The following is a sermon I delivered to the Young Single Adult Ward of the East Los Angeles Stake on Sunday, April 12. I was asked by the bishop to speak on the love of God. Because it’s not an academic paper, there are no footnotes and there’s barely any references given to the scriptures I quote. I could probably go back and do that, and insert footnotes, and tighten up arguments and jettison certain things. But I didn’t do that, partly because I don’t have time and partly because it is what it is, a totally devotional, hopefully faith-promoting sermon, written with a specific audience in mind. Enjoy.
On God’s Love
I would like to begin by discussing a serious problem that is facing the Church, a problem that has always existed in the Church, and may always exist until the Second Coming. This is the problem of staying a member of the Church once one becomes a member. Many people become baptized and confirmed, often hold callings and serve missions, and even have real, spiritual experiences; and then they leave the Church. This happens all the time. There are many reasons they give for why they leave. But I think most of these reasons all boil down to two things: 1) they could not say, with other Mormons, that certain key teachings of the Church (the Book of Mormon, living prophets, priesthood authority, and other things) were real or true, and 2) because they did not feel loved, and/or they have not learned how to love. More often, it’s a combination of both. Let’s talk a little about reason number 1 first, and then we’ll talk about reason number 2. Both reasons are connected.
If, as we teach, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains a fullness of the revealed gospel of Jesus Christ, and is in fact His Church, guided by His servants, using the priesthood power He gave them to baptize, administer the Sacrament of His Atonement, and seal families to one another forever in the temple, how is it that some people never fully come to accept the truth of this work? We cannot say, in all cases, that they haven’t been touched by the Spirit or had spiritual experiences; these things alone do not keep members in the Church, and people who claim to have many spiritual experiences might ultimately leave and not want anything to do with the Gospel. We cannot say, in all cases, that they simply didn’t understand the doctrine; that they didn’t understand what we believe. Many who understand and can teach very well the doctrine of our church sometimes decide to leave it. We might say, on the other hand, that these people were simply not “converted” to the truth, or that they were not “born again” by the Spirit. I think this is generally right. But what does it mean to be converted to the truth?
Let’s suppose that, after thoroughly investigating our Church, scientists and theologians and ordinary people all over the world determined that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture like the Bible, Joseph Smith was God’s chosen prophet raised up to restore his Gospel, and the keys and powers necessary to administer saving ordinances are found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now the world has decided that the Church is objectively, verifiably true. I’m sure that if this happened many, many people would desire to be baptized into our Church and become Mormons. But, how many of them would stay? How many of them would truly be converted? The answer is, not many, and for the most part people would come into the Church and some would leave it, the same as before, and nothing would really have changed. Why? The answer is this: there is a difference between something being true and something being true for me. A famous philosopher once said, “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not just about what I must know. It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do. It is a question of finding a truth that is a truth for me, of finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die. What would it profit me if I were able to explain the meaning of Christianity, able to explain its doctrines and scriptures if it held no deeper significance for me and for my life? What if the truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not? True knowledge has an influence on men, but it nonetheless must become a living part of me.” This Church may be built on a foundation of prophets and apostles, with Jesus Christ being its chief cornerstone; this Church may have the power of the priesthood to administer saving ordinances; we might understand and even basically believe everything that this Church teaches. But until the teachings of the restored Gospel are true for me, until they become my truths, they will not have the power to convince me to stay and they will not have the power to save me. This, I believe, is one major reason why many people feel that cannot in all sincerity remain a member of the Church. Why would I ever bother to give myself completely to anything that is merely true, just because it is true? Most things in my life are “true.” There is a real sense that my job is “true”; it is real, I have it; I see real results from working in it; but I would not give my heart and soul and make real sacrifices for my job, or anything else in my life, just because it is true and not false. The Church being true by itself means nothing; the Church, and all that is entailed by uniting oneself to it, being true for me, becoming my truth, the idea and reality for which I am willing to live and die—that means everything. This also applies to anything people generally believe is important: Family, friends, serving others, morality, etc. All these things might be “true” in some sense and not false (i.e., one senses that they are in general authentic, good things) but until they become our truths, ideas for which we are willing to live and die, we will not give them the care and attention they would otherwise demand. We see this all the time with people that understand that family and God are important and most likely real and true; but they have not made these things their truths, and human beings will never give themselves completely to anything they have not paid the price to make a living part of themselves. There is much to be said about this famous teaching from early church leaders: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary into life and salvation.” We could even amend this to say that anything that does not require some sort of relinquishment or sacrifice of some part of ourselves in order to obtain it never ultimately has sufficient claim upon us to give it the care and heedfulness it might deserve, because it contains nothing of ourselves in it to make us care much about it.
We get a sense of what it means to make something, which might be merely true, our own personal, burning truth from former apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s final conference address, given shortly before he died in 1985. For those of you that have not read, or better yet, watched this conference address, I suggest you do so soon. It is entitled “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” and it is among the most powerful and moving testimonies you can find anywhere about the saving power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of his talk, Elder McConkie states that he is going to tell the story of the events in the life of the Savior that made up the Atonement. He says, “In speaking of these wondrous things I shall use my own words, though you may think they are the words of scripture, words spoken by other Apostles and prophets. True it is they were first proclaimed by others, but they are now mine, for the Holy Spirit of God has borne witness to me that they are true, and it is now as though the Lord had revealed them to me in the first instance. I have thereby heard his voice and know his word.” Elder McConkie teaches us here that it is not enough for the gospel to be true. As James, the brother of Christ, wrote in the New Testament, “Thou believest there is One God; thou doest well; the devils also believe, and tremble.” (James 2:19). It is not enough to understand the scriptures and the prophets; we must make their words our own words. When we do so, we commit ourselves, heart, might, mind, and strength, to the cause in which they are engaged, which is the salvation of the whole world. Then that which is merely true becomes so much more for us.
The big question, of course, is how to do this. How do we make the Church true for us, to make the core teachings of the gospel ideas for which we are willing to live and to die? In other words, where does true and lasting conversion come from? There are many answers to this question, and I suspect that all of them fit various members of the church and even religious people in general to one degree or another. But I want to consider how the answer to this question is directly related to the second reason I mentioned why some people leave the Church: that they didn’t feel loved and/or that they had not learned how to love. Many of them had not experienced, in some way or other, what the scriptures call charity, or the pure love of Christ. So let’s talk about the pure love of Christ, or the love of God, and how this is what will help us to become truly converted to the gospel.
The scriptures tell us that this love is the greatest of all the gifts of God. That’s number 1. This love is not something we can simply work hard to obtain. It’s true that we must do certain things ourselves in order to prepare ourselves to receive it, but ultimately it is a gift given to us by God. Understanding this, it’s crucial that we understand how important heavenly gifts are, and that we seek to acquire them. The Lord told the prophet Joseph Smith to “seek earnestly the best gifts.” Moroni urged every reader of the Book of Mormon to “lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing.” Moroni, in fact, was very concerned that we not deny the potential gifts we can receive when we desire to believe in God and do good works. He said, “deny not the gifts of God, for they are many. And they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them.” He then goes on to list several gifts that can be received through the Spirit of God. This list of gifts is so important that the Lord gave the apostle Paul essentially the same list in the New Testament and the same list again (with some additions) to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants. Now, when the same list appears in the scriptures 3 times, in three different books of scripture, we know that it’s pretty important. Here are the gifts included on the list: wisdom, great knowledge, great faith, the gift of healing, the gift to work miracles, the gift of prophecy, the gift of beholding angels, of understanding and speaking languages, and of interpreting languages. In a revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants 46 the Lord explained to Joseph Smith what he had already told Paul in the New Testament: that there are many gifts, and to every person is given a gift by the Spirit of God; to some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited. The Lord then goes on to add two gifts to the list of gifts he had given Moroni and Paul, and what he adds sounds a little strange: the gift of knowing through the Holy Ghost that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he was crucified for the sins of the world, and the gift to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. These gifts that the Lord adds to the list are essentially testimonies. Of course, to have a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Atonement is a good thing, one of the greatest gifts we can receive. But remember that the Lord had told Joseph that no one has every gift given unto them; to some is given one gift and to some another. The Lord specifically says that “to some is given the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” To some? Isn’t this a gift given to all that believe in Jesus Christ, at least to the faithful? Apparently not, according to this verse; but remember the next verse: to others it is given to believe on their words; in other words, to believe the testimonies of those who have been given the gift of knowing Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This covers the range of people and their various levels of faithfulness, but both gifts ultimately amount to the same thing: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, either through knowledge through the Holy Ghost, or faith in the words of those who testify by the power of the Holy Ghost (and just so you know, my Patriarchal blessing locates me in the second group, not the first). The point is this: first, a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ and his atonement is a gift, a gift that can be prepared for but cannot be earned. Gifts are not earned, they are not the result of hard work; if they were they would not be gifts they would be rewards. If we have a testimony of Jesus Christ and his gospel through the Holy Ghost we should give thanks to the Lord; for those who do not have such a gift given, they should be patient, learn what gifts the Lord has bestowed on them (remember that everyone has at least one spiritual gift) and continue, as the scriptures say, to seek earnestly after the best gifts. In other words, to continue to pray to Heavenly Father that he would bestow such a gift. For those of us who may have this gift we should not judge those who have not yet been given it, remembering that gifts are usually given to bless the lives of others, not just our own lives, and that others have gifts that we do not have, gifts which we will need in order to help us be faithful. Remember, to some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may profit. Also, whether we have the gift of knowing that Jesus is the Son of God, or we believe the words of someone who does, it is a testimony, a witness, of the same thing.
Second, notice that charity, the pure love of Christ, is not among these gifts, of which some is given to one and some are given to others. This implies that charity, the greatest of all gifts is available to all, not just to some. In fact, Moroni tells us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son Jesus Christ.”
Charity is the pure love of Christ, which means it is the love of God. God has many attributes that we often say constitute his nature. He is all-powerful, or omnipotent; all-knowing, or omniscient; and he is all-loving, or what we call omni-benevolent. Of these attributes only omni-benevolence, to be completely, and unconditionally loving, is granted to His children in this life, (and out of this attribute flows all the other attributes that we often say make up a “Christ-like” life), in part because this is the greatest of God’s attributes, more glorious and grand than having all power and knowing all things.
A God who is all-powerful or who knows everything is often how we view the nature of God; we often say, “This is what makes him God.” But the story of Enoch in the Book of Moses shows us that this view is largely mistaken. In this story God has called Enoch to preach to the people, because they would not repent of their sins. In fact, most of his children at this time were engaged in terrible wickedness. God showed Enoch the terrible things that they were doing, and how Satan had persuaded them to follow him. And then, while watching all of this, Enoch saw God weep for the people’s sins. Enoch is shocked by this. He wasn’t expecting to see God shed tears. This was because Enoch’s basic conception of God was of an all-powerful, all knowing God, and if God was love it was because he had all power and knew all things. This is what Enoch says:
“How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever; And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations, from all eternity to all eternity; and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?”
The Lord answers Enoch, saying, “wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” God then tell Enoch that his loving response to suffering is essentially the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for his children. He says to Enoch, “And That which I have chosen [Jesus Christ] hath pled before my face. Wherefore, he suffereth for their sins; inasmuch as they will repent in the day that my Chosen shall return unto me, and until that day they shall be in torment; Wherefore, for this shall the heavens weep, yea, and all the workmanship of mine hands.”
This moment was life-changing for Enoch. He learned that not only was love a primary attribute of God’s character or nature (perhaps more so than he previously thought), but he also learned that God is not loving because he is all-powerful (he simply has enough power to love) or because he is all-knowing (he simply knows everything so he has the knowledge to love); instead, God is love; God is all-loving. And because he has all love he has all power and all knowledge, not the other way around. Real power and knowledge are only fully possible because of love, in part (and we’ll talk more about this in a moment) because love is the only thing that is ultimately eternal and is not conquered by death. When Enoch realized this, and saw the miserable state of his people, this is what happened: “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook.” Enoch experienced knowledge (it says that he “knew”); and, it appears, Enoch experienced power of some kind (his heart swelled and all eternity shook, an event that at least alludes to a powerful emotion if not something more), all after he had experienced and tasted of the love of God. From pure love all other God-like attributes find their place.
The gift we ultimately want, then, above all other gifts, is the love of God, for from God’s love all other gifts flow. Remember, knowledge of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a testimony, is a gift we should seek after, but knowledge is not greater than love. In fact, in important ways, knowledge, as Enoch experienced, comes from love. This is what Paul taught the Ephesians: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge [I would say is both superior to and goes beyond propositional knowledge], that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” God’s love, unlike any other gift, is abundantly available to us. When Nephi in the Book of Mormon has his great vision of the interpretation of the Tree of Life, he is asked by the angel if he knows the meaning of the Tree of Life that his father Lehi saw. Nephi answered the angel, saying “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” The love of God is the only gift that is so overflowing and almost overwhelming that it is described as shedding and multiplying among God’s children.
We often describe God’s love as charity. In the scriptures charity is often put next to faith and hope as the three qualities most valuable to followers of Jesus Christ. Moroni teaches us that one cannot have faith without hope and one cannot have hope without faith. Both faith and hope are grounded in the Atonement of Christ, but are not possible without being meek and lowly of heart, or in other words humble. Moroni then says this: “none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.” Once again, knowing by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Savior is not as valuable as having charity, the pure love of Christ. In fact, with charity in the foreground and serving as a foundation, ultimately (on my reading of Moroni) to have charity is to have hope and faith; to have hope is to have charity and faith; to have faith is to have charity and hope. Given the importance of these three primal attributes in the scriptures, where Elder McConkie famously spoke of the three pillars of eternity as creation, fall, and atonement, faith hope and charity might be seen as the three divine emblems of a godly character.
But it is more than this. Moroni is ultimately saying that, in the end, a lasting testimony by the power of the Holy Ghost is simply not possible without the love that comes through charity. Why? Because charity suffereth long: it is patient. Charity is kind: it is compassionate. Charity envieth not; it is not jealous of others but is genuinely happy when others succeed; charity is not puffed up, seeketh not her own; it is humble and thinks of others instead of itself; charity is not easily provoked; it is not quick to anger, and is calm and self-disciplined; charity thinketh no evil—it is too busy doing and thinking good; charity rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth—it loves everything that is true, no matter where it comes from or who said it; charity beareth all things—it is strong and can deal with the harshness and misery of life without becoming bitter. Charity believeth all things—it is trusting and not mistrusting, believing in the good of the world and of its people despite the evil and wickedness that often prevail, believing in people in a way that transcends what they say or do; charity hopeth all things—it doesn’t despair in the face of challenges and trials but looks to the atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of eternal life that it provides. Charity bases its hope in this. Finally, charity endureth all things. This last point is crucial to understand. We often say the basic principles of the Gospel are faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; repentance and turning away from our sins; baptism by immersion; receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost; and enduring to the end. The word “endure” usually means to suffer patiently. So when we say that we must endure to the end we usually mean we must suffer patiently our trials and challenges, and the focus is on the suffering. It is important to have a useful and measured orientation toward suffering but this doesn’t fully capture what the scriptures are really trying to say about endurance. The scriptural definition of endurance is to love to the end. When Nephi describes enduring to the end this is what he says: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” This love of God and of all men is what endures. Charity endureth all things. Again, Moroni: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” Every gift we receive, every talent we possess, even the knowledge of our testimonies; all these things fail without charity. They fail if they do not arise out of the gift of the pure love of God that he has bestowed upon us, which is the only thing, according to the scriptures, in the entire universe that will endure forever. Pure love is why God is God. It is why he has all power and all knowledge. It is what we are promised, to inherit everything the Father has, based on the capacity he has given us to love perfectly as he loves. It is the foundation of the Atonement. The atonement is the entering into union of Jesus with all of us. It is when Jesus becomes one with us, when what we love becomes what he loves, so that what he loves becomes what we love, which is, ultimately, the whole world. By loving what God loves, in the way that God loves, is to be saved and exalted in the Celestial Kingdom of God.
Charity is a gift we receive from Heavenly Father and so we do not earn it. But, that doesn’t mean we do not prepare for it, that we do not seek after it. Moroni taught us that we should pray with all the energy of our hearts to be filled with this love. We must humble ourselves and in humility seek after this gift. When we more easily love ourselves, others, and God, we more easily have patience; we more easily keep the commandments and do what we know we should and avoid what we know we should avoid; we more easily help and serve others; we find it harder and harder to judge them unrighteously. Peter in the New Testament said, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” Whose sins? Not our own. Charity is a love of others, not ourselves. No, to have charity, to love others, is to hide their sins from our own eyes. We see them with the pure love of Christ and leave judgments to God, whose right alone it is to judge.
So from charity comes all else. Returning to our original question: How do we make the Church true for us, to make the teachings of the gospel ideas for which we are willing to live and to die? In other words, where does true and lasting conversion come from? The answer is first and foremost from love. The type of love that God possesses, but which he sheds full and overflowing upon his children. The type of love by which we can endure all things; the type of love by which we can believe all things. When someone leaves the church because they did not feel loved that is a responsibility we all bear, a tragedy that is all of ours to weep over and hopefully correct. We need to be more loving. We need to be more serious about the covenant we all make as a church community, to mourn with those that mourn, and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort. This weakness in not loving all within our community is a weakness that knows no borders and speaks every language. Everywhere I have ever lived, I have observed that every ward and stake shares in it to some degree or other, and I do not except myself from this. But this is not acceptable, especially when we all have access to the greatest, most effective, and most powerful gift that God gives, the power of love. It will not be the power of doctrine and priesthood authority alone that will keep people in this church. Remember the words of Joseph Smith: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile-Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. Let thy bowelsalso be full of charity towards all men.” When we have the power of love, given to us as a free gift of the atonement of Jesus Christ, the words of the prophets and the scriptures become our own words. This church and this gospel become ideas for which we are willing to live and to die. We become truly converted and the Holy Ghost dwells in us. Then we never leave, and we never give up, on ourselves or on others, for we have the only thing that never fails and endures forever. Then when Christ appears we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. We will recognize in him the one whose never-ending love made our own unfailing love possible. Then we will truly be Zion, where the Lord said to Enoch, “Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other. And there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion.”