Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Comfort, the Comforter, and Being Uncomfortable

Just before going to Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus Christ reminded his apostles of an uncomfortable truth that they had yet to fully understand and accept. “I go unto my Father” (John 14:12), he said, in one of many warnings that his mortal ministry was fast drawing to a close. But if his disciples were discomfited or shaken by this truth, the Savior offered a compensatory promise, reassuring the eleven, “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18). That promise of comfort in an hour of need and of the Comforter, who “may abide with [us] for ever” is operative here and now, just as it was anciently, so that we never have to endure the olive press alone, as he did that night (John 14:16). 
            Whatever our trials and temptations, we have been assured that the Savior can and will succor the faithful. “Sometimes,” Elder Oaks recently taught, “His power heals an infirmity” or removes a stumbling block, “but the scriptures and our experiences teach that sometimes he succors or helps by giving us the strength or patience to endure our infirmities,” the strength to make stepping stones of our stumbling blocks.
Because we associate the word comfort with its cognate, comfortable, we may misunderstand the Christ’s promise of comfort and a Comforter as an assurance of ease or relaxation, but the English verb comfort means “to strengthen,” and strength is of little use to those reclining in the shade of life. The psalmist thanked God that “thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle” (Psalms 18:39), and the people of Nephi “did all labor, every man according to his strength” (Alma 1:26); strength is for labor and for battle as we serve under the “Sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). We can do “all things through Christ which strengtheneth” us (Philippians 4:13), but receiving that strength may be discomfitting. The Savior’s promise to Moroni and its conditions apply in our lives as well: “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). With that increased capacity comes an expectation that we will do all things, that we will be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Our God will never leave us comfortless—but his desire to stretch us “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) also means that he will never leave us comfortable.
Neither the Christ nor his Comforter ever inspires or sanctions complacency; instead, it is Satan who seeks to make us comfortable in a mortal world increasingly at odds with the doctrines of the gospel. It is Satan who invites us to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (2 Nephi 28:7). It is Satan who would pacify our souls and “lull [us] away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well. . . . Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!” (2 Nephi 28:21, 24-25). Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable in our own righteousness. Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable watching degrading movies, listening to profane lyrics, or otherwise ignoring our covenants to always remember the Savior of the world and his selfless sacrifice on our behalf.
            The call to “deny [ourselves] of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross” is not an invitation conducive to comfortable living (3 Nephi 12:30). There was nothing comfortable about the Atonement, when the Savior of the world “fell on his face” in the dirt “and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). There was nothing comfortable about his interrogations before Caiaphas and Pilate, his scourgings, or his eventual crucifixion, when they nailed his body to the cross. There was nothing comfortable about his ministry, when he was “despised and rejected of men” and homeless (Isaiah 53:3); as he told his disciples, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). There was nothing comfortable about his work and grand sacrifice on our behalf, and so there can be nothing comfortable about our discipleship, as we accept our “holy calling” to minister “in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son” (Alma 13:5).
            The devil would lead us “by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth [us] with his strong cords forever” (2 Nephi 26:22). The Savior, by contrast, invites us to “Take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). Satan’s leadership is, at first, far more comfortable than the Savior’s; his flaxen cord is light and soft and loose. A wooden yoke, by contrast, is relatively weighty and awkward and inconvenient. But the key difference between these two alternatives is that Satan would precede us, sprinting out ahead until his slipknot around our necks is stranglingly tight, while the Savior offers to walk with us, bound to us by the yoke of consecration—both his consecrated service and our own—until we learn strength by his side. The Greek word paraklesis, which is often translated as comfort in our English Bibles, means “to call near, or to call beside,” and so being yoked beside the Savior is quite literally the very definition of comfort; he calls us near so that our fears might be quieted and our efforts magnified by his abundant grace.
            To comfort is to strengthen and console, but I love an alternate and now obscure definition of the word: to make fast, secure, or support. When John Wycliffe first translated the Bible into English, he drew on this definition of the word comfort in translating the forty-first chapter of Isaiah. There, the Savior comforts his people with these reassuring words that are the basis of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). In Wycliffe’s translation of Isaiah, the Lord is like a carpenter who fastens the weak and the weary to his side: “He coumfortide hym with nailes that it shulde not be moued” (Wycliffe, Isaiah 41:7). That beautiful phrase, inviting each of us to be comforted with nails, is a reminder of the true source of all strength and consolation, a reminder that only in and through the Atonement can we forgive and be forgiven. Only in and through the Atonement can our salvation be secured, as the keys of his priesthood bind us back to God. Truly we are and ought to be comforted with nails, so that we will never be moved from our faith in God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.
            I also love the words of the twenty-third psalm, that teach us of Christ’s role as our Good Shepherd: “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (23:4). Like the nails of his cross, his rod and his staff might comfort us, but their application is never comfortable. The crook of a shepherd’s staff is said to have been used to seize the legs ofsheep or goats when they ran away, keeping them with the flock. With the application of this comforting staff we sheep, like the Savior in Gethsemane, are likely to stumble and fall on our faces in the dirt. The “rod of his mouth” is used for reproof (Isaiah 11:4); “a rod is for the back” of children in need of chastening (Proverbs 10:13), for calling a wayward son or daughter to repentance in love (Proverbs 13:24). This chastening, like the crook of a shepherd’s staff, calls us nearer to the good shepherd and draws us to his side.
His rod and his staff comfort, but they are not comfortable. Being comforted with nails and glorying “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” will not be comfortable (Galatians 6:14). Taking on the Savior’s yoke will not be comfortable. Becoming perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, will not be comfortable.
Shortly before the conclusion of his mortal ministry, the Savior offered a final commandment to his disciples: “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). Prophets ancient and modern have taught this principle repeatedly: after we have received his comfort or strength, it is our covenantal duty to comfort and strengthen others. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we worship “the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). When we make baptismal covenants, we promise “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Those responsibilities, to mourn, comfort, and witness, are interrelated. President Eyring recently taught, “We lighten the loads of others best by helping the Lord strengthen them. That is why the Lord included in our charge to comfort others the command to be His witnesses at all times and in all places.” As we are comforted and strengthened, we must comfort and strengthen our brothers and sisters: it is what the Savior has asked, and one of the key reasons he has blessed us with the constant companionship of the Comforter.
As we rely on the Comforter to teach us how we can best comfort others, we will learn to see others through the eyes of our Heavenly Father. In his first General Conference address after being called to the apostleship, Elder Dale G.Renlund wrote of a realization that he came to early in his ministry, “that in the Church, to effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes. This expanded perspective will open our hearts to the disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others. But Heavenly Father will aid and comfort us.” Learning to see others as our Heavenly Father sees them may not be a comfortable experience; that process might entail acknowledging our own prejudices and pettiness. But we “can and must be an important part of Hisgiving comfort to those who need comfort”; we are his hands and the means by which his purposes are most commonly accomplished. He will not send angels if he can send home teachers; he will not send apostles if he can send neighbors. As we are converted—an uncomfortable process of growing and stretching to the full measure of our potential—we will naturally reach out to strengthen our brothers and sisters because we will see them through his eyes and love them as he loves them.
If strength seems slow in coming, we must not be discouraged. Remember the promise of Isaiah: “the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3). Transforming a spiritual desert into a flourishing garden is necessarily a slow process; when heavy rains fall in the desert there is a danger of flash floods that can sweep away young and tender plants, eroding loose soil. Our Father in Heaven would like nothing better than to irrigate our arid souls with the water of life, but his comfort comes line upon line, precept upon precept, as we are able to bear and act upon it. If comfort comes more slowly than we had hoped, we must be patient. If we trust in his timing as well as his strength, someday we will see, as the prophet Joseph has seen, that our afflictions were “but a small moment” (D&C 121:7) and have been “for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

If we will only draw nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ, he will bind up our broken hearts; he will liberate us from the captivity of compulsions and addictions; he will comfort our waste places and give beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). We will be comforted with his nails, with his yoke, with his staff. That process may be uncomfortable, but it will leave us, like the many Jesus healed during his mortal ministry, whole.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Joy

When angels came to announce the birth of the Savior, they proclaimed “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10), and that spirit of celebration always ought to shape our declaration to the world of hope, peace, and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ, or the good news that he and his prophets have been commissioned to share with us, is a message of joy.

On his deathbed, the ancient prophet Lehi spoke to his children, and he reminded them that the pursuit and attainment of joy is the purpose of our lives here in mortality: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). We understood this to be the purpose and privilege of mortality from the very beginning: “When [God] laid the foundations of the earth . . . the morning stars sang together, and all the sons [and daughters] of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4, 7). Lehi describes the Fall of Adam and Eve as a necessary prerequisite for our acquisition of joy because joy is, in the scriptures, closely associated with two consequences of the Fall: 1) the birth and rearing of children in families; and 2) the use and sanctification of our physical bodies.

1. The birth and rearing of children in families

The Beautiful Mrs. Monk is nine months pregnant and is not over-excited to undergo the exertion and agony that will be required to deliver our sixth child into the world. But the Savior reminded his disciples that these periods of pain and patient struggle are, in the end, eclipsed by the eternal happiness that they produce: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21). Experiencing travail and struggle is necessary in our mortal sojourn, but these challenges are also, in many cases, the very means by which we come to feel joy—especially as we labor to realize our divine “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation). To paraphrase Elder Bednar, “happiness is [not] the absence of a load.” Happiness is found in relying on the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ as we work to create the spiritual traction that will enable our family units to return to “the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).

I recently read a wonderful book on parenting with the provocative title All Joy and No Fun. The title of this book perfectly captures one of the most pressing challenges we face in a culture that consistently privileges fun—entertainment, pleasure, and play—as the purpose of life. This misguided view of mortality is evident in the prayers offered by my own children and others of Primary age: “Help us to have fun today” or “Please bless us that we will have fun.” It is reinforced, as Brooke Romney noted in a recent op-ed for the Deseret News, by the language we use to communicate with our children: “As they leave our car, we smile, wave and shout, ‘Have fun!’ After they return home from somewhere (school, practice, play date, church), the question is usually ‘Did you have fun?’ and if they didn’t there is often a decent amount of concern about what might be wrong and how we can remedy this un-fun problem.” The Topical Guide, an inspired scriptural study aid, provides much-needed perspective on the eternal insignificance of fun: if you browse the entries beginning with “f” in the Topical Guide you will find an entry for “fulness” (as in “fulness of joy”) and an entry for “funeral,” but there is no “fun” between the two. Prophets have encouraged us to pursue “wholesome recreational activities” as a key to “happiness in family life” (Proclamation), but not all recreation is fun, and not all fun is wholesome. Joy and fun do occasionally overlap, but they are fundamentally different pursuits, and the world’s persistent prioritization of fun threatens to warp our sense of this life’s true purpose.

The proclamation on the family, President Russell M. Nelson declares, “helps us realize that celestial marriage brings greater possibilities for happiness than does any other relationship,” and the apostle John stated, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:4). Family life is our surest pathway to joy, and that eternal truth is the reason that Eve courageously accepted the pains and problems of mortality as the necessary price for her—and our—pursuit of eternal happiness. But family life, and especially parenting, is work! Joy is the outgrowth of sustained and sweaty work far more often than it is the result of pre-packaged and purchased fun.

As we ponder the relationship between joy and work, we will come to appreciate more fully the prophet Isaiah’s encouraging words: “The Lord JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:2-3). Drawing water out of a well is a laborious and sweaty business. Consider the Old Testament example of Rebekah, whose entry into the joys of marriage and family life was only accomplished through hard work. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and this servant arrived as
[Rebekah] went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up. And [Abraham’s] servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher. And she said, Drink my lord: and she hasted, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking. (Genesis 24:16-19)
This story—hauling water for a train of thirsty camels arriving after a long journey—sounds like all work and no fun. But because it was work in fulfillment of Rebekah’s “premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (Proclamation), I am sure that she qualified for and received the Lord’s strength.

Before Isaiah calls on us to draw water out of the wells of salvation with joy, he reminds us that the Lord is our strength and our song. When we “are on the Lord’s errand” (D&C 64:29), as we surely are in every endeavor pertaining to our roles as parents or, like Rebekah, our “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation), we are entitled to the Lord’s help. If we will just try to “be not weary in well doing” in the “great work” (D&C 64:33) to which we are called, he will strengthen and lift us.

2. The use and sanctification of our bodies.
The primary purpose of both the Fall and our collective organization into family units during mortality is to provide each of our Heavenly Father’s children—each of our spiritual brothers and sisters—with a physical body. When we experience aches and illness and allergies, and sometimes all three at once, it may seem that the primary purpose of our bodies is to ensure that we are constantly conscious of what Nephi calls “the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh” (1 Nephi 19:6). But the Lord assures us that a physical body is an essential aid in our quest for joy.

Joseph Smith was taught that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33-34). The fulness of joy that is our eternal destiny comes, not before “funeral,” as in the Topical Guide, but after the separation of our spirits from the mortal bodies in which they are currently housed, when the Lord Jesus Christ will raise each of us in a glorious resurrection that will inseparably connect spirit and element in a perfect and immortal body. We should look forward with joy to the promise of the resurrection. But as we patiently await that foretold bodily perfection, we have been instructed to seek after the fulness of joy that comes when body and spirit are united here and now, in mortality.

Prophets ancient and modern have promised that we will experience a foretaste of that joy as we discipline our bodies and exercise restraint, bringing spirit and element into a unity of purpose. When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and the late President Packer testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer” (D&C 59:13-14). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Faithfully observing the law of the fast offers us that opportunity and ought to be a joyful experience as we qualify ourselves to receive a greater portion of the Spirit; as the apostle Paul teaches, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions; when we fast; when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with perfect, immortal bodies inseparably connected to our spirits.

Fasting, like prayer, “is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings” as our wills and bodies are aligned more fully with the will of the Father. Elder Holland has borne “witness of the miracles, both spiritual and temporal, that come to those who live the law of the fast. I bear witness of the miracles that have come to me. Truly, as Isaiah recorded, I have cried out in the fast more than once, and truly God has responded, ‘Here I am.’ Cherish that sacred privilege at least monthly, and be as generous as circumstances permit in your fast offering” (October 2014). As we do so, we can come to know for ourselves that fasting brings a fulness of joy and sanctifies our souls. Learning to discipline our physical bodies is one of the primary purposes of mortality, and fasting places our feet more firmly in the path of life, so that we can return to our Father’s presence wherein, the Psalmist says, is fulness of joy (Psalms 16:11).

Enjoying, not Enduring

Mortality is rife with trials and tribulations, with pains and persecutions, but we can and should find joy in the journey back to our Father; he intends for this life to be enjoyed and not merely endured. Even with burdens that seem cumbersome, as we internalize the word of God and act on principles of the gospel, “it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son” (Alma 33:23). James exhorts us to “Count it all joy when ye fall into [temptations and afflictions]” (James 1:2); Paul urges us to be “exceeding joyful in all our tribulation” (2 Corinthians 7:4); and the Lord Jesus Christ pleads with us to rely on his strength: “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful” (D&C 136:29). “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Joy is our destiny and our birthright. That birthright, like Esau’s, can be forfeited but never taken from us; we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life” and joy “or to choose captivity and death” and misery (2 Nephi 2:27). As the Savior instructed his apostles, “Your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:22). Joy is not some remote, future reality; it is a present possibility, a choice we can make each and every day as we turn to the Lord and rely on his strength in faith.

In considering this glorious truth, we might feel to ask again the question posed by Ammon, “Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men [and women] that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began” (Alma 26:35). “Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16).