I want to tell you story about a woman...a woman I was very close to. She had done her best as a member of the church. She always tried to do her monthly Ministering. She attended the Temple regularly and sometimes much more often than that. She attended church meetings every single week. She regularly held Family Home Evening. She signed up for most any service sign-up sheet that passed through her hands. She was a full tithe payer and tried hard to give a generous fast offering. She kept the word of wisdom. She unconsciously believed that her calling or church position somehow showed a celestial stamp of approval. She had a mental checklist of righteous things she could do that she thought would help her to be approved of the Lord and hopefully get her to the Celestial Kingdom if she just endured and did them long enough. And yet she felt, more often than not, that she wasn’t really sure if her prayers were actually reaching the Lord’s ears. She found that with all her attending of church and fulfilling of callings she still felt that she had no closer or deeply meaningful relationship with her Savior than she did 10 years ago. She found herself at a crossroads. This sweet sister – this dear soul, was me.
I was raised with a profound love for the scriptures and the Savior. As I grew into adulthood and explored the gospel for myself, I failed to seek to understand how to apply the Atonement personally. Jesus, in my life, was more like a janitor that came out if I needed a big mess cleaned up and then went back to the closet until the next time I needed help. That sounds terrible, but it is the best way I can describe how I understood His role in my life.
The person I am going to tell you about was me. But it is not me now. I’m not ashamed to tell you what I used to be, because since I have become converted to Jesus Christ…so sweetly tastes, being the thing I am.
About eight years ago I found myself deeply immersed in very good gospel things.
Over time I had begun to live my life like a cameral lens. Imagine a super nice camera, the kind with the huge lens that sticks out in front and you can really get a sharp image as you focus the lens on your subject of choice. My subject of choice, where I focused my camera lens, was the church and service. I felt it was the highest focus I could have. Christ was also in my frame. He was in the background. Though, as in all beautifully sharp images, whatever you focus on will always leave something unfocused in the background of your shot. Christ was the background in my camera frame. He was blurry and indistinguishable but the essence was there and I knew it was Him.
I made measurable and tangible things as well as the arm of flesh my focus. It was easy to focus on the church because it was something tangible. Christ was not tangible to me. He was a person I knew from other people’s experiences of Him or an image of another person’s interpretation painted on a canvas. I frequently testified of how much I loved Him and knew He was real, and I truly knew those things. But something was eating at me daily…I had no sure knowledge that my life was pleasing to the Lord. I felt as though I lived each day with my fingers crossed that my life was acceptable. Hoping that when I got to heaven I would have a list of all the good deeds I’d done and how faithful I was in the church and the Lord would HAVE to let me in.
One night when praying and feeling as though the heavens were made of brass and my prayers were, yet again, bouncing back down at me - I began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t God sealing up the heavens. Maybe God wasn’t like some spectator on the sidelines of my game of life. “Thumbs up” if I did something right, “Thumbs down” if I did something wrong. Maybe the brass ceiling was of my own construction.
I have felt at times there is this pure, clean and very direct conduit over my head that extends all the way to heaven. Now, whether that conduit is real or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is what I was feeling. I perceived that this conduit did indeed have blockage preventing most everything I was praying for to get very far. The blockage was my sins. Sins I had knowingly and unknowingly done. They had become like a beaver dam – absolutely halting the free flow of life, and love, and joy that is possible to extend from you to God continually without ceasing. And the person who had built the dam – was me…I was the one who had been blocking the spirit and direct connection to God. I recognized that Jesus wasn’t supposed to be a janitor in my life. He was supposed to BE my Life. Then a sobering thought hit me deeply - I was JUST like the children of Israel.
Like the children of Israel, I viewed laws and ordinances as an end. Though they pointed me to the Atonement - to Christ, I thought that the more works I did, therein lay my righteousness. When ordinances were viewed as an end - their purpose failed me. When I understood laws and ordinances as the blueprint for finding God in this lone and dreary world – it empowered me.
I tried to do many wonderful works in my life. I unknowingly depended on my calling to give me a sense of self-worth. I attended the Temple frequently to fulfill a goal I had set for myself to attend a certain amount of times in a month and year thus adding more checks to my list of a righteous person before the Lord. I served those around me totally unaware it was often out of mechanics and an attitude of, "that's what a good member of the church does," rather than out of a hunger derived from the Spirit that could only be satiated by following the prompting to do so. And yet, with all my serving, my heart was not At-One with His. By confessing this I must say that I wasn’t completely heartless. But when I look introspectively at myself with full honesty - I often wasn’t without a general motive for what I did. Sometimes I served merely because if I didn’t show up, it would make me look ‘bad’ or maybe I hoped I would be recognized in some way.
Over time the scripture that says: "By their fruits ye shall know them” began to be opened to my eyes. It says, “Not every one that saith unto me, “Lord, Lord", shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; Many will say to me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name did many wonderful works?" And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." (Matthew 7: 21-23) That scripture was always dumbfounding to me. How could you do amazing things in Christ’s name and Christ would say that He never knew you? It seemed completely impossible. Yet there I was, a lifetime Mormon and I was pretty sure that He could not only say to me, “I never knew you”, but also that “I never knew Him”.
I came to realize that I most always tried to do what I thought would please God without asking Him if it was what He wanted me to be doing. Have you ever had a child to whom you say, "Okay, clean up this mess.”? And you come back later and the mess is just exactly how you left it and you say, "Hey, I thought I said to clean this up? What are you doing?" And they say, "Oh! Yes, I am going to do that. But I also thought you would love that I organized all my crayons by color. See?" And you say, "Okay. Uh, look - I didn't want the crayons done at all. Take care of the mess, okay?" You come back again later and see the mess still untouched and again you say to your child, "Man! What's going on here? Didn't you do anything to this pile? What have you been doing?" "Oh, I was starting to and then I found this Lego and I realized you may want me to organize my Legos so take a look at this car I built!" And they show you how awesome they've been playing with their Legos.
I realized I was just like that child! What did it matter if I run off to the Temple if the Spirit was, upon reflection, urging me to set in order things in my life that needed attention first or to help a child in need or to call that person that has been coming to my mind for two days? And, instead of doing what the Spirit asked me to, like the parent asking the child to clean up the mess, I did something that I thought would be good to do, like organize the crayon box, all the while ignoring the call to come to Him. To be At-One with Him. That has happened to me. And I didn't listen. I figured "Satan would do anything to keep me from the Temple" (or whatever really good service I was about to engage in), so I ignored it and left on my way. What I have come to realize is that Satan doesn't really care where you are or what you are doing as long as it is never, ever what the Spirit told you to do. I was doing something that was not leading me to produce the kind of fruit that is able to be harvested by the Lord of the Vineyard.
In Zenos’ allegory of the vineyard there is a particular tree that fascinates me. I will summarize parts of Jacob 5 to show you how I came to recognize that I was one of the trees in this allegory personified. Here is the recap: The Lord of the vineyard and the servant nourish all the trees of the vineyard. And then they leave. And a really long time passes away and the Lord of the vineyard says let’s go back because the end is near and he wants to lay up fruit against the season. So they go down and they see that a tree they worked had produced an abundance of fruit. So much so that it cumbered the tree dripping with fruit.
The Lord of the vineyard goes to the tree and tastes of every single fruit according to its kind and number. And then he reflects that they had nourished the tree extensively in the past and it had always brought forth a lot of fruit, but this time…this time it had brought forth a lot of fruit and, he says this, “there is none of it which is good…all kinds of bad fruit…it profiteth me nothing notwithstanding all our labor.” Skipping ahead the Lord asks who it is that has corrupted his vineyard. The servant observingly responds, “Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard – have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? … behold the branches grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold…is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?”
A disturbing recognition blazed across my brain one day when studying this allegory. My life had become like the tree where "all sorts of fruit did cumber the tree" (Jacob 5:30). I had many works - all kinds. You like the fruit of weekly church attendance? I have some of that. Do you like the tangy taste of baking meals when the sheet is passed in Relief Society? Done. Do you like the firm texture of paying a regular tithe and fast offering? Here you go. I have so much fruit it's just cumbering my whole tree. And yet, the Lord of the vineyard could taste of my fruit, every sort according to its number and because I had served with a heart set so much upon the things of the world or the honors of men, my fruit would not be something he could lay up against the season but would be good for nothing because I had not taken my strength from Him. I was frequently the lofty vineyard thinking my plentiful fruit couldn’t go unnoticed. The reason for the corruption – the branches didn't seek nourishment from the roots – from The Christ. I went beyond what Christ was asking of me and went wild with undeniable growth but not the growth the Lord was asking for.
The fruit that is worthy of preservation? The fruit that the Lord is looking for? "natural fruit...like unto ONE body." He preserves those that are ONE. “And if ye are not ONE ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). And ye are ONE in Christ. It is the At-One-Ment. It is meant to make us One again with the Father and with the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
If you, like me, have found that for all your scripture study, church and temple attendance, fulfilling of callings and more, if you have found that you are no closer to knowing Him than you were a decade ago, let this realization work a work in you. Or maybe you can’t relate to my journey and yours is one of doubts in the Gospel, or struggles with addiction, or feeling abandoned by God, or replacing your connection to God with the persuit of money, video games, movies, drugs, pornography, anger, believing you are and will continue to never be good enough, the list of replacements for actually connecting with God are endless. So whether you relate directly to my story or not – if you are not experiencing Christ and knowing Him as he has asked to be known, let this concept of coming to know Him work a work in you. He and the Father desire to come to you and make their abode with you (John 14:23).
If you, like me, find your prayers reached a point where they felt more like you were talking to a brass ceiling and nothing was getting through and that Christ has become that blurry background in your life's focus - then begin with the Atonement. It starts on your knees in true and humble prayer. Repent. In the past I felt that God was distancing himself from me and I didn't know how to please Him so I would just shorten my prayers and go to bed. Now I see that I was the one blocking the connection. If I pray and I feel that my prayers seem to be falling back down - I begin repenting...praising Him, worshiping Him. And I continue on until every last piece of dross that is blocking the direct connection to my Father - is clear. Start there. Start repenting, praising, and worshiping.
And not in that whiney sort of way where you berate yourself at how you are so sorry that you aren't more and you're not good enough. The kind of repentance to approach the Lord with is the kind where you acknowledge that you are less than the dust of the earth. That though the dust listens to God, you have chosen not to listen to Him and you have chosen not to know Him personally. And I usually use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in my prayers, but I have to be honest, when I pray this prayer of complete desperation to know God, I speak as plainly as I can. I have said prayers and asked, "Who are you Jesus? What are you like? What is the Atonement? It is hard for me to understand. Can you explain why I need to know You? What is the purpose of my life? Will you show me? You said in the scriptures that anyone who forsakes their sins and calls on your name and obeys your commandments will know you. Will you show me my sins? Will you show me how to obey you? How do I come to know you?”
I testify that the only reason for our existence is that we might know the only True God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent (John 17:3). If we don't know them and know them personally, it will not matter what or who we knew instead. He is the keeper of the Gate and He employeth no servant there (2Nephi 9:41). It is to Him you must return.
Naturally once you use the atonement and follow the Spirit it will likely direct you to do many of the things you are already now doing. The difference will be that you are doing it when the Lord has asked you to do it. Not on your timetable. And yes, we should do as the scriptures say and “be anxiously engaged in a good cause do many things of our own free will” (D&C 58:27). The Lord has said that it isn’t requisite to be “commanded in all things” (58:42). And yet, Alma specifically told us to “let ALL your doings be unto the Lord”. That we were to “Counsel with the Lord” in ALL our doings (Alma 37: 36-37). Or Nephi...he said the Spirit will tell you ALL things you should do (2 Nephi 32:5).
I was running around doing a whole bunch of "good things" all the while either being unconsciously proud of how awesome I was at serving others or beating myself up for not doing more and completely missing the point of what the service is pointing me towards. Every ordinance, every law, every rite, every calling, every member, every auxiliary leader, every apostle and prophet - EVERY thing that we have in the Gospel has one purpose and one purpose alone - to point to that great and last Atoning sacrifice. Everything is only to point to Christ, as Joseph Smith said. Everything else is just an appendage to that (Luke 24: 25-27, Acts 3:20-26). Your calling - it points you to HIM. The Temple points you to Him. Baptism - the ordinance. Going into the grave, being buried, rising again. It's Him. It's Him. It's Him. They are all symbols or rituals that beg you to consider further. And yet I got so caught up in having a white shirt for my boys and making sure I never had two pair of earrings, or driving past someone on my way to church who could have used my help but I kept going because I didn’t want to be late. Following what the Lord wants you to do and when the Lord wants you to do is working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Fear and trembling because now instead of doing things when I want to do them, I now seek to do them when the Lord asks me to do them. Instead of fasting only on fast Sunday, what if I have the fork to my mouth with a meal I have worked hard to prepare and the command comes - "Fast". I am afraid to be hungry. What if I go to bed late and I wake up at 4am and the Spirit says, "Get up and pray." I am afraid to be tired. What if I pay a generous fast offering and as I leave the store a woman is standing on the corner with a sign asking for help. What if the Spirit says to go and find out what her story is. What if I hear her story and rashly judge to myself that she will just go and spend it on drugs. What if the Spirit says to go to my car and get my wallet. What if I open my wallet and thumb through the bills trying to determine which one to give her and the Sprit says, "Give her all of it." What if I just cashed a large check and so I have more bills in my wallet than I carry at any other given time. I'm afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid. The Atonement brings you At-One with Him. And to be One with Him means you leave the other Gods you have worshiped behind so that God can take up His abode with you and have no rival there.
If you hunger and thirst after greater righteousness and spiritual experience, just as our father Abraham did (Abraham 1:2), know that the hunger is your birthright. I have often feared the pursuit of greater righteousness because there is an underline belief that somehow in the pursuit - one could end up off track. And of course, that danger continually presents itself. As the author Catherine Thomas said, old Scratch, as the adversary is sometimes called, is always lurking behind a tree.
But the opposite risk is that you may straggle in the foothills of spiritual experience, as Israel has repeatedly done. So Paul says, “Exhort one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching…for yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry (Hebrews 10:25; 36-37)”. Paul’s letter is a powerful call to pay the price, to obtain the promise in spite of earth or hell, and to come all the way up the holy mount to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I proclaim that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Holy One of Israel, the Lamb of God without blemish and without spot, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Deliverer, the Only Begotten of the Father, The Prince of Peace, Son of Righteousness, the Redeemer, the Beloved Son, the Everlasting Father, King of heaven and Keeper of the Gate, the Chief Cornerstone, the Lord God of Hosts, Most High God, Son of the Eternal Father, the Everlasting God, He is the Lord of the Vineyard, The Mighty One of Israel, He is the Rock, the True Vine, the Lord God Almighty, Alpha and Omega, Father of Heaven and of Earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Author and Finisher of our Faith, the Same yesterday, today, and forever, He which is, which was, and which is to come, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jehovah, the Holy Messiah - He is JESUS the CHRIST.
I end this post with Moroni’s words that spoke directly to us. He said, “I have seen Jesus…he…talked with me face to face…in mine own language…And now I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.” (Ether 12:38-41)