Be Good Now, Perfect Later

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the general women’s session of the October 1988 General Conference.

I enjoyed the slight tinge of irony in reading the talks from the general women’s session on Father’s Day. This irony was compounded a little bit when I realized that the talk begining with “I have prepared my message especially for you ten- and eleven-year-old girls.” was the one that I found the most personally relevant. That would be Sister Michaelene P. Grassli’s talk, I Will Follow God’s Plan for Me.

One idea that I liked was this one:

as I have studied the word righteousness, I have found nothing that indicates that being righteous is being perfect. Goodness, virtue, morality are all dictionary synonyms, but not perfect. All of us will make mistakes in our lives, but although perfection is our ultimate destination, righteousness, or goodness, is the chariot to carry us there.

There’s a ton to unpack there. For starters, the healthy repudiation of perfectionism. Perfection, at least the way we tend to think about in America, is often about the lack of fault. If something is perfect, than it is unblemished. This is a kind of disturbingly negative definition. Perfection, in this sense, isn’t really that great of a thing to worry about.

There’s an alternate conception of perfection, though, which has to do with wholeness. It’s not about the bad things you avoid, but about the good things you enact. 

You can take this too far and buy into an idea that if you do good things they excuse bad things. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But, in general, I think placing a little less emphasis on avoidance of bad things and a little more emphasis on attraction to good things is warranted. It’s like that quotes about ships being safe in the harbor: a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for. 

Similarly, we didn’t come to earth to avoid making mistakes. That’s part of what we should do, but in the pursuit of accomplishing good things. And that’s what Sister Grassli is encouraging us to do: embrace goodness, virtue, morality and let perfection come in its own due time.

Another quote that really struck me is this one:

Every good thing you do in your life is following God’s plan. Every time you are kind to another person, each time you have courage to do something difficult, each time you do a thoughtful act without being asked, each time you say your prayers, each time you read the scriptures, each time you go to church, each time you help a friend—you are following God’s plan for you.

This goes to the idea that we’re here for action. We’re here to do things.

And it also takes away from toxic perfectionism. Sometimes we can get paralyzed by wanting to do the best thing or find God’s one true purpose for us. 

We all have missions to accomplish in this life, and there are probably some things that we can do that nobody else could do. Our actions matter. There are real consequences, for ourselves and other people. If we don’t do the thing, the thing (in most cases) will not get done. And that’s bad.

But it’s at least as bad–and probably much, much worse–to pass up on one good opportunity after another because you’re trying to find the perfect one. If there’s a mission for you, then I really don’t think God is going to let you miss it if you’re out there striving to do good in small ways. Work hard, listen out for promptings, do your best, and God’s plan will unfold through your life.

Don’t wait to see it and then act it out. 

Live your best life and then, in retrospect, I believe you’ll see how the plan unfolded through little acts that added up to something bigger than you realized at the time.

So maybe it was Father’s Day and this was the women’s session, and maybe Sister Grassli had tweens in mind when she wrote the talk, but I went ahead and likened them unto me.


Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

Enslaved to Status No More

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference

President Benson’s talk on pride is one that I’m sure I’ve heard referenced before, and that makes me think it’s got to be one of the most famous General Conference talks of my lifetime. But I don’t think I’d ever read it all the way through before today. I’m glad that I did. There’s an awful lot in it that seems directly relevant to our tumultuous times, and I wish I could hear President Benson’s views of the last couple of years. I don’t think he’d be surprised at all.

“In the scriptures, there is no such thing as righteous pride,” he taught. “It is always considered a sin.” He went on to describe pride as fundamentally competitive in nature, literally saying “pride is essentially competitive in nature” and then adding that “The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others.”

This leads to enmity, and also to fear, a “fear of men’s judgment” that, in turns, leads to yet more “competition for men’s approval.” Ironically, this means that pride leads directly to subservience: “When pride has a hold on our hearts, we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.”

There’s much, much more in the talk worth reading, but I want to stop here for a moment and focus on this concept. I’ve been making my way through N. T. Wright’s, “The Day the Revolution Began,” in which he argues that the fundamental sin is idolatry. I don’t think that Wright’s view of idolatry and Benson’s statement that it’s pride are actually that different, if they’re different at all, because idolatry is really about putting something else ahead of God. We always think it’s ourselves, which is why it’s really the same as pride, but it always ends up being something else–some desire or fear or addiction–that becomes a cruel god over us in the end. 

It also reminds me of the concept of a “zero sum game”. The concept of a zero sum game comes from game theory, which means it’s not really about games that people play for fun or sport. In game theory, a “game” is more like a competition. There are one or more “players”, and each one of them has a variety of actions they can take. Depending on the actions they take, the players get “payoffs” at the end of the game, which can be positive or negative. The most famous game from game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two players each have an option of cooperating with the other player or betraying the other player. If they both cooperate, they both win. But if one of them betrays the other (and that other one tries to cooperate) than the betrayer wins even more

The point of the prisoner’s dilemma is that it’s always rational to betray the other player, but–as games go–it’s a relatively nice one because at least cooperation is possible. In fact, a lot of basic game theory studies what you need to add to make it rational for players in the prisoner’s dilemma to cooperate.

Because players can cooperate and both win, the prisoner’s dilemma is a positive sum game. This separates it from zero sum games. In a zero sum game, the only way for one player to get a positive payoff is by hurting some other player. That’s what makes it a “zero sum” game, any benefit from one player is canceled by a cost to another player, meaning that the total benefit for all players is always zero. 

All human beings are trapped in a life-long zero sum game whether we realize it or not. The payoff of the game is status. It’s a zero sum game because there’s no way for everyone to have more status at the same time. Status is relative. There’s no absolute amount of status you can have. A person only has either more or less than other people. Even if you don’t hurt someone else to get your own status, the fact that you move up in the hierarchy means they have to move down.

This zero sum status game is what President Benson is talking about when he says that we “we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.” If you are prideful, you’re giving in to the status game. You’re handing over your independence and allowing the world to tell you how much you are worth. It’s a vicious, zero-sum game that is never over. And that means no one ever wins. And as long as you’re playing it, then everyone else is your enemy.

As Jordan Peterson famously described in his book Twelve Simple Rules, the status game is almost as old as life itself. Ancient animals–he used the example of lobsters–play basically the same status game that humans are tempted to play. The idea of a social hierarchy with winners and losers is part of our DNA. 

If you think you don’t care about status, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not a very competitive person by nature and for a long time I thought I was pretty independent of these kinds of games, but I realized recently that I was fooling myself. Which means I was hiding my pride.

The reality is that I crave recognition. I’m a little picky about who I get it from and what I’m recognized for, but the thought that I could spend my whole life striving to be a writer and fail was terrifying to me. Because–even though I have a testimony and believe in God and try to follow the commandments–I was still prideful. I wanted to win my way. And I wanted other people to notice and reward me. And that made me idolatrous and afraid and ashamed. 

I’ve been trying to repent. It’s not easy. These habits are deep, deep down inside of us. They’re part of the natural man that is an enemy to God. And they can hide inside of us in ways that are hard for us to see. As President Benson said, “Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves.” This is especially true if we don’t feel we have much to be proud of. I want to write books that everyone reads and agrees are really wonderful and then they give me lots of awards and make TV shows and movies out of my books. I want people to ask me for my opinion about storytelling and art and then all listen attentively because I’m important

But how can I see myself as prideful if those dreams are totally unrealized? I’m not famous. I’ve never written a whole book, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve written dozens of short stories, but only one has ever been published so far. I have nothing to be proud of, so I can’t be guilty of pride, can I?

Yes, I can. And I was. I am, although I’m also repenting. It’s just the desire for that recognition that’s the sin, whether or not you have it  yet. It’s the twisted desire to be seen as better than that causes the problems, regardless of you’re actually accomplishing it or not.

When God finally showed me–a few weeks before I read this talk–how much pride I had inside I was shocked. But I also realized there’s a way out. 

My prideful plan had basically two parts. First, I wanted to be admitted by the cool kids as one of their own. I wanted authors I respect and admire to see me as one of their own. I wanted to sit with the cool kids at lunch. That’s literally how I described it to myself.

Second, I wanted to create a body of work that would prove I was a valuable person. I wanted to be able to point to a stack of books and say, “See, I’m not worthless. I wrote those, and they matter.” 

And of the two, the second mattered more. I wanted a legacy that would serve as the sign of my value and worth. That would prove I wasn’t like other people. I was special. I was different. I was better.

These hypothetical books: they were my treasure. And my heart was set upon it. And as long as my heart was set upon it, I was violating the basic commandment Jesus taught in Matthew 6:

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

My heart was here. On Earth. It wasn’t physical. Moth and rust couldn’t literally corrupt it. But it was still earthly. It was subject to popularity and luck and whim. And so my heart was trapped and I was handing myself over to the infinite, zero-sum status game. I was letting myself be captured by the world.

I don’t want to do that any more. I revoke my citizenship and withdraw my heart from the world. I don’t entrust my legacy to anything on earth. I give my legacy to God. 

Making this decision felt like lifting a physical weight off my shoulders that I never even knew I was carrying around. I realized that, as far as the world was concerned, this decision made me untouchable. So much fear and anxiety and shame–shame that I haven’t accomplished more already–evaporated. I am putting all my chips on God. 

This is easier said than done. A lifetime of habit on top of millions of years of evolution don’t just disappear overnight. Repentance is a process, not an event. 

But I know at a deep, visceral level that President Benson’s teachings on pride are true. I know that more of us are guilty of it than realize it. Because pride is not a sin of the elite. It’s a sin of everyone. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that once you see it, you can start to recover. And recovery tastes sweet. You won’t even realize how much you’ve been living in fear and shame until you realize there’s another way to live.

And once you do, you’ll never want to go back.


Read more posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

It Is Not Sufficient to Treasure the Book of Mormon

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference.

When I read the scriptures as a teenager, it seemed like they were full of statements that the Gospel of Christ was necessary and sufficient for a prosperous, peaceful society. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain that there are that many scriptures that say exactly this. The one that comes to mind is Alma 31:5 where Alma–who, just as a reminder, had led his people personally into combat as chief judge and killed Amlici–decides that when the Nephites are really in trouble, what is needed is preaching the word of God:

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

This was impossible for me to believe as a youngster. Surely questions of peaceful, stable societies were questions for experts in international relations or Constitutional law and economics, right? I supposed that there was probably some way in which you’d need to make sure your foreign and domestic policies were reconciled to basic Christian principles, but I couldn’t see any direct connection between religion and peaceful societies, nor any specific link to Christianity as opposed to any number of honorable and laudable religions.

The older I’ve gotten, the more of come to doubt my initial doubts.

For one thing, I’ve come to realize that formal institutions are overrated. The laws on the books don’t tell the whole story. What matters more than politics is culture. It’s culture that largely determines what laws end up on the books, it’s culture that determines how those laws are applied and enforced and–since laws can’t possibly cover every possible scenario–it’s culture that determines what we do in the gaps between laws. This isn’t entirely one-way. Laws and policies can and do affect culture, but if you’re going to ask: which matters more, the answer is very, very clearly culture.

This helps me understand some of why the prophets kept insisting that it’s the Gospel that really matters. It gets me part of the way there. But not all the way.

I’ve had intimations that go beyond this, but nothing I’m prepared to sketch out here. My point is only to say that I really took Elder Richard G. Scott’s words to heart from his talk, True Friends That Lift. (Which, alternatively, could have been a great treatise on bodybuilding.)

Speaking of all the work and effort he’d put into teaching the Gospel and setting the Church in order for six years in Mexico vs. bearing his testimony of the Book of Mormon, he said:

As I spoke, I realized in my heart that all the efforts that I had expended for six years in trying to help those beloved leaders overcome the effects of false traditions and learn to apply the teachings of the Lord would have been better directed had I strongly encouraged them to ponder and apply the teachings of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon contains messages that were divinely placed there to show how to correct the influence of false tradition and how to receive a fulness of life. It teaches how to resolve the problems and challenges that we face today that were foreseen by the Lord. In that book he has provided the way to correct the serious errors of life, but this guidance is of no value if it remains locked in a closed book.

He also pointed out that we can’t treat the Book of Mormon like some kind of talisman or super good luck charm. We have to, you know, read it: “it is not sufficient that we should treasure the Book of Mormon, nor that we testify that it is of God. We must know its truths, incorporate them into our lives, and share them with others.”

My mental models and theories haven’t caught up to this truth, but it still resonates deeply with me. It’s like I have yet to dig up the buried treasure and see it with my own eyes, but the metal detector is pinging and I know there’s something down there. 

I’m going to keep pondering and contemplating how and how the Gospel of Christ is necessary and sufficient because that’s how I approach the world. It’s my means of interacting with the things that I care about. And I  believe that, in time, I’ll come to understand the truth much more than I do now.

But, spoiler alert, I already know how it ends. The Gospel of Christ in general and the Book of Mormon in particular are vitally important both individual and communally, and I hope we will take Elder Scott’s testimony (and the testimony of many others) very seriously and invest the time to integrate them into our lives.


Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey

Families Are Anti-Selfishness Therapy

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the October 1988 General Conference.

Three different future Presidents spoke during this session: Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. It’s possible that a fourth–Dallin H. Oaks–will yet serve in that role. I haven’t run any analysis or anything, but that seems like a pretty huge concentration in just one session. 

The quote that struck me the most came from President Howard W. Hunter’s talk, Blessed from on High. President Hunter made the observation that “it was important to God’s purposes that young Joseph was not able to see too clearly amidst the confusion caused by men, lest that half-light keep him from seeking and beholding the source of all light and all truth.” 

It reminds me of the discussion of weaknesses and strength in Ether 12, but it’s an unexpected application of the idea. Unexpected to me, at least. And it’s always good for me to be reminded that the Lord’s plans don’t always fit my understanding. 

 President Hinckley’s talk, The Healing Power of Christ, also seemed really meaningful for our day: “In a world of sickness and sorrow, of tension and jealousy and greed, there must be much of healing if there is to be life abundant.”

At least, it seemed relevant to the big picture at first, but President Hinckley’s actual topic was more micro than macro: “There is much of another category of sickness among us. I speak of conflicts, quarrels, arguments which are a debilitating disease particularly afflicting families.” 

President Hinckley goes on to say that:

It is selfishness which is the cause of most of our misery. It is as a cankering disease. The healing power of Christ, found in the doctrine of going the second mile, would do wonders to still argument and accusation, fault-finding and evil speaking.

This is definitely true for me. The obligations that come with being a husband and a father chafe against my desire to just do what I want and to just put my goals and priorities first. It’s hard to set those aside and realize that I have children who depend on me and a wonderful wife who agreed to share a life with me. I fail a lot, and end up doing less than I could for them because I want to chase my own happiness.

That’s one of the whole reasons we have families. To give us the opportunity to outgrow that kind of selfishness. To provide opportunities for daily, small-scale sacrifice again and again. To help us learn that it truly is in losing ourselves and serving others that we find real peace and joy.

I’m just kind of dumb, and so it’s a lesson I have to learn a hundred thousand times before it sinks in.

I’m grateful for President Hinckley’s reminder to keep working and focusing on that, because I know my family depends on me, just as I also need them.


Another post from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

Punching Above Our Weight

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the priesthood session of the October 1988 General Conference.

When I was a deacon and I went to priesthood sessions of General Conference for the first time, I felt pretty special when the speaker would say, “Now I want to speak to the young men…” Pretty soon, however, I realized this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. It’s a tradition. There’s at least one talk–and it seems much more than one–that takes that approach in every single priesthood session. 

Well, for the first time, I realized why. In his talke, The Priesthood of God, Elder Wirthlin said:

I wish to speak first to the young men who bear the Aaronic Priesthood. I want you to understand that we have trust and confidence in you. We realize that from your ranks will come the next generation of Church officers, teachers, and community leaders. Most importantly, you will be fathers and patriarchs in your own families. Your tasks then will be to teach and prepare the generation that follows you.

I added that emphasis there, because that ‘s when it hits me: this is the cycle. This is the pattern. You show up as a deacon and they talk to you and then you grow older and it becomes your turn to help the next generation on their way up. 

Maybe it’s obvious, but I never saw it that way until this talk.

The last talk in this session also really stood out to me: (then) Elder Hinckley’s talk To the Bishops of the Church. Now, I’ll frankly state that I hope I’m never a bishop. My dad was a bishop for a while, and it was the busiest I ever saw him. He loved it, don’t get me wrong. And that’s unusual for my dad. Being a bishop changed him. He’s kind of an introverted, taciturn fellow. He’s not someone you’d describe as a “people person”. Except he was when he was a bishop. I’ve never seen him so focused on others. The calling really changed him. 

But, like I said, he was also fantastically busy, and since my own adult life has always involved at least 1.5 jobs at a time, I’ve always been petrified of getting that calling myself. I don’t know how I’d survive the additional responsibility on top of the (too frequent) occasions where I’m working until midnight or 2 or 3 in the morning just trying to get by with my ordinary load.

Which is probably why I haven’t been called. Or come anywhere near it, thank heavens. (Literally.)

But if I ever do, then this is the talk I’ll read every week. There are too many important quotes for me to try and excerpt them. This is just like, the talk on what it means to be a bishop. Read it!

I did have one random thought as I went through it, however. Elder Hinckley made another one of those traditional remarks about how many priesthood holders we have. And it got me thinking. How many do we have, relative to other denominations? 

Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still pretty small in overall numbers. How are we going to fill the Earth if there’s only ten or twenty million of us? Maybe we’ll have much greater growth in the future, but the really fast growth we’ve had in decades past–growth that inspired huge projections for the first half of the 21st century–has largely evaporated. At first glance, we’re still pretty small.

But one of the things I’ve really noticed during the whole Covid-19, stay-at-home period (which I also wrote about here) is how easily the Church can adapt to being home-centered because of our lay priesthood. All adult males have the privilege–conditional on their worthiness–to hold the priesthood. 

I did a quick check. It looks like there are about 400,000 ordained Roman Catholic priests in the whole world and the number is going down. I looked at other denominations–just within the United States–and the most is the Southern Baptist Convention with over 100,000 (again, just in the US). Most other denominations have tens of thousands. 

I don’t know how many LDS Melchizedek Priesthood holders there are. There’s about 16.5 million of us. Figure about ½ are active and about ½ are female, and that gets you to 4 million active males. Cut it in half again (to get just adults) and then in half one more time (just to be conservative) and you still end up with over a million elders and high priests. That’s… a lot. 

These are back-of-the-envelope numbers and I’m not trying to prove anything. Just… show a slightly different way of looking at the size of the Church in terms of its potential influence on the world. In terms of ordained priesthood holders, we may have roughly double the population of the largest Christian denomination in the world. Talk about punching above your weight class!

Maybe that has something to do with how a seemingly small denomination gets out there and fills the world. I’m sure it’s not the whole story, but it may be an important part of it.


Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

True Orthodoxy

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference.

I am returning to the General Conference Odyssey like a prodigal son. It’s been a long time–almost certainly a year, although I’m afraid to look–since my last post. I hope that I’l l be able to make up for the lost time by going back and filling in all those entries that I missed, but that’s going to be the work of years, most likely. For now, I’m going to do my best to just keep up.

Perhaps because I’ve been out of the game for so long, but I found this Saturday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference a little overwhelming. In a good way. I remember feeling that a lot back when I was first starting the GCO. 

I’ve been a member my whole life. My parents are both converts, but they joined the Church before they met and definitely before I came along. So I’ve grown up with General Conference and, to be totally frank, for most of my life it’s chief role as a soporific. No matter how much I wanted to pay attention as a teenager, I inevitably fell asleep before the halfway point of any given session. 

The first time General Conference really captivated my attention was on my mission. I devoured the October 2000 sessions when I was in the MTC, and I found the General Conference editions of the Ensign to be even more captivating when I was in the field. 

But for a long time after I came home, General Conferences faded from my view again. I would be lucky to catch any of a Saturday session at all, and I still tended to fall asleep during Sunday sessions. 

For the last few years, however, I’ve rediscovered the importance and relevance of General Conference. It is really about what you bring to it. Most importantly: questions.

In the last talk of this session, “Answer Me”, Elder Maxwell said that “Not only in the years ahead, but even now, mortal self-sufficiency will be confounded. Profound fear will eventually pervade this perplexed planet.”

Living through the time of Covid-19, that definitely appears to be the case. There are a lot of reasons why Americans have such a hard time getting along and everything seems political and partisan (I’ve written about them elsewhere, if you’re curious), but one of the reasons is very simple: fear. Scared people are unreliable, hair-triggered, and angry.

In a time of uncertainty, faith ceases to become theoretical. This is the beginning of the time and the place when you find out if your beliefs are convictions or just half-hearted habits. And if they are real convictions–if you really believe or even just want to know that the Church is led by prophets of God–then you’re going to have some burning questions when you come to General Conference talks. And those burning questions are the spark that will set General Conference on fire for you.

In this session, Elder Packer explained that death is an indispensable part of the Plan of Salvation: “Alma did not say that setting mortal death aside would merely delay or disturb the plan of happiness; he said it would destroy it.”

Elaborating:

The words death and happiness are not close companions in mortality, but in the eternal sense they are essential to one another. Death is a mechanism of rescue. Our first parents left Eden lest they partake of the tree of life and live forever in their sins. The mortal death they brought upon themselves, and upon us, is our journey home.

Elder L. Lionel Kendrick talked about “Christlike Communications,” reminding us that “our communications are at the core of our relationships with others” and that “souls can be strengthened or shattered by the message and the manner in which we communicate.” I would really like to hear how Elder Kendrick would update his message of 1988 for a social media world of 2020, but some of the basic principles are clear enough in the talk without any update required. The first topic he addressed was accountability:

We will be held accountable for all that we say. The Savior has warned “that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36.) This means that no communication shall be without consequence. This includes the slight slips of the tongue, the caustic communications that canker the soul, and the vain, vulgar, and profane words which desecrate the name of Deity.

That’s an intimidating standard to apply to every post and Tweet, but it’s the one we have to live up to. These are the principles for us all to aspire to:

Christlike communications are expressed in tones of love rather than loudness. They are intended to be helpful rather than hurtful. They tend to bind us together rather than to drive us apart. They tend to build rather than to belittle.

Christlike communications are expressions of affection and not anger, truth and not fabrication, compassion and not contention, respect and not ridicule, counsel and not criticism, correction and not condemnation. They are spoken with clarity and not with confusion. They may be tender or they may be tough, but they must always be tempered.

In the end, Elder Kendrick reminds us that it comes down to one vital thing: “The real challenge that we face in our communications with others is to condition our hearts to have Christlike feelings for all of Heavenly Father’s children.”

This talk was pretty epic–enough to make me satisfied with the whole session–but there is more still to come. 

A lot of the details in Elder Carmack’s talk “The Soil and Roots of Testimony” really stood out to me. Although this talk was from my childhood, it speaks directly to some of the controversies swirling around the Church today, especially around the topic of doubt. Elder Carmack makes it clear that certainty is not required for a testimony, pointing out that “in bearing testimony, some use the term know, some believe. Some say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.””

Then he said something else that really got my attention:

I shudder when I hear anyone declare, “I will never deny my testimony of the gospel.” I seem to hear another standing by and answering quietly, “Well, we shall see.”

He also frankly admitted his own “box of unanswered questions.”

Yes, I have a whole box of unanswered questions, none of them threatening to my testimony. New questions enter that box regularly. Others come out of the box, yielding to both study and experience. My hope is that I will endure the summer heat and retain that testimony, anchored in Christ, until the end of my mortal probation.

He also tackled the relationship between intellectual study and faithful witness, stating flatly that “I don’t believe it was ever intended that the gospel be proven true by physical or documentary evidence acceptable to all.”

The kernel of our faith has to be a personal, spiritual witness. But that doesn’t mean that intellectual study isn’t important. Just that it can’t be primary or exclusive.

By study and reason one can find the truth. But a testimony based on reason and knowledge alone, without a spiritual witness, can be in danger when a premise of its tight logic gets weak or crumbles. Thanks be to the Lord that my testimony is founded on faith and continues to grow through experience. I have seen, I have felt, and I know what I know.

I do not mean, however, to suggest that we should not continue to learn and deepen our knowledge about life and about the gospel. A solid, mature, and growing knowledge of the gospel is desirable and should be a constant goal.

Really, this talk is worth reading in its entirety, and I hope some of y’all have the time to do so.

Believe it or not, these are just the talks in the session before Elders Ballard and Maxwell lend their voices. Elder Ballard talked about The Hand of Fellowship, emphatically stressing the need for Latter-day Saints to be loving towards all, not just our own. 

Every member of the Church should foster the attributes of warmth, sincerity, and love for the newcomers, as the missionaries are taught to do.

Brothers and sisters, we members must help with the conversion process by making our wards and branches friendly places, with no exclusivity, where all people feel welcome and comfortable…

In addition to welcoming and accepting recent converts and less-active members, we need to reach out and extend our friendship to others regardless of whether they are interested in the gospel or not. We must not be too selective in identifying those we feel are worthy or appreciative of our attention. The spirit of true Christian fellowship must include everyone. Our understanding of the gospel should help us see clearly that all people are our brothers and sisters, children of our Heavenly Father…

We should extend our love far beyond family, close friends, and fellow members of the Church. Our hearts should be open to everyone.

And then, as if all this wasn’t clear enough, he really drove the point home: “Considering the early history of the Church in these latter days, unkindness or indifference toward others should be abhorrent to members of the Church.”

Finally, Elder Maxwell talked about the difficulty of following Jesus. It “will try our faith and our patience–sometimes sorely,” and expressing that in addition to the answers we get from the Gospel, “Jesus also asked some searching questions which tell us even more about the stretching journey of discipleship.”

I am always happy to see the difficulty of discipleship called out. Anyone who comes to my Gospel Doctrine classes knows how much I like to emphasize that. I think it’s so important for us all to understand that life doesn’t get easier with the Gospel. But it gets better. I was also really struck by Elder Maxwell’s definition of ‘true orthodoxy,” which is another hot-button issue for our day:

True orthodoxy consists of keeping the doctrines, ordinances, covenants, and programs of the Church and Christian service in proper balance. In this daily balancing process, we are not excused from exercising good judgment—after all that manuals and handbooks can do.

This is a kind of “soft” message: balance and moderation. But in the same talk, he had some “hard” things to say as well:

Why are a few members, who somewhat resemble the ancient Athenians, so eager to hear some new doubt or criticism? (See Acts 17:21.) Just as some weak members slip across a state line to gamble, a few go out of their way to have their doubts titillated. Instead of nourishing their faith, they are gambling “offshore” with their fragile faith. To the question “Will ye also go away?” these few would reply, “Oh, no, we merely want a weekend pass in order to go to a casino for critics or a clubhouse for cloakholders.” Such easily diverted members are not disciples but fair-weather followers.

Instead, true disciples are rightly described as steadfast and immovable, pressing forward with “a perfect brightness of hope.” (2 Ne. 31:20; see also D&C 49:23.)

To me, this contrasting blend of opposites–soft moderation with harder conviction–is at the heart of the Restored Gospel. This is what I’m here for: learning that goes deeper and deeper instead of on and on. 

Someone who is just starting their Gospel journey and someone who is near the end of a lifetime of service and faith will find that they’re asking and dealing with the very same questions. They’re in the same place, in a sense. But at the end of the journey you’ve added layer upon layer of hard-earned wisdom and experience, finding new depths and beauty again and again in the same simple message. 

I hope that I’ll have a faith like Elder Kendrick’s, so that–decades from now, as my journey nears its end–I’ll be able to look back on the lessons learned and the changes to my heart across all the days and nights of my mortal probation.


Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: