Monday, April 28, 2008

I Am Abel: A-B-L-E.

So I gave a talk in church yesterday. You can read if you want--it begins with a nice anniversary annecdote (Alana and I celebrated our fourth last Wednesday)--but the real draw here are the pictures, I'm sure.

Four years ago, on April 23, 2004, Alana and I entered the Orlando, Florida temple, where we were sealed for time and all eternity by an authorized servant of God. I thought then that nothing in life could make me happier; two children and four years later, I know now that I was wrong, because my life with her has only been an escalating series of happy events.

This past Wednesday was one such event. For our fourth anniversary, Alana and I took advantage of volunteer babysitters and enjoyed a quiet breakfast out. After breakfast, we drove to the temple, where I had made an arrangements for us to participate in a sealing session. I thought that I had communicated my intent clearly to Alana, but when I arrived in the sealing room, she was not there! The sealer waited to begin this important work for the dead as long as possible and then closed the door, assuring me that Alana would be free to enter whenever she arrived. This reassured me, because I still assumed that she would show up momentarily, that a shortage of lockers in the women’s changing room or an urgent call of nature had only delayed her advent temporarily.

Meanwhile, Alana, who had never heard me suggest that we do sealings, was waiting by herself in the endowment room, because when we go to do work for the dead, that is the ordinance we most frequently serve as proxies for. She also watched the doors shut, but for her there was no reassurance that I would be let into the room when I arrived late. The sister whom she asked replied only, “Sorry. He’ll have to wait.”

Eventually, I figured out what had happened and knew that Alana would not be joining me any time soon. When I realized that our trip to the temple in celebration of our eternal union had resulted in a temporary separation, I smiled, amused at the irony of our miscommunication. But as I sat in the sealing room and watched men who hold God’s priesthood joining dead families together for eternity by proxy, I quickly sobered at the thought that my own marriage to Alana will bind us together after this life only if our marriage is “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true” (D&C 76:53), those who emulate Jesus Christ’s example and endure to the end.

As I sat by myself in the sealing room and then later in the celestial room, tears came to my eyes. For me, heaven would not be very heavenly without Alana, and the thought of being separated from her on an eternal basis brought me deep sorrow. Now, I am not overly worried about Alana’s entry into the celestial kingdom; her constant Christ-like service to our children, to myself and others leaves me with little fear that I will be alone in heaven. But I do worry that my own imperfections might leave her alone in heaven, where some celestial fortune hunter might steal my pearl of great price, and this experience provided me with a powerful motivation to live my life in keeping with the commandments of God so that I can return to his presence at Alana’s side.

It is on the topic of motivation that I would like to speak with you today. While my own anniversary mishap provided me an incentive to improve my level of obedience, I cannot recommend that any of you emulate my example; some of you may not have spouses, and even if you do have a spouse, he or she would probably not appreciate the trial separation any more than I did. So what else might motivate us to serve God and obey His commandments more exactly? Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve has provided us with excellent guidance on this topic, but before I turn to his remarks, let me echo a warning issued by prophets ancient and modern. Nephi reminded us that God will never be pleased those who “preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world” (2 Ne. 26:29), even if they seem to be following God’s commandments. This is priestcraft. Whatever else motivates us to follow the example of our elder brother Jesus Christ, let us constantly examine ourselves and make sure that we do not serve in the church and obey God’s laws out of a desire for personal recognition or material gain. Like Abel, Cain “brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord,” but God “had not respect” for Cain’s offering because he knew that Cain acted for purely selfish motives (Moses 5:19, 21). Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy makes the distinction between Cain and Able applicable in our day: “Latter-Day Saints whose eyes are single to God’s glory see life from a vastly different perspective than those whose attention is directed elsewhere. Such members, for instance, care little about receiving credit or recognition for their good deeds. They are more interested in feeding the Lord’s sheep than in counting them. In fact, they frequently find their greatest happiness in serving anonymously, thereby leaving the beneficiaries of their kindness with no one to thank or praise except the Lord.”

Undoubtedly, we all wish to emulate the example of Abel and serve for the right reasons so that God will accept our sacrifices and have respect for our offerings. Elder Oaks has helpfully identified four motivations that might move us to an obedience and service that would be pleasing to God. He offers the following four reasons for obedience: “Some may serve out of fear of punishment. [… A] higher reason for service is the hope of an eternal reward. [… But] if our service is to be most efficacious, it must be accomplished for the love of God and the love of his children.” Let me suggest an acronym for the ascending levels of motivation which Elder Oaks identifies: ABLE, A-B-L-E.

At first we may serve and obey because we are AFRAID of the consequences which face those who are disobedient. Later, we may learn to obey because we desire the BLESSINGS which God has promised to the obedient—not the material greed which Nephi identifies with priestcraft but the earnest seeking after blessings promised by God. Eventually, we find ourselves obeying because we LOVE the LORD, and this love for the Lord will move us to emulate him. We will finally obey God’s commandments and serve others because we wish to EXTEND His love and blessings to others. A-B-L-E: We serve first because we are afraid, then because we desire blessings, because we love the Lord and because we wish to extend his love and blessings to those around us.

Let me provide you a scriptural example of someone moving up this hierarchy of motivations, and then I would like to discuss how we can go about changing the motivational forces that drive our own lives. In 1 Nephi, chapter 8, Nephi provides us with an account of his father Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, an account most of us are familiar with, but one whose beginning we tend to skip over. In his vision, Lehi finds himself “in a dark and dreary waste. And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies” (1 Ne. 8:7-8). Lehi spends a significant period of time in darkness before he finally remembers to call on the Lord in prayer, and I would suggest that Lehi’s prayer results from a fear that he might never leave the waste where he wanders. He takes the first step back toward God because he is afraid of the other alternatives. After his prayer, Lehi sees “a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Ne. 8:10) and he walks toward the tree of life because he desires the blessings of its fruit. His second step towards God is motivated by a desire to obtain the blessings God has made available to him. At the tree, Lehi eats its fruit and because “the tree of life [is] a representation of the love of God” (1 Ne. 11:25), he experiences and internalizes that love when he eats its fruit. Lehi’s new and increased love of the Lord leads him to act as the Savior would act, and he immediately seeks to extend the blessings and love of the Lord to others around him. He calls to his family and “beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit” (1 Ne. 8:15). Among its other lessons, Lehi’s vision of the tree of life provides us with a demonstration of the evolution of motivations in those who earnestly seek to become more Christlike; he acts first because he is afraid, then because he desires promised blessings, finally, because he loves the Lord, Lehi seeks to extend His love and blessings to others. Lehi is ABLE to offer his family salvation because he moves from a motivation to do the very minimum which the Lord has required to an earnest desire to magnify his calling as a father.

As we examine our own motivations, it is important that we recognize that we may obey some commandments for different reasons than we obey others. For example, a man might pay tithing because he desires the promised financial blessings but go home teaching because he is afraid that the Elder’s Quorum President will ask for a report at the end of the month. The very same man might pray because he sincerely loves the Lord and desires to commune with Him, and he might frequently share the gospel with others because he loves them and wishes that they could experience the happiness he enjoys in his own life. Our challenge is to identify those commandments which we obey for the wrong reasons and earnestly seek to evolve from individuals who obey because we are afraid or desire blessings to become disciples who serve because we love the Lord and wish to extend His love to those around us. As we pray for the strength to do the right thing for the right reason, the Atonement of Jesus Christ will provide each of us with a new heart, and that new heart will teach us to serve one another for the same reason that the Savior served and died for us—because He loved us.

Because he loves us and wants us to experience spiritual growth without being coerced into obedience, the Lord requires us to exercise faith before he will grant us a new heart and expedite our move up the motivational hierarchy. Fortunately, He has set the bar very low. As Alma teaches us, we need only “exercise a particle of faith” before the Lord will begin to bless us; indeed, if we “can no more than desire to believe, [and] let this desire work in” us (Alma 32:27), the Lord will enable us to change. As we feel a desire for change and express that desire in prayer, the Atonement begins to work on our behalf. Elder Bednar reminds us that the Atonement of Jesus Christ “provides both a cleansing and redeeming power that helps us to overcome sin and a sanctifying and strengthening power that helps us to become better than we evercould be relying only upon our own strength. The infinite Atonement is for both the sinner and for the saint in each of us.” Elder Bednar has previously referred to this strengthening and sanctifying effect as the enabling power of the Atonement; Jesus Christ’s sacrifice enABLES us even to make a change in the motivations that drive our actions.

After we have nurtured a desire for change, prayed and exercised our faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we must continue to press forward in faith by identifying those instances in which we act out of fear or a desire for promised blessings and seeking to adopt an eternal perspective that will motivate us to act out of love for God and His children. In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis provides a series of letters between two devils who work very hard to corrupt “their patient,” and Lewis offers a marvelous example of the ways in which a shift in perspective might change the reasons we obey God’s commandments. In this particular passage, Screwtape is lecturing Wormwood on how to nurture the assumption that each of us owns our time:

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tete-a-tete with the friend), that throw him out of gear. [… But] The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed to a total service of the Enemy [God]; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said ‘Now you may go and amuse yourself’. Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realize that he is actually in this situation every day.

Brothers and Sisters, like Wormwood’s “patient,” we too are in this position every day. We are constantly called to perform small acts of service for family and friends, to be obedient to all of God’s commandments.

Into each of our lives will come someone in need, even if that need is only a listening ear. Because you are here, in church, doing what God would want you to do this Sunday morning, I have no doubt that you will serve that person in need when he or she arrives, that you will again do what God would want you to do. But why will you serve them? Will you do it because you are afraid to do otherwise? Will you serve because the Lord has promised his blessings to those who obey? Will you serve because you love the Lord? Or will you serve because, like Jesus Christ, you wish to extend God’s blessings and love to those around you? If we can only remember the true nature of our time here on earth and regain the eternal perspective which Satan, like Wormwood, tries to obscure from our view, we will wish to serve because “the love of Christ constraineth us” and we, who will live eternally because Christ sacrificed his own life for us “should not live henceforth unto [ourselves], but unto him which died for [us], and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). This “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) and can help those who currently obey out of fear or a desire for blessings to obey out of love for the Lord and His children.

In what he might have thought was his final message, Moroni exhorted us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moro. 7:48). Like Moroni, I leave this with you as the final message of my talk—let us nurture our desire for righteous motives in faithful prayer, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ will enABLE us to consistently do the right thing for the right reason. I paraphrase the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell: God does not begin by asking whether we are ABLE, only whether we are availABLE, and if we prove we are dependABLE, He will make us capABLE. If we begin by making ourselves available to the Lord, He will make us capable of changing the motivations that guide and frame our every decision. That we might do so and act more frequently out of love is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.