Holding On and Letting Go
Gerrit W. Gong
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
December 12, 2006
Two Instructive Experiences
Brothers and sisters, thank you for the privilege and pleasure of being invited to join your devotional today. I pray the Spirit will prompt and instruct each of us, that we may understand, be edified, and rejoice together (D&C 50:22).
Some years ago I spent a summer internship researching cross-cultural negotiations at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I have never forgotten a testimony I heard while attending the local ward.
A window washer cleaned tall office buildings in downtown Honolulu. Proud of his work, he made the windows sparkle.
One day, while working high above the busy streets, the window washer fell. His safety harness broke. He grabbed the rope but was already falling too fast. The rope tore through his thick work gloves, then into the flesh of his hands.
The pain became excruciating. He knew he would die if he let go, but it hurt so much he could not hold on. He could not hold on to save himself.
As he fell, he saw in his mind is wife and children. He loved them. He wanted to stay with and continue caring for them. He felt his Savior’s strengthening love.
He could not hold on to save himself, but he could hold on because he loved his wife and children, because he felt his Savior’s love. Instead of letting go and falling to his death, he held on. As I recall, he slowed his descent just enough that, on impact, he broke both arms and both legs. But he lived.
Holding on is sometimes a matter of life and death. So sometimes is letting go.
My wife Susan once interviewed a fine father. This father loved and was proud of each of his children. This included a talented and hard-working son who was raising a good family while serving as a young bishop.
One day his son was brutally murdered.
The father said if the courts don’t nail my son’s murderer, I’ll see to it myself that murderer gets what he deserves.
One day the father and his family were arriving at the courthouse for a pre-trial hearing. A reporter pushed a microphone into one of their faces. Upset, the family member reacted aggressively.
It was then the father realized hate was starting to consume his family. He loved his family. He did not want hate to consume them. Perhaps he could not let go of hate for his own sake, but he would let it go for his family’s stake. He would let go of hate to hold onto love.
The father came to see his son’s murderer was himself a son, whose parents were faithful and devout community members. The murdering son had shattered not only his life, but also the lives of his now grief-stricken parents.
The father who had lost his son reached out to the parents who had lost their son.
In reaching out and letting go, the father again found faith and hope onto which he could hold in even the darkest hours.
Holding On and Letting Go
Perhaps we will not have to hold on or let go like the window washer in Hawaii or the father who chose to forgive his son’s murderer.
But, in our own varied circumstances, we too must learn to hold on, let go, and know when and how to do each.
As in all things, the scriptures, prophets, and especially the perfect example of our Savior teach us when and how to hold on and let go.
Let’s begin with letting go.
Do you know you can trap a monkey using only a box with a small hole in its side? Place a tempting nut in the box. The monkey reaches its fist through the hole and grabs the nut. Once the monkey grabs the nut, its closed fist will not fit back out through the hole. Because it won’t let go, the monkey is taken captive.
Do we ever go “ape” or “nuts”? We laugh, but sometimes we do. Sin, rationalization, procrastination, stereotypes, misunderstandings of various kinds can hold us captive -- until we let them go.
Sin can hold us captive – until we let it go. Moved by Ammon’s testimony, King Lamoni’s father pledges, “I will give away all my sins to know thee [God]” (Alma 22:18). Gospel light transforms us as we let go of bad habits and sin. Lustful internet images, inappropriate physical closeness, unkind comments we give or offenses we take: each can hold us captive until we repent -- and let them go.
Let go of sin.
Academic rationalization can hold us captive – until we let it go. Perhaps we blame others when we don’t fulfill our academic potential. We say, “I learned the right material, it’s just the teacher asked the wrong questions on the test.” Or, “the teaching assistant didn’t review this.” Or, “Why do I have to attribute my sources -- after all, I did quote word for word from Wikipedia?”
Let go of academic rationalization.
Procrastination can hold us captive – until we let it go. Perhaps we let past concerns or future fears keep us from living right now. Perhaps we procrastinate real study, mission, marriage, children, or responsibility for self-reliant work. Procrastination robs us of the joy and satisfaction which come from meeting daily challenges right now.
Perhaps we have the perfect study plan – and will begin right after we finish our computer game or after (you fill in the blank). Said the apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).
Live right now. Let go of procrastination.
A derogatory stereotype can hold us captive, perhaps without our even knowing it – until we let it go. Susan and I once hired young ward members to help in our yard. Without realizing what they were saying, our young friends used racial slurs to denigrate manual labor. To their credit, once it was pointed out to our young friends what they were saying, they stopped immediately.
President Hinckley and other Church leaders express “special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father.”1
Let go of derogatory stereotypes.
Some of us are held captive by misunderstanding often deriving from partial or incomplete knowledge of a gospel doctrine or principle. For example, we may wrongly believe we can and must be perfect on our own now. Or we may wrongly believe we can sin a little because God will beat us with a few stripes and we will be saved (2 Nephi 28:8).
Both these misconceptions derive from incomplete understanding of the miraculous way our Savior’s atonement mediates two contradictory truths: first, imperfect mortals all sin (1 John 1:8) and, second, God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31; Alma 45:16).
Often Satan twists truth to create lies -- in this case, two great lies.
One of Satan’s great lies twists the truth that imperfect mortals all sin. Satan lies, “A little sin won’t matter.” “No one will know.” “It’s no big deal.”
As C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”2
If we fall for his first lie, Satan hits us with a second great lie. This second lie is the opposite the first. It twists the truth that God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. Now Satan accuses, “Your sin is enormous!” “God hates sinners.” “No matter what you do, you will never again be clean or worthy.”
Satan uses these two lies to separate us from our Savior. Satan tells us we must be perfect now, on our own, without the atonement and without Christ. When we cannot do the impossible, Satan tells us we are worthless, that neither God nor the Church want us. But neither is true. God loves us and Christ atoned for our sins. Sin is real, but so is the atonement’s cleansing power.
As I counsel with young adults in our student stake, I notice opposite patterns of holding on and letting go. Some mistakenly think the atonement is easy and automatic; they hold onto sins by repeating them. Others mistakenly think the atonement couldn’t include them after what they have done; they hold onto guilt, even after confessing and forsaking mistakes (D&C 58:43). In both cases, for quite different reasons, too individuals many hold onto sin and guilt instead of repenting fully and letting them go.
Forgiveness (that is, letting go) can precede repentance. We can forgive others even before they have repented fully. As we forgive unconditionally, peace and progression fill our lives. Our Savior’s atonement can heal all hurts, including those received through no fault of our own. In a world sometimes unfair, we can be held captive by injustices, perceived or actual, until we let them go.
Let us understand the atonement and let it set us free.
Some of us are held captive by the misunderstanding that God rewards righteousness with wealth, luxury, or ease and that God punishes wickedness with disappointment, sickness, or other trials.
A kind nurse saw a child, through no fault of his own, covered by grievous burns. A clinical expert, the nurse knew the excruciating pain third-degree burns cause. She said no loving God would allow an innocent child to suffer such pain.
Then the nurse testified, as she was praying in anger about how unloving and unfeeling God was, she saw in her mind our Savior. He was weeping. Our Savior was weeping with her for the child.
The nurse understood. While omnipotent, our Heavenly Father does not cause or make all things happen. In our limited perspective, we may ask why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But a more complete or eternal perspective helps us understand “bad things” and “good people” with different eyes. After all, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
Let us understand God’s eternal omnipotence and eternal compassion.
Some of us are held captive by the misunderstanding that we can hold onto Zion without letting go of Babylon.
We may want to be righteous, but not yet. We avoid the sin, but hold onto its appearance. Perhaps we seek to appear fashionable, extreme, edgy, cool, or push the limits in how we dress, speak, posture with each other.
This may include how we portray ourselves online. In a recent Sunday school class in our student stake, we discussed three questions. First, “Do you protect your credit card and financial identity?” Every hand went up. Second, “Do you protect your cyber-identity, e.g., address, phone number, class schedule, etc., which appear online?” Some hands went up.
I invited a few volunteers to share their MySpace or Facebook profiles. Let me ask you: Would you feel comfortable showing your profile in Sunday School?
Then our third inquiry, “Do you protect your spiritual identity? If your parents or bishop saw your profile what would they think? What would your spouse or children, current or future, think about you spiritually if they saw the profile you use today?”
Do you know many employers now review profiles and other online information? Most screen names are functional or for fun. But would an employer feel comfortable hiring winkydink cutiepie pinkygirl hotty14 to do important legal briefs? Or what about hotstuff daddyo dabomb rm34 to put a mature face on the firm’s new regional office?
One student said, “I always thought my profile was private, but now see some of the pictures and links my friends posted have got to go.” She concluded, “I want my profile to reflect who I really am.”
Let us understand Zion is the pure in heart and we become Zion by letting go of everything that is not Zion.
Letting go is essential. So is holding on.
Three things the scriptures admonish us to hold onto include “the word of God,” “every good thing,” and “every good gift.”
The Book of Mormon teaches us to hold unto the word of God. “And they said unto me: what meanth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree? And I said unto them that it [the rod of iron] was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish” (1 Nephi 15:23-24; italics added).
In Helaman 3:29, we read: “Whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God,” … which shall “lead the man of Christ in a straight and narrow course …” We avoid the Adversary’s temptations, fiery darts, blindness, and destruction by staying on the straight and narrow path. This is only possible if we hold onto the iron rod of God’s word.3
When young couples come for marriage interviews, it is my privilege to ask the questions which establish testimony and personal worthiness. In discussing tithing, Word of Wisdom, law of chastity, or other commandments, I sometimes state, “Please understand: as your priesthood leader I am not asking these questions to keep you from entering the House of the Lord. Rather, when you are in the holy temple, we want you to know you are worthy to receive each eternal blessing pronounced upon you.”
Sometimes that statement helps young couples understand what to let go of and what to hold on to.
Hold onto the word of God and obey His commandments.
A second scriptural admonition is to “lay hold upon every good thing” (Moroni 7:19). Moroni teaches, “Search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (emphasis added) (Moroni 7:19).
“Every good thing” is not a specific list common for all people. As we each search diligently, we find “all things which are good cometh of Christ” (Moroni 7:24), Yet the manifestations of “every good thing” are as wonderfully individual and diverse as our varied lives.
The seventh chapter of Moroni tells how to determine good and evil – in essence, what to let go of and what to hold onto. It reminds us “by faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing” (Moroni 7:25).
Hold onto every good thing.
The scriptures beckon “come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (Moroni 10:30; italics added). Good gifts come from Christ to every man and woman to bless others. (D&C 46:11-27; 1 Cor. 12:1-31; Moroni 10:8-19).
Since every good gift comes from Christ, we become more like Him as we use spiritual gifts to bless others and as lose our natural selves by learning to serve as He does.
President Spencer W. Kimball taught, “We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!”4
Hold onto every good gift.
One way I try to hold onto the word of God, every good thing, and every good gift is to look for and record impressions and experiences of each in my personal journal. That helps me seek more earnestly and hold onto all.
A Saving Gospel Principle
The experiences of the window washer in Hawaii and the father who let go of hate for his son’s murderer illustrate a saving gospel principle.
It is this. We may not be able to hold on or let go to save ourselves, but we may be able to hold on or let go because we love others and feel our Savior’s love. Love for others and our Savior’s love give courage, determination, and strength beyond our own.
Let’s briefly explore the seeming paradox that, “You can’t love yourself enough to save yourself.” This seems contradictory, counterintuitive. Aren’t we responsible to work out our own salvation? Perhaps we think, “No one can look out for me better than I can for myself.”
But it isn’t true.
Because the power is not within us to save ourselves. We literally can’t love ourselves enough to save ourselves.
One dictionary lists 138 examples involving “self.”
Many “self” words carry negative connotations, especially “self” words involving gospel principles like “self-righteous,” “self-justification,” or “self-serving.” Intuitively we know righteousness, justification, and service are about others, not about self. Priesthood blessings are given by placing hands on the heads of others, not on our own heads.
“Self-sacrifice” is only a virtue when we are not “selfish” but “selfless” – literally having “less,” having let go of, “self.” Similarly, while sometimes useful, self-appointed self-improvement may help less than allowing His knowledge and love to transform us.
Paradoxical, isn’t it, that sometimes in letting go we discover what to hold onto?
Sometimes we joke, “I’m at the end of my rope; I can’t hold on any longer.” In the extremities of our greatest challenges, we learn the most about holding on and letting go.
One extremity occurs at the end of life. Many precious family experiences tell how we help each other hold on and let go at those tender times. Here is one our family holds dear.
After joining the Church, my mother became a young BYU student in Provo. She stayed with the family of Gerrit de Jong, Jr. An accomplished composer and linguist from Amsterdam, Gerrit de Jong served many years as a temple sealer. He would kindly ask those attending the temple, perhaps nervous at being there for the first time – would you like me to perform your sealing in English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, or perhaps some other language?
By affection, our family called Gerrit de Jong Grandpa de Jong and his wonderful wife Thelma Grandma de Jong. I became a namesake of Gerrit de Jong. Because of him, I am the only person I know with a Dutch first name, an American middle name, and a Chinese last name.
We enjoyed many Sunday dinners with Grandpa and Grandma. No meal was complete until we had finished the homemade banana cream pie and laughed as we together washed and put the dishes away.
Grandpa’s physical body deteriorated toward the end of his rich and full life. He suffered excruciating pain. It hurt so much he wanted to die. But Grandma was not ready to let him go. Despite his great pain, Grandpa determined he would hold on for Grandma.
Finally Grandma was able to find peace. She said, “I patted his cheek, and told him I would be all right. I let him go.” Shortly thereafter, Grandpa peacefully moved on.
Here is another family experience which taught me about holding on and letting go. It too is quite personal.
Susan and I courted from two different continents. She was teaching in Provo. I was trying to study at Oxford University in England while learning everything I could about her from across the Atlantic Ocean. Call it “distance education” of the best kind. It’s one reason I can honestly say I earned a Ph.D. in International Relations.
One school term, I made the mistake of trying out for crew – the college rowing team – while everyday falling more in love with Susan. The late afternoon sun sparkles on the Cherwell River and makes Oxford’s spires and lemon-lime fields glow. On a few of those romantic fall days, the crew team almost kicked me off the boat for daydreaming about Susan instead of stroking at the right time.
Both Susan and I sought spiritual confirmation about marrying each other. But how could we separate what we wanted from what the Lord might inspire us to do?
I prayed many times before I found the right way to ask the right question. The question was not “Should I marry Susan?” – that is, please tell me what to do. It was “I want to ask Susan to marry me” – please confirm this decision, which I have made with all my heart. And the way to ask the question was to ask and then listen and wait with full faith for the answer to come.
In seeking confirmation regarding marriage, Susan and I learned that sometimes the hardest thing to let go is that which we love or want to hold onto most. We learned that, by being willing to put matters into the Lord’s hands after doing all we can, He will return what we think we have sacrificed and much more.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 123:17 teaches us how and when to let go and hold on. It reads, “Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.”
Please notice we are to do all things that lie in our power, and do them cheerfully, which often includes gratefully. Then we may stand still – with the utmost assurance.
We let go of doubts and fears. We express determination to do whatever is right no matter personal preference. It was then Susan and I found quiet, clear assurance. We felt our Father in Heaven’s confirming love and direction.
Our Savior’s Example
As always, in the life of our Savior we learn most about holding on and letting go.
You may know the Jewish literary practice of “chiasmus” matches and mirrors key ideas or phrases at the beginning and end, and through, important scriptural passages.
Whether “chiasmus” or “bookends,” two remarkable sets of paired experiences mark the beginning and end of our Savior’s life.
Fishers of Men
The first involves fishermen and fishing.
In Luke 5, at the beginning of his public ministry, the Savior calls on Simon, a fisherman, to “launch out into the deep, and let down your nets.” “And Simon answering said unto him, ‘Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing.’” (Luke 5:4-5) For those of us who like to fish, we hear Simon say, respectfully but clearly, we’ve been fishing all night and there are no fish anywhere!
Simon has faith. Though no fish have been found, Simon does not procrastinate. Simon answers the Savior, “at thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5; italics added).
And then the result. When they let down their nets, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes. They beckoned their partners in the other ship to come and help. Yet there were so many fish that the fish “filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.” So great was their catch “their net brake” (Luke 5:6-7).
Simon Peter’s astonishment speaks for us all: “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
Now notice this chiasmatic bookend. The Savior’s earthly ministry is coming to its end. The disciples have seen the resurrected Lord but He has not tarried with them.
And the chief apostle, Simon Peter “saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee.” So, “they went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3). Again, there were no fish anywhere.
The morning came. Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not recognize Him. Jesus said to them, “Children, have ye any meat?” In other words, “have you caught any fish?” “They answered him, No” (John 21:4-5).
Jesus said, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find.” Remember they had been fishing all night and hadn’t caught anything. But obediently they “cast therefore.” Now “they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord” (John 21:6-7).
The disciples recognized a pattern they had seen before. When the Lord first called them to be fishers of men, they had fished all night and caught nothing. The Savior told them to cast their casts again. The nets came back full. Now, before the Lord ascends into heaven, He reminds the disciples of their previous experience -- except for one important confirmatory detail.
Now, at the end of the Lord’s ministry, his disciples again draw their net to land. It is full of many and “great fishes” – amazingly, one hundred and fifty and three fish. But then this important confirmatory detail. Before, the miracle was so many fish that the net brake. This time, “and for all there were so many [fish], yet was not the net broken” (John 21:11).
Those called to be fishers of men let their nets out at the Lord’s command. They know their nets will come back full. And they recognize the miracle may be a broken net or an unbroken net, or both, as the Lord wills.
A second set of chiasmatic bookends in the Savior’s life involves taunting torments. Taunting torments also remind us we cannot love ourselves enough to save ourselves.
At the beginning period of his ministry, Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness. Then the devil came and tempted Him with a taunting torment, “If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread” (Luke 4:3).
At the end of his life, our Savior faced the same taunt. As Christ hung in agony on the cross, those around him tormented, “If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). “If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself” (Luke 23:37). They even taunted, “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (Matthew 27:42).
How interesting! Precisely because He was the son of God, He had no need to change stones to bread or come down from the cross. Precisely because He was lovingly working out salvation for each of us, He did not save himself. He held on until all was finished. Only then did He willingly let go and commend His spirit into His Father’s hands.
Our Savior’s example reminds us we can accomplish things out of love for others that we cannot or (in His perfect case, will not) do for ourselves. I believe our Savior’s atonement was perfect in part because He loved the Father and us more than He loved Himself. Remember, in excruciating pain, He said, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
The precious ordinances of baptism and the sacrament help us hold onto the name of Christ. In always remembering Him, we hold onto the word of God, every good thing, and every good gift. Baptism and the sacrament also help us let go of the natural man – including sin, rationalization, procrastination, stereotypes, and misunderstandings of all kinds.
We end where we began.
Thank you again for the privilege and pleasure of joining today’s devotional. I have felt your spirit, your goodness, your desire to follow our Savior.
In that spirit, may I invite you to do something?
You may have felt a prompting today, perhaps it was a renewed determination, to let go or hold onto something important in your life. Will you please write that prompting down and begin to follow its guidance in your life?
When an archer shoots an arrow, a small adjustment here (near the ear) determines where the arrow lands. “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33). Daily decisions shape our eternal lives.
When our window washer in Hawaii fell, the rope tore through his thick work gloves and into the flesh of his hands. I wonder if his hands today bear any mark or emblem of the suffering he was able to endure because of love.
Our Savior reaches out to encircle each of us eternally in the arms of His love and safety (2 Nephi 1:15; Alma 34:16). As He reaches to us, we see in His perfect hands the tokens of remembrance that He held on until it was right to let go.
May we learn in the teachings of the scriptures, prophets, and perfect example of our Savior to hold on and to let go, and when and how to do each, I pray.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love For All Mankind, February 15, 1978; see also President Gordon B. Hinckley, The Need for Greater Kindness, President James E. Faust, “The Restoration of All Things,” and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “All Men Everywhere,” in April 2006 Conference addresses (Ensign, May 2006).
2 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, HarperCollins, New York: U.S.A, 2001, p. 61.
3 See Elder Robert D. Hales, “Holy Scriptures: The Power of God unto Our Salvation,” October 2006 Conference address (Ensign, November 2006). Teaches Elder Hales: “So essential are these truths that Heavenly Father gave both Lehi and Nephi visions vividly representing the word of God as a rod of iron. Both father and son learned that holding to this strong, unbending, utterly reliable guide is the only way to stay on that strait and narrow path that leads to our Savior.”
4 President Spencer W. Kimball, “The Abundant Life,” Ensign, July 1978; see also President Spencer W. Kimball, “Small Acts of Service,” Ensign, December 1974; President Spencer W. Kimball, “There is Purpose in Life,” New Era, September 1974. The sentences before the quoted passage are helpful. Teaches President Kimball: “When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves! In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves! Not only do we “find” ourselves in terms of acknowledging divine guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become more significant individuals as we serve others.”