Grading on the Curve

POSTED BY: Millet

10/25/10


I was sitting in a Sunday School class once when the teacher began to address the issue of comparing ourselves to one another. He warned of the hazards of doing so and then added, “We should never compare ourselves or our situations in life to others. If you must compare yourself to someone, then compare yourself to Christ, for he is our Exemplar.” I reflected on that comment for quite a while that day and found myself thinking, “Oh, we should compare ourselves with Christ. Well, that certainly makes me feel better! From now on I will lay my deeds and my puny offerings next to his, and then I can really get (and stay) depressed.”

The fact is, comparing just doesn’t work. Period. We will either maintain a constant feeling of inadequacy or cultivate an inappropriate view of our own importance. Neither is healthy. Even some of Jesus’ chosen disciples were tempted to seek for positions of prominence, and the Master chastened them with the words, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26–27; compare Mark 10:28–41). Jesus himself set the standard and abolished all forms of spiritual pecking orders when he, the greatest man to traverse earth’s paths, described his role as follows: “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).

Andy Stanley put this all into perspective when he asked: “When you die, do you get to go to heaven if your good deeds constitute 70 percent of your overall deeds? Or does 51 percent earn you a passing grade? . . . Or what if God’s holiness and perfection outweigh his mercy and he requires that 90 percent of our deeds be good? Or what if God grades on a curve and Mother Teresa skewed the cosmic curve, raising the bar for good deeds beyond what most of us are capable of?” (How Good Is Good Enough? 45–46.) 

While for Latter-day Saints, salvation is a family affair, coming unto Christ by covenant and carrying out the will of God is an individual undertaking. When it comes to standing at the bar of judgment, a summary of our lives (including our good deeds) will not be placed alongside anyone else’s. We are baptized one by one, confirmed one by one, ordained one by one, set apart one by one, and endowed one by one. And even though we kneel in the house of the Lord opposite the love of our life in the highest ordinance this side of heaven, the keeping of temple covenants and ultimately the matter of being conformed to the image of Christ is accomplished one soul at a time. We are all in this together. No one of us is exempt from the examinations of mortality or receives a bye in the game of life. We’re here to do the best we can. The quest for spirituality doesn’t entail our being xeroxed into the image of another human, but rather the quest to have God, through his Holy Spirit, make you and me into all that he desires us to be. Through the years and after the Holy Ghost has fashioned our hearts, after the Lord has educated our consciences, after the Spirit has matured our judgment and enhanced our wisdom, then “when [Christ] shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moroni 7:48; compare 1 John 3:1–2).


Only the Blind See

POSTED BY: Millet

10/18/10


The gospel of Jesus Christ is the grand news, the glad tidings that through our exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, coupled with our repentance that flows therefrom, we may be forgiven of our sins and justified or made right with God. Our standing before the Almighty has thereby changed from a position of divine wrath to one of heavenly favor and acceptance; we have traveled the path from death to life (see Romans 5:9–10). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Or, as Peter taught, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7; emphasis added). Surely it is the case that we can cast our burdens upon the Lord because he cares for us—that is, because he loves us. But I sense that more is intended by Peter in this passage. We can give away to Him who is the Balm of Gilead our worries, our anxieties, our frettings, our awful anticipations, for he will care for us, that is, will do the caring for us. It is as though Peter had counseled us: “Quit worrying. Don’t be so anxious. Stop wringing your hands. Let Jesus take the burden while you take the peace.”  This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he pointed out that “f you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way” (Mere Christianity, 130–31; emphasis added). 

Following his healing of a blind man, Jesus spoke plainly to the self-righteous Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” What an odd statement! And yet it goes to the heart of that which we have been discussing—our need to acknowledge our need. Those who have accepted Christ and his saving gospel come to see things as they really are. They once were blind, but now they see. Those who choose to remain in their smug state of self-assurance, assuming they see everything clearly, these are they that continue to walk in darkness. Thus Jesus concluded, “If ye were blind”—that is, if you would acknowledge and confess your blindness, your need for new eyes to see who I am and what I offer to the world—“ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9: 41).

It was Jacob, son of Lehi, who wrote that those who are “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [the Holy One of Israel] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18; 4:10; 8:2). On the other hand, “the poor in spirit,” those who consider themselves spiritually bankrupt without heavenly assistance and divine favor, those who come unto Christ and accept his sacred offering, inherit the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:3; 3 Nephi 12:3).

Let’s be wise and honest: We cannot make it on our own. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. We are not bright enough or powerful enough to bring to pass the mighty change necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. We cannot perform our own eye surgery. We cannot pry our way through the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. We cannot make ourselves happy or bring about our own fulfillment. But we can “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in [us] forever” (Ether 12:41). Then all these things will be added unto us (see Matthew 6:33). That’s the promise, and I affirm that it’s true.


Unprofitable Servants

POSTED BY: Millet

10/11/10


For many years I wrestled with how to take a compliment. I don’t know how many hundreds of talks or lessons I’ve given over the last thirty years, but it’s been a lot. And more than once people have come to the front of the room to thank me afterward. Those compliments have been as varied as the personalities of the people themselves. Some simply say, “Good job” or “Great talk” or “I really enjoyed your message.” The more thoughtful compliments take the form of follow-up questions, requested clarifications, or an eagerness to get a reference or source of a thought or quotation. As a speaker or teacher, I appreciate the fact that they would make the effort to provide feedback.

For the longest time, however, I just didn’t handle such compliments properly. I would often say something like, “Well, not really; I thought it was sort of mediocre” or “Thanks, but I only got through half of my material.” My wife, Shauna, noticed my discomfort and suggested that I might take a different approach: I might try saying, “Thank you.” It actually works quite well.

In recent years, I have discovered another way to handle compliments, even gushy ones about how wonderful and inspiring I am. I find myself saying things like, “Thank you. It was a great evening, wasn’t it? The Lord was good to us” or “There was a sweet Spirit in our midst. I’m grateful I was here.” Those aren’t just handy homilies to me, nor are they insincere. The longer I live and the more I experience, the more clearly I perceive the workings of the Lord; if we have an inspiring experience together, all the glory and honor and thanks ought to go to God.

I can still remember very distinctly the words of President Joseph Fielding Smith at the April 1970 conference, in which he was sustained as the tenth President of the Church. “I desire to say that no man of himself can lead this church,” President Smith affirmed. “It is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ; he is at the head. The Church bears his name, has his priesthood, administers his gospel, preaches his doctrine, and does his work.

“He chooses men and calls them to be instruments in his hands to accomplish his purposes, and he guides and directs them in their labors. But men are only instruments in the Lord’s hands, and the honor and glory for all his servants accomplish is and should be ascribed unto him forever” (in Conference Report, April 1970, 113).

Such words should create feelings of profound humility, feelings of gratitude, of reverence, of resounding praise to Him who holds all things in his power and is the Source of our strength and very being. Elder Gerald N. Lund pointed out that “focusing on the word profit will help us better understand the concept of unprofitable servants. The word implies personal gain or benefit. Profit means an increase in assets or status or benefits.

“That is the crux of the concept of man being an unprofitable servant. God is perfect—in knowledge, power, influence, and attributes. He is the Creator of all things! What could any person—or all people together for that matter—do to bring profit (that is, an increase in assets, status, or benefits) to God? . . .

“That we are his children and he loves us is undeniable, and that situation puts us in a status far above any of his other creations. But we must somehow disabuse ourselves of any notion that we can bring personal profit to God by our actions. That would make God indebted to men, which is unthinkable” (Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation, 120–21; emphasis added).

To the extent that we realize who we are, Whose we are, what we can do, and what we can never do for ourselves, our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son will do everything in their power to forgive us, equip us, empower us, transform us, and ultimately glorify us. We may not have “arrived” yet, but we’re well on the way when we begin to acknowledge our limitations, confess his goodness and mercy and strength, and learn to embody an attitude of gratitude. In the language of the revelation, we are to “thank the Lord [our] God in all things” (D&C 59:7; see also v. 21). In weakness there is strength (see 2 Corinthians 12:9–10; Ether 12:27). In submission and surrender, there is power and victory. Thanks be to God, who grants us that victory through the mediation of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:57).


In Whom Do We Trust?

POSTED BY: holzapfel

10/05/10


A few years ago, a colleague and I sat at lunch with two prominent theologians. This was not our first visit together because we had met two years earlier and had had a sweet and delightful discussion of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his Atonement, the lifting and liberating powers of his grace, and how our discipleship is and should be lived out day by day. In that initial meeting there was no defensiveness, no pretense, no effort to put the other down or prove him wrong. Instead, there was that simple exchange of views, an acknowledgment of our differences, and a spirit of rejoicing in those central features of the doctrine of Christ about which we were in complete agreement—a sobering spirit of gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from the life and death and transforming power of the Redeemer.

Now, two years later, we picked up where we had left off, almost as if no time had passed at all. Many things were said, diagrams were drawn on napkins, and a free flow of ideas took place. Toward the end of our meeting, one of our friends turned to me and said: “Okay Bob, here’s the one thing I would like to ask in order to determine what you really believe.” He continued: “You are standing before the judgment bar of the Almighty, and God turns to you and asks, ‘Robert Millet, what right do you have to enter heaven? Why should I let you in?’” It was not the kind of question I had anticipated. (I had assumed he would be asking something more theoretical. This question was poignant, practical, penetrating, and personal.) For about thirty seconds, I tried my best to envision such a scene, searched my soul, and sought to be as clear and candid as possible. Before I indicate exactly what I said, I want to take us forward twenty-four hours in time.

The next day I spoke to a large group of Latter-day Saint single adults from throughout New England who had gathered for a conference at MIT in Boston. My topic was “Hope in Christ.” Two-thirds of the way through my address, I felt it would be appropriate to share our experience from the day before. I posed to the young people the same question that had been posed to me. There was a noticeable silence in the room, an evidence of quiet contemplation upon a singularly significant question. I allowed them to think about it for a minute or so and then walked up to one of the young women on the front row and said: “Let’s talk about how we would respond. Perhaps I could say the following to God: ‘Well, I should go to heaven because I was baptized into the Church, served a full-time mission, married in the temple, attend worship services regularly, read my scriptures daily, pray in the morning and at night. . .’” At that point the young woman cut me off with these words: “Wait. . . . Wait. . . . I don’t feel right about your answer. It sounds like you’re reading God your résumé.”

Several hands then went up. One young man blurted out: “How did you answer the question? Tell us what you said!” I thought back upon the previous day, recalled to mind many of the feelings that swirled in my heart at the time, and told the single adults how I had answered. I looked my friend in the eye and replied: I would say to God: I claim the right to enter heaven because of my complete trust in and reliance upon the merits and mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My questioner stared at me for about ten seconds, smiled gently, and said: “Bob, that’s the correct answer to the question.”

Obviously a person’s good works are necessary in the sense that they indicate what we are becoming through the powers of the gospel of Jesus Christ; they manifest who and what we are. But I also know there will never be enough good deeds on my part—prayers, hymns, charitable acts, financial contributions, or thousands of hours of Church service—to save myself. The work of salvation requires the work of a God. Unaided man is and will forevermore be lost, fallen, and unsaved. It is only in the strength of the Lord that we are able to face life’s challenges, handle life’s dilemmas, engage life’s contradictions, endure life’s trials, and eventually defeat life’s inevitable foe—death.