And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church – not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God….Helaman 3:33
Once again, a period of hopeful peace and prosperity among the Nephites is fouled by the insidious onset of pride as we are presented with yet another stark confirmation of this tragic cycle. Yet this time it seems a little different. A distinction is clearly drawn between “the church of God” and “the people who professed to belong to the church of God”. Given that there is little in the Book of Mormon that is not included by divine intent, I can’t help but wonder, what additional message are we to take from this particular story?
The question that immediately came to my mind is, “what characteristics, virtues, and behaviors distinguished those of the church of God from those who simply “professed” to belong to the church of God. I would also expect that almost anyone reading this article would, as I did, ask themselves, “Do I possess those same virtues? Do I exhibit those behaviors? Would I be included among those who were of the church of God, or would I be eternally cast aside as one who only professed to be of the Church of God?
Some important clues are offered as we read further:
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ…..Helaman 3:35
By contrast, those who “professed to belong to the church of God” (this phrase is repeated a second time in Helaman 4:11) were characterized thus:
….yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites
And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength…..Helaman 4:12-13
After a terrible 7 year war that rivaled the wars of Moroni in previous chapters and resulted in the loss of half of the Nephite lands, the people repented:
And it came to pass, because of the greatness of the number of Lamanites, the Nephites were in great fear, lest they should be overpowered, and trodden down, and slain, and destroyed.
Yea, they began to remember the prophecies of Alma, and also the words of Mosia; and they saw that they had been a stiffnecked people, and that they had set at naught the commandments of God;
And that they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people, insomuch that they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites……Helaman 4:20-22
This repentance was obviously triggered by fear and suffering – a less than optimal progression, one that I hope never to fall into. Alma told the poor of the Zoramites, who were humbled because they had been “afflicted and cast out”:
And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word? Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed—yeah, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty…..Alma 32:14-15
One could write much more on the topic of whether or not we are compelled to be humble and obedient, and the extent to which we are motivated by fear and damnation as opposed to love and a desire to fulfill our righteous destiny, but that is not the focus of this essay. My desire, instead, is to explore how it is exactly that we can know whether or not we are “of” today’s church or simply among those who have “professed to belong to the church of God”. In doing so, I hope to provide some guidelines for myself and perhaps others as we seek the blessings of eternal life.
At first I thought to offer a list of behaviors, as if the things I do could prove that I’m of the church of God, but behaviors are simply manifestations of what we have faith in, of our attitudes, and of the things we have learned. Ultimately, behaviors are manifestations of who we are, and since we’re all different, behaviors can be justifiably different, but equally righteous. So I thought I would focus instead on what we must be, or upon who we must be “becoming”. My list developed as follows:
We must become loving. We must learn to look at every person, including ourselves, as a child of God, as an object of His unconditional love, and learn to love them as He would.
We must become compassionate. We must be sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate than we are and we must learn to value their welfare as much as we do our own wealth, our own time, even at times our own safety and comfort.
We must become honest; honest with others – especially with our spouses, honest with ourselves, and honest with God. We must become completely honest. White lies? If we are compassionate enough, non-judgmental enough, and loving enough, white lies would not be necessary because our thoughts would be pure.
We must become trustworthy. When we make a covenant, a promise, a commitment, we must keep it. Our word must become as good as gold, more binding than any earthly contract. This, of course, applies to friendships, work relationships, church relationships and above all to families. We are seeking to become one with God, and He is completely trustworthy. We can be no less.
We must become virtuous. This transcends honesty in that we must learn to be honest about the right things. It transcends trustworthiness, in that we must learn to distinguish between the covenants that are born of righteous love, and those that may bind us to evil and destruction.
We must become trusting; not necessarily of other people – at least not all of them, but we must learn to trust the Lord in all things, as if He were standing right beside us, holding our hand, guiding our every step.
We must become humble. Humility is the opposite of pride, and pride prevents us from becoming anything but prideful. “Pride is the universal sin, the great vice.” (Beware of Pride, President Ezra Taft Benson, General Conference, April, 1989.)
We must become grateful…..grateful in all things, perhaps even above all things. Gratitude feeds humility. When we understand that the blessings we enjoy as members of the Lord’s church are strictly the result of His love for us, and that we can do very little to actually deserve His love; when we truly come to realize that only through His grace can we lay hold of the promises of eternal life; when we learn that even if we, as King Benjamin taught in his great speech, serve him with all our “whole souls”, yet we “would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21); then and only then can we hope to stand before Him at the last day and hear those precious words, “….Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23)
We must become obedient. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Yes, we must be obedient to the will of God, but we must also be passionate about seeking to know and understand His will – each minute, each day, each week, month, and year.
Finally, we must become sanctified. Only one who is loving, compassionate and completely honest can even hope to achieve the state of sanctification. Only when we have learned to keep each and every covenant with exactness and to cherish virtue; only when we have developed complete trust in the Lord’s guidance and inspiration can we hope for this ultimate blessing. Only once we have humbled ourselves enough to be grateful in all things and obedient enough to passionately seek the will of God are we truly prepared to surrender our will to Him. Only then can we become sanctified.
There are certainly other things that we must “become”, but this is a powerful start that will surely be pleasing unto the Lord. Few of us have achieved this level of becoming, least of all me. Nevertheless, I know that through the embracing power of the atonement, if we adopt these as personal goals, and are actively seeking to convert them into personal virtues, we can be sure that we will be among those who are “of the church of God”. Let us then follow Paul’s counsel in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith…”. I pray that each of us will find comfort as well as direction as we examine ourselves in light of these virtues and seek to align ourselves with the Lord’s will for us.