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.