Why Is Light an Appropriate Symbol for the Birth of Christ?

In a passage quoted by Nephi, Isaiah used the imagery of light to describe the birth of the Messiah:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined….
For unto us a child is born (Isaiah 9:2, 6, 2 Nephi 19:2, 6).

In the land of Israel, the birth of the Savior coincided with the appearance of a new star. Matthew tells us that a group of wise men followed a star to the place where Jesus was living as a young child (Matthew 2:1-10).

A group of people on the American continent experienced a much more dramatic sign. As the prophet Samuel prophesied six years before the Savior’s birth:

There shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born.
And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.
And behold this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven (Helaman 14:3-7).

Six years later, to the amazement of the people, Samuel’s prophecy was fulfilled:

At the going down of the sun there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came….
And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order; and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given….
And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word (3 Nephi 1:15, 19, 21).

The birth of the Savior was accompanied by light, and not just any light. Unusual light, shining in the middle of the night. Light when there should be darkness.

Why is this a fitting symbol? Because that is what Christ does for us. As Isaiah described, we have all walked in darkness. We have all lived or will all live in the “land of the shadow of death” at times. Our lives can seem very dark. We can be confused, discouraged, or fearful. But when the light of Christ flows into our lives, those emotions can be replaced by joy and confidence.

For the inhabitants of the American continent, the appearance of the “light of the world” (John 8:12) was marked by the arrival of miraculous heavenly objects which shone from the sky and filled the earth with light even though the people had seen sun set.

Today, I will be grateful for the light and hope that the Savior can bring into my life, even during my darkest times. I will remember that He is the light of the world and that, if I reach out to Him, He can fill me with His light, which will bring clarity, confidence, and comfort.

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How Can I Manage Stress More Effectively?

Near the end of King Benjamin’s life, he gathered his people to teach them about the Savior. After they received a remission of their sins, he gave them a list of things they should do to retain that remission over time: continue to believe in God, pray to Him, repent, teach their children to love one another, give to beggars, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and administer to the spiritual and temporal needs of others (Mosiah 4:4-26).

At this point, he must have sensed a growing level of anxiety among his listeners, so he provided some guidance about how to manage the gap between what they would like to do and what they actually could do:

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order (Mosiah 4:27).

In April of 1829, after Joseph Smith lost the 116 pages known as the Book of Lehi and was unable to translate for many months, the Lord gave him the same advice. After authorizing him to begin translating again, the Lord said:

Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end (Doctrine and Covenants 10:4).

Note that in both of these passages, dual instructions are given:

  1. Don’t try to do more than you can.
  2. Be diligent.

This pairing suggests to me that there is an optimal level of activity. We shouldn’t do more than we can, and we shouldn’t do less. We are looking for that sweet spot, where we are productive and busy but not overextended and burned out.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has explained that, when a pilot encounters turbulence during a flight, he or she will search for the “optimum turbulence penetration speed.” They don’t shut down the engines entirely (obviously), and they don’t necessarily speed up. Instead, they try to achieve a speed which minimizes the negative effects of the turbulence while continuing to progress toward their destination. Often, he said, this means slowing down (“Of Things That Matter Most,” General Conference, October 2010).

In 1908, two psychologists—Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson—identified a principle which is now called the Yerkes-Dodson law. It states that, for difficult tasks, our performance improves as our state of mental arousal (our stress level) increases, but only up to a point. After we have reached the peak level of performance, additional arousal actually reduces our effectiveness. The law is often represented by a bell curve, with the point of maximum productivity at the top of the curve:

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 8.59.38 PM
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So zero stress is not the goal, but too much stress can be just as bad.

What should we do when we are overstressed? Elder Uchtdorf provided the following guidance:

  1. Slow down a little.
  2. Simplify your activities. Focus on the most important ones, and let some less important activities go.
  3. Remember that your top priorities are your relationships: with God, with your family, with other people, and with yourself.
  4. Find joy in living the gospel.

(“Of Things That Matter Most,” General Conference, October 2010).

Today I will pay attention to my stress level and try to achieve an “optimum turbulence penetration level.” I will strive to prioritize the things that matter most, let go of less important things, and find joy in doing good.

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Would God Lead Us Into Temptation?

During the Lord’s Prayer, which the Savior gave as an example of how we should pray, He makes the following request:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13, Luke 11:4, 3 Nephi 13:12).

The words are the same all three times this prayer appears in the scriptures: twice in the New Testament and once in the Book of Mormon.

Nephi taught us that God “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world” (2 Nephi 26:24). Mormon taught that God invites us to do good continually and that it is the devil, not God, who entices us to do evil (Moroni 7:13, 17). Since we know that God loves us and will only lead us to do good, why would we ask Him not to lead us into temptation?

Earlier this year, Pope Francis reportedly authorized a change in the wording of this prayer to be used in Catholic services. Instead of saying “lead us not into temptation,” the new version would say, “do not let us fall into temptation” (“Led not into temptation: pope approves change to Lord’s Prayer,” The Guardian, 6 Jun 2019).

The prophet Joseph Smith made a similar emendation. In the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the passage in Matthew reads:

And suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:14, JST).

And the Luke passage reads like this:

And let us not be led unto temptation; but deliver us from evil; (Luke 11:4, JST).

President Russell M. Nelson has commented on Joseph Smith’s revisions:

The clarification on temptation is helpful, for surely we would not be led into temptation by Deity. The Lord said, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (“Lessons from the Lord’s Prayers,” General Conference, April 2009).

I like President Nelson’s characterization of this change as a “clarification.” The King James Translation is not incorrect, but it could be misunderstood.

For example, when President Henry B. Eyring was a child, he learned a number of principles from the Lord’s Prayer including the following:

I had been taught and found it true that we can be warned of danger and shown early what we have done which displeased God. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13) (“Write upon My Heart,” General Conference, October 2000).

Today, I will be grateful for a loving God who wants what is best for me and who is committed to my success and happiness. I will be grateful that His prophets can help me better understand the principles behind scriptural texts and apply them correctly in my life.

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What Are the Roles of Persuasion and Punishment in Motivating Good Behavior?

This is the third of three posts in response to a question I received last week.

The first post discussed God’s love for us.

The second discussed why God would “inflict” things on us.

Today’s post discusses the roles of persuasion and of punishment from God’s perspective. The questioner wants to understand why a loving God would ever punish His children. Isn’t persuasion enough?

First, God and His representatives do try to persuade us to accept and to live by true principles.

  • The Title Page of the Book of Mormon states that one of its purposes is to convince us that Jesus is the Christ.
  • Nephi labored diligently to persuade his children and his siblings “to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God” (2 Nephi 25:23).
  • The angel who appeared to Alma the Younger said that he was sent “to convince [him] of the power and authority of God” (Mosiah 27:14).
  • Zeezrom was convinced by the testimony of Alma and Amulek (Alma 12:7).
  • Alma wished he could speak with the voice of an angel, “with the voice of thunder” (Alma 29:1-2).
  • After pleading with his people to repent, to no avail, Mormon wrote, “I would that I could persuade all ye ends of the earth to repent and prepare to stand before the judgment-seat of Christ” (Mormon 3:22).

However, we aren’t always so easily persuaded.

  • Nephi couldn’t understand why his brothers, who had seen an angel, continually slipped back into unrighteous patterns of behavior (1 Nephi 7:10, 1 Nephi 17:45). At one point, Nephi stretched out his hand toward his brothers, and the Lord “did shake them” by His power (1 Nephi 17:54). But this didn’t produce lasting change either.
  • When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies allowed their enemies to kill them, many of the enemy were moved with compassion and became converts to the gospel as well. However, two groups of former believers, the Amalekites and the Amulonites, were so hardened that not a single one of them joined the people of God (Alma 24:28-30).
  • After the destruction which coincided with His death, the Savior lamented the unwillingness of those who had fallen to accept the invitations which they had received many times: “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,… and ye would not” (3 Nephi 10:5). (See also Matthew 23:37.)

We’d like to think that a perfectly persuasive Being would be able to convince us to change our behavior and follow Him. We’d like to think that, if the evidence that we are wrong became convincing enough, we would of course change our minds. But these stories suggest otherwise.

A major theme in the Book of Mormon is our natural stubbornness and resistance to change:

At the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.
And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him (Helaman 12:2-3).

Mormon paints a picture of a God who will do almost anything to persuade us, including sending rewards and punishments, but who will not override our agency. We must choose whether to believe and whether to obey, and we are ultimately accountable for those choices.

In this telling, punishments are not the opposite of persuasion. They are a form of persuasion. Their purpose is not to exact vengeance for our sins but to wake us up and convince us to abandon our sins. The Lord uses a variety of teaching methods, including words, rewards, and punishments.

For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes…. And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests (Doctrine and Covenants 88:89-90).

Today, I will be grateful for a God who teaches and motivates me in many different ways, according to my needs. I will be grateful for His enduring interest in my progress and for His patience with me as I struggle to learn basic principles. I will also remember that I am ultimately accountable for my own decisions. He will invite and persuade, but ultimately I must choose whether to believe and whether to obey.

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Why Would God “Inflict” Things on Us?

This is the second of three posts in response to a question I received last week.

Yesterday, I wrote that God’s love is most clearly demonstrated in the life and suffering of Jesus Christ, that the Savior feels genuine empathy for us, and that when we experience God’s love, we are filled with joy.

Today, I’m writing about a specific word used by an angel as he taught King Benjamin how we can be changed by Jesus Christ.

When Benjamin spoke to his people at the end of his life, he explained that he had seen an angel who had taught him about the life of the Savior. “The Lord Omnipotent” would come to earth, the angel explained, and would “dwell in a tabernacle of clay.” He would heal the sick, raise the dead, and work many other miracles. He would suffer more than any human being can suffer. He would do all of this on our behalf (Mosiah 3:5-10).

The angel went on to explain that we can become saints through the atonement of Christ, but only if we are “submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love.” In particular, we must be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

Why would God “inflict” anything upon us, particularly when we are willing to submit our will to His?

  1. This life is a time of testing, and tests are inherently difficult. Lehi and Alma both referred to it as a time of “probation” (2 Nephi 2:21, Alma 12:24, Alma 42:4). When a group of people founded a city and began to live in peace and happiness, Mormon introduced the next chapter of their history with the following ominous pronouncement: “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 23:21). After they endured a period of captivity, Mormon says, “So great was their faith and their patience” that the Lord delivered them from bondage (Mosiah 24:16). They passed the test.
  2. God can make our suffering beneficial to us. Lehi lamented the difficulties his son Jacob had experienced—born in the wilderness, mistreated by his older brothers—but he testified that God would “consecrate [Jacob’s] afflictions for [his] gain” (2 Nephi 2:2). Some important goals can only be achieved through suffering, and God understands how to lead us through our trials in a way that uplifts and ennobles us.
  3. Sometimes, painful experiences motivate us to change. The book of Proverbs provides the following advice: “Despise not the chastening of the Lord;… For whom the Lord loveth he corrected; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth” (Proverbs 3:11-12). After quoting this passage, the apostle Paul added, “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous.” Receiving correction isn’t fun at the time. But afterward, when we see positive changes in our lives, we are grateful for it (Hebrews 12:6, 11). And Samuel the Lamanite taught the same principle to the Nephites in the city of Zarahemla: “The people of Nephi hath [the Lord] loved, and also hath he chastened them; yea, in the days of their iniquities hath he chastened them because he loveth them” (Helaman 15:3).

Today, I will see the trials and challenges I face as evidence of God’s love for me and of His commitment to me. I will be grateful for trials which give me a chance to prove myself. I will be grateful for difficult experiences which help me grow. And I will be grateful for God’s chastening, which prompts me to recognize and correct my mistakes.

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What Do We Know About God’s Love for Us?

Yesterday, I received a question about one of my posts, entitled Willing to Submit – Mosiah 3:19. Here is the question:

God is love right? So how can love inflict when the term inflict has to do with punishment. Surely love knows how to be persuasive.

This is such an important question that I’ve decided to discuss it over a period of three days. In order to do this, I’ve taken the liberty of decomposing the question into three parts:

  1. What do we know about God’s love for us?
  2. Why would God “inflict” things on us?
  3. What are the roles of persuasion and of punishment in motivating good behavior?

I hope that my decomposition accurately reflects the spirit and intent of the original question.


Question #1: What do we know about God’s love for us?

Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi experiences a dream in which he sees a tree “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” Tasting the fruit, he finds it to be “most sweet,” more than anything that he had ever tasted before. As he eats the fruit, it fills him with joy (1 Nephi 8:10-12).

Lehi’s son Nephi later learns that this fruit symbolizes the love of God, which is “the most desirable above all other things” and “the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:21-23).

God’s love is manifest in His willingness to descend to our level. Jesus Christ was born of a mortal mother (1 Nephi 11:14-21). He was willing to “dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5) and to suffer “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11). He was willing to carry our sorrows, to suffer for our sins, and even to lay down His life for us (Mosiah 14:4-5, Ether 12:33-34).

Nephi tells us that God will never do anything that isn’t for our benefit (2 Nephi 26:24). He always has our best interests at heart.

During the Savior’s ministry on the American continent, He expressed some of the emotions He feels toward us:

  • “My bowels are filled with compassion toward you” (3 Nephi 17:6).
  • “Jesus groaned within himself and said: Father I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 17:14).
  • “Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now my joy is full” (3 Nephi 17:20).

Our God feels empathy when we are suffering, sorrow when we make mistakes, and joy when we are doing well.

When we experience the love of God, it fills us with transcendent joy.

  • Near the end of Lehi’s life, he reassured his sons that he did not fear death. “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell,” he said, “and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).
  • Nephi later testifies to us, “[God] hath filled me with his love, even to the consuming of my flesh” (2 Nephi 4:21).
  • Alma and Ammon both described the joy of conversion to the gospel by saying that converts feel a desire to “sing redeeming love” (Alma 5:9, 26, Alma 26:13).

Today, I will be grateful for the love of God which is most clearly demonstrated by the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I will remember that God wants me to have joy, and that to experience His love will bring me greater joy than anything else.

 

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What Does It Mean to “Render” Thanks?

When we receive a gift, we have a natural desire to do something for the giver. Perhaps it is our intuitive sense of justice which tells us that good deeds ought to be repaid.

Of course, the way this life is structured, it is impossible for us to pay back many of those who have served and blessed us. How can a child repay his or her mother, for example? There is no gift a child can give which would be equivalent in value to the gift of life and the years of nurturing, inspiring, and training they received.

The word “render” has multiple meanings. One of those is “to give in acknowledgment of dependence or obligation” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). In other words, to reward or compensate someone for something they have given to you.

For example, when the apostle Paul asks the Thessalonians, “What thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God?” he is lamenting his inability to compensate God for the great blessings he has received. Gratitude seems like a feeble offering compared with the joy he has received.

The Greek word translated “render” in this passage, antapodidómi (ἀνταποδίδωμι), means “to pay back” or “to recompense.” (anti means “back,” apo means “from” and didomi means “to give”).

When King Benjamin’s gathered his people near the end of his life to give them his final words of counsel, he reminded them that, if they were to “render” to God “all the thanks and praise” which they were capable of giving, they would still be “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:20-21). He listed a number of things God has done for us, including:

  1. Creating us
  2. Preserving us from day to day (and even “from moment to moment”)
  3. Making us free to make our own decisions
  4. Giving us joy
  5. Making it possible for us to enjoy relationships with other people

Then, King Benjamin went on to explain the futility of our efforts to serve God: every time we obey His commandments, thinking we are somehow paying Him back for these undeserved blessings, He blesses us again. “And therefore, he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever” (Mosiah 2:24).

Benjamin’s objective in sharing these truths was not to discourage us. It was to inspire us. You will never be able to repay God, but you have every reason to try. You may not be able to repay your parents, your teachers, and others who have given you far more than you ever can give in return, but as you “render” thanks to them, you do the best you can.

That’s the message I get from Benjamin’s words, and from Paul’s: We should “render all the thanks and praise which [our] whole soul has power to possess” to God. Why? Because He has given us so much. It is incumbent upon us to do whatever we can in return, even if it will never be enough.

Today, I will render thanks to God. I will remember how much He has done and is still doing for me. Even though my gratitude will never be enough to repay Him, I will continue to give it, because it is what I can give.

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