My Obligitory New Year’s Resolution Post

00000When I was a Senior in High School working at the local IGA market in Evanston, WY. I had to call my dad to come down and jump start my car. It wasn’t too late, maybe 9 pm. It wasn’t too cold, maybe early October. But my dad showed up visibly annoyed. The reason: this wasn’t the first time I left the lights on and drained the battery. He hooked the jumper cables up to our vehicles, and turned the car on and it fired up. Before he left he imparted one of those bits of wisdom that my dairy farm raised father was legend for saying. “Once is accident, twice is stupid”

I don’t know why that particular dadism has stuck with me over the years. It might be because this wasn’t the last time I needed a jump for leaving my lights on. Nor was it the last time I repeated a mistake which involved a vehicle (like locking my keys in the car, once I locked both mine and my wife’s keys in each of our running cars. I didn’t want them cold or stolen, I just forgot the spare keys for each were on the other car’s key ring). There really are few things in life that make things more frustrating than repeated mistakes.

And so we find ourselves at the end of another year. It’s natural, I suppose, for us to think about the next year with a resolve to be better than we were during this last one. We certainly want to learn the lesson’s of past mistakes and avoid repeating them. The problem is repeating mistakes is so easy to do.

Certainly there are categories of severity with mistakes. My vehicular mishaps, though annoying and stupid, aren’t life ruiners. But some mistakes may precipitate a viscous cycle that can consume and destroy lives. Things can get pretty serious if this cycle isn’t broken.

That’s why I’m grateful for a story that is told in the Book of Mormon. You can read it for yourself here. It’s found in Alma chapters 23-24 (but really begins all the way back in chapter 17). I will summarize since my goal is to keep these posts to 500 words.

A civilization of savage people called the Lamanites live about 100 years before Christ. They have a culture of war and murder. They believe that anything they do is right. A couple of missionaries from the Nephite nation (hated by the Lamanites), who underwent a conversion to Christ in their own lives, want to bring the gospel to these lost Lamanites. How they convert is a great story full of miracles, but I’ll cut to the chase. A whole multitude of Lamanites repent and are baptized, including many of the ruling family. They change their name to the Anti-Nephi Lehi’s. They’re whole way of life has changed as they come unto Christ. But the rest of their nation is angry, and ready to overthrow this monarchy, and kill every last one of the converted group. So what do the Anti-Nephi Lehi’s do? They bury their weapons.

This action has caused some people to ask: Isn’t it permissible to kill if you are defending your family, your country, your way of life? Why would these people not just refuse to fight back, but make it almost impossible to fight back? These people answer that question in their own words.

11 And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to takethem away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—

12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.

13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.

What they do teaches an important principle about how to avoid repeating a mistake. President Spencer W. Kimball articulates the principle well when he wrote:

“In abandoning sin one cannot merely wish for better conditions. … He must be certain not only that he has abandoned the sin but that he has changed the situations surrounding the sin. He should avoid the places and conditions and circumstances where the sin occurred, for these could most readily breed it again. He must abandon the people with whom the sin was committed. He may not hate the persons involved but he must avoid them and everything associated with the sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness[1969], 171–72).

This is what I know to be true. When I am ready to really stop repeating a mistake, I change the conditions surrounding that mistake. What that looks like must be as inspired as it is specific to each of our individual circumstances. But I know that change is always possible.

Does God give us more than we can handle? Part II

ImageOn Sunday I wrote a post about the false idea that God never gives us more than we can handle. You may read that post here. My premise was that overwhelming trials are given on purpose to help us turn to and rely on the Savior. It didn’t take long for God to use me as an object lesson for this principle.

Yesterday (December 16 2013), just 3 days after his 3rd birthday, my sweet little Jack was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. This diagnosis, as too many know, is life changing. We were instructed to admit him into Primary Children’s Hospital last night, and we spent all day today learning the ins and outs of this disease. We also were instructed on how to give insulin shots and even practiced on each other, and then we actually gave Jack his shots. He was a champion. And I must say Bonnie and I are handling things very well. On the surface, this looks like a win for the “God won’t give us more than we can handle” theory. On the surface.

Here’s what you should know about me. I have anxiety. I’m a hypochondriac. At times in my life I have felt absolutely buried by this condition. There was a time when I wondered if I could ever live a successful, happy life. This full story will need its own separate post. But I am a witness of the enabling power of the Savior’s Atonement. I made it through/to High School, a major adolescent move, a mission, an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, the death of my mother, a career in teaching teenagers, marriage and fatherhood.

As I’ve moved along on my life’s path, my personal responsibilities have increased, but my anxiety has decreased. That’s not supposed to happen. The fact that I’m able to handle this new challenge in stride (obviously I have no idea how tough diabetes is going to be, but I’m also not losing sleep over it) is evidence that “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil 4:13), not that God gave me a challenge He knew I could handle all on my own.

One more miracle is worth mentioning here. Part of my anxiety has to do with hospitals, blood, and needles. I’ve passed out over cuts, jammed fingers, small finger pricks to get a drop of blood, immunizations, dilation at the eye doctor (no kidding), an epidural (that my wife was given with our 3rd child) and countless other near pass out experiences. I have a weak constitution for such things. Five years ago I began a regiment of allergy shots that have greatly reduced my seasonal hay fever. But this treatment included getting shots, hundreds and hundreds of shots. I prayed a lot, and panicked a lot, and came close to passing out a lot. Little by little, however, I was blessed with an increased capacity to calm my mind and shut down my worries. I went from fearing that my throat was closing off, to not even thinking twice about the shot. There is no question in my mind, that I was being prepared to handle a life of shots. Today was a wonder to me. 5 years ago I wouldn’t have endured very well a day like today, let alone be confident in it. I have been enabled, and it is very much in spite of my own natural capacity. 

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God won’t give us more than we can handle?

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I think a favorite thing for religious people to talk about is how God won’t give us more than we can handle. I understand the hope this idea is meant to give but it’s simply not true. God gives us more then we can handle all the time. In fact, some trials will bury us. Why? Simple, so that we will rely on Him.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting God sets us up to fail. Nor am I suggesting that the basic premises of religious people are completely wrong as it pertains to human resilience. But we are fallen people living in a fallen world. I think we miss a major eternal truth when we put our trust “in the arm of the flesh.” Let me attempt to explain.

Consider the two verses often quoted as the “you can handle anything” verses.

1 Corinthians 10:13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

1 Nephi 3:7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.

Both scriptures talk about being able to handle things (temptations and commandments). But both explain why you are able to. “God is faithful…[and will] make a way to escape” and “the Lord…shall prepare a way”. God can handle everything, and so can we if we have his help. But this is conditional on us “com[ing] unto Him” (see Matthew 11:28-30), a detail often overlooked as we try to encourage ourselves or others when we struggle.

God has called the weak things of the Earth (D&C 124:1), I think, because these are the ones who “rely wholly on the merits of Him who is mighty to save.” (2 Ne 31:19) His grace is sufficient for the meek, then weak things are made strong through His enabling power (see Ether 12:27). Unless we are aware of and acknowledge our dependence on God, we will continue to be frustrated by the ineffective self help pep talks so common in our world.

God’s Love

563517_f520In the Book of Mormon there is a vision recorded that is well known to Latter-day Saints. The prophet Lehi sees midsts of darkness, a strait and narrow path, a rod of iron, a great gulf, a river of filthiness, a great and spacious building, and the Tree of Life. The dream has different groups of people heading to different destinations. Only those who follow the path, hold the iron rod, and arrive at the Tree of Life, discover true happiness.

Lehi’s son, Nephi, wants to understand what his father saw. So he prays and has a vision of his own. This explanation is as valuable as the dream itself. Yet unfortunately, many have only a shallow understanding of it.

For example, when asked what the Tree of Life is, the most common answer is “the love of God”. This is understandable since Nephi himself said it. The problem is that taken out of context this answer is misleading. Too many have this misconception of God’s love which leads them to say “God loves me no matter what I do”. A natural conclusion to this misconception is a confusion of love and law. That is, since God loves me no matter what I do, it doesn’t matter what I do. Let’s look closer at what Nephi is shown in connection to his well known statement.

At the beginning of his vision, the Spirit asks Nephi what he wants. Nephi states that he wants to know the meaning of the tree. He is then shown Mary and the Christ child. He is then introduced to the idea of the condescension of God. That is that God Himself will come down. He is shown Jesus Christ among the people, teaching and healing. He is shown the Savior being taken by the people, judged of the world, and crucified for the sins of all mankind. He is then shown the Apostles of Christ being persecuted, driven and slain. He sees the formation of a great church founded by the devil. He sees the apostasy of Christianity and the dark ages. He sees the founding of America, the Revolutionary War, and the Restoration of Christ’s true church through a prophet raised up (Joseph Smith). He sees the subsequent gathering of Israel in the last days in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ in His glory. He sees that there are two churches only and in the last days people must choose which to belong to.

Nephi understands that the Tree of Life is the love of God. He understands that the purest form of God’s love is His perfect Son who came down to save us from our sins, not in our sins. He understood that God’s love gives us commandments to keep if we want to gain access to the saving power of Jesus Christ found in the ordinances of His kingdom on Earth, His church. Ours is the choice between the Tree of Life and the spacious building of the world, and it matters very much which we choose.

So you want to be a doctrinal scholar?

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I think a favorite idea of some members of the church is being a doctrinal scholar. I see the appeal. If this church is the Lord’s true church (and it is), and if it’s doctrines are important, even essential to know (also yes), then why not try to be really good at knowing them? Wouldn’t being a doctrinal scholar be a blessing to your life? Wouldn’t being a doctrinal scholar bless the church? I think so. In fact, I wish more people wanted to be doctrinal scholars. But I have three suggestions.

1. Know the scriptures first.
Anybody who wants to know and understand doctrine, need to know and understand them from their revelatory source. The scriptures are the standard, that’s why we call them the standard works. Any spiritual scholarship that doesn’t first begin with a balanced understanding of what the scriptures contain is in danger of being harmless Sunday school false doctrine at best, and full blown apostasy at worst. Either way it’s doomed to be inaccurate scholarship. Also, there is a priority within the standard works themselves. Ensure restoration scripture is understood first (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price), and then view other scripture through the lens  of the restoration.

2. Know what the prophets are saying today.
There is this idea that all the really good stuff ever taught by prophets was back in the day. That today the Brethren are too careful and only give us a sanitized version of doctrine. For those who believe this, one scripture will suffice.

“For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith.” (D&C 98:12)

In other words, what we know today is more than what we knew earlier in our history. The Lord gives us more as we go along. Some will feel an exception to this is Joseph Smith. The dispensation head is the one through whom the Lord establishes the doctrinal foundation for that dispensation (see D&C 5:10). This is an excellent point, and very important to understand. All prophets since Joseph Smith have echoed, and expounded on the doctrinal foundation the Lord laid through him. However this dispensation head exception still doesn’t mean every revelation was fully understood at the time it was given. One example of this is the understanding of the office of the Seventy, which has only in my lifetime started to fulfill its scriptural duty. It’s important, therefore, when we study the past prophets of this dispensation, to interpret their words through what the living prophets are teaching today.

3. Study with faithful scholars.
Now we get into other studies. I understand the desire to study the histories, the geographies, and the cultural backgrounds of the scriptural teaching. This adds insight and life to these sacred records. Much of this is found outside of the scriptures.

The reality is when you are studying imperfect humans, there will be mistakes discovered in men and women of God. Enemies of truth want to use these mistakes as a way to challenge faith. I am confident, however, that when the scriptures are a foundation and prophets are sustained, faithful saints will deal with these problems honestly and within the household of faith. There are plenty of faithful scholars who write on these issues and leave plenty of room for belief.

So remember the scriptures and the current prophets in proper priority, and have a good time figuring out the breadth and depth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.