From stake video message, October 2022.
This topic has been on my mind for quite some time. I’ve mentioned that publicly on a couple of occasions and somebody told me the other day to finally get off my duff and say whatever it is I have to say. So here I am to say a few words about the quality of modesty—which is much more a trait of character than it is a manner of dress or undress.
It seems to me that modesty was a topic we would often hear spoken of in the Church—maybe 10, 20, 30 years ago—but which is seldom addressed today. When it was spoken of, it was almost always (in my memory, at least) spoken of in the sense of wearing sufficient clothing to cover our bodies in the right places—but was seldom spoken of in terms of its broader meaning. I think that discussing modesty so narrowly—without the context of its broader meaning—left people with too little understanding of the ”why” issues behind modest dress.
Dressing modestly is important. It’s very important. And it’s very important for everyone, male and female. The topic of modest dress as it relates to men and boys has been heavily under-addressed in my view. Modest dress absolutely applies to men and boys. It is important for women and girls also.
But let’s put modest dress in the context of the whole word.
Helpfully, the Church’s website defines modesty as “an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior.” It adds, “If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to ‘glorify God in our body and in our spirit.’”
The ideal example of modesty in its broadest sense was, of course, Jesus, who was constantly trying to deflect the praise and credit given to him and redirect it toward his Father in Heaven whom he sought to glorify. He didn’t do this by pounding his chest and pointing to the sky when he did well or by kneeling in prayer on national television. He certainly never celebrated himself through a “missionary farewell.”
Modesty in its total sense is closely related to other God-like attributes such as humility and meekness. One does not imagine a meek, humble person trying to draw attention to themselves, being loud or flashy or visibly self-absorbed. Perhaps the charge we receive in the temple to avoid lightmindedness and loud laughter refers in part to living our lives in ways that reflect attitudes of modesty.
Modesty seems to be born from a proper understanding of ourselves and who we are—including our gifts and potential—and our weaknesses and limitations. A modest person sees in themselves seeds of divinity, of potential, of strength and has respect for who they are—such respect that they do not degrade themselves by untoward dress, language, behaviors, and self-spotlighting.
A modest person also sees that other people are equally important and divine—and that God, himself, stands so far above us in terms of his development and perfections that we are each small in comparison to him and ordinary in comparison to others—which, again, demotivates us from trying to place ourselves above or beyond others.
A modest person neither over-estimates nor under-underestimates his or her significance relative to God or to others.
Immodesty, including in language and behavior (and dress), is distracting and incompatible with the Spirit of God.
The pursuit of immodesty is also self-destructive. Our true value is found in knowing our place and relationship to God. It is found in learning to see ourselves as He sees us. It is found in relying on His strength and on His abilities and His perfections more than on our own. When we seek to establish our value based on how we are heard or seen by others, it only leads to forms of attention that do not provide the healthy sense of value and the healthy perspective on our importance that we could all enjoy.
Immodesty is also related to a negative word we hear in the temple: defile. To defile something is to turn it from holy to profane. It is to take something with divine significance and de-value it.
In the temple, we are told that if we are faithful and do not defile the garment, then wearing it will bless and protect us. (Personally, I don’t think the protection spoken of there is particularly physical. Jesus said to fear not the things that can hurt the body but to fear the things that can hurt the soul—and I think the protection provided by the garment is consistent with that. Perhaps it may help protect us physically also—we certainly hear stories from time to time of such things—but I doubt that’s the primary point.)
We would defile the garment by treating it with indifference or by reducing its value or significance in our own hearts. We would defile the garment by failing to hear and receive the message that God is trying to send to us by giving it to us to wear night and day.
When we are immodest in dress, we may defile the garment by minimizing it, which can occur in many ways.
When we are immodest in words and behavior, we may not defile the garment directly, but we do distract from things of the Spirit and we do defile the things of God. Jesus said to the Nephites, “Hold up your light that it may shine unto the world.” That would sound like an invitation to immodesty and to drawing attention to ourselves if it weren’t for the next sentence, which says, “I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.”
John the Baptist said, speaking of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
To be modest is to hold up the light of Jesus. Not by holding up the light—or the language, dress, or behavior—that says, “look at me,” but by having the quietly strong and humble attitude of looking to Him and gently trying to help others do the same.
I believe that modesty is an attribute of strength, and that immodesty is an attribute of weakness. The outward signs of modesty or immodesty—whether behavior, language, or dress—are simply outward signs of the quiet strength we either have or we lack.
Each of us, however, can gain that quiet strength by exercising faith in the Savior and faith in our Heavenly Father’s plan for our happiness. We gain strength by understanding that we really are His sons and daughters—and by understanding that we really are (or can be if we’re not already) in a covenant relationship with Him whereby we are bound to Him and He is bound to us. We gain that quiet, internal strength by repenting and by exercising faith that sincere repentance leads to forgiveness. We gain that quiet, resolute strength by recognizing the presence of the Holy Ghost and seeking more of it.
Brothers and Sisters, each of us has true, powerful reasons for acknowledging our value in full humility and strength—and of recognizing also our weakness and our dependence on God. But our God loves us and will lift us if we will turn to Him in humility.
May we each do so. May we be filled with gratitude for God’s kindness to us and for the possibilities he provides us. May we be filled with a sense of our value, born of a proper understanding of who we are—and may we be filled with humility for who we aren’t yet and for our dependence on our Father, our Savior, and the Holy Ghost. May we thrive with a proper and healthy sense of self that is reflected in our words, our dress, and our behavior. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
My comments today are mostly directed toward young people. But I’m going to talk to you like adults and I’m going to be as plain and frank as I know how to be. I want to talk to you about your testimonies.
It seems to me that testimonies are a bit like baseball. In a baseball game, you’ll find yourself at times surrounded by teammates out in the field or safe in the dugout together—yet there come moments when you stand all alone at the plate. Just you and the pitcher and nobody to lean on. Others may cheer you on, but nobody but you will be able to stop that fastball before it crosses over for a strike—or hits you in the ear.
Similarly, each of you will need to make your own independent decisions regarding matters of faith, testimony, and the Church.
The Church is True?
I worry about the oft-repeated statement, “I know the Church is true.” It is said positively, of course, and with good intentions. It affirms (albeit vaguely) an acceptance of the Church. But I worry that it creates a framework for judging the Church unfairly—because if it’s “true,” it must then all be true, and if, then, anything or anyone is amiss, then the whole thing must apparently, after all, not be true.
Let me give some examples:
- The Church teaches doctrines that are true. Does that mean that every statement made by every Church leader in the history of the Church is correct? No. Does it mean you’ll never hear a false comment or teaching in a Church meeting on Sunday? No. But does an incorrect statement in the classroom or even from the pulpit negate the fact that the Church teaches doctrines that are true? No, it does not.
- Or… The Church is led by apostles and prophets who receive revelation and inspiration. That is true. Does that mean that God provides for them a constant stream of highly specific, detailed instructions such that their own judgment and biases never contribute to their decisions and they never err? No. But does an erroneous judgment, even by a Church leader, negate the fact that the Church is led by inspired men who hold legitimate priesthood keys that can bless you and your family? No, it does not.
- One more… The Church teaches that we should love our neighbors—that we should be Christ-like and full of charity. That is true. Does that mean that no church-going neighbor of yours will ever be judgmental, thoughtless, insensitive—or maybe just flat-out rude and offensive? No. But does a church-going neighbor’s poor behavior mean the Church is a driver of civic unrest and therefore false? No, it does not.
The Church is a divinely inspired and divinely authorized institution run by humans. The humanity in the Church sometimes obscuring its divinity no more negates that divinity than clouds obscuring the sun reduce the importance of the sun.
In the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ, there are, as President Nelson recently taught, three great truths:
- We are, in a very literal sense, children of Heavenly Parents.
- Our Father in Heaven desires a covenant relationship with us wherein He and we commit to each other—in a very deep way through which the greatest blessings of eternity become available to us.
- Jesus Christ helps us overcome the issues that prevent us from completing that covenant path on our own if we will receive and follow Him.
Critical to those great truths is this: The Church plays an essential role in connecting us with these truths, as it is only through the ordinances of the restored priesthood that we can make the necessary covenants with our Father and formally commit in the Savior’s way to discipleship to Him.
A loving Heavenly Father, the Covenant Path, and Jesus as our Savior. These three things are each true and correct. I “know” that through a host of experiences. But your turn to stand at the plate, largely by yourself, is coming. You will need to know for yourself. So how do you find out?
Let’s start with distinguishing between what Elder Corbridge calls the Primary and the Secondary questions—or, in other words, the “critically important” and the “important but not nearly critically so” questions. Let’s also acknowledge the “difficult” questions, which I think should get a category of their own.
The critically important, or “primary,” questions revolve around the three great truths just mentioned. Here they are again in a little different order and in the form of questions…
- Does God really exist, and, if so, what is the nature of my relationship with Him?
- Is Jesus really my Savior? Do I even need a Savior? If God is really a loving father, won’t he just forgive my mistakes anyway?
- Does the Church, in fact, play an essential role in my relationship with my Heavenly Father and the Savior? More specifically: Are the ordinances and covenants offered to all of humanity by the Church truly essential for me?
Those are the primary questions. Those are the ones you’ll need to answer.
“Secondary” questions include such things as:
- Where did the Book of Abraham come from?
- Why does the Book of Mormon talk about horses?
- Why isn’t every account of the First Vision identical?
- Why do changes in the Church sometimes coincide with social and political pressures?
- Why are temple ordinances similar to masonic rituals?
- Et cetera. It’s a long list.
For a person who is positively settled with the primary questions, the secondary questions are distantly secondary because answers to them come with relative simplicity—and because they are outside the core issues of our relationship with God. A person’s anxiety over the secondary questions will typically be proportional to their uncertainty regarding the primary questions.
Further, it is a myth that one must first answer the secondary questions before he or she can answer the primary questions. There is an easy answer to the Book of Abraham question, for example, but I don’t need to know it before I can conclude that God is my Father, that covenants matter, and that Jesus is my Savior.
What about what I would call the difficult questions? These include such things as:
- How can the Savior’s Church deny temple marriage to gay couples or transgender individuals—especially when Jesus, himself, during his life, championed those who were rejected by others?
- How do we explain polygamy—past and… future? And should we be worried about it?
- Why did the Church go for so long withholding priesthood and temple blessings from black people? Why did it go for any amount of time doing that?
These questions always—but today more than at any time in the history of the world, perhaps—strike at the very dead center of our sensibilities regarding equity, fairness, and justice—and that makes them more difficult. They are also difficult because any specific, Church-centered answers to them involve important unknowns.
If we can’t answer the primary questions positively, we will see these difficult issues as irreconcilable conflicts between the Church’s claim to priesthood authority and the virtue of equity.
If we can answer the primary questions positively, then, even though the difficult issues remain difficult, we will be willing to trust in a loving Heavenly Father who has a plan for His children—all of his children; we’ll be willing to trust in the power of an infinite Atonement; and we’ll be willing to trust in the merger of divine inspiration and human imperfection that both inform Church leaders—but with emphasis on the former.
(With regard to any question that seems difficult to us, it is important to remember that we don’t share the same perspective as Church leaders—and we definitely don’t share the same perspective as God.)
Gaining a Testimony
So, then, back to the important primary questions. How do I settle them and gain a testimony? I suggest you do five things.
First, take a positive approach. Too much skepticism that the world is round—or that the earth revolves around the sun—only impeded people’s ability to recognize the truth. The opposite of such a mistake, though—blind faith—is not the answer. We should most definitely be thoughtful! But a person’s approach to testimony must involve some desire and willingness to believe—and must include the fair and objective approach we should always take toward learning and truth-seeking.
Unless your name is Saul or Alma—and I don’t know any Sauls or Almas in our stake—an antagonistic approach to the question of the Church’s validity will only land you where you started. A desire to exercise faith—which Alma speaks of in the Book of Mormon—and an open mind are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Second, begin to learn how the Spirit communicates with you. The scriptures point out that the “voice” of the Spirit is still and small and gentle. It is not in the windstorm, the earthquake, or the fire. It is subtle. It is with you more often than you perhaps realize. It can speak to you in your mind and your heart. We experience the Spirit at different times in different ways and we are each different. It comes exceedingly seldom in an unmistakable vision or audible voice. It is quiet.
Why is this so? Why doesn’t God just speak loudly and unmistakably clearly to us? Because, I suppose, if He was going to do that, we might as well have just stayed with Him where He could personally instruct us. But we were separated from Him for a reason—to struggle and learn with agency and opposition and choices—and to learn to walk by faith. God will communicate with us, but not in a manner that imposes excessive influence over our agency.
Nevertheless, you can learn to discern—and constantly improve at discerning—both the presence and the absence of the Holy Ghost—especially as you strive to keep your baptismal covenant. For me, I would describe the Spirit best as feelings of love, clarity, and quiet approval. And I would describe the absence of the Holy Ghost as feelings of emptiness, negativity, and being alone.
Third, learn, ponder, and pray. Prayer is an essential element of seeking a testimony—but so is trying to understand what you’re praying about. You’ll need to study. Since billions of people and thousands of years haven’t settled the question of the Bible’s value, you’ll want to focus your studies on the Book of Mormon and on the words of living prophets. If those are true, then the Bible is also, even if not in every small detail.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” The Book of Mormon also tells that we should ask God if the Book of Mormon is true and that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” This does not mean that we simply ask God a question and he drops down a note with the answer on it from heaven. You will need to work to discern an answer, the timing of which is uncertain.
Fourth, live the gospel. The importance of this cannot be understated. Jesus said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or… [not]”. We should also place a lot of weight on this statement from Joseph Smith, who said that “a [person] would get nearer to God by abiding by [the] precepts [of the Book of Mormon], than by any other book.”
If you want to know if the Book of Mormon is true, you don’t need to stress over the secondary questions related to it, you need to live what it teaches. You won’t learn Spanish by speaking English and you won’t learn how to shoot a free throw by watching others do it. You’ll need to jump in. It is no small thing that the Book of Mormon is the “keystone of our religion.” Its power is most effectively unlocked when we try to live its teachings.
Fifth, consider the fruits of living the actual teachings of the Church—as opposed to misperceptions, misinterpretations, cultural flaws within the Church, or criticisms of the Church. What does the restored Church teach, encourage, and sometimes prod me to do? It tries to help me…
- Be a good husband
- Be a good father
- Be a good neighbor and a contributing citizen
- Serve others
- Develop Christlike attributes such as kindness, compassion, mercy, patience, and love
- Practice living by optimism, faith, and hope
- Be healthy—and become physically and emotionally self-reliant
- Strive for growth and improvement—while at the same time being kind and fair toward myself
- Seek learning
- Care for the poor and alleviate suffering
- Accept my value, potential, and lovability—and that of others
- Accept peace for the eventual resolution of the things that hurt or worry me
- And other good things.
One of the reasons the secondary questions are so distantly secondary is because—though they are often wielded as weapons of criticism against the Church—the strength of those weapons diminishes quickly in comparison to the good the Church brings about in the lives of individuals and families who embrace the Church’s actual teachings.
There are many good and important questions. Some are primary. I encourage you to settle the answers to those in your hearts and minds and then continue with them as you learn and grow.
- We do have a loving Father in Heaven.
- The covenants we make with Him through restored priesthood authority and ordinances are of utmost importance.
- Jesus Christ is our Savior.
I testify—from the basis of my own study, ponder, and prayer; my own interactions with the Holy Ghost; and the fruits I see born out in my life as I strive to keep my covenants—that God is our Father, Jesus is our Savior, and our Church-provided priesthood covenants matter, a lot, in our relationships to Them. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Zion and the Law of the Gospel
Everything I’m about to say begins with the premise that the Church is true—a phrase I actually don’t like very much. Let me tell you what I think it means for the Church to be “true”—beginning with what it doesn’t mean. For many years, we have done ourselves and our children a disservice by standing at the pulpit and too casually declaring the Church to be true without defining what that means—and by teaching our children to do the same in their testimonies and praising them when they do. The too-little defined notion that “the Church is true” allows people to read all kinds of things into it which they ought not—such as that prophets never make mistakes, or that prophets receive meticulously specific instructions from heaven, or that every policy or program introduced in the Church somehow constitutes doctrine, or that bishops and other local leaders will never offend you because of human error on their part. Those things happen, even in the true Church. In reality, we believe neither in the infallibility of prophets nor in the inerrancy of scripture, including the Book of Mormon—though we do rightfully sustain prophets as seers and revelators (and know that they will not lead us astray in any significant way)—and the Book of Mormon is true.
What does fully equate to “truth” with the Church are its most important teaching and its most important claim—both of which (am a witness) are true—and both of which should allow us to endure imperfections in the Church’s history, leaders, culture, and members, i.e. each other. The most important teaching of the Church is that salvation is through, and only through, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the only way to complete reconciliation with our Heavenly Parents. He is the way to eternal family relationships. He is the only way to personal realization of all that we can ultimately become that is good. The most important claim of the Church is that Joseph Smith, his imperfect humanity notwithstanding, did receive an authority from heaven which is necessary for joining us to Jesus and realizing all the blessings available to us through Jesus. Possession of and stewardship for that essential authority resides today with fifteen living prophets who lead the Church.
Jesus is, in fact, our Savior. And the Church does, indeed, have the authority to bind us to Him, conditioned upon our devotion to Him.
I would like to speak today about the covenants that bind us to Jesus—and about one in particular—and about some of our flaws as members of the true Church—and about becoming a Zion people.
Becoming a Zion people is not an outdated notion from the 19th Century that the Church abandoned when it gave up on the United Order. It should be a major goal for you and me today. Major enough that we are frequently conscious of striving toward it. If we are not one, we are not His. And, quite often, we are not one.
Let me start with three questions about covenants. Every two years, endowed members of the Church should receive two very similar interviews as they seek to renew their temple recommends.
Question 1: What goes through the typical Church member’s mind when he or she hears this question in the temple recommend interview: “Do you follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ in your private and public behavior with members of your family and others?” What should go through our minds? And to what “others” should we think that question is referring?
Question 2: In those same temple recommend interviews, how consciously do we respond to the question: “Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple?” What covenants? To what did you agree when you were endowed? Specifically. To what did you agree when you were sealed? Specifically.
Question 3: Of the five covenants we make in the Endowment (obedience, sacrifice, the Gospel, chastity, and consecration), which one’s violation most commonly leads to broken marriages?
In my estimation, the law of Chastity receives extraordinarily disproportionate attention in the minds of Church members. The idea that it receives much attention is not, by itself, a problem at all. Chastity is very important and the consequences of breaking the law of chastity are significant and go beyond issues of broken marriages and unintended pregnancies. There’s more to it than that, including personal psychological damage to ourselves and others that is neither well understood nor taught. The real problem is that the other four covenants of the Endowment—and the covenants and commitments of marriage sealings—are too little emphasized because they are too seldom spoken of (including at home to our children), they are too little understood, and they are too seldom the subject of personal introspection.
Recently, this pair of questions was brought to me: Should a young man who indulges in pornography on Saturday prepare, bless, or pass the Sacrament on Sunday? And, whether he should or shouldn’t, what about the young man who treats his mother with unkindness or disrespect on Sunday morning? Should he administer the sacrament? Of course, none of us wants to be acting as the sacrament police. But those two questions should elevate in our minds the importance of being a disciple of Jesus Christ in significant ways in addition to chastity. (As an aside, those who struggle the most with the chastity might do well to focus on the other four covenants of the Endowment and find the strength that comes through them.)
I have told the story ad nauseum of my first experience in the temple and my silent anger at the outset when I realized that nobody had prepared me—at all—for the significance of the covenants I would make. Nobody had told me what the covenants are called, let alone anything about their meaning or scope. Interestingly, and foolishly on my part, I repeated that experience when I went to the temple to be married. You could have asked me five minutes after my marriage what I had just agreed to and I would have said, “Beats me, but I’m married now.”
When I was endowed, I did what, by my observation, many people still do, although I hope none within our stake. I raised my hand and agreed to each covenant as it was presented to me with very little understanding. Of the five laws of the covenants, the law of chastity seemed clear enough to me and probably is to most people. The law of obedience should be clear to us, but sometimes seems not to be. Things get murkier with understanding the law of sacrifice. And then there’s the law of consecration and the question of whether it means anything at all today when we’re only asked to give 10% tithing, the United Order and polygamy have both been terminated, and nobody has asked us to pick up and move to Missouri. What should living the law of consecration actually mean in our lives today?
But the murkiest of all—the one that baffled me the most when I first heard it (which should have been long before I got to the temple—from both my parents and church leaders)—and the one that baffled me the most long after I heard it—is the Law of the Gospel? What is the Law of the Gospel?
In my view, it is the very one, which, either by semi-casual neglect or by outright violation, most often leads to divorce in our homes and to disunity (or “dis-Zion”) in our community.
Let’s start with the simplest and clearest answer to the question of what the Law of the Gospel even is.
In the temple, and in the publicly online Church Handbook, we are taught that “the Law of the Gospel” refers to “the higher law [Jesus] taught when He was on the earth.” Well, where’s the most obvious place to find that? Surely, it begins with the five instances in the last half of Matthew Chapter 5 where Jesus explicitly contrasts the lower law with His higher law. Let’s review those five briefly.
First, he says the low law was to not kill. The higher law is not only to resolve and eliminate anger, but to actively seek reconciliation—not just with those we’re upset with, but with those who are upset with us. “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Of course, there is an altar here in the chapel. It represents the primary reason we’re here. Before I take the sacrament—and, young men, probably before I administer the sacrament in any way—I need to seek reconciliation with my spouse or children or neighbors or whoever.
Second, he says the low law was to not commit adultery. The higher law is a) to see people correctly—to see their humanity—to see their strengths and struggles—to see them with respect and empathy—and not as objects of sexuality; and, b) it is to keep ourselves on a higher plane, immersed in a higher set of influences in our lives. “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out” and “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee.” Instead of spending our time among things that offend the Spirit (and ought to offend us), we should be with those things that are “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.”
Third, he says the low law was to not “forswear” ourselves. What does it mean to forswear ourselves? It means to break our promises. It means saying I’ll do something that is good and then not doing it. Or saying that I’ll not do something that is bad and then doing it after all. The higher law is to be simple, honest, and transparent—to be without guile. It is to not parse or twist language (whether our own or someone else’s) or get lost in debating what the definition of “is” is, for example. It is to be an open book—naked before the Lord—innocent and ingenuous toward each other.
Fourth, he says the low law was to get even with those who wrong us—to extract an eye, a tooth, or some other pound of flesh from him or her who has hurt us. The higher law is to return right for wrong, kindness for unkindness, compassion for offense. The higher law is to outgrow the childish defense of “Well, he hit me first.” The higher law says that I will act rather than be acted upon. My behavior will not be dictated by your behavior. I will be Christlike toward you no matter how you treat me. Christlike generosity will guide me. (Note that this does not mean we can’t and shouldn’t have healthy boundaries when needed. Sometimes they are.)
Lastly, he says the low law was to love our neighbor and hate our enemies—or, perhaps, to love our friends and not love (or worse) those who are different or who are outside our circles of friendship. The higher law is to love all, including the stranger and those whose ways are unfamiliar to us, even to the point of actively seeking good outcomes for those who might seek bad outcomes for us. To love all as Christ loves all. This is a high law and a high bar, indeed.
One who commits to live the Law of the Gospel makes a large commitment. He or she who actively and consciously strives toward living it becomes a happier person and a much greater blessing to those around him or her, especially to those we live with.
In the temple, we are given a caution, even a strong warning, before we enter into the five covenants, including the covenant to live the higher laws contained in the Law of the Gospel. That caution is that God, as the scriptures say, will not be mocked.
How might I mock God? I mock God when I make covenants with Him that are really not important to me. I do not mock God when my sincere efforts prove imperfect. But I mock God when my efforts are half-hearted or unconscious or when I spend my time going through mental gymnastics to justify certain behaviors by the principles of the lower laws. I mock God when I believe that I am keeping my marriage covenants merely because I have not touched someone else sexually—when there is so much more to the marriage covenant than that! I mock God when I don’t strive to live all five of my Endowment covenants in my marriage and toward my spouse.
Meanwhile, the task of creating Zion is not a currently irrelevant task. Nor is it someone else’s job. It is ours. Today.
For 19th century Church members, this did not go well. The Doctrine and Covenants says they were “chastened and tried, even as Abraham.” Why? Because there were “jarrings, and contentions, and envying, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them.” It’s impressive today that they could create so much disharmony back then without the help of social media, which I imagine Satan really loves today for its creations of jarrings, contentions, envy, strife, lustful desires, and covetous desires.
Sometimes, though, we don’t even need social media. While we may fool ourselves thinking we honor our temple covenants merely by not physically committing adultery, we find ways to generate anger or engender hostility toward our neighbor just because of differences of opinions or different perspectives or merely different demographics.
We ought to return frequently to the Law of the Gospel that we’ve agreed to keep and we ought not mock God by failing to return to it frequently. Here are some simple, practical examples of times we ought to especially step up to the Law of the Gospel…
- When I am on the brink of being unkind—in any way—toward my spouse.
- When my spouse has been unkind to me.
- When I see a kid at school that I have no real connection with.
- When I see a kid at school that my friends or others do or would make fun of behind their back.
- When my little brother or little sister wants to hang out with me.
- When my neighbor displays a political sign in his yard while I display an opposing political sign in mine.
- When my neighbor displays a political sign in his yard and I display none.
- When my neighbor wears a mask to church.
- When my neighbor doesn’t wear a mask to church.
- When my neighbor has a different opinion than I do about Highland City trails—and perhaps when my neighbor has been less than Christlike in his or her expression of his or her opinion.
- When my neighbor appears to be less righteous than me.
- When my neighbor appears to be more righteous than me—or when my neighbor appears to want to appear to be more righteous than me.
- When my neighbor’s Church status—whether fully active LDS, culturally LDS, proudly inactive LDS, Muslim, Christian, Atheist, or anything else—is different than my own.
The Law of the Gospel is about how we see and treat others—especially when our relationship is not naturally one of unity. It is about first being one with the Savior in those instances, and then using my agency to choose His type of response to my spouse, my brother or sister, or my neighbor—and by not allowing the “natural man” instincts within me to govern my behavior. The Law of the Gospel is not a Sunday-only behavior that gets suspended when the topic becomes political or cultural.
When the Savior explained the chastening of the early Saints, He said they were “not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom; And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.”
What might the eternal implications be for you or for me of our being unwilling to live Celestial laws toward each other right now?
Brothers and Sisters, whether you are male or female; married or single; white, black, or otherwise; gay, straight, or otherwise; democrat, republican, or otherwise; vaxxer or anti-vaxxer… Let us in each instance pursue Zion for ourselves and for our neighbors. Let us use our agency to choose the attitudes and behaviors that Jesus would choose. Let us drop our gifts at the altar when we must and seek reconciliation with those we have offended. Let us return kindness for unkindness. Let us love all.
And let us earnestly strive to understand, ponder, and live our covenants—even to the point of building up Zion and loving those very neighbors we haven’t yet learned to love or even to like.
Why should we pursue our covenants so eagerly? Because doing so is the path to personal contentment and goodness, and it is the path to the Celestial Kingdom where Celestial Laws are lived and we are among the beneficiaries.
The Church is true. It is true because it correctly teaches salvation through Jesus and because it actually has the power to bind us to Him, the humanity of priesthood key holders notwithstanding. It is, however, not merely in the entering into covenants through ordinances that binds us to Jesus. It is in our sincere efforts to live our covenants—and not just the Law of Chastity.
If you’re not sure if “the Church is true,” do three things: study the precepts taught in the Book of Mormon, actively strive to live them, and seek to live the covenants extended to us in the temple. When you do those three things, the Holy Ghost will tell you in His way in His time (probably without fanfare, but in a way that you’ll understand), that the Church is true. Once you’ve received that spiritual message, its impact on you will fade as you continue the experience of living in a fallen world full of all manner of temptations and explanations—unless you continue living in those ways that invite the Holy Ghost into your life.
May we learn to understand and keep our covenants, and may we create a Zion community.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Follow the Prophet
As the primary song says…
Adam was a prophet, first one that we know.
In a place called Eden, he helped things to grow.
Adam served the Lord by following his ways.
We are his descendants in the latter days.
Enoch was a prophet; he taught what was good.
People in his city did just what they should.
When they were so righteous that there was no sin,
Heav’nly Father took them up to live with him.
Noah was a prophet called to preach the word,
Tried to cry repentance, but nobody heard.
They were busy sinning—Noah preached in vain.
They wished they had listened when they saw the rain.
And so it continues…
Abraham the prophet prayed to have a son,…
Moses was a prophet sent to Israel….
Samuel was a prophet chosen as a boy….
Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away,…
Daniel was a prophet. He refused to sin;…
Sometimes in our adult Church meetings today we sing, “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet.” We might challenge ourselves with the question of whether we sufficiently do thank God for a prophet by allowing him “to guide us in these latter days.”
The very last verse of that primary song says…
Now we have a world where people are confused.
If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news.
We can get direction all along our way,
If we heed the prophets—follow what they say.
In the 32 years since that song was copywritten, one might argue that the world is even more confused and, hence, that the direction of the living prophet is even more critical.
The scriptures exist, of course, to point us to the Savior—and to help us find and stay on that covenant path that prepares us for life with our Father in Heaven. The scriptures also provide example after example of God’s prophets trying to help people get down that path—and example after example of what happens when people follow the living prophet—and what happens when they don’t.
In our day, people come up with many rationalizations for dismissing or minimizing the words of the prophet. Here are five examples—all of which I have heard from numerous sources:
- First, some maintain that he is a very nice and smart man, but he isn’t actually a prophet of God in any legitimately authorized sense.
- Second, some maintain that he is a prophet, but unless he uses the words “I command you,” his direction is optional and non-binding.
- Third, some maintain that their moral agency is so sovereign that nobody may tell them what to do, including a living prophet.
- Fourth, some similarly maintain that unless they receive a personal spiritual confirmation of what the prophet says, they are not obligated to respond.
- Lastly, some maintain that the prophet’s words don’t mean what they appear to mean on the surface to most people.
All of these are wrong. Here are my own responses to those five arguments…
- First, Russell M. Nelson is a prophet. And, he is a seer, and a revelator. He has the right to exercise all priesthood keys on the earth today. All can know that for themselves through personal revelation. Among the ways you can strengthen your own testimony of the living prophet, you can watch what happens in your life when you follow his counsel.
- Second, no prophet in my memory has ever used words like “I command you.” But such words are not required. “It is not meet that I should command in all things,” the Lord has said. And: “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”
- Third, the prophet’s instructions, invitations, or encouragement never limit or negate our moral agency or ability to choose. Nor do living prophets ask us to leave our brains at the door. But we will be held accountable for whether we use our moral agency to choose to follow the prophet who was put here to lead us.
- Fourth, while it is true that we are entitled to receive, and even obligated to pursue, personal revelation, including on the question of the authority of the Church and its president, it strains too much our sustaining him as a prophet, seer, and revelator to put each statement he makes to a test of our personal confirmation. Surely one of the major reasons the living prophet emphasizes personal revelation, is because he, is not going to provide all the individual spiritual instruction each of us needs for our unique circumstances. When, though, he speaks to the world (or to a significant portion of the world) in his capacity as prophet, our understanding that he is God’s prophet is generally enough.
- Lastly, there is no doubt that when the prophet speaks to us, he speaks plainly in ways that members worldwide—from various backgrounds, cultures, and education levels—can readily understand, including through scores of translations.
Of course, the last verse of that primary song is prophetic. “Now we have a world where people are confused. If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news.”
From where in 2021 do people get their news? How do we inform ourselves? What voices do we hear? How do we decide which voices to trust and which ideas to believe?
Virtually all so-called news sources today are politically and religiously polarized—as has long been the case. Social media is a platform on which anybody can say anything and nearly everybody does. It’s a cacophony of mostly rubbish, although it can be used productively. Our phones, computers, tablets, radios, and televisions are filled with allegedly “unbiased” news sources, professed experts, partisan politicians, scientists (who may or may not be politically or religiously neutral), bloggers, alarmists, greedy opportunists, aptly named “influencers,” peddlers of conspiracy theories, and even the guy next door—although in my case, that’s Karl Bunnell and I am happy to recommend him to you!
Where a living prophet fits into all this should be obvious and comforting because, in fact, he doesn’t “fit in.” He rises above the noise if we will listen. Our testimony of restored priesthood authority should cause us to look to his counsel just as we would hope the Children of Israel would have looked to and trusted Moses—or the people in Noah’s time would have responded to his warnings.
When we’re born into and raised in the Church, I think we can be at risk of certain familiar things being so familiar to us that they are like wallpaper and we miss the critical experience of inquisitiveness and developing a thoughtful understanding.
For example, ask 100 random members of the Church, how many people on the earth today we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators and listen to how many answer correctly. We often have the opportunity to sustain the president of the Church as a prophet, seer, and revelator and sometimes, almost automatically, we say yes or raise our arm, but to what extent do we consider and trust in President Nelson as a seer—one who sees things differently than we do, who sees more than we do, who has a better perspective than we do—even a perspective which may contradict our own initial instincts?
And to what extent do we acknowledge and respond to his role as a revelator? If he responds to circumstances that are new to us—or responds to things in a way that is new to us—does that lead us to doubt his guidance? Or does it lead us to consider his role as one who reveals?
Also, when we answer “yes” in our temple recommend interviews, how thoughtful are we about the president of the Church being authorized to exercise all priesthood keys on the earth today? Or about the idea of there being 15 living prophets, seers, and revelators who each hold all the keys and who work together in unanimity?
It is important for all our well-being that we see President Nelson as more than a nice man and accomplished doctor who ended up leading a large religious organization. Personal revelation is of critical importance, but Russell M. Nelson is the authorized mouthpiece for God to the world today. Responding to him takes faith and humility.
What has he asked us to do? What are we talking about?
- He has asked us to allow God to prevail in our lives.
- He has asked us to honor the Sabbath.
- He has asked us to help gather Israel.
- He has asked us to adjust our approach to social media.
- He has asked us to pray and to repent.
- He has asked us to be on the covenant path.
- He has asked us to regularly set appointments with the Lord in the temple.
- He has asked us to seek to understand temple covenants and ordinances.
- He has asked us to seek personal revelation and learn how to ‘Hear Him.’
- He has asked us to change our homes into places of faith and learning.
- He has given us guidance in how we should respond to the pandemic.
- He once asked us to “identify the debris [we] should remove from [our] lives.”
- He has asked us to “abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice”—and to eliminate contention.
- He has asked us to find the Savior in the Book of Mormon.
- He has asked us to refer to the Church by its proper and scriptural name.
- He has asked us to strengthen our spiritual foundation, built upon the Savior.
- He has asked us to make time for the Lord in our lives—every day.
Let me mention one last concept related to prophets before I close.
It is in vogue to point out that prophets are humans and subject to human errors. The fact that they are humans is inarguable and the fact that they are imperfect is documented in scripture. In some ways, it is very important and helpful to accept and appreciate their humanity. But here’s the risk:
If we are not careful, we can allow our emphasis of their humanity to life ourselves into a role of judgment over them which minimizes or even extinguishes (to us) their divine callings as prophets, seers, and revelators. If we are not careful, we will decide—when their teachings or instructions collide with our ideas—that our perspective is better than theirs; that we see things more clearly than they do (or did); or that we can generously dismiss their “foolish error” as part of their well-intentioned humanity, but elevate ourselves as the great arbiters of all things prophetic or mistaken (and we do sometimes like to pat ourselves on our backs for our condescending generosity) .
This is a path that leads to apostasy. More specifically, it leads us to distance ourselves from the very priesthood keys which are in place to help us along the covenant path. This can be spiritually fatal.
Brothers and sisters, let us not “be slothful because of the easiness of the way.” Prophets are humans. They are the very humans God has authorized to lead and guide us. Blessings of safety, peace, happiness, contentedness, worthiness, and prosperity, both in this life and the hereafter, are ours if we will follow them. I join you in thanking God for a prophet—to guide us in these latter days—our latter days, if you will. And I join the children singing:
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don’t go astray.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
The Infinite Power of the Atonement
[Stake Conference, October 2019]
The Book of Mormon uses the adjective “infinite” eleven times. Many Book of Mormon prophets spoke of the Savior’s “infinite goodness,” as well as of his “infinite mercy” and “infinite grace.” Nephi and Alma each made multiple references to the “infinite atonement” that would be brought about by the Savior—and also to His “infinite sacrifice.”
I am concerned that we sometimes place limitations on the Savior’s “infinite atonement,” which do not, in reality, exist. If and when we do that, we deprive ourselves of peace and of the joy Elder Christofferson spoke of in General Conference last weekend.
There are two general limitations we sometimes create that I would like to speak to. The first involves the Savior’s ability to help us heal and become whole from our own sins, challenges, and failures. The second involves the Savior’s ability to forgive and heal those who have hurt us.
I would like to bear my testimony that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of joy.
It is true that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So much so, that, in the absence of miraculous help, there is literally no hope of us returning to Him and experiencing all the goodness that is associated with being with Him. On our own, we are hopelessly lost.
But. We are not on our own. Miraculous help has occurred. Jesus, motivated by complete devotion to His Father—and also by a great love for us, condescended to come to earth, where he gave himself as that “infinite sacrifice” and thereby brought about the “infinite atonement.” Of course, many of the resulting blessings of his sacrifice will be fully realized in our futures. But many of them can be enjoyed now. When we falsely limit the reach of his power and the effects of His atonement, we forgo joy that should be ours now.
Elder Christofferson reminded us of Enos’s father’s reference to “the joy of the saints.” That joy should is fully within your power to experience as you exercise faith and practice repentance. Perfection is not required. Trusting God and striving to align ourselves with Him is. Those are both well within your and my abilities.
Now, first. The effects of the Savior’s infinite atonement are not limited in their ability to make you whole (except by your choices). Twice in just the last two weeks, I have visited with a distraught member who was so sure that he had become spiritually hopeless that suicide seemed like an alternative worth considering. Both believed that they had moved too far away for the Savior to reach them.
Both were wrong.
A favorite scripture of mine asks this question, “What doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift?” And then the answer, “Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him,” and, interestingly, “neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.”
The most wonderful gift imaginable has been bestowed upon you and me on conditions of our acceptance through faith and repentance. It is the gift of the Savior’s miracle. When we receive the gift, we rejoice and experience joy. So does God. When we reject the gift, either through limiting our faith and trust in the Savior or by holding onto our sins, we do not rejoice. And neither does God.
Let me tell you of another experience I have had with individuals on multiple occasions. It is sacred and personal to me. It is related to the three stories we find in Luke 15.
There we read about the lost sheep. That story ends with the Savior saying, “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.”
We also read about the lost coin. Similarly, the Savior concludes: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
Lastly, we read about the prodigal son and the reception he received, including hugs; expressions of love; and a celebration with music, dancing, and merry making.
What I have experienced with people who are sublimely humble and broken-hearted is the joy in heaven over the repentant soul—and the welcoming of him or her into heaven’s arms. I do not know how to articulate how I have experienced this, but it has been as though I could hear it. As if I could hear that “joy in the presence of the angels of God.” And I have felt it in a penetrating way. I know that heaven rejoices over each of us as we turn ourselves toward the Master.
How do you receive the gift and experience joy? You drop the idea that the effects of the Atonement cannot apply to you, no matter how little you may think of yourself or what unpleasant comparison you may make of yourself to others—no matter what situation you are dealing with that you think cannot be overcome. You receive the truth that the power of the Savior extends to you—to your whole you—now and always, as long as we are broken-hearted and striving to follow the Savior and correct our course when we err.
You are not, nor can you make yourself, beyond the Savior’s power.
Second. The effects of the Atonement are not limited in their ability to make others whole who have wronged you, nor in their ability to ultimately make you whole from the wrong you have received from them.
Let me tell you a true story about two families I first became aware of four or five years ago. This may be a difficult story to hear and to appreciate. In both families, there was a father, a mother, and children. In both families, the father tragically committed a heinous crime and was sent to prison. The crimes of these two men were nearly identical and they went into the system at the same time, having received similar sentences from the State of Utah.
Five years ago, I got to know one of these men. I will call him Ken. I became acquainted with the other, whom I will call David, when I happened to attend both of their parole hearings in prison about four years ago. Both were denied parole at that time and given another four years before they could have another hearing with the Parole Board, which they did a few months ago.
I have been impressed by the efforts made by these two men to repent of their sins and become new creatures. I am impressed by their reliance on God and the faith that drives their repentance and their striving for forgiveness. I love them. Particularly Ken, whom I know reasonably well.
One of the lessons in these two men’s stories comes from their respective families’ responses to them over these last ten years or so.
Ken’s children immediately began writing to him in prison about how they missed him and expressed love and support for him. His ex-wife, however, expressed no such support and, as the years went by, the support of the kids faded and ultimately disappeared. Efforts to communicate with the kids from prison went unresponded to. In Ken’s first parole hearing, his family spoke against him. Four years later, they spoke against him again—this time with great bitterness and vitriol—and he was given three more years.
In this family, it does not appear that any healing has occurred within family relationships. On the contrary, there is clearly much pain and what seems to be open and festering emotional and spiritual wounds throughout the family. Dad is left emotionally isolated in prison while children, now adults, no longer know the man they once loved. Nor do they understand or appreciate the changes that have occurred within him. Dad’s only form of comfort, if you could call it that, comes from understanding that it was his own actions that started this tragedy and there is nobody to blame but himself for putting into motion all the pain and negativity that have followed.
David’s family is an interesting contrast.
Shortly after David’s second hearing, just a few months ago, in which he was granted a release that has since occurred, I happened to chat with his wife for a few minutes. That was just a short while before he was to be released and she told me both how excited she was to have him get out of prison and also how nervous she was about the transition and difficult road yet ahead while he remained on parole. I did not sense any bitterness although there is no doubt she has been through terrible pain as a result of his actions. There was both happy and nervous anticipation.
The next day after my chat with David’s wife, I was visiting with Ken in prison. David was also in the room being visited by his 20-year-old daughter. As all the visitors exited the prison together, I struck up a conversation with that daughter. I had noticed her and her father, David, talking while they held hands and seemed genuinely happy to be together. I asked her how she felt about her dad getting out soon and she said she was looking forward to it. I asked her if she had always felt so positively toward her father. She said, emphatically, no. I asked her what changed. She said she began visiting him and discovering the changes he was making and that those changes softened her heart toward him.
I left the prison that day feeling heavy for Ken’s loneliness—and simultaneously delighted and privileged to have witnessed some of the healing that had happened in David’s family.
Three times, brothers and sisters, Jesus of Nazareth raised people from the dead during his ministry in Jerusalem.
In one instance, Jesus encountered a funeral procession. The only son of a widow was being buried, and when Jesus saw the mother, he was moved with compassion. He said to her, “Weep not” and then returned the young man to life and to his mother.
On another occasion, the Jewish leader Jairus told Jesus that his 12-year-old daughter was home dying. Before Jesus arrived, he was told that it was too late; she was dead. To which Jesus responded, “Fear not: believe only, and she shall be made whole.” Then, while the scriptures say people “laughed [Jesus] to scorn,” he called the girl to arise and she arose and was reunited with her family.
On the third occasion, Jesus intentionally waited for days after Lazarus’s death before going to him. When he arrived, Lazarus’s sister Martha met him, distraught that Jesus had not come sooner. Jesus explained to her, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” And, as you know the story, Jesus called Lazarus back from the dead and reunited him with his sisters Mary and Martha.
Why did Jesus return the dead to mortality—and to their families? Obviously, it was not required for their eternal salvation. He did it, I feel quite certain, to show all of us that he has the power not only of the resurrection, but the power to forgive, even when things may seem to us completely hopeless. Before Jesus raised the man sick of the palsy to his feet, he sensed the doubt in others that he had the power to heal both spiritually and physically. He preceded that healing with the words, “They ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins.”
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, has the power to forgive your sins, the power to forgive those who sin against us, the power to fully heal. Each and all of us can only limit the application of that power (to ourselves) by refusing to accept the gift. We find joy and peace in our lives when we accept the gift, both for ourselves and for others who have hurt us or our loved ones. “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” Forgiving others does not mean that we don’t permit appropriate boundaries or consequences, but it does mean accepting the gift of the atonement both on our behalf and on behalf of others. So doing bring peace to our souls.
Perhaps the ultimate blessing from accepting the Savior’s gift as truly infinite is that, through it, we are reunited to our families—both our heavenly, eternal family, and our earthly, hopefully likewise eternal, family.
Jesus Christ is infinite in his goodness, in his mercy and grace, and in all his perfection. He lives. The effects of his atonement are infinite if we receive them. I pray that each of us will. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.