I am driving some of you crazy by going so slowly in our treatment of discernment; why not jump ahead to the juicy bits? I can hear Miss Daisy in the back, "Pedal to the metal, mister!"
"Tim, when are you going to get to the Anti-Christ and his anti-signs? Show us goats' blood! Introduce us to the Beast! We're tired of this tedious doctrinal mush. And what in the world does death have to do with the gift of discernment?!"
Patience, we are getting there. We might even find that death plays an important role in the gift of discernment (when you see it, you can decide whether there's any method to my madness). Then, when we encounter the Man of Lawlessness, we shall be better prepared for it.
But there are a couple of things we need to cover first, you adorable eschatological junkies. Discernment will help us navigate a future that appears perilous to the faith of many, as Christ forewarned:
For there shall arise false prophets . . . insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
The "very elect"? Why do the elect have so much trouble discerning true prophets from false ones ― I mean, if anyone should be able to tell them apart, shouldn't it be the elect?
"Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees"
Several years ago I took my family to Disneyland and became hangry.
We had ridden Splash Mountain and it was well past my lunchtime. I could have used a nap, too. My stomach growled unhappily. The nearest food was located at the Hungry Bear café in Frontierland.
Dripping wet, hungry, exhausted, and appalled at the exorbitant prices being charged for chicken strips and onion rings, I sat down at a picnic table to eat with my wife and children.
Tasting the food, I couldn't even swallow it: it was cold and dry.
That was the last straw. I sat there and sulked. I pouted. I fumed. The experience has become enshrined in my children's memory (who now call the restaurant "Hangry Bear" in honor of my meltdown). To make sure I never forget the occasion, they gave me an enamel pin that hangs in my study showing a bear holding the word "HANGRY".
Jesus was far too meek to ever become hangry (although He never had to endure Disneyland with a gaggle of youngsters, so).
The closest the Lord ever got to becoming hangry, I think, was with His disciples in Matthew 16.
The Pharisees and Sadducees had asked him earlier for a sign from heaven (and nothing makes a person ornery like a bunch of sign-seekers).
Christ gave them the sign of Jonah (Matt. 16:4) and abruptly took off as fast as He could. He traveled to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee and his disciples followed.
But the disciples had forgotten to bring lunch. "You had one job!" Jesus didn't scold them, though; He just said:
Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.
Well, the disciples whispered to each other without a clue as to what was going on. They said to themselves, "It is because we have taken no bread" (Matt. 16:7).
But Jesus overheard them; I can see Him rolling His eyes (is that something mortal Messiahs are allowed to do?), and then He does scold them.
But He didn't scold them for forgetting to bring food, empty stomach notwithstanding, but for their lack of faith and understanding.
After all, He told them, did they not see him feed the five thousand with a few loaves of bread? Here's a man who can fast for forty days; He'll be okay skipping lunch.
O ye of little faith . . . How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, but that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees?
All of the sudden the disciples have an epiphany. Something clicks and they understand, finally, what the Lord was saying. He wasn't talking about bread at all, but about doctrine.
Then understood they that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees.
What is "the doctrine" of the Pharisees? Would we be able to spot it? How good is our discernment? Does Christ care about doctrine?
You bet He does.
Does Christ care when religious leaders preach the leaven of false doctrine, which promotes unbelief?
You bet He does.
Discerning the Leaven of the Pharisees: A Modern Case Study
What is leaven? Yeast. What does it do? It makes things grow bigger. When I make dinner rolls, after the dough rises in the greased bowl, my boys love to punch it down with their fists before I knead and shape it; what had filled a gigantic bowl becomes a small ball I can hold in my hand.
The Lord's use of "leaven" as a metaphor in relation to the Pharisees (who were oh-so-obedient) is so apt: they were puffed up. Their doctrine reflected it. The Pharisees were obsessed with their "righteous" works (which, for the record, did not yield faith in Christ).
But the interesting thing about His use of "leaven" was its relationship to the Passover. Remember the Seder meal, when the Jews had to eat UN-leavened bread? What does that tell us?
Does it imply that our salvation comes not through our own "yeast" and efforts ("The Lord loves effort" = *divine eye roll;see Eph. 2:9)?
How do we sprinkle leaven into our doctrine in the Church today? What is the "Covenant Path" but rapid-rise yeast mixed with sugar and warm water? We can all see the bubbling in the bowl.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to use what we've learned about discernment and apply it to President Nelson's recent General Conference address, "Think Celestial."
Because President Nelson fell recently, injuring his back, he wasn't able to speak in the October 2023 General Conference. Instead, he delivered a pre-recorded message.
In his talk, "Think Celestial," President Nelson said, "Mortality is a master class in learning to choose the things of greatest eternal import."
Wonderful, I thought! That's true. We're off to a great start. And this notion goes along swimmingly with this Series' subject: choosing.
But things got rocky after that.
"Think Celestial" = "Think Telestial"?
President Nelson reminded us that in his first message as President of the Church he encouraged us to "make the celestial kingdom your eternal goal" and to "begin with the end in mind." Okay, sounds fine, I guess. He continues we should "carefully consider where each of your decisions while here on earth will place you in the next world."
Very prudent and reasonable. So what's "off"? Something is askew. Let's use our gift of discernment.
President Nelson continued, "Any addiction—be it gaming, gambling, debt, drugs, alcohol, anger, pornography, sex, or even food—offends God."
(Uh, food? This is where I start feeling guilty about the bag of Hostess powdered donuts I just polished off.)
May I ask: why does President Nelson believe God is so easily offended by conduct that he deems sinful?
This is a tad bit ironic since Elder Bednar taught us that being offended is a choice in his talk (appropriately titled) "And Nothing Shall Offend Them".
But God? President Nelson's message could be called, "And Just About Everything Offends Him."
Really though? Is this the God you know? Is this the God of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things, who gets offended when we use the term "Mormon"?
"If we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor these nicknames ourselves, He is offended." (President Nelson, "The Correct Name of the Church", emphasis added).
(Sorry Melchizedek Priesthood; you're a nickname; so now we'll have to refer to you as the Holy Priesthood After the Order of the Son of God. Wait, what was that? God said NOT to call it by His name in D&C 107:4?)
Why is President Nelson so preoccupied with behavior? Why is he concerned about us offending God (when God seems far more concerned with us offending His little ones, see Matt. 18:6)?
A Covenant with Death
The drama over using the word "Mormon" ― and the repeated emphasis the leaders have placed upon it (there was another talk devoted to it during this Conference) ― underscores where the heart and mind of the Brethren are.
In reality, nothing offends God, except, I guess, the times we are willfully blind and deaf (see D&C 59:21).
Can anyone explain why the President of the Church is preaching an Offended God? A Conditional God (remember when he taught that God's love is conditional back in 2003 in "Divine Love")?
What happens to our faith when the leaders spread leaven into the loaf, telling us, "If there is anything in your behavior or environment that offends the Holy Spirit, then the heavens withdraw themselves" (President Nelson, "What We Are Learning and Will Never Forget")? When the leaders insinuate we shall have broken families and "TK Smoothies" (i.e., sexless bodies) in the hereafter because someone drank coffee?
Take time to ponder this. What is Headquarters teaching us? What truth (or untruth) does their message carry? What are its implications?
Most importantly, where is the focus being placed? In what (or whom) are they telling us to repose our trust?
Surprise! Lucky for us, no other than Elder Renlund (of "prophetic prerogative" fame) answers these questions explicitly.
In his talk "Jesus Christ is the Treasure" (so far, so good), he counsels us to not "look beyond the mark" ― and then he goes on (I kid you not) to say:
"When we trust God’s prophet [who?] on the earth today and act on his counsel [whose?], we will find happiness, and we too can be healed [by whom?]. We need to look no further."
That statement beautifully summarizes the problem perfectly. The members of the Church are being told to "look no further" than the Prophet.
And what is the Prophet teaching? Moralistic living as a substitute for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Nevermind Lord, we all good with this leaven, yo."