Power IN the Priesthood

A teacher once asked in a Relief Society lesson, “What have you gained from the gospel?” My testimony was not great at the time so I thought I would struggle to find an answer. Instead, the answer confidence came quickly to mind. My favorite blessing in the gospel is the added confidence and power I feel when I have the Spirit.

Perhaps it is because I have often felt powerless and useless that this is what I focus on the most in the gospel. I want to find all the ways to increase my power. This might also be why priesthood has been a difficult gospel topic for me.

 About a year and a half after I returned from my mission, I was in a Sacrament Meeting listening to a man talk about the priesthood. He went over the two branches, the different offices and blessings, all the things I had heard before. He kept using the phrase, “Power of the Priesthood” repeatedly. “By the power of the priesthood, we can do this,” and “with the power of the priesthood, we can do that.” It started to make me mad.

I kept thinking that priesthood power was this separate and special kind of power that I would never have because I would never hold a priesthood key. Did that mean that this man was more powerful than me? Even after all I had done to learn and grow, why was I still unworthy of this other power when any man, even a 12-year-old boy, could have it?

That’s not true, I thought. I know I have power. No one can tell me I don’t have power.

I was thinking of that experience I had in the cemetery as a young missionary. I had felt the darkness and then I had been surrounded by light and I saw myself carrying that light and pushing back the darkness. The Lord had told me then that my light would always be stronger than the darkness, and I had no cause to fear. I knew I had power.

As I remembered this in that Sacrament Meeting, the image of myself in my mind changed slightly. Instead of the light emanating out from me at the center, the light was a column reaching up into heaven. I stood within the base of that column and pulled down light from heaven as fast as I could because I wanted so much of it.

The Spirit whispered, there is Power IN the Priesthood.

I understood, in that moment, that I stood in a conduit that connected me to heaven. The breadth and strength of that conduit determined how much and how fast I could gather light and power from heaven. The conduit was made of priesthood. Each covenant I made, each blessing I received, each calling I accepted and for which I was set apart, added to the walls of my conduit.

Even in only that one event from my mission, I could see the support of the priesthood. I prepared myself by making covenants sealed by the Melchizedek Priesthood. I had been called to a specific Mission by Apostles with priesthood. I was set apart as a missionary by my Stake President with priesthood. I was assigned to a specific area and trainer by my Mission President who had priesthood. That morning, I was given a priesthood blessing of comfort and counsel by my Zone Leader who exercised his priesthood keys. I was surrounded and supported by priesthood. Because of priesthood, I had power. That is the purpose.

Priesthood keys were not given to men so that men could have priesthood power. Priesthood keys were given to the children of god so that the power of God could cover and bless all of God’s children.

There is so much that makes us feel powerless in this world. My favorite part of spirituality, the greatest blessing from my faith, is the development of my personal spiritual power. This is also my hope for all of God’s children. May you find your power.

An Eye Single to the Glory of God

Once, many years ago, I went to the temple feeling overwhelmed and stretched in too many directions. I prayed, hoping the Lord would sort through it all and tell me my priorities. How was I to balance being a good mother, wife, scientist, home maker, saint,…on and on and on? My hope was that the Lord would take some of those things off my list by telling me they weren’t really that important. My actual answer was, “keep your eye single to the Glory of God.” 

What is the Glory of God? I thought, and I knew instantly that it was us—His children. I thought of all the things God does for us, how He lifts and teaches.

My to-do list started to change from tasks to people. I thought of the people I served, those I loved and sought to help, and what kind of help they actually needed. When I viewed the people, the tasks started to change. 

For example, I hate doing dishes, but I love my children and we need to eat off of clean dishes for several health reasons. This seems like a necessary service to give my family. Yet, when I thought of the service my children needed, it was not clean dishes that came to mind. It was time spent with their mother and learning. If they could cook and clean with me, we would be spending important time together and they could learn and grow.

This all sounds beautiful in theory, and in my head it was exciting. In practice, however, not so much. The tasks were too complicated for them. They worked very slowly. They would rather watch TV. Remember, this impression came to me years ago, and I’m still working on it. 

I keep trying to make chores a team sport and focus more on teaching them and encouraging them instead of having it perfectly cleaned and totally finished. My ultimate goal would be that I don’t do chores by myself—the house is lived in together and cared for together—but I am not there yet. 

What I have kept, though, is that perspective of seeing people over tasks. Time together over appearances. This mental shift did a lot to ease the stress and anxiety I had been feeling and gave me a new approach in how to prioritize and think through my daily tasks. 

As I’ve worked on this, I’ve realized it’s not the tasks I need to let go of, it’s the expectations and the worry about how other people see me. 

I’ve found that I’m not always focused on the people that I want to lift and strengthen because I’m worried about the people watching. There are expectations I have put upon myself, not because they are what I need to do to lift someone, but because they are what I need to do to look good. It’s not that I’m vain—I know I’m not the best. What I want is just to belong. I want people to like me, even if the expense is stretching myself too thin, taking on too many tasks. In fact, I did this just last month.

So, how do I pull myself back? I’ve decided to look for people to lift, not for people to please. I think of my relationships and ask what I can do to lift this person?

A quick side note: it is an incorrect definition of power that says one person can only rise if another falls. When done correctly, power is cumulative. When one rises, we all rise. Lifting another doesn’t mean you offer them your back to step on. People may think they need things, or things done for them, but that’s not necessarily true and it might not be in your ability to give. Just like I needed to focus on people over appearances, I need to be sure I’m offering a true lift from connection and love and not a temporary fix. 

Sometimes, they need a bit of help, but more often than not, they just want someone to listen. Most people just want a little bit of praise and some compliments. Some, like me, want to be involved, and they are the ones I get to ask for help. In return, I get what I really wanted. I belong with these people because we have built a connection and a lasting relationship based on care and understanding. 

Are You a Perfectionist, or Do You Actually Want to be Perfect?

The definition of Perfect is one that often weighs on my mind. I think it is one of those words that is defined by the Lord in one way but used in a different way by our current society. Some speak it with adoration describing something so beautiful and wonderful it is beyond description. For others, it brings fear of overwhelming and unattainable standards. In trying to find a way to enjoy the beauty of perfection without being crushed by it, I’ve started to distinguish Perfectionism from actual Perfection.

I used to be excited about my perfectionism. I enjoyed designing the perfect masterpiece, doing the very best I could, or even performing the perfect experiment using all the proper controls and not forgetting a step so that everything would work just as it was supposed to do. I could focus for hours on what I wanted to accomplish, excited about the final product, and also thrilled when there was a problem to solve for it kept my mind fully engaged on something worthwhile and wonderful. I would get a tremendous rush when I finished something I was proud of, and that got me a good grade, but somehow, as I grew up, all of these things turned into a burden.

I first noticed that I could not be as fully engaged in my projects as I wanted to because there were so many of them. Mother’s with full lives, however, cannot cut out everything. There are so many things to try and do perfectly. I became impatient with myself for not moving faster, doing more, being better. The pictures in my head, my dreams of what I wanted to accomplish, seemed so far away. Problems were no longer exciting puzzles, but more indications that I lacked ability or talent. I couldn’t do anything the way it should be done. Eventually, projects became so daunting that I would abandon them. I was afraid to try.

In Christ’s sermon in Matthew chapter 5 he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This seems like a very tall order. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we emphasize that faith without works is dead and we do tend to keep ourselves very busy. However, defining Perfect, or Faith, or Value according to what I could do had become my problem.

President Nelson taught in a 1995 General Conference that the word perfect in this scripture was translated from the Greek word telios meaning complete, finished, fully developed. He continued by saying, “Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’” In 2017, Elder Holland taught us to “strive for steady improvement without obsessing over…’toxic perfectionism.’” We are to look forward to perfection, to be patient and forgiving of shortcomings for we are not yet finished.

While I love these messages, and I do try to be more patient and gentler with myself, I still get frustrated. About a year ago, I looked around and noticed I had not finished anything in a very long time. I had started various projects and worked intermittently on them, but never completed them. And I realized that one of the fears of Perfectionism is that you won’t reach the end unless you do everything right. Where is my hope to come from that I will reach that “distant objective” if I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do?

I started again, determined to finish my goals, even if they still held errors. I simply wanted to finish because I thought these small things would be my progress markers and boost my confident that I could do larger ones. I told myself, Christen, just finish something-even if it’s flawed, it will be done. And I couldn’t. I found that my efforts never met my expectations of what I wanted, and thus held me back from getting any joy from any accomplishment. Were my standards too high? Did I need to lower my dreams, accept less from myself, just so I could finish something that didn’t make me happy anyway? I took a long look at what was actually holding me back. This is when I really started to see the difference between Perfectionism and actual Perfection.

The fear of Perfectionism still held me back because I kept thinking about what other people would say. When I presented my finished product, what would be my grade? Would they see my errors? I realized that I was trying to prove myself, individually, to others who were outside waiting to judge me. Perfectionism is very disconnecting. We are like neighbors throwing things at each other over a fence. I, striving to meet the expectations thrown at me, throw my projects out, only to have them thrown back with criticism or praise, probably a mixture of both. But I am never with my neighbors—we never actually work together. I work by myself and then await the judgement. And they do the same in their own way, in their own yard.

My favorite part of the intercessory prayer, found in John 17:21-23, is when Jesus pleads with the Father, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us;…that they may be made perfect in one.” As I have thought about all of this, I have come to the conclusion that Perfection and Unity go together hand in hand. I cannot be whole if I allow others to dictate what I should do at the expense of my own yearnings. Neither can I be whole without true compassion, the ability to learn from others such that they can fill the holes left from my own limitations. No one can be truly Perfect alone. The final achievement of this is after this life when we are reunited with God and loved ones in a way that cannot be fully accomplished here. That is our distant objective. Yet, we can find unity here and now and thus have the assurance that we are going the right way.

I’ve approached my projects again with a determination to finish them and do it correctly—not by looking for flaws but by looking for unity. What is the motivation behind this goal? What is the purpose of this project? Am I trying to create something I can hold up to others or am I trying to connect with others?

Unity with myself means that the goal must be mine and mine alone. That is not to say that my goals are selfish or that I’ve completely cut myself off from others. Rather, seeking someone’s praise is very different from seeking to help them or to be their friend. I make an effort to involve others in my goal. Asking for advice, learning from them. While their input changes the appearance of the final product and the methods to achieve it, the end goal is the same. And it’s easier to have patience when you can feel that it is working.

Unity is love, peace, patience, understanding, joy, strength, and friendship. Doesn’t that sound Perfect.

A Personal Review of Depression

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways we can experience a depression and the different forms it can take. How difficult it can be to recognize a depression for what it is, even when you’re the one experiencing it. There are different ways to heal, different lessons to learn. For myself, I have had three, perhaps four, distinct bouts with depression, and they have taken on different forms. These are some of the things I’ve learned from my various depressions.

The first one was the worst. It came when I was 15, a fairly common time for mental health disorders to show up, but I wouldn’t say that it was purely genetic. There was a boy that I blamed my depression on because he began to bully and torment me when I was about 14. At first, I was angry at him and I told other people how much I hated him and how mean he was. But no one believed me. They told me I was the mean one. It took me years to understand how this happened, but he was saying things about me too, and they believed him over me.

After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Trying to talk to people about it only got me in more trouble. They told me I was too sensitive, I needed to let it go. I was too naive, if I knew more about boys, I would understand. I was too selfish, I needed to think about things from his side and stop trying to pull him down. I started to believe them. I blamed myself for everything and I was stupid, worthless, and horrible.

By the time I was 15, I had bizarre physical pains in my stomach that did not have any diagnosable source that the multiple doctors I went to could find. But I was also severely depressed. I was sleeping all the time, refusing to leave the house, watching TV for hours, unable to read, but also obsessed with solving puzzles. I would also fantasize about dying and committing suicide.

To many people, I was still a selfish girl who wanted attention and my illness was not real. I just needed a firmer hand, some believed, a push out the door, and my mother was being too soft. My mother just wanted me happy again. She took me to a counselor and a psychologist and kept trying to help me. My medications and the counseling started to work. I did start feeling better and oddly enough, all of the pain and hatred I had for myself started to turn outward again. I blamed that boy and all the people that believed him instead of me.

From this depression, I learned several things. One, emotional pain will sometimes manifest itself physically because the body does not know how to interpret it or fix it. There is a connection between the physical and the emotional that cannot be denied though it’s also not entirely understood. Two, my mind and body shut down as much as possible when depressed. I need to be vigilant in noticing the warning signs of when I feel the desire to turn-off. Three, anger is felt on the way into and on the way out of a depression but is often not present during the darkest part of the depression. Because depression is often a desire to shut down, it is characterized by very low energy emotions—apathy, lack of focus, disconnection, despair—and anger is a high energy emotion which can be a good sign though it’s also important to not stay in anger for too long.

Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse that centered in this depression occurred largely at church. One of the best things I did when my depression was bad was to stop going to church, and one of the best things I did to complete my healing was to go back to church. When I was doing better, getting back to my angry self, my mother told me that if I thought there were bullies at church then there would be others that felt the same way. “Go look for them,” she said, “be with them, believe them, and they will be your friends.” She was right. The others I found that were being marginalized and bullied became some of my best friends. I also remembered the spiritual feelings I had when depressed (see “A promise of light” for one example) and realized that if I liked praying, reading scriptures, and going to church because they brought me the Spirit, I shouldn’t let someone else keep me from being where I wanted to be. If God wanted me at church, who were they to kick me out?

Anger carried me for quite a while, but it couldn’t fix everything. I went with a desire to be there and a fear that someone would notice I was an imposter. I tried to sit in some unnoticed corner, I had panic attacks, I spoke very little. I realized that I loved the Church, but I didn’t much care for other Mormons. It took a long time (not until the end of my mission truthfully) before I felt comfortable with other Mormons without fearing them.

My second depression came after my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. My fear of losing her and being alone was profound and I again started sleeping a great deal and wanting to watch TV. I went to counseling sooner and found a psychiatrist. I was able to keep up with my studies at school, but I didn’t attend church as much. Those at church that knew about my mother’s diagnosis were very nice and supportive, but I didn’t really let them help me much. I did have fabulous friends at school that helped me a lot. Lessons from this depression: don’t be afraid of medication and counseling, take it, the sooner you do the better it goes and let people help you, you are not a burden to your friends, they care enough to sit with you even when you’re sad.

I struggle to call this next one a third depression because it did not go to the extent that I needed counseling and medication, but it was difficult. I was with a companion as a missionary that I could not leave, we needed to be together all the time, and she had very exacting standards. I started to feel that I did everything wrong, that I was not good enough to be a missionary, I cried a lot, felt tired all the time, and wanted to go home. Being mostly isolated as we were, there were few options for finding support.

Our Mission President had given everyone a talk from President Benson entitled Beware of Pride, and in this talk I found my coping mechanism. I thanked and praised my companion for something every day. When I did this, she was nicer to me. I don’t recall her thanking me or praising me in return, but she was less critical, and doing this for her made it easier to do it for myself. I will not lie and say this was wonderful—it was hard. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not known that we would only be companions for a few more weeks, but it did work.

I learned from this experience that I need to be nicer to myself. One of the reasons her criticisms were so hard to combat was because she did not say anything to me that I did not already say to myself. To have it confirmed by another person made it ten time worse, but I began to ask, why was I so critical in the first place? She and I were similar in one regard—we were both perfectionists. She is what I now call a high energy perfectionist, someone who can pay attention to the details and follow through with her grand ideas because she has enough energy for it. I am what I call a low energy perfectionist. I see the details, I have grand visions of what I want to do, but I don’t always have the energy to do it all which is why I always fall short of what I want and always feel like a failure. I used to wish I had more energy to go with my perfectionism, but my experience with her has taught me that moving that fast often leaves you blind to the things around you. I prefer my slower pace now; I see that I can do more than what I’d originally envisioned because my vision is broader. It is now my goal to fight off my perfectionism and be kind to myself.

My last depression was when we lived in Michigan, far away from friends and family. I was going through several intense struggles (see Problem 1, Problem 2, and Problem 3 for more details) and began to hate myself, God, and the people around me. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I did not recognize it for what it was. I was tired all the time, but I blamed that on my new baby. I started off with anger and it wasn’t until my anger started to turn to despair and I began to fantasize about leaving, shutting down, that I realized I had a problem. I went to God and took my healing seriously, but I didn’t seek counseling and medication. I can’t say why, this was a poor decision, and I do not recommend it. Perhaps it was because I kept blaming other things and thought I just needed to fix this or fix that and then I’d be fine. It’s possible I didn’t trust that anyone else would understand. Maybe I was afraid that people would blame me again or be dismissive about my pain. For whatever reason, I didn’t think of this as a depression until years later when I was finally out of it enough to see clearly.

One thing I learned from this one was the need to talk to other people. I think my husband knew I was depressed before I did, but because I saw him as one of the problems that I needed to fix, I wasn’t listening very well. I got mad at the people at church because they were more concerned about my husband than they were about me. They wanted to answer his questions and help him feel welcomed at church, all very good. But there is no magic answer or silver bullet for someone like him and friendship does not equal belief.  Meanwhile, as I was feeling very lonely and questioning my future, no one asked me if I had any questions or whether I needed more fellowship. Neither my Home Teachers (male ministers) nor Visiting Teachers (female ministers) ever came.

I began to get a bit resentful. I felt invisible, taken for granted, and far less important than my husband. I remember trying to make a friend by going to a Relief Society dinner and then crying the whole way home. I started to think of them as shallow, stupid people. And my panic attacks came back in full force. Just like when I tried to go back to church after my depression as a teenager, I would panic in Relief Society, sit by myself in Sacrament Meeting, and say nothing in Sunday School. I loved the Church, but I hated Mormons.

When I look back on this depression, I think my biggest lesson was that forgiveness is the final healing. I needed help desperately but because I hadn’t really forgiven those first Mormons who had hurt me as a teenager, I didn’t allow the ward members in my college ward to help me, and then I didn’t trust the people in my Michigan ward.

I can’t say that I was wrong to avoid church until I was firmly on the road to health. I needed separation from the ones that were hurting me. But holding on to anger also held me back from finding new allies. I’ve been working more on forgiving those that didn’t understand and didn’t see what was really going on. I think I understand them better now and it’s helped me find new allies but also to be a better ally for someone else.

I learned these lessons from battles with depression, but I think they’re useful for everyone. Our bodies and spirits are connected, let them strengthen each other and don’t ever build one at the expense of the other or they will both fall apart. Deal with your anger, it can be very useful, but don’t use it for too long and don’t hide it away or it will destroy you. When you feel yourself turning off find ways to connect and engage. Slow down and be kind to yourself. Find those people that will support you and forgive those who don’t know how.

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone needs to have good friends, so why is that so hard for depressed people? I had a lot of friends before I was depressed, afterward I had one. Friendship is not easy for me, it’s frightening. But because I’ve struggled with it and worked at it, I think I know more now about how to be and find good friends than those for whom friendship is easy. Because forgiveness was hard, I know more about it. Because my mind and my heart are sensitive, I’ve studied how to take care of them. People who think these things are easy may mistakenly believe they’re stronger or smarter. But I warn you, we who have struggled are wiser and stronger than you realize.

Don’t stop fighting, it’s worth it.

Book Review: Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson

Silent Souls Weeping is a wonderful book both for those that have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression as well as those that haven’t but would like to know how to help. I particularly love her descriptions of the disease and those who suffer. There is much about mental health that is confusing—there are situational, environmental, and individual factors—but, first and foremost, Jane Clayson Johnson emphasizes that it is a disease with a malfunctioning body part just like diabetes or cancer. How and why the brain is triggered into a depression varies according to the individual. Some of us have more of a genetic tendency, and the depression can come out of nowhere. For others, it is prolonged exposure to threatening experiences that has caused a system overload. And, as with so many things, the truth is a bit of both. I have learned that certain situations and environments will lead me into a depression when for others they might not. Those situations are extremely stressful, and would be for anyone, but I seem to shut down and respond in ways that others don’t. For a long time, I thought it meant that I was wrong, I was broken. My favorite part of this book was how Ms. Johnson separated this disease from the identity of the sufferer. I am someone prone to depression who has to monitor and care for my body just like someone who has diabetes. I am not weaker than someone who’s never had a depression.

This book is filled with stories and examples from others that have suffered and the different strategies they have taken. The greatest benefit to someone who is suffering is that they will realize they are not alone. I found some of my strategies described in this book, but there were times when her descriptions and examples gave me pause. I’m grateful that she reiterated how individual each experience is and states that her book is not for self-diagnosis or for self-help. If you are suffering, get help and don’t use every strategy in this book. Only use the ones that seem right at this time. Another strategy might be useful later, but not right now, or it will never be a good strategy for you. There were some I use constantly, some I have used but only under certain conditions. Others I love and rely on heavily, but I understand that others struggle with them, and some that scare me and I don’t know how anyone could possibly do it, but it obviously works for them. 

I hope that someone who has never had a depression and doesn’t understand it could find compassion and clarity from reading this book. Through out her entire book, Ms. Johnson speaks about depression coming with a sense of isolation and its cure is connection. I believe she’s absolutely right and I applaud her articulation of depression as a disease that can be helped by our society as we work together. The stated scope of her book is to “raise the blinds” on depression and ease the stigma. Too often people are too embarrassed to talk about their depression and this only enhances their feelings of isolation. If we could reduce the shame people feel and speak more openly, then we could start to see the disease become less severe and our communities as a whole would be greatly benefited. 

She focuses on the stigma around depression in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in so doing, points out a few things within our culture that contribute to this stigma. We are a society of “do-ers,” she says, we love to serve and be constantly working. We take the Lord’s commandments seriously, including his invitation to be perfect. I wish she would have done more to dispel the misconceptions around these principles, but I understand it was not within the scope of this particular book. I still think we have a lot of work to do to be more inclusive, compassionate, and spiritually intentional in our communities and in doing the work of the Lord.

As a whole, I loved this book and wish that everyone would read it. It has given me a lot of food for thought, both with my own depression but also about how our society deals with it.

My final thought at the end of reading it is that our culture has become stronger than our doctrine. People that are prone to depression are not weaker than others. We do not need a lower standard or a different set of requirements. We need people to listen to us. Someone with diabetes cannot eat the same things that a healthy person could, but a healthy person could do quite well to eat a little more like a diabetic. I don’t have diabetes, but I still shouldn’t eat sugar all day long. Likewise, someone without depression could continue to live as our culture demands but that person would not be as connected to the Spirit or to the doctrine. If we were to listen to those who have had to fight depression and have done so with help from the Spirit and faith in the gospel, we would learn things we would be blind to otherwise. Depression makes us more sensitive to problems that others do not notice, and like canaries in the coal mines, we can be your warning voice that something has gone wrong. Building connections together will help the depressed person and will help the healthy person. We can all be made stronger together. 

Know the Doctrine, Purpose of Commandments: Part 4

Christ said that if any one “will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). This is my favorite reason, my purpose, for keeping commandments, because there is a connection between learning and doing. Somethings you can learn theoretically or intellectually through study, but to know the nuances, details, and further implications, you have to do it. See it in action. Black and white becomes blazing technicolor when you live it.

The health code that I’ve mentioned before in parts 2 and 3 of this series is about how to take care of your physical body. While the Lord does promise physical health, He did not title it a health code. He called it a “word of wisdom” and among His promises of health are also promises of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” (D&C 89:19).

In Doctrine and Covenants section 130, verses 20-21 read: 

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessings from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.  

But the verses 18-19, immediately preceding those oft quoted verses about obedience, say: 

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.   

This has made me wonder, what if the blessing is the knowledge? What if each commandment is linked to a doctrine and by living that commandment you are gaining knowledge of that doctrine? 

 I do not think the Lord is merely testing our ability to form habits. Commandments are not arbitrary; they have a purpose. They are expressions of love for each other, for God, and they prepare us to live with Him again. We are ready for the kingdom of God when we can love as He loves, do as he does, and know what He knows.

Commandments are how we bring doctrines to life. We see them in full-scale technicolor reality and thereby learn things we could have never realized without living them.

I have done this, so far, in two ways. First, by learning a doctrine in the scriptures that I wanted to use in my life and then purposefully living the commandment that could best bring it into my life. Second, by living the commandment and openly asking God to teach me how to do it better and why I’m doing it. 

For the first example, when I prayed about my mother’s breast cancer, I wanted to know the will of God, if she would be healed or not. The full story is here and here, but essentially I learned in an Institute lesson that the Father-child relationship we share with God means that when we pray we can be united with Him and our wills aligned as one. My Institute teacher used Enos as an example and I went home and followed that example as best I could. I prayed with greater consistency than ever before and with more purpose and sensitivity. In the end, I learned the doctrine about my connection to God, His love for me, His awareness of me, and His willingness to teach and show me His will such that I would love it and accept it as my own. This doctrine is no longer a story in the scriptures for me—it is my own story and it is a part of my foundation.

Many years after this, my step-father was undergoing a surgery that had him feeling very scared. I was living too far away to go home to help him, but I wanted to help, and I wanted to be there for him however I could. I thought of fasting and the promises of fasting in the scriptures, but, to be honest, I hated fasting. I would often have blood sugar problems that left me feeling faint, and it felt like torture. I simply never understood how torturing myself would please God and earn me blessings. I wanted to fast for my step-father, and I asked Heavenly Father to teach me how to do it correctly and to help me understand why the heck I’m even doing it and how it works. 

As I went through that day, focused on my fast, on my step-father, and the Spirit helping me understand it, I learned about the connection between the physical and the spiritual. The weaknesses that they each have at times but how they can work together to strengthen the other. I learned to love fasting because I loved my spirit and my body in a new way because they were connected in a new way. The doctrine of our temple bodies is not an abstract idea any longer. For me, it is reality and it is another stone in my foundation. 

Commandments as a list of “to-do’s” leaves me overwhelmed. Commandments as a list of “should’s” and “should not’s” leads to a binding perfectionism in which I will inevitably fall short and then berate myself. Commandments as learning tools helps me stay in a growth mindset. I see myself as a growing thing—not a broken one, not a weak one, not a stupid one. If something is too hard, I’m not there yet, but given time and a little more experience, I will be. I can keep learning “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12) and trust God when He says I do not have to run faster than I am able (D&C 10:4). 

We are all learning something. We learn at different rates, we learn things in a different order. We have various experiences and our lessons will be tailored to us personally. There are somethings that I will never know as well as someone else who has lived another life than me. Learning from one another is yet one more way to keep us united. Sharing with each other the hard things to help them become easy.

The full scripture my mother quoted to me in that hallway when I was 13 reads like this:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you 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. (Matt 11:28-30, emphasis added

Life is hard. Learning is hard. But with the right teacher and a good study group, the possibilities are endless.

Blessed with His Presence, Purpose of Commandments: Part 3

Perhaps the most popular scripture on obedience in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes from the Doctrine and Covenants. In section 130, Joseph Smith wrote down some instructions and revelations he had received, including this description of the relationship between laws and blessings: there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. 

I believe this is true. Our world runs with cause and effect, consequences are linked to actions. And yet, there are often causes we do not recognize as such, consequences we did not predict. As with all scriptures, we must use this one in its proper context and not get too wrapped up in assumptions and traditions. I fear that this scripture has caused a mindset that we can get the blessing we’re looking for by living the right commandment. I have a major problem with this. First, I find that it tends to generate an idea of God that is more akin to a vending machine than a Father and obedience as a way to earn tokens to said machine. Also, it seems to me that you are then only motivated to keep the commandments that have the right pay out. It’s like saying, “If you want to get more money, then pay tithing. If you’re rich and you don’t need financial blessings, don’t bother. That’s not the blessing you’re looking for so you don’t need to keep that one.”

The major fault with this logic is that it doesn’t correspond with the way God promises blessings. In D&C section 59 verse 16, the Lord promises that if you keep the Sabbath Day holy “the fulness of the earth is yours.” That is seriously broad. And for tithing, the Lord promises in Malachi chapter 3 that he “will open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” Just because testimony meetings tend to emphasize financial blessings from tithing doesn’t mean the Lord limits himself that way. You could get anything from heaven—those windows are pretty big. 

Even when it’s spelled out and the commandment and blessing seem to coincide rather well, it’s no guarantee. The Word of Wisdom (a health code I spoke about in my previous post) promises that the keeper of this code “will receive health…shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” It looks pretty obvious that the Lord is telling you how to take care of your body and if you do it, you will have a strong and healthy body. My mother kept this code and died of breast cancer. I have always kept this code, and I hate running. I get very weary. 

What exactly are we getting here? If I can’t count on getting the blessings I want, why do the commandments matter?

The Lord promises multiple times that if you keep his commandments you will “prosper.” The trick is, that the Lord sometimes has different definitions for words than we do because He sees things from a different perspective. To us, a prosperous individual has a nice house, new cars, maybe a boat, definitely lots of money. But if you think that rich people are more blessed than poor people, you have some reading to do in the New Testament. 

My favorite definition from the Lord for the word “prosper” is in 2nd Nephi chapter 1 verse 20: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence. This sentence creates parallel opposites. You can see the definition of the first through the definition of its opposite. Being cut off from the presence of the Lord is the opposite of prospering, thus to prosper is to have his presence. 

Prospering ultimately means to be successful. The Lord doesn’t measure success through riches because those have no value in the eternities. His goal is to have us with Him, thus we are successful when He is here with us. With His presence, we know how to use our resources to maximum benefit, we grow and develop our talents, we love and receive love.

What do we get when we keep the commandments? The presence of God.

Christ told his disciples, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you.” Now, there have been times when I have read this and thought, wow, that’s a bit manipulative; he’ll only be my friend if I  do whatever he says? But as I reflected on the times when I felt the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness—I know that these are the qualities of a true friend. 

Think of your closest friends. Why are you friends? Do you have a lot in common? Do you enjoy doing the same things and have fun together? I think friendship with Christ works in a very similar way. He has his hobbies and interests—they include learning from his Father, serving others, and spreading joy. The commandments are in many ways descriptions of how he lives his life. Keeping them is how you spend time with your friend. 

He wants to share our interests too—he’s interested in our work, our family, how we’re feeling, if we’re hurt or scared. There are those things that he is not interested in—hurting other people, gossiping, backbiting—and if we’re doing those he just won’t stick around for them. Anytime we want to be with him and do his things, we can. Anytime we want to invite him to an activity we think he might like, we can. 

This is seeking the Spirit. Paying attention to determine whether or not something is bringing you peace and joy. It could be walking in nature, praying, meditating, volunteering in the soup kitchen, connecting with family and friends. When you find those things, you’ve found your commandments. The presence of God will bring innumerable blessings personalized for you because you are His friend. 

Purpose of Commandments, part 2: Protection

In just about every lesson and sermon I’ve heard about the purpose of commandments, there is always the mention of protection. We are protected by the commandments. If we live them our lives are easier, we are blessed with peace and kept from pain and heartache that comes from unrighteous living.

There is much about that statement that is true. And yet, life is still hard. There will always be heartache and difficulty. Even when you are obedient, you are affected by the choices of others and the simple chaos and struggle of life. So, what exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Yeah, I’m not dumb enough to go looking for trouble, but am I really meant to live my life in fear? If the fruits of the Spirit are peace and comfort, and fear is the antithesis of faith, would the Spirit teach me righteousness with fear?

When I think of the commandments that have protected me, the first to come to mind is the Word of Wisdom. The Word of Wisdom is a health code that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and non-medicinal drugs. Living this way my entire life means I have never had a drink of alcohol, never smoked a cigarette or anything stronger, never even had a drink of coffee. There are those that think I’m missing out on something in life, but when I weigh what they are promising with the very real threat of alcoholism, I think I’ve come out on top. I know from several family members the hardships that come with addiction, and I have been affected by alcoholism from a very young age. Because of this, I have always had a fear of alcohol—a fear of becoming an alcoholic and of those who drink. This commandment eased a fear that was already there, and I have lived my life with incredible peace.

Near the beginning of the revelation that outlines the Word of Wisdom, the Lord says it is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints who are or can be called saints.” I see in this a sort of group protection for those of us that are weak in our tendencies to become addicted. I don’t actually know if I would become an alcoholic, but I’m afraid of it. My church community gives me safety so I don’t have to know the answer to that question; I can live a life completely free of addiction. There are those in my faith that can drink alcohol without becoming addicted. We don’t necessarily know who they are, because we haven’t tested it. As a weaker saint, I thank the stronger ones for giving up alcohol so that I do not need to feel pressured or weak. I can simply put it away and think on other things.

Surprisingly, my friends in college were able to do a similar thing. My friends would drink from time to time, perhaps having beer or wine at dinners or parties. Always considerate of me and wanting me to be comfortable, they made sure there were other options available. Sometimes this was including a non-alcoholic beverage, other times it was a way for me to leave should I become uncomfortable. If I went to a party being held by a friend, I always went early before people were particularly drunk and left early. I rarely left alone. They would drink less or not at all if it was a smaller party and they wanted me to be there and fully comfortable. They were always considerate of my choice in whether or not I would attend a party and made sure that I did so safely. In a very different type of community, I still felt protected.

Ultimately, I think the commandments help us protect each other. When we love one another, we care for one another’s fears and we seek to alleviate them. That is the work and fruit of the Spirit. 

Sometimes, when we teach a commandment from a protection perspective, we use fear instead of a voice of warning. Those we are attempting to teach feel threatened or belittled. The difference between fearmongering and warning is love. I could have preached the Word of Wisdom to my friends and refused to be with them unless they lived as I did, but that is manipulative rather than friendly. If they had not cared for my feelings, then I would have known they were not my friends, and I would not have trusted them and would instead have looked elsewhere. But they were always considerate of me. I like to think that they knew I would always help them too. I didn’t need to use fear, I just loved them. They came up with their own “commandments” to keep me safe and I kept mine. Protect the relationship first and it will endure even when commandments are broken, warnings not heeded, fears realized. When there is love and a desire to build trust, the commandments you must follow will become very clear. 

The doctrine behind all commandments is that God loves his children and is prepared to help and heal at all times. The price is paid. He’s not going to get mad at you for cashing in and using the help He’s ready to bestow. Please, don’t think of God as mean and manipulative. The more you know Him, the more you will hear the voice of warning instead of the threatening thunder.

In the meantime, think about how your actions are affecting those around you. Is there someone you’re hurting that you can protect by keeping a commandment? That person could be yourself. We all want to protect those we love, and God is no different. 

Hard or Easy, Purpose of Commandments, part 1

When I was 13, my mother married my stepfather. It was strange in many ways to be moving into his house, to have this other person with his own stuff, his own history, be a part of our family. We were uniting our households by combining our furniture and decorations, sorting through what to keep, what to throw out, what to buy anew. We were also learning from one another in a new way due to our now close quarters.

In the hallway of my stepfather’s house there was a cross-stitch of the Savior’s face next to a quote that read, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” One day, as we were moving in, I stood there in the hallway pondering that and really feeling that message. I thought, it’s so true. The gospel can be so hard, but it’ll be worth it. Just keep pushing. My mother then came down the hallway saw what I was reading and said, “I’ve always hated that saying. You know Christ never said that. What Christ said was, ‘take my yoke upon you, for behold, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

I still feel those two quotes battling it out in my mind from time to time. Something in the gospel will get really hard and I’ll keep pushing and trying, knowing a blessing will come and then I’ll stop and think, wait a minute, this is supposed to be easy. How do I make this easy?

Just like uniting households forced us to reevaluate our furnishings and our daily habits, keeping in mind these two quotes helped me reevaluate the hard things in the gospel. I ask myself why it is that I find it so hard. Am I afraid? Confused? Doing it wrong? Missing something?

While I think this can apply to all aspects of the gospel, I started this process with commandments. As a teenager, I thought it was very hard to keep track of a whole bunch of do’s and don’ts. When I became depressed as a teenager, the commandments that were supposed to help me become better were instead weapons wielded against me. These lists I gave myself, the should’s and should not’s, turned into angry voices telling me how weak I was, how I would never be good enough. Even as an adult, I am susceptible to the perfectionism that comes with trying to live the gospel and it inevitably leads to periods of depression. I feel myself torn between pushing through to keep up with what I’m supposed to do and just abandoning everything altogether. When this happens, I know it’s time to reevaluate. I need to ask myself why I’m doing this hard thing, is there a better way, what would make this easy.

As I look back and think about what has become easy, what I’m still working on, and what I’ve thrown out I find that it centers around connection. The perfectionist and depressed side of me will use perceived failures as a way to sever any connection with the people around me, the Spirit, and my sense of self. Perfectionism makes me afraid to try something with new people because I might fail and embarrass myself. Perfectionism tells me the Spirit won’t come because I have failed. Perfectionism says that I am not right, I am broken. But when I find the Spirit anyway, I know that I’m loved, I’m doing fine, people are kind and forgiving, I’m never alone.

There is truth in the saying, “it takes effort for something to become effortless.” Building connections is not necessarily easy from the get-go. The easiest thing would be to quit entirely. But quitting has only made my depressions worse and then everything gets harder. The work of building and connecting always gets easier with the smallest amount of effort. Using commandments as a way to build connections makes everything easier.

We teach a lot about the purpose of God’s commandments and the benefits of keeping them. I think we need to be careful that we not allow perfectionism to stick in its ugly head. Keeping commandments connected to their true purpose will help us build the other connections we need. Why do you follow commandments? What purpose and goal do you have that helps you do hard things?

Judas and Peter

This last week in church, we studied Acts chapters 1-5 and a large amount of our discussion was focused on Peter who becomes a valiant prophet for Christ in these chapters. As I read about Peter, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about Judas and how both men were in similar situations but reacted very differently.

Back when I was a Freshmen in college, my Institute director told us of one of his impressions about Judas. My teacher thought that Judas didn’t betray Jesus because he no longer believed, but rather because he was so desperate for Jesus to throw out the Romans and establish a literal kingdom for Israel that he tried to force a confrontation.  Until this point, when Jews tried to capture or trap Jesus, he always found a way out. They could not trap him; they could not touch him. Perhaps, Judas thought that if he forced a confrontation between Jesus and the Romans, such that his mortal life was in great peril, Jesus would finally do what Judas had been waiting for—declare himself beyond contestation and lead the oppressed Jews against the Romans. As we know, this plan did not work. Judas’ betrayal did bring about the end of Christ’s earthly mission as he finished the work the Father sent him to do, but it was not the work that Judas wanted.

Judas was not the only one that was confused about what Christ meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Acts 1:6 the apostles, after being with the resurrected Christ for 40 days, asked, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” They still wanted to be delivered from the Romans, to have their own nation, to be a people again.

I think this stuck with me so much this week because I have fought the will of the Lord multiple times. I have even tried to force the Lord to do my will and simply ignored His. He’s all powerful anyway, He doesn’t actually need me, right? I can do what I want to do and still get some blessings. But it’s never worked out the way I wanted it to.

I kept thinking of poor Judas. I think he did love Jesus and believed that Jesus was the Savior they had been waiting for, but he also believed he was right about what the Savior was supposed to do. His conviction was such that he was not content to watch and wait for the Savior to do his own work. Did he think fear held Jesus back? Did he think he was helping? Was he impatient? Was he fed up with being on the run and ridiculed by so many others?

Peter had this same confusion—I think it was common among the Jews at that time to believe their Savior was going to establish a kingdom of Israel and be a king, as his ancestral father David. Yet, Peter watched, waited, and listened. After Christ’s final ascension into heaven, Peter, with the apostles and other disciples, including the women, prayed, and Peter saw that even Judas’ betrayal was a part of the prophecy of Christ’s mission. The darkest and probably the hardest thing Peter had ever had to watch and suffer—the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of his beloved Master—was part of the plan. When he remembered the words that the “Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas,” Peter saw his way forward and began to become the powerhouse prophet we now know him as.

Judas never saw that. I think his devastation at seeing Christ’s crucifixion was crushing to him because he was so focused on his own plan that he wasn’t able to see God’s. I think Judas also loved Christ and seeing Jesus’ death and blaming himself for it caused his collapse. Perhaps he thought he was responsible for destroying the plans of God and that it would never be the same again.

I think this way about Judas because I’ve been in this position. I have refused to do something the Lord wanted because it wasn’t what I wanted. When my plan didn’t really work out, I realized the Lord’s plan would have been much better, but I had ruined it and there was no going back. Now, I certainly don’t want to end my life as Judas did. I’d like to live as Peter did.

The first thing I learn by comparing Judas and Peter is that you are never going to ruin God’s plan. When you fail, sit back and you will find that you’re still a part of it. God is too powerful and smart for us to mess him up.

The trick, I think, is in learning how to see God’s plan. We are all familiar with the scripture from Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” When I was stuck in anger, at myself and God, this scripture seemed to mock me. In my sorrow, I thought this meant I would never know the thoughts of God, I was too stupid so I might as well stop trying. I thought it meant the Lord didn’t care about my thoughts or desires; they were too insignificant for him to bother with. But, I have seen that this is not true. I think this scripture is more of an invitation for us to express our thoughts and desires to the Lord and then, learn from him. We can’t put our motivations onto God, we have to learn how to share in his. We may be lower now, but it is not God’s intention to leave us that way. He wants us to lift our sights higher.

Peter was able to do this. He stayed with the Lord. Even after he was, I’m sure, devastated after he denied Jesus three times, Peter went back. Even when he was confused, he prayed. I don’t think he saw the full end from the beginning, but he did see the next step and he got started.

Peter and Judas illustrate a battle that has been going on since before the world was. Will we fight or even force the will of the Lord because we want our own plan, or will we look for ourselves in God’s plan and find incredible power?