This year (2020) I was invited to share my thoughts in Sunstone's "Why I Stay" plenary session for their co...
The following is a talk I gave in my ward on June 10, 2018
I’m grateful to speak to you today on a topic that I feel is vital to how we choose to live our faith. None of us can escape the question I was asked to address: How can our Christian belief and morality translate more completely into Christian action?
As Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), it is important to note right away that Jesus says Christian action is non-negotiable: Jesus taught, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 12:21-22), “they that heareth, and doeth not, is like someone that without a foundation…” (Luke 6:49), and “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
Christian belief, no matter how brilliantly stated or firmly held, is simply not sufficient. So, how can we move from beliefs to the works Jesus calls for? This isn’t an easy question and, I fear, I can’t answer it without first illustrating what’s at stake: life and death – and not just in metaphorical ways.
Years ago, I shared a lighthearted saying to my kids. This is attributed to Thomas Robert Dewar in the early 20th century. The saying deals with the purpose of life and goes something like this:
We’re all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I have no idea.
The kids got a laugh out of that. But Alex, three days later, came up to me out of the blue and said, “I figured it out, dad.” “Figured out what?”, I asked. “You told that joke about helping others – I figured out why the others are here.” Curious what a 7-year-old’s take on the question of life would be I asked, “Okay. Why are others here?” What he said next blew me away. He said, “The others are here to help us in return.” In a world full of cynicism, distrust, and cold hearts the world needs more Alex’s.
But this realization gets at a fundamental fact that we must all face: we all need each other. And why do we need each other? Because this world is fallen, broken, unfair, unjust, and painful. Acknowledging that is not just part of life, it is (interestingly) where Christian belief must start if it is to orient towards the works of Jesus. It’s a bit like the line said by Wesley from The Princess Bride by William Goldman: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” There’s a lot being sold in Jesus’ name. Focusing on Jesus’ response to pain will put us on his path.
What I’m describing here is The Fall, which isn’t merely a grand event that happened in the past with flaming swords and fig leaves but which is continuously unfolding in front of us today. Rather than go into a doctrinal explanation of the fall I think it it is best illustrated in the experiences we all have with it ourselves.
When I was a missionary in South Korea I met someone as we passed on the street. After some conversation with him, it became apparent that he suffered a cognitive disability. We saw that we could be of service to him at least by helping him with things he said he needed. As we met in his home, the full scale of his situation hit us. He had a young daughter who now effectively had to raise herself since the mother had just passed away and the father had to seek whatever work he could get with his limited abilities. It seemed the mother was the one who was holding this family together and it was failing without her. Eventually, they faced eviction and we helped them prepare to move out. I remember the last time I saw them as we helped move their refrigerator down 3 flights of stairs to pack up in a truck. They didn’t know what lied ahead of them. In a just world, this would not have happened. And in a just world, I could have done more.
Fast forward 10 years and I’ve since married, had kids, and started my career. In my first job here in the Seattle area, I worked at a small start-up company which was later acquired by Cisco. I remember one of the co-workers would challenge our annual company fundraiser to the local food bank by generously offering to match our donations up to the amount of his annual bonus. He and his wife were both pillars in their community. After acquisition people at the company, including myself, moved to other jobs but we kept in touch. One day I got a text saying he was shot and killed as an innocent bystander to a random, senseless crime while he was driving his family back from the airport. In a peaceful world, this would not have happened.
These are just two examples from an ocean of pain and suffering on this earth and not just in our area or in our day. Scriptures describe a “gulf of misery and woe” (2 Nephi1:13). There’s an ancient book of scripture which, in my opinion, does the best job to clearly describe the fall. It’s a book we often skip, perhaps because it describes the fall too well. It’s not a happy read.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 opens with an expansive view of life:
1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…
It then lists the beauties of life: Birth, growth, healing, building, laughter, dancing, disarming, love, gain, acceptance, inclusion, connection, and peace.
But it also describes their opposites:
Death, decay, murder, ruin, weeping, mourning, arming, cold hearts, loss, rejection, division, exclusion, hate, and war
Paraphrasing the rest of the chapter the author despairs:
What’s the point? I see beauty but I also see how all will suffer. We fail to understand God. There’s no good in us, and we will be judged. All we can do is do good and enjoy life. But God is eternal and our lives and efforts are fleeting. We keep making the same mistakes – pettiness, hypocrisy, prejudice, inequality, injustice. We’re no better than the beasts. It’s all pointless; and we’re all going to die anyways. Does anyone even know for sure that our spirits will go on? We’ll all be forgotten soon enough. So why not just work hard and enjoy what we can?
Brothers and sisters, and I’ll add youth since they see and experience this too, if you’ve looked at the evil in this world, or had it break into your life, and felt despair, doubt, fear, anger, bitterness, or hopelessness please know that is a natural response. And it’s a response Ecclesiastes walks us through. This is bleak, but an awareness of this bleakness equips us to see what’s at stake with the fall without sugar coating it. The author of Ecclesiastes goes on (quoting from chapter 4 now):
1 So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of [of those who] were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
It’s important to realize that many (Jew and Christian) saw the need to keep Ecclesiastes in scripture. I know many for whom this hopelessness breaks faith in God, faith in others, or faith in themselves. In another experience on my mission, we met someone who worked at a children’s trauma ward in a hospital. From the horrors she saw in the pain children experienced (often at the hands of others) she had lost faith in God and mankind. How could a loving God allow such things? How could we do such things?
Passing Through the Mists of Darkness
In the Book of Mormon Lehi faced this in his vision of the Tree of Life. In his vision, he was lead by a figure in a white robe who took him into a “dark and dreary waste”, then promptly left him there (1 Ne 8:5-8). After working his way through the mists of darkness, Lehi saw numberless people progressing on the path with an iron rod that lead to the Tree (1 Ne 8:21). But where did the path and rod of iron lead? Right into the mists of darkness. Not around it, not over it, not under it, not into a protected tunnel with motorized walkways, but right into it. It seems we must all pass through the mists of darkness in this fallen world to reach the Tree. Avoiding passing through the pain and suffering of this world will not just halt our progress to the Tree of Life, it will prevent us from even starting the journey.
So, what are we to do? Well, sometimes people ask, “What would Jesus do?” That’s a good start as it puts our focus on actions not beliefs. But I like to remind people that turning over tables and chasing people around with a whip is within the realm of possibility of what Jesus would do. If that’s how you feel at times, I won’t blame you. I feel that way too sometimes. Maybe we could do a fifth Sunday lesson where we set up tables in the gym, hand people a whip, and take turns re-enacting Jesus cleansing the temple to let some of our anger out.
When thinking about how to respond to evil, it’s important to understand anger here. We so often misunderstand anger. Anger, when it’s understood, when we face up to it, can be a revelatory process that says: “I am revealing to you something deep about myself and I’m angry because something hurt me, something I love, or something I cherish. Something I want to protect has been injured and violated – and I need to tell you about this so you know me more intimately and more deeply.” Do we let those in our congregation reveal themselves to us in this way? Or do we prevent this revelation and intimacy from being expressed? Are we listening to the pain felt and expressed by those in our ward (whether they are in our pews or classes today or not)? So many are hurting around us. Do they feel safe expressing that to us? Are we humble enough to hear it? And are we courageous enough to mourn with them?
While anger can be transformed into revelation, it can also be harmful. Galatians lists anger as one of the works of the flesh and that if we cannot turn it to the works of righteousness it will turn us from the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21). So, how else can we respond?
In one of the most beautiful parts of our scripture, we have a story of God weeping. Enoch “beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness” (Moses 7:26). Then Enoch saw “that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and [God] wept” (Moses 7:28) Enoch was confused by this and asked, “How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” (Moses 7:29). God responds:
Behold these thy [kindred]; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto [them] their knowledge, in the day I created [them]; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto [mankind] their agency; … and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood … wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? (Moses 7:32,33,37)
Enoch seems to have assumed, as I think we’re all tempted to assume, that Godliness makes one immune to or protected from suffering, pain, and sorrow — that we somehow won’t have to pass through the mists of darkness from the fall — when, in fact, the scriptures state the opposite: God chooses to join and weep with us in our fallen state. What does that say about God? What does it say about Eve who saw the wisdom in passing through sorrow together?
When Jesus taught in the synagogues in Galilee he cited these words of Isaiah to frame his entire ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
And elsewhere Isaiah described the Messiah as being immersed in pain (Isaiah 53:3-5):
3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Our discipleship must follow a similar path. We can’t reach the Tree of Life – which is the love of God – without facing the mists of darkness of this fallen world, and not just face them but pass right through them. Our Christian action is to be a response to pain and suffering, not an escape from it. And as we do this, our discipleship will transform from passive beliefs into charitable actions.
I want to give a few specific examples of what beliefs might prevent us from making this transformation. But I want to be clear that I am not saying belief is bad. We’re asked to have faith and trust in God and that involves our beliefs. My intent here is to show how if our discipleship merely stops at belief or we hold our beliefs in ways that excuse ourselves from Christian action that we will ultimately fail in following Jesus.
So, what things might cause our beliefs to fail to grow into Christian action? Here are a few.
One of these is religious escapism – or when we excuse ourselves from acting to face evil. This can come in many forms but one can be when we only ever see the atonement as something that occurred in the past. The wonderful truth that Christ has atoned for all the pains and sins of mankind can be mistreated as merely a coping mechanism. We might think, “It’s ultimately okay if we don’t do anything for people who are suffering, even if we can, because the atonement will make things better for people in the end. And how grateful we can be because of that.”
Or we might think, “The atonement is only a power of change and healing in people’s individual lives.” It’s a bit like thinking we’ve done our part to relieve hunger by making sure we have our food storage or that we’ve addressed homelessness by making sure we have that extra room in our home to store stuff. But the atonement of Jesus Christ leads us to more: to think and act beyond ourselves (Matt 16:25), to forge relationships (Mark 12:31), to love our enemies (Matt 5:44), and to heal others (Matt 25:31–46) and as active responsibilities, not passive promises. John the Baptist called people to “prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3) not “sit back and wait for the Lord to fix it”.
The title of one of our hymns asks us an important question: Have I done any good in the world today? (Hymn 223). Its chorus calls us to “wake up and do something more than dream of your mansion above.” If the eye of our worship is only a reward after this life, or for God to come down and fix it for us, it will often fail to inspire us to act today.
One of the names God is known by is Immanuel which means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; 2 Ne 7:14; Matt 1:22-23). I’m inspired by one of our Primary Hymns which calls us to do the same as we “walk with [others]” (“I’ll Walk With You”). One of the ways our family has chosen to act in the face of hate, bigotry, and religious intolerance is to take our children to interact with those of other faiths, creeds, or ethnicities. We’ve taken our children to a synagogue, to a mosque, and to welcome immigrants seeking safety in our land. When our children must face for themselves the mists of darkness that come from bigotry and hate against these groups, those mists will have to face the bright lights of a Rabbi graciously welcoming us into his home to share with us a Torah scroll that survived Nazism, a Muslim community welcoming and giving us food in their Mosque as they shared their faith and heritage, and the faces of innocent immigrant children as our children painted their faces and played soccer alongside them.
Another possible hurdle is tradition. Now, tradition is a wonderful thing. Much of our wisdom comes from traditions that have stood the test of time. Our sacrament, ordinances, scriptures, laws, science, trades, arts, etc. are types of traditions. But the test of whether something will lead us to Christ isn’t whether it was passed down or not.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born Rabbi, who was captured by the Gestapo and later escaped, made this observation about how religion can wither on the vine if it merely relies on tradition:
When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless. (God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism)
We cannot rely merely on doctrine, obedience, policies/programs, first visions, tradition, or authority. Our religious beliefs must be a living fountain that looks forward and acts with faith, worship, love, and compassion if we are to face the crisis from the fall unfolding today.
The Book of Mormon talks of traditions being wicked and righteous. And while we must turn our hearts to the fathers, Malachi and Jesus both follow that up with the fathers turning their hearts to the children. (Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17; D&C 98:16; 3 Ne 25:6).
When the new First Presidency was formally announced, Elder Eyring had this to say of our youth:
There’s a power coming in this ‘millennial’ generation … A lot of people like to talk about, ‘How are we going to hold on to them?’ I think the thing is, ‘How can we hold on to them and not be left behind?’ That’s what I see of the millennials I spend time with.
We can turn our hearts to our children, minister, and listen to them as they speak marvelous things like Jesus did with the Nephite and Lamanite children when he ministered to them:
And it came to pass that he did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude of whom hath been spoken, and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people; and he loosed their tongues that they could utter. (3 Nephi 26:14)
Are we cultivating environments where our children can loose their tongues? Are we willing to listen to what they have to say? What things might we be doing that are binding their words and spirits? Is some of what our children say strange or hard to believe (“marvelous”)? Could God be speaking through our children things which we have been unable to hear?
Obsession with Obedience
A final issue I’ll mention is an obsession with obedience. Like community or tradition, obedience is not bad and I am not advocating disobedience – Jesus asks us to “keep [his] commandments” (John 14:15). Reducing Christian discipleship to obedience can lead to a lot of activity, but it seems to often fail to lead to the activity Jesus calls for. Paul warned that “no [one] is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal 3:11) and that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified” (Romans 3:20). We can’t obey our way into heaven; perhaps because an obsession with obedience so often brings with it the judgment of those who act or think differently.
Jesus’ parables expertly teach this. Luke says Jesus addressed his parable of the publican and sinner to “[people] which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9):
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
Jesus’ conclusion seems counter-intuitive to an obedience only mindset:
I tell you, [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the [Pharisee]: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
In his parable of the prodigal son it is the elder, obedient son that judged his wayward brother who is chastised by the father, not the wayward, yet returning son (Luke 15:11-32). The older son wasn’t chastised because of his obedience, he was chastised because he saw his obedience as a license to judge others, be jealous of their forgiveness, or excuse his own repentance.
Jesus consistently puts love, repentance, and forgiveness above obedience. Jesus squarely places both “the law and the prophets” under the authority of the two great laws of love (Matt. 22:37-40); the Book of Mormon warns that “none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24); and Jesus commands us today through modern scripture that “of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10) after warning “[they] that forgiveth not … standeth condemned before the Lord” (D&C 64:9).
This should have a transformative impact on how we might act as we minister to one another. An overemphasis on obedience tends to see the gospel as a set of formula or incantations to invoke to get the designated outcomes. Its approach says: “You have a problem? Here’s how to fix it. Let me know how it goes.” – a variation of “Take two of these and call me in the morning.” This approach is tempting because it’s safe. I just have to relay the formula and I don’t have to intimately know the pain of the person. And furthermore, if it doesn’t work, I can place the blame squarely on the person for not following the instructions. But this leads to isolation and feeling about people rather than connecting and feeling with people – regardless of whether the prescription may work or not.
Compare this with an approach to ministering that places greater emphasis on Jesus’ higher principles of love, repentance, and forgiveness. This approach says: “You have a problem? I’m so sorry. I’m here with you.” This is the father of the prodigal son. The father knew the wayward son sinned, damaged relationships, and was disobedient. But the father also wisely knew that without love and forgiveness, he had no hope of healing that relationship. This is more difficult than the formulaic approach because in order to do so we have to push the false idol of judgment aside, connect with something within us that can relate to that pain, and open ourselves to vulnerability. This is “mourning with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9), and it places us on sacred, revelatory ground where we can see and know each other as we really are. This is the God Immanuel. This is Zion. And in my experience, it is the most powerful force to motivate Christian action.
There are many other things which can prevent us from turning our Christian beliefs into Christian action, “even so many that I cannot number them” as King Benjamin puts it (Mosiah 4:29). And there are many different ways we can put Christian belief into action – I recommend reading Richard Bushman’s “Radiant Mormonism” article in Deseret News (https://bit.ly/2kYrCqp). But as we face the mists of darkness today, turn towards those who are hurting around us, and act in ways to understand and heal that pain, we will be on the path of Christian action and discipleship.
I’ll close with the words of Elder Uchtdorf which he gave in an address to the Church’s Inner City Gospel Mission in 2015. He gave an urgent call to charity when he said:
… we will not succeed if we only go through the motions of religiosity. We could cover the earth with members of the Church, put a meetinghouse on every corner, dot the land with temples, fill the earth with copies of the Book of Mormon, send missionaries to every country, and say millions of prayers. But if we neglect to grasp the core of the gospel message and fail to help those who suffer or turn away those who mourn, and if we do not remember to be charitable, we “are as [waste], which the refiners do cast out.” (Alma 34:29; see also Matthew 25:31–46)
To put it simply, having charity and caring for one another is not simply a good idea. It is not simply one more item in a seemingly infinite list of things we ought to consider doing. It is at the core of the gospel—an indispensable, essential, foundational element. Without this transformational work of caring for our fellowmen, the Church is but a facade of the organization God intends for His people. Without charity and compassion we are a mere shadow of who we are meant to be—both as individuals and as a Church. Without charity and compassion, we are neglecting our heritage and endangering our promise as children of God. No matter the outward appearance of our righteousness, if we look the other way when others are suffering, we cannot be justified.”