The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Joseph Smith told us that three things are necessary in order to exercise faith in the Lord: First, a knowledge that He actually exists; Second, a correct idea of His character and attributes; Third, a knowledge that our course in life is according to His will. (See Lectures on Faith)
I wish to focus today on the second of these three prerequisites for faith: a correct idea of God’s character and attributes.
We’re encouraged, in scripture and in church meetings, to develop a personal relationship with the Lord. We’re told to pray to Him, to tell Him the desires of our hearts. We’re told that, through the Holy Ghost, we can receive personal revelation from the Lord relating to our particular circumstances or challenges.
The Lord, in the Doctrine & Covenants, instructed His people about His character and attributes, so that they could exercise faith in Him and enter into a right relationship with Him. Quoting John, He spoke of His role as God’s Word, the Firstborn, who created worlds and came into the world as the light of the world, full of grace and truth. “He received a fulness of the glory of the Father; And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him” (Doc. & Cov. 93:16-17). Why are these things important for us to understand? The Lord explained, “I give unto you these sayings, that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness” (v. 19).
Knowing the Being we worship, He says, is essential to our progression. Without this knowledge, we could not receive of God’s “fulness,” because we would lack an understanding of what that “fulness” includes.
How do you see God? What is His relationship to you? When you pray to Him, what mental image do you have of Him? What is He like? I’ve found that the way I think of God at different points in my life directly affects my relationship with Him, how willing I am to trust Him, and my ability to exercise faith in Him.
Sometimes we tend to think of God like we think of the paramedics—we only call on Him if there’s an emergency. Nothing of us have anything against the paramedics, and we’re glad they’re there in case we need them, but we don’t call 911 at the end of the day, just to chat. When we think of God like we think of the paramedics, we pray sincerely only in times of great trouble or sorrow. We pray that He will intervene and fix our problems, and we believe that He will answer our prayers, but we don’t see much use for God when things are going well. The Lord described this attitude, saying, “In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me” (Doc. & Cov. 101:8).
Sometimes we tend to think of God as the Giant Vending Machine in the Sky—we figure that if we do the right things, insert the right change, blessings will immediately pop out the slot at the bottom. After all, we’ve earned them. We’ve kept the commandments, done 100% of our home teaching, and didn’t God say, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say?” (Doc. & Cov. 82:10). It’s tempting, really, to think of binding God and working our way to heaven—it makes life seem as if it’s in our control.
Sometimes we tend to think of God as the Great Avenger. We keep the commandments out of fear of punishment. We overemphasize God’s justice to the exclusion of His mercy. We imagine that He’s angry at us, that because of our brokenness, He could never love us, could never be pleased with us. We see our sins in stark contrast to the perfection He expects, and feel ashamed and guilty. We remember reading that “the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” but forget that the next verse contains the promise, “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (Doc. & Cov. 1:31-32).
Mormon identified this tendency to misrepresent God’s attributes as a new kind of idolatry. And he’s right. If we worship a god who is not the one true God, even if we call him by the same name, we are in essence worshipping a false god, a god that we have “imagined up unto [our]selves,” a god with no power to save (see Mormon 9:10,15).
In the spirit of avoiding idolatry and of coming to know the God we worship, let’s explore some of the terms the Lord uses to refer to Himself. The Lord doesn’t describe Himself as an ambulance driver or a vending machine—He calls Himself a shepherd—the Good Shepherd. Like any good shepherd, Christ “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The Psalmist wrote, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).
But if the Lord is to fill the role of shepherd, we must be His sheep. A fellow blogger has pointed out recently how unpopular it is in our culture to be considered a sheep. We label people “sheep” when they blindly follow a leader (generally a leader we disagree with) without independent thought. But Jesus wasn’t asking us to blindly follow. He was asking us to be familiar enough with His voice to be able to distinguish it from the other voices that call to us, to follow His voice because we know Him and trust Him. Speaking of a good shepherd, He said, “the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And...he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5, emphasis added).
Our decision to follow Christ, then, isn’t a matter of blind obedience. It’s a matter of familiarity with and trust in the voice that calls to us. It isn’t a matter of being pushed or prodded in the right direction, for the Good Shepherd leads from the front, and He is followed by those who know His voice. Alma taught that Christ calls to us with His own name, and if we recognize that name because we have taken it upon ourselves, then we will hear His voice and follow it, and will become His sheep, “the good shepherd doth call you; yea, and in his own name he doth call you, which is the name of Christ; and if ye will not hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd, to the name by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd” (Alma 5:38). The Lord told Alma that those who were baptized in His name would be received by Him, “And he that will hear my voice shall be my sheep; and him shall ye receive into the church, and him will I also receive....And whomsoever ye receive shall believe in my name; and him will I freely forgive...For behold, in my name are they called” (Mosiah 26:21-24).
Each person who “shall be found at the right hand of God...shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ...remember also, that this is the name...that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression; therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts...Remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that...ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also, the name by which he shall call you. For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:9-13).
It is comforting to me to know that the Good Shepherd doesn’t keep a book of the names of His sheep, blotting out the names of those who have gone astray. Instead, He calls us all by one name—His own name. We are His, not based on whether we are good enough to have our names written in His book, but rather on whether we are humble and faithful enough to retain His name written in our hearts. The ball is completely in our court. He will continue to call to us. Will we hear His voice?
“For behold, in my name are they called; and if they know me they shall come forth, and shall have a place eternally at my right hand” (Mosiah 26:24).