It is not difficult for persons who has received academic training in such fields as Christian history, theology, or religious studies to lose their focus on the fundamental purpose of scripture itself—to come to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). The Apostle Paul expressed such a concern in his second letter to the Corinthians: “I’m afraid that your minds may be corrupted from the single-mindedness and purity which the Messiah’s people should have” (N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament). This is why I have enjoyed so much being a part of this e-dialogue: the focus is on what we do, in our respective traditions, to follow Jesus. In this essay I hope to be able to express what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been counseled to do in order to follow the Son of God and thereby come to know Him.
I begin with what Latter-day Saints are probably charged to do most often by Church leaders—to search the scriptures daily as individuals and as a family, to speak of them and teach them to one another. There is a power inherent in scripture, a power unlike anything else we may read or study. Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur makes for fascinating reading (and a pretty fair movie, as well), but it cannot stir the soul like Isaiah 53 or the 23rdPsalm. Reading Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe is a sweet experience, but its influence and impact are nowhere near what one can encounter in the Gospel of John. God has placed his seal of approval on scripture, and as Paul taught, it is Spirit-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). The current President of our Church, Russell M. Nelson, pointed out that “To reach our objective of eternal life, we need to follow teachings . . . received from prophets of God. . . . In our journey through life, you meet many obstacles and make some mistakes. Scriptural guidance helps you to recognize error and make the necessary correction. You stop going in the wrong direction. You carefully study the scriptural roadmap.”
Second, Latter-day Saints are a praying people. Indeed, we believe that no one can come to know Christ and acquire a Christlike nature unless they regularly and consistently offer up their petitions and their gratitude in prayer. Members of the Church are encouraged to have personal prayer in the morning and before retiring to bed, as well as having a prayer in our hearts throughout the day. We are counseled to gather our family around us in the morning and the evening to kneel in family prayer.
For us, prayers are not merely a time to make requests of the Almighty, but also a time to receive personal guidance from God. In particular, when an individual is in the process of making a very significant decision, he or she is encouraged to lift up their voices in prayer but then to remain on their knees for a while to “listen” for how God may choose to prompt or guide one’s thoughts or feelings. One of the most beloved hymns in the Church’s hymnal is “Ere You Left Your Room this Morning, Did You Think to Pray?”
Third, Latter-day Saints seek to follow Jesus by serving and loving others as he did. That is, we strive to walk in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus came to earth to carry out both His mission and His ministry. When I refer to His mission, I have in mind those matters to which only He could attend—redemption from sin and resurrection from death. The ministry of Jesus pertains to how He dealt with people—how He led them, loved them, lifted them, liberated them, and lightened their burdens. And it is the ministry of Jesus that we can in fact emulate. He put people first, and so can we. He was willing to be inconvenienced, and so can we. He reached out to those on the margins of society, and so can we.
In a rather comprehensive overview of what our Lord and Master did, Matthew wrote: “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23; emphasis added; see also 9:35). In speaking of those who are called to teach the gospel, especially the youth, one Latter-day Saint leader, Jeffrey R. Holland, stated: “I do believe that Christ wants our teaching to lead to healing of the spiritual kind. . . . As with the Master, wouldn’t it be wonderful to measure the success of your teaching by the healing that takes place in the lives of your students?
“Let me be a little more specific. Rather than just giving a lesson, please try a little harder to help that blind basketball star really see, or the deaf homecoming queen really hear, or the privately lame student body president really walk. Try a little harder to fortify someone so powerfully that whatever temptation the devils of hell throw at her or him, these students will be able to withstand and thus truly in that moment be free from evil. Can you try a little harder to teach so powerfully and so spiritually that you can take that student—that boy or girl who walks alone to school and from school, who sits alone in the lunchroom, who has never had a date, who is the brunt of every joke, who weeps in the darkest night—can you unleash the power in the scriptures and the power in the gospel and ‘cleanse’ that leper, a leper not of his or her making, a leper made by those on our right and on our left and sometimes by us?” People matter, very much. God and Christ are in the “business” of people, and so must we be, if we are to follow where Jesus leads.
I am personally very concerned, as I know each of you are, about the enormous exodus from faith that has taken place within the last decade or so, the purported 27% of the American population who have chosen to cut all ties with organized religion. These “nones,” who speak of themselves as being “spiritual but not religious,” often say that they do not find religion to be relevant to them. Others, especially young adults who have left the faith, have expressed to me how weary they are of the theological battles, the name-calling, the everpresent tendency to draw lines in the sand, to belittle, to exclude, to render harsh judgments against those who may believe differently. In so doing, we have given Christianity a bad name and demonstrated attitudes and behavior that are anything but Christian. There is a great need for a kinder, gentler form of Christianity, the kind that Jesus Christ displayed so beautifully.
Fourth, Latter-day Saints are deeply committed to the value of church attendance, of meeting together with “the body of Christ.” We need the Church. What takes place within the Church, and what takes place within each of us as we become enthusiastically involved in the Church, is essential in keeping ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27); it is a vital part of coming unto that perfection of the soul for which all followers of the Savior strive. Christianity entails more than prayer, fasting, and searching the scriptures—more than an individual effort to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As vital as personal devotion and individual effort are, Christianity is fully lived out only in community. God designed, for example, that the various offices of the Church of Jesus Christ had been put in place “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man [or woman], unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In short, the Church is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.
Each Sabbath Latter-day Saints come to church and partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We do so in remembrance of the life and mission of Our Master, Jesus Christ. More specifically, we partake of the sacred emblems in remembrance of His bruised and broken body and His spilt blood on the cross. We believe and teach that if an individual comes to sacrament meeting (our main worship service) in a spirit of humility and repentance, that he or she can, through the ordinance of the sacrament, experience a remission of sins and enjoy the peace that accompanies the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sermons or spiritual messages that are delivered in our worship service help us learn or be reminded of the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Singing the hymns and great anthems of praise lift our souls heavenward like nothing else that we might do.
Without the Church, one cannot develop those Christ-like qualities and attributes that come only through association and affiliation with other men and women, boys and girls, who are striving for basically the same things we are. Nor can one participate in the ongoing service and organized sacrifice that come through working closely with others. Without the Church and Church affiliation and involvement, one simply cannot cultivate the gospel light that emanates freely and enticingly from those who are on the path to life eternal.
“Since Jesus is at the very center of it all,” one of our Church leaders observed, “we must make Him and His ways the light by which we steer and the light we hold up to others. To proceed in any other way is to proceed with less light—much less light.” It is the sweet labor of a lifetime to learn how to place the Savior at the center of our lives and to keep Him there. As we look more consistently and reverently to Him as the Captain of our souls and our salvation, we discover the abundant life that He alone can give (John 10:10). That abundant life here is but a foretaste of the eternal life that awaits us hereafter.