Saturday, March 21, 2015

"I Give Unto Men WEAKNESS"

In our meetings in the Church, there is a scripture that is often quoted to illustrate that God gives men their weaknesses in the flesh, and therefore our weaknesses are to be expected and in some ways, it seems, even explained away. After all, the reasoning goes, God gave them to us.

I am hoping to help others understand that is not at all what the scripture says. The Lord is offering comfort to Moroni as he compiles the gold plates of the history of his people, and Moroni is worried people will make fun of it because of his weakness in writing:

"If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble." (Ether 12:27).

Please take note: The word is "weakness" and NOT "weaknesses". There is a fundamental difference. As a young man attempting the read The Book of Mormon, I was not far into my studies before discovering I was not alone in my spiritual wrestles with God. I found a soul mate in Nephi, one of my early prophet heroes:

"Notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep. He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh. He hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me. Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime. And by day have I waxed bold in mighty prayer before him; yea, my voice have I sent up on high; and angels came down and ministered unto me. And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them.
"O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions? And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?" (2 Nephi 4:17-27), emphasis mine.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Nephi asked himself what President Uchtdorf asked all men of the priesthood to ask themselves at the last General Conference - "Lord, is it I?" Why do we continue to sin, even when we know better? And how is it our definitions of what constitutes sin become so convoluted as we rationalize away the conditions of our mortal probation? I remember one very bright and intelligent young man who explained his rationalization about pornography this way: "Bishop, I only really have one sin and I'm determined to wear that one out for the rest of my life because everything else is in pretty good shape except for that. Relatively speaking, I'd say I'm doing pretty well." I always wondered what his wife might say if she knew his reasoning. I don't really know what happened to him after that, but I pray he came to view his rationalization more clearly as he matured with a little more wisdom.

To refer once again to Moroni, the Lord declared: "If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble." (Ether 12:27), emphasis mine.

The word "weakness" is not plural and so cannot refer to the multitude of sins we all struggle with. Being singular, it most likely would refer to our mortal condition, which indeed, was given to us by our Lord, for He alone is the "light and the life of the world." We sometimes see our mortal flesh referred to in scripture as "the natural man" (see 1 Corinthians 2:14; Mosiah 3:19; Alma 26:21; D&C 67:12) or our "carnal nature" (see D&C 67:12; Mosiah 16:5; Alma 42:10).

By our very mortal, physical natures - our "natural man" - we all have an inherent tendency to commit sin. That tendency, not the multitudes of named weaknesses, as some would have us believe, according to what the Lord told Moroni, was intentionally "given" to us by God. How was it given? Through our inherited genetic traits, conditions under which we are raised, the torments and taunts of Satan's minions, physical and difficult mortal circumstances we are forced to live through, and others. And why are we so weak in the flesh? The scriptural answer seems to be to help keep us humble, penitent, and provide a way for our spirits to overcome as we grow in faith in the Lord's perfection and His power to redeem us from our fallen condition. Without a weak and sin-inclined physical body to provide the means for the opposition needed to sanctify us, the plan of salvation would be thwarted. In the overcoming, in the yielding to the Spirit, in the stretching of our faith, we are made better men and women than we ever could be otherwise. So we see, our mortal weakness is a blessing.

I loved what President Uchtdorf said about it:

"The words of the Apostle James apply to us today:
"God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up." (James 4:6,10).
"Brethren, we must put aside our pride, see beyond our vanity, and in humility ask, 'Lord, is it I?'
"And if the Lord's answer happens to be 'Yes, my son, there are things you must improve, things I can help you to overcome,' I pray that we will accept this answer, humbly acknowledge our sins and shortcomings, and then change our ways by becoming better husbands, better fathers, better sons. May we from this time forward seek with all our might to walk steadfastly in the Savior's blessed way - for seeing ourselves clearly is the beginning of wisdom."
"As we do so, our bountiful God will lead us by the hand; we will 'be made strong, and blessed from on high.'" (D&C 1:28). ("Lord, Is It I?", President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ensign, November 2014, 56-58).

I can bear a solemn and true testimony that when we ask God to show us our weakness and how we may overcome whatever tendencies to sin that impede our path, He will generously answer that humble prayer. There will be no holding back. You will be shown how to improve. When your prayers include how you may bless others through your influence, He also answers quickly and with precision. As you take action on the promptings, you will receive more and more. The cumulative effect can be inspiring and faith-building.

When we recognize tendencies to stray, to do evil, and to otherwise violate the basic operations of our conscience, we are not automatically and therefore evil in all things. Instead, evil only occurs when we submit to the tendencies and the temptations. (Mosiah 3:19). Remember, God has given us our mortal bodies through which these carnal or natural tendencies are presented to us so we may be blessed by "the enticings of the Holy Spirit," and thus become humble, penitent, and filled with faith in Christ. As we wander around in mortality, we may seek to overcome our own "natural man," and that includes being shown and coming to a full understanding of our personal weakness. By understanding that weakness, we will be better armed to completely overcome the temptations of the mortal flesh.

Remember, the grace of Christ is what delivers us as we repent and come unto Him. His perfect love for us is only possible because He paid the full price (no discounts) for our sins. It's what the qualifier, the big word IF means - "If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness." He will! He does! He liberates! He redeems! One of the most blessed scriptures I know provides eternal hope for all in these words:

"My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me — the fountain of all righteousness" (Ether 12:27-28), emphasis mine.

C. S. Lewis
I loved what C. S. Lewis said about the ongoing nature of our quest for becoming more godlike while we toil here below in mortality:

"When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected), he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along - illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation - he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet not the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us." (Mere Christianity, 174).

There is no end in our quest to be delivered from the struggles of our mortal condition, as Nephi reminds us by exclaiming:

"Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul. Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions. Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation. O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin? May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road! O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way — but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.
"O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen." (2 Nephi 4:28-35).

I pray we may reach a little higher, try a little harder, be a little more understanding and patient with others, in short, to be a little more kind and solicitous of the needs of those around us. As we reach upward and outside ourselves, we discover our tendencies to sin because of our mortal weakness become less distracting.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"My Favorite Scripture"

My 93 year-old father continues his tradition of writing to his former missionaries twice a year at General Conference time. His labor of love becomes increasingly taxing on his diminishing physical strength, but as you will note below, his mental acuity is still very much in evidence. I am so grateful for his thoughts in this latest post.

We all have a favorite scripture(s), and Dad encourages us all to share the reasons why in his latest missive. I hope you will all take a moment and offer some reflective insights on what and why you may value a particular scripture passage. Enjoy!

Beloved Missionaries:

George Frederic Handel
George Frederic Handel, one of the world’s most celebrated musicians, performed as a violinist and organist at an early age. After composing his first opera in Germany, he went to the center of the operatic world and composed operas and chamber music in Italy.

In 1711, at the age of 26, he moved to England where initially his works gained some acceptance, but with changing public tastes in music his style ultimately became outdated. He found it difficult to stay solvent. Under great pressure, he frantically wrote four operas within 12 months, but it took its toll on him, and the 52 year-old composer suffered a stroke. His right arm was paralyzed temporarily and a doctor told his secretary that he thought Handel’s brain had been permanently damaged.

Nevertheless, he recovered his health at the Aachen, Germany hot springs, and was delighted later to find he could again play the organ. Encouraged, he moved again to England and resumed composing, but his works were not well accepted and creditors again pushed him into the depths of despondency.

Late one August afternoon in April, 1741, Handel went for a long walk. Upon his return, he found that a poet and previous collaborator, Charles Jennens, had left him a manuscript with a request that he put his libretto to music. The text quoted abundantly from Isaiah and the New Testament, unfolding the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was to be an oratorio. Handel was apprehensive as he turned the pages of the text, but the glorious scriptures “Comfort Ye”, “For Unto Us a Child is Born”, and “He Shall Feed His Sheep Like a Shepherd”, chased away his gloom and he felt uplifted as he read the mighty conclusion “Worthy Is The Lamb”. He could not write fast enough to keep apace with the inspiration he felt as he commenced his composing.

Even though he composed profusely, Handel has become world renowned because of just this one masterpiece, “Messiah”, an oratorio which he wrote when 56 years of age, in just three weeks during the summer of 1741. He humbly acknowledged the inspiration of the Almighty by saying of his work, “God has visited me.”

I first became acquainted with this wonderful music when I sang alongside my father in the chorus of the Salt Lake Oratorical Society. The performance was a community tradition, then held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle each year on the Sunday nearest to New Year’s Day. Guest artists and celebrated conductors from New York and London were imported to head the casts. I came to love the music and I later found the texts also were forever imprinted in my mind.

Brent, top center, 1942
In 1942, I left for my mission to Texas, and was immediately assigned for the summer to visit the isolated members of the church to upgrade their records and perform neglected ordinances. My introduction to missionary work was going “without purse or scrip”, depending for meals and lodging on the generosity of strangers while en route to the next member’s distant home. In this stretching manner I learned what true faith really is, which was a perfect introduction to my ministry.

At the end of the summer, we settled into work in the city where at last I could begin an organized study of the gospel. I never had the benefit of Seminary or Institute classes, so I was just then becoming acquainted with the scriptures. I commenced my studies in the New Testament, because Texas was part of the “Bible Belt” where people were more inclined to listen to one who quotes from the Bible.

I hadn’t advanced far along in my early morning private studies until I came to Matthew 11:28-39. The text overwhelmed me with familiarity:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give ye rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

With the words pulsating to Handel’s music, my heart was penetrated. I found I knew already from the “Messiah” the gospel texts before I found their scriptural origins. I became enveloped for the second time with the overwhelming power of the Holy Ghost. Humble, and moved by the Spirit, I wrote in the margin of my Bible the word, “Beautiful”, to frame my emotional response. That headline has remained in my Bible ever since to remind me of this wonderful witness of the Holy Spirit.

Helen and Brent Goates, 1975
In 1975, I was presiding over the California Arcadia Mission with Christmas approaching. A sudden
phone call came from our daughter-in-law Janie, and without warning or explanation she asked, “Dad, what is your favorite scripture?” Pressed for an immediate answer, I instinctively replied, “Matthew 11:28-30.”

The conversation was forgotten, but before Christmas came we received in the mail the words of this favorite scripture beautifully woven in needlepoint. It has always been one of our most treasured Christmas presents. Sister Goates had the art piece framed and it has been featured in our mission home, and ever since then in the dining room of our homes in Salt Lake City. I have marveled many times at the popularity of this scripture, as it has been a theme of many conferences.

But one’s favorite scripture must offer more than just poetic and emotional rewards. A doctrinal basis must be explored to find the real treasure. In my scripture the question was: “What is the meaning of ‘rest’ in this promise?” Was the key word “rest” a condition or a place? A condition is suggested similar to Alma’s description of the reward for the faithful in Paradise, who will rest from all their cares and sorrows (Alma 41:12). Or is it the ultimate place in eternity with God and Christ?

Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985) taught, “The rest of the Lord, where mortals are concerned, is to gain a perfect knowledge of the divinity of the great latter-day work.” President Joseph F. Smith, also speaking of mortality, said it is “rest from the religious turmoil of the world.” But in eternity, McConkie said, “It is entering into the presence of the Lord.” The climax for me came from latter-day scripture which relates how the Israelites under Moses failed to enter “into His rest”, and then provided the definition, “which rest is the fulness of His glory.” (D&C 84:24).

The evolution of discovering and comprehending and then living for the blessings of my favorite scripture has been a lifetime work. Now, what is your story? Have you written it and shared it with your family? As I have shared my scriptural odyssey with you, I hope you will do likewise for your loved ones.

Always your friend,

President L. Brent Goates