By: Alejandro Rodriguez
“Do I have a testimony?” As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints our discourse and our reunions revolve around this question. It’s understandable that the topic of belief is continually brought up while participating in an organized belief system. However, as we view the gospel through those lenses, in terms having a conviction to tenets, we filter out or exclude an important aspect of our religious experience: becoming disciples of Christ.
Having vs Being
President David O. McKay said it best: “The purpose of the gospel is to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature.” 1This is in stark contrast to how we view the gospel today. We approach the gospel as a thing that will provide us certainty, as something that will one day validate us for having “the correct beliefs.” That’s the sense that nonmembers feel when they hear us say, “I know the Church is true.” The early followers of the Way understood this danger. James wrote,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
Of course, quoting this passage always opens up the debate: Are we saved by works? Many correctly point to St. Paul’s words: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) I will attempt to reconcile these points later, but for now what I want to get at is this: The credal aspect of our religious tradition is not enough. Having a testimony is not enough. We must, as President McKay emphasized, focus on becoming better.
This is no easy task, of course, so let’s not be hypocrites about it. First, we need to start with the definition of better. The Book of Mormon explains that
“… the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19 emphasis added)
The process of becoming a saint is a rather tall order, one that entails more than just adopting the correct beliefs. It requires action, but not just action: it requires discipleship. There are a variety of disciplines that one can undertake in one’s life. Becoming a disciple of any given discipline produces a specific outcome, or a specific work. It also produces a radical shift in identification. A mechanic, a psychoanalyst, an accountant, an artist, etc… as they become competent at their craft also form a portion of their identity with their area of expertise. If a person studies economics and then implements those techniques he, or she, become an economist. If another person studies Plato and then uses Plato’s ideas to create a framework for philosophy then that person becomes a philosopher, specifically a Platonist. When a young shoemaker takes on an apprenticeship, he or she will eventually become a cobbler. Likewise, as we follow Christ, we must allow ourselves to identify with Him, and thus allow our identities to be reformed.
Discipleship is not just having faith, nor is it just having works. Rather, it is the process by which faith produces action. If our faith does not produce works, then there is an error in the process: our faith is dead. If our works are faithless then there is also an error in the process, and works alone do not have the power to save us. The process by which we exercise faith, and then produce good works, must then also invoke a change in us. We must become more like Him. As Christians, this is what is means to take Christ’s name upon us.
Agent, Arena, and Ascension
Our sense of self, our self-perception, frames our relationship with the world. We all inhabit several “arenas” and hierarchies. Each arena demands a task from us, and our ability to meet that task calibrates our standing within the hierarchy that occupies each arena. For example, as infants we are placed in a cribs. Once we have mastered being in a crib we move on to the next arena. Our range of motion becomes wider and wider as each arena becomes more and more complex. Consequences for mistakes also become more and more painful and impactful. As a result, our identities also develop with each arena.
We feel a deep sense of meaning when our identity is fitted to the arena which we find ourselves in. The world then becomes a place of opportunity that constantly affords us moments to fulfill our role and purpose. We know what to do and are confident that we can do it. This “atunement” to the arena does not come easily but I believe that the deep sense of at-one-ment, forgiveness, and meaning that we will experience makes discipleship worthwhile.
The unique doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posits the highest goal — “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” 2Becoming a disciple of Christ is the pathway we take towards this divine ascent. Christ is our perfect example and teacher. “…Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33) Jesus is the “King of Kings” which means that He embodies the values enable us to rise within and above all hierarchies.
Vision, Repentance, and Love
Putting off the natural man and becoming a saint requires serious repentance, which is terrifying for many people. Facing our shortcomings is something that we do so infrequently that our faults become unconscious. Like looking through a pair of spotted spectacles, the specks of dust are invisible to us despite the fact that they are right in front of our eyes. We simply see through the specks of dust and forget that they are exist.
President Nelson, in his April 2019 General Conference address We Can Do Better and Be Better spoke of metanoia, which is greek (μετάνοια) for “repentance.” The word is derived from meta- which means change, and -noein which means “mental perception.”3 Vision is only possible by making value judgments (which your brain does instantly and unconsciously). Because there are too many things to perceive in the world and such a limited amount of brain cells specialized for sight, your brain must instantaneously determine what’s relevant and worthy of sight. Objects that facilitate the accomplishment of our goal become visible to us. Objects that are obstacles to our goals are also relevant and become detectable. However, whatever is irrelevant to your goal becomes practically invisible to you, even if they are right in front of you. Because your vision, and therefore your aim, is determined by your values repentance, or metanoia, calls for a radical restructuring of your values. Once our values have changed, our goals then change. Our vision then will shift and the things which we were overlooking will become obvious obstacles.
A dramatic example of metanoia is when a couple has their first child. Before that child arrives in this world the couple tends to view the world in an ego-centric (but not necessarily selfish) manner. The prioritization of concerns is sorted in such a way that the needs of the couple come first. This is a reasonable and even noble way of orienting a couple’s life. Once a newborn is introduced to the couple’s world the needs of the child now take precedent. The health, safety and comfort of the infant is now such an important enterprise that the success of that enterprise might have to be reached at the expense of the health, safety and comfort of the parents. Despite parent’s decline in energy, health, free time, resources, and peace of mind, they consistently report that life becomes much more fulfilling.4 This radical shift in perspective, priorities, effort, care, and self-organization is a deep metanoia or repentance that is motivated by love.
We all experience a deep sense of awe, and love towards infants even though newborns do not provide us with any services, goods, tangible benefit, nor reciprocity. Babes have not earned our love, nor have they met any kind of qualification to deserve our love rather, the intense love we feel towards them presupposes their invaluable worth. This is the type of love that we must share with the rest of world! It is this kind of love that makes us realize our shortcomings while simultaneously showing us that we can be much more than we currently are. Fay Weldon amusingly puts it this way: “The best thing about not having children is that you can go on believing that you’re a good person.”5
Describing the radical shift in vision that repentance produces Jesus said,
“Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5 Joseph Smith Translation)
Discovering beams in our eyes is shocking to us, and their removal is even more painful still. After all that our work is not yet done and we must proceed to remove the mote from our brother’s eye, which is also uncomfortable for both parties. We are deeply flawed, and those around us are ready to remind us of that. Another reason repentance can be so difficult is because the people around us will inevitably attempt to crucify us with the very same beams that we have pulled from our eyes. (A cross is made up of two wooden beams.) Yet as disciples of Christ we must follow His example. We must do as He did! Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world. But what does that mean for us if we are to emulate Him? It means that we must live in such a way that we are at-one with God and then live in such a way that rectifies the errors of others. Can we honestly rise to such a task?
Grace, Narcissism, and Victimhood
God’s grace is sufficient for all; however, we are not all we could be. For Martin Luther the self was vacuous, and ultimately could not amount to anything resembling the goodness of God. Therefore, the self is internally conflicted as it continually falls short of God’s glory. According to Luther, the only respite from this damned condition was to be found by constantly seeking the unearned, undeserved, and external validation of God’s arbitrarily-given grace. Luther’s gospel and the protestant movement that ran with his exegesis prepared the cultural soil for the embrace of narcissism: expecting constant external validation while self-loathing. It should be no surprise that victimhood culture is spreading across the West and has seeped its way into the Church. We must be wise as we respond to this shift in our culture.
In the final analysis we are all victims of several painful injustices. Christ on the cross is the ultimate victim and presents the conditions under which we are called to be disciples. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is to say, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” (Matthew 27:46). The life of a disciple of Christ is a life voluntarily faced being deeply aware of the fact that life is fundamentally unjust, and fundamentally painful to such a degree that it feels as though God has abandoned us. However, identification as victim frames our lived experience too narrowly, and drastically limits our range of action and opportunity for growth. Our identification as Sons and Daughters of Heavenly Parents, and as Disciples of Jesus Christ, afford us more opportunities to fulfill our purpose on this earth, and transcend our suffering.
The answer to the problem of suffering of life is to bear it up, to love others, rise above our shortcomings, our suffering, and become better! The alternative is to become worse and loathe ourselves. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:24-15). If we continually strive to become our best selves, perhaps we can set our small portion of the world right, and perhaps then there will be less unnecessary suffering for us and for those near us.
Our religion must not be reduced and limited to a set of propositions we simply agree with. If the Church is going to be the Body of Christ, then we must embody His example.
“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; that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as He is pure. Amen.” (Moroni 7:48 emphasis added).
The bearing of testimony can be beautiful and inspiring. The truth that members of the Church have discovered was been won with careful study, heartfelt prayer, and the overcoming of traumatic trials. Our sense of being, which informs our course of action, must be congruent with our testimonies.
1 President David O. McKay, in the film Every Member a Missionary, as quoted by Elder Franklin D. Richards in Conference Report, Oct. 1965
3 https://www.goarch.org/-/repentance-and-confession-introduction “The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man’s vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God.”
4 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/curious/201204/is-parenthood-linked-greater-joy-and-meaning-or-misery-science-speaks 5 https://philosophyofmotherhood.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/the-shadow-of-parenthood/
Photo Credit to Lawrence OP