This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 253rd week, and we’re taking a break from historical General Conferences to cover all sessions of the October 2020 General Conference.
Two nights ago, I prayed for things that Heavenly Father was already going to give me anyway. I prayed for Him to never leave me alone. To never stop calling me to come back home. To never lose patience with me. To never stop being ready to forgive me. To never give up on me.
I did not pray for these things because I was afraid they might not come true. I knew, even as I spoke the words, that I was only praying for Heavenly Father to do exactly what He had always done, and what He had always promised to do. I asked anyway.
Nephi quoted his younger brother, Jacob, who taught that without the intervention of a Savior, “our spirits must become like unto [the devil], and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself.” (2 Nephi 9:9)
I know this is true.
I don’t say this with melodrama. I am not a great soul, and I don’t think I have much capacity for great evil or great good. I have ordinary temptations and I make ordinary mistakes. I am mediocre.
I just know that, left to my own devices, the trend is inexorably downwards. I set goals for myself, I repent and do better, but then I get tired or bored or distracted and lose interest in doing what’s right. I settle, and then I start to sink. When that happens, I don’t immediately repent. Instead, I often rationalize and make excuses. I avoid living up to the standards and goals I have set for myself. I grow unhappy and depressed and confused, and then I cast about for some way to improve my mood other than changing my behavior.
I haven’t fallen far. I haven’t done any great wrong. But I have sunk, already, a little. Looking back is hard when looking back also means looking up. I try to find some other way. Often as not, I play video games for a few hours to shut it all out.
There’s nothing grand or epic in these little descents. These are periods of hours or days or, at most, weeks of infantile rebellion. I am not seeking to hurt anyone. I’m not motivated by any terrible desire. Mostly, it is just pathetic. And I know that if I were in charge, watching myself make the same mistakes again for no great reason in the face of no significant obstacle or challenge, I would turn my back in disgust.
But God never has.
That was the realization I had Friday night, when I’d managed to pull myself out of one of these shallow, unremarkable descents. These spiritual regressions to the worldly mean.
Less than a week after General Conference talks had filled me with conviction and fire and righteous ambition, and here I was already veering towards my old ways. And despite this, as soon as I made up my mind to press on again, to repent, to ask for forgiveness, I felt God’s Spirit descend upon me. Not grudgingly. Not accusingly. Gently, lovingly. Invitingly.
“OK,” my Father said. “I’m glad you’re back now. Let’s continue.”
No one has ever seen me at my lowest and most fickle so often and so perfectly as God. And yet He looks past these boring, repetitious, mediocre mistakes with perfect, infinite, loving grace and acceptance. Not of the mistakes, but of who I am, despite them. I cannot fathom the extent of a love that never grows exasperated or disdainful no matter how many times I repeat the same, stupid patterns of self-destructive rebellion. I cannot fathom a love that never gives up on me, no matter how many times I give up on myself, even temporarily. I cannot fathom it, and yet I have felt it. I know it’s real, and I am awed and humbled by God’s condescension to come back down to my level, time and time again, to help me rise when I have fallen.
I knew that Elder Whiting’s talk, Becoming like Him, was going to have a long-lasting impact on me even before it was over.
The Savior’s admonition to be “even as I am” is daunting. We rationalize this as hyperbole and choose the path of least resistance. What if it’s not figurative even in our mortal condition? What if it is to some degree attainable in this mortal life. What if it’s precisely what is meant? Then what? What level of effort are we willing to give to invite His presence into our lives so that we can change our very nature?
Elder Whiting cited Elder Maxwell:
As we ponder having been commanded by Jesus to become like Him, we see that our present circumstance is one in which we are not necessarily wicked, but, rather, is one in which we are so half-hearted and so lacking in enthusiasm for His cause—which is our cause, too! We extol but seldom emulate Him.
Also Charles M. Sheldon:
Our Christianity loves its ease and comfort too well to take up anything so rough and heavy as a cross.
I’ve never felt before a talk so directly addressing me, and I knew I would have to redouble my efforts to become a true disciple.
And yet, as I said, my resolved lasted less than a week before I faltered for the first time.
I am not a very bad or a very good person, but I do think that I am a very self-centered person. This is not always a bad quality. I have a high degree of self-awareness that can be of some good use, now and again. But it is predominantly a bad quality. I do not know how to give of myself unstintingly. I hold back. I look out for myself. I have plans of my own.
Elder Whiting challenged us to acknowledge the gap between ourselves and our Savior. “If we are honest with ourselves, the Light of Christ within us whispers that there is distance between where we are in comparison with the desired character of the Savior.” Then, he urged, pick a particular trait and make it our goal.
[I]t is vital that we also ask our loving Heavenly Father what we are in need of and where we should focus our efforts. He has a perfect view of us and will lovingly show us our weakness. Perhaps you will learn that you need greater patience, humility, charity, love, hope, diligence, or obedience, to name a few.
I knew, without much reflection, that I needed greater selflessness. My children, my wife, my family, my ward, my friends and neighbors: all of them would benefit from more selfless service. Not because I am so special, but because God has given each of His children talents and perspectives and privileges that they can use to bless the lives of others. The Plan of Salvation is not just for individuals, but for families and communities. God’s gifts are distributed sparingly so that no one person has all of them. So that every person has something to offer. But we have to actually offer what we’ve been given, or it does no good.
On the night in question, I was tired. It was after 10PM. I wanted to go to sleep, but my oldest two children were still awake. My wife was at work, dealing with the insanity of teaching in a time of Covid.
I wrestled with my unaccountable (in the moment) feeling of resentful grumpiness, the dark confusion in my mind and the aimless, mild ache in my heart. I just wanted the day to end. Maybe the next day would be better.
And then I remembered Elder Whiting’s talk, and my own commitment to redouble my efforts to put forward just that little bit of extra effort every day to serve my family.
Very well. We could read a few verses from the Book of Mormon and have a family prayer. That much, at least, I could do.
No sooner had I made the resolution, then the darkness began to lift. As weary as ever, I summoned my kids and trudged upstairs to start to reading. After finishing, but before prayer, my daughter asked me if we were going to practice hiragana and katakana (the Japanese alphabets, more or less). I had made the resolution to learn Japanese alongside my children as they were doing homeschool this year, and I often ran through flashcard exercise with them before bed.
It’s only a few more minutes, I thought to myself. What could it hurt?
I agreed to get the cards after the prayer.
By this point, my dark mood was entirely gone. I felt peaceful and calm inside. But I was also still exhausted. I managed to make it through a few rounds of hiragana (which I have finished memorizing) but trying to expand my command of katakana was going nowhere. I left the two of them practicing while I went to brush my teeth. When I came back, my daughter was sweetly helping my son with his practice. I just stood there for a few moments, unnoticed, and savored the exquisite joy of any parent seeing their children getting along and helping each other.
After I told them to go to bed, I finally realized what the dark feelings had been: the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit. Not just what, but why. God hadn’t been punishing me. He’d been teaching me. I remembered the scripture, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth,” and I knew that I’d been chastened and also loved.
“In coming days,” President Nelson told us in 2018, before so much of our present craziness, “it will not be possible to survive without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”
I’ve never been that great at recognizing the presence or absence of the Spirit. That night, with the distinct contrast in the space of just a few minutes between petty rebellion and minor, sincere repentance, God helped remediate some of that ignorance.
So when I knelt to pray to Him, it seemed only right to beg for blessings that I knew I desperately needed, even though I’d never lacked them before. It was more than gratitude for His patience so far. It was a prayer in trusting faith that He would extend that same patience into the future for as long as it took to bring me safely home.
There was nothing at all pro forma or artificial about my prayer, because I felt keenly and deeply the desperate need I have for His forbearance, His patience, His forgiveness, and His intervention in my life. For the Atonement of His Son, most of all. I’m crossing a bridge over a chasm, and that bridge is made of the love of God as embodied in the sacrifice of His Son. Without the bridge, I will fall forever. And I have a long way to go before the crossing is complete.
I pray so often for things I’m not really sure God will give me because I don’t know the plan. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if we’re humble enough to include the caveat “thy will be done”. We all have ordinary struggles and, from time to time, extraordinary ones as well, and in those moments we should cry to our Heavenly Parents like the lost, little children that we are.
But it felt wonderful, that night and a few nights since, to pray for something I was absolutely sure God had granted and would continue to grant me. To express my appreciation and my ongoing reliance on Him. To know that, for one sweet moment, my will had found unity in His.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: