Chair, BYU-Idaho Department of Religious Education
Sometimes we experience God and His works through powerful—even overwhelming—feelings. It may be for us as it was for Jeremiah with “burning fire shut up in [our] bones.”1 Or like Heber C. Kimball who felt “as though [his] body would consume away.”2 The Apostle Paul adds “love, joy, peace . . . gentleness, [and] meekness”3 to the list of words that may describe our feelings when in the Spirit. And sometimes words are utterly inadequate. Such moments may be, as Tennyson wrote, “too full for sound and foam.”4
When our hearts are full and we are filled with confidence, even the hard things are easier to do. I suspect that many within the sound of my voice have, at one time or another, felt the conviction that comes with strong spiritual experiences; the conviction that brings “the mighty change . . . in our hearts, that we have no more desire to do evil, but to do good continually.”5 You have heard a talk or a sermon or a lesson; you’ve been listening to uplifting music or studying the scriptures; and you have felt well up in your heart the thought, “I don’t ever want to do anything bad again. I only want to be good.” And for a while thereafter, it was easier to do right and to act in faith. But as C.S. Lewis wrote and Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted more than once, “The cross comes before the crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning.”6 I think Elder Maxwell loved that phrase so much because it reminds us that frequently we have to get through trials to get to blessings. But maybe just as frequently—maybe more frequently-- what we have to get through is nothing more dramatic than Monday morning. What we have to get through is the mundane, the common, the relentlessly routine to get to the blessings. Sometimes the trial is actually in the insistent ordinariness of the day-to-day.
We may think it would be great if we could move through life in perpetual spiritual bliss; with our bosoms constantly on high burn within us. But I’m not sure that that would be very practical. And anyway, it seems that God is pleased to have us come up to the mountain as often as we can for strength and reminders, always to return us to the valley to do the heavy lifting of covenant-keeping and Christian living. So while we love the strong feelings that come with great spiritual experiences and the confidence they impart, there will be days when you do not feel that way. In fact, there may come weeks at a time when you must press forward even though you do not feel it.
In the October 2008 General Conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen said, “Faith is not only a feeling; it is a decision.”7 Let me quote that again, “Faith is not only a feeling; it is a decision.” At least one of the implications of that statement is that faith can be present even in the absence of powerful feelings.
Faith is a decision. It is a choice to act on what we have been taught and we know to be right even when we don’t feel like it; it is moving forward and pushing on even when we are not feeling—and it may have been some time since we felt—the strong convictions of the Spirit. In fact, deciding to act in faith, even when we are not feeling very faith-filled, sometimes brings heaven’s most remarkable blessings.
In Luke chapter 5 we find Peter being asked to do something when he was not in the mood.
“And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon [Jesus] to hear the word of God, he stood by the Lake of Gennesaret [another name for the Sea of Galilee], and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.”8
Peter, as you know, was a fisherman and it seems that he worked with his brother Andrew and his partners James and John. It was a morning after a long night of fishing on the Sea of Galilee—made longer by the fact that they had caught nothing. The Sea of Galilee had—and still has now—some 25 native species of fish. But the two major species, the two from which fishermen made their living—then and now—are tilapia and lake sardines. The sardines come out into the open at night and so they are generally caught at night in large encircling nets which, in those days, were cast by hand onto the surface of the water, allowed to sink to the bottom pulled down by weights sewn in to their perimeters, and then hauled back to the boat by hand with a rope. The rope was attached to strings which were, in turn, tied to the edges of the net so that, when pulled, the net would close up like a bag.9 It required strength and stamina to throw the nets out, haul them back in, open them, empty them, and throw them out again over and over.
Luke chapter 5 begins as Peter and the others are doing the tedious but necessary daily work of washing their nets after a night of fishing—presumably for sardines. The nets needed to be cleansed of debris and any accumulated plant material then stretched out to dry after every fishing session. If the nets were not washed and dried they would rot and break.10 So, like it or not, it had to be done every time—even on mornings after long nights when nothing had been caught.
The Savior was there on the lake shore that morning and a crowd had gathered hoping to hear him teach. To make it easier for everyone to hear, the Savior asked Peter if he could step into his boat and push out a little. The crowd would stay on the shore and the Savior would speak to them while sitting in the boat. The arrangement would create something like a natural amphitheater. We should note that, as far as we can tell, this is only the second time that Peter has met Jesus. Andrew had introduced him once before but there is no evidence that Peter had yet determined to follow him. All the same, the Lord politely asked this favor of Peter. While he was working on his nets, his frustratingly empty boat was just sitting there, reminding him of his wasted night. So he consented and Jesus did as he had proposed.
Interestingly, Luke tells us absolutely nothing about the sermon the Lord taught to the crowd that morning. Not one word. Apparently, all of this has just been set-up for what Luke really wants to tell us. For Luke, the real story is what is about to happen.
Try to imagine this with me: The sermon is over and the boat is brought back the few yards to shore. Peter drops his now washed and dried and folded nets into the empty boat. He sighs that tired sigh that means the work is finally done. Perhaps he now turns his thoughts to breakfast and home and rest. It is in this moment that the Lord Jesus Christ looks Peter in his weary face and says, “Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.”11 In other words, “Take those nets you just cleaned and put away, and sail back out on to that Sea you just spent all night on, and use your tired, aching muscles to throw the nets out again and see if we can’t catch some of those fish that are nowhere to be found today.” Can you imagine the look on Peter’s face in this moment? Peter seems to begin his response to the Lord intent on saying no, but something happens half-way through: “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing.” I imagine a long pause here as the Lord listens to Peter while calmly, firmly, lovingly, expectantly gazing at him. Peter changes course: “Nevertheless, at thy word I will let down the net.”12
“And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.” Where there had been nothing, there was now so much that their nets could not handle the load. “And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.” Their forlornly empty boats were now filled beyond their capacity to remain afloat. Now, that’s a lot of sardines!
Now amidst the excitement and the yelling and the laughter and the splashing, Peter stops and falls to his knees right in the fish. “Depart from me,” he says to Jesus, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” We may come to know Christ and feel our testimonies move up to the next level at the most surprising moments. For Peter, it happened when he was weary and discouraged and knee deep in fish; but when he had, nevertheless, responded to an invitation from the Savior; when he had done something he was not in the mood to do. Faith is not just a feeling; it is a decision. I think that sometimes the pay-off is more powerful in moments like these because the Lord has allowed us to illustrate—to Him and to ourselves—that our commitment is bigger than the circumstances.
I once heard Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Seventy speak at a college convocation here on our campus. He told of a talking GPS system he had used in a rental car. He noted that the voice only spoke to him when the car was moving. The GPS knew where he was but it could not give him turn by turn directions to his destination—it could not say “turn right” or “turn left” or “turn around and go the other way”—until it knew which direction he was heading. With a GPS, you have to get moving to receive directions and course corrections. Feelings and direction from the Spirit work in much the same way. Sometimes you have get moving before you will feel the Holy Ghost’s confirming influence. Elder Richard G. Scott said it this way, “A rudder won’t control a drifting boat; it must be underway. . . . You need to be moving forward.”13 And Moroni wrote, “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”14 That is, we must act in faith, then the confirming feelings will come. Faith is a decision, an action, before it is a feeling.
Now, suppose you have gone an extended period without feeling much in the way of spiritual feelings. What should you do? First, examine your life. If you need to make some changes, make them. If you need to talk to your bishop, do it. Satan will try very hard to stop you from taking that step. He will tell you that however badly you feel now, talking to the bishop will only make it worse. He will tell you that the humiliation and possible restrictions associated with confessing will be much worse than whatever you are going through now. He will tell you that it is better to live with it than to go to the priesthood with it. He will be lying. He is desperate to keep you in the secret combination you have formed with him. He knows that telling the truth to a key-holding representative of Jesus Christ will shatter the bands he has you in and flood the situation with light. He knows that the enabling grace of Jesus Christ will begin working in you before you even leave the bishop’s office. I again quote Elder Scott, “This struggle is prolonged through indecision, and that means more pain and further damage. It can be cut short through decisive personal commitment to clean up your life. . . . Right now.”15 Push past Satan’s nay-saying and go see your bishop.
But what if upon examining your life, you see nothing obviously amiss? Though you have not been regularly feeling the Spirit, you do not detect any conspicuous blockages. What then? I have a suggestion for you.
Do you remember sitting at an arts and crafts table somewhere, sometime in your life, braiding some long strips of plastic into what some people call a boondoggle or a lanyard? One of my favorite American poets writes of one he made as a 9-year-old boy and gave to his mother:
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and [nourishment from her own body], and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim, and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard. Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even.16
These words hit a little close to home for me.
The realization of the magnitude of my debt to my mother came to me in phases: haltingly as a teenager; in great heart-wrenching waves as a missionary and then later as a young parent. Even now, as a middle-aged fat man, it settles on me from time to time and makes me weepy.
But, as the poet says, confronting my debt to my mother is not the most disturbing part of this. Rather, it’s the realization that I have actually felt (at least sometimes) that my pitiful expressions of gratitude to her were enough to make us even.
And even more disturbing, I find that I sometimes think the same way about what I owe to God. I go on as if my sporadic temple attendance and my pretty-good personal prayers and my hit-and-miss family nights are enough to make us even; that these “lanyards” I offer to God are a sufficient trade for Eternal Life and Glory and “all that [the] Father hath.”
In Matthew chapter 19 we are introduced to a rich young man who came to the Lord and asked, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Now, note the question: he was looking for one thing to add to his to-do list that would put him over the top. The Lord answered, “Keep the commandments.” The young man replied that he had kept them all his life. (It’s interesting that the Lord makes no comment on the absurdity of that claim; He just let that slide. Perhaps because he knew that a better teaching moment was about to present itself.) And then the young man asked a question.
This was not an ordinary question. This was the kind of question that changes everything; the kind of question where everything is one way before you ask but everything is forever different after you ask, like, “Will you marry me?” or “Does this dress make me look fat?” or “Teacher, how long does this paper have to be?”
The question was, “What lack I yet?”
Now, clearly, our young man had no idea what he was asking. Remember, he’s just looking for a task, completely oblivious to the gift that he’s about to receive.
The Savior told him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Some have been tempted to read this as an instruction that is normative for the Church; as a new commandment for all disciples to sell everything they have, give it to the poor, and live under vows of poverty. But the context as given by every gospel writer who tells this story makes it clear that that is not at all what is going on here.
The rich young man, with his “salvation-is-a-to-do-list” mentality, had naively asked for a to-do-list item. “What lack I?” But as sometimes happens, rather than answering the question we have asked, the Lord answers the question we should have asked. The Savior treats the question as a request for a personal diagnosis and a specific prescription: “What lack I?”
The Gospel of Mark adds a dimension to the Savior’s response: “Then Jesus beholding him loved him.”17 Before the Lord answered him, He paused and “beheld” him and was filled with love for him. I can almost hear, through the white space on the page, the Lord thinking, “You don’t have any idea what you’re asking, do you? But if you can somehow understand my answer, it could change everything for you.” He beheld him; He sized him up; He discerned his heart. Then with no motivation but love, He gave him not a new item for his to-do list, but a penetrating diagnosis of what this particular young man needed to overcome in order to become what he could: “If thou wilt be perfect, [you need to conquer your addiction to riches and status and things, so] go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” A tailor-made prescription based on the Savior’s all-knowing diagnosis of what was holding this young man back.
We do not know if the young man got the point but could not endure the white hot heat of this kind of introspection, or if he missed the point and saw it as an item for his to-do list that was just too costly. Either way, “he went away sorrowful,” apparently unwilling to take the necessary step forward.
“What lack I?” is a bold question when asked to the omniscient God for He surely knows the answer. There will be no “I’m not sure” or “Oh, you’re doing fine.” Indeed, the answer may knock the wind out of us. After all, “If men come unto me,” the Lord said through the prophet Moroni, “I will show unto them their weakness.”18
“Wait a minute,” you say, “I thought we were talking about a way to feel the good feelings of the Spirit when it’s been awhile since I’ve felt them. I don’t want more attention on my weaknesses. That sounds awful.”
Well it can be awful—for a moment. But this is where the “good news” kicks in. Ether 12:27 says, “If men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble”—and this is a hugely important point. If in this vulnerable moment when our weakness is revealed to us, we react with resistance, if we try to rationalize it or to blame someone else, if we respond by trying to point out all the reasons why this should not be held against us, we will close the door--just like the rich young man did--on the miracle that God is preparing. “For if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
Heaven gets excited when we humbly ask, “What lack I?” because Heavenly Father knows that it means we are putting ourselves in position for the grace of Christ to make us able to overcome something that’s been holding us back. Too often, Latter-day Saints conceive of the grace of Christ as something that is only available to us once we have conquered our weaknesses, as if it were a prize to be earned rather than a gift heaven is eager to send to any who sincerely seek it. As Amy Grant has recently put it [not that I like to get my doctrine from pop radio—but this time they got it right] “The honest cries of breaking hearts, are better than a hallelujah sometimes.”
And let’s be clear on one point: no matter how far behind the person sitting next to you—or the bishop or the stake president—you think you are, you must remember that we do not come to Christ as bishops or stake presidents. We don’t come as Republicans or Democrats; we don’t come as men or women; we don’t come as farmers or teachers. We come as sinners and beggars, “relying wholly on the merits of him who is mighty to save.”
Sincerely asking the Lord to reveal to you what is holding you back; asking Him to make clear the personal change that will make the most difference will activate the grace of Jesus Christ—His enabling power, which provides “strength and assistance to do good works which [we] would otherwise not be able to maintain.”
Bound up in that invitation for God to give us a personal diagnosis is both the painful revelation of our lack, and the very gifts of God that will allow us to overcome it.
Sincerely asking, “What lack I?” can be a glorious opportunity. It will give you a decision to make. And faith is a decision.
But make no mistake. It won’t necessarily be easy or pleasant or convenient. And Satan will certainly field a task-force to shut you down. He is nothing if not predictable. He will mount the usual campaign: “You won’t change. You can’t change. You shouldn’t have to change.” But those are lies born of desperation. Do not believe them.
You, through the grace of Christ, can beat the very things that have plagued you and held you back. There’s a wonderful little moment in 1 Chronicles where we learn that David’s army has been saved at the last minute when God caused a river to break through its banks and flood out the enemy. In gratitude, David gives God a new title: he calls him Baal-perez. The King James Version unfortunately leaves the title untranslated. It means “God of the Breakthrough.”
Faith is a decision and there is a breakthrough headed your way, if you will ask for it.
1 Jeremiah 20:7
2 Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 22
3 Galatians 5:22-23
4 Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Crossing of the Bar”
5 Mosiah 5:2
6 C. S. Lewis as quoted by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Shine As Lights in the World,” Ensign, May 1983, 9
7 Neil L. Andersen, “You Know Enough,” Ensign, November 2008, 14
8 Luke 5:1-3
9 George Cansdale, “Fishing in the Lake of Galilee,” in Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible, 502-03
10 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, New Testament, 1:185
11 Luke 5:4
12 Luke 5:5
13 Richard G. Scott, “Finding the Way Back,” Ensign, May 1990, 75
14 Ether 12:6
15 Richard G. Scott, “Finding the Way Back,” Ensign, May 1990, 75
16 Billy Collins, “The Lanyard,” The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems, 45