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.
Caring for the Poor and Needy
[Stake Priesthood Meeting, June 2019]
Brethren, I want to talk to you this afternoon about something that is very important. In recent years and months it has been especially weighing on me. Addressing it with you is a component of repentance that I need to go through as a stake president. It’s also part of the repentance we need to go through as a stake. And, to varying degrees, it may be part of a very important repentance process that you (and perhaps your families) need to go through.
The topic is our responsibility for helping the poor. While it is true that the line between spiritual and temporal matters is very blurry—if it even exists at all—and, to God, apparently it doesn’t—I am not speaking today about our responsibility to care for those who are poor in spirit or who are spiritually lost. Those needs, of course, surround us on all fronts and our responsibilities there are sobering. But that is not today’s topic. Today’s topic is our responsibility for helping the materially poor. Those needs are also staggering. Fortunately or unfortunately, they do not confront us as directly in our immediate community as they do others in other parts of the world.
The Lord’s teachings on this topic are very clear. They are also ubiquitous throughout all canonized scripture both ancient and modern.
At the end of the Savior’s life, he taught the parable of the sheep and the goats. The message of this parable is vivid and should grab our attention. Those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, house the refugee, clothe the impoverished, and minister to the sick and imprisoned… these will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who don’t… will not.
I am sometimes concerned about our responses to the story of the Savior’s encounter with the rich young ruler. You all know the story. The Savior said to him, “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”
While I acknowledge that we are not asked to make vows of poverty in our church—or to literally sell everything we have—nor do we have examples of the Brethren doing such things—I sometimes think that we go through great intellectual gymnastics to figure out how little the Savior’s message to the rich young man applies to each of us. We sometimes do that while looking down on this man—who may or may not have ended up applying the Savior’s counsel better than we do.
Let me remind you that the vast majority of us in this room today are very wealthy. Not a little wealthy. Very wealthy. You are the rich young ruler. And so am I. As I have pointed out before, most of us in this room are, in terms of wealth, in the top tenth of one percent of people in the world. Many are well into that one tenth of one percent. That means that if 1,000 random people were selected from all over the globe and put into a room and you were one of them, some among the 999 faces looking at you would be very hungry; some would be not far from death due to hunger, thirst, or preventable disease; and all would be looking at you as the steward of the greatest amount of resources that could help.
I worry about the Savior’s parable about Lazarus (not the one he raised from the dead; this one was fictitious) and the Rich Man. The story is about the rich man, which, again, is you and me. It goes like this:
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: The rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
Tormented. The word the Savior chose twice to illustrate the fate of those who live without helping the poor is “tormented.” Brethren, let’s avoid being tormented.
It is true that temporal blessings follow obedience. It is not true that our accumulation of temporal blessings is an indication of our righteousness or of our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.
By show of hands, how many of you know the three things that were referred to in what we used to call “the three-fold mission of the Church”? Some years ago, a fourth item was added to that list. I am very sorry to report—and I apologize to all of you—that from a leadership standpoint, the significance of that fourth item being added was largely lost on me. I ask your and our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness. As a stake presidency, we hope to guide the stake collectively toward repentance in this regard.
Here is the current statement in the Church Handbook of Instructions:
In fulfilling its purpose to help individuals and families qualify for exaltation, the Church focuses on divinely appointed responsibilities. These include helping members live the gospel of Jesus Christ, gathering Israel through missionary work, caring for the poor and needy, and enabling the salvation of the dead by building temples and performing vicarious ordinances.
Caring for the poor and needy is not last in that list. It wasn’t tacked on as an also-ran.
So. Brethren, here is what we have done and what we are going to do:
First. We have long had three high council-led committees providing leadership to the stake for missionary work, gospel teaching, and temple work. We now have a fourth leadership team addressing our “divinely appointed responsibility” to care for the poor and the needy. This team consists of three high councilors and our entire stake RS presidency. Sister Stevens, Stake RS President, chairs this committee. Sister Cyndie Dobson also serves as a specialist on this committee—which has begun organizing and planning.
Second. We have asked every ward to have a Ward Council-led plan involving specific goals for missionary work, gospel teaching, and temple work. The wards have responded well and we are anxious to see those plans and goals come to fruition. By the way, there is good statistical evidence that, as a stake, we are improving in all three areas. And I am one who always looks at data with suspicion. We will also be meeting with Bishops and others to address the question of leadership for caring for the poor and the needy within the wards.
Third. We have communicated to stake members our desire that every individual and family engage in the work of salvation. We have tried to not over-prescribe exactly how individuals and families should participate, knowing that circumstances vary, and that fathers and mothers should lead in their homes. We have, however, promoted three “bulls-eyes,” so to speak for all to consider. Those are: having and pursuing a personal or family plan for missionary work; actively engaging in prayer and scripture study and teaching at home; and taking at least one family name to the temple each year for temple work.
Similarly, we are and will be inviting families and individuals to actively engage in the work of temporal salvation by caring for the poor and needy, whether near us, far from us, or both. Like our missionaryminded.org website which offers dozens of ideas on how individuals and families can participate in missionary work, we will present a wide variety of ways that individuals and families can participate in caring for the poor and the needy and, as with missionary work, we will ask individuals and families to establish their own plans for doing so. Let me give some simple examples of the types of ideas we’ll share:
- People can increase their fast offerings—including teaching our youth and young children to pay fast offerings. I find it pathetic that we don’t teach our children to pay fast offerings—and I am one who failed at that both as a child and, for a long time, as a parent.
- People can engage individually or as families or church groups in service projects found on JustServe.org.
- Families or church or neighborhood groups can gather to put together specific kits and relief packages for distribution to the needy.
- Families who have the time and means can travel out of the country to participate in on-site humanitarian projects.
- Individuals can participate in Self Reliance Groups and help mentor others in the group.
- Families can contribute to the Humanitarian Fund and LDS Charities. Let me add a few comments about this one in particular after we watch the following short video about the origins of LDS Charities…
There are some things I really like about LDS Charities. One is that all the money we give makes it all the way to the end of the cause. Another is that the Church partners with other charitable organizations and is part of the worldwide community doing good. Another is that the projects it engages in—everything from immunizations to newborn care to water accessibility and emergency response—are the types of products that contribute toward self-reliance and enabling people.
Besides tithing, Church donation slips—whether actual or electronic online—contain only three other categories of giving: Fast Offerings, Humanitarian (which is what funds LDS Charities), and Missionary Work (which is the most important self-reliance program in the world). I would encourage you to counsel with your wives and families, consider the Savior’s teachings, consider what will matter to you when your life is at its end. And give. A lot.
Brethren, in trying to call myself and all of us to repentance on this front, I do not wish to fail to acknowledge the good you are already doing. Please note that while I think we collectively have much work to do in this area, I make no judgments about any individuals. I do not know your personal circumstances. I do not know the extent of anyone’s giving or of their charitable efforts. Those are personal matters between you and the Lord. My interests are in relieving suffering and in keeping us all out of torments!
You are good, faithful men and it is one of the greatest blessings of my life to be befriended and taught and inspired by you. Please take this message home and begin counseling together with your wives and children. We have the birthright with all of its tangible and spiritual blessings. We have a great responsibility and a great work to do. Young men, your importance cannot be overstated. Your own families and many others will be blessed because of you. God has put you in position to do so—no doubt he has done so very intentionally.
The restored gospel is true. Joseph Smith received divine authority. We each bear some of that. Russell M. Nelson is God’s prophet today. Jesus Christ leads him. Jesus heals all who trust Him and submit themselves to Him. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Keep My Commandments
[Given by Kyle Du Moulin in April 2019 Stake Conference.]
For my talk today, I have felt inspired to speak on the topic of obeying the commandments of God and how this can be possible for all of us. Obedience to God’s commandments is a subject of importance to all of God’s children. In order to obey the commandments, we must understand what sin is and from what source we can obtain power to overcome it. Perhaps you are presently struggling with a sin or many sins, which, through your best efforts you have not been able to overcome. Today I will address what we must do to keep all of God’s commandments and overcome sin and even addictions.
There is perhaps no counsel more frequently given in the scriptures than that associated with obeying the commandments. Our obedience to the laws that God has implemented is critical to obtaining eternal life. As a consequence of the Fall, all of mankind was placed in a condition where we can know good from evil, and, through our agency, be given the chance to choose between them. Because of our fallen state, a conflict wages within each one of us who seeks to obey the commandments. This conflict is between the natural man or woman and our better self—our spirit—which desires to do God’s will.
One of the great challenges of mortality is learning to yield the desires of our natural state to the will of God. In order for our will to be swallowed up in the will of the Father, we must experience a mighty change of heart. As we experience this change of heart, the conflict between our natural state and our desires to obey God’s commandments will be resolved. In the process of time, we will be able to obey the commandments and our desires to commit sin will diminish and ultimately be overcome. In order to remove the turmoil and suffering caused to those who struggle to obey the commandments, the desire to commit sin must die within us.
Our desire to commit sin is a symptom of a deeper problem. This problem is a heart that is not yet fully converted unto the Lord. When seeking to overcome sin in our own lives, we must treat the sinner, not the sin. In order to alter a behavior that is contrary to God’s will, we must get to the root of the problem. When the true problem—in this case an individual’s heart—has been truly changed and fixed, then the corresponding destructive behaviors will cease on their own. The process of being changed from our natural state is called being “born again.” In the third chapter of the Gospel of John (verse five), Jesus teaches: “… Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Your ability to overcome temptation is directly linked to the health and condition of your spirit. The health and condition of your spirit is determined by the amount of light you bring into your life. The presence of the Holy Ghost is a source of spiritual light and has the power to overcome darkness and evil. Anything that reduces our light will weaken our ability to overcome evil. Perhaps you may find there is an absence of light in your own life. To illustrate the relationship between darkness and light, I use an analogy: if I were to walk into a dark room and turn on the light, there would never be an occasion where light would fail to overcome darkness.
Our need to be under the constant influence and direction of the Holy Ghost is greater than ever. President Russell M. Nelson has stated: “The assaults of the adversary are increasing exponentially, in intensity and variety.” In the most recent conference, the prophet also stated, “The battle with sin is real. The adversary is quadrupling his efforts to disrupt testimonies and impede the work of the Lord. He is arming his minions with potent weapons to keep us from partaking of the joy and love of the Lord.” If the adversary is quadrupling his efforts, then we must at least quadruple ours. Anything that diminishes our ability to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost will likewise diminish our capacity to obey the commandments and bear our temptations. Even small things which slowly erode our spiritual strength can, over time, have dramatic effects and eternal consequences.
The presence of the Holy Ghost is a blessing from heaven bestowed upon us because of our desires toward change and right action. We increase in our light as the Holy Ghost dwells in us. This light is received line upon line, precept upon precept. For it is by small means that great change is brought to pass. Some of the things which will allow you to bring the Holy Ghost into your life include: diligently seeking and hungering after the word of God as found in the scriptures and teachings of modern day prophets; meaningful prayers filled with faith; real effort to align our lives with God’s will; and regularly attending the temple, for it is in the ordinances of the temple that the powers of Godliness are manifest. President Russell M. Nelson said in the 2018 General Conference: “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”
We must experience the cumulative effect of regularly and consistently doing those things which bring greater light into our lives. Our righteous desires and correct actions will invite God’s spirit which will enter into our hearts and sanctify us. Through this sanctifying process, we will be made into a new creature. But this change is dependent on the condition and desires of our heart. Just as hard and dry clay cannot be molded into new forms, likewise a hardened heart cannot be altered. Before a mighty change can be wrought in us, we must offer for a sacrifice a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Jesus Christ spoke of this shortly before His appearance to the Nephites. He said:
“And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.”
It is by the grace of Jesus Christ that the will of the flesh will be overcome as the Holy Ghost dwells in us. I call the effects of this process, “living in a constant state of grace.” Another term for this is, “taking Christ’s yoke upon us.” For without the sustaining grace of Jesus Christ, we have no power to overcome the effects of the Fall.
The Apostle Paul spoke of the power we can access in Christ, which will allow the will of our spirit to overcome the will of our flesh:
“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Romans 8:9-10)
In the Parable of the True Vine, Jesus Christ teaches us that without Him we have no power to do good works. He said:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
As we seek a daily portion of God’s spirit to abide with us, and offer for a sacrifice to the Lord a broken heart and a contrite spirit, in the process of time we will be blessed with a new heart. As this change occurs within us, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and the desires of our heart will be brought into alignment with God’s will. And the day will come when we can say, as did the Nephites when King Benjamin gave his address, that because of the Spirit of the Lord, a mighty change has been wrought in our hearts, and we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Joy and Faith
[Stake Conference, April 2019, General Session]
As this conference comes to a close, I would like to offer an encouraging word…
Men (and women) are that we might have joy. Can we really have joy in this life? Not very well if we think joy is the result of everything going perfectly (or nearly perfectly) in our lives. Joy does not come from living the life that everybody else is trying say they live through their social media. Joy does not come from being outwardly attractive or popular or financially successful. It doesn’t come from being healthy, though we should strive to be healthy. It doesn’t come from being good at something, though we should strive to be good at many good things. It doesn’t come from serving in a particular calling, though we should all strive to serve well. It doesn’t come from being righteous.
Where does joy come from?
Toward the end of King Benjamin’s sermon, his people humbly cry out for mercy and for the atonement of Christ to be applied to them. Here is what happens next:
“the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.”
From this story, joy is the result of knowing that our sins have been remitted, of having peace of conscience, and having faith in Jesus Christ. King Benjamin later says to his people, “ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls.”
On another occasion, Alma mentions three sets of opposites: “good or evil, life or death, joy or—[its opposite]—remorse of conscience.” Alma would understand this. Of the height of his conversion, he said, “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy… and… there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was joy.”
How did he get to that joy? Immediately before that joy came, he says,
“I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy … concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more.” And then he speaks of his joy.
His life didn’t become perfect. It was difficult. He didn’t become perfect, I’m sure. He probably disappointed himself, occasionally. But I would bet you, based on what we know of him, that he retained his sense of joy which came to him because of his faith in the Savior and because he believed what the Savior had done for him.
I believe that too many of us are living with too little joy. We are burdened by the challenges of life, by disappointments in ourselves, and by the struggles of our loved ones. But that is not what causes us to miss out on joy. We miss out on joy because we are slow to believe that the Savior has done for us what he has done for us. And we can be slow to place our faith in him regarding loved ones and situations beyond our control.
We must accept what Jesus has done for us; accept that our sins have been remitted; loosen the death-grip we sometimes have on our guilt and self-loathing; and receive the gift of the Atonement.
Have you ever read the stories of Jesus healing a person and thought it would be wonderful if that had been you? Think of the ten lepers who were healed; the woman with the issue of blood; Peter’s mother-in-law; blind men; Lazarus; Jairus’s daughter; all the diseased and disabled Nephites who were brought to him…
These healings were wonderful for the people who received them and their loved ones. But Jesus’ mission was not to physically heal people. There are millions of people before, during, and after the life of the Savior who have lived in miserable conditions and were not physically healed. All the Savior’s physical healings were metaphors.
Jesus came so that all can be healed spiritually—that all can receive a remission of sins and, like Alma, have our guilt swept away.
He healed those people physically, so that you may know that he can heal you spiritually. A leper was made whole so that you and I will understand that we can be made whole from even persistent sin. He healed the Gentile woman so that you and I understand that his healing applies to all, including you and me. He raised Lazarus and the son of the widow from Nain so that you and I understand that there isn’t anything he can’t overcome.
Why do we persist in believing that we are dirty?
When you were baptized, you received a remission of your sins. Minutes later, you were confirmed and invited to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost so that, upon condition of a broken heart and a striving to change and improve, we would, through that priceless gift, retain a remission of our sins. Retaining a remission of our sins is not dependent on our changing. It is dependent on our striving to change (which is largely what repentance is) and on our retaining faith in the Savior.
Remission of sins isn’t a one-time, momentary experience. It is with us as long as our faith in the Savior is genuine and active.
In the temple, we receive blessings which, in more than one respect, are unspeakable. Those were not one-time pleasant moments. Actually receiving those blessings now (including promises of some blessings that will be realized in the future) is where joy comes from. All based on the Savior and our connection to him.
The Anti-Nephi-Lehies testified that God had “taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.”
We have to ask ourselves this question: In which do I place the greatest faith: my failings or the Savior’s success; my imperfection or his perfection; my guilt or his forgiveness? My failings, my imperfections, and my sins are absolute realities. But all of them are weaker than the Savior’s success. Otherwise, he would not have healed Lazarus. Nor would he have declared to the paralytic—straight in the face of those who opposed him—“thy sins be forgiven thee.” He didn’t do that just for Lazarus or just for the sick man. He did it for you. Joy is yours if you believe him.
Sometimes, people accuse members of the Church of Jesus Christ of not being Christian. In those moments when we hold more tightly to our guilt and self-loathing than to the Savior’s forgiveness, they might be right.
Let’s remind ourselves for a few minutes of one of the great stories from Jesus’ life and teachings. There is great joy for all who believe it.
It is the story of two actual people who are opposites and it is also involves a parable.
Jesus accepts an invitation to eat with a Pharisee named Simon—in Simon’s home. An unnamed woman is also there. She is only identified as a sinner—by Simon—though Jesus also acknowledges this.
During the meal, the woman weeps, washes Jesus’s feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses his feet, and applies an ointment to them. Simon is disgusted that Jesus permits this. Jesus perceives Simon’s thoughts and says these tender, ominous words, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.” And then he tells this parable:
“There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both.”
Please note the point in the story at which the creditor (God) forgives the debtors (us). It is when they accept and acknowledge that they have nothing to pay, which indicates that their hearts had become truly broken and their spirits contrite. When we hold fast to the idea that we must be righteous in order to qualify for heaven, we are believing that we have something to pay. That belief keeps us from joy.
Jesus then asks:
“Which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast rightly said.”
We can take from this that the more we recognize our dependence on the Savior, the more we will receive forgiveness and the more we will love Him.
Jesus then turns to the woman, but speaks to Simon:
“Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.”
And here it comes:
“Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.”
Why were her sins forgiven? Because she loved the Lord, acknowledged her inability to save herself, acknowledged his ability to save her, and had a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Why did Jesus not declare Simon’s sins forgiven? Because his heart was hard. He failed to express love for the Savior. And he believed more in his own righteousness than in the Savior’s ability to remedy an inability to pay.
Brothers and Sisters, our outward acts of righteousness will do very little for us.
On the other hand, a love for God, genuine humility before him, and our sincerely striving to follow him will enable him to do everything for us.
Am I saying that we don’t have to succeed in our efforts to follow the Savior? If that’s a yes/no question, then, yes, that’s what I’m saying.
Am I saying that we don’t have to humbly, sincerely strive with all our best efforts to keep the commandments, keep our covenants, and follow the Savior? No. We must strive. Enduring to the end in faithful effort is part of the deal. We must be deeply sincere in our efforts. We must recognize our failures and shortcomings. We must experience Godly Sorrow—frequently if not constantly. Repentance must be our way of life.
The scriptures say that if we follow God and keep the commandments, we will prosper. Is that true? Absolutely. If we do so with a humble dependence on him and a willingness to accept the realities of the Atonement, we will experience peace of conscience and joy. Will I be exempt from cancer or from job loss or from the illness of a child or from a child’s painful choices? Of course not. The greatest, joyful prosperity comes in our hearts and minds through our faith in the Savior. Will we prosper temporally? Yes, to the extent that we follow principles of self reliance and it is the will of God. Even the righteous eventually get sick and die.
Nephi said, “I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.”
That we may glory in Jesus, exercise faith in him (and not merely belief), and experience the joy of having our guilt swept away in Him is my prayer for every member of our stake. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God
[Stake Conference, April 2019, Adult Session]
During the last week of the Savior’s life, the various groups opposing Jesus were desperate to entrap him, so they peppered him with questions they hoped would embarrass him. Famously (or infamously), a man described as a pharisee, a scribe, and a lawyer asked the Savior to identify “the great commandment in the law.” Jesus answered by quoting one of the most important passages of all scripture, known to Jews as the Shema, which says, in part (see Deut. 6), this:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
Jesus called this “the first and great commandment” and said that the entire Law of Moses comes from the two commandments to love God and to love each other.
The Shema continues with one of the most important early references to home-centered study and learning:
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Lastly, Moses continues with these words, which some Jews practice literally. We don’t, but we should consider the tremendous emphasis they add to the great commandment:
8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
Let me repeat here the key words from this critical teaching:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
What does it mean to love God?
The “first and great commandment” is to love God entirely. What does it mean to love?
The dictionary definition that makes most sense to me in this context is “to be devoted to.” We are to be wholly devoted to God. That devotion should fill our hearts and our souls and efforts.
But what about the feeling of love? Is love also a feeling?
That may be tough at times. Devotion and commitment are choices. I can be devoted to God and love him in that sense entirely according to my own choices. Feelings, though, are hard to choose. They tend to be more the result of things both inside and outside us. The ideal feelings toward God may include things like profound gratitude and reverence.
I believe that those feelings result most from our knowledge and understanding of who God is and what He has done and does now and will yet do for us. They result from knowing how He feels about us and about the sacrifices He has made on our behalf, highlighted by the Atonement. They come from understanding something about his perfect attributes of mercy and generosity and patience and compassion.
Can we love God with all our heart, soul, and might if we don’t feel the feeling of love in our hearts? Yes, we can in the sense of being devoted to him and choosing him and following through on that choice. We can also strive to know and understand him better, which will build our appreciation for him and facilitate the feelings of love.
Here is kind of a strange-sounding thing you might try sometime. I don’t do it very often, but on rare occasion I have. Try saying your evening or morning personal prayer without using words. Instead of talking to God, which is how we should usually pray as Jesus taught us, just feel. Get him in your mind and let your feelings provide your prayer’s expressions. As you consider him and that he knows your feelings as well as your thoughts, you might feel things like awe and reverence, like gratitude, like being small and dependent, like respect and admiration.
To the extent we don’t feel those things, I think we might simply strive to know and understand him better. While we do, we can persist in patient devotion.
What does loving God look like?
Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” We know from the Pearl of Great Price that God’s work is to save and exalt us. We know from the Doctrine and Covenants that our work is to keep the commandments. The Second Great Commandment, of course, is to love each other, including that person who offended us or who with whom we disagree or just don’t like. We can assume that this should be an active love—that we would actively seek to lift, support, build up, and help each other. We can assume that loving our neighbors doesn’t merely consist of feeling a warm feeling towards them (unless, of course, we are actually incapacitated).
We could try to insert here a long list of commandments and actions that would reflect our love for God. We could talk about doing this or doing that—or not doing this or not doing that.
The trouble is that if we try too hard to describe what loving God might look like, we will end up converting love for God into a checklist—and a checklist mentality is already a source of trouble in our culture.
God is neither the Great Accountant tabulating our debits and credits nor is he the Great Scorekeeper tallying our points and fouls. He is our omniscient and loving father who asks for our love, our devotion.
Suffice it to say that when we love God, we will love our neighbor, keep his commandments, and allow our love for God to inform all of our important decisions. We might develop the habit of asking ourselves, each time we face an important decision: which choice will best reflect my devotion to God?
The first of the Ten Commandments says that we are to have no other god before our God. Surely that means that we should neither worship nor love anything more than we worship and love both our Father in Heaven and the Savior. There are many alluring worldly temptations involving money and appearances and momentary pleasures. Our love for God must be strong enough that we will worship him more than them.
What happens to us when we love God?
Normal things happen to us. Life happens to us, including good and bad. We sometimes labor under the notion that loving God and keeping his commandments will result in in an absence of trouble—or at least an absence of tragedy and catastrophe. It doesn’t. Otherwise, how would we explain Abinadi and Nephite women and children being thrown into a fire. How would we explain the early apostles, Joseph Smith, or faithful members of the Willey and Martin handcart companies? God will not rob us of the mortal experience, whatever that may mean for us.
What will He do? He will do things that matter far more than our temporary physical struggles in mortality.
- Paul taught “that all things work together for good to them that love God.”
- Moses taught that God’s mercy is extended to “them that love [God].”
- Jesus clearly taught that those who love God receive forgiveness.
- And in the Book of Mormon, we read that if you “love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.”
- I also believe that loving God inspires in each of us the development of Christlike attributes, including love for others, gratitude, humility, meekness, and modesty—not merely modesty in how we dress, but modesty in our behavior, including our use of social media.
May I suggest tonight—besides the obvious suggestion that we all love the Lord—that we leave no doubt in the minds of our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and all those who are dear to us that we love God and are filled with gratitude to and for Him.
In the Church Handbook of Instructions, there is a section on Leadership which applies to all of us. It says, in part:
All Church leaders are called to help other people become “true followers of . . . Jesus Christ.” To do this, leaders first strive to be the Savior’s faithful disciples, living each day so that they can return to live in God’s presence. Then they can help others develop strong testimonies and draw nearer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
This pattern—being a faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples—is the purpose behind every calling in the Church.
Callings and positions entirely aside, each of us can be a “faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples.” Let us share with all around us, beginning most importantly with our families, that we love the Lord and that that love is what motivates and informs the choices we make.
I share Paul’s testimony: “all things [do] work together for good to them that love God.”
In closing, let me repeat the words of Moses, the Shema, with some slight modifications:
The Lord our God is one Lord:
And we shall love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our might.
And these words… shall be in our hearts:
And we shall teach them diligently unto our children, and shall talk of them when we are at home, and when we leave our homes, and when we go to bed, and when we rise up.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.