purpose and meaning of life is this: for each individual to develop an ever greater capacity to love. That may sound sentimental and trite, but it is nonetheless true. Good fiction draws its vitality from important themes of reality. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series climaxes with the discovery that the most powerful “magic” in the world is love, belittled and scorned by the arch villain of the series even as he is destroyed by its strength.

Love, particularly the love of God, is the central theme of scripture. The scriptures taken altogether are an unfolding exposition of God’s love operating among His children and either embraced or rejected by them. The scriptures describe the deepest and most complete form of love as charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47), the greatest of all the gifts of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Elsewhere the scriptures name “eternal life” as “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). This is not a contradiction, as eternal life and charity are coincidental. To possess one is to possess the other. Consider these passages of scripture together. The first is how God describes His work, what He does, which must therefore be very closely related to His meaning, His purpose:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

The second is how the ancient Israelite prophet Lehi described man’s purpose to his family:

men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

This means that immortality, eternal life, and joy are all connected. Jesus taught that they are united in the personal development of the divine trait of love. During the Savior’s preaching in Jerusalem in the last week of His mortality, the legalistic Pharisees sought to trip the Savior up with a question that to them must have been a real poser, undoubtedly a favorite debate topic:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Conceptually this is just another way to introduce our topic about the meaning of life, for surely the commandments of God and the meaning of life are closely related, God’s commandments designed to lead His children through a life of meaning and fulfillment. The answer of Christ, who before His birth had given the commandments to the prophets, silenced for a time His tempters; at least, no rejoinder is mentioned in the record, perhaps because Jesus was referencing what He had given in the laws He revealed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:4,5, and Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

All the rest of the gospel is elaboration of these two commandments. That is the purpose of life, to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, the complete soul-filled love of God, which manifests itself in loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we do that? As Jesus said, that is the purpose of the law and the prophets. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

As the ancient American prophet Mormon taught,

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 as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7:48)

Mormon’s people nearly all rejected his counsel and descended into a hatred that devoured their civilization in pointless dissolution.

Life has meaning because it has choices with real consequences. We feel and see and live them everyday. Amidst the easy-to-see evils of the world, there are plenty who choose to do good, to love their fellows and increase in their love of God. There are and have been those who live life to its fullest, growing in the greatest of all gifts and the mightiest of all powers by being true followers of Jesus Christ, increasing in the love by which they become like Him and by which they will know Him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

Let us love, that when at last we see God, as we all will, we will recognize Him, because we will have become like Him in the most meaningful way.

Of Charity and Forever

The more I ponder, the more I am brought to the conviction that the pure love of Christ, what the scriptures call charity, is the purpose of life and its highest ideal. So much of this life is designed to provide the opportunity and conditions for developing charity.

Consider this description of charity, provided by the ancient American prophet, Mormon.

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and 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)

The Apostle Paul offered a very similar description in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he explained that faith, hope, and charity are closely intertwined (see 1 Corinthians 13).

On this earth, in mortality, man does not come by charity naturally. It seems that to develop charity its opposite must be possible, too. As one connects us with heaven, the other ties us to the world of death. We see abundant evidence that this is so.

Where is the man or woman who naturally possesses all of the traits that are part of and unified in charity? We are all drawn to traits the very opposite of charity, to suffer as briefly as we may, to be frequently unkind, often puffed up, normally seeking our own, and surely too easily provoked, thinking plenty of evil, bearing perhaps some things but far from all, with limited hope, and of weak endurance. Gloriously, we all to some degree by our efforts and with the help of others rise above these evils and exhibit and make part of our natures some portion of the elements of charity. Most people seem to mix the two opposites to varying degrees.

God reaches out to lift each of us up and above our mortal nature. Charity is a gift from God, one that He bestows upon those who qualify to receive it by demonstrating their willingness to receive it and live by it. The more we desire it and live by it, the more that charity remains with us and becomes part of us and changes us. When the Spirit of God comes upon us and enters into our hearts and fills our minds, we taste, we experience charity for a time, in all of its aspects, all unified together (the virtues of charity are of a kind and part harmoniously and mutually reinforcing). For a time, the virtues of charity become our virtues.

Thus Mormon counseled,

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. . . (Moroni 7:48)

That is what it means to be a “son of God,” born of the Spirit. By following Jesus Christ, living as He would, the gift of charity is bestowed upon us, enabling and teaching us in our hearts and minds how to live like Christ, to do the works that He would do, giving us the power to believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. As we experience personally the pure love of Christ our nature changes and we become progressively like Christ.

The world provides ample opportunities to exercise and develop those virtues that we know in spiritual vision but which we need to practice in fact to make ours, to make ourselves into their image, the image of Christ. We are surrounded by evil, by hardship, by difficulty, by those who need our help. Reaching to heaven, charity enlightens us to know how to conquer evil and gives us the power to cope with hardship, overcome difficulty, to bless, promote kindness, relieve suffering, and “endure all things.”

Yet we fall short from time to time, we lose the vision, we turn away. Sin is any and all that would keep us from developing charity. Repentance brings us back by allowing us to change, to seek and qualify for forgiveness of our sins through Christ’s redemption and again be ready for our hearts and minds to be filled with the gift of charity by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Once more we exercise faith, we gain hope, “but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). We may keep charity forever, and as we experience charity in this world we personally learn what forever means.