As you've been following this Series (especially Part 6), you might have thought, "But Tim! Aren't you advocating for moral relativism, where everybody does what they think is right? That's awful! We need to focus on God's absolute, universal, unchanging, eternal standards!"
I hear you. I agree with you. But first we need to agree on what, exactly, are God's "absolute, universal, unchanging and eternal standards."
(Parenthetically, isn't it weird that 99 times out of 100 when someone invokes God's unchanging standards, they're talking about sex and marriage? Yup. We've all been conscripted into Satan's culture wars; how he must laugh when we make our private-parts the crowning example of God's immutable, eternal laws. I mean, no one glorifies genitalia like the Latter-day Saints, making the new and everlasting covenant a means for endless procreation in heaven where we get to populate worlds without number in celestial ecstasy, whilst the sorry chaps in the Telestial Kingdom are resurrected as anatomically-smooth Ken dolls, per Joseph Fielding Smith.)
Anyway, where were we? Moral relativism! Do we really think if everyone "followed the Spirit" it would lead to people being deceived and going off the deep end? I guess it's a question of trust. Do we trust other people to exercise a little discretion and discernment of their own?
Well, the hall monitors and lunch ladies are worried. They're worried if we lived according to the gifts of the Spirit (instead of under a bureaucratic priesthood) we'd create a devil's playground of disorder and disobedience. Hell in a pink handbasket.
But I think all the fear-mongering shows a lack of faith ― not in the members, but in the Lord, believing the Church would crash and burn without leadership's firm, paternalistic hands at the wheel.
Then comes, like a bat-out-of-Damascus, the apostle Paul exhorting us to be united in our love of the Lord and each other, AND (here's the good part) to stick out our tongues at our schoolmasters (Galatians 3:24-25). Recess is in session!
"Make no mistake: I am not a relativist. I believe there are universal commandments that must be kept; they are absolute. In other words, there are no exceptions. Not even Jesus! (See 2 Nephi 31:5). This tells us something important (considering the fact we are all so different); it tells us that universal commandments are exceedingly uncommon and rare as hens' teeth."
So how many are there? How many iron-clad, true-blue, universal requirements of salvation do we find in the gospel, that apply to ALL the adult men and women who have reached the age of accountability who have ever lived, throughout all eternity? Are there a thousand? A hundred? A dozen?
Ummm. There's 4.
Am I exaggerating? No, but having been raised with a long laundry list of "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots," I understand why this may come as a shock.
A good place for us to start searching for these global, universal omni-requirements is the scriptures.
Lucky for us, we can refine our search using key-phrases and search terms to find out what the Lord has deemed essential for "all men" (and of course, women).
Let's start with these phrases:
- "All people" - "All men" - "All nations" - "Every man" - "Ends of the earth"
We're looking for things that have generational reach, that span across dispensations. We want to discover the heighth and breadth of God's word that encompasses the entirety of His family, from Abel to Zebulun; from Alpha to Omega.
Well, after reading the search results, I was pleasantly surprised. I discovered that, by a wide margin, far and away the winner is: "Repent." So simple.
For illustrative purposes, let me quote a few verses that make abundantly clear why Repentance tops our list:
a. "I bear record that the Father commandethALL MEN, EVERYWHERE, to repent and believe in me" (3 Nephi 11:32).
b. "And surely EVERY MAN must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless" (D&C 19:4).
c. "And [the sons of God] were preachers of righteousness, and spake and prophesied, and called upon ALL MEN, EVERYWHERE, to repent; and faith was taught unto the children of men" (Moses 6:23).
d. "He sendeth an invitation unto ALL MEN, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you" (Alma 5:33).
Okay, we get the idea. Are there others? Well, the next thing we find is closely related to repentance, and is baptism.
It's interesting how God's universal laws rip right through the veil. They pierce the living and the dead, as if our present mortality made no difference. Even the dead must be baptized (see D&C 128).
It makes sense, though, because Jehovah is the "Eternal Judge of both quick and dead" (Moroni 10:34). The same principles are going to apply to everybody.
a. "Therefore, repentALL YE ENDS OF THE EARTH, and come unto me, and believe in my gospel, and be baptized in my name" (Ether 4:18).
b. "Go ye therefore, and teach ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19).
c. "Now this is the commandment: Repent, ALL YE ENDS OF THE EARTH, and come unto me and be baptized in my name" (3 Nephi 27:20).
Even the Son of God was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, so we can take this one to the bank, whether Zion's or Sheol's.
3. Love One Another
Okay, we've repented and are baptized. Anything else? What now?
"Oh, hi Nephi! Looks like you already answered this for us."
a. "Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of ALL MEN" (2 Nephi 31:20).
b. "And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward ALL MEN"(1 Thessalonians 3:12).
c. "Let thy love be for them as for thyself; and let thy love abound unto ALL MEN" (D&C 112:11).
The apostle Paul spent a lot of time describing what love looks like. He taught us to:
- Be patient towards all men (1 Thess. 5:14)
- Be gentle towards all men (2 Tim 2:24)
- Show meekness towards all men (Titus 3:2)
- Be peaceable towards all men (Romans 12:18)
Love sums up everything else, doesn't it?
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
So that's it. We're done! Really.
(1) Repent (2) Be baptized (3) Love God and each other
Anything else I can think of (like being 'born again' and not tattling on Suzie and forgiving Bob and making my bed with all the frilly pillows my wife likes) are all encompassed in these three things.
Perhaps this is why the Lord said:
Say nothing but repentance unto this generation.
When we start to get specific and tell others to not give backrubs in the front room lest it lead to third base, we've drifted into "tenets" (D&C 19:31) and are missing the mark.
There's no complicated formula; no list; you can cut down the hedge: we just repent and love. Rinse and repeat. Isn't the Lord's yoke easy?
My favorite summary of this concept is from the Book of Moses, and is contained in a single, spine-tingling verse:
And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should (1) love one another, and that (2) they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.
"Wait, Tim!" someone says. "You said there were four universal commandments; you've only given us three."
True, true. There's a last category that is special.
One of the ways we get in trouble is to view certain things as intrinsically, objectively wrong. For everyone.
Hearing this probably goes against the grain, because our whole lives we've been told such-and-such is bad ("thou shalt not kill").
But careful: if there's any exception to the rule, then the rule is not universal and immutable.
Nephi killed. Soldiers kill. The warden at the prison flips the switch to the electric chair.
Or abortion. Are there exceptions, such as when the life of the mother is at risk?
Or keeping the Sabbath. Ox in the mire, much?
My point is that if something has an exception, then it cannot be objectively, universally wrong. Don't misunderstand: the thing could still be wrong for a particular person or people, or under certain circumstances. How do we know?
Well, that's what the Holy Ghost is for:
I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ.
(2 Nephi 32:5-6)
(For a man who prided himself on plainness, I think Nephi struck the gold standard with that statement.) So I am opposed to horizontal obedience, where we mere mortals tell each other what to do, or what is right or wrong (think: face cards). Why? Because when we're busy enforcing our morals on each other we're too busy to purely love each other.
instead, Paul advocated for vertical obedience, where we are all subject to the dictates of our own conscience and to the Spirit of God, individualized and tailored to each person.
This is the same thing as Nephi just taught, but here's how Paul said it:
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
For brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
(Galatians 5:1, 13, 16, 18)
Maybe now, at last, we can begin to understand what Paul meant when he said the most astonishing thing I have ever heard from the lips of an apostle:
All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)
All things are lawful? How can he say that? What does that mean?
During my scripture study, as I searched for universal commandments, I found a number of verses that defied easy-categorization.
But soon a pattern or theme begin to emerge. There appeared a thread of universal language about Zion and the New Jerusalem.
I was surprised, actually, because Zion is such a defined-point-in-time thing; we've got Enoch's Zion; Melchizedek's; and the forthcoming latter-day Zion.
So why is there so much ink spilled on the topic, when the majority of people will never partake of the promises of Zion? Or will they?
For example, here are some of them:
a. "The voice of the Lord unto ALL PEOPLE: Go ye forth unto the land of Zion . . . . Yea, let the cry go forth among ALL PEOPLE: Awake and arise and go forth to meet the Bridegroom" (D&C 133:9-10).
b. "And lift up an ensign of peace, and make a proclamation of peace unto the ENDS OF THE EARTH" (D&C 105:39). (We've got a Family Proclamation; when are we getting a Peace Proclamation?)
c. "A chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that ALL MEN should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof; And that it was the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven" (Ether 13:2-3).
d. "And there was a strict command throughout all the churches . . . that there should be an equality among ALL MEN" (Mosiah 27:3).
I am going to conclude that the first 3 universal commandments can be kept individually; no matter who or where or what we are, whether in a cave or studying at NYU or climbing to the top of Everest ― the Lord has faith that everyone can do (1) to (3).
But the fourth? Ah, there's the rub. It appears to require group effort (and is perhaps the best evidence of whether we have kept 1 thru 3).
(1) Repent (2) Be baptized (3) Love God and one another (4) Be a Zion people
In this Series we're discussing a path forward; how can we become "one"? Will we ever learn to love one another? Is Zion just a tall-tale we tell our primary classes, like Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe?
In case you were wondering, we're building up towards something the apostle Paul taught the Romans, which I think will blow our minds.
A Description and a Definition
We began with a description of Zion ― "And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them" (Moses 7:18).
But the Lord also gave us a definition of Zion ― "Verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion ― the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice" (D&C 97:21).
What connects the two? What do we find in common between the description and the definition of Zion?
Does this mean the "pure in heart" are the only people who have any hope of becoming "one heart"?
Are the only ones who sit on a wooden log around the campfire singing Kumbaya those whose hearts are pure?
A Devil's Bargain
What does it mean to be "pure in heart?" Well, let's conduct a test:
1. Whose heart is more impure: (a) a prideful man (b) an immoral man
2. True or False: Harlots enter heaven before the Pharisees (Matt. 21:31).
3. Hardened hearts are best achieved by: (a) thinking we have the answers (b) seeking for greater light and truth
A thing is pure, by definition, when it is "free from anything of a different, inferior, or contaminating kind." Water is pure when it is free from bugs and germs; our hearts are pure when they are stripped of things like "jealousies and fears" (D&C 67:10).
Purity, then, is not synonymous with virtue; purity of heart requires far more than chastity.
Fire Lizard Fur
Pretend we lived during the Middle Ages, when everything was lit by candlelight and fireplaces and oil lamps (talk about a fire insurance salesman's dream!).
And pretend we discover a magical mineral that is fire-proof. We show a couple of monks a bit of cloth we found in Jerusalem made of the stuff, and when they see it doesn't burn in the fire, and becomes white in the flames, they believe it is the very cloth the Savior used to wash the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
We're rich! We start a booming business weaving tablecloths and napkins from the magical fibers; we even create suits of armor from it. Now all the noblest knights wear our special, flame-retardant garments.
Well, there's a downside to our fabulous cloth, a devil's bargain. Because asbestos sheds microscopic fibers that are invisible to the naked eye. When asbestos is inhaled, it causes mesothelioma (a deadly form of cancer).
But what if we thought the benefits of using asbestos outweighed the risks? Say we're Charlemagne and one of our advisors reports that some of our knights are dying, but only the ones who wear asbestos clothing.
Would we tell them to throw away such a useful thing?
Isaiah warned us; really he did. He told us all about the health-risks of spiritual asbestos: the very thing that is fatal to the "pure in heart." See if you can spot it:
Jehovah of Hosts has a day in store for all the proud and arrogant and for all who are exalted, that they may be brought low.
It shall come against all the lofty cedars of Lebanon that lift themselves up high, and against all the oaks of Bashan. . . .
The haughtiness of men shall be abased, and man’s pride brought low; Jehovah alone shall be exalted in that day.
He will utterly supplant the false gods.
(Isaiah 2:12-13, 17-18, Gileadi Translation)
How can we be "pure in heart" when our hierarchies enshrine pride and status; when we construct temples and seminaries from cedar and oak? When we clothe our leaders in the asbestos robes of high offices and rank and inequality, which is causing cancer among the community of Christ?
"By Pride Cometh Contention"
For our purposes, let's think of "pride" as believing our "way" is the right way (which others should follow). Isn't this the root of pride? Preferring the superiority of our judgment, and skill, and experience?
By pride cometh contention.
Put a couple prideful people together and sparks will fly. The Mike Tyson of pride was Lucifer, who thought we should all see the genius of his plan. I mean, none would be lost? Sounds too good to be true!
Aren't we all like little-Lucifers when we peddle our own wisdom, our own opinion, our own strength, on others?
Let me put the shoe on my other foot to better explain what I mean, by taking an example of something I personally do not like, and asking myself, "Do I fall into the trap of trying to impose my standards on others? Am I any different than the the next guy?"
Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.
Haunted Houses. There, now you know. I hate haunted houses. I think they're full of yucky evil; they give me bad vibes, filled with darkness (and it never fails to amaze me how popular they are).
Pride goeth before destruction.
But, since I am trying to be open-minded, let's pretend that I'm wired differently than you. Unlike me, you can enjoy a haunted house as a bit of harmless fun; you aren't bothered by the chainsaw-wielding wackos in blood-splattered lab coats. Oooookay.
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim.
I see you; if your spirit is unaffected by haunted houses, who am I to try to convince you it's wrong? Just because I've learned it's wrong for me, does that necessarily mean it's wrong for you?
For a minute, I am going to try to be spiritually mature. Can I let you go to haunted houses without judging you for it? Am I man enough to sip my hot cocoa on the Ferris Wheel and wait for you while you go through that twisted maze of misery, and still embrace you afterwards and love you every bit as I love myself, though our "values" are different?
Yes, yes I think I can do that. I will try.
O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble.
Let's switch the shoe. Maybe you can watch the half-time show of the Superbowl without it offending your spirit. Good for you! I will honor your walk with God even if it isn't identical to mine. But let's say I don't want to watch Rihanna's performance last night ― will you want to convince me there's nothing wrong with Rihanna and her music and gyrating dancers?
So we see it cuts both ways; we all need to throw a "cloak of charity" over each other's differences. This means allowing them to do things we don't approve of, but also to NOT do things we DO approve of (see the difference?).
At the end of the day, aren't we supposed to afford everyone the privilege of following their conscience? Or do we expect them to follow ours?
Better to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.
What I am trying to say is very simple: pride is the opposite of love; in fact, pride prevents us from loving each other purely.
Why? Because pride makes us feel like what is "right" for me is "right" for you, and what is NOT right for me is NOT right for you. Pride, at best, is judgmental; at its worst, it is controlling and abusive.
When we think about it, a prideful mindset treats others as extensions of our ego; as objects that either confirm ("oh, they agree with me; I like them") or threaten ("apostates!") our worldview. Isn't it funny how insecure pride is? Which is why pride craves, above all else, the validation of others' obedience.
But when we use others to stroke our pride ― excuse me: "gratify our pride" (D&C 121:37) ― the heavens withdraw from us. (And not just "us" individually, but also us-as-a-Church.)
Why? Because we are no longer treating others like children of God; we're treating them like animals who have to be potty trained (i.e., get with the program; fall-in-line with "the right way"; yield to the correctness of my authority).
Thus we see the most common way for love to perish is to place it in an environment of prideful "authority." What better way for love to wax cold than placing it in the chilly corner outside of the sunlight of Christ's cross-won liberty?
The humble shall see this, and be glad: and your heart shall live that seek God.
Order of Magnitude Greater
There's a very real danger of inviting others to "come unto Christ" and then bossing them around, telling them the "right way" to do it, unloading our spiritual baggage onto their backs and making it their burden.
Isn't this what Christ meant when He accused the Pharisees:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides.
This is like treating Jesus as a museum exhibit, placing Him behind red ropes and glass, charging admission and telling guests not to get too close, as if He were the Mona Lisa (think: prayer-pronouns).
After all, He's the main draw, the main attraction: the people come for Him and that's how we keep the lights on; but we've got security cameras and darned-if-we-don't make sure you follow the rules. No food or drink! No flash photography! No kissing the glass!
Boy, we think we're doing a great job for God, shuffling the crowds through the line to get their signs, tokens, and covenants, moving people towards the Lord . . . just don't hold up the line! "Keep the line moving, folks!" And be sure to shoo-away those pesky teenagers who don't know how to behave like civilized people in a museum, for heaven's sake, didn't their parents teach them manners? Good grief.
Whenever we start acting like curators who are in-charge of "the Christ Exhibit" (i.e., His Church), we demonstrate a level of pride on an order of magnitude that makes the angels weep (see D&C 76:26).
I'm talking about massive, collective, institutional pride ― the generational, marble-hewn pride of an organization priding itself on being "the only true and living Church."
Don't believe it? Recently the Relief Society in my ward (as my wife tells me) has begun cracking down on members who are not following the Handbook-prescribed rules for speech and dress in the Church, as if Christianity has become Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen and we're all just sous chefs, flustered and running about in fear we've overcooked the scallops, as Gordon shouts we're falling behind!
As the Lord described it:
This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart [ah, here we find "heart" again] is far from me.
But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
I keep coming back to the need for us to collectively repent, as a people (as a Church!), and to seek the Lord humbly, like little children.
Repent of what? How about behaving like we rule the spiritual sandbox with our priesthood authority, as if Daddy gave us the keys to His car and everyone else has to ride in the backseat.
Pure love requires equality; Zion requires equality (see D&C 78:5-7).
What would happen if we all rose up like Rosa Parks and said peacefully to the drivers, "We are all equal on this bus; let's stop treating others like they are less-than."
Or we can stick with the status-quo, delivering casseroles as puffed up as our hearts, with Zion remaining a nice fairytale we tell our children as we put them to bed.
Several years ago my mom recounted to me a kerfluffle that had ruined a family gathering (I wasn't present for this one, lucky me, but I had no trouble picturing it).
Mothers mend many fences; often the most difficult are those that divide their children.
And so my mom described the argument that had spilled over into anger, hurt feelings, and tears. Mind you, I like to think that my family members are bright, thoughtful, and faithful adults.
So you might expect the conflict erupted over something serious. Nope.
It was over Face Cards.
As I understand it, one family brought playing cards to another's home, where face cards were not allowed. Even though my family loves card games (Rook, Phase 10, Uno, etc.), some of them are opposed to using face cards (I know, I know; be patient; not everyone has learned the valuable lessons of the movie Footloose yet).
Why was it an issue at all? Well, when a Prophet speaks . . . you know the rest. And in 1974, President Spencer W. Kimball said, "We hope faithful Latter-day Saints will not use the playing cards which are used for gambling, either with or without the gambling."
1974? I wasn't even born yet; but that was the last time I could find a General Authority talking about face cards. And yet, we see the power of President Kimball's words: they linger over us a generation later like a ghost, haunting a family gathering 40 years later, causing contention as siblings argue over what is "right."
Universal vs. Individual I wonder if 90% of the problems in the Church could be resolved if we stopped imposing our personal values on each other.
We don't do a very good job of distinguishing between universal commandments given by God (like repentance, which the Lord asks us to preach publicly) versus the preferences and personal inspiration we get as individuals, which is all-well-and-good for the one who receives it ― but, like chewing gum, shouldn't be passed around for others to enjoy. (Chewing gum would include telling them to not use the term "Mormon.")
Isn't trying to get others to follow "my way" of following Christ the epitome of "teachings for doctrines the commandments of men"?
Now, a crazy old loon like me can't do too much mischief because I'm not in leadership. If I suggested to the young women in my ward that reading rags like CosmoGirl is a waste of their time, that's just "my opinion." Even if it were good advice, the girls could take it or leave it.
But when their bishop tells them to not wear two pairs of earrings, and threatens to withhold their limited-use temple recommend until they comply; well, then it's not just good advice ― it becomes a matter of moral certitude and conviction (which has nothing to do with earrings, and everything to do with obedience to authority).
Whose light are we holding up?
Imagine a Frenchwoman in Paris who had recently converted to the Church scolding a couple of American missionaries for using vinegar since it contains a mild alcoholic proof. Madame AntiVin tells the missionaries they are breaking the Word of Wisdom by using vinegar in their escargot marinade (which was something she had been told by a former priesthood leader).
Now that sounds crazy, right? I mean, forget the vinegar: what about the fact they're eating escargot! But let's pretend, for argument's sake, that Joseph Fielding Smith said it, then it would have the force of priesthood authority behind it. Oh, now we're all ears! Now I'm raiding your pantry to see whether you're being a faithful member; I scold Sister Jones for using apple cider vinegar in her crock pot; I become a bloodhound of the Prophet in the war against vinegar; all the while, I wear the leash as an honor.
Ridiculous? Absurd? Umm. That is literally what happened with cola drinks during the 70s! And it is happening now with the term "Mormon" and prayer-pronouns: each generation sees leaders creating new ways for us to judge the level of orthodoxy of our neighbors (instead of just loving them) by concocting these artificial lines; and those lines keep piling up like barnacles, generation after generation, until our ship (faith) is dead-in-the-water.
Hence the reason people don't have playing cards in their homes, or drink Coke, or wear purple shirts to Church, or watch Rated-R movies.
That's how the real mischief happens: when Church leaders teach for doctrines the commandments of men, making their personal views public, incorporating their opinions into "the gospel," until at last the gospel resembles their moral codes.
"But Tim!" someone says. "They're special witnesses of Christ! Of course they're supposed to tell us what to drink, and how to dress, and how to speak; of course their job is to tell us whether we can wear open-toed sandals to Church. It's what we pay them for!"
Have we become, dear friends, The Church of Conglomerated Prophetic Opinions of Latter-day Saints? Or are we anchored in the Doctrine of Christ?
Clark Burt reminded me of the importance of the Word of God, and the danger of substituting it with morality and moral codes (see, https://fingerofgod.blogspot.com/2021/08/teaching-in-saviors-way-teach-word-of.html).
Are we bashed about in the waves, tossed to-and-fro by the wind, as changes rain down from administration-to-administration?
This is what Paul warned us about:
Be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; [but] grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
We're all seasick; the ship needs Christ at the wheel and the power of His grace and glory; the last thing we need is more admonitions about whether our playing cards depict a Joker or an Old Maid.
Now, make no mistake: I am not a relativist. I believe there are universal commandments that must be kept; they are absolute. In other words, there are no exceptions. Not even Jesus! (See 2 Nephi 31:5).
This tells us something important (considering the fact we are all so different); it tells us that universal commandments are exceedingly uncommon and rare as hens' teeth. Why? Because they're decreed for everyone; they apply equally to everybody.
Take the example of a peanut allergy. If I am allergic to peanuts, but the Church taught that I have to eat Reece's Peanut Butter Cups to be saved, do they make me ingest peanut butter and let me die? No, the Church creates an exception. But the exception itself reveals that the requirement is not essential.
There are only a handful of universal commandments; everything else is just "good advice." My favorite universal commandment is the one Jesus gave at the Last Supper: "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). This applies to everyone ― regardless of race, gender, age, sex, nationality, etc.
Think of these things as the gospel "standards." They do not change. As Joseph Smith taught, "All must be saved on the same principles" (TPJS, p. 419). So Adam and Abraham and Genevieve and Jenny are all subject to the same criteria.
Question: Should instruction in the Church focus on the gospel standards (which include things like repentance, baptism and love), or upon moral living?
The main point I am trying to make is that contention is caused by the friction created between competing moral codes.
If that sounded confusing, let me explain. We go through life accumulating a lot of spiritual baggage. We adopt some of the moral codes ("traditions") of our parents; of our culture; and of our leaders, past and present.
Over time, what we find is we've cobbled together these pieces of morality into a Frankenstein we call "the gospel." That's right, instead of focusing on the Savior's universal and eternal words, we get stuck over:
- don't watch TV on Sunday
- don't date until you're 16
- when you pray, be sure to use the right pronouns
[If you're Jehovah's Witness] don't celebrate your birthday or holidays
[If you're Jewish] don't eat pork
[If you're Catholic] you must say Mass in Latin
[If you're Pentacostal] you must speak in tongues to be saved
In the end, we must choose between the image of Christ or the Frankenstein we've created from our moral codes.
This explains the reason that my family (who are amazing, good people) can fight over playing cards; it happens every day when we exalt obedience to our personal moral codes (and the authorities from whom we adopted them) to be the supreme, greatest, and most important part of the gospel.
Soon enough, we might even start to believe that redemption is found in our obedience to these moral codes.
Instead of being found, you know, in the love of our Savior.
In 5th Grade I took violin lessons. My instrument was a beautiful wooden violin stained a dark cherry-chocolate color that had belonged to my grandmother (who passed away when I was 5), so it held sentimental value.
I can still remember the smell of rubbing resin along the bow's horsehair.
I stored the violin in an old alligator-skin carrying case, unlike anything the other students with their thermoplastic-shell cases had seen. Who knows: maybe as a young fiery red-head, my grandmother had wrestled the rascal in the bayou. "For Stradivari!" (There's an Antiques Roadshow episode where an alligator case appraised for about $350; so not something worth risking your life for in my opinion.)
Anyway, I never got "good" at playing the violin and I soon gave up. Like I had with the trumpet in 4th Grade. And the piano lessons when I was 12; and my short-lived, home-taught harmonica stint.
And let's not forget the guitar lessons when I was 13 (the dream instrument of every adolescent boy hoping to be cool). No matter what song I tried strumming ― be it Down in the Valley or Saints Go Marching― they all sounded the same, like the blades of a Huey helicopter conducting an air raid during Vietnam.
Pretty much my entire childhood was a long stretch of musical failure.
What Kind of Instrument Are We? Now consider this: we are instruments in God's hands.
The Lord . . . has made me an instrument in his hands in bringing so many of you to a knowledge of his truth.
Those words were spoken by Alma the Elder; notice he says the Lord "made me an instrument." So God doesn't drive to the local shopping mall on Kolob Boulevard and pick us up from the music shop; none of us are store-bought; we were not mass-produced, off-the-rack.
Is heaven the Lord's workshop, or is hell? He crafts us into an instrument that fits His hands; He engraves His mark into our hearts (Isaiah 49:16) so everyone will know whose work we are.
His mark, of course, is love.
But remember: we are not passive pieces of wood being "acted upon" by the Carpenter; God doesn't chisel us into some preconceived notion of what we should be. No, the fascinating thing about the way our instrument takes shape is the fact it is a joint-labor, a collaboration. We have as much say about it as He does.
And because we're all handmade, no two instruments are alike.
One more point I'd like to make with this analogy. I'm sure we're all familiar with the poem, "The Touch of the Master's Hands," about a man who plays a battered violin and produces such beautiful music from the old instrument, the audience marvels and weeps.
Well, sorry to say, the Master doesn't play us like an instrument; He never takes over our bodily functions and minds, as if He were a body snatcher. No, we won't find God performing a one-man show on stage using us as props.
The music we hear? It contains more than melody, more than God's singular will: it has harmony!
And harmony can only come from multiple voices, or strings.
Have you heard someone use the phrase, "We need to be in-tune with the Spirit"?
What does that mean? How do we "tune" to the Spirit?
If any of you have children who learned to play the violin, you know it's not the most pleasant instrument to listen to in a beginner's hands.
At first, nothing resembling "music" comes from the instrument; expect endless hours of out-of-tune screeching.
(But at least it's not the tuba.)
An instrument is of little use to a musician until it is tuned — otherwise, no matter how skillfully they play the strings, the sound will be off.
Mormon did not mince words when he declared, “[I]f ye have not charity, ye are nothing” (Moroni 7:46). What if "instruments in the hands of God" referred to those whose hearts are tuned to the pure love of Christ?
The missionary Ammon rejoiced:
We have been made instruments in the hands of God to bring about this great work.
As a finely-turned instrument (see Alma 27:17-18), see how Ammon connected "love" with the power of God's word:
They are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore, have we not great reason to rejoice?
The sound of the gospel is harmony; the melody is love; and the music is joyful.
They are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
I didn't expect to find the phrase "great and marvelous work" here, of all places, to describe the 14 year mission to the Lamanites. Maybe it prefigures the latter-day 'great and marvelous' work. But it seems the greatest and most marvelous work we will ever do is to become acquainted with God's love and help others do the same.
But isn't it interesting how this work of love, as Ammon mentions, can only be done through the "power of his word"?
That means there's something more than just quoting scriptures and speaking the right words, here. What's the secret ingredient? Ammon says the words are only "powerful" because, and when, they are found "in us."
Before we leave Ammon, look at what he defines as the fruit of their labor:
See the fruits of our labors . . . and we can witness of their sincerity, because of their love towards their brethren and also towards us.
So the true sign of conversion is not baptism, but of loving one another.
What about the Anti-Nephi-Lehites who believed in God and died instead of taking up arms against their unrepentant brethren? Were they saved because of their covenants? Because of the ordinances they had received?
No, Ammon tells us the sign of their fate:
We know that they have gone to their God, because of their love.
Hmmm. Seems like we need to preach more about Christ's love! Where are all the instruments who should be playing the song of redeeming love? Why are we more committed to the "Covenant Path" than to the "Loving Path"?
Consider: a person can be saved without receiving any ordinances at all in this life.
Exhibit "A" = Alvin Smith.
"And I marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that [celestial] kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins. Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God" (D&C 137:6-7).
See? But we can't be saved without charity.
Over the weekend I read a lot of back-and-forth between evangelical Christians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Instead of locking arms in support of God's love (I am sure we can all agree on that), there is endless debate over certain points of doctrine.
I wasn't participating in the online discussions, but it dawned on me there are two main areas where mainstream Christians get hot-and-bothered with members of the LDS Church. Why do we let doctrinal differences destroy fellowship and goodwill, I wondered?
The two pressure points are usually:
1. The role of "works" in our salvation; and
2. The notions of the Godhead/Trinity.
One Christian (I presume Calvinist) became extremely belligerent while defending the doctrine of grace. But at what cost? How could he feel like he was championing Christ's "true" gospel when he was animated by a spirit of contention?
My servants sinned a very grievous sin; [oh, did they commit adultery? murder?] [for] contentions arose [that's all? Contentions?] in the school of the prophets; which was very grievous unto me, saith your Lord . . . .
If you keep not my commandments, [which ones? How about we start with "love one another as I have loved you." the love of the Father shall not continue with you, [why? Does He stop loving us?] therefore you shall walk in darkness [why does the absence of love create darkness?].
(D&C 95:10, 12)
So today in modern Christendom, in all the Churches, we have an orchestra comprised of instruments that are out-of-tune; who are playing different songs, who treasure different sheet music and composers.
It is jarring; it creates noise pollution. Nephi warned us, telling us to "not contend one with another" (2 Nephi 26:32). But what will shock you is the other sins that Nephi pairs contention with. We're talking the Big Ones.
- Murder - Lying - Stealing - Taking the name of God in vain - Envy - Malice - Contention - Whoredoms
(2 Nephi 26:32)
Can you believe "contention" made the list of the Nephi's Top Sins? I mean, he put contention before whoredoms!
So the next time we listen to those playing in the Religious Superbowl Half-Time show, billed as God's instruments, listen. Listen to their music; can you hear the song of redeeming love?
Or do we mainly hear the static beat of contention? Of pride dressed finely in religious garb, stroking the chords of carnal security?
The Restoration was supposed to resolve the war of words, not add to it; the Book of Mormon was meant to bring us into a unity of faith, not divide us.
Unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.
Part of me wishes to be a recluse; a hermit. Wouldn't it be nice to unplug and spend the remainder of our days on a private island, away from all the craziness? (On our private island there will be free ice cream for everyone.)
Well, whenever I turn off the nightly news and start looking at real estate listings in the Bahamas, I recall these words:
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed . . . of things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, and things which are abraod; the wars and perplexities of the nations.
It seems the Lord doesn't want us checking out just yet; I mean, how can we be "the salt of the earth" if we retire and ride into the sunset? We're sorta stuck here with the 3 Nephites for the time being.
Mormon died with a sword in his hand; John the Baptist with a sword on his neck; and the Savior with a sword piercing thru His heart.
So in the midst of troubles, when men's hearts are failing, we need to find a way to stay strong. We dare not go spiritually AWOL at a time like this, abandoning our brothers and sisters on the field of battle whilst the enemy advances. The Lord is calling us to stand together on the front lines, arms locked in love, bearing each other's burdens.
Which is all nice-and-dandy until we get burned out. Running errands for the Lord is wonderful until we begin to break, carrying the casaulties in our arms. Who will carry us?
Jesus will. The Lord promised:
The Lord [who?] shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; [whose wings?] they shall run, and not be weary; and shall walk, and not faint.
Have we been sprinting so long our spirits have cramps? Anyone (yes, I mean everyone) who is engaged in the work of the Lord will feel discouraged from time-to-time, particlarly when we question whether our efforts are doing any good.
This is not just physical exhaustion, but real spiritual fatigue. And so this Series, "Be Ye Kind One to Another," is intended to refresh our spirits.
Hope for the Weary
In Part 2, we saw that pure love flourishes in places (and hearts) where the Spirit is free to fly and spread its wings.
On the other hand, love perishes in environments where the Spirit's wings are clipped. I mean, think of a dormitory staffed only with hall monitors, principals, and lunch ladies.
It's a true principle that proud people cannot love purely, because genuine love grows out of meekness and humility (see Moroni 8:26).
The way we organize ourselves, then, directly impacts our ability to love.
For those of us who are tired of dodging fiery darts; who long to be healed of our leprosy and to rejoice, at last, with the daughters of Jerusalem upon Mount Zion; who wish to praise God through exercising His gifts of the Spirit ― the Lord has promised us:
I dwell on high in the holy place, and with him who is humble and lowly in spirit― refreshing the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the humble.
I love that verse. The Lord understands better than we do the burden of sorrow we carry, and how to make it light. He was intimately acquainted with grief, and yet, through tears of sadness, He could proclaim, "My joy is full" (3 Nephi 17:20-21).
How? Why was the Lord so resilient? Because perfect love means we're volunteering to "suffereth long"; Jesus showed us that charity is the power to "endureth all things" (Moroni 7:45).
Love rejuvenates more than it drains. Christ showed us the strength of His love as the Messenger of the New and Everlasting Covenant, which He sealed with a kiss, signed in love’s blood.
For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
(1 John 3:11)
Isn't it wild how we send out missionaries to preach the gospel, as if that meant telling people about prophets and keys and the Word of Wisdom?
There is only one gospel, and it is Christ's love for the Father (and for us), which means there's only one way to preach His gospel, and it is to love God and one another.
Learn from the Master
What is the cause of our lack of charity?
There seems to be a blockage in our spiritual arteries that needs angioplasty.
I know this will sound crazy, but what if our churches were crafted as much to shield us from God's glory (love) as they are to reveal it?
What if we're not-so-different from the children of Israel who begged Moses to speak with the Lord for them ― as long as it was far in the distance, way over there (Exodus 20:18-19)?
This might explain why our chapels have become a bit chilly (bring a sweater), as we distance ourselves from God who makes the rain to fall on the wicked and the just, in favor of huddling out of the rain beneath the pavilion of the prophet.
Is there a cardiogram we could take? Yes, there's a simple test. Here it is: does a doctrine or practice cause us to turn to Christ with real intent, or does it create dependency upon the Church?
I've wondered if we've corrupted the Covenant Path as addicts searching for our next fix, seeking salvation from works and checklists; shooting up with the ecstasy of carnal security, making us feel like we're "good."
In the spiritual Nuclear Winter we find ourselves in today, vegetation can't grow; no wonder we have trouble producing fruit! Our meetings lack the Spirit and fire of the Holy Ghost because we serve the Handbook; ash in our lungs silences the word of God from being spoken; we are fed the fare of Mammon, queued in line at the soup kitchen, starving and grateful for a bit of watered-down, thin broth we call Come Follow Me.
Perhaps there's a simple reason our spiritual lives are so threadbare: is it because we are taught to look to our leaders and live?
Is it because ever since we were rosy-cheeked children sitting in primary we've had drilled into our heads the need to obey carnal commandments. For obedience is, don't forget, the First Law of Heaven.
And so, in a culture of obedience and perfectionism; in a community dedicated to self-improvement and raising statistics; is it any wonder love has gone by the wayside?
Smell the Roses
Shall we go back to the beginning? Because in the beginning we were drawn towards our Lord's love, as intelligences. His light attracted us. None of us would be here if we hadn't warmed ourselves beside His bosom in the beginning.
Love is the attribute of our Father we found so appealing, or what the scriptures call "most desirable."
This primal force we call love was the seed of our spiritual awakening and is the nexus of all divine creation.
In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, and the Word was God, [and God was love and His Word was love].
Let me try to explain something by using an analogy, so we might better intuit what Paul calls "a mystery." I warn you, though, this will be the worst analogy you've ever heard.
Let's call it the Analogy of the Ontological Onion (see? even the name is bad).
Pretend I eat lots of onions; in fact, my diet consists primarily of onions. Through the process of digestion, the components of the onion are incorporated into my body. As a consequence, I smell like onions. Wherever I go, I put off the smell of onions.
But remember, I am not an onion (I can't believe I had to say that.) I smell like an onion because the onion has become part of me; now it is my signature-scent. Yes, that's right, I smell like eau de l'oignon.
When I stand at the podium in the chapel to give a talk, you can smell it in the pews. It is that strong. And when I walk past you in the hallway at church, the smell is even more potent.
And if I stop and give you a bear hug, the odor will be inescapable and so intense your eyes will water.
There. I warned you. Worst analogy ever.
God's love is like a fragrance (but in His case, it smells like roses).
Frankincense was one of the gifts given to our Lord because, remember, sweet-smelling spices were used in the temple as incense (Exodus 30:34). When the priests burned their sacrifices, people all around (including those who couldn't enter the temple) could smell it from afar.
But what happens when the sweet smell becomes foul; when we substitute the Lord's grace and love for the sweaty musk of human effort; the works of the arm of flesh?
Well, surprisingly this is how Isaiah begins his book:
Bring no more worthless offerings; they are as a loathsome incense to me.
How must it smell to the Lord when we substitute His sacfrice with our Handbook oblations? When we teach for doctrines the commandments of men rather than His gospel?
Amos said it best:
I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
(Amos 5:21, NIV)
Like frankincense, the Lord's love is shed abroad and can be felt by everyone, even those who choose not to come near Him (as a traveler goes the long way around the temple to avoid rush hour).
Love is His gift, given freely to all, that permeates the very air we breathe.
We cannot buy it, neither can we earn it; however, the scent becomes stronger as we approach Him. Only those who become "one" with Him (i.e. enter into His presence) enjoy a fulness of it.
Or, you know, we can go around wearing gas masks to block out the smell, which is what happens when we reduce the gospel of love to a set of rules and commandments (the Handbook).