What Ezekiel Taught Me About the Importance of Records and Detail

I love the doctrine that we can be baptized for deceased ancestors. This assures that God’s laws are just and merciful. He is aware of each individual and wants all to be saved.

But, I was a bit taken aback by all the talk of records and recording things on earth and in heaven in D&C 128. I didn’t like the idea that heaven was dependent on a faultless record-keeping system. If the Lord knows all, why does it matter if it’s recorded? If the Lord knows our hearts, why does He need a record to tell us if we’re worthy of His kingdom?

As I thought about this, I remembered Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Ezekiel is shown a city with a temple in extraordinary detail. The measurements are mapped out with exact descriptions, the land division was discussed, and the sacrifices explained in every particular. Yet, our temples today are of varying sizes and measurements, and our ordinances are quite different. Why was this detail required if it is not necessary for future generations? 

A couple of chapters after this description, Ezekiel is shown a river that flows out from the temple. In the beginning, the river goes only to his ankles. Further down, it is to his knees. Further still, it reaches his loins, and then eventually it is so deep and wide he cannot cross on foot. 

It occurred to me that this was an apt description of my time in the temple. The first time, it was nice but I didn’t understand it. Then I started to have some spiritual impressions there and it meant more to me. Now, I crave it and I love to go because I know I will be immersed in the Spirit. 

I think, sometimes the Lord gives us specific instructions as a way of saying, Pay attention. This is important. You won’t get it the first time, but keep working, keep trying. The further you go, the more you’ll understand. 

The Lord doesn’t require our records. We do. We need to pay attention, stay awake, and be vigilant. The doctrine of baptism and baptism for the dead is so much more than it appears to be on the surface. As with many of the commandments, it is a gift to us so that we may learn and grow. 

The early saints were excited about this new practice of baptism for their dead. They were eager and fast to perform these ordinances. I, however, am a little more complacent about it. I am slow to find names of those that need the ordinance and I drag my feet in taking those names to the temple. I know the Lord doesn’t really need the records, He needs me to know that it’s important. He needs me to keep crossing the river and getting in deeper and deeper so that I may learn the truth.

We are all connected as God’s children. All of us here on earth need to care for one another. This love doesn’t end when we die either. We continue to care for those that have gone before and they continue to care for us. The connections grow and spread until we are all together again as God’s full family.

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?

Act with Purpose

As an overwhelmed working mother, I thought only of my to-do list, and how I fulfilled my duties determined my self worth. If I didn’t do the laundry, I was a bad mother. If I didn’t get results from the experiment, I was a useless scientist. If I gained weight, I was a horrible woman.

We live in a world that assigns value to things on a constant basis. We even assign values to people. And for some reason, we often accept another’s evaluation over our own.

Perhaps someone has hurt us and we start to think that we deserved that ill-treatment. Or another has something we want but can’t have and we think that is a reflection of our own worth as well. We become so entrenched in our societies’ economical systems that it can be difficult to step aside and learn a new way to see value. 

In Michigan, I taught a youth Sunday school class for 12 to 13 year olds. We read the first verse in 1 Nephi that reads:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parent, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

I can’t remember my original purpose in reading that scripture, I only remember that as we read it, the Spirit told me I was highly favored. And I didn’t fully believe it. I honestly asked those young teenagers, “How do you know if you’re highly favored of the Lord?”

They started complimenting each other’s hair. Then mentioned their families. Then said they were grateful for the gospel. 

I’m sure that beautiful 13 year old girl with long blonde hair did feel blessed because of it. She complimented everybody’s hair regardless of color or style. But what about bald people? Or people that hate their hair? Are they still loved?

Nephi also felt blessed because of his parents, but Laman and Lemuel had the same parents and did not feel favored of the Lord because of it. Too many of us have bad parents that make critical mistakes, aren’t we loved? 

The gospel is important. However, we must be careful not to think we are better for being in one religion over another.

There is nothing wrong in being grateful for what you have, but when we think of these as measures of love, we might run into some trouble. Nephi says that he had afflictions but “knowledge of the goodness…of God” is what he focused on. This is available to everyone. I realized I was loved—I was just looking at the wrong measure of it.

Once, when I was a teenager, I felt miserable but also thought that the Lord wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t going to church. I was desperate to feel the Spirit and my sorrowful mind believed that I was too bad to talk to God. He wouldn’t listen to someone like me. 

I figured that if I could start doing better and show Him that I could be better, then maybe He would hear my prayer. My depression logic came up with one week of nightly scripture study for one heard prayer. As I read, the number of nights I needed to earn a heard prayer started to come down. Surely, five nights will be enough, a few verses later, maybe after three nights. By the end of my reading, I realized I was allowed to pray and the Lord would hear it. I felt the Spirit and I felt loved.

Commandments are not chores we do to earn nickels and dimes we can spend at God’s General Store of Blessings. Because society can only see the outside, it is society’s value system that determines love by what we do, how others treat us, and what we have.

The Lord sees our hearts. Commandments are God’s invitations to come and be with Him. Our obedience is our way of inviting Him to come be with us. We are loved regardless of what we do. The invitation stands even if we don’t accept it. If we do invite God to be with us, we will know how much we are loved.

What we do is important. We are always making choices even when we are passively trying to avoid making choices. The purpose behind those choices matter. We don’t need to earn love as much as we need to act to show love and accept it. When the purpose is true, our actions have power, even if they’re not perfect.