Friday, October 31, 2008

Divine Permissiveness and Christlike Love

"Let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

In Christendom, much is made of our loving God. At times, we even make the mistake of contrasting the love and mercy of the "God of the New Testament" with what we suppose to be the condemnation and judgment of the "God of the Old Testament," forgetting, it seems, that the Lord "is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever,
and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him" (1 Nephi 10:18). The Lord was as loving when He created the earth as He was when He redeemed it, as merciful when He gave the law as when He fulfilled it.

We rejoice in the great love of the Lord. But let us never equate Christlike love with Divine permissiveness. The Lord desires to bless us, and He is bound to bless us when we keep His commandments, but has made it clear that "when when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise" (Doctrine & Covenants 82:10). Our love for God and reception of His love for us are, as the scriptures continually testify, tied to our obedience to His commandments. He commanded the ancient children of Israel "to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). When we do so, he promises to bless us, "if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul...I will give you the rain of your land in his due season...And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full" (Deutronomy 11:13-15). Conversely, the Lord promised judgment and speedy destruction as the consequence for the people's rebellion: "Cursed shall be the land...unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, unto destruction, which do wickedly, when they are fully ripe; and as I have said so shall it be; for this is the cursing and the blessing of God upon the land, for the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (Alma 45:16).

The Lord has never commanded that we look on with amused indifference or "tolerance" at wickedness. He has commanded us to forgive and love the sinner (for He does), but never to excuse sin. And the way we demonstrate our love for God's children is by keeping the commandments ourselves, as John says: "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous" (1 John 5:2-3). Mormon's love for his rebellious people was demonstrated not by his acceptance of their behavior, but by his prayers for their repentance: "I loved them, according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them...because of the hardness of their hearts" (Mormon 3:12).

There is an increasingly-prevalent attitude that assumes that God's love, in order to be perfect, must be unconditional, that his approbation and blessings must be extended to all without qualification. C.S. Lewis, writing of this attitude, remarked, "By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness--the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven--a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all'" (The Problem of Pain).

The God we worship is a being of perfect love. Because of His love, He has given us commandments, and expects us to keep them, since they will make us truly happy. He has given us the gift of prayer, the opportunity to speak to Him and to hear His voice. His love is beyond my comprehension. It is manifest in His Atonement, which gives us the power to repent, to change, and to become like Him. His love encourages us to come unto Him and become like him, as Mormon exhorted his people, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure" (Moroni 7:48).

How glad I am that, instead of a doting Grandfather in Heaven, we have a glorious Father in Heaven who cares enough about our eternal happiness to give us commandments that will help us to become like Him and enter into His rest, "having [our] garments the kingdom of heaven to go no more out" (Alma 7:25).

"And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins; And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God"(Moroni 7:25-26).

Monday, October 27, 2008

This Day I Have Chosen

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereinafter "the Church") has taken a rare political position in this upcoming election: its prophets have declared their support for California's Proposition 8, which provides that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The proposition has gained ground in California, largely due to the Church's efforts. The Church has asked members in California "that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman." I wholeheartedly support the proposition, both on moral and on religious grounds. It is not my purpose to debate the merits and demerits of traditional and same-sex marriage here. For that, I recommend to you the Church's official website on the issue.

My purpose here is to discuss the importance of following the living prophet. As members of the Church, we believe that there are "prophets in the land again" today. We sustain the fifteen men who lead the Church as "prophets, seers, and revelators." We believe that these men are called of God and speak for Him just as literally as did Moses in ancient days. We believe that their united word is as good as the word of the Lord. "What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (Doctrine & Covenants 1:38, emphasis added).

What a marvelous blessing it is to be guided by a prophet who speaks for the Lord! But how often we discount that great blessing! Elder Holland's words seem particularly relevant as we confront the issues facing Church members this election:

"Some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don't know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times...I say with all the fervor of my soul that never... have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth...It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it. It is true light shining in a dark world" (Prophets in the Land Again, Ensign Nov 2006, emphasis added).

I do not desire to condemn anyone for their position on this issue. As a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune reported, "Latter-day Saints are free to disagree with their church on the issue without facing any sanction, said L. Whitney Clayton of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy. 'We love them and bear them no ill will' " ("Prop 8: California gay marriage fight divides LDS faithful," Peggy Fletcher Stack, 10/26/2008). But I do know that those who ignore the word of the living prophet do so at their own peril. The prophets' involvement and strong position on this issue have been condemned as "over-zealous" and "divisive." They certainly are divisive--they divide those who follow the prophet from those who will not, whatever their personal beliefs may be. Personal belief is not the issue here. Obedience is the issue.

When Moses commanded the Israelites to paint their lintels with the blood of a slain lamb, their personal taste in decorating was irrelevant. The sight of blood may have been abhorrent to some families. Others may have resented the prophet's reaching into their personal lives. Others undoubtedly questioned the merits of his command, or found the issue of such little consequence as to not be worth their attention. In the end, all such objections were irrelevant. Those who were obedient were spared from the destroying angel. Those who ignored the prophet's command were not so lucky.

Part of believing that we have prophets in the land today is believing that their words are the words of the Lord. Part of sustaining the prophet is believing that he is "appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church...for he receiveth them even as Moses" (Doctrine & Covenants 28:2). If we have prophets, but do not sustain them, we might as well not have them.

My father is an excellent example of this attitude. A convert to the Church in his teenage years, he joined the Church and never looked back. If I had to use one word to describe my father, that word would be "valiant." I have never had occasion to doubt his testimony, his loyalty, or his dedication to the Lord and to my mother. In my father's mind, when the prophet speaks, the Lord's living oracle has spoken, and the discussion is over. To him, if the prophet says, "Jump!", the only acceptable answer is "Yes, sir! How high, sir?" We could all stand to learn from his attitude, myself included.

Some will lambaste me for encouraging this attitude of submission. Some will call it blind obedience. I prefer to regard it as making my decisions in advance.

Consider Elijah's words to the Israelites as he confronted the priests of Ba'al. "And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him' (1 Kings 18:21). Or Joshua's words to the Israelites upon entering the promised land: "And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15, see also Moses 6:33).

I have made sacred covenants to follow the Lord. In doing so, I have crossed a line in the sand. I have chosen sides. I have succumbed to a divisive force. I have chosen between two opinions. I have chosen to serve the Lord. I have chosen to obey the voice of His prophets. My obedience then becomes an expression of my faith, and expression of my decision to serve the Lord, not a reflection of an inability to think for myself.

The prophet Isaiah said, "Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow" (Isaiah 50:10-11). I have come to understand that this is true.

I have learned that following the prophet brings joy and protection, and that following any counsel that opposes the prophet's counsel, however convincing, well-supported, or well-intentioned, brings sorrow and great spiritual danger. Many sincere people have tried to convince me that I can be just as happy, sucessful, and fulfilled by disobeying the counsel of the prophet as I will be by obeying it. I have taken flak from others when I have insisted that this is a lie. Their intentions may not be malicious, but their counsel is not true. In this issue, and in every other, no matter my personal desires, I will not halt between two opinions. I will not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I will not be ashamed to follow His prophets. For this day, I have chosen. "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

"If you have not chosen the kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead." (quoted by Neal A. Maxwell, “‘I Will Arise and Go to My Father’,” Ensign, Sep 1993, 65)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Should Not I Spare Nineveh?

The Lord commanded the ancient prophet Jonah to preach to the wicked people in the city of Nineveh, part of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of the people of Israel. Deciding instead to flee from the Lord, Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish, the furthest city from Nineveh by sea. Angered, the Lord sent a storm to stop him. Jonah, at his own request, was thrown overboard, where he was swallowed by a whale or "great fish." He remained underwater for three days, following which " the fish...vomited out Jonah upon the dry land" (Jonah 2:10).

And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord." (Jonah 3:1-3).

Jonah preached to the Ninevites, who repented in fasting and sackcloth, led by their king. But instead of rejoicing for the Ninevites return to righteousness, " it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry" (Jonah 4:1). Upset, Jonah left the city and constructed a shelter to sit in, to wait for God to destroy the city as He had promised. A vine grew there, giving him shade as he waited for the Lord's judgments. Wishing to teach Jonah a lesson, the Lord caused the vine (KJV: gourd) to be destroyed, which only irritated Jonah more.

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the [vine]? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death [that is, I am so angry I could die] Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the [vine], for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons?" (Jonah 4:9-11).

The message of the book of Jonah is expressed in its last verse: Should not I spare Nineveh? That is the Lord's question to Jonah, and that is the Lord's question to each of us. We never learn what Jonah's response was, nor what happened to him after hearing the Lord's question. We get to write the story's ending on our own, in our own lives. We get to decide, like spectators at a gladiator match, whether the foe lives or dies. And as we consider that weighty matter, we are struck with the overwhelming burden that judgment always carries--the knowledge that we are unworthy to judge even the most rebellious sinners, that because the Lord has shown us mercy in our rebellion, as He did for Jonah, so we must show mercy to all, even to our enemies.

I remember a conversation I once had with a friend that changed my perspective on judgment and mercy. Deeply angered at those who produce products that enslave others for personal profit, and filled with what I had labeled "righteous indignation," I asked my friend if we would get to stand at the judgment bar and testify against those whose shear wickedness and greed had destroyed the lives of those we loved, because, by golly, I was looking forward to it. He thought for a minute, and then replied, "No, Amy, I don't think we will. I think that if we are people who belong in heaven, we will be filled with so much love for all of God's children that it will pain us to know that some people, because of their actions, won't be able to join us and be truly happy."

That let all the air out of my "righteous indignation" balloon, and made me feel about two inches tall. My desire to see offenders brought to justice was much like Jonah's desire to see the city destroyed. And with the heavy burden of judgment staring me in the face, I am driven to consider the Lord's question: "Should not I spare Nineveh?"

The Lord has been merciful to us. He has spared us and upheld us and rescued us, even in our rebellion. Should He not also spare Nineveh?

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Monday, October 6, 2008

"But If Not"

Anyone who has been in the Church for any length of time has heard their share of inspiring stories and faith-promoting rumors. We hear of destitute families who paid their tithing in faith, not knowing how they would buy food, and the next day got a check in the mail or an unexpected donation from a kind neighbor or random stranger, of families who faced a terrible drought with prayer and fasting and were rewarded with rain, of quiet promptings to slow down that kept a father from becoming a victim of a car accident when an oncoming car ran a red light, and of priesthood blessings given to sick children who were miraculously healed with no lasting effects from their previously-devastating illnesses.

I have witnessed some of these miracles in the lives of those around me, and I, like Helaman, "do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe—that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power" (Alma 57:26). I know that "it is by faith that miracles are wrought" (Moroni 7:37), and that the power of faith, prayer, fasting, obedience, and the priesthood are real and great. I believe in miracles.

But I've noticed that sometimes we generalize miraculous occurrences and pretend that they represent the general rule. We expect that the Lord will work out all of our material needs and wants for us if we keep the commandments. While the formula "If you're good, the Lord will bless you" may work for children's books, we have to be careful not to expect our lives to be smooth sailing just because we're being obedient. We can't treat God as the Giant Vending Machine in the Sky--insert the right change, press the right buttons, and blessings will immediately be vended.

Now this isn't to say that the Lord won't bless us for keeping the commandments--He surely will. After all, "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (Doctrine & Covenants 130:21). But His blessings are not always of the monetary or healing variety. I've come to realize, through experiences in my own life and through my recent reading of the Old Testament, that the Lord's thoughts are so much higher than our thoughts, and His ways than our ways (see Isaiah 55:9), that even when our life doesn't fit the cookie-cutter mold of obedience leading to blessings, we still have to have faith in the Lord's purposes and plans.

Sometimes we pay our tithing and have no food for a while. Sometimes we pray and fast and our child still dies. Sometimes we're living right and listening to the Spirit and we still are paralyzed in a car crash. Sometimes the drought continues despite our earnest pleadings. Bad things happen even to good people, and sometimes especially to good people. But God still loves His children, and we still have to have faith in His purposes and His plan.

The Lord told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, that even "if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" (Doctrine & Covenants 123:7). We know that good will come out of even the most terrible pain, that if we "search dilligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted" (Doctrine & Covenants 90:24).

I have long been inspired by the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar's idol. Threatened with death, they responded with one of the most powerful refrains ever uttered:

"Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful [that is, worried] to answer thee in this matter.
"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
"But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis added).

In other words, they were saying, simply, "we don't mind telling you, King, that we believe our God will deliver us from your fire. But if not, but if He chooses to let us burn, still we will not worship this idol, for we will trust the Lord."

There is so much power in these three words: "But if not". There is power in the affirmation that we will choose to trust the Lord's purposes, even when we don't understand them, even when the heavens seem to gather blackness, even when we are left alone. They represent a personal affirmation of enduring faith that isn't dependent on signs or miracles.

I believe that the Lord has the power to send the rain. But if He doesn't, and the heavens remain closed, even if I lose my job and my crops die and my children starve, still I will believe in Him, still I will follow Him.
I believe that the Lord has the power to heal my child. But if He doesn't, even if I fast and pray and still watch my child die of cancer, still I will believe in Him, still I will give Him my heart.
I believe that the Lord has the power to keep me and my family safe from harm. But if He doesn't, if my husband is crippled in a car accident while driving to church on Sunday, still I will not curse God, because I know He loves me, and still I will serve Him.
I believe that the Lord has the power to provide for me. But if He doesn't, if I pay my tithing and keep the commandments and still don't have money to pay my rent, if I get evicted from my home, if I'm broke and peniless, still I will praise the name of God.

Thomas Paine, writing of the American Revolution, echoed a similar sentiment. He wrote:
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value" (The Crisis, December 23, 1776). Paine understood that even when we're trying to do what is right, tragedy and hardship are involved in obtaining anything that is precious.

Job, similarly, when confronted with the loss of his family, his health, and all his earthly possessions, "arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:20-21). Job knew that the Lord had power to prevent the plagues that had come upon him, and chose not to, even though Job was "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil" (Job 1:8). Job knew that the Lord had power to restore him to health and wealth, but if not, he still proclaimed his devotion to the Lord.

May we also proclaim our devotion to a God who is a God of miracles and also a God of hard times, who has power to move heaven and earth for His faithful children, but if not, we will still follow and love Him.

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