Sunday, March 29, 2020

Making room to listen

As I've spent more time thinking, praying, and listening to the Holy Spirit, I've deepened my understanding of my own need to make room to listen. This is true in many ways, but my focus is on one very specific way: to listen to the still, small voice of the Spirit, we must put aside distracting emotions. This does not mean that we must be mechanical or that our interactions with the Spirit are purely logical; on the contrary, trying to limit spiritual interactions to logic is an attempt to wrest control of the conversation from God. What it does mean is that if we are listening to fear or anger or passion or even the elation of daydreaming, we introduce (in the words of the late Elder Scott) a jalapeño pepper that overpowers the flavor of the Spirit's grape.

When beginning a session of study and prayer, I find it useful to take a moment to breathe and identify and release my fears. This is an ability that I am still developing. Perhaps the most useful thing I have discovered is that if I approach the Lord with questions intended to help me avoid mistakes (in other words, if they are a manifestation of my fears), I rarely get strong answers. However, if my questions are about seeking after righteousness, I'm much more likely to learn from the Spirit. (For more on this distinction, see this previous post.)

Series introduction: Lessons from the hermitage

The COVID-19 pandemic and the seclusion that we're imposing on ourselves as a result have given me a larger dose of solitude than I've ever experienced. It has given me an opportunity to think more deeply and more slowly about things than in the past. While the solitude has been a struggle for me, it has also been a font of inspiration.

I'm hoping that by writing the things I've been learning, I'll learn them better and, hopefully, offer insights that can be of use to my readers. I expect most of these posts to be relatively short and generally without any accompanying stories. I don't know how many of them there will be or how frequently I'll take time to write. I do know that I have a lot to be grateful for, including this deluge of learning that has come from an unfortunate circumstance.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

When definitions fail

Those of us who attended school in the USA or who have ever played Mad Libs are familiar with the definition that a noun is a person, a place, or a thing. We are also aware of the fact that this definition, however useful as a reference for those who understand the parts of speech, is almost completely useless for teaching these concepts. Personally, I was able to parrot back this definition for several years before the concept made any sense to me.

In a similar way, I remember being confused by the definition of faith that Paul gives in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The description given in Alma 32:21 is much the same. And, as with my understanding of nouns, my understanding of faith has developed over time. I don't know if I could give a better definition for nouns or for faith than the ones I have mentioned. However, I can share some thoughts and experiences that may help to explain what faith in Christ is, regardless of your level of familiarity with the concept.

Counterexamples

One of the oft-cited stories of faith in God from the Book of Mormon is that of the stripling warriors. The people of Ammon, who chose to name themselves after the missionary who had risked his life to teach them the gospel, had had a violent past. When they saw the error of their ways, they promised God that they would never again take up arms. In fact, many of them had been killed in Alma 24 because they refused to defend themselves. Some of the attackers had been converted and joined the people of Ammon when they saw that their victims would praise God even as they died. A few years later, their sons (who had not made this particular promise) volunteered to fight in their fathers' place to defend their country. These stripling warriors fought in multiple battles but, to everyone's surprise, all survived. One of these battles is described in Alma 56). In verse 47, we have an explanation:

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

At first blush, it seems obvious that they trusted God and knew that he would save their lives. But some of these stripling warriors may have been orphaned in the violence described some chapters earlier. Others may have been the children of aggressors who converted. It seems clear that they would have been aware of the fact that trusting in God does not always result in God doing for us what we hope. It seems more likely that their faith was like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who told Nebuchadnezzar in no uncertain terms that they trusted that God could rescue them from him and would stay true to God even if God chose not to save them (Daniel 3:17-18).

While not a matter of life and death, there are some similarities in my career path. I had a simple but remarkable spiritual experience when I decided to pursue a PhD with the goal of becoming a professor of computer science. It was clear to me that this was a path that had God's approval. Until that point in my life, I'd been successful in most everything I'd tried to do. This was particularly true of academic pursuits. However, I started doing research and so began a decade of failure after failure after failure. I revisited my decision many times over those years. I prayed and pondered and concluded time and again that I should continue.

I struggled to find research that was interesting and important to me. Once I did, I struggled to understand the things I needed to understand in order to do the work. Then, I struggled to publish my work. I was genuinely surprised when my committee told me that I could defend my dissertation and I hurried to schedule it before they could change their minds. One of my committee members was on the faculty at Brigham Young University, where I hoped to teach, and approached me about a postdoctoral fellowship (which is a fancy academic title for a wannabe professor). I happily accepted and thought that things were finally falling into place.

After a year as a postdoc and a year as a visiting professor, I was still struggling to publish and the department chose not to offer me a tenure-track position. I was frustrated, hurt, and confused. I concluded that staying on for another year as a visiting professor would not help me to progress and took a job in industry. That choice led me to move across the country and has brought with it a host of uncomfortable life changes. In the year or so since I decided to look elsewhere for employment, I've wondered many times what God has in store for me. I thought that the path was clear and that things would fall into place for me. However, God has not delivered me in the way that I imagined.

This is perhaps best summarized by the late Jack Rushton, whom Elder Christofferson quoted in this last conference:

Some people think that religion or having faith in God will protect you from bad things. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is that if our faith is strong, that when bad things happen, which they will, we’ll be able to deal with them.

The Bible Dictionary entry on prayer says more or less the same thing:

Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them.

It seems clear that faith is not a way for us to get God to do what we want. It also seems clear that if our faith were to require God to deliver on all of His promises during this life, that the complaints in Malachi 3 would be warranted.

Examples

Rock climbing

My brother is an avid rock climber. I'm a passable rock climber. When we're in the same area, we'll often go climbing together. One time, we went to a route he wanted to climb but got there a little later than we'd originally planned. Then, he couldn't find the chains at the top of the route and so it took longer. By the time I joined him about 80 feet above the ground, it was getting dark and we still hadn't found a proper anchor. As my mind started to fill with fear, I was struck with a realization: it was a bad situation, but I knew my brother. He's competent and careful. Remembering that I could trust my brother allowed me to calm down. We got out head lamps and he improvised an anchor and we descended safely.

Since returning, I've thought many times about my ability to calm myself when I reminded myself that I trust my brother. Whenever I'm struggling with a situation that seems dire, I try to remind myself that I know Jesus and trust Him to take care of me. Even if He asks me to walk a path that I don't like or that causes me pain, I trust that it will eventually lead to greater happiness than I thought possible.

Elder Bednar taught the same thing in his March 2013 CES fireside when he asked these questions to a young man with cancer:

Do you have the faith not to be healed? If it is the will of our Heavenly Father that you are transferred by death in your youth to the spirit world to continue your ministry, do you have the faith to submit to His will and not be healed?

Joy now for as-yet unfulfilled promises

Another aspect of faith is that it transcends time. Take, for example, Abinadi's discourse in Mosiah 16, which he gave around 150 BC. In verse 6, he says "And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come…" He then proceeds to explain the implications that would befall if Christ were not to come, all as if He had come already. Similarly, Lehi rejoices in a time of trial because of the promised land that he had been given while still near Jerusalem (1 Nephi 5:5). Simeon and Anna praise God for His Son's redemption when they see Jesus as an infant, still decades away from realizing that redemption for mankind (Luke 2:29-32,38).

In Joel 2, God tells us to "rend [our] heart, and not [our] garments" (v. 13); in other words, to turn to Him in repentance instead of mourning. He then offers us the promise that He will "restore to [us] the years that the locust hath eaten" (v. 25), or somehow give back the harvests destroyed by pests. God's promises are, inexplicably and miraculously, not confined to the present or the future. Somehow, He can even change or make up for past events.

If God's promises can even work retroactively, then John the Beloved's promise that "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4) means that we can trust in God, no matter our circumstances, and know that everything will be made right.

What causes you the most grief? The most worry? If you knew that God would take care of things. Even if it seems impossible that anything could make your wrongs right, imagine that you knew that they would be. How would you see the world differently? How would you forgive? How would you change the way you see and treat other people? How would you change the way you see yourself?

Joy despite shortcomings

So far, I have served two missions. I was a full-time missionary for two years in Brazil, where I focused on proselyting. I was not perfect, as any of my companions would quickly tell you. I wanted so desperately to be a good missionary that, in some ways, I tried too hard. Despite the sincerity of my effort, I reached the end of my mission feeling painfully aware of the ways I'd fallen short of the ideal I had sought to achieve in my service. Quite unexpectedly, on my last day in Brazil, I had a simple but powerful and profound spiritual impression that God had accepted my sacrifice and was grateful for my service. My service in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) was another mission. I had a similarly personal, albeit more musical, personal experience at the end of that service.

In the days and years that followed both of these missions, I was tempted many times to give into despair when I thought of my imperfections during my missionary service. God's merciful acceptance of my mission, however, had prepared me and I was able to remember that brief communication that had resonated through my soul and set aside my anxieties. In this context, faith in God meant accepting God's love and forgiveness and reassurance over my own fears. Day by day, He continues to show me this same mercy in ways large and small. I am slowly learning that my one and only responsibility is to "try, try, try". In the words of Elder Holland,

The first great truth of all eternity is that God loves us with all of His heart, might mind and strength. That love is the foundation stone of eternity, and it should be the foundation stone of our daily life. Indeed it is only with that reassurance burning in our soul that we can have the confidence to keep trying to improve, keep seeking forgiveness for our sins, and keep extending that grace to our neighbor.

Do you know that God loves you? If not, please ask Him. How does or would knowing that God loves you change your perspective? How can the security that His love provides enable you to be better? To repent? To forgive?

Conclusion

I know that God knows me and loves me. I know He feels the same about you. I know that we can come closer to Him by diligent study, earnest prayer, and by obedience to the things that we learn. And I know that because God loves us, we have nothing to fear.