I once attended another ward’s quorum lesson and was uncomfortable with the comments of one of the brethren in the group. He was having a crisis of faith. In essence he was saying, “If God wants me to qualify for the Celestial Kingdom, then why doesn’t He tell me exactly what He wants? How many times to I have to go home teaching? What does my average percentage have to be? How good is good enough? I want specifics! Not knowing if I am good enough is driving me crazy!” He just couldn’t figure out what the Lord’s expectations are.
It took me a while, and some discussion with my wife, before things started to sort themselves out in my head. There are a number of problems with what this brother was saying. He was making assumptions about what God wanted from him, and about what we should be able to expect from God, that were not correct. His faulty assumptions include:
1. God has a checklist of Naughty and Nice. In order to be saved we have to reach a high enough percentage on the Nice scale to tip the balance. It is as though each good act has a point value attached to it and we need to accumulate enough points to be saved.
2. My works alone can save me.
3. The Lord should command me in all things, so I do only what He wants me to do.
4. There is no way to know if God is pleased with my efforts. There is no way to know if I am doing enough to be saved.
I have to admit that I have had similar thoughts myself from time to time. In the push to be good and change our lives to meet the Lord’s expectations it is easy to feel overwhelmed and want to cry out, “Just tell me what you want!” The funny thing is, He has already told us what He wants, and how to do it as well. We just need to remember where to find the instruction manual, the scriptures.
This is the extent of the Lord’s checklist:
Baptized – check
Holy Ghost – check
Endowments received – check
Sealed – check
Currently keeping commandments and enduring to the end – check
That’s it. That’s all we have been told to do. Most of our lives lie in that last part – currently keeping commandments and enduring to the end. That’s the part where this good brother got lost.
In reality, beyond these five things, everything else is just frosting on the cake. I know there will be those who will disagree, but that is fine. This is my opinion, after all. It is true that some good deeds are more valuable in the big picture than other good deeds, but a good deed is a good deed and should never be discounted because it isn’t in the “parting the waters” category. Moses parted the waters that day and saved all of Israel’s children, but my wife told me she loved me when I was down and gave me the strength to face one more difficult day. As far as I am concerned, a good deed is a good deed, and we are picking at nits when we try to rank the effectiveness of one good deed over another. It just doesn’t get us anywhere useful. So let’s get rid of this idea that we need to earn brownie points by doing spectacular good deeds in order to get into heaven. Remember that the Lord said that it is by the little things that He will bring to pass the mighty things. In the Doctrine and Covenants 64:33 the Lord said,
Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.
My works alone can save me
The scriptures are full of references to the importance of keeping the commandments. To keep a commandment means doing something about the commandment, which requires action on our part. The Savior said on more than one occasion that “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The Apostle James even said in James 2:20-24,
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Never once have the scriptures recorded anyone as saying that works alone will get us anywhere with the Lord. Faith has to walk hand in hand with our works if we want to get anywhere with the Lord.
The idea that we can win favor points with the Lord by simply racking up compassionate service hours or ministering visits is simply naïve thinking. Faith without works may be dead faith, but faith WITH works keeps faith alive and kicking. The act of applying action to your faith is what it means to “exercise” faith. It is only when we put our faith into action that the Lord is able to direct our steps and accomplish great things through the service we perform. So get out there and rack up those compassionate service hours and acts of ministering, but do it with faith and purpose, so you are there to accomplish the Lord’s work.
Being commanded in all things
Sometimes it feels like it would be so much easier if the Lord just told us what to do so we didn’t have to think so hard for ourselves. Then again, it would be so much better if Santa would just leave me more presents each Christmas. Our ability to think and act for ourselves was what the war in heaven was fought over. Our Father promised us our agency to act for ourselves if we followed His plan of happiness. Satan countered with a plan where he made all our decisions for us so we were guaranteed to return to our Father in Heaven. We may not fully understand the importance of agency now, but we did then, and we sided with the Lord to keep our agency. We even participated in evicting part of our family from heaven in order to keep our ability to make our own choices. So what sense does it make now to give up such a valuable gift, just because things have gotten a little tougher.
The principle of self-governance is an important part of our maturing spiritually. The Lord is not happy with us when we give up our agency and sit around waiting to be commanded in all things. In the Doctrine and Covenants 58:26 – 30
26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.
30 Who am I that made man, saith the Lord, that will hold him guiltless that obeys not my commandments?
Let’s review. If we have to be told or compelled to do every little thing, we are not wise and will receive no reward from the Lord. Ouch. We have been made “agents” unto ourselves meaning we have the ability to make our own choices and we can do what we want. If we do good by making our own choices and are actively engaged in doing good things then we are promised that we will not lose our reward. (That is a backwards way of saying that we are promised a blessing). And as usual, the Lord then turns around and tells us what will happen if we fail to act for ourselves. He tells us that he has given commandments that we are expected to follow, and not just follow, but to find ways to keep using our own creative energies. If we keep the commandments only after we are commanded to do so, and we are lazy about it and do it reluctantly, we will damn ourselves. The Lord will not count us as innocent if we refuse to obey the commandments we have been given.
Remember that to be damned is to be stopped in our progress, just like a body of water is damned when it hits a wall and can go no further in its progress. Also note that being damned is something we do to ourselves, it is not something that God does to us. If we obey the commandments willingly and eagerly there is no way we can be stopped in our progress. Progress is the natural consequence of faith and obedience. Being stopped in our eternal progress (being damned) is the natural consequence of being lazy and disobedient to the commandments. So we have no one to blame but ourselves if we are not making progress in spiritual things.
How much is enough?
It is easy to get lost in this life. We get so busy with our daily activities that we tend to lose our direction and start to wander spiritually. Sure, we may still be attending church meetings, fulfilling our callings, holding Family Home Evening, and performing service for others, but if our works become automated to the point that we have lost the purpose behind those works, then our faith begins to die.
One of the major purposes of mortality is for us to gain a physical body then begin to think and act like God, doing good and seeking the salvation of all those around us. That was Christ’s mission, and it is ours as well. That takes constant creative effort on our part to seek out God’s will for us so that we are constantly employed in His service. We should be actively looking for ways to be of service to others, exercising our faith responsibly in the callings we receive at church and in our responsibilities at home.
When we are actively using our talents and abilities in the service of others and for the welfare of all those around us, and seeking guidance from the Lord along the way, then we are doing enough. This is the “keep the commandments and endure to the end” part of the checklist. Enduring to the end isn’t about surviving till we die. Enduring to the end is all about learning to find joy in the service of others, learning to follow the promptings of the Spirit, learning to receive personal revelation, learning what our weaknesses are, taking them to the Lord and having him help us turn those weaknesses into strengths.
Can you see why the Lord calls those who have to be commanded in all things slothful and unwise servants? Can you see why they become damned or stopped in their progress? Only activity, fueled by faith in Christ, prayer, powered by desire to do good, and service filled with love for God and our fellows will help us feel like we are truly on the Lord’s errand. Those who feel like they are on the Lord’s errand never stop to ask if they have reached a quota. They know there is always more that can be done and more people to bless and they find joy in the service they are able to perform. Remember the promise the Lord made? – “And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”
We have not been left alone. As we obey the commandments, work to improve ourselves and follow the promptings of the Spirit, we can receive assurances that we are doing what the Lord wants us to do. It is possible to live our lives knowing that what we are doing is pleasing to God, and that He accepts our efforts, no matter how flawed we may think our efforts to be.
by Dallin H. Oaks
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Our Unrealistic Expectations
And….we are saved by grace after all we can do……..
A general observation: when I hear comments like these from members, I wonder if they’ve forgotten their basics: daily personal prayer and scripture study. Members (and non-members who follow Christ) who are “involved” don’t often worry about these sorts of things, because other things come to the fore, like service (which, when an active spiritual life is happening, is often prompted by the Spirit). This “crisis of faith” is most often brought on by failure to feed oneself spiritually, and no one can do that for us. While there are serious issues that can cause crises of faith, for the member sitting in SS class fretting over things like these, the cure is relatively simple: start reading/studying again, and engaging in personal prayer.
Thank you for this insightful post. I used to worry whether I was doing enough good works to merit the Lord’s grace. As my understanding of scriptures grew and my love for the Lord increased, I just wanted to do good to be happy and make Him happy. Now I feel His grace everyday. It truly is about becoming a different person, a new creature. And I agree with Bro. Seegmiller that service is one of the ways you can identify a disciple of Christ.
Thank you for this very well thought out post! How well said! Extremely balanced & appropriate. Sometimes just trying to follow the commandments with a growing family, work, school, & Church responsibilities can feel totally over whelming to the point where it seems so much easier to simply focus on ourselves or our own family’s needs over trying to being anxiously engaged that I find myself sometimes struggling to want to follow ANY commandments. One of the greatest blessings of the Lord though is that He knows us! He knows us better than we know ourselves! He knows we’ll sometimes mess up & He is always sending people our way to help us with our course corrections to begin our forward progression again. Thank you again brother for this great post & for making me feel not so totally overwhelmed & alone! Reading this tonight has been a tender mercy for me & it feels like all of these words were given to you to write just for me! I feel a desire to recommit to following the commandments not out of begrudged duty or necessity but for a greater love toward my brothers & sisters & the Lord. Thank you again!