We existed before we were born. There are some important things we know about that and a lot that we don’t. We know that we’ve always existed, at least as some form of intelligence, and that God didn’t just create intelligence or matter “out of nothing.”
We know that God has a body of flesh and bones and that he somehow formed for us bodies of spirit that are in the form of his own physical body. Through this, or perhaps before, he became our father and is the father of our spirits. He was not alone in this. Though we know little about our Heavenly Mother, it is essential to understand that we are the spiritual offspring of Heavenly Parents, both male and female.
Gender is critical to who they are–and to who each one of us is. Each of us “is a beloved son or daughter of heavenly parents.” “Each [of us] has a divine nature and destiny.” “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
Therefore, attached to our gender are qualities of our nature (what we are), our purpose (why we are), and our destiny (where we’re going). To be a daughter of God is wonderful, purposeful, majestic, and divine. To be a son of God is wonderful, purposeful, majestic, and divine. They are equal. They are not the same.
As children of Heavenly Parents, the intended destiny for each of us–without exception: male or female, black or white, gay or straight–is to become like our Heavenly Parents. Men like our Heavenly Father. And women like our Heavenly Mother. Our intended destiny is to gain their respective capacities and perfections, to love and lift in ways that they do, and to experience joy and happiness in ways only they can. They experience joy and happiness in the most complete senses of those words. They invite us to follow their path to realizing that same ability.
To help us fulfill our destiny of becoming like them, Heavenly Father created a plan. This involved creating an earth for us. For reasons I don’t understand, earth is the place where we can gain a physical body, no matter how briefly we’re here. It is apparently also the only place where physical ordinances can be performed–by us or for us–that open certain doors and activate certain powers on our behalf. If we survive infancy and are accountable, earth is also that place–intentionally more distant from our Heavenly Father’s immediate presence–where we can gain experience through agency and adversity.
The Plan addresses potentially problematic concepts that seem to pre-date the plan. These include agency, justice, and accountability. Without some compensating intervention, our failures with agency will cause us to permanently separate ourselves from our Heavenly Father and from our destiny of becoming like Him. Jesus volunteered to resolve the demands of justice for our mistakes and failures, but with conditions for us. We would have to believe and trust in Him; we would have to develop a humble, broken heart and an enduring attitude of contrition.
We would have to become formally devoted to Jesus and to our Father in Heaven and to living laws that are consistent with being like them–such as those called out in the Baptismal, Endowment, and Sealing ordinances. While the resurrection is a free and universal gift, overcoming the penalties of our sins is not–all of God’s grace notwithstanding. We can only fulfill the plan to become like our Heavenly Parents through sincere faith and repentance and by fulfilling the terms of our baptism and temple covenants.
Not everyone liked the plan. Consistent with the apparently inviolable nature of agency, we were not forced to accept it. A war was waged. This was surely a war fought to persuade, not to force. I imagine that the casting out of the third part of the host of heaven was more about the natural consequences of badly used agency than it was about the wrath of an angry God. The God who weeps, surely must have wept at the refusal of so many of his children to trust in Him and His plan–a challenge each of us still faces.
You and I chose our Heavenly Father’s plan and placed our full reliance on the Savior.
Now I want to reiterate something here… Our goal in this life is not merely to return to God. The Book of Mormon teaches that we’re all going to do that, anyway. And, since we were already with Him in the pre-existence, being sent away from Him merely to see if we could make it back, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. There was from the beginning a greater and clear purpose–the understanding of which is key to navigating many difficult topics that challenge people’s faith today: the goal is for us, as sons and daughters of God, to become like Them. By definition, becoming means that how I am tomorrow will be different than how I am today. Becoming means changing.
The goal has always been to change–from the incomplete versions of ourselves that we currently are–to complete versions of ourselves, with all the abilities and capacities of our Heavenly Parents, male and female. Heavenly Father’s goal for us, which we accepted and even fought for, is for us to become something different than we were in the pre-existence–and something still different than we are now.
To say that who or what I am today is who or what I must be in eternity is to deny the significance and nature of God and reject the wonderful possibility of becoming like Him. God does love you and me today, as we are. That does not mean that his hopes and plans and invitations for each of us is limited to our current stage of development.
The outcome we should pursue is not one that doubles down on our current natures–for “the natural man is an enemy to God”–but rather the outcome of having our natures changed by coming to the Savior and meeting His conditions. It is not by digging our heels into who we are today that will bring us to the greatest conclusion, but by yielding what we are today to the enticings of the Holy One.
Also important: Because Heavenly Father’s plan is perfect–and because the Savior’s Atonement is infinite–our destinies can be realized independent of our circumstances in mortality. You can be short or tall, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, talented at this or talented at that… One primary thing will determine our outcome–and it is not our current condition or circumstances. It is our agency. God will not force any of us. We will choose–either our full destiny–or some diminished, though still positive, version of it.
Note that God, Himself, is subject to the law of justice. Alma 42 tells us that if God attempts to ignore or work around justice, He will cease to be God. But because of the Atonement of Christ, we can trade the worst consequences of our sins for devotion to and a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father.
The role of the Church in this process should not be overemphasized. Nor should it be underemphasized. The Church is not God. But fulfilling our destiny requires a covenant relationship with God that is specifically and consciously entered into by both parties. That covenant relationship must be formalized through a properly authorized physical act (an ordinance) on the earth. The Church is the steward of God’s authority on the earth and is the only entity authorized right now to bind us and God to each other in that covenant relationship through which He can help us become as He is.
The Church is run by human beings. Revelation is real, but it doesn’t come as a constant, detailed, complete set of instructions to Church leaders. We should not allow the mistakes of human Church leaders to separate us from the priesthood keys which they can exercise on our behalf. A mistake made by a Church leader does not prove that he holds no priesthood keys. It reflects that he is human.
We neither worship Church leaders nor claim they are infallible. Church leaders do, however, have a special relationship with God’s authority which gives them a perspective that is different from yours and mine. When our opinion of something contradicts theirs, we should pause before concluding that we’re right and they’re wrong. We should especially pause before letting that difference remove us from the blessings we can enjoy when they turn priesthood keys on our behalf and on behalf of those we love.
One of the sillier common criticisms of our Church is that we have a sense of exclusivity, meaning you have to be a “Mormon” in order to get to heaven. In fact, we believe every single son or daughter of God will have an informed opportunity to enter into a covenant relationship with their Heavenly Father and Savior. Passing through the pearly gates will have little to do with “church membership,” per se, and much to do with the legitimacy of mutually binding covenants.
Mortality is fickle. It is full of beauty, joy, wonder, and miracles. It is also difficult and painful. While it is true that blessings follow obedience, the often embraced companion to that idea–that an exemption from pain or hardship also follows obedience–is horribly misleading. We must try to learn to accept this to avoid being spiritually blindsided when it happens. No amount of faith, repentance, and devotion may spare any of us from pains and tragedies that faithful disciples don’t “deserve.” Just ask Abinadi, Joseph Smith, the original twelve apostles, or some deeply faithful members of our own stake. Do blessings follow faith, repentance, and devotion? Absolutely. Are those blessings sometimes material? Yes. Are they sometimes immediate? Yes. But often they are not material and often they are not immediate. Faith and repentance bring rich and immediate rewards, but some blessings will be received in eternity.
We must not lose sight of the fact that our goal is to become like our Heavenly Parents, which involves yielding ourselves to a process whereby our very natures are changed. This process is not comprised of checklists. The Pharisees attempted the idea of checklist salvation and where did that get them?
Checking a list of do’s and don’ts will not punch our golden tickets into the Celestial Kingdom. Not even ticking all the boxes of receiving each of the saving ordinances will do that. Success is more about becoming than it is about doing–at least in the Pharisaical sense that so easily slips into our thinking. Should we keep the commandments? Yes! “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” But ours is not a doctrine of formulaic or checkbox salvation.
Neither do we believe in relative rankings and outperforming our neighbors. God does not judge on a curve. We believe in loving our neighbors, not in comparing ourselves to them–or them to us. Each of us should become like our Heavenly Parents via the covenant path, but individual experiences along that way will vary.
The questions we should ask ourselves are less about the check boxes and more about the attributes we’re developing. We should ask… Do I truly love God and put Him first in my life? Do I strive to emulate the Savior? Do I love the people I encounter–including those different from me–or who aren’t nice to me? Am I honest? Am I humble? Am I meek? Am I kind and compassionate? Do I strive to serve and to lift? Am I learning patience? Is my heart soft enough to forgive those who harm me and those I love?
“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (The phrase “all mankind” is radically inclusive.)
I suspect it is not, technically, the saving ordinances that will save us–but, rather, the change that God brings about within us when we strive to live the principles connected to those ordinances and to being in a true covenant relationship with Him. This involves effort from us–and is why complacency is a sin–and striving (even when we fail!) is a virtue. Perfectionism sounds helpful, but it is not.
Obedience probably doesn’t save us because we’re checking boxes, but because it creates the conditions in which God can bring about the change we came here for. It is true that we are tested in life, but I imagine this life is less about a pass-fail test than it is about learning and becoming.
What happens after this life? Again, we know a little–and there’s a lot we don’t know. We know there is a separation between the faithful and the less faithful in the spirit world. We know the gospel is taught there. We know that ordinances performed on earth can be accepted there. We know there will be a resurrection and a judgment. All will be resurrected. But not all resurrected bodies will be identical. We know that Jesus will be our judge–and our mediator and even our advocate. It’s been suggested that that process will look more like our being invited in than being kept out. It seems that, in the end, only one thing will keep us out–and that is the agency that we started with.
We do not know exactly how long the process will take between death and something that may be considered a final judgment. Nor do we know the extent of what can happen within that process. We know that we are already invited to become perfect like our Heavenly Parents–but since we obviously don’t achieve that in this life, there is some additional process of continued becoming. We know that we should look on our present situation with a sense of urgency and be anxiously engaged–avoiding the sin of complacency — but with faith and trust instead of spiritual anxiety.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.” That is certainly true of material things, but there is a long list of things we can take with us, including: our covenants; our knowledge and experience; our history of choices, desires, and priorities; our character development; some aspects of our “sociality”; our priesthood; and our continuation along the plan of salvation–or, maybe it could be called the Plan of Becoming. We will definitely take with us what we have, so far, become.
What is the point of all this? The point is this… You and your loved ones are children of perfect Heavenly Parents. They love each one of Their children. They have provided a plan whereby we can become like Them. We know some fundamental, important things about that plan, but our missing knowledge of many details invites us to trust.
We should exercise faith and patience with the things we don’t yet know. We should trust our Father in Heaven and our Savior and their love–and stick with the plan we accepted–not merely because we accepted it, but because its authors are not missing any knowledge, they love us, and they know where the plan will bring each of us if we stick with it. We should exercise faith and repentance; we should understand and try to keep our covenants; and we should strive to grow in Godly attributes, always leading with love.
I testify that we have a Father in Heaven and a Savior. I testify that if we will follow their plan with faith and patience, we will become like them with a fulness of joy, even if we don’t currently see how to connect all the dots to getting there. Hence, faith. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.