Category Archives: Highland South YSA Lessons

“If any man will do… he will know…”

It was said by the writer of Hebrews (which, if I understand correctly, may or may not have been Paul), that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  I’ve been hearing that phrase for decades and wondering what, exactly, it means.  With the help of this Thursday’s YSA seminar, I think I’m getting closer.

Our LDS Bible Dictionary (which I am guilty of underutilizing) associates at least five things with faith:

  1. hope (of things unseen)
  2. confidence (or “assurance of the fulfillment of the things hoped for”)
  3. action (“true faith always moves its possessor to some kind of physical and mental action”—the “and” in that sentence is noteworthy)
  4. power (“when occasion warrants”), and
  5. belief (probably the most obvious—but not the only!—element of faith)

Further, the Bible Dictionary clarifies that “true faith must be based upon correct knowledge” and that if it is to “produce salvation,” faith “must be centered in Jesus Christ.”

So if I fail to hope and believe with confidence or if I fail to act on what I believe, my faith is (partially or entirely) absent or it is a type of false faith.  Further, if my faith is based on something that isn’t true, it may still be faith, but it is not true faith—and if it is not centered on Christ, it will neither bring about a remission of my sins nor my salvation.

It is interesting to distinguish between “correct knowledge” and “perfect knowledge.”  Alma taught that “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things.” (Alma 32:21)  The thing I believe in and act upon must be correct—and I must have a reason to believe it is correct, otherwise it could not be considered knowledge.  (And heaven knows we do not believe in blind faith.)  Yet my knowledge must be in some way imperfect, lest it be “perfect knowledge” and faith no longer present.

This confirms the idea that faith and agency are—as are testimony and agency—connected.  Neither faith nor testimony involves perfect faith, so there is a strong element of choice involved with both.  In fact, we come to earth to use our agency to choose faith—faith in redemption and even exaltation through Jesus Christ.  In short, we must have reasons for what we believe and exercise faith in, yet those reasons will not be perfected to the point (in this life, at least) at which they squeeze out uncertainty and, hence, choice.

What is a bit baffling to me is why Evangelical Christians are so good at declaring their salvation with firm (to say the least) confidence whereas if you ask a Mormon “Have you been saved?” the answer is often a look of shock, confusion, uneasiness, or embarrassment.  Why do we lack the willingness to answer that question positively?  Is our faith in Christ partially or entirely absent?

Well, an easy answer is because none of us—Evangelical, LDS, or otherwise—is yet literally and permanently standing in God’s presence, so we cannot factually say that it has happened already.  But Mormons struggle with that question even if it is placed in a future context:  “How confident do you feel that, if your life ended today, you would end up exalted in the Celestial Kingdom after the Judgment?”  Would it be inappropriate for me to look you in the eye in response to that question and answer firmly, “Completely confident”?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I think we usually ought to and that true faith even demands it (provided I’m not in violation of my covenants—which does not mean that I’m perfect).

So where does confident, assured faith come from?  Well, the Bible Dictionary says it comes from learning (“hearing the testimony of those who have faith”) and doing (“obedience to the gospel”).  It stands to reason that we must learn about something before we can believe in it and that the more we learn about it and understand it, the greater our reasons may become for believing in it.  But learning must also be accompanied by action.  Faith is not faith without action; faith without works is very much dead; and without action our learning becomes seriously obstructed.

So as my friend Newell recently taught me, it is a cycle:  if I am willing to experiment and exercise faith in something I’ve learned by acting on it, through that action I will learn more, which learning will prompt me to act more, which will in turn teach me more, and so on and so on and so on.  There is a “virtuous cycle” of learning and acting and being obedient to what we learn.  But when I cease either learning or acting correctly on that learning, I cease spiraling upward and commence sliding backward into a spiral descent.

Jesus taught clearly and succinctly the relationship between faith and action and learning and doing:  “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine….”

Learn.  Do.  Exercise agency through hope and belief.  Exercise confidence and a sense of assurance in that hope and belief.  And power will follow—if, when, and as needed by our Father in Heaven—but in any event to the producing of our salvation if our faith is centered on Christ.

Such faith is liberating.  The alternative of “faith in nothing” leads to hopelessness.  And the alternative of “faith in myself” leads to high stress, a lack of assurance, and ultimately failure.  Faith in Christ, however, including acting on it as best we can, results in confident assurance.

So with respect for my Evangelical friends who don’t believe me and for my Mormon friends who think such statements are inappropriate…  I, for one, am not yet saved.  But I’m going to be.  And you can bank on it.

“…let him be your servant.”

I remember very little about my exit interview the day before I returned home from my mission.  But one exchange has always stuck with me.  President Cardon asked me, “Do you intend to remain an active member of the Church?”

I was taken aback a bit.  I thought it was a strange question to ask someone who had just devoted two years and hopefully served in a way that demonstrated commitment.  I stammered, “Well, yes, of course.”

He then said, “What does it mean to be active?”  I tried to think quickly, but, as is often the case, couldn’t come up with much more than the obvious.  “Well, it means going to Church, being worthy and having a temple recommend…”  He almost cut me off:  “Does being active include having a calling?”  I wished I’d thought of that, myself.  “Yes, I think so,” I said.

Then he said, “I want you to make me a promise.  I want you to promise me that you’ll never go four consecutive weeks without a calling without going to your bishop and asking for one.  Will you promise to do that?”  I did.

I can’t say that I’ve lived up to the letter of that promise as well as I should have, but I think I’ve lived up to the spirit of it.  In the various times I’ve moved and switched wards in my life, there have sometimes been intervals of some weeks before I received a calling.  I remember on a couple of occasions making a comment to the bishop as I’d promised I would.  On a couple of other occasions, I knew the bishop was aware of me and I gave it a little more time and a calling came before too long.

Why do we serve in callings in the Church?  Perhaps because we’re asked to and we feel a sense of duty.  Perhaps out of a sense of tradition and culture:  that’s what Mormons do.  Perhaps we enjoy the socializing and relationships that are a part of most callings.

Or perhaps we have better reasons.  Perhaps we love people and understand that all callings are about people.  Perhaps we recognize the responsibility we have toward them and want to serve them.  Perhaps we love God and remember his instruction to Peter, “If ye love me, feed my sheep.”  Perhaps we know that all things have been offered to those who magnify their callings.  Perhaps we embrace the mission of the Church to bring souls to Christ and we appreciate so much what it means to come to Christ that we want to help others do the same.

My favorite non-prophetic author had one of his characters say, “Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.”  He also said, speaking of himself, “We are all responsible for everyone else—but I am more responsible than all the others.”

Am I responsible for others?  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Jacob spoke of “taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not…”  President Hinckley said, “Each of us is responsible for the welfare and the growth and development of others. We do not live only unto ourselves. If we are to magnify our callings, we cannot live only unto ourselves.”

How do we magnify our calling?  Well, we start by having a calling, as my mission president encouraged me to do.  Then we understand what it requires.  But we don’t stop there!  To do so is to minimize a calling—and what a lost opportunity that is!  We reap what we sow and few things illustrate that as well as the effort and creativity we put into our callings.  So we get a clear understanding of who we are called to serve and then we get busy with those people, focusing on them and how we can serve them within the larger spirit of our calling.  We get to know them, learn about them, love them.  And then we pray for guidance and we let the creative juices flow (thinking in the shower always helps me!) and between our own pondering and perspiration and the Lord’s inspiration—the perfect recipe—we go above and beyond that low-bar minimum and serve!

Fifteen years ago, I extended a calling to a couple in my ward to serve as ward librarians.  I did an utterly pathetic  job of it.  My explanation of what their calling was about was enough to deflate even the most enthusiastic.  But they dutifully accepted.  A year later, I sat in a meeting and heard a bishop describe the calling of a ward librarian and became both exhilarated by his vision of how this calling, if well done, could impact and change families—and disgusted by the memory of my own lack of vision and effort and thoughtfulness and a year earlier.

Librarians, it turns out, can help families tap into Church resources to more effectively teach their children at home.  Sunday School teachers can visit the students who don’t come and can take and show an interest in them outside of church meetings.  Ward membership clerks can knock on doors and get to know the people over whose membership records they have stewardship.  Secretaries can advocate for lost sheep.  Stake leaders can greet by name the people they serve throughout the stake.  Music committee chairs can identify hidden talents and encourage the development of talents which may not even exist yet.  And on and on.

We do reap what we sow.  When we don’t have a calling, we miss out on a huge source of happiness and fulfillment.  When we have a calling but don’t (or barely) act in it… same crummy thing.  When we pour our hearts into the people we’re serving and focus our efforts on them instead of on ourselves (teachers, for example, should teach students, not lessons), we reap rewarding relationships and the joy of seeing growth in others—and, inevitably, in ourselves.

Young Single Adults—as that label rather clearly suggests, are neither children nor “youth.” They are adults.  For them (as we discussed Thursday), it is time to pick up an oar and row with the rest of the rowing adults—to share the gospel, strengthen testimonies, “lift up the hands which hang down and strengthen the feeble knees.”  It’s time to switch from net taker to net giver.  Or, maybe better said, it’s time to strive to become a net giver, because it is impossible in the Lord’s economy to become a net giver since the Lord always blesses us disproportionately to our service.

May God bless us with vision, an interest in people, a desire to serve, and inspiration to see how to magnify our calling to a point of real impact.  In such a scenario, all are blessed and become happier.

“…if we pursue the path that leads to it.”

On more than one occasion as I was growing up, my father said something like this:  “Pain has a purpose. Pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Often, the best fix is an adjustment to one or more of four basic health-related habits:  what and how much we eat, how much we sleep (not too much; not too little), how often and how long we exercise, and how we manage stress in our lives.  Frequently, the best remedy is a rather uncomplicated correction to one or more of these aspects of our lifestyle.”

I have thought about that idea a lot over the past couple of weeks as we have discussed the elements of happy living in our seminar series.  If veggies, fruits, whole grains, 7.5 hours of sleep, 30 minutes a day of rigorous exercise, and functional stress relief valves in our lives make for physically healthy living—at least as a general rule—could it be that there is a similar “formula” for spiritually- and emotionally-healthy living that would help us live in a state of happiness?

We finished (for now, at least) putting our heads together this week in our Thursday evening seminar and came up with a list of nine elements or ingredients for happy living.  I like to call them “The Manners of Happiness” since we are trying to explain what it means to live “after the manner of happiness.”  (Recognizing that happiness is, in reality, a matter of degree and not either strictly present or absent, we nevertheless identified these things as being required to get us to a way of living that would generally be described as “happy.”  For achieving the greatest amount of happiness ultimately possible, more is needed—and we’ve identified those things, too, in a second list.)  For being happy right here and now, here are the nine things we came up with—in no particular order.

  1. Pursuit of personal improvement.  We need to be striving for personal growth—not just striving to be better at something or to acquire more knowledge (though those are good), but striving to be better human beings—better contributors to the common good.
  2. Love.  Here we refer to love as a verb and with ourselves on the giving, serving end.  We cannot be very happy when we are not striving to help others feel loved, valued, supported—and happy—themselves.  We tend to make ourselves happier when we are making efforts to help other people feel happier.
  3. Choosing well.  Alma said, “Wickedness never was happiness.”  Conversely, it seems a valid axiom that righteousness—or choosing well—not to be confused with piety or self-righteousness—is a necessary condition for happiness.  Not that we must be perfect or we can’t be happy, but we must strive to keep the commandments and to live life as God encourages us to live it.
  4. Handling adversity.  “Into each life some rain must fall,” said the poet.  God sends “rain on the just and the unjust,” said the Son of God.  We will all gain experience with life’s difficulties:  disappointments, tragedies, heartaches, doubts, discouragement, mean people, etc.  How we handle those things is up to us. If we do not handle them well, we will severely limit our ability to experience happiness while we struggle with them, which can be most of the time.
  5. Forgiving.  Like adversity, we can hardly avoid being wronged or offended. The better the perspective we maintain and the more generous we are at giving people the benefit of the doubt, the less we’ll need to forgive.  But if it’s true that “the greater sin” lies with the person who fails to forgive than in the person who commits the original wrong and if it’s true that happiness is not found in sin, then it stands to reason that failing to forgive is a great formula for living unhappily.
  6. Having hope, faith, and optimism.  It may be true that a pessimist is never disappointed and it is surely true that we should anticipate and prepare for negative events in our lives, but surely happiness is associated with a bright outlook and a sense of confidence that we will become better than we are today, that fairness will ultimately prevail, that people can change, and that a better future lies ahead.  Faith centered in the Atonement and teachings of Jesus Christ is the ultimate form of optimism and confidence.
  7. Diligence. Of “a virtuous woman,” it is written that “she looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.”  The commandment Adam received, when leaving the Garden of Eden, to eat his bread by “the sweat of thy face,” was, according to Elder Bruce D. Porter, a gift, not a curse.  Working means contributing and is surely an essential ingredient in a happy life.
  8. Feeling loved.  Nothing in our list is dependent upon the choices or actions of others.  Feeling loved is, perhaps arguably but nevertheless defensibly, not an exception to that.  It is not enough to be loved; we must recognize and accept that we are loved—hopefully by family and friends and all the people whom we love, but if by no one else—and hopefully in addition to those others—then by our Father in Heaven and by a Savior who has given all for each of us.
  9. Recreation.  This item came down to a close vote, but with an appeal to “The Proclamation” and its reference to “wholesome recreational activities,” the pro-fun faction among our young single adults won.  And why not? The Lord doesn’t just make the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  He makes the sun shine on us, too (well, unless you live in the Northwest).  It’s hard to imagine feeling happy in a life devoid of moments of wholesome fun and laughter and enjoying the good things of the earth.

As previously alluded to, it is important to note that there were five other items on our list, which we say are essential for the fullness of happiness which awaits us if we choose to live after the ultimate manners of happiness.  These include:  not only gaining a testimony, but being fully converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ; forming meaningful relationships with each member of the Godhead; making and keeping temple covenants; being humble and acquiring to their fullest extent all the attributes of Christ; and being in and contributing to a happy, successful family.  Including those in our immediate list would have meant excluding large portions of our world population from being happy, which we agreed was unjustifiable and contradicted our experiences and observations. Yet we note again that there are degrees of happiness—with much available to us now and yet more later if we so live.  (Of course, most of these things are available to most of right now and need not be waited for.)

Is it possible that doing things like loving better, being more diligent, and facing adversity with more faith and optimism will result in us feeling happier—just as straightforwardly as eating better and exercising more consistently will result in us being healthier?  I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t one more item to add to our list, which departs a little from the physical health analogy—and that is making the choice to be happy.  I doubt that a person can be happy solely by choosing to be while ignoring things like those we’ve listed; but it does seem possible for a person to do a lot of things right yet lack the willingness to let themselves experience being happy.

Joseph Smith said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”  Clearly happiness is within the ability of each of us to experience in the short-term.  Perhaps if we are not, we just need to adjust one or more of a few basic happiness-related habits in our lives.

“Men [and women] are that they might have joy.”

What caring parent doesn’t want his or her children to be happy? (Speaking of which, I bristle every time I hear the question, “What parent doesn’t what his or her children to have more than they, the parents, had while growing up?”—accompanied by the implication that the answer is so obviously, “Duh… every parent.” Well. I’m a parent and I couldn’t care less if my children have more or less than I did. (Sorry, kids.) Having things isn’t at all what will make them decent, productive, worthwhile, or happy. In fact, the pursuit of “things” quickly becomes a distraction from real sources of happiness. Anyway!…) God is our father and that statement alone tells us most of what we need to know about how He feels about us and what He wants for us. He cares. And he wants us to be happy. Not someday happy. Right now happy.

If Mormons believe in anything—and we believe in a lot of things (our Articles of Faith even say that we “believe all things”!)—then we most definitely believe in happiness. And we don’t just believe in happiness in the sense that we believe it exists somewhere for someone. We believe in actually being happy. Ourselves. Right now. We believe that “happiness is the object and design of our existence” and that “men are that they might have joy.” We believe that Jesus came “that [we] might have [life] more abundantly.” We even go so far as to believe that God’s “work and [his] glory [is] to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life [and one might reasonably add: “happiness”] of man.” Our happiness is God’s very purpose!

Nephi’s reference to living “after the manner of happiness” suggests that happiness results from something intentional. There is a “manner,” a process, a set of behaviors, a way of thinking. Something! Something other than just waiting for it to land on us like a ray of sunshine or for it to be bestowed upon us like a diploma or for us to qualify for it like a driver’s license. Happiness is yet another application of that beautiful internal-locus-of-control-related Book of Mormon concept of acting and not merely being “acted upon.”  Happiness is intended for everyone all the time and must surely be within the grasp of each of us. The real question is whether we will recognize what the manner of happiness is in a practical, applicable sense and, once recognized, do it / live it.

Tonight at our YSA Seminar, we talked about what it means to live “after the manner of happiness.” That is, we spent a relatively loud and animated hour trying to identify the ways of living that result in happiness. It was fun, actually. Problem is we ran out of time, so our list isn’t quite ready for prime time and will have to be shared with you another day. But we’ve got a pretty good start.

In the meantime, it seems to me that in identifying the manners of happy living, there are some tests to consider when deciding if something is really, truly a necessary ingredient for happiness. For example:

  • It must not be a true element of happiness if it is beyond my reach and unavailable to me at any time.  (Right?)
  • True elements of happiness must be able to coexist with adversity.  The presence of adversity doesn’t make happiness impossible.  (Does it?)
  • Permanence matters. If something can’t be present both now and in eternity, it must not be a legitimate ingredient for happiness.  (Right?)

And there are other interesting things to consider:

  • As Ms. Turner has asked, what’s love got to do with it? Must I be loved to be happy? Is it more of a matter of me being the one doing the loving? Is the knowledge that I’m loved by God essential?
  • Must one be a member of the Church to be happy? Some people seem to think so. Really?
  • What about the attributes of Christ? Must I possess them? And to what extent? Can I be happy even with personality, attitudinal, and behavioral shortcomings? (I sure hope so!)
  • Oh, and what about family? What role does marriage (and other family relationships) play in happiness? Is marriage essential? Can an orphan be happy? Is happiness a solitary pursuit?
  • Lastly, choice. Can I simply choose to be happy (or not)? What role does simple agency play in this?

Sorry, but I’m not presenting the answers to these questions today. My cohorts and I and about 15-20 young single adults will figure out all the answers and eagerly share them with you soon. (How long can it take? :-)  In the meantime, if you have thoughts or suggestions to share, please post a comment and we’ll eagerly include it in our discussion. And, please, life (on earth) is short. Be as happy as you can—until we finish telling you how. ;-)

“…except for the character of Christ.”

Neal A. Maxwell said, “There would have been no Atonement except for the character of Christ.”  My dictionary defines character as “the combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person… from another” or “a description of a person’s attributes, traits, or abilities.”

Last week in our YSA Seminar, we discussed the attributes of Christ and this week we discussed them some more.  We came up with a list of 35 attributes and connected them with the Savior through examples in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.  (You can read that list here and your thoughts for improvement are welcome.)  We also tied about three-fourths of them directly back to the Atonement and Elder Maxwell’s statement by successfully completing this sentence for them:  “There would have been no Atonement except for Jesus’s [attribute goes here].”

Lastly, we took a stab at identifying a single attribute, which, by itself, best summarizes the character of Christ.  Among our leading vote-getters were “compassionate,” “loving,” “obedient,” and “selfless.”  Of course, such an exercise isn’t necessary, but… I personally favor “selfless,” which I think sums up many of his other attributes and is also the focus of Elder Bednar’s talk on The Character of Christ.  I am also swayed by a statement I once heard from a general authority (who wasn’t a general authority, or even a member of the Church, for much longer after he said it; nevertheless…) that the root of all sin is selfishness.  Perhaps that means that the root of all virtue is selflessness(?).  Anyway, in his talk, Elder Bednar says,

Perhaps the greatest indicator of character is the capacity to recognize and appropriately respond to other people who are experiencing the very challenge or adversity that is most immediately and forcefully pressing upon us. Character is revealed, for example, in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering; in the ability to detect the hunger of others when we are hungry; and in the power to reach out and extend compassion for the spiritual agony of others when we are in the midst of our own spiritual distress. Thus, character is demonstrated by looking and reaching outward when the natural and instinctive response is to be self-absorbed and turn inward. If such a capacity is indeed the ultimate criterion of moral character, then the Savior of the world is the perfect example of such a consistent and charitable character.

In support of his last sentence, he cites a number of examples of the Savior thinking of others during the last days and hours of his mortal life.  He also cites Matthew 4:11 and the Joseph Smith translation of that verse which entirely changes its meaning.  At a time when Jesus must have been completely physically, spiritually, and emotionally spent, He called for angelic support not for himself, but for John.  If you’re not familiar with the article, you really should read it.  He also includes some incredible examples from women he has known.  None of us should ever complain that our local Relief Society president isn’t supplying us with enough relief!

We should be in awe of the Savior and his character.  We should do all we can to emulate Him.  And our prayers should be filled with expressions of worship and gratitude knowing that we are the beneficiaries of his perfectly selfless nature.