I spent last week conducting a mock trial in Delaware; in between trainings I was able to digest the messages delivered in General Conference ten days ago.
What's funny is I keep holding out hope, every six months, that we'll move the needle toward Christ, where it belongs ― but each Conference ends with the needle still firmly pointed in the direction of the Church and the Prophet (and tithing, don't forget tithing).
The irony of "Think Celestial" (the latest catchphrase to come out of Conference, sorry Ponderize) is that, because of the fervent and repeated testimonies borne of the Church and of President Nelson ― with Christ thrown in like a cherry atop a banana split ― the leadership is clearly "Thinking Telestial" (see D&C 76:99-100).
Oh well, enough about that; let's apply "Think Celestial" to the topic of discernment.
After reading my last post, someone might say, "Tim, why do we need to fly to Japan at all in order to sample the best ramen, if we can just take David's word for it?"
This question presumes that discernment is merely knowing whether something is good or evil. But discernment is far more than that.
There's a big difference between knowing something and personally experiencing it.
If all we needed was knowledge, then why is mortality necessary at all? Doesn't the Spirit already know all things? Couldn't we just rely on the Spirit to tell us everything? So what's the purpose of coming to earth?
Maybe we should rename the tree in the Garden of Eden from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to the Tree of Experience of Good and Evil ― after all, did Eve's knowledge come by spiritual intuition and divine communication, or through personal experience? How do we incarnate into our muscle memory an appetite for light and love?
That's why Adam and Eve couldn't be told what was bitter and sweet, they had to taste for themselves. Only after experiencing mortality was Eve able to testify that she had come to "know good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient" (Moses 5:11).
Reading about someone's pain is a lot different than experiencing the agony of a bad tooth ache yourself; reading about the bliss of the righteous does not compare with the pleasure of smelling bread baking in the oven before a family feast.
Consider the difference between knowing the best ramen is served at Ruben's Rad Ramen Hut versus savoring its salty beefy broth?
Thus we see, discernment is not a short-cut to God's mysteries; it is not a loophole through which we gain knowledge at the expense of experience.
Instead, discernment is the enlightenment of our spiritual senses through experiencing God ("good") and darkness ("evil") ― and having experienced both, being able to then discern (and choose) the good.
As we'll see, the secret of discernment (and the first principle of all saving knowledge) is that intelligence (which is far greater than mere knowledge) is gained specifically by experiencing Christ.
"Well, Tim, that's what I want!" someone cries. "When am I going to experience Him? I want to know Him! Where is He?"
I want to suggest that if we really want to know God, the answer is not to see Him, but to see Him in others (see Matt. 25:37-40).
"No Experience Required"
If knowledge of good and evil was the summum bonum of discernment, then how do we account for the devils who followed Lucifer?
For didn't they "know" who God was? Weren't they possessed of great knowledge (which, incidentally, proved their condemnation)? How curious: knowledge can as easily damn a person as save them.
Alas, no one can be saved in ignorance, either (D&C 131:6). Which is why discernment becomes so important: knowledge without discernment is a recipe for disaster. Knowledge, untempered by love, is dangerous.
Let me try to connect the dots a little more clearly. Consider the thing that Satan and his followers were denied: a physical body.
The reason their progression was interrupted was not because they couldn't go on gaining knowledge, but because they couldn't continue to gain experience in physical bodies (making them so desperate they would happily possess the bodies of pigs, see Luke 8:33).
If, like me, you've felt like Satan's plan just doesn't add up or make sense, perhaps it is because the standard story we tell to primary children is poppycock.
In the scriptures, we are told Satan wanted to "destroy the agency of man" (Moses 4:3). By contrast, the Father's plan was to protect our agency:
That every man may act [and not be acted upon] in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity [what does that mean?] according to the moral agency [what is agency, really?] I have given unto him [where does our agency come from?] that every man may be accountable for his own sins.
(Waaait a minute. I thought the Father's plan was for a Savior to suffer for our sins so we didn't have to be accountable for them!)
What was the Great Lie that Satan got so many to believe in? And more importantly, why were one-third part of the hosts of heaven unable to discern between Satan's Lie and the Truth?
If it Ain't Good, is it Evil?
Normally we divide things into "good" and "bad" lists. On our good list, we find things like asparagus and alms-giving and adoring the prophet.
On the “bad list” we put things like addiction, abuse and anti-social behavior.
Did you notice that both lists completely miss the mark? There are many wonderful yet carnal, and sensual, and devilish things that I wouldn't consider "bad." Like Sudoku.
The thing that makes something "evil" is if it has none of Christ's light or glory in it. If a thing possesses none of Christ's Spirit, you see, it is not connected to the True Vine and is therefore perishable and burnable.
Knowledge encompasses what is ― and what is, is often evil. Can some types of knowledge be considered evil? Is there knowledge that exists beyond the reach of Christ's light?
Maybe the key lies in understanding the difference between knowledge and "intelligence" (D&C 93:29).
Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; [Satan and his followers, too, are as eternal as God is] that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth; [so Satan and his followers possessed the Spirit of truth in some measure, right? Satan was an angel in authority in the presence of God, after all] And truth is knowledge of things they are, and as they were, and as they are to come [this is a good definition of truth ― to know what is, was and will be. But even the devils "know" these things; so what were they missing?]
And whatsoever is more or less than this [what is the antecedent for "this"] is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.
Okay, that got interesting at the end. The Spirit of the Wicked One is compared to a liar; Satan is a liar, sure, but what is the Lie?
An Interlude: The Little Prince
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, the Prince encounters a fox. I want to quote a part of their exchange.
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"What does that mean, 'tame'?"
"To me," said the fox, "you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then to you, I shall be unique in all the world. If you tame me, I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps will have me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow."
"I am beginning to understand," said the Prince.
"Look," said the fox. "You see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat."
"I have not much time," the Prince said. "I have a great many things to discover, and things to understand."
"One only understands the things one tames," said the fox.
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--
"Ah," said the fox. "I shall cry."
"It's your own fault," said the little prince. "You wanted me to tame you."
"Yes, that is so," said the fox.
"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.
"Yes, that is so," said the fox.
"Then it has done you no good at all!"
"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat."
Christ Tames Truth How did Christ gain His knowledge and infinite wisdom? And more importantly, His pure love?
Alma's Magnum Opus
Alma taught some revolutionary doctrine in Chapter 7:12-13; we quote these verses all the time, but I want to take a closer look.
"And he will take upon him . . .
"Take upon him" is an interesting phrase. It's another way of saying Christ is going to experience this personally. But it's more than that. He is going to "take" this thing "upon" (into) Himself, so that it becomes part of Him.
Wow, okay, that's not what I was expecting. Christ is going to "tame" death?
Why would Christ, who is the Unshadowed Son, bring death "upon" Himself, into Himself? Is death now part of His nature? How is that possible when He is the life of all mankind?
Well, Christ is going to endure Death in a way we cannot fathom, so that He can embody Life. (For how can you have one without the other?)
There's a lot to read into that one word, Death. I don't think this is limited to the Cross, to just His physical death. We're talking about a condition, not an event.
"Death" describes an absence; the loss of something; emptiness of soul; being separated from God and dwelling in darkness. Death is all-encompassing, but in Christ, so is Life.
that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people
This isn't a very rosy depiction of our current condition, is it? I like to focus on the positive, on nature hikes in the mountains and campfires and smores and my family singing Kumbaya.
But if we really think about it, everything around us is in a perpetual state of death: the reality is we are surrounded by it; we are "bound" by it.
This alarming fact is apparent because everything here ages and dies; even long-lived Redwoods and whales will one day perish; the granite foundations of the earth shall be shivered to cosmic dust when our sun grows cold.
But I don't think of death as a morally objectionable thing; I do not view death as good or evil; it simply is. Entropy is a constant in our world. Death can be considered "good" when we die unto the Lord; or death can be viewed as evil when it separates us further from God.
Those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them;
And they that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.
The problem we face is that our eternal spirits ("intelligences") are trapped in a kind of death-loop. We cannot escape it on our own, this condition of recurring death (which Jacob calls a "monster").
We feed upon death. If you think about it, the Circle of Life (as we call it) is actually the Circle of Death.
Christ came to liberate us from Death in all of its forms and variations . . . by becoming death.
Wait, what? Paul taught this mystery:
No man dieth to himself. For whether we die, we die unto the Lord. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
Is it strange Paul calls Christ the "Lord of the Dead"? But how else would He become Lord of the Living, too?
It's a packaged deal.
"and he will take upon him their infirmities . . .
This is my favorite part of Alma's sermon: Christ could not save us by merely KNOWING our imperfection, weakness, and sins; His "power of deliverance" came from EXPERIENCING our imperfection, weakness, and sins.
Ask yourself: was Satan willing to EXPERIENCE these things? Or was he willing to skate by with just knowing them?
that his bowels may be filled with mercy
Here I was surprised: mercy? Why mercy? If I had experienced Gethsemane, I imagine I would be calling out for justice instead. How remarkable that, by drinking the bitter cup, Christ's heart broke instead of hardened, bled instead of seeking recompense.
according to the flesh that he may know
Ah, we see at last how Christ obtained His knowledge; how He "knows" us, all of us, every part of us.
according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
There's a lot to unpack in this statement. Usually when I hear this verse quoted in Church, people focus on the word "succor." Succor means to give help, to aid, to furnish relief.
This raises an interesting question: Why did Christ need to experience "in the flesh" these things, as opposed to performing a strictly spiritual redemption?
Well, it's almost as if Alma anticipated our question. He's going to clarify this doctrine, explaining as clearly as I have found in scripture why we need physical bodies.
You see, a lot of times people suppose discernment is a spiritual act; but discernment requires both the physical and spiritual; it requires "intelligence" (which, as I've explained in previous posts, is the acquisition of light that fuels our agency; specifically, exerting a spiritual influence upon elemental matter, thereby instantiating the unseen or spiritual upon the physical creation (at least when the physical is enticed), expressing into the physical realm the glory of God, which is a manifestation of matter that becomes glorious because it yields to the Spirit, or is "tamed", and becomes God's own tabernacle).
But if I stopped a group of members and asked, "Why did we need to come to earth?", I bet a common answer would be, "To gain a physical body."
"Why do we need a physical body?"
"To become like Heavenly Father."
"Okay," I continue, "Why does the Father need a physical body?"
"Uhhh. . . . "
That's the point where we usually get stumped. So let's consider the ramifications of Alma's teaching:
Now the Spirit knoweth all things
I believe this proposition; I believe the Spirit of God knows all things that can possibly be known at a given point. And you know what? Even if we knew all things, we'd still be incomplete. Our knowledge would be hollow. We'd still be inexperienced.
The apostle Paul taught this in a different way: Though I understand all mysteries, and all knowledge . . . and have not charity, I am nothing.
(1 Cor. 13:2)
Paul is suggesting that knowledge, itself, does not save us, but charity (specifically, the pure love of Christ). So how did Christ become so loving? What makes His love "pure"? And most critically, how does Christ's love redeem the physical creation?
nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh [third time, in case you're counting] that he might take upon him [third time, in case you're counting] the sins of his people . . . according to the power of his deliverance.
Let me conclude this post with an observation: the power of deliverance accompanies the power of creation.
In other words, a Creator always possesses the "power of deliverance" for His creations.