"JOURNEYS, MAPS, COMPASSES, AND TRAIL MARKERS"
Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional
January 21, 2003
Eric L. Denna
What a privilege to be with you today. I have long admired President Bednar and the work he is leading at BYU-Idaho to enhance education. To our friends from EDS we extend a heart felt thanks for your support of the innovation occurring here. I am quite confident that your investment will be well rewarded. What a remarkable place and a remarkable time.
As you well know, any time spent with President and Sister Bednar is edifying. They have been gracious hosts to Lyn and to me and we are grateful for the time we have been able to spend with them.
I am mindful of the standard that has been set for speaking at BYU-Idaho. Some weeks ago while walking on my treadmill in the morning I saw Sister Bednar speaking of selling our birthright while holding a can of soup and a bagel. I was edified by her instruction. I ask for your prayers that these next few minutes will be edifying as well.
When 17 years old I somehow convinced my parents to take me to the trailhead of the Pacific Crest Trail on the border of California and Mexico where I intended to walk alone to Canada. The story of my hairdo is for another day. While the trip itself may appear amazing, what is more amazing for this father of four sons is the fact that I somehow convinced my parents to let me do it. I consider it to be my greatest feat of salesmanship second only to convincing my wife Lyn to marry me. Even though I did not complete the entire trail and eventually had to stop at the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, I did learn some valuable lessons that have helped me throughout my journeys in life.
During my hike I developed an expertise in the use of a map and compass and in discerning landmarks along the way. There were times when these skills were critical to my safety and progress. My map served to help me identify the course to travel while my compass served to establish position and direction. Fortunately a few trail markers were provided at times along the way thereby confirming what I had derived from my map and compass. Even more helpful were times when I was able to speak with someone who had already walked the trail ahead. Often their advice would help me better use my map, compass, or the trail markers along my journey.
In our journey to come unto Christ I have learned that maps, compasses and trail markers take various forms, which, when understood, can help us along our way. I have been particularly blessed by the advice of wonderful parents and priesthood leaders who have provided timely advice and counsel. Whenever I have followed their counsel I have progressed in my journey.
Maps can never be detailed enough to guide every footstep, nor can a compass be accurate enough to always reveal the exact position. Fortunately, trail markers appear at times to confirm what we attempt to discern from maps and compasses. However, without the aid of map and compass it is often difficult to discern the meaning of a trail marker. Together, in the hands of someone trained in their use, they become incredibly valuable. I intend to speak of spiritual maps, compasses, and trail markers today to provide some insight regarding our position and direction as we journey to come unto Christ. Consider this one of those moments when you meet someone who has walked some of the trail ahead and is offering some advice.
A truly meaningful discussion of coming unto Christ cannot begin without recognition of the central role of the power of the atonement. You and I have been richly blessed by President Bednar's eloquent teachings of the power of the atonement and of the central role the atonement plays in our efforts to grow from bad to good to better. Last year at that other BYU campus south of here President Bednar shared his insights regarding the power of the atonement with the campus community. His teachings penetrated my soul and have served as a catalyst for my thoughts that I intend to share today. My purpose now is to simply stress the significance of the atonement as it relates to coming unto Christ and to encourage you to review President Bednar's teachings on the power of the Atonement.
This past summer I had the opportunity of vacationing with my family to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, which included visits to Zion's National Park and The Grand Canyon. During our travels we came upon The Navajo Bridges that cross the Colorado River near Page, Arizona. As you can see the Colorado River has cut a deep gorge through which it travels on its way to the Grand Canyon. In a remarkable feat of engineering, a bridge was constructed several years ago to cross this great chasm. Originally designed for a single lane of automobile traffic, it now serves as a footbridge with a newer and wider bridge having been built for vehicles. In awe, my family and I walked across what is now the footbridge gazing at the water hundreds of feet below.
As I have reflected on the experience of walking across the bridge connecting the sides of this deep canyon I have recognized the blessing of the bridge. Prior to the bridge it would have been impossible for any human to cross the canyon alone, let alone with some kind of cargo. With the bridge in place I was able to cross with relatively little effort being the benefactor of more energy and effort than I could have ever exercised on my own. While I was indeed crossing the great chasm on my own power putting one foot in front of the other, my effort was made effective only by the enormous contribution of others who had provided the bridge. Without their effort, no amount of effort on my part would have resulted in my crossing the canyon.
In a wonderful way, Christ has provided a bridge for us to cross over the everlasting gulf of misery and land our souls at the right hand of God (Helaman 3:27-30). Brothers and sisters, we would be seriously mistaken if we were to conclude that any effort on our part to come unto Christ is in any way comparable to the contribution of the Savior's atonement. Not recognizing Christ's contribution would be akin to my thinking that I had crossed the great chasm near Page, Arizona because of my own efforts, not recognizing how futile it would be to truly try and do it without the aid of those who constructed the bridge. Surely, it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do (2 Nephi 25:23). At the same time, it would sad to have such a bridge in place and then try to cross the canyon without it. So how do we take advantage of this great gift of the atonement as we journey toward Christ?
Desire to Live By Faith
While our own efforts are nearly immeasurable when compared with the contribution of the atonement, there is no substitute for our individual effort. We must do all we can before Christ can do all He can to save us through His atonement. The atonement is the outcome of Christ subjecting his desire to that of the Father in the most selfless exercise of agency in the history of mankind. Unsurprisingly, we must exercise our agency appropriately to take advantage of the atonement. One of the most basic ways by which we can exercise our agency is in determining what we desire. Alma declares that the seed of faith is the simple desire to believe (Alma 32:27). True desire is not theatre or weekend work. For our efforts to come unto Christ to be effective they must be sincere and sustained. We must desire to live a life of faith with all our heart, might, mind and strength (Moroni 10:32), at all times and in all places (Mosiah 18: 9). We cannot be actors or weekend warriors. We must full-time Christian soldiers.
Elder Maxwell has taught that, "Desire denotes a real longing or craving. Hence righteous desires are much more than passive preferences or fleeting feelings. Of course our genes, circumstances, and environments matter very much, and they shape us significantly. Yet there remains an inner zone in which we are sovereign, unless we abdicate. In this zone lies the essence of our individuality and our personal accountability." While concluding his discourse he added this precious pearl, "Brothers and sisters, a loving God will work with us, but the initiating particle of desire which ignites the spark of resolve must be our own!" (According to Our Desires, Maxwell, Ensign, November, 1996).
The sincerity and sustainability of our desires will be enhanced as we connect them to the atonement. The atonement makes possible the fulfillment of our righteous desires to live lives of faith. Unless our desires recognize the role of the atonement and seek for its blessings it will matter little what we desire as it will have no lasting effect. As Mormon explained to his son Moroni, all things not linked to the most charitable act of the atonement must fail (Moroni 7:46).
Search For And Receive Truth
The desire to live by faith is subsequently manifest in the disciple searching for truth, for faith is born of knowing and living truth. There is no salvation in believing falsehood, no matter how sincere our belief (see 2 Timothy 2:18 and Helaman 15:7). Without truth we cannot develop saving faith (Alma 32:21 and Lectures on Faith 3:2-5).
The true disciple has a very expansive view of truth seeing it as a great whole encompassing vast realms of knowledge. In academe we labor a great deal to divide knowledge into separate little compartments, instead of connecting truth into one great whole. Departmental and college boundaries too often serve to separate and divide truth rather than integrate and unify it. Unfortunately, we latter-day disciples too often fall prey to this divisive philosophy of man leaving us to argue over which academic discipline is most important or most true. We, of all people, should be looking beyond such taxonomical arguments and instead be unifying all truth into one great whole. Remember, "intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light (Doctrine and Covenants 88:40).
We should also demonstrate our appreciation of the opportunity to learn by being anxiously engaged in learning throughout our entire lives and not just for a brief period while enrolled in formal programs of study. Furthermore, our quest to seek for and receive truth should not be confused with the semester ending ritual of preparing for final exams. Prior to these events there is a great cramming of facts and figures into our cerebral spheres only to see this mass of knowledge expunged within minutes. This ritual too often leaves the cranium largely void of whatever it had contained just moments before being replaced only by a headache or fatigue. The final judgment, brothers and sisters, is not a multiple-choice exam for which we can cram in the final hours and during which we will simply spew forth various scriptures or spiritual thoughts. The final judgment is the ultimate true/false exam during which we will stand before the Embodiment Of Truth and will be judged as to whether we are either true or false. For this judgment to be successful we must receive the truth into our souls, not simply store it as we would any other fact or figure in scripture margins, a binder, day planner, or even Palm Pilot.
Central to our quest for truth should be an understanding of the atonement and its application in our daily life. The atonement serves to hold together all truth as it is the greatest of all truths. We may learn a great deal in life, but until we connect every truth the ultimate truth of the atonement we have no way of unifying all truth into one great whole.
Repent of All Sin
When we sincerely receive the truth into our souls we begin to notice that aspects of our thoughts, actions, or words are not aligned with the truth of God's thoughts, actions, or words. The ultimate test of whether we are receiving truth is whether it results in falsehoods being expelled from our thoughts, actions, and words. This does not happen at once, as we will discuss a little later. This process of change can result in soul wrenching changes that leave us exhausted. In the end, however, there is nothing to compare with the energy resulting from the miracle of forgiveness as the Spirit whispers to our souls, as it did to Enos, "Thy sins are forgiven thee and thou shalt be blessed" (Enos 1:10).
We cannot modify behavior alone in this process--that would be theatre. Our very nature must be changed as we discover both large and small sins. True repentance encompasses our thoughts, actions, and words; otherwise we would be hypocrites because of inconsistencies across our thoughts, words, and actions. This should occupy our time and attention each and every day. Furthermore, repentance should be part of every aspect of our lives, not just what would be considered religious. It is a fascinating thing to me that we as a people who have as a centerpiece of our theology the doctrine of change can struggle so with change in our work-a-day lives. We struggle so very much when confronted with the need to change at work due to changes in who is being served, the services being provided, how performance is being measured, how work is performed, the development of a new technology, or how people are organized. On Sunday, brothers and sisters, we call it repentance. The doctrine applies to all aspects of our lives and not just overcoming gross sin.
It goes without saying that any effort on our part to repent without recognizing the atonement is as shallow as it is sad. There is no reason to even attempt repentance without recognizing that the atonement makes repentance possible. It would be equally sad if the atonement were wasted by our not repenting. Remember, if we do not repent we must suffer even as the Savior (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19).
Make, Renew and Keep Sacred Covenants
When sincere, repentance leads to the making, renewing and keeping of sacred covenants. Whether associated with ordinances of salvation found in the waters of baptism or within the walls of the Holy Temple, or those we make privately with our God, faith-building covenants are specific declarations of how we will follow Christ. We are provided the opportunity to renew such covenants either as part of our Sabbath Day worship or in the Holy Temple in behalf of the dead. These are sacred opportunities to remember what we have declared before God, angels, and witnesses.
The need for renewing covenants grows primarily from the fact that we disciples have short memory and attention spans. The Book of Mormon is replete with accounts of people forgetting. The opportunity to renew covenants helps us remember that which we have promised. When our covenant renewing is frequent and sincere our covenant keeping is more likely.
No matter how sincere our covenant making and renewing, unless we are keeping our covenants they provide no benefit. We cannot call on the Lord and not do what we say we will and expect the Lord's blessing (see Luke 6:46). We must make and renew and keep saving covenants with all our heart, might, mind, and strength until the very end and beyond.
Once again, without the atonement, our efforts to make, renew and keep sacred covenants are shallow and lifeless. They would be nothing more than hollow rituals. While making, renewing, and keeping sacred covenants we will be strengthened as we consider the depth of the Savior's covenant making and keeping. He not only descended from a throne, but he descended below all things (Doctrine and Covenants 88:6). The depth of his covenant making and keeping is our standard. Inherent in this process will be suffering, but nowhere near the degree Christ experienced. Since Christ learned by what he suffered (see Hebrews 5:8 and Doctrine and Covenants 105:5-6), should we expect anything different for ourselves? We should not waste our days complaining about this reality in any degree. As Elder Maxwell has taught, "since the most innocent suffered the most, our cries of why cannot match his, but we can utter the same submissive word nevertheless" (Neal A. Maxwell, "Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father," Ensign, November, 1995).
Receive the Witness and Companionship of the Spirit
When we are sincere in our covenant making and renewing we receive the witness of the Spirit. When we are persistent in our covenant keeping we receive the constant companionship of the Spirit. The witness and companionship of the Holy Spirit is actually the ratification that our covenant making, renewing, and keeping is accepted of God (see Doctrine and Covenants 132:7). It is the means by which we know we are accepted of God. It is no coincidence that we are instructed to receive the Spirit early on in our covenant making, and that every week in our covenant renewing at the sacrament table we pray to receive God's Spirit.
The witness and companionship of the Spirit is made possible by the atonement. The mercy and power provided by the atonement makes it possible for the Spirit to abide as we are cleansed from sin. Without the atonement we would be left to walk this life without God's merciful provision of the light that fills the immensity of space and is in all things, giving life to all things, being the law by which all things are governed (Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-13).
Help Build Others' Faith
The scriptures are filled with accounts of those who have received the witness and companionship of the Spirit and are then led to forget themselves and instead worry about the faith of others. Enos, Paul, Joseph, the sons of Mosiah, Alma and many others all stand as testimonies of this truth. Remember the description of Alma and the sons of Mosiah after they had received the truth, repented of their sins, made sacred covenants, and received the Holy Spirit? "They could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thought that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble" (Mosiah 28:3). Whether anxiously engaged in a good cause of our own free will and choice (Doctrine and Covenants 58: 27) or called to serve by prophecy, the Spirit compels us to help build others' faith.
The greatest help we can be to others is helping them recognize and accept the atonement of Christ. The atonement is the greatest help possible to build mankind's faith. Without it there would be no faith and any effort on our part to build others' faith would be futile. Among the ways by which this service is rendered is through faithful and sincere home and visiting teaching, what President Benson described as "one of the tests of true discipleship" (Ezra Taft Benson, "To The Home Teachers of The Church," Ensign, May, 1987).
One Eternal Round
Sustained effort to build others' faith naturally results in our own desires for faith increasing. Our joy is increased when we help others find the same joy. The Savior himself demonstrated this joy when he ministered to the Nephites following his resurrection (3 Nephi 27:30).
The increased desire elevates our efforts as though we are climbing a spiral staircase that has six basic steps. Over and over we are carried to a higher plane by the same basic steps. How can we ever become board with such an effort.
As we continue our climb we should not be surprised to find the angle of our climb increasing. Early on, God mercifully seems to provide a gentle incline in our climb. While there may be some major obstacles, they are easily recognized and averted. However, as our climb continues and we grow from grace to grace, the degree of difficulty often increases. What might be mistakenly considered minor sins are seen as major stumbling stones, not gravel along the roadside. We mourn over a moment of unkindness while not even considering murder. While clearly murder would be vastly more serious than unkindness, because we have long since passed that stumbling stone on the path of discipleship, murder is not even recognized as an option. Therefore, our focus turns to what might be considered by the lesser disciple the lesser sins, but for the greater disciples these lesser things become much more significant. Unkindness and many other characteristics and attributes become a major concern, not unfortunate personality traits we simply have to endure because that is the way we are.
In reverse the aforementioned steps suggests ways by which our faith weakens and fails. When we turn from the building of others' faith and look inward it is likely the result of our not having received the Spirit, for one of the fruits of receiving the Spirit is that we turn outward (Enos 1:8-11). Not enjoying the witness and the constant companionship of the Spirit is evidence that covenants are not being made, renewed or kept. If covenants are not being made, renewed or kept then it is likely we are not repenting. If not repenting, we are not likely searching for and receiving truth. Not searching for and receiving truth is evidence that we do not desire to live by faith. In the end, our desires dictate our direction and pace (see Neal A. Maxwell, "According to the Desire of Our Hearts," Ensign, November, 1996). Sadly, not even the atonement can help when we exercise our agency in such ways. In the end, we are left with our desires.
Determining Our Position and Direction
All of us are eager to know our position and direction in any journey. Whether the child asking over and over, "are we there yet," or the adult deeply pondering the question "Can ye feel so now?," (see Alma 5:26) we all want to know the truth of our situation.
During the hike I referred to at the beginning of this talk, and through many other journeys throughout my life I have come to appreciate the importance of knowing my position and direction in my journeys. On my hike when trail markers were not found I would regularly use a compass and a method called triangulation to determine my position and direction. The model we have discussed has a notion of triangulation in it as well as serving as it were like a compass identifying our position relative to clear landmarks.
Let me identify some important landmarks we should be looking for in our journey. I will present them in the form of questions:
First, are we seeking for and receiving all truth?
Second, are we making, renewing and keeping sacred covenants?
Third, are we anxiously engaged in helping build others' faith?
Let me emphasize the first of these three questions. I understand that there is a tradition at BYU-Idaho to carry your scriptures to devotionals. Do you have yours? Something I have come to worry about with those for whom I have stewardship is the practice of daily feasting upon God's word. Of all that we might do to seek for and receive all truth the importance of the practice of daily feasting upon the word cannot be overstated. I grow increasingly concerned when I speak to others who have allowed the pressures of the day to push aside time for daily feasting. Brothers and sisters, I know something of pressure and demands upon time. Throughout my life I have somehow managed to keep rather busy. However, I have had the practice of making time each day for a study of the scriptures since I was 16. For nearly 30 years now I have been blessed to feast upon God's word and to be taught by His Holy Spirit. During this time the Lord has favored me with some degree of success and increased responsibility. I am convinced that I would not have been nearly as successful in life without the practice of daily feasting firmly established. I commend such a practice to each of you at this early stage in your life and suggest repentance may be needed if it is not firmly established. No honor of men, including a diploma, can match the value of the habit of daily feasting upon God's word.
When we are able to answer each of these three questions honestly in the affirmative we can be assured we are firmly positioned on the path leading to Christ and our direction is correct. When even one of these questions is answered with something less than an honest yes we can assume that we are either slipping backwards or not on the path at all. If not corrected, over time, we can find ourselves completely off the path and wandering in strange roads.
In summary, without the atonement we would make no measurable progress in our efforts to come unto Christ. If we purposely limit the degree to which we are engaged in any one of these activities, we limit our progress in coming unto Christ. Furthermore, there is a dependency among the various activities. For example, focusing on repenting without actively searching for the truth can result in our aligning ourselves with erroneous doctrines. Erroneous doctrines cannot enable saving faith nor do they lead us to saving covenants and the attendant gifts of the Spirit when we keep our covenants. Conversely, if our discovery of truth does not penetrate our souls, thereby leading us to repentance, we will be forever learning yet never able to know the truth (2 Timothy 3:7). Over time, each of these activities must shape all that we do, say, and think (Alma 12:14). By our thoughts, actions, and words we demonstrate we are overcoming the natural man and becoming a saint through the atonement of Christ (Mosiah 3:19).
Furthermore, when we are having trouble fully keeping a covenant, it is often the lack of repenting in our life. For example, if we are tempted to dissolve a marriage covenant, it is often the result of the lack of repentance in the relationship. When we find ourselves in our marriage relationship attempting to justify ourselves with the expression, "this is just the way I am, take it or leave it," we have missed the whole point of the marriage covenant. The covenant is a commitment to change and become more Christlike. For me my marriage has served as a marvelous catalyst for change. Over the past 23 years my thoughts, actions, and words have been refined and changed to the point that I am a fundamentally different person than I was 23 years ago. I pay tribute to my wife for her kind and gentle tutoring through which the Lord has often taught me plain and precious truths. The secret in a successful covenant marriage is not in two people finding each other, it is in two people finding Christ together. He makes you one.
While a personal and private process, our progress is supported through family and Church efforts. The ordering of support is important--family first, then the Church. When this ordering is compromised, the quality or pace of our progress is often compromised. While potentially compensating for familial deficiencies, the Church is no replacement for the family. As Elder Maxwell explains, the Church is scaffolding around the more permanent structure of the family (see "Unto the Rising Generation," Ensign, April, 1985). The purpose of the Church is to invite and help the children of God to come unto Christ (Doctrine and Covenants 20:59). The primary instrumentality for doing so is the family unit.
Hopefully these thoughts will encourage you to go to your homes and ponder upon these things, asking God to prepare your minds for further instruction as you come unto Christ.
All that is left now for me to do is to testify of the truth of these things. While recognizing the feeble nature of my attempt to teach and testify, I stand as a witness of one who is the beneficiary of God's love manifest through the atonement of His Son.
I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused by the grace that so fully he proffers me,
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me a sinner, he suffered, he bled, and died,
Oh it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me!
Oh it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
(Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 193)
I testify that as we persistently desire to live by faith; seek for and receive truth; repent; make, renew and keep sacred covenants; as we receive the witness and companionship of the Spirit and seek to build others' faith we can come unto Christ. Doing so is not easy or quick, but it is fulfilling and sustaining. I express my gratitude to God for his mercy and love as I have attempted, often in feeble ways, to seek after him. When sincere, he always responds to my efforts and lifts me.
Of this I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.