We mortals are so immersed in time that we rarely glimpse timelessness—or eternity. We see fantastic movies where people hopscotch from place to place in time but, in our “real” lives we plod along our time-bound path with no sense that it is possible to do otherwise.
In 1892 my great-grandfather, Ben Goddard, left for a mission to New Zealand. He left behind his wife, son, and occupation. In his journal he said of his parting “Twas a hard struggle and only a sense of sacred duty would have reconciled us all to make the sacrifice.” For more than three years he traveled New Zealand, struggled with the language, taught the Maoris the Good News, conducted meetings, and sang hymns of praise. He even taught language, literature, and math in night school. He came to love the good people of that country far from his home in Millard County, Utah, or his first home in Huddersfield, England.
Lately I have been reading Ben’s journal, yearning to know his soul. His entry for April 2 had a real impact on me: “I received a letter from Mother but no letters from my dear family & on this account I was very sad & uneasy.” I pictured my beloved forebear far from home feeling anxious and lonely. I desired to send him a letter. My heart proclaimed: “I will write him!” even as my mind wondered how to send a message to the past.
If I went back to 1892 to write him a letter, I undoubtedly should not disclose that he would lead an important church work for 27 years after his mission. (We mortals are kept focused on today and faith by being shielded from a view of the future.) I hardly need tell him how much reason his only child, his beloved son, my grandfather, would give him to be proud. (He already adored his boy!) He would hardly have believed the number of descendants he would have only 70 years after his death. (I cannot count all the people!)
Maybe I could just tell him that I love him and that his devotion and testimony have blessed my life. Maybe I could tell him how his expressions of faith and life of service have blessed all his descendants. Maybe I could tell him that a file filled with his letters and journals are among my most cherished possessions.
But how does one predate a letter almost 110 years? I do not know the answer to that question but I felt that, if I made the effort, my message for my great-grandfather would not be wasted. I might—even now—write him a letter and both of us would be blessed by the effort. Time is no barrier for the work of God.
Elder Maxwell (1980) wrote about time: “Even now, time is clearly not our natural dimension. Thus it is that we are never really at home in time. Alternately, we find ourselves impatiently wishing to hasten the passage of time or to hold back the dawn. We can do neither, of course. Whereas the bird is at home in the air, we are clearly not at home in time—because we belong to eternity. Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here” (p. 220).
As Alma observed, “time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8). God lives outside of time. While we impose our clockwork chronology on life, somehow God surveys all creation and employs the goodness in one corner to the blessing of all. “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty” (Smith, 1938, p. 320). God seemingly can make our actions retroactive, sending goodness rippling through all of eternity.
We have a friend who has gotten the help of a therapist to work through her bad feelings for her parents. Her therapist suggested she mentally bring back her deceased father and unload on him; let him know how hurt, betrayed, and neglected she felt. Tell him off. After doing just that she sought my feedback. I did not want to interfere with her work with her therapist but I suggested that sometime she may want to try a different exercise. I suggested that some day she might again use her imagination to bring her father back from the grave. I suggested that she kneel at his feet and invite him to describe what he would have done for her had his health and knowledge been different. How might he have supported, encouraged, and loved her? What great times together would they have had if he had not been bedridden? In that interview, they could create a new relationship, a new history. Even as I shared the suggestion with my friend, I felt invited to travel across time, making improvements on my marred life story.
The past may be more malleable than we think. The Lord has said that He can make what is crimson as white as wool (Isaiah 1:18). When He removes the stains from our past, He does not leave a void, a vacuum, a gaping hole in our fabric of our lives. He, with our cooperation, creates a past filled with purposeful living and specific goodness. As we become a new creature in Christ, we get a new history filled with all those things we would have done if we had had the convictions we now have. We indeed are changed.
Even now our choices to understand, obey, love, and bless can ripple both forward and backwards through time. Our choices can change eternity. They can bind the hearts of children to their fathers and the mothers to their scarcely known ancestors.
With the tunnel vision of mortality, we do not glimpse the ripples of our choices. We march along mortality gritting our teeth, grieving yesterday’s losses, and dreading tomorrow’s ambushes—unless we have that transcendent faith that lifts us above the worries of mortality. With that faith we know that a perfect Father will backfill the sinkholes of our life histories with love, purpose, growth, and joy. In eternity we will inherit the wisdom gleaned from our own experiences and the wisdom He has given as a divine gift. He can repair anything, even the past.
Brigham Young gives us a glimpse of total trust in the Lord in instructions he provided to missionaries:
When you pray for your families . . . you must feel—if they live, all right; if they die, all right; if I die, all right; if I live, all right; for we are the Lord’s, and we shall soon meet again ( sel. Widtsoe, 1954, p. 324).
For now the veil keeps me from seeing my beloved great-grandfather, but my heart knows that we are bound together eternally in a bond of love. I may not understand just how to capture his eye with my long-delayed letter, but I know that we are connected. I will write him a letter and date it April, 1892.
April 1, 1892
Oh! How I love you! Thank you for your letters, pictures, and journals that have provided me a view of your life and commitments. Thank you for dedicating your life to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your sweet devotion to your family. Thank you for your example of using all your gifts to advance God’s work and bless His children. You will bless generations far beyond your mortal sojourn.
May peace and purpose fill all the days of your mortal ministry. May glory crown your immortality. Even as you receive this message, there are those who rejoice in your whole-hearted offering.
I hope that somehow Ben’s loneliness in that distant day and land may be healed by my message written over 100 years later. But wait, even now Ben sends a reply filled with love and encouragement for his descendent who is still stuck in time. I cannot discern all the words, but I feel its spirit. I bask in the warmth of his appreciation.
“Thank you, Grandpa. It is so good to hear from you.”
Maxwell, N. A. (1980). Patience. In Brigham Young University 1979 Devotional and Fireside Speeches. Provo, UT: University Publications.
John A. Widtsoe (1954). Discourses of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Smith, J. F. (Compiler). (1938). Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Recently I met with a young woman who is trying—sometimes half-heartedly and sometimes earnestly―to move from a substance-filled, cohabiting, bar-scene life toward a saintly one. When she came to see me, we talked about what she has learned and ways she is finding joy—which is the sure marker of God.
She is trying to get her spiritual bearings. She has been sober for six weeks. She loves the scriptures. But she still smokes and drinks coffee and dislikes going to church. So, how’s she doing? That’s the question that weighs on her heart. “Am I acceptable to him because of the progress I’ve made or repugnant to him because of my continuing failures?” She can’t quite decide.
Heaven pointed us to answers. We read from Heber C. Kimball:
“I am perfectly satisfied that my Father and my God is a cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured Being. Why? Because I am cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured when I have his Spirit. That is one reason why I know; and another is―the Lord said, through Joseph Smith, ‘I delight in a glad heart and a cheerful countenance.’ That arises from the perfection of his attributes; he is a jovial, lively person, and a beautiful man.”
“A jovial, lively person, and a beautiful man.” I like that. I love that! God is the kindest, finest, cheeriest person in the Universe.
So we established that God is different from anyone she knows. We can look around our circle of friends and see hints of Him. But no mortal can compare with Him.
Measuring our joy
If we look around sacrament meeting and average the apparent level of personal happiness among all those in attendance, the result might be disappointing―even dismal. But if you gather together the people in the room who know God and you asked them how happy they are, you had better be ready for an explosion.
I searched for a metaphor to explain God’s attitude toward her in her struggle to become better. I thought of some time I spent in the corporate world. When business got tough, they started talking lots about profit centers. Every department had to make money―be a profit center. It became the mantra.
But God doesn’t see us as profit centers. We are not little factories that must make a net profit. We are His children. He expects to lose money on every single one of us every day of our lives. He is okay with that. He has already set in store an infinite and eternal Atonement―so there is nothing we can do that will tax His resources. He has us covered.
A better mantra
So our discovery was that God doesn’t see us as profit centers. He sees us as His children. He wants a relationship with us. That is different from wanting to make a profit on us.
Most of us plug along doing a little good and making an occasional effort, but we loaf a lot—spiritually speaking. We do not remember him in all times and all places. We don’t jump up and help people who need us. We get casual in our relationship with the divine.
So, we imagine that He gets fed up with us and says: “I’m sick of your lack of commitment! You’re a consistently bad investment. I’m pulling out. I’ll put my efforts elsewhere.”
No. He says to us: “The rules of relationships are different from the rules of business. I’m not keeping a balance sheet on you; I’m building a relationship with you. May I tell you about sneaking into your room last night and watching over you as you slept? May I tell you what I am doing to bless and teach you? May I share with you the joy I have in the world I’ve given you?”
As He has often reminded us, through Isaiah, His hand is stretched out still. We are even written on the palms of His hands.
Yet there are large chunks of her life that she is not ready to turn over to Him. She said, “I want control of my life. I don’t want to turn everything over to Him.”
While God wants us to become fully consecrated, I don’t think He is in a hurry. When we hold back most of ourselves, I think He calmly says: “Okay. Give me what you are ready to give me. I will bless it for you. Every time you trust me with a small part of your life, I’ll turn it into pure gold. I’m willing to take small installments over long periods of time. You have a guarantee. Whatever you give me, I will bless. Someday you will be ready to give me everything. When you do, you will know fullness of joy.”
God asks that we be converted—that we turn from Babylon, our natural destination, toward the bright lights of the city of God. Some people drive very nimble vehicles. When God invites them to turn toward heaven, they turn readily and efficiently. Unfortunately, most of us trace a meandering arc turning more toward God but reluctant to leave the world behind.
Maybe we’re not so different from Peter, to whom Jesus said:
“But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32).
I think Jesus may have been saying, “Peter, you are one of my dearest disciples. We’ve been together for years. You have a great heart. And you still have much to learn. When you are ready to fully turn toward me, you will experience great power. I will be ready to take and transform as much of your life as you will give me.”
His message to each of us
Maybe that is exactly what God says to each of us who is at least toying with the idea of fuller discipleship. “Wally, I love you dearly. I have bought you with an extravagant price—the sacrifice of my Beloved Son. You often resist full discipleship. Yet I am grateful for all the parts of your life with which you have entrusted me. As you are ready for thrilling spiritual adventures, give me more.”
His love and patience provide no cover or excuse for return trips to Babylon. Yet, as long as we are trying, hoping, struggling to point ourselves toward heaven, He stands at the gate and waits—just as He did for the prodigal, that wasteful son who turned from home and returned only out of starvation and desperation.
“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
As Elder Maxwell taught us in a general conference many years ago: “his relentless redemptiveness exceeds my recurring wrongs.”
Thank heaven for that loving patience. He makes it possible for imperfect mortals to make it back to His presence.
Sara is the youngest of our three children. She was always more cautious than Emily or Andy. I don’t know why. We never tricked or deceived her. She was just more cautious. In fact, she was born two weeks late. If the doctor had not come after her, there is no telling how long she would have remained in utero.
For example, when we went to the water slide in our small Utah town, Andy immediately went to sliding, Emily gathered friends, and Sara hid in the car. Sara was only about six at the time. But it was not her age that explained her behavior. It was her temperament. She was cautious.
When I invited her to come into the water park with us, she set her jaw and declared, “I will not ride the water slide!” I assured her that she did not have to ride the slide but we would love to have her with us. She came reluctantly and warily.
When Sara had finally gotten comfortable in the park, I asked her if she would like to see what the waterside looked like. She eyed me suspiciously. But she took my hand. We climbed the stairs and watched people sit in the tube and shoot down the slide laughing. We walked down the stairs and watched people shoot out the tube into the little pool. Then again we climbed the stairs and watched people sit in the tube and shoot down the slide, laughing. We walked down the stairs and watched people shoot out the tube into the little pool. Yet again we climbed the stairs and watched people sit in the tube and shoot down the slide laughing. We walked down the stairs and watched people shoot out the tube into the little pool.
After uncounted repetitions of the process, Sara asked if I could go down the slide with her, hold her tight, and make sure she didn’t drown. I assured her that I could. So, once more, we climbed the stairs. When it was our turn, Sara sat in front of me, I held her ribs, and we launched into adventure. Sara began laughing immediately. All hint of concern was gone now that she felt safe.
We laughed our way through the drops and curves. As we approached the end of the tube, I checked my hold on her ribs. When we shot out into the pool, I pushed her into the air as I sank to the bottom of the pool. We worked our way to the side with me sputtering. As we climbed out, Sara enthused, “Let’s go again!”
The waterslide of life
For some people, trusting God is as natural as eating. It seems to be written in their natures. For others it is as hard as it was for Sara to launch into the water slide. (Lest the metaphor be misapplied, I should note that Sara has great faith, has served a faithful and loving mission to the people of Paraguay, and is now married to Mike, with whom she is raising sweet baby Gabe. She is a magnificent daughter of God.) Yet those who never climb to the top and rush down the slide—however reluctantly—miss out on the biggest adventure and central purpose of life.
There are those who study the waterslide from a distance. There are also those who read about it or write about it. There are those who hide in the restroom. And there are those who claim to be involved in worthier pursuits than water sports. But the fact remains, we all must finally say, “Okay. I’m not sure what this will be like. But Father has promised to take care of me. I will go. I will trust Him.” To fail to do so is to miss out. Or, as Robert Louis Stephenson has said, “To miss the joy is to miss all.”
I love the story—and the lessons of the story—told by Francine Bennion:
For the Dominion Day celebration in July, my parents and some friends arranged to meet in the afternoon for a picnic at Park Lake. My family and two others arrived first. Camp kitchens were filling fast, and we needed a stove for hamburgers and hotdogs. The men stayed at the entrance of the park to meet our other friends, and under a darkening sky the mothers and children walked some distance round the lake to a three-walled rectangular shelter complete with roof, two wooden tables, and a metal-covered cement stove for wood fires. A violent thunderstorm came up, splits and rumbles shaking the universe and us with light, sound, and finally a deluge. Under the sheltering roof we huddled in wonder, till an astonishing clap of brilliance, tingle, shaking, and smell came all together: lightning traveled down the chimney and exploded our stove. Pieces of cement flew into bare arms, children were thrown against walls, purple-brown lines streaked down necks to ankles, and I ran out into rain and tall wet weeds screaming my question: “I thought heavenly Father would take care of us?” No one was dead or permanently damaged, and my mother came into the rain answering me, “What do you think he did?” (p.108, 1986, A large and reasonable context. In P. L. Barlow (Ed.), A thoughtful faith: Essays on belief by Mormon scholars, pp.103–116, Centerville, UT: Canon Press).
“What do you think He did?” A wise mother saw the protection beyond the pain. This story is instructive not only for those who have tried faith and felt let down; it is also inspiring for those of us who forget our faith. Sometimes we forget to see every experience of life through the lens of faith.
In all things
President Kimball quoted Orson Whitney’s instructive observation:
“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God. . . . and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven” (Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 98).
We are commanded to give thanks in all things (Mosiah 26:39, D&C 59:7): “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.” That is the perspective of faith. Every experience has purpose. “Faith always sees more with her eye than logic can reach with her hand” (Harry Emerson Fosdick (1918), The Meaning of Faith, p.8, New York: Association Press).
Some of us want God to sign a contract before we trust Him. We want assurances related to every contingency. We want guarantees. William James encouraged a more trusting stance:
Just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn—so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance. (p. 9 in Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Meaning of Faith, 1918, NY: Association Press.
For those who are cautious, this willingness to trust may strain every particle of courage. God graciously allows us to take baby steps in the journey toward faith. “Yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you” (Alma 32: 27).
The perversity of faith
Faith would be simple if we had immediate and incontestable results from our mini-experiments in trust. We believe. We are blessed. We believe. We are blessed. But God is aiming for something more mature than vending-machine mentality. In response to our faith, we will often get new challenges—along with inner assurance. It seems that God is pointing us away from the evidence of convenience toward the assurance within. W. E. Orchard said it well:
Oh God, too near to be found, too simple to be conceived, too good to be believed. . . . Show us how foolish it is to doubt Thee, since Thou Thyself dost set questions which disturb us; reveal our unbelief to be faith fretting at its out worn form. . . . Teach us to trust not to cleverness or learning, but to that inward faith which can never be denied. Lead us out of confusion to simplicity. Call us back from wandering without to find Thee at home within” (Fosdick, p. 34).
So faith invites us to evaluate God and His work by something more than the material evidence. He invites us to listen to the whisperings of that still, small voice that testifies that God is good, He loves us, and He is blessing us in the way that is perfect for us.
To interpret difficulties and disappointments as blessings is a perverse set of mind that requires a lot of faith. And that is what God is looking for.
If a friend asked me to define faith, I would find it difficult. It is more than believing there is a God. It is more than loving Him. It includes trusting Him—but it is more. Maybe it is the willingness to do the things that we think He wants us to do. That is a complicated formula.
God often invites us by His subtle messenger the Holy Ghost—who is never announced by blaring trumpets. He gives subtle hints. When we practice noticing them and following them, we grow in faith. When we disregard them or demand more specificity, our faith turns to confusion. So faith is the willingness to listen carefully and follow gladly—even when the message is nothing more than a hint. When God heads toward the waterslide, I want to follow Him.
I also compare having faith to a horse that does not have to be dragged by the bridle. Rather, as the rider leans in the saddle, the horse senses—and follows. Or faith can be compared to going toward the light—even small hints of light. “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).
Stretching our faith
Lest any be smug, we should all ask—even the most faithful among us, “What is the next opportunity to grow our faith?” Are we ready to see God’s goodness in our difficulties? Are we willing to see God in the ordinary? Do we seek God actively? Do we thank him for every breath we take?
With beloved, departed Elder Maxwell, I rejoice in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge:
I feel so strongly at the end of my life that nothing can happen to us in any circumstance that is not a part of God’s purpose for us. Therefore we have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about except that we should rebel against his purpose and that we should fail to detect his purpose in things and fail to establish a relationship with him. On that basis there can be no black despair, no throwing in of our hand.
You know it’s a funny thing but when you are old as I am there are all sorts of extremely pleasant things that happen to you. The pleasantest thing of all is that you wake up in the night at about, say, 3 a.m. and you find that you are half in and half out of your battered old carcass. It seems quite a toss-up whether you go back and resume full occupancy of your mortal body or make off toward the bright glow you see in the sky, the lights of the city of God. In this limbo between life and death you know beyond any shadow of doubt that as an infinitesimal particle of God’s creation you are a participant in God’s purpose and that his purpose is loving not hating, is creative not destructive, is everlasting and not temporal, is universal and not particular.
With this certainty comes an extraordinary sense of comfort and joy. Nothing that happens in this world need shake that feeling. All the happenings in this world, including the most terrible disasters and suffering, will be seen in eternity as in some mysterious way a blessing, as a part of God’s love. We ourselves are a part of that love and only insofar as we belong to that scene does our existence have any meaning at all. The necessity of life is to know God. Otherwise our mortal existence is no more that a night in a second-class hotel.
Whatever the stature and vigor of our faith, may we be strengthening and growing it. May we be reaching toward God.
The central metamessage in all Church curricula may be that the answers to life’s challenges are found in the scriptures and the counsel of modern prophets. All of our lessons are strongest when they are organized around key scriptural stories or teachings—especially the doctrinal speeches in the Book of Mormon. Yet some of our faulty cultural assumptions sneak into our classes and curricula.
While preparing a lesson from an older manual, I ran into a suggestion for cultivating charity. According to the lesson, we must “learn to love ourselves.” The suggestion seems entirely sensible in a culture that celebrates self-esteem. The American dogma is that we must love ourselves before we can love anyone else. Unfortunately the self-esteem movement is now in bad standing in the psychological community and the once-sensible suggestion is badly dated. More timeless suggestions might be taken from the scriptures.
The great Book of Mormon chapter on charity suggests that the preconditions for charity are meekness and lowliness of heart (Moroni 7:44). Further the Lord suggested that we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves (Matthew 10:39; 16:25). This losing of ourselves is quite different from loving ourselves.
King Benjamin, Moses, and Ammon are united in testifying that we must believe in Christ rather than ourselves. We are nothing without the divine influence.
Charity is a focus on loving and blessing others; self-esteem is a focus on loving and blessing ourselves. The scriptures recommend the former and condemn the latter.
Some gospel scholars might argue that the ancient command to “love thy neighbors as thyself” justifies love of self. James Faulconer shows that the idea is at odds with the rest of scripture ( http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/selfimag.htm ) and is not defensible.
It is always wiser to trust the word of God than passing cultural fads.
Life can be a brutal course. There are so many ways to fail.
As a young adult I used to grade myself every day—initially in three areas, which grew to twelve areas, then seventeen areas, and ultimately twenty-eight areas. Every day I evaluated how well I had used my time, read my scriptures, kept virtuous thoughts, been patient, managed my money, gotten enough sleep, and so on. For months at a time, my life was a wave of F’s with an occasional D or C. There was not an A or B in sight.
I was not meeting my standards and I knew it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not be the kind of person I knew the Lord expected me to be.
I got depressed.
I kept trying to be a better person. I worked hard. I used to go to a chapel and pray for help. But the darkness persisted. I yearned for answers but found none.
During that era I was having trouble with a calculus class. I went to the instructor and told him I was lost. His answer confirmed my desperation: “That’s your problem.”
Is life a calculus class with daily quizzes and no mentors or tutors? Are we on our own? If we are not smart enough to “get it” from studying the text, is our only option to drop out of life as a spiritual failure?
I was rescued from myself by the demands of a mission. Two years of service and spiritual experiences turned me from a gloomy, weary traveler into a jubilant learner. I stopped trying to fix myself and got busy serving.
What could I have done to make my pre-mission experience more productive?
A set-up for success
A friend was recently telling me about her college experience. She said that every semester she used to sign up for many more classes than she could actually complete. During the first week of class, she studied the syllabi and the teachers. Then she dropped those classes where she was not sure she could get an A. She had found a good strategy for a good GPA—but not for getting a good education. She graduated at the top of her class but missed out on a lot of beneficial learning she might have gained from risking the more anxiety-producing, challenging courses.
My friend recognized this as a model for the course of life. God is determined to give us as much education as we are prepared to receive. We can drop the courses that frighten us in order to appear successful—but we will miss out on the learning that matters most. Many courses may seem daunting. But He is an unusual instructor.
One teacher in my friend’s college education was both a blessing and a frustration. He told his classes that he required students to submit a paper each week on the assigned topic. The students had the option of attending class or not. If the teacher found the paper acceptable, it would get an A. If he felt that the paper needed additional work, he would write comments and return it to the student. Each student could re-write the paper until it was accepted—until it got an A. It could be re-written an unlimited number of times, each time with coaching from the teacher. His attitude was, “I’d like all of my students to learn the lessons and have the experiences that qualify them for an A.” He was working tirelessly to help them learn.
The course of life is much like that. Each week we write a paper—or live a span of life. Each week we present it to Him. He accepts it—or returns it to us with suggestions for additional refinement. If we are willing to keep living and learning, He is willing to keep teaching and guiding. We can re-submit our imperfect efforts an unlimited number of times. He will continue to coach us until we get it right—as long as we don’t drop the course and don’t stop turning in our papers.
The weekly encounter
As she talked about our weekly assignments, the blessing of the sacrament seemed clearer than ever to me. It is our weekly accounting with our instructor. He invites us to bring our notes, scribbles, and compositions from the week. We may be reluctant to take our flawed creations to Him. But He invites us to “come boldly [fully, completely] unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (hebrews 4:16, alternative words for “boldly” suggested by Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible).
We certainly have the need. He assuredly has the grace.
But perhaps the encounter is not intended primarily to evaluate us. Perhaps the Master Instructor is less interested in grading what we submit than in developing us further as His students. God will sort among our efforts during the week and accept parts: “This offering is acceptable.” He will also send us back to re-write parts that need more thought and nobler purpose. He will haul off those sins that burden us. And He will touch and stanch those issues of blood that drain us.
Each week He meets us at the sacrament table to sort us out. Over time He turns our weakness into strength.
He will set right everything that we bring to Him. Clearly we should never hold anything back. If we do not submit it, it cannot be refined.
Those few minutes when we sing a sacrament hymn and ponder His plan may be the most important time of any saint’s week. Perhaps He would like us to more consciously bring our weeks to Him. So lately I have made sure that my skimpy journal—really nothing more than a few words listing the activities of the days—is up-to-date when the Sabbath comes. Then I take the week to Father so I can be taught.
I offer my resentments and beg him to transform them into appreciations and compassion.
I shuffle my reluctance to the throne and plead for him to replace it with glad service.
I humbly drag my sins and beseech him to pay my burdensome debts.
I heave my burden of self-interest before him and implore him to change my heart.
I confess my doubts and confusion and earnestly appeal for additional insight and greater faith.
I take my imperfect performance and ask that He extend my contract yet another week.
Understanding the pained past
What should I have done differently as a young adult to avoid the endless and pointless self-evaluation, self-hate, and self-destruction?
The key is to know who will save me. It is not I. It is he.
Back then I was the judge, jury, and executioner of my tortured young adulthood. I seemed to think that if I worked hard enough and hated sin ardently enough, I would overcome it. But I cannot. He is the conqueror. Of course I do all that I can do. But I do not deceive myself. I am not the God of my life; He is.
So I try to be better prepared for my weekly encounter with the Professor of heaven and Earth. I go wholeheartedly to the weekly encounter knowing that He is able to do His work. Week after week I will return to him ready to be blessed, taught, and strengthened.
In 1811, Joseph Smith Sr. had a vision of an open, barren field. He was perplexed by the dreariness of the field and was told that “this field is the world, which now lieth inanimate and dumb, in regard to the true religion, or plan of salvation” (Smith, 1902, p.164). The prophet Joseph Smith, in the first vision, was told by the Savior that “the creeds [of the churches] were an abomination in his sight” (JS–H 1:19).
To a modern Latter-day Saint, these statements may seem to constitute an unduly harsh judgment of the doctrines of other churches. But to understand the literal force of the judgments, it may be worthwhile to consider some of the doctrines of salvation that were commonly accepted at the time of the restoration.
John Calvin’s doctrine was still influential in Joseph’s time. Calvin had taught that “the vast majority of mankind will be lost” (p. 58). The American Board of Missions lamented that “the heathen . . . are expressly doomed to perdition. Six hundred millions of deathless souls on the brink of hell! What a spectacle!” (p. 147).
From another commentator: “For often out of a thousand men, nay even out of ten thousand, scarcely one is saved” (p. 150). Damnation was commonly thought to apply not only to heathens but to unbaptized infants as well, though the damnation of infants “is graciously asserted to be ‘of a very slight character’” (Farrar, 1904b, p. 141; unless otherwise indicated other quotes in this article refer also to this volume).
If the vast majority of souls were to be lost to God’s redemptive purposes, what was to be their fate? Jonathan Edwards was prominent among the commentators who painted vivid and frightening pictures of their prospects. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. . . . he will trample them beneath his feet with inexpressible fierceness; he will crush their blood out, and will make it fly, so that it will sprinkle his garment and stain all his raiment” (p. 102). According to Whitaker, the fires “burn the more fiercely, and yet never consume” (p. 103). The wildest imaginings were employed to describe the misery of the sufferers and the joy of the righteous as they viewed the horrible retribution of God. The fate of the vast majority of God’s creation was to be endless and terrible misery.
Somehow God had become the great accuser and punisher rather than the great redeemer and advocate. That doesn’t seem like good news.
A new era
In 1805 (the same year that Joseph Smith was born), Frederick Denison Maurice was born in England. In 1830, Maurice graduated from Exeter College. He was employed at King’s College in London to teach English literature and history. Later, Maurice was to become the chair of theology at King’s College (See Maurice, 1884). He was also to become the protomartyr of the Wider Hope.
In 1846, Maurice taught a series of lectures on the Wider Hope. Frederic W. Farrar, a young man in attendance at the lectures, described that he was thrilled with the love and mercifulness of God that was portrayed in Maurice’s lectures (Lundwall, p.126). Farrar was later to become the premier biographer of Christ, heavily quoted by James E. Talmage in Jesus the Christ. Farrar would also become an earnest advocate of the Wider Hope.
In 1853, Maurice published his “Theological Essays,” in which he enlarged on and formalized the thinking that God’s love might somehow reach beyond the grave with the joyous message of the gospel to bless those who had died in ignorance of Jesus Christ. Dr. Jelf , the leader of King’s Collge, attacked Maurice’s essays as unsettling and dangerous. The dreadful fear of God’s punishment was commonly seen as the best deterrent to sin. Maurice’s Wider Hope threatened that fear. Maurice was expelled in 1859 from his post at King’s College for his teaching of the Wider Hope. But Maurice’s message was to spread.
In 1861, H. B. Wilson published an essay in which he speculated that there may be opportunities for those who died spiritually immature to be nurtured to maturity in the next life. Such an idea violated the traditional Protestant teaching of final judgment at death. It opened the door to continuing repentance. The essay resulted in formal ecclesiastical hearings to censure the teaching. The council finally concluded that no definite conclusion could be drawn. Many scholars and religious leaders were indignant.
The theological debate moved to the center of English consciousness with the sermons of Frederick W. Farrar—delivered in Westminster Abbey in November of 1877. Farrar had earlier published his beautifully devotional Life of Christ, which remains popular today. Rumors about the content of his 1877 sermons were so distressing that Farrar had the sermons published in 1878 under the title “Eternal Hope” to settle the rumors. Dr. Pusey, professor of Hebrew, was stirred to an orthodox rebuttal of Farrar’s book. He published What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment?. Farrar, rather than seeing Pusey’s book as a rebuttal, saw it as supporting his contention of a wider hope. Farrar wrote his culminating work, Mercy and Judgment, which was published in 1881. Farrar marshals the grim condemnations of orthodox Christians and contrasts them with scripture and the statements of early church fathers.
What was the disturbing message that Farrar and his confederates, Maurice and Plumptre, presented to the world? The advocates of the Wider Hope had suggested that much popular theology (and even some of the work of the reformers) had replaced the inspired word of God with narrow and mean plans of salvation that made God into a cruel disciplinarian. Farrar suggested that such doctrines “have created the perfect fear which casts out all love” (p.109). The narrow and condemning doctrines were not consistent with the Christian view of the sweet goodness of God, according to Farrar. And they were not consistent with the scriptures. In particular, Farrar argued with four doctrines.
Farrar taught that the Biblical words that were translated as hell were not intended by the Biblical authors to suggest a neverending state of suffering and punishment. Rather, “the Latin derivative was originally formed not to express mere torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (p. 408). For most of those who were consigned to hell, it was intended to be temporary and corrective. The suggestion in the Bible that Christ would teach the spirits in prison (1 Peter 4:6), together with an appreciation of the lovingkindness of God, encouraged Farrar to believe that hell is not what theologians in his day had made it to be. Farrar wrote:
The death of the soul shall last as long as its willing sinfulness lasts, and its “hell” burn as long as its enmity to God continues. . . . hell and death are endless conditions so long as there is persistent impenitence. (p. 482)
Number to be saved “I see reason to hope that through God’s mercy, and through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, the great majority of mankind may be delivered from this awful doom” (p. 485) of living without God. Farrar did not claim to understand the details of the redemptive work that goes on beyond the veil, but the few verses that mention Jesus teaching the gospel to the dead (1 Peter 3:18–19; 4:6), together with a feeling for the goodness of God, encouraged him to think that something important could happen to bless the dead with the “good news.” Farrar also drew on the teachings of the early church fathers to support his hope.
The meaning of eternity
In studying the meaning of the words that have been translated as eternal, Farrar drew on the best language sources available and on the writings of the early church fathers. He came to the conclusion that the correct meaning for eternal should be “belonging to an era” or “something spiritual,” or “something above and beyond time.” (EH pp. 78–79). Farrar quotes several scholars to give a truer meaning of eternal. The quotes should be of keen interest to Latter-day Saints who have been taught the meaning of the word eternal by latter-day revelation.
“I believe, as you do, that eternity has nothing to do with duration. . . . So eternal life is God’s own life; it is essential life; and eternal punishment is the misery belonging to the nature of sin, and not coming from outward causes” (p. 395). “Eternity consists, not in endlessness, but in knowing, seeing, and loving God” (p. 397). “Eternity is the timeless state; to make it a synonom (sic) of time endlessly prolonged is a conception as mean in philosophy as it is false theologically” (p. 398). “God is himself eternity . . . . Eternity without time” (p. 398).
Farrar wrote these observations in 1881. Joseph gave God’s definition of eternal (D&C 19:10–12) for Latter-day Saints in 1830: “Eternal punishment is God’s punishment” (D&C 19:10–11).
New meaning for heaven
“I believe that there will be degrees of blessedness . . .. I see reason to hope that through God’s mercy, and through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, the great majority of mankind may be delivered from this awful [hell’s] doom” (Farrar, 1904b, p. 484).
Farrar’s assertions were unsettling to those who held to traditional doctrines. But because of the high regard in which he was held throughout England—and because no one could authoritatively challenge his assertions—Farrar was not sanctioned for his bold doctrine. Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment” is a culmination of decades of scholarly study and public debate about the Wider Hope.
Farrar conceded that there may be those who will stubbornly refuse God’s redemption. But in ways “unknown to us—God’s mercy may reach many who, to all earthly appearance, might seem to us to die in a lost and unregenerate state” (p. 483). He taught of an “intermediate state,” which Latter-day Saints call the spirit world.
Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison, and I see reasons to hope that since the Gospel was thus once preached “to them that were dead,” the offers of God’s mercy may in some form be extended to the soul, even after death. I believe that there is an Intermediate State of the soul. . . . (pp. 483–484).
A brave and hopeful conclusion from a man who did not have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but who had felt the power of God’s love.
The postscript to the debate may be the writing of E. H. Plumptre, Maurice’s compatriot, published in 1884 and titled “Spirits in Prison.” Plumptre summarizes conclusions about eternity, purgatory, and Christ’s descent into hell. He rejoiced in the epoch-making efforts of Farrar. The debates of the Wider Hope had spanned almost twenty years in England. Intense interest about heaven and hell had spanned roughly fifty years. In the United States alone, more than fifty books on heaven were published between 1830 and 1875. (McDannell & Lang, p. 228)
The debate itself [about hell] was largely concentrated between the years 1830 and 1880. (Rowell, p.17)
The year 1830 should catch the eye of Latter-day Saints. That is the year that the Restoration culminated in official organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is also the year in which Joseph Smith received a revelation from heaven defining the meaning of the word eternal. (See D&C 19) Some may argue that Joseph developed his radical ideas about the plan of salvation by drawing on the growing interest in eschatology. It is far more plausible that, at the same time that God was tutoring the prophet of the Restoration, He was also flooding the world with the Spirit of Hope to comfort His children in the last days and to prepare them to receive the Good News. Where the theologians presented speculations and wispy hopes, Joseph offered a comprehensive, coherent, and authoritative plan. And he presented it decades before the world’s best scholars. In 1830, Maurice, the protomartyr of the Wider Hope, was just graduating from Oxford. Maurice would not publish his groundbreaking “Theological Essays” for another 23 years.
The restored gospel confirms the hopes of those who taught the Wider Hope, but it goes much farther. It also teaches us transcendent details about God’s plan of redemption.
The Book of Mormon plan of salvation
The Book of Mormon plan of salvation focuses on one idea: Jesus is our redeemer. The Book of Mormon tells us only the basics about the spirit world and the resurrection. It does not teach us about the degrees of glory. But the Book of Mormon teaches the central doctrine that “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:6). The Book of Mormon gives a clear and unmistakable testimony of God’s redeeming mercy. Note a few Book of Mormon descriptions of God’s plan:
. . . the merciful plan of the great creator . . . 2 Ne 9:6
O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! 2 Ne.9:8
O how great the plan of our God! 2 Ne. 9:13
My soul delighteth . . . in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death. 2 Ne.11:5
. . . the great plan of the Eternal God . . . Alma 34:9
. . . great plan of happiness. Alma 42:8
. . . plan of mercy . . . Alma 42:15
The Book of Mormon resonates with the message that the Savior has come to redeem us. It testifies to a confused world that God’s plan has purpose, that its purpose is joy, and that God is able to do His work of redemption! In a world plagued by doubt, the Book of Mormon message is vital.
Modern revelation and the plan of salvation
God has given a glorious gift to the Latter-day Saints. Through His prophets, He has revealed the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, including an enlarged knowledge of His redemptive plan of salvation. The 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants has the honor of being called “The Vision.” Unlike any other scripture available to us, it gives us a breathtaking view of God’s redeeming love. Joseph wrote of the Vision:
The sublimity of the ideas, the purity of the language . . . the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrowmindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.” (history of the Church, 1:252–253)
A new understanding of hell
Modern revelation teaches us that hell entails terrible suffering (D&C 19:15). But we also learn that the only hell that endures without end is the suffering of the sons of perdition (D&C 76:37–38). “he saves all except them” (D&C 76:44). Those who commit all manner of sin but do not deny the Holy Ghost are cast into hell to pay for their own sins. But their hell has an end. They are cleansed and are released to the telestial kingdom (D&C 76:85,106; Matthew 12:31), a degree of glory so joyous that it “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). The fact that liars, sorcerers, adulterers, and whoremongers will be allowed to pay for their sins and receive a degree of joyous glory is astonishing. It may seem to be too kind to be true. Yet, that is what we should expect from a God who is perfect in knowledge and perfect in love. His plan is always kinder than we had dared to expect.
Part of the sectarian world’s theological difficulty is that they only have an all-or-nothing plan of salvation. A person goes to bliss or to unending pain—heaven or hell. Churches define differently the critical requirements for heaven. But logic revolts at the suggestion that any requirement should divide all of God’s children into two groups with vastly different rewards.
Modern revelation tells us not only about the three degrees of glory but suggests that within each kingdom there are differences that allow for the unique expression of every human being (D&C 131:1, John 14:2). Even in the telestial kingdom, “one star differs from another star in glory” (D&C 76:98).
Number to be saved
By the world’s definition of heaven, even the telestial kingdom is heaven. So, rather than the vast majority of God’s children being lost in unending burnings, only the sons of perdition will be lastingly lost (D&C 76:43–44). Du Moulin speculated that “not one in a hundred thousand (nay, probably not one in a million), from Adam down to our time, shall be saved” (p. 151). The proportion may be correct. But the devil has reversed the direction. The restored gospel testifies that only the stubbornly rebellious, the sons of perdition, will go down to a lasting hell (D&C 76:37).
Even Joseph marveled at the reach of God’s goodness as he was blessed with a vision of his deceased brother, Alvin, in the celestial kingdom (D&C 137). But God would teach all of us that, through the atonement of Jesus Christ and ordinances for the dead (D&C 124), all who will accept His gift will be blessed eternally.
In March of 1830, Joseph revealed the meaning of the word eternal, together with the rationale for the definition: “Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment” (D&C 19:10–11). This insightful definition was given by a poor farm boy 51 years before Farrar, with all of his training and resources, published his conclusions about the meaning of the word eternal in Mercy and Judgment.
The great plan of the eternal God
Joseph was ahead of his time because he was taught by God. Yet, at the same time that the restored gospel was spreading throughout the world, truths about the plan of salvation were starting to appear in other lands. Perhaps God was preparing the world to understand and appreciate the restored plan of happiness. The Spirit of God was moving upon the people.
It is hard to get perspective on all that the Lord gave us through Joseph. While the world was debating the nature of hell, Latter-day Saints have had the visions of eternities available to them. But in the decades since the Wider Hope first became more broadly published, the devil has changed fields. The “modern” trend in theology is to “spiritualize” all religious statements. Nothing is literal or real, especially not heaven.
“The motifs of the modern heaven—eternal progress, love, and fluidity between earth and the other world—while acknowledged by pastors in their funeral sermons, are not fundamental to contemporary Christianity. Priests and pastors might tell families that they will meet their loved ones in heaven as a means of consolation, but contemporary thought does not support that belief as it did in the nineteenth century. There is no longer a strong theological commitment to the modern heaven. Scientific, philosophical, and theological skepticism has nullified the modern heaven and replaced it with teachings that are minimalist, meager, and dry” (McDannell & Lang, 1988, pp. 313, 352).
At all costs, the devil must prevent the world from discovering the truth of God’s love and the joy of the world to come. The devil’s plan is to destroy hope. The quote above comes from a scholarly history of the belief in heaven. The authors also observe that “the major exception to this caveat is the teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This type of heaven [an other-worldly society] continues in Latter-day Saint theology, contemporary popular culture, and in the glimpses of the afterlife in near-death experiences” (pp. 313, 356).
We Saints do not have to be tossed to and fro in our belief. We have been taught about our divine heritage. God is literally our Father! We were not created out of nothing, but we have an eternal identity. We have the revelations, the prophets and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost to teach us of our heavenly home. We have the instruction and ordinances of the temple to help us gain our bearings on eternity. We have been blessed with the prophets’ visions in the Pearl of Great Price. We have been given details of the redemptive work that was begun by the Savior’s visit to the spirit world. We have visions of thrones, kingdoms, principalities, powers, and dominions (D&C 132:19) to be enjoyed with our beloved families. God has revealed himself to us as a caring, tender parent who is preparing us to receive all that He has.
In addition to an understanding of God’s glorious mercy, modern revelation warns us about smugness, carnal security, and pride. It balances the message of mercy with an understanding of accountability and the eternal nature of law. The Lord intends not to redeem us in our sins but to redeem us from our sins.
Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. . . . Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them! (D&C 128:19)
We should thank our Creator for the heavenly vision with which He has entrusted us. It seems that He is trying to tell us something. He wants us to know that He loves us and is eager to redeem us. And that is Good News.
Farrar, F. W. (1904a). Eternal hope. London: Macmillan.
Farrar, F. W. (1904b). Mercy and judgment. London: Macmillan.
Farrar, R. (1904). The life of Frederick William Farrar, sometime Dean of Canterbury, by his son Reginald Farrar. London: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd..
Lundwall, N. B. (1948). The vision: Or the degrees of glory. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft.
Maurice, F. (1884). The life of Frederick Denison Maurice: Chiefly told in his own letters edited by his son, Frederick Maurice. London: Macmillan & Co.
Maurice, F. D. (1853). Theological essays. London: Macmillan.
McDannell, C., & Lang, B. (1988), heaven: A history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Pusey, E. B. (1880). What is of faith as to everlasting punishment? Oxford: James Parker & Co.
Plumptre, E. H. (1885). The spirits in prison. London: Isbister.
Rowell, G. (1974). Hell and the Victorians. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Smith, L. (1902). History of the Prophet Joseph: By his mother, Lucy Smith. Improvement Era, 5(3), 160–171.
It is an unusual baby who arrives on the mortal scene concerned foremost about the well being of others. Imagine a newborn saying (or acting as if to say): “Wow. I can see that all of you look very worn out. Mom, you look spent! What a struggle for you! Dad, you need a rest. Doctor, thank you for making my arrival so warm and safe. Why don’t I just relax a few hours while all of you get caught up. Let me know when you would like to visit. Maybe we can chat and have a snack in a few hours.”
As much as we are delighted with the arrival of newborns, they come with a rather different attitude. “Man! That was miserable! Do you know what I’ve just been through? And I’m not that crazy about the light and drafts here. Listen. Why don’t I scream and holler until you can figure out how to make me happy. Then maybe I’ll rest for a while. But I’ll let you know when I need something. And when I scream, I expect service.”
A clod of complaints
George Bernard Shaw’s words fit the newborn quite well: “A feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” The baby may be demanding and self-centered—but we make allowances for being a brand new human.
Unfortunately our attitude doesn’t change quickly or easily as we age. Many of us in adulthood are still struggling with the same attitude. “If I’m unhappy, I intend that everyone else be miserable as well. So, if you don’t want to be tortured, get busy taking care of my needs.”
A few people break the pattern. Something is different for them. They are different from the rest of us. You know them. There is the ward member who seems to take genuine interest in people who struggle. There is the neighbor who cares for an ailing parent or a disabled child without complaint. There are those who set aside their own burdens and disappointments so that they can serve patiently and endlessly. I have been blessed by the ministering and example of many such people.
Van Wyck Brooks describes people who have moved from being narrow and contracted to being expansive: “How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping. They are bent on showing their own superiority, their knowledge or prowess or good breeding. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere.” (A Chillmark Miscellany)
I would like to be one of those magnanimous people. How do we get from the clod of complaints to noble goodness?
Ladling from life
Life provides each of us an experiential stew filled not only with chunks of vegetables but abundant weeds and rocks. The hodgepodge includes the intriguing, the indigestible, the enriching, and the toxic. We all eat stew from life’s general pot. Yet some are stunted while others flourish. Why is it that some extract nourishment for their goodness while others get only poison for their minds and souls?
People who have been served a bitter bowl of stew and still flourished have become iconic. Elijah turned national disgrace into personal discovery and continuing service. Corrie ten Boom transformed Holocaust hate into embracing forgiveness. Viktor Frankl found meaning in the concentration camp. C. S. Lewis transformed a lonesome childhood into an embracing faith. Jesus metabolized the sins and pains of creation into the triumph of love.
There are those who have eaten from the same pot and yet are spiritually malnourished. Sigmund Freud showed the nature of his own soul when he wrote that, “I have found little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.” A cynic would argue that Freud’s bitter assessment of humans is the result of his extensive experience with them. It seems even more likely that it is the result of his corrosive cynicism and atheism.
Throughout history there have been those who would destroy others to advance their own cause. Cain. herod. Hitler. McVeigh. bin Laden. It is chilling to discover that we all have a little Timothy McVeigh in us. We may not be willing to destroy a whole community, but we stingily disburse our good will. At times we may even wish harm on this person or that nation.
So how do we move away from our churlish childishness and become more like those expansive people we admire? What is the key to this mighty change?
I reflected on the question as I sat in church. I thought of the complex answers about biological dispositions and environmental shaping. I thought about all the things research recommends for moral development. How can all these ideas be summarized?
The answer came quite unexpectedly. The organ began to play and words ascended from the seekers. “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me, confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me. I tremble to know that for me he was crucified. That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled, and died.”
I felt flooded with the simple truth that Jesus is the way for any who want to move from tired self-absorption to glorious contributing. Even for those who have never heard His name, His persistent invitation to gentleness and goodness is resident in their souls. The Light of Christ.
Imagine that you have a helpful neighbor who seems to have a steady affection for you. The neighbor writes you notes and brings you treats. You do not respond. The neighbor drops by to visit and to share ideas, articles, and books but you busy yourself with household tasks. The neighbor shows regular kindnesses by picking up litter in your yard. You ignore the efforts.
It is hard to imagine such churlish behavior in ourselves. How could we fail to show all signs of welcome to one who was so gracious? Only a brute could be so unappreciative.
Yet I wonder if the situation describes each of us. Imagine the neighbor to be the Holy Ghost. He often brings us spiritual treats. Yet we ignore Him. He comes to us bringing new insights and appreciations but we are so busy with life that we do not interrupt our daily doings to be taught. He picks up the litter in our souls and refreshes us with goodness but we ignore His efforts. The Holy Ghost must be a patient fellow. He may be the most underappreciated man in town.
I know that I regularly fail to appreciate heaven’s messenger. God might well ask me: “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (D&C 88:33).
All the signs of welcome
Let’s compare our treatment of the neglected neighbor with the welcome we might offer if we knew that the president of the Church were sending one of His counselors to personally visit and teach us. Not only would we prepare carefully, we would give our full attention to every word the messenger uttered. We might even take notes so that we would not forget the message. If there were some part of the message that seemed especially important, we might stitch it in needlepoint, frame it, and hang it in our home as a continuing reminder.
Yet the Holy Ghost comes to us as the personal representative of First Presidency of heaven. He travels across time and space (so to speak) to give us the considered counsel of the Father and the Son. While He is in our homes, He not only teaches us, He comforts and cleanses us.
Wow. There is no messenger to our lives who should be more welcome and more appreciated. How can we prepare for, value, and memorialize His messages? How can we make him a more welcome and regular guest?
Preparing for company
Nephi knew the key to heavenly tutoring: “I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him” (I Nephi 10:17).
We must seek Him. We must want him to come into our lives. Inside this desire another quality is humbly nestled: We must be humble enough to know that we need to be taught. When we feel intellectually self-sufficient, we may inadvertently turn away that heavenly Messenger.
The Lord makes an amazing invitation to all disciples: “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal” (D&C 42:61). Mysteries, joy, and eternal life—all for the asking.
Along with asking, what else can we do to encourage the tutoring of the Holy Ghost? I love Steve Covey’s suggestion that we can settle our minds and bodies and, in the peace, ask heaven specific questions: What can I do to be closer to the living Christ? What can I do to be a better family member? What do I need to do to be a better Latter-day Saint? What do I need to do to be a better student, employee, or community member? When we humbly and earnestly present ourselves for heaven’s tutoring, we are more likely to be taught.
Valuing His visits
For many years I found myself feeling blessed by warmth, insight, and joy, especially on the Sabbath. Yet, when I got to the end of the day and sat to revisit the blessings of the day, I could not remember the specific messages that had come or even the experiences that elicited the heavenly gifts. How could I receive a glorious gift and lose it before nightfall?
So I began a habit. I pull out an index card every Sunday. When I notice the Holy Ghost giving my mind or heart one of those welcome embraces, I make a note on the index card. Often the messages on the card are merely the title or selected words from a beloved hymn. There might appear to be no benefit from recording the familiar words. Yet it is my way of telling heaven that I noticed. And I am grateful.
Some of the messages I record are new insights. I think of these messages as God taking a highlighter to emphasize some message or experience in my life. Any time God makes such an effort to draw my attention to something, I want to be attentive. I not only want to make a note, I want to refer to it regularly. I assume that God had an important purpose for highlighting the message.
In fact, when I review my collection of cards from the previous months, I often find a pattern or theme. So I carry at least the previous month’s cards with me. In times of boredom I pull out the cards and reflect on recent messages from heaven. When I need inspiration for a talk or article, I pull out the cards and reflect on what God has been teaching me. I would like to be the kind of student Samuel was: “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Samuel 3:19).
Memorializing His messages
There are some messages that command special attention. Maybe we know that they could guide us in needed growth. Maybe the messages express a special feeling of truth or appreciation. We can honor them with special attention.
My dear wife, Nancy, has a scriptural message carved in oak: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart.” I have a poetic message that captures my feeling of appreciation carved in cherry wood: “God’s in his heaven; All’s right with the world.” A friend gave us a pillow with a cherished message: “Scatter joy.” In addition, our family room is brim with photos, keepsakes, and reminders of the noble people who are cheering for us from beyond the veil. The Holy Ghost has planted a love of these people in our hearts and we choose to surround ourselves with reminders.
All these physical reminders are intended to help us live more faithfully and joyously. They are intended to remind us of God’s specific counsel and continuing love for us.
There are other ways to memorialize His messages. Since our children were teens, we have had a Sunday ritual of inviting each family member to share their best experience of the day. It causes each of us in turn to sift through the blessings of the day and pay special honor to one of those blessings. Often we cannot limit ourselves to one but our gratitude demands that we list several. We rejoice together.
This tradition also helps us to appreciate the beautiful, customized way that God blesses each of us. Even now, as all three of our children are married and live far from us, we regularly talk by phone on Sunday evening and inevitably ask, “What was your best experience today?”
There are still more ways to memorialize His messages. My wife is a faithful journal keeper. She writes the story of her life on our computer. I am not as thorough as she. I make a few cryptic notes on my calendar and I save the calendars. At the end of each week I write a family letter that I e-mail to each family member.
My calendar helps me remember the doings and blessings of the week. The letters are a way of thanking heaven for the amazing blessing of life filled with specific lessons and blessings. Because our children are so tuned to the language of heaven, they can hear my tremors of joy even as they read the e-mails.
Embracing the Messenger of heaven
What good is the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost if we constantly treat him as a bothersome neighbor? Can’t we make him more welcome in our lives? If we fully understood the special mission of the Holy Ghost, we would cherish Him. He is our connection to home as we wend our way through the wilderness of mortality. He is our Liahona. He is our energizer and purifier.
Joseph Fielding McConkie observed that, “it is the office of the Holy Ghost to lift burdens, give courage, strengthen faith, grant consolation, extend hope, and reveal whatever is needed to those having claim on his sacred companionship” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 2, s.v. Holy Ghost). When the Holy Ghost comes to us, He blesses us.
President John Taylor counseled that “every one of us . . . ought to cultivate the Holy Ghost in our hearts, and let it burn there like a living fire. We ought to draw near to God, and receive from him light and life and intelligence” (Journal of Discourses, vol.15, p.275).
God taught us: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you;” (D&C 50: 24–25).
I hope to become more and more sensitive to His hints and intimations. If I am a horse and the Holy Ghost is the all-wise rider, I hope that He does not have to drag me by the bridle to my encounters with growth. I hope that I can learn to feel the subtlest touch of the bridle strap and respond promptly, gladly, wisely. I hope to learn to live in the Holy Ghost constantly. I hope He can feel welcome and appreciated as my constant companion and faithful guide. I hope to grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
And, when I die, what’s to be done with the mass of wood reminders, letters, calendars, and index cards that have helped me tune into God’s messages? Perhaps one of the children or grandchildren will find them useful as they seek to know God. Or perhaps the family will gather around the pile, start them on fire, and warm their hands by one person’s testimony that God is good, He loves us, and yearns to bless us.
May God bless each of us to welcome His messenger to our lives.
We all want joy. And we know the formula for getting it. Yet we often muddle along in misery instead of climbing toward joy.
Intriguingly the research on optimal human experience says that people are likely to experience different varieties of joy when they savor experience, use their talents, undertake a cause, or exercise. Yet many people choose nightly television over joy and growth even though watching television tends to put people in a mildly depressive state.
Television hardly seems like a demon. In fact, Moses was probably not thinking of idle television viewing when he challenged His people:
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Every evening each of us chooses to enlarge our souls or coast along in the vast media wasteland. Maybe nightly choices of television bring us closer to spiritual and intellectual death while nightly choices of growth and service fill us with life. We can turn off the television and enjoy nature, work on a project, visit a neighbor, or take a walk. Any one of those is likely to bring joy—which is spiritual life.
I suspect that the Book of Mormon was describing the vegetative state induced by modern media when it warns of latter-day perils:
“And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Nephi 28:21).
In writing this article my intent is not to rant against television but to describe a remarkably predictable process for flooding our souls with refreshing joy. Are you interested in joy? Consider the scriptural invitation:
“. . . nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours. And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more. (D&C 78:18–19)
There is hardly anything that will refresh our souls more than the “attitude of gratitude.” When we receive all things with gratitude, we are made glorious—and not just in some distant future, but right now.
Do you want a stiff jolt of joy? Sit down and record those things for which you are grateful. After recording those that come easily, push yourself to frame challenges as blessings. See what happens. Don’t qualify your gratitude: “Well, sometimes I’m glad for my parents, but . . . .” Cut loose. Find the good and celebrate it.
I tried this process myself just this morning. May I share the results with you? You may not be interested in my blessings, but perhaps you will feel the power of gratitude as you watch a fellow traveler trot toward joy as he tallies heaven’s bounty.
There is the risk that you will say, “Well, you have blessings, I have none.” I will not deny that I am blessed. But gratitude is a state of mind. It is the choice to see the roses among the thorns of mortality. So here are a few of my thank you’s to friends, family, and heaven.
Flooded by joy
I am grateful for great ancestors. Especially I am grateful for those who left letters, photos, and journals—even scribblings. Beyond those who have left identifiable evidence, I know that unknown others left traces of faith and goodness that distill into my soul unnoticed.
I am thankful for Harold E. Wallace for whom I am named. I revere his name. I am thankful for hundreds of teaching moments including the times that he took me “for a malt” and ended up equipping me with back-to-school clothes.
I am thankful that, when Grandma Wallace scraped frosting off her cake, she recognized a boy who loved frosting. And, when I spent the night at her house, she made extra bacon for breakfast. Grandma knew how to show love to a little boy.
I am thankful for all the times I heard Grandpa J. Percy Goddard recite “This is the domiciliary edifice erected by John” at family gatherings. he—and those before him—provided their descendents with a serious gospel focus and an appreciation for joy.
I am thankful for grandma Verna Lisle Wright Goddard who died when I was only a baby but left a rich legacy of believing and loving.
I am thankful for an extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins—full of grace, kindness, and exuberance.
I am grateful for a spiritual childhood home that taught me in my youth the true principles and meaning of life. Not only do I know that Orson and Bea are right, I also know they are good.
I am thankful for siblings who tolerated my telestiality and have taught me through their remarkable talents and goodness. They had reason to expect more of their big brother but they share cheese enchiladas and pecan brittle with me without resentment.
I am thankful for teachers like Rhea Bailey and Ray Gilbert who saw and noted something good in a goofy boy.
I am thankful that my family valued and modeled education. We were always encouraged to learn.
I am thankful for in-laws, Dale and Marilyn, who filled their family with examples of generosity.
I am thankful for the beloved children Father has sent to Nancy and me. They are treasures! As if they were not enough, each of them has brought a blessed addition to the family as they have married.
I am thankful for grandsons who remind us of the miracle of life and the blessing of joy as they gather furry caterpillars.
I am thankful for the chromosomal translocation I have that made conception difficult and every child more blessed.
I am thankful for the dozens of miscarriages Nancy and I have had and the way Father transformed our disappointment into faith. I am less likely today to demand that Father explain His doings to me. “When God sorts out weather and sends rain, Why, rain’s my choice.”
I am thankful for foster children who humbled us with the realization that we don’t have all the answers to life’s tough questions.
I am deeply indebted to sweet temple workers who knew me well enough to be judgmental but, following the Master’s gracious example, greeted me with loving smiles and warm embraces.
I am grateful to (and humbled by) those I have offended who have forgiven me.
I am thankful to those who haven’t forgiven me. They have taught me about the very real consequences of my thoughtless, careless or even wicked acts.
I am thankful to those like our many students and our friend in Midland who have looked past my imperfect teaching to my earnest beliefs. They are like the patient children who continue to love their dog in spite of slobber, chewed furniture, fleas, and an unruly and energetic tail.
I am thankful for friends like Clif, Irv, Jeff, Myke, DeArmon, John, Sue, Mary, Sandy, and others who have chosen to spend time with me and have found good in me despite abundant reason to be annoyed.
I am grateful for people who have given me a chance in life, people like Phil Ellis, Cory Maxwell, John Covey, Maurine Proctor, and many others.
I am grateful to prophets, leaders, and teachers who have pointed toward the bright lights of the City of God—people like Nephi, Bishop Brown, Alma, Howard W. Hunter, Aunt Ruth, Neal A. Maxwell, Jeffrey R. Holland, Gordon B. Hinckley, Grant Jacobsen . . . . There are too many to name.
I am thankful for wise and perceptive writers who have opened their minds and hearts so we might be warmed and blessed, people like Frederick W. Farrar, Richard Cracroft, Stephen E. Robinson, Eugene England, Hugh Nibley, Catherine Thomas, and Stephen Covey.
I am everlastingly thankful for my wife, Nancy Thacker Goddard, a mild, gentle, sweet soul, who has done more—save Jesus only—for the salvation of my imperfect soul than any other person who ever lived on earth.
I rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ who not only empowered the Great Plan of Redemption, but who sustains my life, and lives to bless us all. The landscape is littered with His abundant goodness. He is the Light and Life of the world.
I thank Father for a perfect plan and perfect love.
Give [gratitude], and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over . . . . For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. (Luke 6:38)
Try it and see. Rummage around your soul for gratitude and see if joy is not the result.
Imagine a house created by a tornado. It might have a fascinating combination of building materials including car parts, street signs, and tree branches together with soaked wallboard and fragments of PVC pipe. The host of materials might make the do-it-yourselfer fill with envy. Unfortunately it is not likely to be inhabitable and it surely will not be functional.
It is easy to see our lives as equally random and uninhabitable, especially if we are not feeling close to the Architect. There is no apparent order and nothing seems to work in our lives. Sometimes we suspect that we deserve just such a wreck.
The counsel in heaven
In addition to the Grand Council in heaven, I speculate that we had our individual counsels in heaven. It is my suspicion that God met with each of us individually. (I believe that a God who is infinite and eternal has time for each of us, In fact maybe He has an eternity for each of His children.)
In our heavenly one-on-ones, God may have shared the scrapbook He has kept for us since the beginning of time (a phrase which, of course, is of questionable meaning for eternal beings). He helped us identify our strengths and celebrate our premortal accomplishments. We glowed. Then He asked us the pivotal question: “Where would you like to spend eternity?”
In answer to the question, two powerful reactions clashed within us. “Of course I want nothing more than to be with you and the family.” But another voice within us worried, “How could I ever hope for such a lofty station in eternity?”
Father knew our thoughts. He always has. So He rephrased the question: “Where do you want to spend eternity?” We blurted it out: “Oh, Father, I want to be with you if there is any way possible.”
He beamed. “And I want you home with me.”
The great plan
I don’t think God is one to sneak the pain into the small print. Once we declared our hopes, I think He said, “Do you mind if I show you exactly what you will need to experience in mortality in order to be ready to return to be with us?” I imagine that we were excited for a preview of our own personal mortal journey.
So God, our Father, had a counsel in heaven with each of us. Together we designed a life that would help us grow so that we could not only return to be with him but would be prepared to join him in the family business, the glorious work of loving, saving, and blessing.
Our lives are not the result of random events. We saw all the struggles and triumphs. I believe we helped plan even the pain and disappointment. With the whole show carefully designed and fully previewed, He asked, “Are you willing to go through all that?”
When we saw it all laid out before us, we might have been daunted by the prospects. But, brightened by the hope of our eternal home, and sitting by His regal side, we ultimately felt confident. “I would gladly do all that and more if I could be with you again someday.”
He nodded with pleasure.
And He sighed. “The hard part about mortality is that you will not see everything as you do now. You will sometimes be quite unsure about the purpose of the journey. You will feel quite lost.”
Preparing for the journey
A cloud of concern shadowed our brows. He continued. “The fact is, that in that distant and dark land, you cannot make it unless you get help from your brother. He will light the path. He will clear the way.”
“How will we know him? How will we find the path?”
“I will send my special helper who will whisper guidance to you. Listen to Him. You will never be alone.”
I’m sure He told us much more about how to tune in to that still, small voice in order to connect with heaven. He warned us that the counsel of that heavenly guide would sometimes be swamped by the mortal cacophony. But He counseled us: “Listen for the sweet voice of heaven.”
Before we left, He gave us a father’s blessing. He embraced us: “I will look forward to your return.”
Lost in the fog
So here we are in mortality. He was right. Sometimes we feel hopeful. Sometimes we are quite forlorn. Sometimes we even come to fear God, our dearest friend and surest refuge.
I have asked people what they would do if God knocked on the door and asked to talk to them. “I would hide under the bed.” The fog of mortality causes us to forget the sweetness of His embrace. We are tempted to run from Him. Yet, even when we are soiled and silly, He yearns to help and bless us.
Better ways of thinking about badness
We tend to think of our failures and errors as evidence that we are on the trail to a dismal outcome. “If I were truly celestial material, I wouldn’t make such mistakes.” The evidence doesn’t support that conclusion.
Elder Hafen offers comfort to those of us who fret about our shortcomings. “So if you have problems in your life, don’t assume there is something wrong with you. Struggling with those problems is at the very core of life’s purpose” (The Atonement: All for All, Ensign, May 2004, p. 97). Our mortal discontent can even be a sign of our growing yearning for home. “As we draw close to God, he will show us our weaknesses and through them make us wiser, stronger. If you’re seeing more of your weaknesses, that just might mean that you’re moving nearer to God, not farther away” (Ibid., p. 97).
Most of us suspect that our stubbornness and contrariness get in the way of God’s redemptive plans for us. Brigham Young taught otherwise. “There is not a single condition of life that is entirely unnecessary; there is not one hour’s experience but what is beneficial to all those who make it their study, and aim to improve upon the experience they gain” (JD 9:292).
Perhaps God uses our mistakes to further our education. Certainly He is not surprised by them. Perhaps God sees order, purpose, and growth where we see only mess and disappointment. Elder Robert D. Hales described it like this: “In the school of mortality, the tutor is often pain and tribulation, but the lessons are meant to refine and bless us and strengthen us, not destroy us.” (“Faith through Tribulation Brings Peace and Joy,” Ensign, May 2003).
When God knocks on our door, rather than hide, maybe we should take a deep breath, bow our heads, and run to Him. We know we should be better than we are. We also know that He gladly refines us if we accept His tutoring. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
As embarrassed as we may be by our shambles of our mortal effort, we should welcome the Master Architect and Builder. He will never forget the plan we developed in that premortal counsel. He will take the broken branches and fragments of plastic that we offer him and create a castle. We will be amazed. In fact our knees will bow and tongues confess that He is the Master Builder.