Putting God First
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
November 6, 2001
In pre-mortality, the Lord specified a prime purpose for our mortal existence when he said, "And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them" (Abr. 3:25). Did you hear that? The Lord said "all things whatsoever [he commands us]." I realize that I am reminding you of this in the middle of a semester, when you are discovering new concerns every day. An approaching paper deadline, a neglected Church calling, a friend in need, a worried parent, or slothful personal scripture study which appeared minor at the beginning of the semester, but may now be catching up with you. How do you know what to focus on?
Rest assured that I have not come here today claiming specific answers to your priority woes. I come with a far more valuable message. The Lord has given clear direction to help you find answers to these and even more important decisions that will shape your future. In numerous ways, the Lord has underscored the secret to setting priorities and choosing wisely throughout our lives.
God gave Moses ten commandments, but the first one was "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exo. 20:3). Joseph Smith identified thirteen articles of our belief, but the first one is "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost" (A or F 1). Of all 613 commandments listed by Jewish leaders from the law of Moses, Jesus identified "the first and great commandment" to be "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matt. 22:37-38). Captain Moroni's people fought for many righteous causes, but the first one listed on the Title of Liberty was: "In memory of our God" (Alma 46:12). The ultimate destination attained by pressing forward and clinging to the iron rod in Lehi's dream was the tree of life. And what filled his soul with exceeding great joy when he arrived at the tree? Partaking of the fruit of the tree--the love of God.
In recent times, a prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, taught the same truth. "We must put God in the forefront of everything else in our lives. . . . We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives. . . . Why did God put the first commandment first? Because he knew that if we truly loved him we would want to keep all of his other commandments. . . . When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims of our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities" (April 2, 1988).
Examples are everywhere in scripture to show the blessings and opportunities available to those who put God first in their lives. Turn to Moses 5. Scripture equally testifies to the misery and wo that follow those who put anyone or anything else as a higher priority than the Lord. Remember Cain who once hearkened to the voice of the Lord as well as to his brother Abel? (Moses 5:26). The details are not given, but Cain submerged God in his priority list. In verse 18, we read, "And Cain loved Satan more than God." At that point, Cain would probably still claim he loved God--just not as much as Satan. After that priority flipflop, his declaration, up in verse 16, "Who is the Lord that I should know him?" is not a major leap. Neither is his subsequent disdain for Abel, his alienation from his parents, and his being shut out from God's presence.
But the Adversary is not always so blatant. He doesn't often insist that we put him first in our loyalty. Anything or anyone other than God as the primary object of our love will suffice for the Evil One. Such subtlety is apparent in a national Gallup survey that considered beliefs of college educated Christians in comparison to responses of those without college education on several religious topics. The results showed that "college graduates are about three times more likely than persons without college education to put the Second Commandment (loving your neighbor) ahead of the First Commandment (loving God)." Notice what naturally follows those who take God out of first place, according to the same survey. "The better educated are also about three times as likely to think it possible to be a true Christian without believing in the divinity of Christ" (Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion, p. 169).
All too frequently in today's world, a "Christian" is defined on the basis of the horizontal relationship between oneself and "neighbor" rather than the vertical relationship with Deity. In this distorted view of Christianity, our relationship with others becomes more important than loving God, having faith in Christ, and being a devoted disciple of his gospel. If God isn't first, sooner or later he will simply be a nice embellishment to our lives. When we put God first, he will teach and empower us to love each other better, even if our love is not understood at first by the recipient. The trouble is too often we ignore things that should be first in our lives and go after secondary things, thereby losing both.
Consider an extreme case surrounding the Nephite army during Mormon's life. They chose to turn away from God, concluding their strength and savvy alone were sufficient to defeat the Lamanites and retain their lands. These godless Nephites identified their purpose for fighting in Mormon 2:23. Notice not only who is listed first in their cause, but who doesn't even make their list: "they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes." While the language is reminiscent of the Title of Liberty--clearly Captain Moroni also included wives and children in their great cause--Moroni put God first. Captain Moroni's army remembered to pray, to heed the direction of righteous leaders, and they were victorious in miraculous ways. God actually fought their battles for them and preserved their freedom, families, and homes. To see a contrast, look in Moroni 9:18-19. The army during Mormon's time lost everything. In fact, their families particularly suffered. Mormon noted the awful results: "O the depravity of my people! . . . they delight in everything save that which is good; and the suffering of our women and our children upon all the face of this land doth exceed everything" (Moroni 9:18-19). Here were a people who went after secondary things, setting God aside, and lost everything.
Follow me through another example--found in Matthew 15. But this one shows the blessings enjoyed by a family because God came first. The Lord promised Abraham that his gospel would go first to the children of Abraham, and from them to the rest of the world. Beginning with verse 21, we read of an encounter between the Savior and a gentile woman from Syro-Phoenicia who pressed Jesus to make an exception to that promise. She knew who Jesus was (see verse 22): "Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, thou son of David." She had a plea, not for herself, but for a beloved family member, "My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil." Her subsequent reaction to the Savior's response indicates who came first in her life. First the Savior ignored her by "answer[ing] her not a word" and "his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us." Next, Jesus explained to her, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Finally telling her in verse 26, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." He just called her "a dog!" If you were in her place, and your family came first in your life, how would you respond to the Savior's apparent rebuff? I would predict that you would be offended and march off in a huff, concluding that YOU could find a solution for your family without CHRIST! And what would happen to your daughter? What would happen to you? But that is not the way this gentile woman reacted. She refused to be offended. Rather, she continued to worship him, communicating that she didn't expect the full feast, only a few crumbs which fall from the table. The consequence? Her daughter was healed, and the woman was blessed for her remarkable faith in Christ. That does not infer that the woman would never encounter hard times in the future. Her own people may have commenced to persecute her because of her interaction with this Jewish holy man. But she had discovered the power of faith in Christ, which would strengthen her in the face of any hardship.
Matthew recorded this incident in contrast to the Pharisees, who claimed to be teachers for God. These Jewish leaders were offended because Jesus did not require his disciples to wash their hands before they ate. They, who loved the praise of men more than the praise of God, lost all. The Syro-Phoenician woman gained more than she could have ever imagined.
I would like to consider the principle of putting God first as it may apply in the lives of LDS college students in the modern world--specifically in the areas of mission decision and preparation, reverence for our bodies, and modesty. I believe you could select any current concern and apply the principle of putting God first to find clarity in what he wants for you. My hope is that these few examples will illustrate what I mean.
Missions for Young Men
To begin, how does putting God first in our lives clarify mission preparation for a young man? First, when he hears the living prophet in the Priesthood session of General Conference say "missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. As such our young men must carry the major burden. This is their responsibility and their obligation" (GBH, Oct. 1997), he does not see himself as an exception to that duty. In fact, a young man who puts God first takes prophetic precautions and warnings seriously. Such young men are humble enough to recognize that some pretty-fine potential missionaries before them have ignored such warnings, thereby putting in jeopardy their ability to serve a full-time mission.
President Hinckley has given very clear warnings, which often include the plea to shun pornography of any ilk. To young men of the Church (that is not to say that young women need not heed the warning), President Hinckley has said, "You live in a world of terrible temptations. Pornography, with its sleazy filth, sweeps over the earth like a horrible, engulfing tide. It is poison. Do not watch it or read it. It will destroy you if you do. It will take from you your self-respect. It will rob you of a sense of the beauties of life. It will tear you down and pull you into a slough of evil thought and possibly of evil actions. Stay away from it. Shun it as you would a foul disease, for it is just as deadly" (Oct. 1997). Certainly included in such warning are the pitfalls connected with communicating with pornographic language in Internet chat rooms. Pornography makes a mockery of our bodies, the marvelous gift that God gave to us. I would hope that none of us would ever buy that wimpy justification--"boys will be boys"--to excuse a "casual" introduction to pornography, as though exposure to such filth is a rite of passage to manhood.
When you young men seriously commit to put God first in your life, you will experience a reverence for acquiring knowledge by study and by faith that opens up opportunities and a desire to continuously serve the Lord long after your full-time mission is completed. We need young men who are not only honest and kind when dressed in white shirt and tie on Sundays, but respectful and honorable with family members in the privacy of their homes and with co-workers when promotions and salaries are at stake. We need young men who not only know all the right answers on their religion exams, but those who exemplify Christlike attributes when they are alone with a computer. More than looking slick on the outside, we need young men who reverence the Priesthood because of their deep, abiding love for God that comes before anything or anyone else in their lives. We need young men, before and after they marry, who will not succumb to fluttering eyelashes and enticing whispers that tempt them to relegate love of God and spouse to a lower ranking than their loyalty to adventure.
Missions for Young Women
In many ways the mission decision is more complex for young women. Prophets have not given definitive directives for young women, generally, concerning the Lord's expectations for full-time missionary service. In fact, President Hinckley has stated that: "the First Presidency and Council of Twelve are united in saying to our young sisters that they are not under obligation to go on missions. . . . Young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men. Some of them will very much wish to go. If so, they should counsel with their bishop as well as their parents. If the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do." (GC, Oct. 1997). What I found most interesting about this statement by President Hinckley was that he did not deliver it during a Young Women or Relief Society general meeting, but during a general Priesthood Session of conference where fathers, bishops and stake presidents would be in attendance. He explained that two of his granddaughters were currently serving missions and specified how they decided to go: "Speaking with their bishops and their parents, they made their own decisions to go." I love his answer! Do you see what opportunity this affords you, young women? You get one of the finest laboratory assignments to learn to put God first in your lives!
I am certain my enthusiasm for this opportunity is based on my own experience. As I turned 21 years old, my bishop invited me to visit him in his office where he issued me a call to serve a mission. He said he felt strongly that the Lord wanted me to go. When I shared this news with my father, he was equally adamant, but against me serving a mission. He reassured me that the Lord did not expect his daughters to go on missions. So what was I to do? Should I side with my ecclesiastical leader or my father? I considered weaseling out of the controversy altogether, leaving my father and the bishop to duke it out. But I had this persistent, nagging feeling that I needed to find out for myself. I went to my knees and poured out my heart to God like I had never done before. I expected an answer by the time I stood up, but nothing came. Weeks went by. I tried fasting--serious fasting--like I had never done before. Still no answer. Anyway that's what I thought. When I finally recognized the answer, I realized the Spirit had been telling me what God wanted me to do all along the way; I simply hadn't known what to look for.
For me the answer was yes, serve a mission. For many other young women, the answer will be no. Since there is not a right or wrong answer for young women and missions, the issue is not whether you serve a mission or not, but whether you ask, receive, and do what God reveals to you personally when that time comes in your life. Once you know how the Spirit communicates with you, you will be able to discern answers to prayer when the issue is critical and your emotions are clearly involved. Take for instance, if and when you receive a marriage proposal. I would hope for your sakes, young women, you have had a clear experience of pouring out your heart to God and receiving his answer BEFORE you have to ask him how to answer a marriage proposal. You will find it hard to put God first when you don't know how his voice feels. In that case, you will probably default to your emotions or the answer your boyfriend received to his parallel prayer.
Once you young women know from firsthand experience that the Lord will reveal answers to you for your life and for your responsibilities, and when you choose to put him first in your life, God will be able to use you as that secret weapon Sister Sheri Dew has been talking about. You will not become permanently frustrated when events don't unfold in life as you may expect. You will discover relationships and opportunities to serve in the most unusual places, becoming amazed at the way the Lord has prepared you for them. You will find confidence to search the scriptures and discover the doctrines of the gospel that bring power and assurance to your own life and to your future children. We need young women who are not only articulate and eager to learn in their major college courses, but young women who understand doctrine and testify of it when they speak in Sacrament Meeting and teach Relief Society. We need young women who not only stand for truth and righteousness when they recite themes in church meetings, but when their dreamy boyfriends invite them to lower those standards in a variety of creative ways. We need women who not only wisely detect pornography in popular TV programs, movies, and women's magazines but shun them without flinching, without reservation, and without apology.
Before Marjorie Pay decided to marry a young, returned-missionary named Gordon B. Hinckley, she recognized who came first in his life. She reminisced: "As we got closer to marriage, I felt completely confident that Gordon loved me. But I also knew somehow that I would never come first with him. I knew I was going to be second in his life and that the Lord was going to be first. And that was okay." How many women would be incensed to not be first on their man's list? But Marjorie was actually encouraged! She said, "It seemed to me that if you understood the gospel and the purpose of our being here, you would want a husband who put the Lord first" (Biography, pp. 114-15).
Health of our Bodies
When we put God first in our lives, we see his gifts to us as more precious than anything money can buy. Take our bodies, for example. We were created in the image of God. At the conclusion of the Creation, "God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). That includes each one of us. Our bodies are priceless gifts from him. They are so wonderful that Satan doesn't get one--not now, not ever. He is miserable as a result. And what makes him feel better about not getting a body? When for any reason we are miserable with our bodies. When we mistreat them, despise them, purposely malnourish them, or try to alter them in unnatural ways we show disdain for God's gift to us. Has Satan had success in this area?
Among the commandments the Lord gave to the children of Israel was, "Thou shalt not kill." But that only suggests the "minimum standards of conduct," according to President Spencer W. Kimball. He explained, "It is not enough to refrain from killing. We are rather under solemn obligation to respect life and to foster it. . . . We refrain from taking harmful substances into our body. Through wisdom and moderation in all things, we seek good health and a sense of physical well-being" (GC, Oct. 1978).
Furthermore (turn to D&C 88:28), God has revealed that these very bodies will be restored to us in the resurrection. From this revelation given to Joseph Smith we read: "They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened." Does knowing that you will have that very body for eternity alter the way you care for your bodies here? Does wanting to be physically fit so that you can better serve God, whenever or wherever he calls, increase your ability to choose what is good for your body? Do the do's of the Word of Wisdom suddenly have greater importance and power when you know God is serious about these bodies? Does such awareness suddenly ignite greater self-control to resist junk food and extreme diets? Does it confirm to you that the Lord will strengthen your resolve to achieve a healthier lifestyle when your motive is grounded on faith in him?
President Ezra Taft Benson observed: "To a significant degree, we are an overfed and undernourished nation digging an early grave with our teeth, and lacking the energy that could be ours because we overindulge in junk foods. . . . We need a generation of young people, who, as Daniel, eat a more healthy manner than to fare on 'the king's meat'--and whose countenances show it" (Teachings of ETB, pp. 476-77).
Although the physical results may not be as immediately obvious as the "quick-and-dirty" diets, focusing on the proper "why" for a healthy body will provide long-term benefits, which include--but are far from limited to--a better physique. Improvements in spiritual fitness: faith, humility, and gratitude accompany such training. In fact, Elder John A. Widtsoe suggested: "Were we more careful to obey the part of the Word of Wisdom that deals with the 'do's' it might be easier to obey the 'don'ts'" (Conference Report, Apr. 1926, p. 110). On the other hand, if your first priority in physical health is getting a body that will impress and astound your peers, you will be tempted to jump at any trendy "miracle" technique, regardless of the cost to pocketbook and worse, to the overall health of your body. Only when we put God first can we wholeheartedly draw upon his power to overcome our weaknesses and educate our desires. In truth, his is the only power that can make us conquerors.
The manner in which we clothe that body provides another opportunity to show the Lord that he is first in our lives. I like the definition of modesty--dress or demeanor that does not draw undue attention to one's self. That would include caution toward extremes in the unkempt look as well as the "costly apparel/fine-twined linen" look. Since God created these bodies in his image, they are beautiful and miraculous. The world professes that bodies increase in beauty when they are flaunted, exposed, and embellished in ways that lead us to make fools of ourselves. Such a perspective is reminiscent of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I saw years ago. Young Calvin comes home from school all down in the mouth. His mother meets him at the door with the inquiry, "What went wrong at school?" Calvin's answer: "What good does it do to have Tyrannosaurus-Rex underpants, if no one gets to see them!" Trendy, revealing styles of the world reflect the same first-grader mentality: What good does it do to have a great body if I keep it covered and no one notices it?
Your own President David A. Bednar expressed it so well: "It is interesting to me that these trends of the world frequently promote a false individuality that is nothing more than a superficial and curious outward conformity. True individuality is the product of spirituality and not a function of trinkets or ornaments attached to or hanging from parts of our body. The spiritual basis of individuality is never more evident to me than when I worship in the house of the Lord and everyone is dressed in similar white clothing, looking essentially the same. In that setting, no fads or fashion statements are necessary" (Ensign, September 2001, p. 20).
When God comes first in your life, you don't need a detailed handbook to tell you specifically which articles of clothing are immodest on your body. You realize that you already know the signs: you walk in a room and everyone seems to react to your attire; you find yourself self-consciously pulling or tugging at your clothes; or you instinctively wish you had brought an additional layer of clothing to cover you. Trust those spiritual inclinations and alter your wardrobe accordingly. We need young men and young women whose appearance reflects a humble assurance that God lives and guides them.
Because of the Fall, the Lord provided a covering for Adam and Eve's mortal bodies that typified his atoning sacrifice. With that covering, the Lamb of God promised that he would come in the meridian of time to shed his blood, and thereby provide protection, empowerment, and cleansing from sin throughout our mortality and an exalted life for all eternity. When we choose to properly cover our bodies, we are invited to bear witness of the Atoning One, rather than draw attention to ourselves with a non-verbal proclamation of vanity, neediness, or loss of self-respect.
Application to all God's Commandments
The answer to frustrations about what we should be doing--today and next week and next year--lies in where God figures in our lives. By changing our focus from seeking our peer's praise to finding acceptance in God, our capacity and wisdom will increase enabling us to follow all that God commands. Such nagging thoughts as, "I don't think I can ever make it" or "Have I done enough?" will be replaced with greater desires to serve God out of love for him.
Remember the "rich young ruler" who asked the Savior what he needed to do to receive eternal life? In Matt. 19:17, Jesus told him, "Keep the commandments." The next verse records the young man's reply, "Which?" He seems to anticipate some minor thing he yet needed to do to be finished with that obedience-requirement. After Christ specified necessary commandments, the man proudly responded in verse 20, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" It is difficult to imagine anyone presuming to stand before the only perfect man who has ever lived on this earth and brazenly declare, "I have obeyed all the commandments--is that all I have to do?" One wonders what genre of checklist-obedience this seemingly arrogant young man had adopted to satisfy his own definition of discipleship.
By contrast, when love of God comes before checking off commandments, humility and gratitude accompany our sincere efforts and we are empowered beyond our natural ability to "go and do" what the Lord commands. Furthermore, when God is first, his commandments cease to be a burden because they actually "inspire" us (D&C 20:7). From that new perspective, we will discover the principle behind the cautions and commands, and experience a new level of joy as we seek to obey. We will find multiple ways to become witnesses for God at all times, and in all things, and in all places, far beyond a full-time mission. We will actually choose behavior and dress that doesn't bring undue attention to ourselves but will point to the One who makes all hope possible. We will gladly choose healthy food and exercise so that we can call upon God, with faith, to grant us spiritual and physical strength necessary to obey all his commands. In our prayers, we will experience a powerful communication with God and not "vain repetitions." Our scripture study will forget about measuring number of pages or minutes because it begins to illuminate our hearts and minds to the sweet doctrine of the Gospel. Our relationships with others will be more genuine and satisfying. Education will have greater meaning and even a sense of divine purpose. Opportunities to bring others closer to the Savior will occur frequently and naturally. As Elder Russell M. Nelson taught in our last General Conference: "Regardless of gender, marital status, or age, individuals can choose to link themselves directly to the Savior, hold fast to the rod of His truth, and lead by the light of that truth. By so doing, they become examples of righteousness to whom others will want to cling."
Do you see what happens? Just what President Benson promised: when we put the first commandment first, we will want to keep all of his other commandments; all other things will fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives; and we'll know how to wisely use our time and order our priorities. When we put the first commandment first, whatever comes second will often change. When we put God first, whatever comes second will always be right.
Will you trust what prophets have testified from the beginning? "Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can" Pres. Benson declared. "He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life" (Teachings, p. 361).
I bear witness of him who knows all, and sees all, and cares deeply about what happens to each of us. May our faith in him increase so that he is truly first in our lives, enabling us to "obey ALL things whatsoever he commands."