Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:10-15).
Here we have an interesting statement presented as the message of God: The Lord states that the intended audience must “hear the word of the Lord” and “give ear unto the law of our God” followed by what seems to be an extended denunciation of very law they had been commanded to live by. This seemingly-contradictory statement is understood best in the central statement: “to what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?” This scriptural statement and question is at the very core of a problem that has faced Christian religions for years: To what purpose is the law given by God?
Concerning the ancient Law of Moses, the apostle Paul taught that, “the “law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob agreed with Paul, as he stated: “Behold, [the holy prophets before Jacob’s time] believed in Christ and worshipped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness” (Jacob 4:5, emphasis added). Both of these witnesses of Christ believed that the law’s primary purpose was point their souls to Christ and build faith in the Savior. They purposefully lived the law until it was fulfilled in the Atonement of Christ, understanding its importance, but more importantly understanding its purpose.
While the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, there still is a law, albeit a higher law, that He has commanded we live by since that time. Just as the Law of Moses, this law has its importance, purpose and place in our lives. The prophet Joseph Smith taught that: “the fundamentals of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 121). Considering that an appendage is something joined to something larger or more important—like the arms or our bodies or the limbs of a tree—that means that all that we believe in or teach is attached to and subservient to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The implications of this Christ-centered doctrine for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is intense and prompted Elder Neal A. Maxwell to characterize us as being “seen by the world as eccentric, because [we] are so Christocentric!” (“Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King,” Ensign, December 1976).
Why are Jesus Christ and His Atonement so important and central to our faith? Well, without them, our faith would be pointless and vain. Jacob taught that,
For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfill the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection…. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgement which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth to rise no more.
O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (2 Nephi 9:6-9).
Thus, even if we had prophets, apostles, teachers, pastors, the fullness of the law and did our best to live it, we would still be damned for two reasons. First, we would be without a body—something necessary to our progression—forever. Second, we could only regress with time. The law is the line of perfection, and once we have crossed that line in the slightest, we are bound by sin and incapable of moving forward towards the line without external help. As Elder Richard G. Scott expressed:
Without the Atonement, Father in Heaven’s plan of happiness could not have been placed fully into effect. The Atonement gives all the opportunity to overcome the consequences of mistakes made in life. When we obey a law, we receive a blessing. When we break a law, there is nothing left over from prior obedience to satisfy the demands of justice for that broken law. The Savior’s Atonement permits us to repent of any disobedience and thereby avoid the penalties that justice would have imposed (“He Lives! All Glory to His Name!” General Conference April 2010).
Beyond the necessity of the Atonement and the profound gratitude we have towards our Savior for that blessing, there is another reason to look towards Christ. President David O. McKay expressed that, “members of the Church of Christ are under obligation to make the sinless Son of Man their ideal. He is the one Perfect Being who ever walked the earth; the sublimest example of nobility; Godlike in nature; perfect in his love; our Redeemer; our Savior; the immaculate Son of our Eternal Father; the Light, the Life, the Way…. [He is] the personification of human perfection.” He stated further that, “man’s chief concern in life should not be the acquiring of gold, or of fame, or of material possessions. It should not be the development of physical prowess, nor of intellectual strength, but his aim, the highest in life, should be the development of a Christ-like character” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay , 5, 215). We must make Christ a focus in our lives because He is the ultimate example of how to live. The law is merely a tool to show us how to have faith in Him unto salvation and to be like Him.
Even still, there has, at times, been a trend among the Mormon community to forget the purpose and focus on the law itself. Testimony meetings are filled with declarations of belief in the gospel (which is often synonymous with the law in Mormon terminology), the Church, and the prophets, yet Jesus Christ is, at times, rarely directly mentioned. Further, I have even heard some Sunday school teachers state the faith directly equals action, rather than faith naturally leads to works. My purpose in writing this is to remind anyone and everyone to lead a Christ-centered life in thought, word and deed.
Centering Thoughts on Christ
President David O. McKay expressed that, “The kind of life you live, your disposition, your very nature, will be determined by your thoughts, of which your acts are but the outward expression. Thought is the seed of action” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, 217).
Our thoughts are central to who we are. They determine our decisions, which in turn shape our character, much as tiny drops of water may shape a landscape over time. It is perhaps due to this fact that the Lord requires us to take the sacrament almost every week, with the accompanying covenantal promise to “always remember him [Jesus Christ]” (Moroni 4:2; 5:2). It may also be due to this that Alma taught that we will be condemned for our thoughts along with our words and works (see Alma 12:14).
I always remember listening to a radio program about thinking about what you’re thinking about. The speaker talked about the idea that we naturally tend to do what we think most about. In speaking about dieting, he stated that if we keep telling ourselves not to eat the chocolate cake, we’re going to eat the chocolate cake. Why? We’re still focusing our thoughts on the cake, even though we’re doing so to tell ourselves not to eat it. Eventually, because it is on our mind, we give in and eat it. Similarly, if I tell you not to think about zebras, it will probably be the first time that you’ve thought about zebras in a while, even though I just told you not to think about them. The trick is to focus on something else—to push the thoughts of chocolate cakes and zebras from our minds and think about something else. Your mind is a stage and you control who’s performing there.
To always remember Christ is a protection from sin and a directing compass to eternal life. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught this by stating:
Most people in trouble end up crying, “What was I thinking?” Well, whatever they were thinking, they weren’t thinking of Christ. Yet, as members of His Church, we pledge every Sunday of our lives to take upon ourselves His name and promise to “always remember him.” [D&C 20:77.] So let us work a little harder at remembering Him—especially that He has “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows … , [that] he was bruised for our iniquities … ; and with his stripes we are healed.” [Isaiah 53:4-5.] Surely it would guide our actions in a dramatic way if we remembered that every time we transgress, we hurt not only those we love, but we also hurt Him, who so dearly loves us. But if we do sin, however serious that sin may be, we can be rescued by that same majestic figure, He who bears the only name given under heaven whereby any man or woman can be saved [see Acts 4:12]. When confronting our transgressions and our souls are harrowed up with true pain, may we all echo the repentant Alma and utter his life-changing cry: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” [Alma 26:18]. (“Place No More for the Enemy of My Soul,” April 2010 General Conference.)
Thoughts of Christ improve our direction in several ways. We remember His example and follow it as we ponder “what would Jesus do?” If we ponder on the question “what does Christ think of me?” we will be inspired to live better to be more worthy of His trust. When we think of His love, we will be drawn closer to Him and desire to love Him and His other children whom He loves more fully. All of these shape our decisions, which in turn, shape a more Christ-like character into our very being.
Centering our Words in Christ
Words are the results of thoughts, and what we think most often of is what we tend to speak about. Christ taught this by stating that, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). Thus, if we think often of Christ, we will tend to speak more often of Him as well.
In speaking to the ancient Nephites, Jesus Christ taught: “hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.” (3 Nephi 18:24). It seems to me that Christ is stating here that we are to hold up His example and message to the entire world as a light to mankind. In other words, we must speak of Christ and testify of His perfect life and Atonement to all mankind.
Christ is known as “the Word” (John 1:1-3), and the Gospel is, at its root, the “good news” or “good tidings of great joy” that there is a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord (see Luke 2:10-11; also D&C 76:39-43). Alma realized the importance of teaching of Christ and did so as he went on a mission to the apostate Zoramites. When he had the chance to preach the word, he compared it to a seed that needed to be planted in their hearts, and then stated: “cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again, which shall bring to pass the resurrection…. And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts” (Alma 33:22-23, emphasis added).
This missionary effort to help the apostate Zoramites to come unto Christ made a difference in the lives of those who listened. As has been observed, “What the sun in the heavenly blue is to the earth struggling to get free from winter’s grip, so the gospel of Jesus Christ is to the sorrowing souls yearning for something higher and better than mankind has yet found on earth” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, 7). That is why the mission statement of the Church’s missionary program is “to invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end” (Preach My Gospel , 6). There is a great need for this news in the world today, and it is up to us who believe to speak of it.
Even still, times arise when we do not speak of Christ as often as we could. Elder Dallin H. Oaks shared an experience he heard of:
I quote from a recent letter I received from a member in the United States. He described what he heard in his fast and testimony meeting:
“I sat and listened to seventeen testimonies and never heard Jesus mentioned or referred to in any way. I thought I might be in [some other denomination], but I supposed not because there were no references to God, either. …
“The following Sunday, I again attended church. I sat through a priesthood lesson, a Gospel Doctrine lesson, and seven sacrament meeting speakers and never once heard the name of Jesus or any reference to him.”
Perhaps that description is exaggerated. Surely, it is exceptional. I quote it because it provides a vivid reminder for all of us (Dallin H. Oaks, “Witnesses of Christ,” Gen Conf October 1990).
Perhaps this arises within Mormonism out of a need to defend and speak of the distinct history and beliefs of the Church—particularly of the mission and teachings of Joseph Smith. It is understandable, especially considering the hostility shown to the early members of the Church that struggled for survival in the 19th century. Times have changed, however. President Harold B. Lee taught in 1971 that:
Fifty years ago or more, when I was a missionary, our greatest responsibility was to defend the great truth that the Prophet Joseph Smith was divinely called and inspired and that the Book of Mormon was indeed the word of God. But even at that time there were the unmistakable evidences that there was coming into the religious world actually a question about the Bible and about the divine calling of the Master, himself. Now, fifty years later, our greatest responsibility and anxiety is to defend the divine mission of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, for all about us, even among those who claim to be professors of the Christian faith, are those not willing to stand squarely in defense of the great truth that our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, was indeed the Son of God (Address to LDS Student Association Fireside, Utah State University, 10 Oct. 1971).
As we speak of Christ, the Spirit will testify of Christ to those who listen (see John 15:26). For those concerned with having a greater abundance of the Spirit in their Sunday School lessons, or sacrament meeting talks, a great key is to always find a way to speak of Christ every time you speak. As Teaching, No Greater Call states: “Everything we teach should point family members and class members to Christ—to His redemptive mission, His perfect example, His ordinances and covenants, and His commandments. Remember this as you prepare and present your lessons. It will bring a spirit of unity and hope to the learning atmosphere (Teaching, No Greater Call [Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1999], 80, emphasis added). Considering the centrality of Christ to the doctrine of the Church, this should not be very difficult task.
I can remember one fast and testimony meeting I attended several years ago. Members of the ward spoke through much of the meeting, but the Spirit wasn’t there to the rich extent I had hoped it would be. Then a young man—a member from a family that had recently moved into the ward—arose and bore a short testimony. He spoke of watching the Testaments (a Church film centering on Christ’s visit to the Americas in the Book of Mormon) and stated something like, “when Christ came on screen, it felt really good.” He didn’t have much else to say, and he wasn’t the most well-spoken person in that room, but that brief testimony was the most Spirit-filled moment of that Sabbath for me.
Speaking of Christ and His mission is of great importance in the world today, both within and without the Church. There will always be need to share the word of God and speak of Christ and never a need to take it for granted. As we speak of Christ, it will help us remember Him, and in turn lead us to act more like Him.
Centering our Deeds on Christ
“The purpose of the gospel is to change men’s lives, to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature” (See Franklin D. Richards, in Conf. Report, Oct. 1965, 136-137; see also David O. McKay, in Conf. Report, April 1954, 26). There is a deep relationship between our thoughts, words, deeds and character in shaping our lives. As one proverb expresses:
Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
The development towards our destiny is a cyclic process. Our actions or works do take part in this cycle. In the movie Batman Begins, it is stated that, “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” While this is perhaps an overstatement, what we do reinforces what we think and puts it into practice. This practice or exercise is important, even when it comes to belief or faith. As President Gordon B. Hinckley observed, “You do not grow unless you work. Faith, testimony of the truth, is just like the muscle of my arm. If you use it, it grows strong. If you put it in a sling, it grows weak and flabby” (“Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign March 2006). Everything takes effort–we must decide to focus our thoughts on Christ. We must decide to speak and put the effort into doing so to testify and teach of Christ. We must act on the teachings of Christ to incorporate them into our lives, acts and character. Living the law is important in our spiritual progression.
On the other hand, however, we cannot do this alone. President Lorenzo Snow taught that we “are required to arrive at a state of perfection before the Lord… [but] could not possibly come up to such a moral and spiritual standard except through a supernatural [heavenly] aid and assistance” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow , 95-96). David A. Bednar added to this idea, stating that:
I suspect that many Church members are much more familiar with the nature of the redeeming and cleansing power of the Atonement than they are with the strengthening and enabling power. It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for us—that is fundamental and foundational to the doctrine of Christ. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to live in us—not only to direct us but also to empower us.
Most of us know that when we do wrong things, we need help to overcome the effects of sin in our lives. The Savior has paid the price and made it possible for us to become clean through His redeeming power. Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints—for good men and women who are obedient, worthy, and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully. We may mistakenly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves, through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities.
The gospel of the Savior is not simply about avoiding bad in our lives; it also is essentially about doing and becoming good. And the Atonement provides help for us to overcome and avoid bad and to do and become good. Help from the Savior is available for the entire journey of mortality—from bad to good to better and to change our very nature.
I am not suggesting that the redeeming and enabling powers of the Atonement are separate and discrete. Rather, these two dimensions of the Atonement are connected and complementary; they both need to be operational during all phases of the journey of life. And it is eternally important for all of us to recognize that both of these essential elements of the journey of mortality—both putting off the natural man and becoming a saint, both overcoming bad and becoming good—are accomplished through the power of the Atonement. Individual willpower, personal determination and motivation, effective planning and goal setting are necessary but ultimately insufficient for us to triumphantly complete this mortal journey. Truly, we must come to rely upon “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). (“The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality,” Ensign April 2012.)
As in all things, there must be balance in our emphasis between faith and works. Observing the law points us towards Christ and lays out the pathway we must follow to return to Him and become like Him. We center our actions in Christ by following the path He laid out in His teachings and by acting as He would to the best of our abilities. As He told his ancient disciples, “what manner of man ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). His enabling power and grace will lift us up carry us through to be more like Him as we have faith and believe on Him. Then the attributes of Christ will become engrained in our character and our countenance, setting the course of our destiny to rise above ourselves and become something higher by the power of Christ’s Atonement.
Considering the centrality of Christ to all we teach and do in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is of vital importance that we speak of Him often in Church settings and in the community.
Further, as David O. McKay stated: “man’s chief concern in life should not be the acquiring of gold, or of fame, or of material possessions. It should not be the development of physical prowess, nor of intellectual strength, but his aim, the highest in life, should be the development of a Christ-like character” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay , 5, 215). We will be most successful in this endeavor as we always remember and think on Christ, speak of Him as often as occasion allows, and do all we can to act as He would, relying on the enabling power of the Atonement along the way. Together, these faucets of centering our lives on Christ will combine to shape a noble, Christ-like character that will lead us to greater peace and happiness in this life and the next.