Transformation through the Atonement of Christ

. . . and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 11:19

“People don’t change.”

Outside of “Can we get some pineapple on that pizza?” I can think of no more soul-destroying sentence. The idea that people are behaviorally and spiritually “locked in” and have no hope of change makes life purposeless. We are simply marking time towards death, with our present dictated by our past and our future fixed by our present.

As often as we hear people say it, our actions demonstrate that many, if not most of us, instinctively reject this notion. We believe we can change. We attend church services, we pray, we spend countless dollars on self-help books and self-improvement seminars. We resolve, promise, and covenant to be better people. We stare in the mirror, convinced of the notion that, in the words of that great philosopher Mufasa, “You are more than what you have become.”

Then we fail again. Or someone else betrays us again, disappoints us again, or hurts us again. Instinctively knowing the energy that it takes to try to change, we can fall back on this notion that it is a wasted effort, and people just can’t change.

On our own, that probably is true. The “natural man” described by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon is more interested in inertia than personal growth. Left to our own devices, spiritual atrophy is not only likely, it is certain.

So it’s a good thing that we are not left to our own devices.

The atonement of Jesus Christ is not just a “then and there” concept, promising us a pristine eternal mansion after an earthly life of misery. Yes, that is the ultimate promise of the atonement, that we can be reconciled to God and dwell with Him in the eternities as joint heirs with Christ But there is also the “here and now” aspect of the atonement which promises us transformation in this life into something better than we would become on our own.

The scriptures are replete with discussions of what I think of as the “mortal resurrection,” the process by which our old selves are buried and we rise up as new people. We are promised new hearts, new spirits, new minds, and new birth. The symbolism of baptism is only half understood if we see it as a shadow of our eventual physical resurrection. It also symbolizes us transforming during mortality into a new person, a holier person, a child of Christ.

The scriptures also provide us of vivid examples of how that change operates in people. A privileged prince of Egypt becomes the liberator of enslaved Israel. A man who denies Christ thrice becomes a rock of testimony, the head of the New Testament church, and eventually a brave martyr. An abuser of the church becomes an apostle. In the Book of Mormon, an apostate son of a prophet reverses course and leads one of the most impactful lives ever etched in the golden plates. An entire kingdom set aside murderous hearts and become people of peace. All of these occurred only because something sparked their faith and turned them towards the Redeemer: The voice of God; a pillar of light; the touch of the Master’s hand.

More importantly, there are the moments that we have seen with our own eyes when a person is transformed from mendacity to magnificence, or more often just to a place a little bit better than they were. Thanks to the influence of Christ in my life, I am a different (and I hope better) person than I was in decades past. The desires of my heart have changed, and the focus of my action has come a little closer into harmony with the desires of the Savior. I would hope that a year or five years from now I will be able to look back at 2020 and see a change.

None of us is condemned to remain the person we are today. Although we may feel confined to cages of disappointment, underachievement, or sin, all of us hold the key to our own release: Turning our hearts to Christ and letting Him mold us into something new.

When we choose to repent, we choose to change! We allow the Savior to transform us into the best version of ourselves. We choose to grow spiritually and receive joy—the joy of redemption in Him. When we choose to repent, we choose to become more like Jesus Christ!

Russell M. Nelson

The Surprising Blessing of Adversity

Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

Doctrine & Covenants 122:7

I just finished writing what you are about to read. I didn’t intend to write it. I had quotes and media on another subject. But it just kind of came out in one piece. I apologize in advance for saying unpleasant things about a certain state in the Great Lakes region, but they kind of had it coming. If you are up for a longer read, welcome to my therapy session.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my mission over the last few days. I came home from Chicago 33 years ago, and I struggled at my homecoming to make my time spent there seem like the best two years of my life. There was not enough rhetorical polish in all of Central California to make that happen.

My mission was hard. When I arrived in Chicago, the average number of baptisms per missionary per mission was…one. If you hadn’t baptized half a person by the end of your first year, the pressure was on. We rarely had the opportunity to teach. Mostly, we tracted. All day, every day. It was like that Primary song: “Pioneer children sang and they walked, and walked, and walked and walked.” Except we didn’t sing that much.

A guy held a gun on me. An old lady swung a kitchen knife my direction. And those were the friendly ones.

Even the members could be a challenge, depending on where you served. In my first area, we were treated like family. In my next area, I went for a period of six months with exactly one dinner appointment. Our attrition rate was high for missions in the 80s, as the daily grind was more than some folks could or wanted to put up with. People went home monthly. One guy just got up in the middle of the night and caught a bus for Salt Lake City while his companion slept. I stayed, blessed with a long stint in the mission office as the fleet coordinator, where I worried about carburetors rather than converts.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the Lord asked me to spend two years walking around Lincoln’s country accomplishing little to nothing. It was like being sent to Nineveh, but without all the repentance.

What I didn’t know then was what the next 33 years of my life were going to look like. During those years I have sometimes been asked to endure stunningly offensive conduct by members of the Church. The bad experiences never have outweighed the good, but they certainly have stood out. I’m not going to share those stories. They aren’t worth repeating. But trust me: There are periods during which my principal feeling towards many members was nothing but animosity.

And as an aside, I’ve never been much on those talks about how people shouldn’t make the choice to be offended by other members. With all due respect, we need more talks on not doing offensive things.

At one point, because of some conduct directed at my wife, I was on the cusp of leaving the Church. I set up a lunch with a dear friend and mentor and talked to him about what was going on. At the end of my list of grievances, he asked me a surprising question.

“So why are you still here?”

I sat there for a few moments pondering that question. And I could only come up with one answer:

“I served in Chicago.”

Experiencing real difficulty and feeling like an outsider looking in for two years unquestionably prepared me to deal with often feeling like an outsider in the Church for the next 33. Church had always been a pleasant experience before my mission, and I had preconceived notions of what a mission experience should be. It wasn’t that. I learned that along with the angels and saints in the Church (of which we have many), we also have our fair share of knuckleheads, blockheads, meanieheads, and some wolves preying on the flock. And there are a whole lot of people in the middle (where I place myself), who have good days and bad. You roll the dice and take your chances with us.

My adult life in the Church has largely consisted of feeling like a foreigner and stranger rather than a fellow citizen. Even in wards where my love for the people is deep (as has been the case ever since I came to Texas), fitting in socially has never been easy. I don’t do the “guy stuff” that you usually associate with Elder’s Quorum. For a while I had a refuge in High Priests, where my health ailments fit in perfectly. Now they’ve moved us back in with guys that have way too much energy for me. No, I don’t want to play ultimate Frisbee. No, I don’t want to be in a weight loss club. I’ll pass on the Turkey Bowl. I want to sit my fat butt right here in a corner and finish this book.

Sunday meetings can be a struggle. It seems like well-prepared talks can be as rare as visits from the Three Nephites. If I comment in a class, either folks don’t get my perspective, or they do get my perspective quite well and are concerned that I am, in the words of one dear brother, “On the high road to apostasy.” I don’t know how many roads to apostasy there are, but it sounded like I had picked a good one.

And don’t even get me started on potlucks. One of those suckers almost killed me.

So why am I still here?

Because I served in Chicago, baby.

One thing I took away from that city was its attitude: I learned not to give a single fig for what anyone thinks about me. I do my thing, doing my best to be a decent husband, dad and disciple and to help others where I can. I know I don’t fit the Mormon mold (not supposed to use that word, but alliteration is important to me), but the people I like best in the Church don’t fit that mold either. That lesson I learned later in life from an older and even more cantankerous goat than me, who I hope I can someday measure up to. He knows who he is.

If I were to fit in better, that might be nice, but the relationship I am looking to develop is with the Lord. And only the Lord.

There’s another reason too. Texas ain’t Chicago. I’ve lived in the same ward for almost 30 years. I’ve watched people grow up, move away, and move back again. I’ve seen most of these people at their worst, but more importantly, I’ve seen them at their best. They are fundamentally good, caring, and loving people. They have lifted and carried me and my family through hardships that would be difficult to imagine. They have balanced my Church karma and helped me learn to look past immediate impressions and trust in the good that is in people.

I’ve learned to wait for the good to come out. More often than not, it does.

Without my mission experiences, I would not have been sufficiently prepared to deal with other challenges to my faith, and I doubt seriously that I would have endured in the Church. So I’m grateful for the challenges. Thankful for the grind. Appreciative of the fish sticks I ate in my apartment on Easter.

I’m thankful to Chicago.

Because of you, I’m not going anywhere.

Does Truth Still Matter?

For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Doctrine and Covenants 84:45

As a lawyer, I have a complicated relationship with the truth. Not in the traditional sense that people associate my profession with dishonesty, but in the very nature of the work I do. As a litigator, the “truth” in a case ultimately is whatever the finder of fact (a judge or jury) decides that it is. Because very few things can be proven with certainty, the task of a trial lawyer is to help a jury come to an agreement about which story they believe. In a courtroom, “truth” matters, but “Truth” as an overarching reality rarely gets past the metal detectors.

Our modern screen-based lives give us remarkable access to information, but it is provided with only a marginal concern for truth. The 24-hour news cycle creates a vacuum that begs to be filled with something. In response to a constant demand for some new thing, the media and social media fill that vacuum with rumor, speculation, and opinion.

Combine with that emerging technologies that alter and manipulate truth. Thanks to Photoshop and its progeny, we cannot believe our eyes. The altering of video and audio means that we can’t believe our ears. Whereas a skeptic in the past would insist on evidence that he could see, hear or feel, none of that evidence provides any surety today that you are experiencing what is true.

As a result, truth becomes less the subject of investigation and more of a construction project. It is what we choose to make of it, and once we have formed our opinions, we take comfort in our own wisdom and listen only to those who agree with it. Opinion takes little notice of truth.

That’s not the way the Lord operates. When it comes to our Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness, truth takes little notice of opinion. In my role as a priesthood holder, my relationship with truth is much more straightforward than it is as an attorney. I am taught, and believe, that truth matters and that whatever is truth is part of the essence of Christ. When we find truth, defined as the word of the Lord, then we are on the path to finding Christ.

That search for truth is not a Google-like process. It is not a matter of casually searching and stopping when we come to something that already fits our theological, moral, social, or political leanings. We cannot find truth by demanding up front that it comply with our personal world view. We find it when we surrender our views and open ourselves to the universe as God sees it.

I find it off-putting when people preface a religious argument with the phrase, “The God I believe in…” I’ve found that to really mean, “In my view.” The “God” that they speak of bears a curious and convenient relationship to themselves, perhaps with a whiter beard. Similarly, society now heaps praise upon someone who is “living her truth,” when in fact none of us have any proprietary interest in truth. The conceit that we do blinds us to any hope of finding truth, because that search rarely confirms our self confidence. Instead, it shows us that we require a realignment with things as they really are.

I am grateful for the true doctrine of revelation, and for the hope that if I set aside my mental baggage and seek in faith, there is a way to discover and confirm real truth. We all have that hope and God’s assurance that the path is open to make His truth ours.

It is a lifelong task to hear, to learn, to obey all the vast truths, for the gospel reaches into the eternities.

John H. Vandenberg

Wanting More

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have

Hebrew 13:5

Years ago I read a book by Dr. Mark Chamberlain entitled “Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction.” It is one of the most insightful books I have read, and along with what I have learned about “attachment” from the Buddhist faith tradition, and about contentment from the Scriptures, has provided me with significant help in my discipleship.

Chamberlain argues that in the current age of addiction, no matter what our circumstances in life, we focus our time and attention on the next acquisition. Once we have that in hand, we take little or no time to enjoy it, but instead start coveting a newer toy. No matter how much we acquire, we experience only fleeting happiness, then immediately restart the cycle of wanting more.

Buddhism teaches that suffering stems from attachment. Whether it is money, fame, friendships, or other things that we think of as “ours,” we suffer when those things are taken from us, or can’t be acquired by us. Suffering is the space between what we have and what we want.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, covetousness is of sufficient concern that it charts in the Top Ten of commandments, and is repeated in the New Testament just to make sure that we understand that it is still on the books. The Lord wants us spending our quality time doing something more than pining over the neighbor’s new jet skis.

Taken together, these teachings warn us that “wanting more” puts us in psychological and spiritual jeopardy. In a Sunday School lesson I was teaching to youth this morning, one young lady, talking about why people fall away from their faith, said in effect, “It’s about our priorities. We focus on what we really want.” When what we really want is money, stuff, attention, popularity, prestige, or decent pizza (I digress, but I’ve been coveting quality pizza througout my 27-year journey in the wilderness in Texas), we will spend our energy on getting it. If we aren’t satisfied “with such things as [we] have,” our efforts will always be directed earthward rather than heavenward.

In earlier English usage, “wanting” meant “lacking.” If we cannot find contentment with where we are and what we have right now, we will find ourselves lacking two things: The earthly blessing we see someone else enjoying and the spiritual peace that comes from contented living.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t work for personal improvement. In fact, we are commanded to strive earnestly for the gifts of God. But it does mean that our eyes will be set on the Lord, rather than the Lexus in the next lane.

Their meekness and larger capacity for spiritual contentment may be one reason why God uses the weak of the world to accomplish His work. The worldly are usually not very interested in doing what they regard as the Lord’s lowly work anyway.

Neal A. Maxwell

Divine Documents of Liberty

I, the Lord God make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.

Doctrine & Covenants 98:8

This is an interesting Fourth of July. At no time in my life, and likely ever in history, have the Founding Fathers been as maligned as they are right now. Even my capitalization of the term likely is suspect. Judged harshly with hindsight, the men behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are seen by many as hypocrites, racists, and human rights abusers.

I certainly understand that view, although I think that such criticism only tells part of the story and discounts the unquestionable good that these men did. I have no idea what my views on issues of race or gender would have been in the 1780s. I know they weren’t admirable in the 1980s. But I think it is hard to judge people in the past by our norms. And it is unfair to judge people solely by the worst things they’ve done. I certainly hope that God doesn’t operate in that fashion when assessing my worthiness.

But putting those political issues aside, I believe that on the Fourth of July we have the opportunity to celebrate documents that bear the watermark of divinity. For what it is worth, let me tell you what I believe about the founding of our country.

I believe that God works through flawed people to accomplish miraculous things. But only all of the time. Moses committed manslaughter. Abraham lied. Noah got drunk. Paul persecuted Christians. But their flaws are not their legacy.

I believe that the men we roughly group together as the “Founders” were as remarkable a group of men that ever has been gathered. I believe that they had prepared themselves to be able to embark on the great adventure that became the United States and to be useful tools in the hands of God. I believe God had a hand in making sure that those men were in that place at that time.

I believe that men behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were inspired by God in the moment they penned those words. Although the Founders were not always in agreement, nor were they perfect in their public or private conduct, in that moment God worked through them to help mankind take an unprecedented step towards freedom. Like the Founders, neither document is perfect, but I do believe they were both inspired.

I believe that each document, the Declaration in particular, embodied and expressed eternal principles. I believe that liberty and agency lie at the heart of our Father in Heaven’s Plan of Happiness. I believe that it was the intent of God to create a place where men and women would be able to make their own decisions, express their own opinions, and worship who and what they may. I believe that mankind was meant to be free.

I believe that even though the Constitution left people in chains and excluded large groups of people from political participation, it built a solid foundation on which good people could build even greater temples of freedom. I believe that has happened and continues to happen, and that countless people continue to enjoy the inspiration of God in those efforts.

I believe that we are a work in progress, and that as long as there breathe good men and women devoted to the cause of freedom, despots will be unable to reverse the progress we have made. And I believe that if we forget the highest ideals of America, we stand in danger of losing our liberties.

I believe that God still has an interest in our nation and still is willing to guide the process, if we let Him. But I also believe that if we abandon our faith in Him, we have abandoned the Author of our independence.

I believe these ideas have dwindled in popularity.

I also believe they are true.

I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed his stamp of approval on the Constitution of this land. I testify that the God of heaven selected and sent some of his choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government as a prologue to the restoration of the gospel and the second coming of our Savior.

Ezra Taft Benson

Burying our Sins

And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God…

Alma 24:15

My favorite story from the Book of Mormon is that of people of Ammon, Lamanites who had converted to the Gospel and who were overcome with guilt at their conduct in prior wars. (If you aren’t LDS, they were bad guys who became good guys and wished they had never been bad guys. Ammon was the missionary who convinced them to change their ways). Once they felt that they had been forgiven of their sins, they were determined never to go backwards.

To that end, they decided to bury their weapons of war. Literally. They dug a big hole and threw in their swords, spears, bows, arrows…I’m pretty sure that the moms even threw in their chanclas. Even though they had repented, they wanted to remove any temptation to backslide, and therefore they parted company with the tools of warfare. Even when the Lamanites later attaked them, they sacrificed their lives rather than unearth their weapons and the hard hearts that had been buried with them.

I love this symbol of commitment to Christ. They wanted not only to repent of their former lives, but they intended to bury their sins out of their sight. I can’t imagine that such people would sit around a fire and share stories of their exploits of war. They didn’t revel in their past. They made a clean break.

Not all of us are like that. Sometimes we look to our pasts almost wistfully. Other times we laughingly tell stories of riotous moments in our history for the entertainment of others. Like Lot’s wife, our feet are pointed towards Zion, but our heads keep turning towards Sodom. We might be better served by digging symbolic holes–or perhaps even physical ones–and burying the things that have been problematic for us in the past. Instead of reluctantly releasing our sins, we can just bury those suckers.

Another remarkable thing about this community is that they were under no commandment to do what they did. The Nephites (more good guys) maintained their weapons and fought when they needed to. Ammon kept his sword, and there is no record that he advised or encouraged the people to make this covenant of pacifism or to bury their weapons. They went beyond what was merely commanded in order to do what the Spirit told them they should.

By contrast, I know that I am guilty of doing the very least I can do. Being able to get through a temple interview is important, but it is equally important to be obedient to the promptings of the Spirit from moment to moment. Each of us has “personal commandments” given to us through inspiration, and keeping those commandments is no less important to our discipleship than the formal covenants that we make with the Lord.

The people of Ammon took extreme measures to protect their spiritual lives. Sometimes we have to take extreme measures ourselves, and we need to do so without embarrassment or shame.

We just pick up a shovel and dig.

Satan will try to use our memory of any previous guilt to lure us back into his influence. We must be ever vigilant to avoid his enticements. Such was the case of the faithful Ammonite fathers. Even after their years of faithful living, it was imperative for them to protect themselves spiritually from any attraction to the memory of past sins.

Richard G. Scott

The Astounding Miracle of the Resurrection

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

Luke 24:39

You have to feel for Thomas. For 2000 years, his name has been associated with “doubt.” But I can’t imagine that any of us would have reacted any differently to the news that a man you knew to be dead, killed in the most horrific fashion, was up and walking around. I think his response of “I’ll believe it when I see it” reflected less a lack of faith in Christ and more an affirmation of astonishment. Because for all of history the dead had stayed, well, dead.

Any of us who have stared into the casket of a loved one have known the feelings of finality that come with death. We wish with all our hearts to see the person open his or her eyes, tell us it was all a joke, and insist that we all head out to Whataburger and have a good laugh. But we know better. The person we love is gone, and were we told the next day that they were up and about, we would scoff at such nonsense.

Yet for those of us who are Christian, the incredible impossibility of resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. We believe–actually believe–that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and three days later lived again. The New Testament apostles focused on this element of the Atonement of Christ more than any other, recognizing that if people could believe this astonishing claim of resurrection, belief in Christ’s doctrines would come easily by comparison. The ultimate proof that Jesus was the Christ was that He rose from the dead.

I think that sometimes when we face our own hardships or find ourselves up against seemingly impossible obstacles, we would do well to remember the miracle that stands at the center of our hope: The resurrected Christ. If He could move the mountain of death, then our own challenges become comparative molehills. If we believe in the resurrection, then we believe that Christ has power that surpasses all understanding, and certainly power that is sufficient to save us as well.

Unlike Thomas, we have not had the reality of the resurrection confirmed by the physical presence of Christ. But as our testimonies grow and the roots of our faith dig deeper into our souls, we can spiritually feel the tokens in His hands and know. That knowledge of the power of He on whom we cast our burdens gives us the assurance that we can draw upon that power for our own salvation.

I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.

Bruce R. McConkie

The Savior Wants to Help

And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Matthew 8:2-3

Dealing with the Lord is so different from dealing with one another. For example, I am always hesitant to ask anyone for a favor. At best, I feel like I am imposing on them; at worst, I feel like I am taking advantage of a relationship, because there may never be a time that I can return the favor.

With Christ, the dynamics are different. Years ago, I was lying in an ICU unit in a coma, with an actual one-in-a-million chance of survival. My wife was distraught and desperate for a miracle. The problem was, three years earlier, two of my daughters and I were involved in an epic car accident that should have killed all of us. Back then she prayed for a miracle to save us. That miracle came. But this time, she felt that it was too much to ask for another miracle. It would be an imposition on God and an unfair request, given all of the good people who don’t receive miracles that they desperately need.

A sister in our ward was with her in the hospital waiting room and lovingly rebuked her. She reminded her that she has been commanded to ask for help when she needs it, and that God is able to provide more than one miracle per person. My wife realized that her job was to ask. The Lord could decide what would happen. So she asked. And, after a couple of weeks and a couple of flat lines, I woke up.

Blessings are not an imposition on God. When the leper approached Jesus he had two questions rolled into one. Certainly he wanted to be healed. But beyond that, he needed to know whether Jesus wanted to heal him. Thus he asked, “if thou wilt…” The answer from Jesus was immediate and direct: “I will.” In King James English, “wilt” operates like a contraction for “will it,” and Jesus’s answer indicated not what he was going to do, but what he desired to do. Thus these two short versus teach us an eternal truth about our Savior: He wants to help us.

Knowing this provides us comfort and confidence. How much easier is it to face trials when we know that the Lord wants what we want? Mortality is not a tug of war between our wills and God’s. In truth, Christ is on our side of the rope, pulling for us with strength that we never could match.

The New Testament is full of people who seemed to impose on Jesus while looking for a miracle. Whether it was a woman touching His clothing in the press of a mob of people, a Roman Centurion asking for the healing of a child who was not of the covenant, or people pulling the roof off a house to gain access to Him. In all these cases Christ made no complaint, nor did he chide those seeking His aid. Instead, each time e expressed His love for them and made them whole.

Regardless of our circumstances, there is no situation in which the Savior would tell us not to ask for help, even miraculous help. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Og Mandino, God is the creator of the universe and all that is in it. What is a miracle to Him?

When we feel we are beyond the reach of Christ’s mercy and grace and unworthy of the help we need, may we hear His voice telling us, “I will,” and then invite Him to make us whole.

Much like the leper, we can find strength and comfort in this life by accepting His will and knowing that He wants to bless us. We can find the strength to face any challenge, to overcome temptations, and to understand and endure our difficult circumstances.

Walter F. Gonzalez

Could Ye Not Watch With Me One Hour?

And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?

Matthew 26:40

The new Sunday schedule for Church has taught me something about my lack of patience: No matter how long a meeting is, it’s too long for me. Where I used to get fidgety at minute 45 of a 70-minute sacrament meeting, now I start squirming at minute 35. I sometimes think I have the lowest “gospel saturation point” of any man alive.

Because of that, I sympathize with Peter, James, and John who fell asleep while waiting for Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Despite Jesus expressing his sorrow and heavy heart and asking his friends to “tarry ye here, and watch with me,” they succumbed to their exhaustion and fell asleep. Not once, but three times. They were awakened from their first slumber with the Lord’s gentle but disappointed rebuke: “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?”

The question is a piercing one. Christ, who had just promised never to leave his apostles alone nor leave them comfortless, was neglected almost immediately by his closest friends. He who would watch over them for their entire lives could not be spared the attention of an hour. In the presence of the greatest event of all time, the Atonement of Christ, they slept.

It is easy to look at Peter, James, and John narrowly and chide them over the gulf of two millennia for not being the faithful friends that the Savior deserved. The harder examination is to look at ourselves and ask whether we afford the Savior enough of our time and attention. Are we able to watch with Him one hour?

That question causes me no little discomfort. I think about my restlessness in a fast and testimony meeting when three people rush to the stand with a minute left on the clock. I think about my quick, superficial prayers offered just before I rush out the door or just before I roll into bed to sleep. I consider my ministering visits and my unapologetic mantra that “shorter is better.” I suspect that I am more impatient with the Lord and His work than I am with anyone around me.

I think that He deserves a more faithful friend.

My hope is that I can learn to quiet the distractions of the world and give the Lord whatever minutes or hours He asks of me. I hope that when His work is being accomplished, I won’t just be nearby, but I will also be awake.

How many of us are sleeping when those around us are hurting and are in need?

Robert D. Hales

Effectual, Fervent Prayer

The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

James 5:16

One of the aspects of discipleship that always has been a struggle for me is prayer. Both in terms of frequency and intensity, my prayer practice always has felt lacking. The type of prayer that James describes, effectual and fervent, has been too rare of an experience for me.

Like most people, my prayers get more intense when outside circumstances demand it. Personal tragedy can drive us to our knees, sometimes reduced to wordless groanings of the spirit. But even though such prayers may be intense, they don’t always reflect our actual intent. In such circumstances we sometimes try to strike a deal with God, promising that if this cup is removed from us, we will never do “x” again, or we will fast every week, or we’ll start doing our ministering visits. I suspect that such dialogue sounds to our Father in Heaven like someone negotiating with a “collector” when they cannot pay their bookie.

Fortunately, such circumstances aren’t a daily affair, but that leaves us with the challenge of praying fervently–what Moroni called praying with “real intent”–when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis. We might think of these as “obligatory” prayers, offered by way of commandment rather than because we are facing an imminent need for the intervention of God.

You might think of these two types of prayers like calling home to a parent. Sometimes you call out of a sense of duty, or to avoid the guilt of not having called. You start the conversation without much interest and almost immediately begin looking for how you are going to end it. Other times, such as when you need to borrow money or your babysitter fell through, you become much more focused and perhaps more friendly.

There is, however, a third category of calls to home. These are the calls we make because we love our parents, value their opinions, and feel good spending time with them. Their presence in our lives brings us joy. We talk with them because we like to talk to them.

The same can be true of our prayers. Effectual, fervent prayer may be as simple as prayer motivated by a love for communing with our Heavenly Father. But “simple” isn’t always “simple.” I suspect that if we wait until we have knelt at the end of the day to prepare to commune with God we likely have waited too long. In order to long for a discussion with God, He has to have been on our minds during the day. We need to be aware of when His hand has reached out to protect or instruct us. We have to be sensitive to the moments when the Lord’s tender mercies have been extended to us.

When we have noticed the presence and grace of God throughout the day, we will be more inclined to reach out to him in humility and thanks and be willing to ask for forgiveness and guidance. We then realize that the Lord has been reaching out to us all day, and we decide to return His call.

Our hearts can only be drawn out to God when they are filled with love for Him and trust in His goodness.

Henry B. Eyring