Originally published December 13, 2016.
In my effort to light the world this Christmas, I shared my reflections on exercising faith in Jesus Christ and following His footsteps in a special sacrament meeting at church this past Sunday. I want to share those thoughts with you here in the hope that some reader may benefit from my experience learning to rely on the Lord.
Years ago as a teenager I gave two sacrament talks over the course of several years entitled “Becoming More Christ-like in My Everyday Life.” Those past talks reflect a fairly simplistic understanding of a very important principle with which we must each grapple if we are to ever truly become like the Savior. My old talks focused on upbeat ways in which we emulate Jesus Christ: praying regularly, serving others, sharing the Gospel. What I could not understand then and what I see people struggle with now are the more somber and often heart-wrenching aspects of following the Savior: trying to share the Gospel with people who don’t care, looking for ways to serve when nobody wants your help, attempting prayer when you feel like God is not listening or has even abandoned you.
Each person’s path of discipleship is uniquely personal. The way I experience and practice faith in Jesus Christ is going to be a little different from anyone else. Likewise your path may be bumpy or smooth; it may zigzag through life or lead straight to the gates of heaven; it might stop suddenly and pick up somewhere else or it might begin late. Every one of God’s children is meant to follow Jesus Christ and in a miraculous way I don’t comprehend, Jesus Christ is able to work which each person, understand each person perfectly, and help each person achieve her/his greatest potential in a very individualized way.
Regardless of how our paths differ, I believe the Savior’s life provides many unifying lessons that can help each of us become better disciples and reach our ultimate shared goal of eternal life.
Anguish and abandonment, repentance and change
Sometimes walking in Jesus’ footsteps means that we pass through Gethsemane. All of Jesus’ mortal life prepared Him for and led Him to the seminal moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this secluded space, the Savior performed the initial steps of the Atonement, a widely encompassing act that allows each of God’s children the opportunity to overcome spiritual death through repentance, and overcomes physical death, providing each person a resurrection, the gift of eternal life. But before the sun could rise on the empty tomb, Jesus passed through the culmination of His mortal ministry: His suffering in Gethsemane and His suffering and death on the cross.
The ancient American prophet Alma taught that the promised Savior would “go forth suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11-12, BoM, emphasis added); and this so that He could learn mercy and learn how to assist God’s children. Jesus also suffered the results of sin on behalf of all of us, “lest [our] sufferings be sore–how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that [you] might not suffer if [you] would repent…” (D&C 19:15-16).
Part of the severity of Christ’s suffering on the cross was a result of the withdrawal of God’s Spirit from Him (Matthew 27:46, NT). For Jesus, who had spent His entire life communing with God, learning from Him, becoming like Him, experiencing the loss of God’s presence came as a particularly heavy blow. But this is what we are warned will happen when we sin. Jesus’ experience and teaching is instructive: Losing the influence of God’s Spirit because of sin should be the most awful thing we could ever experience. Jesus invites us to repent, to make use of the Atonement He provided, so that we can gain back one of our greatest comforts and helps in mortal life, the influence of the Holy Ghost.
There have been times in my life when I have not sinned, but I have felt abandoned by God. Perhaps you have also experienced the anguish of feeling alone and forgotten. Maybe you, too, have wanted to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What have you done in those moments? Have you questioned angrily? Have you doubted your testimony? Have you decided to give up on God and walk a different path? Despite His momentary separation from God, Jesus refused to waver from His path and He persisted in His divine mission. We can, too. Recognize and accept now that if we want to do the things the Savior did, we must also experience many of the same things (both good and bad) He did. Resolve to be faithful in good times and bad, continue to keep the commandments, attend church, and pray regularly. “This, too, shall pass” can be your motto but so should, “God is still there and does care, whether or not I can feel it.” Your faith can really only be strengthened when it is put to the test.
Carry on regardless of popular feeling
While serving my mission I met people who not only did not want to listen to us but who also went out of their way to tear us down. People told us we were brain washed, they suggested we would be better off playing at the park than wasting our time as missionaries. Sometimes even members of the Church treated us poorly and I wondered why I was indeed wasting my time trying to serve people who did not want to be served. Active hostility towards religion weakened me in some ways and strengthened my resolve in others. It became essential to rely on the Lord. I considered how the Savior would have handled such situations.
The prophet Isaiah wrote that the Savior would be “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…” (Isaiah 53:3, OT). Jesus constantly faced close scrutiny, open hostility, and secret plotting. As Jesus hung on the cross, a seemingly steady stream of ill wishers walked past to mock and revile Him. Even the criminals hanging on either side jeered at Him (Matthew 27:39-44, NT).
Consider Jesus’ example in the face of such abuse. Isaiah continued in chapter 53, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, OT). Jesus did not defend Himself. The prophet Isaiah further prophesied, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed” (Isaiah 50:6-7, OT). Nowhere in these verses or in many other similar scriptural situations did the writer note that Jesus doubted, stopped teaching, or otherwise retreated from His mission.
Regardless of whether people notice your belief in God, care about your faith or religious practice, or even attack you for your beliefs, you can be like the Savior. “Set your face like a flint,” decide that you will never be ashamed of God, carry on doing good and practicing your faith. As a missionary, I took especial interest in Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees who questioned why He ate with publicans and sinners: “he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17, NT). Whenever we faced rejection, we knew we should move on to find people who wanted to learn the message of the Restoration. Follow Jesus’ example and carry on.
Surrender to God
Perhaps the most difficult lesson I have learned from the Savior’s life is the crowning need to surrender to God, the essence of consecration. My obsessive need to control everything in my life does not lend itself to such behavior, however. In fact, I have often felt like I’m hitting my head against a brick wall as God tells me to let go of something while I grasp it tighter. Perhaps you have experienced this as well.
It is remarkably freeing to finally let go when you have prayerfully and through covenant making turned your life over to God. Allow me to clarify what I mean by “letting go”; as a missionary I had to learn to relinquish concepts of “my time,” “my body,” “my needs,” “my comfort level,” “my bubble,” “my fears,” “my way,” “my plans,” “my ideas,” “my traditions,” “my identity.” Does the thought of letting go any of these concepts scare you? Elder Maxwell knowingly reflected, “In pondering and pursuing consecration, understandably we tremble inwardly at what may be required” (Consecrate Thy Performance, April 2002). I did a little more than tremble. This process scared me so much that I felt like I was slipping into a complete breakdown.
After hitting my head against the brick wall a little more, I finally turned to the Savior to help me through. I worked to exercise my faith in His ability to comprehend my situation and provide appropriate comfort. Learning more about His process of submission put my own suffering in perspective.
While praying in Gethsemane, Jesus experienced such excruciating pain that it caused Him, “even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit” (D&C 19:18). He asked or maybe pled, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me…” (Luke 22:42, NT). Even the Savior wanted to shrink back in the midst of one of His final acts of total surrender to God. We can take hope from His example; it is okay to be scared of what God might require of you. But just like the Savior, who exclaimed “nevertheless not my will but thine be done,” we can achieve the only sacrifice that is also a total victory! Instead of shrinking, we can willingly let “our individual wills be swallowed up in God’s will” (Maxwell, Swallowed Up, Oct. 1995).
I felt like everything I knew about myself, everything I held personally sacred, had been stripped away or torn down. But as I learned to surrender to God, He slowly built me back up into something new and better. I exercised my faith that “His grace would be sufficient for me” (D&C 17:8), that He would ultimately make me strong (Ether 12:27, BoM). And one of the most powerful results I have recognized from this process of surrendering to God are the many ways in which He has worked through me to help others.
One of the means whereby God accomplishes the miracle of reaching His children on a very personal and individual level is through us. Latter-day Saints believe that the Church organization creates a framework of service through which God delegates His power, makes assignments, and ministers to His children one by one. When we accept a church assignment, we are telling God that we are willing to do His work, that we are ready to let Him use us in any way He sees fit. Jesus spent His whole mortal ministry healing, teaching, and visiting individuals. He ministered one by one in Jerusalem, and He did the same in the Americas following His resurrection (3 Nephi 17:21, BoM).
Over the years I have become more skilled at hearing the Holy Ghost prompt me to serve or change my life and actually following through, but sometimes my knee-jerk reaction returns: I cringe and I shrink, and I ask, “are you sure? Do I really need to do that?” The answer should always be “yes.” Consider the good you can do and the exceptional person you can become as you learn to rely on God and follow the example of Jesus Christ, “the life and light of the world” (John 8:12, NT; Alma 38:9, BoM).