I wrote this poem as a funerary hymn…
Grief and Love
Grief, another form of love,
consumes us as we see
Brothers, sisters pass this life
return, *too soon, to thee.
Despite our aching, yearning tears
the grave its silence keeps
As we mourn our loved ones passed,
our brother Jesus weeps.
Born of thee, we strive to serve
and so our hearts expand.
But we find with greater love,
our sorrows, too, compound.
Through this school of grief and tears
we gain capacity
To be the shoulder wept upon
and bring our friends to thee.
The Comforter reminds us
that death is not the end,
It’s merely a transition for family and friend
Back to God, where Love is King
and tears are wiped away
We’ll see our loved ones after:
all home again to stay!
* Optionally “too soon” may be replaced by “again” if it is deemed more appropriate for a given funeral
Tonight I had a dream. It was of little consequence other than the opportunity I was given within the dream to say why I believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Mormon Church. In my dream, I was very eloquent. I have gotten out of bed, hoping that some of that eloquence will remain with me, as I feel that it is something that needs to be said persuasively.
I get it. There is a lot to be cynical about with religion today. There are plenty of bad actors out there, who want to use religion as a tool of control. It is a very effective tool for that purpose. But, just like technology, it can be used for both evil and good.
Nobody can prove the existence of God through science. It is one of, I daresay the most important of, a whole class of questions that can neither be proven nor disproven. Science generally considers these questions useless, as they don’t fit into the framework of the scientific method, where knowledge is gained by repeatable experiment. So, some scientists ignore the question, or worse, assume the proposition false, and refuse further consideration. There is no question more important.
So then, we have a choice. What do we choose to believe? Do we choose to believe that life is random, that the only purpose in life is what we make of it? Or do we choose to have hope that a loving God gave us life, that we have been sent to this world for a purpose, known to Him, and that He can guide us through to find peace and joy amid this otherwise chaotic world? I chose the latter long ago.
Something interesting happens when you choose to believe — you find reasons to believe. Some would dismiss this as confirmation bias. Undoubtedly, much of it is that, maybe even most — at first. However, as you learn about Jesus, you will discover that He is goodness incarnate. Philosophers may argue semantics and methods and perspectives all they like, but when you see the life Jesus lived, you will understand what goodness is. I want to be like that. There is no bias there.
I am trying to follow Jesus. It’s very hard; I fail frequently. I need to read the scriptures — particularly the New Testament and the “newer” testament, the Book of Mormon — daily. They remind me of the things I need to do to follow Him. I need to pray daily, as it gives me an opportunity to assess myself and consider who I want to be.
I also need to go to church every week. I need the support system of others who are doing their best to follow Jesus. I need the opportunities to serve them that arise through that community. I also need an outside, friendly perspective, on occasion, to break me out of the ruts I so easily sink into. They need me, too.
Through my experiences with these things: studying the life of Jesus and the Scriptures, prayer, service to others, and church attendance I have learned and grown as a follower of Jesus. I no longer hope that God exists. I know that God exists. I know Jesus.
While not a repeatable experiment in the traditional scientific sense, my experiences have been repeatable to me, and are evidence enough to me. I know many others who have gotten the similar evidence. I do not know why some people don’t seem to find the evidence convincing. Maybe they are doing the experiment wrong. I can only speak to my experiences, and God has proven His existence to me.
Jesus lives. I know this not because of a single spiritual experience. I know this because He is part of my life every day. He lives in my life. He lives in the lives of so many other good Christians out there. I know this. I also know this is not the literal life that we usually talk about when we say someone lives, but there is an undeniable power in the life of Jesus that exists in my life, and connects me with my family, friends and community.
I also know that Jesus really lives — that He is God, and hears my silent prayers. Yes, this brings me back to that un-provable question. However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided additional doctrine to that found in the Bible. Through the combined doctrine, I have been able to construct a viable and consistent mental model of reality that both matches reality as understood by modern scientists and which allows for miracles to be real. This may not sound like a big deal, but for me, it is.
Reality is what is. If my religion could not be consistent with it, I might be a member, but not a follower. There is a powerful motivation that comes from having a consistent perspective on reality, life and who I am in relation to God, and it helps me maintain both my sanity and my efforts to follow Jesus.
This modern world is hostile to religion in many ways. To disregard God and religion because they are misunderstood and misused by many is unwise. To assume that all those who “cling” to religion are doing so blindly is plain wrong. My faith is what it is because I see. I understand what goodness is. I understand my own failings. That knowledge is because of religion, not despite it.
I am grateful for the path of my life that has lead me to where I am today. I am fully aware of how fortunate I am to have had the privilege and opportunity to learn of Jesus and follow Him. I don’t expect I would have come to this religion if I had not grown up in it. There is too much of it to understand before it makes sense in the way that I have needed it to make sense. At this point, to me, it is my reality. To abandon it would be to abandon everything that I am.
Through believing in God, I have found peace. Through following Jesus I have found joy. Through membership in the Mormon church I have found hope. These things are real. They are not delusions or bias. They are the natural consequences of the laws of the universe, and of the laws of God. They are available to everyone, but they are not free. They require that we choose them and work toward them.
My hope is that by sharing this perspective, I might open some few hearts and minds that are currently shut to faith. Please see that there is value in faith. Please understand that un-belief is a choice, and so is hope. I chose hope. I hope you will too.
So, an interesting thing you might not know about me: this past year I taught the primary class at church for the kids who turned 9 in 2017. Sunday is my last lesson with this class. This year we were assigned to teach church history. So, I want to ask them what they’ve learned this year. I also plan to tell them a little about what I learned.
I have been changed by what I learned this year. Not by the facts – those were all at least vaguely familiar. No, it is the recurring theme of sacrifice that changed me. As we talked about the sacrifices made by the early members of the church, and how the history of the church is really a story of sacrifice upon sacrifice. Whether it was to leave home to gather with the saints, laboring on the temples when people did not even have their own homes built, leaving wives and children to preach the Gospel in far-off places, crossing the plains on foot, or even giving their lives rather than betray their beliefs, sacrifice was very much a part of what it meant to be a member of the church.
I think that in many ways, we’ve lost sight of the role of sacrifice in our worship today. It was because of the sacrifice of those members that they witnessed the miracles they did. Sacrifice has the power to build us spiritually in a way that cannot be replaced. Many modern Mormons look back on those pioneers with gratitude that we are not asked to do anything quite so physically difficult. I think that sentiment misses the mark.
We live (speaking of the average American) in a world in which there is almost no need to sacrifice anything of consequence, ever. As members of the church, a little more is asked of us – tithing, fast offerings, serving in church callings, etc. Rarely, however, do these “demands” interfere significantly with everyday life. Some might think of it as heaven. I have begun to see it as a missed opportunity.
We have been blessed in abundance. The challenge set before us as members is, can we voluntarily sacrifice sufficiently to produce the faith and spiritual growth to match that of our pioneer forefathers? There is need all around us, if we open our eyes. If we stop judging others and causes to first determine their worthiness of our help, and just help all our brothers and sisters with the gifts we’ve been given, opportunities to sacrifice will be abundant.
It does not matter if our sacrifices make a material difference in others lives, though we hope we can make their lives better. No, the reason we serve is because that is the example the Savior gave us. There is no instance in scripture where Jesus was petitioned in vain. He did not always do as asked, but he always served.
My hope and prayer for the new year is to find more ways to sacrifice, and to help those around me to find joy in sacrifice and in the service of others.
Repentance has a bad reputation. For a long time, thinking of repentance brought up images of crazy people insisting the world was ending imminently, confessions of sins, guilt and other extremely negative ideas. Add on top of this that Christ explicitly tells his followers to call people to repentance as one of his final acts in the New Testament, and you get to add guilt for not telling people to repent to the list of negatives.
However, lately I’ve begun to think of repentance differently, all thanks to one simple idea. That idea was the realization that the importance of repentance comes not from the guilt nor even the forgiveness, but rather from it’s utility in promoting positive changes in our lives. This leads one to conclude that the main process for accomplishing repentance is to choose to make positive changes — to try to be a better person. When I changed my perspective in this way, the negativity associated with guilt was swept away, replaced by the recognition that we are always falling short of our divine potential, and can make incremental changes constantly in an effort to become better people. The awesome part about this is that whenever we are trying to do what we believe is right, and are trying to become better, His forgiveness makes it possible for us to push forward without the baggage of guilt for the past.
As I began thinking of repentance this way, I realized that although there may be occasions when a more formal confession-forgiveness type of repentance event is necessary, more often than not, what is required is an attitude of repentance — a penitent perspective. Again, though, it is important to slough the the negative connotations from those words and our attitudes. We might regret or be frustrated by our blunders and imperfections, but the key purpose of those emotions should be motivation to continue to try to be better.
The Atonement provided by our Savior makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect after repenting. That means if we are constantly repenting and trying to be more perfect, even while knowing that we will never be perfect through our own efforts, that brief periods of perfection can be attainable, as the history of our mistakes is washed clean through the grace of the Atonement. Perhaps rather than aiming to be perfect, we should aim to repent faster than we sin.
The peace available through the Gospel comes from knowing that we are reconciled to God and that all will be well in the end. Learning to live habitually repentant can help us have this peace more often, regardless of the chaos swirling around us.
Repent! It’s awesome!
(This is the 5th and final part of my series on the Plan of Salvation. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you may want to start with the overview.)
I ended part 4 with a discussion of the resurrection. In LDS theology the resurrected soul (spirit and body, united) is eternal. I once heard some of my Christian friends of other denominations say they believed we’d be resurrected and then at a later date, we’d ditch the bodies. This is certainly not the case with Mormon beliefs, and in fact, we believe the physical aspect of our eternal souls is central to our eternal purpose and happiness.
The Final Judgement
Once we are resurrected, before we attain our eternal reward, we need to go through the Final Judgement. There are a lot of different references to this judgement in the scriptures. Much of it is symbolism and abstract. What it boils down to is this:
- We will come before the Father
- We will remember with perfect clarity our entire lives
- Christ will stand with us and mediate for us
- There may or may not be actual records involved
- The proceedings will be public – at least to those interested
- We might know the outcome before it is told to us
- We will be admitted to one of several “Kingdoms of Glory”
Prior to the resurrection I do not believe we will have a perfect remembrance of our lives. I’m extrapolating a little from scripture on this point, but it makes sense to me that it is the process of being resurrected to immortality that perfects our minds and makes this recall possible. This is also important for the Judgement, as we will be just as interested in finding a place where we are happy as we will be in “passing” the test of the Judgement. Yes, that is doctrine. The point of the Judgement is not to punish, but to reward, and more specifically, to reward us with as much happiness and glory as we are able to bear.
When we come before the Father for the Judgement, we will be basking in His full glory. We will understand His greatness and our relative childishness. We will similarly be in the full glory of Jesus Christ, the Son. Part of the essence of that glory is love for each of us. We will feel that love and desire to be with them, but will also have a full understanding of all of our sins, guilt, unworthiness, personality flaws, etc. To be with them will require us to become like them. The Judgement will help us determine whether or not we are ready to make that commitment. It will be an eternal commitment.
With the Father and Son, we will review our lives, the choices we made and the people we have become. All of our thoughts, words and deeds will be on the table, but most important will be the cumulative result that is the person we have become. If we have repented of our sins, and have accepted and upheld the covenants and ordinances required for taking advantage of Christ’s atonement, our sins will be wiped away and removed entirely from the process. This is key. It is only through the application of the atonement that we will be free from sin and pure and therefore able to bear the presence and glory of the Father.
I suspect we will also be given an understanding of the true impact of many of our choices. We will be shown how our acts of kindness and sacrifice brought others joy and helped them become better people. For those who have not repented, they will also understand how their selfishness and neglect hurt others. This, to my understanding is a key difference between “heaven” and “hell.”
The Kingdoms of Glory
The results of the Judgement will be obvious to each individual as they are judged, nearly immediately, I expect. There are essentially three “Kingdoms of Glory” where nearly all people will end up. From least to greatest, we have the Telestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Celestial Kingdom. They are each presided over by a different member of the Godhead, the Father presides in the Celestial, the Son in the Terrestrial and the Holy Spirit in the Telestial. We will be allowed to enter the highest level of glory we can tolerate. To be in the glory of the Father while still remaining unrepented of our sins will be unbearable.
There is also “Outer Darkness” where only those few who have had a perfect knowledge given to them through the Holy Spirit, and who have then chosen to reject God’s teachings. Precious few have received such knowledge, and even fewer have chosen to reject God after receiving it. Cain is one identified specifically in this category. Judas Iscariot may be another, though I have heard some suggest that he had not been given a perfect knowledge. So, you really don’t have to worry about this one.
Entry into the Celestial Kingdom requires absolute purity, and the glory thereof is likened unto the brightness of the sun. The only way to achieve this purity is through the Atonement of Christ. He graciously atoned for all who died before becoming mentally accountable. Usually, children reach accountability at the age of 8. All children who die before that get a free pass. Anyone else who desires to accept the offered Atonement, must have both received baptism through the proper authority, and must have lived up to the covenants made at baptism. (Remember that this baptism can be accepted posthumously, prior to the final Judgement, as described in part IV of this series.)
The Terrestrial Kingdom will be where good people who have refused baptism and the associated covenants will go. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the moon. It’s not clear to me exactly how knowledgeable you have to be to become ineligible for vicarious baptism, but I suspect there will be many stubborn and proud people here who were either deceived by Satan’s lies or who simply did not want to be responsible for upholding the covenants. Regardless of that decision, only people who are basically good go to this kingdom. I suspect if the amount of good you have done outweighs the bad, you’ll end up here.
The Telestial Kingdom is “hell” from the perspective of those who end up here. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the stars. It’s populated with all the bad people – murderers, child abusers, rapists, antichrists, etc. There might also be some not-that-bad people here, such as adulterers, corrupt leaders, and possibly those who accepted covenants in this life, but did not live up to them. Remember, again that the Judgement is based partly on your knowledge of what is right, so those who could have done a lot of good but chose not to will be accountable for the lack of good that they might have done.
The weird thing about Mormons, though, is that we believe that ALL of these “Kingdoms of Glory” are better than this world. Essentially, everyone is rewarded with a heaven that is as good as it can possibly be with them in it. That is not to say that there are no differences between them, nor that there will not be pain and suffering for sins. Our eternal progress does not end after the Judgement. Those who were admitted to the Celestial Kingdom continue their progress to become like God the Father. Those in the lower kingdoms must suffer for their own sins if they decide they want to work their way up.
So, “why would you want to get into the Celestial Kingdom, anyway?,” you might ask. Well, there are certain benefits (power and/or knowledge?) granted to those who attain the highest kingdom. For instance, those in the lower kingdoms will be separated from Father (and Mother – this needs another post). Not only from Father, but from others in the Celestial Kingdom. Friends and family may visit individuals in lower kingdoms, but not vice versa. The sealing power, which we believe allows married couples to be bound together and to their children for all eternity cannot be fully in-force except in the Celestial Kingdom.
But the greatest reward offered in the Celestial Kingdom is Exaltation. A man and woman who have been sealed together for time and all eternity, who have lived up to their covenants and gain entrance to the Celestial Kingdom will continue their eternal progression until they eventually become like the Father. They will be able to have spirit children, and can create worlds for those children to live on as we live on Earth now. Those exalted couples will become a new generation of gods.
Some would call this blasphemous. Others might call it pretentious. To me, it just makes sense. Of all the titles God could ask us to use when we address Him, why would He want to be called “Father” unless it was true? In nature, all creatures have the potential to become like their parents. If you believe in any form of the Creation, you might think there would be some symbolism there, if not a natural law. That is the great purpose of our life here on Earth. It is one required step in our life-cycle as children of God. We have the potential to become like God, but can only achieve that end by learning to become godly.
My wife, who is not a Mormon, sometimes thinks I’m crazy when I talk about this stuff. I understand that thinking. It’s similar to my thoughts on M-string theory and the Multiverse. There are just so many possible ways it could be absolutely wrong, though it may be right, how can we possibly judge? The answer is similar, too. We can trust people who know more about it than we do, and we can find out if it answers any big questions.
The Plan of Salvation elegantly answers some of the most difficult questions posed to Christianity.
- If God is so good, why do bad things happen to good people? God will not interfere with our agency, and we are here to learn to be good and faithful in the face of evil. All will be made right in the end. All evil will be paid for, and all good will be rewarded.
- If God is so merciful, why would He require rites like baptism that essentially exclude the vast majority of humanity from the possibility of salvation? That is what vicarious works are for, and why those who are not accountable are saved automatically.
- Why are we here on this world which is so full of evil anyway? We needed to gain physical bodies and the experience of living away from Father to become like him and learn to use our agency.
Additionally, the Plan is consistent with scripture; it is logically sound; it makes sense. The revelation of the Kingdoms of Glory to Joseph Smith tied together disparate, vague doctrines given elsewhere in scripture into a cohesive whole. This is beautiful and wonderful to me. It exemplifies God’s love for us and gives us hope in things to come. I can think of no other heaven better than one in which I can be with my family and loved ones forever.
Holy Week is a time to reflect on the life and mission of Jesus the Christ, shared by all who call themselves Christian. This week celebrates the pinnacle achievement of His time on Earth and the purpose of His condescension. Many might think it was His resurrection that was most important, but according to LDS theology, His resurrection was only the last step of His much greater work, the Atonement.
The Atonement encompasses everything our Savior did as part of the miracle that allows us to be forgiven of our sins, reconciled to God and gain immortality, Eternal Life and Exaltation. It was an excruciating trial for Jesus that would have killed any ordinary mortal, even before the Crucifixion. It was His capacity as the Son of God that allowed Him to endure the burden He took upon Himself as the Son of Man; His dual parentage was critical. As the two-part nature of the Last Supper foreshadowed, and the Sacrament (Communion) reminds us, the Atonement itself had two parts — the physical resurrection of the body and the redemption of the spirit.
Key to understanding the LDS perspective on the Atonement is a general understanding of the “Plan of Salvation,” which I have explained in a separate series of posts. The salient point being that God’s purpose in sending us to this Earth was to provide us the experiences that would allow us to return to His presence and eventually to become like Him. We cannot endure the presence of the Father unless we are completely without sin. As all have sinned, we all have need of a savior, to redeem us from our sins. We also believe that God has a perfect, immortal body. (D&C 130:22) So, we need to be resurrected to become like Him.
Although one could argue that Jesus’s whole life was part of the atoning process, as He experienced mortality in its fullness — the joys, the sorrows, the excitement, and the mundane — I consider this preparation. From my perspective the Atonement started in Gethsemane.
It is my understanding that most Christians consider Jesus’s plea to the Father to “take this cup from me” in Gethsemane is referring to the Crucifixion. The LDS reading of this plea is more immediate and is in reference to the unrecorded prayer He gave immediately thereafter before he was betrayed by Judas.
Were it not for Luke 22:44 in which He sweat blood, that prayer given in Gethsemane would be completely unremarkable going solely from New Testament writings. LDS doctrine states that it is through that prayer in Gethsemane that He literally took upon Himself the “pains of all men … both men, women, and children” (2 Ne. 9:21) and bore the consequences of sin for all. There have been documented cases of people sweating a few drops of blood from the forehead when under extreme physical and mental stress. We understand it to be the same principle, magnified, that caused Him in Gethsemane to bleed from every pore. (D&C 19:16-19)
For many Mormons, the prayer given in Gethsemane during which He shed blood is considered The Atonement, and everything after is epilogue. However, I believe the Atonement only started there and only ended with His crucifixion.
It is at this point that I need to reference the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifices, and the doctrine behind them. Generally speaking, the purpose of Sacrifice prior to Christ was to serve as a symbol of what the Messiah would do for the people. The animal would bear the people’s sins and be killed to reconcile them to God. It is because of the directions and tradition surrounding these sacrifices, that I believe that Jesus continued to bear the burden of our sins through his final hours. In this way he would have experienced living with guilt, proxy guilt though it was. If that is truly the case, He was probably also deeply ashamed.
I do not suggest this with any intent to demean. On the contrary, this makes His sacrifice so much more amazing to me. We believe that in the Atonement, Christ descended below all, in part that He might know how to “succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12) For Him to have experienced those emotions with which we are so familiar, yet were probably previously unfamiliar to Him while going through the interrogations and torture of the next day fills me with awe. To even consider that the Savior may have felt that He deserved that punishment while knowing He did not is heart-wrenching.
I take little solace in the thought that with all of this going on inside Him, the pain of the physical trials which He bore leading up to and including the Crucifixion must have been overshadowed and dulled by the emotional and mental anguish He carried. Is it any wonder He stumbled and could not carry His own cross (perhaps also partly because of exhaustion from the loss of blood)? While the men He was crucified between likely fought and struggled as they were nailed to their crosses, Jesus, king of the Jews, was likely limp, with little more than a twitch and a moan.
Did He also more fully and explicitly understand the hearts of those around him during that process? He said of the guards, “they know not what they do,” and to one of his fellow prisoners, “today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23) So, perhaps the experience also gave Him more knowledge and understanding, as well as the obvious sympathy.
Finally, as He concluded the Atonement by dying on the cross, LDS doctrine is that He chose death, when, as the Son of God, He could have chosen to step down off the cross and live. However, His role in the Plan of Salvation was to die in order to redeem us all. He followed the will of the Father, and allowed His death to seem normal, as His purpose was not to prove His godliness at that time, nor to that audience.
Before Jesus “gave up the ghost”, He said something very important to understanding the Atonement. “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Because He carried the sins of the world, He was separated from the Father just as all of us who sin are. The Father could not be with His Son during Jesus’s time of greatest suffering, as much as they both wanted to be together. Similarly, both Jesus and the Father want us to return to their presence. That is why Christ suffered.
Through the Atonement, Jesus the Christ became our Savior, Redeemer and Mediator with the Father. He became the Way by which we can receive both forgiveness of our sins and relief from the trials and burdens in this life. By accepting the covenant He offers, we receive these benefits in exchange for our efforts to be better people and to help those around us. But that is not all.
On the third day, Jesus was resurrected. He was the Son of God. He alone had the power to take up His body, glorify it, and become immortal. By doing so, He unlocked the gates of death, and allowed those saints who had died before to be likewise resurrected and proceed with their eternal progression. (Matthew 27:52-53) Eventually, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected to a perfect, immortal and glorified body.
I understand that many people think this either far-fetched or delusional. The only evidence we have for resurrection is based in scriptures. This interpretation is consistent with all the scriptures I am aware of, and is beautiful to me. For the Atonement, though, my evidence is first hand.
I have felt my guilt swept away through repentance. I have felt my burdens become so light that I have laughed with joy. I enjoy peace amid turmoil around me. All of this because of the Atonement. I know of my Savior’s love for me because I have felt it. I have received the Comforter and the blessings associated with that Holy Spirit. I believe in miracles because I have experienced the miracle of the Atonement.
Because I can think of no better way to end this, I will end with the words of the hymn, I Stand All Amazed.
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.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That he should extend his great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
The word “discipline” has many slightly different meanings, but they all stem from the same concept – that of learning to follow a prescribed path or set of rules. It can refer to the punishment delivered for not following the rules, or the mastery of a field of study, but ultimately the core of the definition, and what I am interested in here, is the building of self-control in order to make ones actions consistent with ones values.
This kind of discipline is central to the purpose of religion, in general. In fact, I would argue that discipline is a defining characteristic of religions, in that the degree to which they embrace or eschew discipline and the object of the discipline provides substantial insight into the nature of nearly any religion. This is certainly true for the LDS Church.
The LDS Church embraces a high ideal when it comes to discipline. There are several scriptures that set this ideal. First, there is the command to be perfect, as stated in Matt. 5:48 and reiterated in 3 Nephi 12:48. On top of that, we believe that we will be judged by our thoughts, words and deeds. (Mosiah 4:30) So, not only should our behavior be perfect, but also our speech and even our thoughts!
Obviously, that’s not technically possible — at least not for an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even a perfect day is far fetched. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that standard. It means that we will always be able to be a little better, constantly improving ourselves. He wants us to be perfect. More importantly, God promises to help us achieve the things he commands us. (See 1 Cor 10:13 and 1 Nephi 3:7) In this pursuit, of utmost importance is the Atonement that makes up for all of the mistakes along the way, and makes true progress possible. Close behind in importance is the guidance, structure and assistance He provides for us to gain that discipline of body and mind.
That’s what perfection is: discipline. It is being entirely consistent with a perfect model: God and Christ.
When we desire to gain discipline in anything, we start by first learning the rules, often selecting a model or teacher to guide your progress. When it comes to Christianity, the model is obvious, but unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to directly observe Christ. So, we must resort to the scriptures and other religious teachers. As most religious teachers gained their knowledge the same way, the words of Christ and his prophets in the scriptures are the best way to learn His will for us. And so, from an early age, young members of the LDS Church are encouraged to read the scriptures daily.
Of course, discipline can’t be said truly to begin until you do something with what you’ve learned. We start out following the rules because they are the rules, in other words, through obedience. We try to follow the rules we’re given and the examples of our models and teachers (remember, I’m talking about those who desire to learn discipline).
As we make a regular practice of following rules, we often gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the rules. We also start to form habits. From an outside perspective, this may achieve a primary goal of the discipline, but there is a danger in stopping here.
Ultimately if we wish to master a disipline, we need to fully understand the reasons for the rules, so that we can extrapolate necessary or desired behavior in situations where the rules may be ambiguous or insufficient. In order to make this extrapolation a clear understanding of both the model and the rules is necessary. With this understanding, we are able to act in a way that effectively aligns us with the model, but where our adherence to the rules happens not because they are rules but because we understand how they help us to obtain the perfection we desire.
As human beings, our capacity for error is literally infinite. We cannot say that even mastery is the end of the road in terms of progression. We must continue to do one thing that we need to do throughout this process — constantly guard against and correct deviations from the model as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. We must both accept correction, and self-correct every step of the way.
When we apply this processes to attain a certain level of discipline within a religion we call it discipleship. Religions generally aim to make all of their followers disciples. This is certainly true in the LDS Church. Many of the teachings and practices recommended by the Church serve to foster such discipline. The teachings are certainly not unique to the LDS Church, and using them in any religion or even outside any religion at all, will also result in increased discipline.
The first is daily prayer. We are encouraged from a young age to pray over all parts of our lives. In the morning, at night, at meals, before and after meetings, even before and after sporting or cultural events. In fact, we are encouraged to pray always. One benefit of prayer, is that it serves to re-focus us on what is important, and provides a time for us to examine our lives and identify where we need to make corrections.
We are also encouraged to study the scriptures daily. We must know Christ in order to use him as our model, and there is no better way to know him than through scripture study and prayer.
Every week at church, we take the sacrament. For us, this is a time to renew our covenants (entered at baptism) to try to live as He taught and to take His name upon us – to be true Christians. We need these weekly opportunities to re-commit ourselves, to move past last weeks failings and focus on the good we can do in the coming week.
The Church has also designated the first Sunday of every month (though it is moved on occasion) as “Fast Sunday,” and encourages us to fast for 24 hours (or as much as we are able), and to give the money we would have spent to the fund the Church uses to provide food, clothing, housing and other critical assistance to members of the Church (and community, at times) in need. Fasting itself is one of the best ways to learn discipline. Through it, we learn that our spirits/minds can be more powerful than our bodies. That is the key to true discipline. If we allow our human impulses and urges to govern our behavior, or worse, believe that we have no power to control those impulses, discipline will always be beyond our grasp.
These tools are the basics for putting us on a path to discipline and discipleship. They allow us to tackle the more advanced, abstract concepts of self-control, integrity and sacrifice — all of which are ways in which we practice discipline.
We know we will always be imperfect. The great thing about discipline is that you CAN be perfect for short periods of time in some things. We are not required to be perfect to attain salvation. We are required to work on becoming more perfect. We call it “eternal progression.” When we are making progress, we are on the path. When we are helping others, we are on the path. When we are learning, we are on the path. If we get off the path, Christ is always there to help us back onto the path.
Discipline is an interesting thing. No matter how disciplined or skilled we are in a discipline, maintaining that level of discipline is a daily effort. Daily effort + daily discipline + eternal progression = perfection.
(This is part 4 of my series on the Plan of Salvation. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you may want to start with the overview.)
I suspect one of the reasons religion has maintained a powerful influence on humankind over the past several millenia is that it usually comes with some answer to the question, “what happens when we die?” This age-old question is always there, nagging. As human beings, we like being prepared. Not knowing what will happen makes that preparation extremely difficult. In many ways, the lack of a sufficient answer is a driver of civilization – motivating activities from the planting of crops to the purchase of insurance. There is nothing that is both so universally influential and poorly understood as our passing from this life.
The answer to this question, according to most religions, is some kind of existence after death. Many non-religous people would claim this is wishful thinking. Some people have claimed “near-death” experiences. At least one scientist has tried to detect spirits leaving the dying. Ultimately, there is little convincing proof of what happens, leading most to act according to their hopes and fears of what might be. Many a philanthropist, for instance, has been motivated by a fear that only the influence they have on others will last beyond death. Specific beliefs about the afterlife are rare.
In contrast, LDS doctrine surrounding our continued existence after death is quite specific on many points. Not only do we believe that our spirits continue to exist, but we have some very specific beliefs about the nature of “heaven” and “hell” as well as the overarching trajectory and substance of how we continue to exist.
Within the context of the Plan of Salvation, death is merely a transition from one part of our existence to another. Our spirits, which are eternal, depart from our bodies at death. Our consciousness, our individual personalities and psyches are contained within our spirit. So, in essence, we are the same people after death as we are in life, only without a body. We will retain our identities, our knowledge, our preferences, and even our senses of humor.
As spirits are made up of matter, we also continue to have a form and location. Immediately after death, we return to the spirit world which we left to come to this mortal life. There we will be met by our loved ones who have passed before us, and more importantly, by our Savior. This initial meeting is a homecoming — a loving welcome.
After this there is a period of waiting. That is to say that this is not our end state. While we are waiting, we’ll have time to contemplate the lives we lived and interact with some of those we may have affected with our choices in life, for good or ill. Some might consider this period heaven, and others might consider it hell. In LDS terminology, this is Paradise and Spirit Prison.
Those who have an understanding of the Gospel will use this time to teach those who do not, in order to prepare them for what is to come. This effort is led and organized by Christ, himself. All who have died without the opportunity to learn of the Gospel will have a chance to hear it and accept the covenants and redemption it provides at that point. For those who choose this path, baptism is still a requirement. Because this is a physical ordinance requiring a body, living members of the LDS Church perform proxy baptisms for the dead.
Some might wonder why, if one could accept Jesus after we die, someone wouldn’t just opt to live their life as they please and repent in the afterlife. There are several ways to answer that question. In my mind, the most compelling reason is that the end goal isn’t simple salvation, but rather becoming like God. This requires dramatic improvement from our current state. Every choice that we make, either in this life or the next, either brings us closer to God or further from Him and shapes our personality accordingly. The farther we are from God, the harder it will be to return to Him when we decide to make that change. Those who delay their repentance hurt themselves more than anyone else.
The next event is resurrection. Every person who has ever lived will eventually be resurrected. According to LDS doctrine, this means that the spirit will be rejoined to a physical body. Only this time, it will be a perfect, immortal body — we will appear similar to the way we looked in our mortal prime. “Every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” (Alma 40:23)
Although all will be resurrected, it will happen at different times for different people. Those who were righteous in this life will be resurrected as part of the “first” resurrection. This began with the Resurrection of Christ, after which “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.” (Matt. 27:52) Righteous people who died before Jesus were resurrected at that time. The next wave of this first resurrection will occur at Christ’s Second Coming, and will continue through His millennial reign. The “second” resurrection will happen at the end of that reign, and all remaining people will be resurrected at that time.
After we are resurrected, the next step in the Plan is the Final Judgement. I will leave this, and a discussion of the results of that judgement for a separate final post.
I feel it’s important to point out here that while I believe all of this partly because it is what is taught by the Church, I would not likely believe such detail if it weren’t all consistent with what the scriptures teach about the character of God and with the direct teachings related to the afterlife. I choose to believe in this because it makes sense with the other religious truths I embrace. It shows the love of God for us and His desire for all of His children who will to return to Him. There may be little to no support from the body of scientific truth to support this belief, but ultimately that doesn’t matter, as there’s little that science could add one way or the other. I choose to have hope in this outcome. I hope some of you also find it comforting to imagine that it could be this way.
By Lisa Hains Barker, PhD
My sister wrote this essay a few years ago, and shared it with me. A conversation brought it to mind recently, and I asked if she would permit me to post it here, which she did. Lisa is a practicing neuropsychologist, who specializes in helping people recover from brain trauma.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
I love the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9), because of its wonderful insights into the Savior’s perfect ability to love and heal us. John wrote, “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind” (John 9:32). John was trying to call our attention to the distinctiveness of this particular miracle. While wondering about why this event was different from Jesus’ other healings, I realized the reason stemmed from basic principles of neuroanatomy and brain function. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our brain. Our eyes are sensory organs that take in variations in light, and details from the world around us, then transform that information into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent to some very specific areas in the back of the brain (the visual cortex & surrounding areas) that allow us to see and make sense of what we are seeing. While our eyes and the visual cortex of the brain are formed from birth for the very particular task of seeing, our vision and understanding of what we see develop as we interact with our environment. Vision is acquired in much the same way language is, in infancy and early childhood. For example, a young child learns names for visual details like colors and shapes, and eventually that a red, round shaped object might be an apple, or a pomegranate, or even a ball. But if a person is blind from birth, those parts of the brain which are supposed to do the work of “seeing” don’t develop in the same way, and can be encroached upon by other, working senses.
Applying this modern understanding of neuroanatomy, we can appreciate the complexity of Jesus’ miracle. It is more than just the man’s eyes that needed healing. If the Savior had only healed his eyes, the man would likely have been confused by the images he was “seeing” because his visual cortex wouldn’t have developed normally. He would have no frame of reference to understand depth or color or other visual details. In fact, there are modern examples of this very problem. But that is not what happened. The Savior anointed his eyes with clay and told him to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” We are then told that the man went and washed “and came seeing” (John 9:7). The Savior did more than heal his eyes, he healed his brain. He made up for a lifetime’s lack of visual input – almost instantaneously. He restored, or completely repaired the man’s whole visual system.
Isn’t that a profound foreshadowing of later events? That through his atonement, Jesus can completely make up for our lifetimes of weakness and sin; and through his death and resurrection, he will restore our living physical bodies. He can and will make us whole again.
And yet another sweet bit of familiarity comes from this story… when the man was later asked by the Pharisees, repeatedly, about how this miracle could have occurred, the man defended Jesus and defended his works; “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes…If this man were not of God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33). His genuine testimony resulted in him being cast out. But John was able to capture his words, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”