Independent Spiritual Learning

Today in sacrament meeting there was a focus on self-reliance, particularly on spiritual self-reliance. A few thoughts came to mind as I listened to the various messages and principles.

This story was shared from the June 2017 Ensign about seagulls who became dependent on being provided with their nourishment. It says:

“Years ago the seagulls in St. Augustine, Florida, USA, were starving. For generations the gulls had learned to depend on the shrimp fleets to feed them scraps from their nets. The shrimpers eventually moved from the area. The seagulls had not learned how to fish for themselves; nor did they teach their young how to fish. Consequently, the big, beautiful birds were dying even while there was plenty of fish all around them in the water.2

We cannot afford to become like the seagulls; nor can we let our children go through life dependent on us, or others, for their knowledge of the Lord. “Our efforts,” said President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), First Counselor in the First Presidency, “must always be directed toward making able-bodied people self-reliant.”3 When we become self-reliant gospel learners, we know how to feed ourselves spiritually and strengthen our relationship with God.”

We have to become self-reliant in developing our spiritual centre and also help our children and those we minister to become self-reliant in searching for their answers also. If the answers are always provided, or the things to study are only provided in a structured programme, then they will never learn to seek for answers and guidance to their own problems.

Spiritual self-reliance is something we can all aim for. It is a goal completely within our own choices and influence. Obviously it can be made more difficult from other factors but we have direct influence over whether we can strengthen our spiritual self-reliance or weaken it. It says in John 7:37-38 “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” We can come unto the Lord at any time to drink from living water through studying the scriptures, praying or many other ways – but the problem is that we need to do it as often as we can, rather than have ourselves thirst.

Of course, self-reliance doesn’t just include spiritual self-reliance, but other areas of our lives too. Elder L. Tom Perry gave an experience in the October 1991 of when he was younger and how his parents taught him a valuable lesson. Interestingly before he shared this experience he said this: “Never before in my life has the doctrine of self-reliance been more needed to be preached and encouraged for the benefit of the Saints. We live in a time of rapid change. Governments are rising and falling. Industries are blooming and then all too soon becoming obsolete. New discoveries in science are soon overshadowed by new findings. Unless we are continuously expanding our understanding and vision, we, too, will become out-of-date. Research tells us that individuals entering the labor market today will be forced to find three to five different career paths during their productive years.” This was 26 years ago! How much more relevant is this now! I heard a fact recently that of my generation (20-30 year olds), a third of us when we reach the age of 60 will still be renting accommodation rather than own our own home. Whilst this is not a direct indicator of “self-reliance”, it highlights the more and more challenging financial circumstances of the world we live in.

Anyway, Elder Perry shared this:

“My parents established a family tradition in our home which was fun for me in my early years and has become even more meaningful as I reflect back on it as the years have passed. On the first birthday of each child the family would gather in the living room. In the center of the living room floor, our parents would place articles for the one-year-old child to select. The selection to be made might indicate an interest the child would pursue in life. The articles were the Bible, a child’s bottle filled with milk, a toy, and a savings bank, filled with coins. The child was placed on one side of the room and the family on the other side. Family members would encourage the child to crawl toward the objects and make a selection. This was all in fun, of course…

Now I propose to you that in this entertaining family activity we can find the most fundamental principles of self-reliance. First, the scriptures represent our need for spiritual nourishment…

Second, the bottle filled with milk symbolizes the physical body’s need for nourishment…

Third, the toy I mentioned earlier represents the acquisition of things of the world…

Finally, the fourth item, the bank. It is a symbol of our financial well-being.”

As we consider how we can ensure we become more self-reliant, it is important that we think about these four areas. Are there any steps we can take to help us become more self-reliant in any of these areas? Some may be more challenging than others but we can make small steps in many ways.

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I Am A Child of God

The Debilitating Lie
In the Pearl of Great Price, we begin with reading about Moses and a glorious experience he has with the Father. Moses was carried away in the Spirit into a vision and he witnesses the glory of God – we read in Moses 1:3

“And God spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?”

What an amazing experience. Here is Moses, a mortal man, witnessing before him the very existence of a God and that He is all-powerful and endless. If you were in that moment, how would you feel? A little intimidated? Nervous? Even a little scared? Or, if you know the truth that Moses was to learn immediately after, maybe you would feel something else. God goes on to say in verse 4:

“And, behold, thou art my son;”

Why would the Lord, after proclaiming his never-ending nature, decide to proclaim his never-ending relationship with Moses? Why teach him so early on this profound truth? We find the answer very soon after this marvellous vision. Satan, the father of lies, deception and falsehoods, comes to Moses immediately after this life-changing experience. This cunning architect of doubt knew exactly what his best stratagem was after Moses had such a revealing vision of God. In verse 12 we read:

“And it came to pass that when Moses had said these words, behold, Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.”

Here is the great, debilitating lie that Satan often uses with us today to seemingly demean our value, and it is what he tried with Moses. Moses had just witnessed a perfect Being, a glorified Man – one who Moses might have found difficult to relate to, had he not learnt the simple, glorious truth mentioned before. Was he not indeed insignificant, did he not tremble before the presence of this almighty God and see he, himself, was inadequate? In saying ‘Moses, son of man’ Satan is deliberately trying to cause feelings of doubt and unworthiness in Moses, implying that Moses is worth nothing to God, this Mighty, Immortal Being.

The Glorious Truth

But, we know different. Moses knew different. He had been taught the simple, profound truth – the truth that would enable him to overcome all Satan could throw at him, to overcome all feelings of doubt and inadequacy – and yet, Primary children in our Church at the age of three (even younger) sing this life-saving truth in an innocent, heartfelt song – ‘I am a Child of God’. Because this doctrine is learnt at such a young age in the Church I feel I have often overlooked its significance. Moses did indeed overcome Satan’s advances in this experience, we can do the same.

Often Understated, Can Never Be Overstated

These thoughts are based on a talk given by Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy in a recent General Conference. He stated:

“This doctrine is so basic, so oft stated, and so instinctively simple that it can seem to be ordinary, when in reality it is among the most extraordinary knowledge we can obtain. A correct understanding of our heavenly heritage is essential to exaltation.”

It is indeed understated just how important this tremendous truth is. The reality is, it can never be overstated. Just imagine if you did not know there was a God? Would there be any purpose to our mortal lives? Would we be motivated if we did not have an ultimate, eternal goal to strive for? Now, imagine how you would feel if you felt there was a God, but you had no meaningful, loving connection with Him? Would this be any more comforting that not knowing there was a God at all? That there was some all-powerful Being observing our every action, with little care or unconditional love for us?

If we look in the Bible Dictionary under ‘God’ we read:

“Although God created all things and is the ruler of the universe, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (through His Spirit), mankind has a special relationship to Him that differentiates man from all other created things: man is literally God’s offspring, made in His image, whereas all other things are but the work of His hands.”

As mentioned, this special relationship can be a great support and comforting for us to know as we journey through this mortal life. It means a lot. Once we understand this eternal truth, we can know that God is indeed there, but not only that, that He loves us as a perfect Father does, He is guiding us, He knows what is best for us and He desires nothing more for us to return again to Him for eternity.

Eternal Implications

Such a monumental truth has a number of implications, things which we need to take into account. I will only mention a couple but there are many.

The first, as mentioned, is the way we view trials. Elder Hallstrom went on to say in his message:

“When difficult things occur in our lives, what is our immediate response? Is it confusion or doubt or spiritual withdrawal? Is it a blow to our faith? Do we blame God or others for our circumstances? Or is our first response to remember who we are—that we are children of a loving God? Is that coupled with an absolute trust that He allows some earthly suffering because He knows it will bless us, like a refiner’s fire, to become like Him and to gain our eternal inheritance?”

The truth of ‘I am a child of God’ can have a profound impact on how we react to trials in our lives. Trials change from being irritable barriers which impede our progress to spiritual hurdles which, whilst challenging, will ultimately support our growth and progress.

The second thing we change is our view of each other. How much easier does it become to love those around us when we recognise and understand that, as we are all the children of God, we are all spiritually connected and related? In the weeks leading up to serving my Mission in the England Leeds Mission, I was having a personal struggle. Not one of desire to actually go on my mission – but one of concern with my level of charity. It’s not that I didn’t care for other people…it’s that I just didn’t like talking to people, much less people I had no connection with (and even less those from Yorkshire!) Joking aside, a couple of weeks before I was to leave, I begin to have a quiet concern – how could I begin to proclaim the Gospel if I didn’t have a love for the people I would be serving. I had a love of the Saviour and His Atonement – but I do not think I yet had a sufficient understanding that we are all children of God (despite, again, having sung that fact over a thousand times). Elder Hallstrom commented on this saying:

This beloved hymn is one of the most often sung in this Church. But the critical question is, do we really know it? Do we know it in our mind and in our heart and in our soul? Is our heavenly parentage our first and most profound identity?

I thought I did – but maybe I was wrong. As it was, this concern was eating away at me as I was sat on a bus travelling to a destination. It grew and grew in my mind until I couldn’t bear it. I looked around at all the unfamiliar people from my seat at the back of the bus (remember, I was on a public transport, so they were very unfamiliar) and I just couldn’t imagine myself ever having the confidence and the strength to talk to them. As the worry grew, I felt a profound feeling that I needed to pray…looking back this now reminds me of a scripture in Moroni 7:45 which says: 

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, 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; that ye may become the sons of God;”

As I prayed, certainly trying as much as I could in my heart, something significant stirred within me. It can only be described as a prompting from the greatest teacher we have access to, the Holy Ghost. As I lifted my eyes from being bowed in prayer, something incredible happened. There was no heavenly music, no mystical voice heard in my ear – but there was a significant change in my heart. For that moment, I understood. I looked around again, at each individual on that bus, and I saw a glimpse of something that I hadn’t even yet seen in myself – potential. Every single soul on that bus had (and still have today) the potential to become as God is, their Heavenly Father. No matter who they were, where they were from, what life they had lived up until that point, they could become like Him. The only thing stopping them was not having the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and I had it!! The young, 18-year-old man at the back of that bus was sitting there with eternal truths that would bless their eternal lives forever…so why was he just sat there!? Unfortunately I cannot say that I jumped up and proclaimed restored truth to my first converts then, but I knew what was needed. Not for me to be perfect at teaching, or even be the most confident at talking to people. I needed to recognise that EVERYONE I spoke to had divine potential, they were offspring of God.

What do we need to do?

Now, in a world that is constantly pulling us in seemingly never-ending directions, the truth of ‘I Am a Child of God’ can take a backseat. It really can be a truth which, whilst it is glorious in principle, it can be ordinary in day-to-day living. Elder Hallstrom warned us of this, saying: 

“The more distractions that surround us, the easier it is to treat casually, then ignore, and then forget our connection with God.”

Elder Hallstrom said it is a truth which is vital to our exaltation. Whatever methods we take to internalise this truth and understand it more (and yes it is the usual, seemingly ‘ordinary and mundane’ answers of reading scriptures, engaging in consistent meaningful prayer, partaking the sacrament religiously and renewing our covenants made with the Father and so on), they simply cannot be glossed over. A 30 second prayer which we repeat every evening will not open our natural eyes to the glorious feeling that we have divine potential – we must WANT to find this truth.

Getting from A to C via B

Just a quick post this week.

Over a year ago in October 2015, my wife and I find out that we needed to move our little family out of the home we had been staying in for nearly a year and really enjoyed. This was not pleasant news for us. Nevertheless, we began looking for a place to within 6 weeks. It was not the easiest time but through our prayers we felt that the Lord would direct us. Most importantly we wanted to feel confident and sure in the decision we would make.

As we looked around we found a place that was a possibility. It was a similar price to what we were already paying, was a well cared for house and had a little garden. The problems were that it wasn’t in the most pleasant of areas, it was not a large home and we would have to move wards from the ward we love right now. It also had an excellent school fairly close by but also some troubling ones closer to it. We decided to go have a look round as we were quite undecided. We jumped into the car and drove the short drive. As we looked around we checked every detail. We were aware of the issues mentioned earlier. The house was pleasant and we were anxious about the little amount of time we had to find a new home for our little family. So, on the drive back, we pulled over and prayed about the decision, involving our children in the prayer. What happened next surprised us. We received a clear answer. Our three year old son also said he felt the same. The answer was not the answer we wanted and not the answer we were expecting. We felt that we should go for the home we had just viewed, despite it not being the home we maybe would have wanted. This was a clear and distinct impression, one that we could not deny.

So we set the process into motion. If this experience followed most you hear about listening to the Spirit, we would have moved into the home and lived happily ever after. But this did not happen.

Once we had begun the process and it became more serious, we suddenly felt differently. Both my wife and myself felt this uncertainty around our decision on the very same day and were unsure how to express this to each other that evening until we realised we both felt the same. And so, after more prayer and discussion, we decided to pull out of renting that home.

The next day, we went about our daily activities, confused why we had been allowed to go through this process if ultimately that was not the right destination for our family. But then, the very next day after pulling out of the original house, another appeared. One that was larger. One that was cheaper than the one we were living in AND the one we nearly moved to. One that would keep us in the Ward we wanted to stay in. One that had good and excellent schools and nurseries around it to choose from. This was our answer, this was our blessing for obedience to the promptings of the still, small voice.

For a long while, I thought that this experience was simply a test of faith. If we could listen to the promptings and follow them, even though it may not have originally been what we wanted, then we would be blessed further. However, my wife recently came across this video from Elder Jeffrey R Holland who speaks superbly about sometimes being led by the Lord down a certain path before being corrected by Him to go on another – to show us that the right path is absolutely the right one. He explains it much better than I could, so I will just drop the link here and urge you to watch it.

Prayer Preparation

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a wonderful thing. It provides the opportunity for all of God’s children to find some rest and peace in this turbulent world. Of course, life is still not always easy but the Savior promises us support in our struggles. He said Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) We can find solace and comfort through the power of prayer.

Prayer is a miraculous gift. We have been sent to Earth to live by faith and yet we have been provided with something so precious as it allows us to contact the Being who allowed us to come here. However, there are some very important things to remember with prayer. Prayers are not an opportunity to place an order and accept things instantly. To begin with, a look in the Bible Dictionary will tell us “Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.” Prayer is the means by which we can come closer to God and, as such, bring our will closer to His. We can ask for blessings and if we receive that blessing, it is because the Lord is willing to give it to us and would have if we asked.

Because of these truths, prayer is therefore something which of course should require some effort on our part. If we take a casual attitude to our prayers, then we can expect nothing less than “casual” responses (not that I am suggesting our loving Heavenly Father will care less). In fact, we will not receive great blessings because our desires will not be aligned with our Father’s and so if we don’t receive something we think we need (but it actually is not best for us) then we will feel that Heavenly Father is casual in our attitude to us.

Of course there are times it may feel like we have not been answered. We were teaching our 4-year-old son in our Family Home Evening this evening and I had found this beautiful story in the lesson on Prayer in the Family Home Evening Resource Book. It reads:

It was Saturday morning, and father was home. He had brought some work from the office to complete and went into the study to be alone.

(1) Soon his little daughter came into the room crying. Someone had broken her new doll. Her father told her not to worry: he would fix her doll. She thanked her father and ran happily back to play.

(2) Next his son came in. He asked his father for money to buy a new model boat to take sailing with his friends. His father took time to explain that the boy had already received his weekly allowance two days ago with the understanding that it was to take care of such things.

(3) His teenage daughter came in next. She wanted a new dress for the coming dance. Her father told her that she would have to wait. He told her that if she saved as much as she could herself, he would help her buy the new dress.

(4) His teenage son interrupted the father next. The son was doing his homework and needed help with a problem. His father gave him some suggestions, but did not work the problem for him. A few minutes later, his son returned to say, “Thank you for the idea you gave me. It worked!”

(5) Finally, the youngest child came in. His father looked down at the boy and asked kindly, “What do you want, son?” “I don’t want anything,” the little boy answered as he reached his arms around his father’s neck and kissed him. “I just wanted to be with you.”

I loved this. I wish I knew this story when I was on my mission. One of the most asked questions was around why God didn’t answer them, or why was God not responding to that person they knew. This story breaks down various, reasonable suggestions as to how a loving father works – and it is the same with our loving Heavenly Father.

For (1) the child was ready to receive and the father listened, intervened and supported the children. In this instance, the child does need that help but cannot help themselves and so the father listens and acts.

For (2) the child had to understand responsibility. They were listened to but did not get the response they wanted. If they were to receive it they would quickly become spoiled and presume to receive things whenever they wish. They had to learn to do without the thing they didn’t really need.

For (3) the child again was listened to by this loving parent. This was a blessing that was required, but this child had means wherewith they could contribute. It would be foolish of the parent to give the money or the blessing in full instantly – what would the child learn? They had to put the work in beforehand and the father would make up the rest.

For (4) the child had to work out the answer themselves. If they were given the answer they would not grow or develop. The loving parent listened and gave suggestions but then let the child go away and work it out. As a result, the child was so grateful to the parent and had developed.

For (5) the child clearly loved their father. They only wanted to interact to say how much they loved their parent and were grateful for all he had done for them. I’m sure Heavenly Father would love to receive more prayers like this!

Even if you do not receive responses right away, do not despair. Your Father in Heaven does listen and wants to hear your heartfelt prayers.

Thinking about all this – I was visiting another ward to speak in on Sunday and a sister missionary spoke before me (again). She spoke of prayer and an experience she had over Christmas. All the missionaries were invited on Christmas Day to engage in a 45 minute prayer. As this daunting task lay before her, she planned what she would discuss with her Heavenly Father and was able to pause for answers. This illuminated me. In all my years of, quite frankly, failing to consistently hold meaningful prayers I had never thought of this! Actually sitting down and planning what I would discuss in my prayers. I am a very methodical person so I am hoping to try this out and see if it works!

 

Morning and Evening Prayer

As we engage in making our prayers more meaningful, we need to understand how they work and what the purpose of regular prayer is.

Elder David A. Bednar gave a great explanation of this in a talk given in the October 2008 General Conference called ‘Pray Always’. D&C 10:5 reads “Pray always, that you may come off conqueror; yea, that you may conquer Satan…” but how do we exactly always pray? How will this constant prayer help?

To address why it’s important to offer morning and evening prayers, Elder Bednar said:

“The patterns used by God in creating the earth are instructive in helping us understand how to make prayer meaningful. In the third chapter of the book of Moses we learn that all things were created spiritually before they were naturally upon the earth.

“And now, behold, I say unto you, that these are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that I, the Lord God, made the heaven and the earth,

And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:4–5).

We learn from these verses that the spiritual creation preceded the temporal creation. In a similar way, meaningful morning prayer is an important element in the spiritual creation of each day—and precedes the temporal creation or the actual execution of the day. Just as the temporal creation was linked to and a continuation of the spiritual creation, so meaningful morning and evening prayers are linked to and are a continuation of each other.”

As we have these morning and evening prayers to plan, create and account for our days, we will naturally over the course of time find it becomes a habit. We will then remember to spiritually ‘create’ our day and to account to the Lord what we’ve done with the time we’ve been allotted by Him. This can also help us realise the heavenly help we are receiving every day. As such, we will find ourselves praying always.

Elder Bednar continued “Morning and evening prayers—and all of the prayers in between—are not unrelated, discrete events; rather, they are linked together each day and across days, weeks, months, and even years. This is in part how we fulfill the scriptural admonition to “pray always” (Luke 21:36; 3 Nephi 18:15, 18; D&C 31:12). Such meaningful prayers are instrumental in obtaining the highest blessings God holds in store for His faithful children.” If we do want to become more like our Heavenly Father, we need to have His divine support and strength to do so. The importance of daily, fervent prayer in receiving this help is vital. Without it, we will struggle to overcome the effects of Satan and therefore, we will struggle to have the influence of the Spirit in our life guiding us back to Him.

Enos’s Pattern of Faith

Enos went out to hunt, but his thoughts turned to the words of his father, Jacob, who spoke “…concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints…” (Enos 1:3) and he says his soul ‘hungered’. He then says “I cried unto him [the Lord] in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him…” (Enos 1:4) – he continued on through the night. He was starving for the Spirit.

What is interesting is the pattern in which Enos’s prayer is set out in. We see the pattern of faith demonstrated by Elder David A. Bednar in his talk ‘Seek Learning by Faith’. He says there are “three basic elements of faith: (1) faith as the assurance of things hoped for which are true, (2) faith as the evidence of things not seen, and (3) faith as the principle of action…And the faith that fuels this ongoing process…assurance leads to action and produces evidence, which further increases assurance.” This explanation of assurance -> action -> evidence -> developed assurance -> further action -> more evidence and so on is is found in Enos’s prayer. He has the assurance by his father that he can receive joy. He acts by praying mightily and he receives an answer saying “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” (Enos 1:5) – his evidence. Because of this evidence, Enos gained a stronger assurance – and acted further by praying for his brethren, the Nephites. The same process happened again. After that he says “…my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord…” (Enos 1:11) – his faith grew and grew, so much so that he began praying for the Lamanites.

Another interesting point to make about Enos’s prayer is that the Lord answers him whilst he is praying, like a two-way communication. This is something that many people sometimes forget and therefore, miss out on powerful, meaningful contact with the Divine. Another lesson to take from Enos.

One final thought is linked to when Enos said – the “wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.” (Enos 1:2) When we pray, we need to concentrate. The Book of Mormon Study Guide says “Such wrestling is the struggle to find and express one’s real desires which are sometimes hidden behind sin…It means going beyond the cliché level of prayer to the point that one truly pours his soul into words and offers them to God.” – that is when the Spirit leads our prayers.