Monday, April 20, 2015

Faith To Not Be Healed

Elder Clayton's talk will still be there tomorrow, but on the homepage at LDS.org, there's a link to an interesting article, and I know that link won't stay there forever. The one I provide here should last longer. The article, from the current Ensign and Liahona magazines, is called The Power of Faith, but it speaks of an experience when a woman's faith, though strong, wasn't enough to guarantee that she'd be healed from a chronic ailment. She struggled with this for a long time, wondering if her faith wasn't strong enough and what else she could do to make it stronger. Eventually, she made peace with the problem and discovered an important spiritual truth: Sometimes, it's not God's will to heal us.

God sent us to earth to gain experiences that we simply couldn't get in heaven. The main difference between earth and heaven is that heaven is perfect, free from all evil, sorrow, and suffering, and earth isn't. On earth, we can have pain, get sick, and experience sin. We can be tempted and face hardship. Mortal life is full of challenges, and those challenges give us strength that we couldn't get any other way.

A quote from President Spencer W. Kimball, shared at the end of the article, asks:
Is there not wisdom in [Heavenly Father] giving us trials that we might rise above them, responsibilities that we might achieve, work to harden our muscles, sorrows to try our souls? Are we not exposed to temptations to test our strength, sickness that we might learn patience, death that we might be immortalized and glorified?
As Amber Dahl, the author of the article, succinctly said, "If Heavenly Father were to free us from our challenges simply because we asked, He would deny us the very experiences necessary for our salvation." We need our challenges because they make us stronger, better people. Our struggles help us become more like God. Without them, we could never reach our true potential. If God were to remove our challenges before we're done learning from them, He would be negating the reason we came here. It's not always the case that we need to have enough faith to be healed; Sometimes, we need to have enough faith to understand that our struggles are doing us some good and to be patient. Sometimes, it's not the faith to be healed that we need, but the faith not to be healed, and to be okay with that.

We all have challenges in life, and the reason I clicked on the link to this article is that I have a challenge that I'd like God to remove, but maybe it's God's will that I struggle with this challenge a little longer. It's entirely possible that I haven't yet gained the strength this challenge is supposed to give me. Maybe there's more wisdom I need to gain from this experience, or more Christlike attributes I need to develop. Maybe I need to gain more empathy for others who suffer. Whatever the reasons are, it seems to me that this challenge is something that I'm going to be stuck with for a while, but maybe, in the eternal scheme of things, that's a good thing. If this challenge really is making me more like God, I hope it lasts as long as I need it to (but no longer). Paraphrasing Paul and the Lord, no challenges seem to be joyous, but grievous, but I have faith that my challenges will give me experience and will be for my good (Hebrews 12:11, D&C 122:7). Amber Dahl has that kind of faith, and I hope you do too. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to need it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Magic That Requires Faith

I'd rather not blog about anything as tragic or depressing as the story L. Whitney Clayton shared in his talk, Choose to Believe, so instead, I'll blog about faith in terms of something I'd much rather talk about: Magic.

In many fantasy worlds, magic is quite obvious and undeniable. Wizards shoot fireballs. Clerics heal wounds instantaneously. Magic swords glow when their names are spoken. In such worlds, there is no doubt that magic is real.

In other fantasy worlds, there is no magic. There may be fantastic creatures, like elves, goblins, dragons, and unicorns, but no actual magic. In such worlds, some people may believe in magic and attempt to study it, but such people are deluded or deceived, or perhaps deceivers performing magic tricks to impress spectators.

I'm more in favor of high-fantasy worlds, where magic is real, but my mom (if I understand her position on this subject correctly) is less in favor of magic, believing that magic tends to laziness, and perhaps it does. If I had the magical power of telekinesis, I'd want to use it all the time, neglecting to give my body the exercise it needs to stay strong. Also, from the point of view of someone who enjoys fantasy stories, I think that magic is too often used as the answer to everyone's problems. Too many stories use magic as a deus ex machina, or use a "loophole" in the rules of magic as a major plot element. I consider that lazy storytelling, and I much prefer stories that use worlds, heroes, problems, and solutions that we can relate to. In light of this common interest of reducing magic in stories (but still feeling reluctant to give up magic entirely), I'd like to propose a compromise - a world in which magic is very subtle, a world in which magic requires faith.

In this world, clerics wouldn't heal wounds instantly, but would pray over a wound that had already been bandaged, and the wound would heal slightly faster than it would had the prayer not been said. A defensive spell wouldn't create any force fields around anyone, but would give a person a subconscious warning that would help them block or dodge attacks. Divinations wouldn't give people visions (except perhaps in their sleep), but would give people faint impressions, like those the Holy Ghost gives us.

I'm not sure how much this would affect arcane magic. Certainly evocations (the kind of magic that creates fireballs and lightning bolts) and conjuration (the kind of magic that makes something out of nothing) are out of the question, as are transmutations (the kind of magic that changes one thing into another). The only kind of magic that will remain in this world would be subtle enough and minor enough to be chalked up to "luck." An enchanted arrow that finds its target could just be a lucky hit. A divination that tells someone where to find a hidden object could just be a lucky guess. There would be room to doubt the existence of magic in this world, and thus it would take faith to believe in it.

The benefit of requiring faith to believe in magic can be seen in the lives of the characters, especially those who do magic, as they occasionally wonder whether magic is real. If it is, where does the power come from, and if it isn't, why do so many people invest so much time learning magic? The character I'd most want to place in this world would, of course, be a paladin. He'd be somewhat new to being a paladin and he probably wouldn't have much of a religious background. He, like many others, would have some doubts about the existence of God and of the "magical" power that supposedly comes from God. He'd pray, wondering if anyone was really listening. He'd ask for blessings, not knowing whether or not he'd receive them. He'd keep the commandments, partly out of his good nature, and partly because he hopes that what he had been taught was true, or just in case it was, but he'd always wonder whether there was any point to any of it.

I'm sure there are many good reasons why God requires us to have faith, why proof-producing miracles are few and far between, why He never shows Himself (except for once or twice in Earth's history), and why the only evidence we have that any of this is true and real is the feelings we get in our hearts. Whatever those reasons are, I like the idea of tapping into them by creating a world we can more easily relate to, a world in which magic may or may not be real, a world in which magic requires faith.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Falling Among Thorns

The second kind of soil Elder Oaks spoke of was overrun by thorns. As many other speakers on this topic had noted, this ground was good for growing things - it was just growing the wrong things, so when the good seeds fell among the thorns, the thorns choked the life out of them.

I feel that I fit better into this category than the previous one. I have what I consider to be a reasonably strong level of spirituality, but there are other things in my life, mostly habits, hobbies, and attitudes, that keep me from being the kind of disciple God wants me to be. Life throws stuff at us. We're born with natural appetites, we develop attitudes, and the world provides us with an endless supply of potential interests and activities. While none of these things are inherently bad (roses and raspberry bushes have thorns, too), they can become harmful to us if they consume too much of our lives. They may be good, or maybe just "okay," but they can keep us from being our best.

Our responsibility is to weed out the things in our lives that are holding us back from our true potential. The trouble is that this is much easier said than done. Weeds are resilient. Once habits and attitudes are set, they can be hard to change or overcome, and considering that these are thorny weeds, we can expect the process of removing them to be painful. Still, since we're cultivating a garden on which our spiritual lives depend, it'll be worth the pain and effort it'll take to remove the thorns.

The parable of the soils seems to go through a progression of soils that get better and better for growing things. As we strive to improve ourselves, we may end up following the same progression. In the "falling by the wayside" state, we're not receptive to God's teachings at all. In the "stony ground" state, we let the gospel grow on us, at least superficially, but we don't let it into our hearts. In "falling among thorns," we let the gospel take root in us, but there are still things that prevent it from growing as well as it should. As we weed those things out of our lives, our soil becomes "good soil," but even then, there's still progress to be made.

Just as the good ground in the parable "brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold," there are varying degrees of righteousness. How much fruit we produce once we've prepared the soil and removed the weeds depends on how well we water and fertilize the seeds we've planted. We don't become spiritually perfect just by not committing sins. There are many good things we should be doing instead. Even after we've removed the distractions and evil influences from our lives, if we don't nourish our testimonies, they won't grow. On the plus side, if we do nourish our testimonies by doing all those things we've been told in Sunday School to do, there's no limit to how great we can grow or how much fruit we can produce.

The comforting and intimidating parts of eternal progression are that we can always improve and that there will always be room for improvement. Whatever weeds have grown in your life, they can be removed through the power of the Atonement. However small your testimony is now, it can grow through regular prayer and scripture study. However good or bad your spirituality is now, God can help you make it better. That's what I like most about this parable. I may have fallen among thorns, but I know the hand of God is helping me pull them.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Every Other Item

Earlier today, I wrote up a list of things I wanted to accomplish today. As I checked my list just now, I realized that, as of the moment I publish this blog post, I will have checked off only every other item, literally. Today, I accomplished only about half of the things I wanted to. Granted, this wasn't a complete list, and I accomplished many good things before even making the list, but there was still a lot left undone.

The reason I accomplished only half of what I wanted to do today has a lot to do with what I plan on blogging about tomorrow, when I continue blogging about Elder Oaks' talk about the Parable of the Sower. The short explanation is that I got distracted. I recently obtained a good book, and I spent most of the day reading it. Yet, remembering an iconic Elder Oaks talk, there are some things that are good, while there are others that are better. Reading the book was arguably a good thing, and it was what I wanted to do at the time, but now I wish I had done other, better, things instead.

My half-completed to-do list will roll over into tomorrow, which already has obligations of its own, and whatever I don't get done tomorrow will roll over to the next day, or the day after that. Thankfully, there are no time limits on many of these items, but they all need to get done, and most, if not all of them, could have been done today, had I not been stuck in a book. I feel like I hadn't used my time wisely - that I could have done better, and done more, if only I had had more focus.

But there's no use saying "if only," is there? All I can really do now is spend a portion of what remains of the evening crossing another item or two off the list, and then try to do better tomorrow. That's one comforting thing about the afterlife, one of the subjects of the book I read - there is always a tomorrow. And yet, we are warned that there will come a "night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed" (Alma 34:33). There are some things that just can't be put off forever. We would do well to do them today.

I still have a few things I need to do today, and I can start by publishing this blog post and getting back to work.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Roots of Testimony

Elder Dalin H. Oaks gave a talk he titled "The Parable of the Sower," though he said that "The Savior’s examples could cause us to think of this parable as the parable of the soils." Indeed, far more time in the parable is spent on the soils than the sower, so I've always wondered why it's called the parable of the sower rather than the soils. But I digress.

The first kind of soil Elder Oaks talks about in detail is the stony ground. The seeds that fell here were unable to grow because, as the Savior explained, "it had no depth of earth: but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away" (Mark 4:5-6).
Jesus explained that this describes those “who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness,” but because they “have no root in themselves, … when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended” (Mark 4:16–17).
 The root in this parable refers to one's testimony. Elder Oaks went on to say that there are many reasons why a convert, or even a life-long member of the church may be lacking in testimony, and he made it clear that "spiritual food is necessary for spiritual survival." Without a strong testimony, we won't be able to endure the storms of life with our faith intact. "In an age dominated by the Internet, which magnifies messages that menace faith, we must increase our exposure to spiritual truth in order to strengthen our faith and stay rooted in the gospel."

We need to make sure our hearts are open to spiritual truths so they can take root in us and strengthen us against the challenges of mortal life. If we are to endure to the end, our testimonies will need to be as strong as we can make them. Thankfully, it doesn't take much time or effort to do the daily things necessary to keep our testimonies strong. Daily morning and evening prayers and daily scripture study is a great start. Regular fasting and worship will help a lot. But here's the trick - It's not so much what you do that will strengthen your testimony, but where your heart and mind are when you do them. When we take the Sacrament each week, are our thoughts focused on the Savior, or are we thinking about other things? Do we take time to ponder the scriptures we read? Are our prayers sincere? It may be that we are already doing all the right things, but unless we're doing them with the right heart, they may not be doing us much good.

On the positive side,we can be doing things that are (or seem to be) totally unrelated to the gospel, such as going about our daily lives, but if we reflect on spiritual things while we go about our business, we can use that time to continue to nourish our spirits and strengthen our roots, even as we perform mundane tasks.

Whether we're actively doing things to strengthen our testimonies, or whether we're working on more temporal goals, we should try to think of the Savior as much as possible in order to make sure our testimonies grow and remain as strong as we'll need them to be. The world, for the most part, is a desert when it comes to spirituality. To endure in this desert, we're going to need strong, deep spiritual roots.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"As a Hen Gathereth Her Chickens"

As we were reading 3 Nephi 10 for family scripture study, Mom pointed out to my brother and I that Christ said that He would gather the house of Israel "as a hen gathereth her chickens." She asked, "How does a hen gather her chickens?" Then she answered, "She calls and they come." If chicks don't come when their mother hen calls them, there's not much the hen can do to protect them. Similarly, God and Christ would like to offer us some protection from the fallen world we live in, and more especially from ourselves, but unless we answer their calls by repenting and keeping the commandments, there's not much they can do to protect us, especially from our own sins. We have the agency to choose right or wrong. God has taught us the difference, and given us consciences so we can feel the difference, and encourages us to choose the right. After that, it's up to us. We can choose to follow Christ, or we can choose not to. Our choice is the only factor that determines whether we end up under the protective wing of a mother hen or under the deadly talons of a diabolical hawk.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ascending Together - Complete, Don't Compete

My favorite part of Sister Burton's talk is when she talks about how men and women were made to complement each other and complete each other, rather than competing with each other:
In a chapter about families, the Church handbook contains this statement: “The nature of male and female spirits is such that they complete each other.” Please note that it does not say “compete with each other” but “complete each other”! We are here to help, lift, and rejoice with each other as we try to become our very best selves. Sister Barbara B. Smith wisely taught, “There is so much more of happiness to be had when we can rejoice in another’s successes and not just in our own.” When we seek to “complete” rather than “compete,” it is so much easier to cheer each other on!
In our society and in human nature, there is a tendency toward pride and competition. Pride says that if there is a winner, there must be a loser. Some people pit men against women, claiming that men are "better" than women, or that women are just as good (if not better) than men at everything. In reality, men and women were meant to work together, not against each other. In fact, that's the only way any of us "become our very best selves."

Like the two angels from yesterday, none of us can succeed on our own. We all need help from each other, or at least the Savior, to meet our potential in mortality, and we will each eventually need an eternal companion in order to reach our eternal potential. Then, rather than tearing each other down, we should all be trying to lift each other up. If we do, we can truly ascend together all the way up to the Celestial Kingdom.