August 2, 2007

"Be Ye As Perfect As Ye Can"

Brigham Young December 18, 1853 "Nobody's perfect." Of course. But this shouldn't discourage us from doing the best we can. Brigham Young took up Matthew 5:48 as his text for a sermon in 1853:

We all occupy diversified stations in the world, and in the kingdom of God. Those who do right, and seek the glory of the Father in heaven, whether their knowledge be little or much, or whether they can do little or much, if they do the very best they know how, they are perfect... It may appear strange to some of you, and it certainly does to the world, to say it is possible for a man or woman to become perfect on this earth. It is written "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect…" This is perfectly consistent to the person who understands what perfection really is...If the first passage I have quoted is not worded to our understanding, we can alter the phraseology of the sentence, and say, "Be ye as perfect as ye can," for that is all we can do, though it is written, be ye perfect as your Father who is in heaven is perfect. To be as perfect as we possibly can, according to our knowledge, is to be just as perfect as our Father in heaven is. He cannot be any more perfect than He knows how, any more than we. When we are doing as well as we know how in the sphere and station which we occupy here, we are justified in the justice, righteousness, mercy, and judgment that go before the Lord of heaven and earth. We are as justified as the angels who are before the throne of God. The sin that will cleave to all the posterity of Adam and Eve is, that they have not done as well as they knew how.
Simple enough, right? Sounds mighty comfortable. "Well, I'm doing my best, so hang improvement." This isn't what Brother Brigham is saying; he continues:
Though we may do the best we know how at this time, can there be no improvement made in our lives? There can. If we do wrong ignorantly, when we learn it is wrong, then it is our duty to refrain from that wrong immediately and for ever, and the sin of ignorance is winked at, and passes into oblivion.
Brigham goes on to give a nice definition of "sin":
Sin consists in doing wrong when we know and can do better, and it will be punished with a just retribution, in the due time of the Lord.
Ah, so there is improvement, then. Christ expressed it similarly:
If ye were blind, ye should have no sin, but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (John 9:41).
As did James:
To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
We can be perfect in our sphere as far as we understand, but it seems as soon as we get to a "perfect" level of something, the goal on the horizon scoots further away, leaving more for us to learn and do. This improvement should be our "first labor":
We should never have but one desire, but one determination; our will should be perfectly centered upon the one object, viz., to find out the will of God, and do it… This we have to do. It is our business. It is the labor of the Latter-day Saints, which, if carried out, will run through all the various changing scenes of mortal life. It is in every act and dealing, both with ourselves, our families, and strangers. It fills every avenue of human life, from beginning to end. To gain the spiritual ascendancy over ourselves, and the influences with which we are surrounded, through a rigid course of self-discipline, is our first consideration, it is our first labor
If reaching perfection seems impossible that's only because it is; on our own, at least:
Some, when their minds are opened to behold the purity of a God of eternity-the purity of heaven, and understand that no impure thing can enter there; when they can realize the perfection of the redeemed and glorified Zion, and then look at the people now, and their actions, and how they are overcome with their weaknesses, how they cannot go out and come in without coming in contact in some way with their neighbors; when they look at the universal sinfulness of mortal man; are ready to exclaim, "We shall all go to destruction, salvation is impossible." I do not believe a word of it. If we do the best we know how, and yet commit many acts that are wrong, and contrary to the counsel given to us, there is hope in our case… ...[W]hen the vision of our minds is opened to behold the immaculate purity, perfection, light, beauty, and glory of Zion, the heaven of eternity, the place where Saints and angels dwell in the eternal worlds, then salvation for us poor erring mortals seems almost impossible; it seems that we shall hardly be saved. This, however, is verily true, we shall hardly be saved. There never was any person over saved; all who have been saved, and that ever will be in the future, are only just saved, and then it is not without a struggle to overcome, that calls into exercise every energy of the soul.
The tendency to feel we are doing "good enough" can impede our progression and make us less dependent upon God. When Brigham Said 'be as perfect as you can," he relieved some stress, but emphasized our desire to cling to some of our sins:
If the brethren who profess to be Saints, and do wrong, would reveal the root of the matter, and tell the whole truth, it would be, "I have a desire to do a great deal of good, but the devil is always at my elbow, and I always like to keep the old gentleman so that I can put my hand upon him, for I want to use him sometimes." That is the reason why men and women are overcome with evil. Again, I can charge you with what you will all plead guilty of, if you would confess the truth, viz., you dare not quite give up all your hearts to God, and become sanctified throughout, and be led by the Holy Ghost from morning until evening, and from one year's end to another. I know this is so, and yet few will acknowledge it. I know this feeling is in your hearts, as well as I know the sun shines.
Brigham explained that continual efforts to improve, through the grace of Christ communicated by the gift of the holy Ghost, can lead us to become what Joseph Smith called "fountain of revelation":
…if you cleave to holy, godlike principles, you add more good to your organization…and the good spirit and influence which come from the Father of lights, and from Jesus Christ, and from the holy angels add good to it. And when you have been proved, and when you have labored and occupied sufficiently upon that, it will become, in you, what brother Joseph Smith told Elder Taylor, if he would adhere to the Spirit of the Lord strictly, it should become in him, viz., a fountain of revelation. That is true. After a while the Lord will say to such: "My son, you have been faithful, you have clung to good, and you love righteousness, and hate iniquity, from which you have turned away, now you shall have the blessing of the Holy Spirit to lead you, and be your constant companion, from this time henceforth and forever." Then the Holy Spirit becomes your property, it is given to you for a profit, and an eternal blessing. It tends to addition, extension, and increase, to immortality and eternal lives."
Brigham might have had Moroni 10:32 in mind:
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
Have mercy on others, ask God for mercy, and you can be perfect today, and you can become perfect in Christ. Brigham concludes::

Let us do the best we can, and if we make a mistake once, seven times, or seventy times seven in a day, and are honest in our confessions, we shall be forgiven freely. As we expect to obtain mercy, so let us have mercy upon each other. And when the evil spirit comes let him find no place in you (Journal of Discourses 2:129-136).

August 1, 2007

Be Not Over Righteous

Brigham Young February 6, 1853 It becomes us as Latter-day Saints to know the scriptures and do our best to keep the commandments. This encouragement to draw closer to God and continually improve can put a lot of pressure on us. One critic of the Church I spoke with believes the expectations we believe God has for us are too much; that we will not have the strength to keep our commitments. This brings to mind a verse from the Book of Mormon:

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).
Brigham Young mentioned this principle when talking about the way parents raise their children:
"Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?" says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all... For example, we will take a strict, religious, holy, down country, eastern Yankee, who would whip a beer barrel for working on Sunday, and never suffer a child to go into company of his age-never suffer him to have any associates, or permit him to do any thing or know anything, only what the deacon, priests, or missionaries bring to the house; when that child attains to mature age, say eighteen or twenty years, he is very apt to steal away from his father and mother; and when he has broken his bands, you would think all hell was let loose, and that he would compass the world at once. Now understand it-when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theatre, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to then; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.
He continued, mentioning his own upbringing. Not only can parents be too hard on their children, but they can also prevent their development should they not allow their children to learn about many things from many sources:
When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth having been denied me, makes me want active exercise and amusement now. I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind. Let everything come in its season, place everything in the place designed for it, and do everything in its right time (Journal of Discourses 2:90-96).
Easier said than done, right? Still, I believe these are true principles. I believe this is the essence of what the Bible means when it says:

Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

July 31, 2007

Weed Your Own Garden

Brigham Young
February 6, 1853

Yesterday’s entry detailed the first half of Brigham’s address on the general purpose of life and the second half deals with the role of the individual in the gospel:

I will repeat part of the "Mormon Creed," viz, "Let every man mind his own business." If this is observed, every man will have business sufficient on hand, so as not to afford time to trouble himself with the business of other people.
We have enough on our plates to handle without trying to judge others. Usually, in judging others, we neglect judging ourselves. We are to help each other come unto Christ, but this doesn’t give us license to judge another’s proximity to Him. When we do that our views become contracted and instead of repenting, we believe others are the ones in need of Christ's mercy:
There are plenty of evils about our neighbors; this no person will pretend to deny; but there is no man or woman on the earth, Saint or sinner, but what has plenty to do to watch the little evils that cling to human nature, and weed their own gardens. We are made subject to vanity, and it is right. We are made subject to the powers of evil, which is necessary to prove all things.
We are apt to neglect our own feelings, passions, and undertakings, or in other words, to neglect to weed our own gardens, and while we are weeding our neighbor's, before we are aware, weeds will start up and kill the good seeds in our own. This is the reason why we should most strictly attend to our own business… if we, keep our own gardens clear of weeds, our neighbors will take a pattern by us, and produce from their gardens greater quantities of fruit another year.
The most common parable used to discuss blinding hypocrisy is the beam and the mote, (Matt. 7:1-5,) but another parable dealing with the Pharisee and the Publican is also illustrative of the point:
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted," (Luke 18:9-14).
Brigham said by learning this simple lesson, to keep our own gardens weeded, we can be happy “all the day long”:
I have learned not to fret myself about that which I cannot help. If I can do good, I will do it; and if I cannot reach a thing, I will content myself to be without it. This makes me happy all the day long. I wish you to learn the same profitable lesson. Who hinders you from being happy? from praying, and serving the Lord as much as you please? Who hinders you from doing all the good in your power to do? Who is there here, to mar in any way the peace of any Saint that lives in these peaceful valleys?
No one. It is for us to keep our own gardens clean, and see we do not harbor evil in our own hearts, and seek diligently to do all the good in our power, and never commit another evil while we live, what is there to prevent us from being happy? I know there never lived a happier people, upon the earth, I might venture to say, because of the dispensation in which we live; it brings joy, comfort, and satisfaction to those who will receive it, that could not be realized by any people who have lived before us (JD 2:90-105).
To follow the Lord, according to Brigham, we'll weed our own gardens rather than picking at the garden of our neighbors. Joseph Smith taught this idea as he discoursed on charity at an early Relief Society meeting. His words explain the best way to love our neighbors instead of judging them:

As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand--let them be enlarged towards others--you must be longsuffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of man!...
You must not be contracted but you must be liberal in your feelings… Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what pow'r it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.
All the religious world is boasting of its righteousness--it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind and retard our progress by filling us with self righteousness— The nearer we get to our heavenly Father the more are we disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our back" (Instructions delivered at the Eliza R. Snow, Relief Society Minutes, Nauvoo Female Relief Society, Thurs. April 28, 1842, Held in upper room of Red Brick Store).
Charity, the pure love of Christ, is the key to keeping one's gardens weeded, and that influence will naturally spread to neighbors without coercion.
Who am I to judge another
When I walk imperfectly?
In the quiet heart is hidden
Sorrow that the eye can't see.
Who am I to judge another?
Lord, I would follow thee.
I would be my brother's keeper;
I would learn the healer's art.
To the wounded and the weary
I would show a gentle heart.
I would be my brother's keeper--
Lord, I would follow thee.
Savior, may I love my brother
As I know thou lovest me,
Find in thee my strength, my beacon,
For thy servant I would be.
Savior, may I love my brother--
Lord, I would follow thee.
(Hymns, 220)

July 30, 2007

The First Great Principle: Improvement

Brigham Young February 6, 1853 The life of Jesus Christ serves as the grand example of what we all aim to do; namely, to progress and “fill the measure of our creation,” thus, to be “even as [He] is,” (see D&C 88:25; 3 Nephi 27:27.) The measure of Christ’s creation included the grand and infinite atonement, making any improvement on our part possible, should we seek that improvement. Brigham Young discussed this topic, calling it the:

first great principle that ought to occupy the attention of mankind, that should be understood by the child and the adult, and which is the main spring of all action, (whether people understand it or not,) [it] is the principle of improvement. The principle of increase, of exaltation, of adding to that we already possess, is the grand moving principle and cause of the actions of the children of men. No matter what their pursuits are, in what nation they were born, with what people they have been associated, what religion they profess, or what politics they hold, this is the main spring of the actions of the people, embracing all the powers necessary in performing the duties of life.
Just in case you, or the other saints missed the import of what he was saying, he continued:
…those who profess to be Latter-day Saints, who have the privilege of receiving and understanding the principles of the holy Gospel, are in duty bound to study and find out, and put in practice in their lives, those principles that are calculated to endure, and that tend to a continual increase in this, and in the world to come. All their earthly avocations should be framed upon this principle. This alone can insure to them an exaltation; this is the starting point, in this existence, to an endless progression. All the ideas, cogitations, and labors of man are circumscribed by and incorporated in this great principle of life.
Brigham said everything in our lives is circumscribed by and incorporated in the principle of increase, or progression. The very mainspring of our actions, which I interpret to mean the underlying motive behind what we do in life, deals with our own eternal progression. Is this a selfish viewpoint, then? Why do we do the things we do? Motive matters, at least, according to Moroni, who was quoting God:
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such. Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift (Moroni 7:6-10).
So are we following Christ to benefit ourselves, or are we following Christ to bless others? Can it be both? Do we have pure motives? This is the debate between egoism and altruism: Egoism, briefly, is the view that humans are- consciously or subconsciously- always motivated by self-interest. It holds that we never truly act in the interest of others. Altruism is a selfless concern for the welfare of others; the belief that motivation behind an action can, indeed, be selfless and without concern for one's own personal agenda. How can the subject of our own eternal increase be anything other than egoism: a motivation and concern for ourselves? One early saint recorded a conversation he had with Joseph Smith dealing with the subject of ‘self-aggrandizement,’ or what may be termed ‘egoism’:
Joseph Smith said that some people entirely denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement as wrong. 'It is a correct principle,' he said, 'and may be indulged [in] upon only one rule or plan--and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you will elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself' (quoted in Andrus and Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet, 61).
From this statement it seems we can both improperly and properly seek our own good. This paradox was expressed by Christ in the New Testament:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matt. 16:25; there are several other references to the concept, including one in the Doctrine and Covenants).
Jesus Christ had to live a sinless life in order to atone for our sins and elevate us. He lost His life in order to help us find our own, should we decide to follow him. Brigham said some people seek to “save” their own lives by coveting the things of the world while neglecting the things of God He said if they were inspired by God to see things as they really are they would look upon their current pursuits as frivolous:
When the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world illuminates the understanding and exposes to view the true order of the works of the Framer of the Universe, so that they can contemplate the great first cause of all things, and then look upon the groveling pursuits of mortals, and their anxiety to obtain that which will perish at the expense of the more enduring substance, every person must be struck with astonishment beyond measure.
Having an eternal perspective can increase the altruism of our motives. This perspective is gained through the Holy Ghost, as Jacob, the brother of Nephi, said:
… for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls (Jacob 4:13).
Brigham compares the desires of men to the desires of children, illustrating our tendency to neglect the most important things in life:

A company of little children at play is a perfect miniature picture of the life of man:

‘Give me this, and give me that; and I want to have the other thing;’ still you are not willing I should possess it; and the parent knows that often its possession would be an injury.

Or when one child sits down in a little chair another one will cry because of it without receiving the least injury.

If you place a plate of apples or plums before a child of three or four years old, he will not be content with one or two, or with as many as he can hold, but he will try to grasp the whole plate full with his little fingers, dropping one and taking up another, until he has scattered and wasted them; and at last be contented to sit down and eat one...or else cry when he has as many as he can hold, because he can not hold them all.

The little girl will cry for the needle she sees her mother working with and when she has got it, handle it to her injury; and the little boy will cry for the razor he sees his father using. It is so with many of the brethren and sisters; they cry for the razor.

These inconsistent desires of early childhood for trifling things, are exhibited in the human family, after they have arrived to maturer years. They may be reaching after things of weightier importance than the child, but when they are compared with eternal matters, they are just as trifling; and to the mind that is instructed, that has been touched with the light of eternal truth, they appear even more foolish than children, because we expect better things of them (Journal of Discourses 2:90-105).

An eternal perspective reveals that the most important things are the things of God, and many of our daily troubles don’t seem as daunting as they did before. So much for the first half of Brigham’s discourse dealing with what he viewed as the most important thing we could learn in life; namely, to find the way to eternal progression. Tomorrow, I’ll summarize excerpts from the second half, in which Brigham discusses working out our own salvation to ensure said progression through the merits of Jesus Christ.