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Monday, July 31, 2017

The God That Doesn't Change

I wasn't sure how to begin this at first. I know what I'm going to talk about is sensitive subject matter, but it needs to be addressed. It's about the way people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints respond to something new, like something said in a conference talk or a new church policy.

Before I really get into it, please understand that nothing I say about this is under the assumption that those who have become inactive or who have left the church all together are any less loved by God or that their moral values are all of the sudden automatically somehow flawed. I understand that there are many different histories and unique circumstances behind each individual who decides to disassociate themselves from the church in any degree. There is at least one person I my own family who currently (July 2017) falls in this category (which can and hopefully will change) and they are one of the hardest working, caring, family oriented people I know.

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So, here we go. I remember when I served my two year mission for the Lord after each amazing experience. The boost I felt for my faith left me thinking "I am seriously never going less active or leaving this church. If this amazing faith boost and love I feel is just a taste of what God has in store in the eternities, there is no way I'll ever let anything drive me away from this. I'm never going to slacken in my prayers, scripture studies and missionary efforts. I'm only going to become more active for the rest of my life."  Thankfully, I married a woman who's faith is much stronger than mine and therefore we've been able to take turns strengthening each other when one of us has a questions. I've been able to stay true to my intentions from my mission. I have seen those, however who have made themselves and the Lord the same promises and then find themselves going a completely different direction when their faith is severely challenged.

For the record, I of all people am certainly no stranger to severe tests of faith, from circumstances in my personal life caused by me and by outside sources or something a church member or leader has said or done, among other things.  I have faced tests of my faith that left me questioning what, to me, seemed like a fundamental part of my faith. Perseverance, study, prayers, doing things that invited the Spirit and trying to stay humble pulled me through them all. Answers and clarity came in every struggle when I least expected them but in a way that left me thinking, "Well that just... makes total sense. I never thought of it like that before." I'd feel the Spirit confirm the answer and I'd know it was for sure the Spirit and not just my feeling because a) it would explain to me why the thinking that caused my doubt was flawed or lacking context and b) it totally matched the perspective of God's prophets AND the teachings of the Savior.

This is where I touch on the one thing I can't help but wonder if people might forget most frequently when they are certain that the answer they've received from the Holy Ghost is to leave the church (whether in activity or on paper as well). That one thing is that answers from God through the Holy Ghost don't contradict God's prophets.  As Preach My Gospel points out, "truth is a knowledge of things as they really are, were and will be.  It does not change with conditions or time. Truth is the same in every age and culture."

Each and every Latter-day Saint hopefully comes to the point where they first received a testimony from the Holy Ghost that the LDS church is Christ's church and contains His gospel and His authority.  That truth does not change.  Some things that we may hear from General Authorities years after our conversion may sound strange of inconsistent to us, but that's exactly the key.  It sounds that way to us, but that does not mean that what we are hearing from them is the problem.  The problem is us.

Not all who distance or completely separate themselves from the church fall into either of the following categories, but I have found that most people I have observed who have done this do so for one of two reasons.  The first one is when policies or statements are made by the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that the individual believes are inconsistent with the teachings and character of Jesus Christ Himself.  The other is when the individual comes to believe that certain standards of living, i.e. commandments, within the church are too high or just unnecessary.

In both instances, the concept that the truthfulness of God's church cannot change, even if it contradicts our understanding of the gospel, can serve as a compensatory answer or solution to those two areas of concern.

Here's how.

1. When it comes to policies and statements made by the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a few things about truth's unchanging nature can eliminate concerns for the appearance of contradictions.  One can be found in the way the Lord engineered the restoration of the gospel in the first place.

I cannot, for the life of me, seem to find the original source of this, but I read once about an allegory that explains why the Lord waited more than 1000 years to restore the gospel in it's fullness.  It describes in great detail the preparations mankind went through, in the long, dark night of the loss of the purity and fullness of the gospel, renaissance and reformation, the discovery and colonization of America and finally the establishment of religious freedom in America leading up to Joseph Smith's prophetic mission.  It then compares all that to the process of a plane landing.  Everything has to be just right.  Communication with the ground, air speed, altitude, proper balance of throttle and steering, etc. is all absolutely essential to have in check.  You can't just press on a brake pedal and have everything come safely to a stop with an airplane.  Relating this to the restoration of the gospel, can you imagine what would have happened if the doctrine against infant baptism would have been revealed and preached when the principle of being "born in sin" was accepted by Christianity as a whole in the first few hundred years A.D.?  It likely would have been condemned as vehemently as the Godhead being three separate persons just before the year 400, and if someone had claimed that God had commanded mankind to stop drinking coffee and tea in the 17th or 18th centuries, they would have been made the laughing stock of all civilized nations.  If the revocation of the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood had happened just prior to the civil rights movement, it likely would have not been received nearly as well as it was roughly 20 years later.

The Lord needed "land the plane" safely, causing cultural changes one little painstaking, tedious detail at a time to make sure the minds of mankind were being sufficiently prepared for the "plane" to land - i.e. the gospel to be restored - without the "aircraft" meeting proverbial bombs, destroying it upon landing.  Each of those changes had to be in presented with special consideration of the cultural "temperature" of each time period and in a way that He knew would be received at least well enough that it could eventually spread throughout the world and stay alive permanently.

So why do I mention this?  Because He has directed prophets to implement the truth and guide His church through changes that make us more perfect as quickly as He dares without overwhelming the world and especially members of His church (i.e. crashing the plane).

The second way that truth's unchanging nature can eliminate concerns for the appearance of contradictions is by reminding us of the following.  Does truth change?  No.  Mankind changes, but certainly not God and not truth.  Whether it be blacks receiving the priesthood, restrictions on baptism of children with homosexual "parents" or anything else that has caused no minor stir in society, each of these changes was not implemented because God was changing or because His prophets were misguided at some point before those changes or when they were made.  It did not signify a change of gospel principles.  It happened because the Lord's timing is perfect.  He knows when to inspire the next big change the world needs, even it many people don't understand it.  He knows how to land the plane.  Let Him.  Don't jump out.  There's no need to be scared of all that.  He has promised us that He would never let His prophets lead us astray and that the fullness of the gospel would never be taken again from the earth, never become tainted again.  Like I said earlier, I have faced tests of my faith that left me questioning what, to me, seemed like a fundamental part of my faith.  But I always came to understand that it was not prophet's mortal weakness that was the problem, it was my flawed perspective and failure to remember (or even to trust) that God will not allow His prophets to lead us astray.

2. In the context of people who believe gospel standards are too demanding, or have exceptions that make it okay for them to disobey commandments, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote from Elder Christofferson, "A God who makes no demands is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist. A world without God, the living God who establishes moral laws to govern and perfect His children, is also a world without ultimate truth or justice."

I am reminded of the story of the Bishop who had a woman in his office for a temple recommend interview.   When asked if she observed the Word of Wisdom, she said that she occasionally drank a cup of coffee.  She said, “Now, Bishop, you’re not going to let that keep me from going to the temple, are you?”  To which he replied, “Sister, surely you will not let a cup of coffee stand between you and the house of the Lord.”

To be perfectly honest, it should actually be a comfort to us that the Lord's standards are so high and will only get higher.  The proverbial guardrails that are the commandments of God are not, as Cecil B. Demille said so well, "a set of arbitrary, irritating, restrictive rules.  [God] made man free and then gave him the commandments to keep him free.  We cannot break ... Commandments.  We can only break ourselves against them or else, by keeping them, rise through them to the fullness of freedom under God."  Eventually it's the world is going to get so complicated and so adamantly opposed to anything that challenges moral relativism that those who refuse to live the gospel will end up in a hyper frenzy of confusion, pain and bondage to the impulses of the natural man and hung by the marionette strings of Satan himself.  Trust me, I know from experience.  They are a protection, not a problem.  You do not want to wait until the pain of the problem for disobedience becomes worse than the pain of the solution, repentance.  I've said this so many times I think it's becoming my own personal "mantra", but you shouldn't be asking "How good do I have to be?", but rather, "How good can I be?" or "How far away from the edge can I get?"  For more on this subject, read this.

Principles of the gospel do not change based on individual circumstances.  The way they are applied - different from when or whether they are applied, which should not be up for debate - may change depending on the person, but, as I cited earlier from Preach My Gospel, "[Truth] does not change with conditions or time. [It] is the same in every age and culture", and I'll add, for every person and circumstance.  Before marriage, the law of chastity is applied by abstaining from all sexual behavior, literature and media and from impure thoughts.  Within marriage, it is applied by keeping sexual behavior and intimate words and thoughts between husband and wife with unwavering loyalty.  The same idea goes for all gospel principles.  At first the Word of Wisdom means no consumption of coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol or harmful drugs.  As we come to understand it better, however, we realize that there is a lot more we need to be avoiding (and not avoiding) than just those things to truly be living in a way that matches the spiritual purpose for that particular commandment.

Eventually, all cultural, social or personal conduct that is not directly inspired of the Holy Ghost, no matter how good it is in the moment, will have to be discarded if we want to become what God intended us to be and to live eternally with our families in His presence.

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If you are someone who has decided to leave the church or become less active for any of the reasons above, my intent with this isn't to try to prove you wrong or prove myself right.  It is simply to pose ideas that you may have forgotten or in which you have lost confidence and testify to you that they are true.  Whatever you choose to do with my testimony is up to you.  I love you and I encourage you to consider that even though you have heard and been through things that you thought warranted being away from the gospel and/or the church or leaving it completely, I promise you that God's prophets are still leading His church in the right direction.  Not all of it will make sense to us right away.  Sometimes we'll hear or see things that seem to contradict our moral compass, but please know that it is always worth it to trust that God will not let His prophets lead us astray, that His truth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Sometimes it can seem like the road from questioning to doubt to disbelief to hurt to understanding to healing and back to faith is much longer than it should be, but at least one promise I know is safe to trust is the one in Preach My Gospel where it says "All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ."  And I promise you if you live it the way His prophets have counselled us to, if you continually work to align yourself and your life with their counsel, that promise will happen for you.  I guarantee it.

To those who are currently struggling with doubts but haven't made a definite decision on how to respond yet, please don't give up.  I can't go into tons of detail here, but if there's anyone who understand the frustration of not having prayers answered for years and struggling for a really long time with questions or hurt or doubt, it's me.  But I can also tell you that continuing the good fight and keeping your heart and life in alignment with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as much as you possibly can will win through.  I testify with all the energy of my heart and soul that it will.  If you need to talk about it and ask for perspective, feel free to click the link to my facebook page above and message me (in english, for those of you who read it other languages).  I love questions as long as they are in honest inquiry.

To all.  I testify that Jesus Christ still leads His church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I testify that following and sustaining the prophet will never lead you wrong.

God doesn't change.  A change in church policy or how the truth is implemented doesn't mean the truth has changed, that His church isn't true anymore or that His prophets are misleading us.  It means that we need to change.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Even All This Can Ye Do If Ye Will

So I kind of took a little bit of a hiatus from writing here because a) I realized that I was only writing my answers to the futurist for the sake of having something to write (not ideal) and b) I have been VERY busy with a few things that have taken up too much of my time to sit down and focus on posting something worth writing (not just for the sake of posting).

But I have found something in the Book of Mormon that got me thinking about the limits we impose on ourselves and what can truly have and do if we are simply willing to have/do it.

The verse is Alma 33:23.  It says this. "And now, my bretheren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith.  And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life.  And then, may God grant unto you that your burdens may be made light, through the joy of his Son.  And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen."

Almost the same thing is said in Alma 41:8. "Now the decrees of God are unalterable; therefore, the way is prepared that whosoever will may walk therein and be saved."

One more quote to lead into how I want to approach this idea.  It's by Cecil B. Demille. "We are too inclined to think of law as something merely restrictive... something hemming us in. We sometimes think of law as the opposite of liberty. But that is a false conception... God does not contradict himself. He did not create man and then, as an afterthought, impose upon him a set of arbitrary, irritating, restrictive rules. He made man free and then gave him the commandments to keep him free. We cannot break the Ten Commandments. We can only break ourselves against them or else, by keeping them, rise through them to the fullness of freedom under God."

This may come off as a little blunt to some, but the thought of "Oh that's just the way I am" is a cop-out.  Even from a non religious point of view, the concept of entropy in the second law of thermodynamics shows us that anything that is not in a constant state of change will eventually decrease in energy, become stagnant, useless and die.  In order for something to become something else, often something better, or at least constantly giving off energy or influencing something else in some way, change must be a constant.   This applies to people as well.

The beauty of that principle's application to us is that God has given us the ability to choose to change, to initiate the process on our own.  The irony of that gift, however, is that we may also use it to diminish the quality of the gift itself.  Yes, we actually have the ability to choose to render ourselves unable to choose as weird as that sounds.  Satan knows that and he exploits that truth at every chance he gets.  Just look at the porn addict, the alcoholic, the gamer who never sees daylight, the chain smoker, the drug dealer.  They have, as Cecil B. Demille said, 'broken [them]selves' against the commandments of God, against their own agency.

The great part about Alma 33:23 and Alma 41:8 is that they clearly show us that we have every ability to choose whatever we want.  And because of Jesus Christ, we can even choose to break out of addictions and things that limit our ability to choose.  We can do "all this... if [we] will".

I like how Elder Holland said it: “You can change anything you want to change and you can do it very fast. It is another Satanic falsehood to believe that it takes years and years and eons of eternity to repent. It takes exactly as long to repent as it takes you to say “I’ll change”―and mean it. Of course there will be problems to work out and restitutions to make. You may well spend―indeed, you had better spend―the rest of your life proving your repentance by its permanence. But change, growth, renewal, and repentance can come for you as instantaneously as it did for Alma and the sons of Mosiah.”

That's true!  Often it takes the course of action recommended by President Russell M. Nelson "reach[ing] up for the Lord’s power in your life with the same intensity that a drowning person has when grasping and gasping for air", but that actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. What happens when you hit a racquetball off a wall with very little force?  It drops to the floor, possibly bounces a few inches off the ground a few times and then just rolls away.  What happens when you hit it as hard as you possibly can?  It's going to respond by flying off the wall with a force proportional to how hard you hit it.  It's the same with this concept.  If you reach out for divine help as if you are drowning the heavens can respond with proportional timing and power.

It's also the same with the raw power of our own independent choices.  You can do almost anything you want to.  The only exception is in Alma 41:10, "...wickedness never was happiness." You cannot be truly happy in sin.

Do you want to have the constant urge to view pornography or do drugs or satisfy that constant superficial craving for whatever else just can't seem to get enough of?  You can do that.  Do you want to make your life the same every day and never change anything you do?  You can do that, too.  Do you want to constantly improve yourself and become the very best version of yourself?  You can do that as well.  The variable in the matter is your willingness.

I've seen a good number of piano students come to my home and insist that they want to become talented pianists, that they really want to push and work hard and master the instrument.  Only one has ever had the drive to prove it and they unfortunately had to move away.  I don't know if they found another teacher willing to push them like my wife and I are.  Every other student here has come up against some kind of barrier to which they responded something to the effect of, "Oh wait a minute! I didn't realize it would be that hard! Maybe I can't do this."  Usually I try to re-emphasize [paraphrasing], "I told you this would be hard, that piano is the most difficult instrument to master. I told you I would ask you to do things that I guarantee you didn't think you could do, that would push you to your limits and past them. But I also told you that you will be able to anyways if only you are willing to keep trying."  None of them believed me except that one student and she proved me right.

If you really want to do it, if you can truly say, like Elder Holland suggested, "I'll change", and mean it, then you can do it.  You just can.

I am reminded of Green Lantern.  I'm more of a Marvel fan than DC, but I still loved that movie.  For those who are not familiar with it, the Green Lantern Corps in DC comics is an army of intergalactic protectors who wield the green light of will power.  Their rings enable them to turn their very will into reality, using hard light constructs to create literally anything. The only limit to their power is the strength of their will and their imagination.  The same applies to us, conceptually.  The only limit to your changing for the better is your own will power.  Not even God or satan can stop you or force you to act against your own will.  Satan isn't allowed to and God won't.  In fact, if anything, God seeks to enhance your ability to choose, He just respects your desires enough to wait until you show Him you want Him to do so and following His commandments, as He has said, is the key to unlocking that.

Coming from me - especially having Aspergers, making me particularly prone to repetitive and addictive patterns - this is saying a lot.  It may even make me look like a walking contradiction to those who know me, but if there's anything I have faith in when it comes to change, it's that Jesus Christ is the key to it.  I have experienced that kind of change, perhaps on a smaller scale than I would like, but those changing experiences have had a powerful enough effect to motivate me to just keep trying. His atoning sacrifice was made so that we can keep our agency and escape the negative consequences of it if we will, because of Him.

One last point, from a slightly different angle to hopefully really make this hit home.  I have noticed an attitude that permeates our modern world that has merit in certain situations and from a certain perspective, but all in all, of itself is not healthy.  It is the attitude that it's okay that we're not perfect.  Now to anyone with a sound understanding of doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hold on a minute before you think "umm.. no way.. you've got it all wrong."  I am well aware that the purpose of life is to progress from one evil temptation to the next but getting better at rejecting them in favor of the Godly in life.  I am aware that our imperfection was an inevitable, unavoidable part of God's plan, so in one sense, because of Christ's atonement, it's okay for now that we are not perfect.  But what is the point of seeking everything Godly?  It's to make us perfect, eventually, right?  Yes, yes, I know, the key word there is eventually.

But think about this.  Would the Book of Mormon and God's prophets today tell us to not procrastinate the day of our repentance if there were not a point where "eventually" wasn't good enough anymore?  Because I promise you that day will come and I do not plan on being one of those who based their repentance on "eventually".  I have heard many people look at spiritual giants among us with awe, think "wow, how did they become so good?" and then have their minds blown when they find out that many of them had some pretty hefty bad things they overcame or even still needed to overcome in their life.  The response I usually have heard from those people is "really?  You?  You struggle/struggled with that??  Well if you struggled with it and you are as amazing as you are, then I definitely have a chance to be amazingly spiritual and good, too."  And that's a fantastic motivator.  I see nothing wrong with that kind of thinking if used to get from one level of faithful obedience to the next.  But there's a line that's too dangerous to get close to when going down that road.  What if I were to rephrase it like this: "It's so comforting that [so and so] has those weaknesses. Now I don't feel so bad."  Umm... wait a minute.  That directly contradicts what Elder Maxwell said: "The moment of gravest danger is when there is so little light that darkness seems normal!"

As good as it is to find motivation in seeing how even the greatest spiritual giants overcame some of the most heart wrenching difficulties, finding comfort in our own weaknesses because "oh well they struggled with it too so I don't have to worry so much" is, indeed "the moment of gravest danger."  Yes, they struggled with it, but what resulted from that struggle?  They overcame it!  They did not procrastinate.  They could do it because they will.  Honestly, it seems kind of stupid to say "it makes me feel better knowing that they have problems."  It's ridiculous and almost comical, really.  Don't find long lasting comfort in weakness, your own or someone else's.  Use it as a temporary motivator.  Become better not because someone else was imperfect first or as well, but because you willed yourself to do it, to use the power of Jesus' Atonement and choose better, just because it's your will.

"All this can ye do if ye will" and re-emphasized by Elder Holland "...
change, growth, renewal, and repentance can come for you as instantaneously as it did for Alma and the sons of Mosiah."

So the question remains for us all, will we?