When I was a senior in High School, I worked at a local movie theater where I met my wife, Irene. She was just as stunning then as she is now. Now I wasn’t one to “make a move”, so to speak, so imagine my surprise when she invited me to a rock concert to a band I’d never heard of. I promptly said yes and looked forward to this first encounter outside of work.

We went to the concert and I listened to the music (and style) I’d never heard before. I watched the light in her eyes as she enjoyed songs from her favorite band (at the time) that she’d probably heard a thousand times.

Afterwards she asked me what I thought of the concert–since there wasn’t much opportunity to talk during the concert, just listen. It dawned on me that I had completely forgotten the name of her favorite band that I had just listened to for the past few hours. So, I said I liked it and asked her what the name of the band was. She was outraged that I didn’t take the time to even learn the name of her favorite band and asked me why I even came in the first place. Then, in one of my rare moments of quick, on my feet thinking I said, “When a hot girl asks you out, you go!”

The actual ticket stub from our first date.

The actual ticket stub from our first date now framed and on our mantle at home. Name of Irene’s favorite band in high school redacted.

In the subsequent 5 years, 3 of which were apart, we came to know each other and I was delighted to find that her beauty wasn’t skin deep, but that beauty was the essence of who she was. Beauty is what Irene does. We eventually married in the Portland Temple, making a sacred covenant with each other and with God. It is absolutely important to understand the nature of that covenant.

Imagine for a moment, if when I decided to propose, that I said, “Irene, here are my requirements. Now, if you can keep all of my expectations, meet all my needs and wants that I’m accustomed to for, say, 20 – 30 years, demonstrating that you can meet them, then I will consider accepting you. Of course I couldn’t accept you now. But if you perform well enough, I will accept you. Will you marry me?”

That would be nothing more than to insult her–the world’s worst proposal. And I think no amount of quick thinking on my part would get me out of that. We wouldn’t dream of insulting the people around us by basing our relationships entirely on one-sided expectations like that. Yet many think that is the way God approaches us. And worse, that is often a reason people cite for rejecting God.

I’ve found that our marriage works best when we accept each other unconditionally—both the good and the bad—and sanctify that relationship in the temple covenant and framework of marriage. This covenant relationship in the gospel becomes a primary standard and source of meaning and acceptance in our marriage. And because we don’t insist that we meet all of each other’s personal expectations or whims in order to gain acceptance, that sets us free. Our mutual acceptance of each other on a foundation of covenants is the basis of our marriage.

The same is true for my relationship with my children. Because I strive to accept them for who they are moment to moment, it encourages them to become the best version of who they are now. And it becomes clear when I fail to live up to this aspiration how our relationship suffers.

Without this kind of mutual acceptance found in love, we dehumanize religion and human relationships and deny the power of the atonement. Fundamentally, Christianity and Mormonism is a human relationship with God, and with our fellow neighbors–not merely some set of commandment-based merit or some intellectual or philosophical ascent.

I believe this is what Christ was getting at when He taught:

He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

(John 5:24 – emphasis mine)

We see this evidence every week:

Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

(John 6:54 – emphasis mine)

Notice what is said here. Those who “hear my word”, “believe in him that sent me”, “eat of my flesh”, and “drink my blood” those people have eternal life right here and now (present tense). So we try to live for Christ not in order to (hopefully, someday, only if we’re good enough) gain His acceptance. We live for Christ because we already have it. It’s not based on performance or merit. It’s based on the merit of Jesus Christ who died and rose for all.

Likewise, I live for Irene not in order to gain her acceptance; I live for her because I already have it. And she has the freedom to know that she doesn’t have to live her life under the pressure of working to gain my acceptance. She can live knowing she’s unconditionally got it. That’s the nature of covenants: they set us free.

John explained the love of God this way:

We love him, because he first loved us.

(1 John 4:19)

So if you are struggling with feeling acceptance or love, you can know that the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a powerful message of hope, love, and acceptance. Not only that, but we can know that Christ calls all of His followers to extend that same grace, hope, love, and acceptance towards all others.

This acceptance is just the beginning of the covenant gospel of Christ. It is a gift of grace given unconditionally to foster hope, trust, and faith. Then, as we enter into and live covenant relationships with God, our fellow neighbors, and our families God shows us eternal life here and now.