What brings Miracles

As one does, I happened to come across some meme that was being shared on facebook, one clearly aimed at an LDS audience. There’s lots of them floating out there, usually with some snippet of a talk or some well-meaning sentiment. The ones I tend to notice however are the ones that, while well-meaning, fall short on the “actually right” scale. Those who know me will know my annoyance at things like the “I never said it’d be easy, I only said it’d be worth it” when Christ didn’t actually say that. However, the one I noticed today was, I believe, sufficiently wrong that it is not just a matter of me being crotchety, and worth bringing up here.

I’m not going to reproduce the image, since it’d end up being shared with this blogpost and people would get the wrong idea. However, the text stated: “Obedience brings blessings, but obedience with exactness brings miracles.”

I’m really not sure this is true.

And I think this is important because a lot of people can come to believe this: that they must be absolutely, 100% obedient, before God will intervene. “Obedience with exactness” can become a never-ending standard that only one person ever born on this earth ever met. But it isn’t true. I’ve been blessed to be a witness and a recipient of miracles on a number of occasions – and I’m not simply talking “happy coincidence” level of miracles (sometimes I think we sell such things short with low expectations, but that’s another matter) either – but I certainly haven’t been perfectly obedient. Yet I think this sort of belief can hold people, who are many times more obedient or charitable than I am, from receiving miracles that are otherwise on offer.

There are several scriptures I believe are pertinent when faced with this statement.

Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;

For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.

(D&C 46:8-9)

Spiritual gifts seem very much a sort of miracle, especially when we consider one gift is the “working of miracles” (D&C 49:21). Here in the verse above we learn that such gifts are for those who love God and keep all his commandments… “and him that seeketh so to do”, a merciful caveat. An important one too. I was fortunate while serving my mission, for example, to be blessed with many miracles. Yet I certainly cannot claim to have been 100% perfectly obedient at all times. I made mistakes, and so does anyone else. But did I want to be obedient? Yes, I certainly did, and I think that made a big difference. God takes our desires into account, not just our “results”.

However, there is one factor in the scriptures, more than any other, that is associated with the occurrence and the working of miracles. And it is not exact obedience:

For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.

Yea, and even all they who wrought miracles wrought them by faith, even those who were before Christ and also those who were after.

(Ether 12:12, 16)

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men…

(Moroni 7:37)

He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

(Galatians 3:5)

And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith.

(2 Nephi 26:13)

For I am God, and mine arm is not shortened; and I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name.

(D&C 35:8)

The fundamental precondition, aside from the will of God, for miracles is faith. Sometimes, it is true, that faith must be trust that even if God chooses not to act, that he knows best anyway. But it must also include a trust that he can and is willing to help and work miracles in the lives of his children, and that he is capable and willing to do so despite our imperfections .The Gospels contain a litany of accounts of the Saviour healing the sick and working mighty miracles, and then calling the recipients to a life of obedience. The entire premise of the Atonement is that God acted without waiting for us to reach some level of perfection: that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And so it is with his miracles. The Lord is not waiting for our perfect obedience to help us, but rather works with us according to our faith and His will, and it is through his help and miracles that we become perfect.

1 Nephi 21

Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.

And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.

1 Nephi 21:4-5

Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).

Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.

1 Nephi 12

And he said unto me: Thou rememberest the twelve apostles of the Lamb? Behold they are they who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them; for ye are of the house of Israel.

And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.

1 Nephi 12:9-10

I am struck by the description of the twelve Nephite disciples as being ‘righteous forever’. I often get disheartened by my own mistakes and errors, and that even when doing well in some areas one can then mess up things in others. The idea of not only being unambiguously righteous, but righteous forever, as a permanent fact, cannot help but be appealing. We speak of conversion (meaning sanctification, becoming a holy person) being a process, and that’s true (Nephi likewise talks of ‘the path which leads to eternal life’, 2 Nephi 31:18), but that end state seems both so desirable and yet sometimes so far away. Apparently the key is faith in Christ, by which our ‘garments’ (and to what does this actually refer? Alma 5:21-23 speaks of our ‘garments’ either being cleansed by Christ’s blood, or ‘stained with blood and all manner of filthiness’ – our ‘garments’ must be a reflection of the state of our soul) are ‘made white in his blood’. Sometimes, however, one can wonder if one really has the level of faith in Christ necessary for the power of His atonement to have that cleansing effect in one’s life. To which I guess the answer is simply faith: to trust in him, rather than any notion of personally achieving a particular ‘level’ of faith, and to trust that he has the power to save and to cleanse us despite our own inadequacies.

1 Nephi 7

Several parts of this chapter caught my attention today, setting aside the amusing fact that Laman and Lemuel seemed to have far fewer problems with this trip back to Jerusalem, or more seriously the considerable faith Ishmael must have had to believe these ragamuffins from the desert and to take his entire family out into the wilderness with them.

Anyhoo, two bits in particular:

Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.

1 Nephi 7:12

I feel there’s so much in just this short verse – not just the Lord’s capacity to do anything for us (though ‘according to his will’), but the crucial connection that we somehow seem to miss despite the obvious connection of the words between having faith and being faithful. We show and exercise our faith in God by being loyal to him.

But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.

And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.

1 Nephi 7:17-18

Deliverance can be a funny thing. Sometimes we try to save ourselves by our own efforts, and that often fails. Sometimes God gives us the power to do things beyond our own capacity, and we then do them, much as Nephi prays for here when he asks for the strength to burst his bonds. But in this case, God didn’t actually give him what he asked for: he went one better and freed Nephi by loosing the bands himself. Sometimes God has a better deliverance for us, and sometimes He will simply deliver us by His own power.

Not Luz

There was a man in a land that was not Luz. And the Lord, looking upon the man, saw Satan approaching.

And the Lord said unto Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, “From wandering in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

And the Lord said, “Consider this man. He has often fallen short, and oft stumbled. Yet he has always put his trust in me, and never denied me.”

“Of course he does!”, replied the Devil. “Does he trust you for naught? You have given him so many assurances of what is to come: of his purpose and meaning, of hopes of love and marriage and family, of your own care for him. Even if he finds them hard to believe, you give him comfort about what is to come, and he knows you can and have told him of these things. Remove them from him, strip him of his hopes and assurances, give him doubt that he can or has ever heard your will, rob him of any knowledge of your love and he will deny you to your face.”

“Behold, he is in thine hand”, said the Lord.

And the man was plunged into thick confusion. He no longer knew whether he could tell the difference between an impression from God and his own thoughts, desires and fears. He no longer knew if he could trust the assurances he had relied on. He feared his labours had been in vain, and that he had spent ten years following a false path. He feared he could not correctly hear the answers to his prayers and that he had been falsely guided, decieved by the devil or his own thoughts. He worried that he was a failure, and that even God misliked him.

And the man was grieved at heart and vexed in spirit. He wished for death, and his mind put forth designs for it. But he prayed unto the Lord:

“Lord, I do not know thy will and I am sick at heart. Please save me from despair, for I am alone! Lord, I know that thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie. I know that thou hast all power, and can tell me of thy will. I know that thou knowest all things, things past and things to come, and so can guide me right. Please guide me now, and help me to know what is true and not be deceived.”

And the man remained despondant and low in spirit. He feared he could not trust any answers for he knew not where it came from. Yet he continued to pray:

“But may thy will be done. For I know that whatever thou willest – even if it be my ill – is right.”

Thus it was that the Devil was confounded, and the Lord was vindicated, and in time the Lord gave the man peace and clarity.

Fear

Within the last two years I’ve had the occasion to really examine the role of emotion in my life. I don’t like to talk of “journeys” because that tends to sound like hippyish nonsense, but events and certain long-held beliefs in my life have forced me to confront either long-buried emotions or feel whole new ones.

At the same time, right at the beginning of this process, a friend pointed out to me that the scriptural instruction is to “bridle all your passions” (Alma 38:12). While my practice for most of my life has been to attempt to suppress my emotions, to lock them up in some mental concentration camp, a bridle does not kill the horse, or even stop it most of the time: the bridle allows one to steer the horse. So too with our emotions: Christ felt every emotion we do, the difference is that he controlled them rather than being controlled by them. Emotions are part of our immortal existence (both God and pre-mortal spirits feel emotion, e.g. Moses 7:29,34; Job 38:7; Abraham 3:28), and we cannot end them. Rather we must learn to steer them, so that instead of being a weakness our feelings may become a strength.

I’ve touched on this topic before, as well as the example of the Saviour, in considering happiness and unhappiness. But I’ve been giving thought to the role of other emotions too, particularly those we regards as negative, or as having no proper place. And the one that has particularly come to mind is fear.

I doubt that few other emotions have such a bad reputation – perhaps only hate is seen as a more negative emotion. I’ve heard repeatedly the claim that we should never fear, or that faith cannot coexist with fear, or that it casts out fear. There is some scriptural support for some of this: we are taught that we should “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36) and that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) though notice the latter passage doesn’t say faith. Yet the scriptures also teach repeatedly that we should “fear God” (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 2:17 and many others). While I agree that this fear has more the air of reverence and awe than abject terror, we find that the scriptures use the same words for the “negative” and “positive” uses of the term (and this is true in Hebrew, Greek and English). Thus Joseph Smith is told “you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7); the (undesirable) fear of man cannot therefore have an entirely different semantic meaning than the (desirable) fear of God. We are also instructed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, cf. Mormon 9:27), and told that at the very moment that the Brother of Jared was so full of faith that he pierced the veil and saw the finger of the Lord that “he fell with fear” (Ether 3:19).

What can explain this apparent dichotomy? I think we should realise first that just because some, even most, fear is wrong doesn’t mean all fear must be wrong; love, after all, while seen as more positive can also mislead, be distorted or be a snare for sin.

Yet I also think there is also something more powerful at play, something that I think I caught of glimmer of in the following clip from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bruce Wayne/Batman has been imprisoned in a pit, one that no one has climbed out of except for a child. While he recovers his health, his attempts to climb out continue to fail, until the following:

It is the dialogue at 1:04 onwards that gets my attention:

Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

How often do we simply try to deny fear, or seek some sort of world security – “a rope”? Are the scriptural injunctions against fear directing us simply not to feel it? As I have discovered with a range of emotions, trying to deny or suppress our emotions is unlikely to work. Surely such instructions are about not letting our fears (other than our fear of God) control us, not allowing such fears to prevent us acting in faith. For what is the truly faithful position, the real exercise of faith? Is it to act in complete ignorance of the risks we run and the dangers we face? Is it to only act when we have put our own safety net into place? Or is it to depend upon God in the full face of fear, to act in spite of our very real and grounded fears? To know that without Him we face a certain doom, and yet place ourselves in danger because of our trust in Him?

God would have us climb all manner of pits, but it strikes me that in order for us to learn to depend upon him, he would have us climb “without the rope”. I am reminded of the frequent instruction in scripture that when proclaiming the gospel that we should “neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). I’ve repeated that verse to many people, and many of them have something to me along the lines of “well it’s easy for you, but I don’t have your talents, so I have my talk/notes written out so I have something to rely on”. They do not know that I used to be utterly incapable of any kind of public speaking, that I even froze when trying to speak in sacrament and had to be escorted down from the stand. In order to speak, I had to let go of any rope and rely solely on God’s promise and not any notes. And I am still terrified. But God would have us rely on him and not our own papers.

How often does God have us climb without any rope? Why were the Children of Israel led into a dead end, with no escape from Pharaoh except across the Red Sea? Or Elijah directed to challenge the 400 Priests of Baal alone in full view of the people? David not only faced Goliath, but he chose do so without Saul’s armour. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew God could save them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t know that he would until they were thrown in. In each case, these ancient saints faced very real, and in some cases very avoidable, terrors. They were directed so that they all faced the climb, but were left without rope. They all had to face situations where they could feel fear and know that their only hope was the power of God.

I believe that sometimes it is only in such circumstances that God’s power is manifest, even to us. It is only in such circumstances, when we feel our own fears (whether that be to our life, or our livelihood, or some more minor but very real feeling matter) but choose to act regardless, that we can truly recognise our need for God’s power. Faith, I believe, is found not in denying fear, but in feeling it – even when directed placing ourselves in its path – but choosing instead in that moment to willingly risk our fears and depend upon God. It is only when we actually fear that our faith becomes a choice, and having made that choice – even having had faith longer than is possible – we can then see impossible miracles.

Unbelief, and membership in the Church of Christ

I haven’t updated this blog in a fair while, as I’ve been striving to finish writing up my thesis. And the next post I was going to do was going to be a speculative post involving spiders. That’s still going to happen at some stage (and people who speak to me in real life have likely heard at least some of it). But then something else came up that has sadly caught my attention.

Namely the recent reaction to the Church’s amendments to the Handbook of Instructions concerning same-sex marriage.

I’m not really going to discuss the actual policy itself, other than the section on children is an extension of the policy applied to polygamous families, and that entering into a same sex marriage isn’t just being classed as apostasy, it is apostasy: it is, after all, a public act in opposition to the Church’s teachings, not just the result of a yielding to temptation. Further context can be found here on the actual policy itself.

It is the reaction to all this that gets my attention. It follows the reaction to several other things over the years on social media (such as the Church’s efforts to support marriage, the “Ordain Women” movement and the excommunications of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin). I have become aware – who couldn’t? – that there’s at least a portion of Church membership who stand vocally opposed to the Church’s policies, and often teachings. This has struck very close to home, as I have seen friends and continue to see friends go astray in these things. People who were once my brothers and sisters in the gospel have abandoned the Church because of these things. I am not a diplomatic man, and I hold no ecclesiastical position of any major consequence. But if there are members, ersatz members and ex-members who feel free to comment in such a way as to lead my friends astray, then I believe I at least have the right to reply.

The real problem

Now this is not so directed as those Church members who otherwise agree with the Church’s teachings but felt some concern at the announced policies. There are other, better, things that they can read which hopefully address their concerns. But my observation is that those most concerned at this, and certainly those who are most vocal, not only differ with the announced policy, but some if not all of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the family. Indeed I struggle to think of a single blog article or facebook comment I’ve seen whizzing by in the past week that was critical of handbook changes which was by someone who didn’t also – explicitly or implicitly – object to the Church’s fundamental teachings in this area in the first place. So some comments about policy vs doctrine are misguided – while the exact nature of a policy like this may well take different forms, the Church’s fundamental opposition to same-sex marriage as contrary to the Lord’s commands isn’t new. That wasn’t going to change just because US law changed.

I have been struck, for a number of years, by a line from Alma 12:

Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption
(Alma 12:32, my emphasis)

This is quite a common pattern. When I was a full-time missionary, we taught people about the law of chastity after we had taught them about the plan of salvation and eternal families. We taught about fasting and tithing after we taught about sacrifice. Many of God’s commandments may be confusing to us mortals when we’re working from our own presuppositions about the universe – but they make fundamental sense when we understand and believe in God and His plan. The Church’s teachings on the nature of the family, the law of chastity and human sexuality make perfect sense when we know that He is, that Christ is our Saviour, that He revealed Himself to prophets who recorded it in scripture, and that He has established His Church in these latter days which He continues to lead to which He has given His power and authority. Likewise the administration of priesthood ordinances is not a mere social event, but the exercise of that power and authority that requires preconditions, including faith.

Now many of those writing these various posts, comments etc have certainly been in the Church long enough to learn all this. They’ve been taught it. “Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” If they are now having trouble accepting the Church’s teachings on family and sexuality, then what is the problem?

I speak bluntly. The problem is unbelief.

Unbelief

Now they may believe something, for example, that God exists. But it is impossible to believe that God exists, that He has revealed commandments in His scriptures and to His modern prophets, and that by His power Man and Woman may be knit together for eternity, and that obedience to this covenant is the path to exaltation, to believe all of that and yet believe that somehow God and His prophets have it wrong and that violating those commandments and barring oneself from what is required to gain exaltation must be morally acceptable. Somewhere there is a lack of belief.

Some of those who’ve commented have been quite open about this too – one I happened to read claiming that the individual had been a ‘practicing Mormon’ for decades, but never a ‘believing Mormon’.

This attitude baffles me. I find it incredible, yet I do know people who hold to this – who do not believe all the teachings of the Church, but who continue to claim a “Mormon” identity. What’s more is that some of these voices increasingly campaign that this *should* be the case, that the Church should give up any ambition for its members to believe, that it’s possible to be, say an atheist or agnostic and a Mormon (I would not have believed this had I not read it myself), and that the Church should be ‘inclusive’ of those who feel ethnically ‘Mormon’, but reject (loudly) the teachings of the Church.

I shall return to the last point later. On the former, it is certainly the case that those who are experiencing doubt and unbelief have been urged (as within the last few years by Elder Uchtdorf) to remain within the Church. It’s also the case that doubt and unbelief are not always the result of sin. But some have misconstrued this into thinking unbelief is an acceptable, or even a desirable state, and that one can be “faithful” and comfortable in the Church while remaining in a state of unbelief. This is not true.

For unbelief is a sin.

I’m aware that statement may cause hackles to rise. But sometimes things must be put as plainly and bluntly as possible. There are sins of the intellect. And I am not seeking to rise up as a great accuser here, for we are all sinners. I have my sins as does any man, and all of us need to repent. I’ve even recently struggled with unbelief: not as to the existence of God or the truth of His Church or anything like that, but in believing certain promises God has extended to me. I’ve struggled with some of that, and have had to strive to believe. I certainly lay no claims to perfection. Every one of us does things that are wrong, and need to change and repent. For us to do that, of course, we need to realise where we have erred, so that we might call upon God and that He might correct us. The reason people struggling with unbelief are encouraged to remain within the Church is – as it is for the rest of us and most of our sins – the Church is the best place to do that.

And far from being content in our unbelief, it is one of those things in which we sin and in which we need to repent. Christ “upbraided” his disciples for “their unbelief” (Mark 16:14), and taught elsewhere that “he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18). We likewise learn “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and are warned to “take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). In the Book of Mormon we find Nephi mourning because of “the unbelief […] of men” (2 Nephi 32:7), and are told directly by Christ (as reported by Moroni) to “come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief” (Ether 4:13). Finally in modern revelation we see Edward Partridge being warned that “if he repent not of his sins, which are unbelief and blindness of heart, let him take heed lest he fall” (D&C 58:15) and the Church as a whole taught that “your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received— Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation” (D&C 84:54-55). While faith and belief may not come easily, we are commanded to “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and instructed to “exercise a particle of faith”, and to not cast out the word “by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:27-28). Unbelief is a sin, but with God’s grace we can choose differently, by “experimenting” on his word, by yielding to the influence of His spirit and by remembering our previous experiences.

For several years now I have been struck by how important it is to remember our spiritual experiences and those miracles we witness. While there’s some – like the aforementioned article writer – who may have never have believed, others did at some stage. And for at least some of them, including some of my friends, that belief was not just a vain hope, but founded on actual experiences. I wonder what they make or even remember of those now, and there’s some friends I wish I could just shake: “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what it was like? What you felt and saw?” How I wish I could help them remember, for it is actual experience with the Divine that answers all questions and doubts.

The exclusivity of “inclusivity”

There is one final point I wish to briefly address, namely this concept that because of one’s ancestry and upbringing in the culture, one can continue to be a “Mormon” while rejecting the practice and especially the belief, and even that they should be permitted access to the Temple and so forth in spite of public disbelief. I have to admit this argument gets me angry to some degree, although I doubt that many who advance it see the implications of it.

Converts must believe to be baptized. To unite themselves with the Church, they must have faith and practice the first principle of the Gospel. And before they are baptized, they are asked about what they believe to ensure they meet the requirements for baptism. To become a “Mormon”, they must have and exercise their faith.

What is being implicitly proposed, then, ends up being a two-tier system. Converts must have faith to become members of the Church and enjoy its spiritual blessings. But those of a particular ancestry and upbringing need no faith to accrue the same benefits. I can only imagine what the Apostle Paul would make of this argument. As for me, all I can think is to paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: “Think not to say within yourselves that we have Brigham Young, or Lorenzo Snow or whomever to be our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Brigham Young”.