Dear brothers and sisters, aloha,
One of the main reasons why I enjoy working at the university is because I can see how your hard work and dedication help you become better and succeed in life. I can see how you overcome your struggles and challenges. How you strive to provide for yourselves and your families. What you have achieved started as thoughts that influenced good decisions followed by appropriate actions. It is highly unusual for someone to be successful and enjoy the rewards of their hard work without experiencing a fair amount of difficulties and failures, discouragements and fatigue. You must not be discouraged because your failures today would lay the groundwork of your successes tomorrow. You will know that you are on the right path, even if it is a struggle and not exactly what you have expected because deep in your hearts and minds you will have the assurance and confidence that you are involved in something good and right for you. If you leave here today with a renewed desire to continue moving forward, striving to do your best in making good decisions, while seeking the guidance of our Heavenly Father, and then acting accordingly, it will fulfill the purpose of my devotional.
Freedom is perhaps one of the most diversely and controversially understood concepts. Agency or the freedom a person has to choose his or her own actions is a key principle in the gospel of Jesus Christ. A few years back I noticed something very interesting in the Topical Guide. Under Agency, there are 7 references from the Old Testament and only 2 references from the New Testament, and these two, talk about choosing God’s will and not our own. In the Book of Mormon however, there are 12 references, many of which clearly state that we are free to act for ourselves. Examples are found in 2 Nephi 2:27 stating that “men are free … to choose”, 2 Nephi 10:23, “ye are free to act for yourselves”, Mosiah 2:21, “that ye may … do according to your own will”, Alma 13:3, “in the first place being left to choose”, Alma 41:7, “own judges, whether to do good”, Helaman 14:30, “ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves”, and more. This realization is one of the main reasons why I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God and that it contains the fulness of the gospel, even principles that are not very apparent or clearly defined in the New Testament. Without the Book of Mormon, it would have been difficult for me, if even possible, to realize, based on the New Testament alone, that our agency is a gift of God and essential for our salvation. In Moses chapter 3 verses 15-17 we read that the first commandment God gave Adam was that he can eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then our Father allowed his child to choose for himself by saying in verse 17, “nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee.” And finally, he explained to Adam that if he breaks this commandment, there will a consequence, “but remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The fact that the first thing our Father established with Adam was setting up some basic rules and allowing him to freely choose what he wants to do, highlights how important agency is in the plan of happiness God has for us. The framework of our freedom to choose is clearly presented - we are given options, which we consider, and then choose based on what we believe to be of value to us, and what we value is basically represented by the consequences we have chosen. In essence, our agency is simply choosing consequences. No choice is free of consequences. The gift and principle of agency were later given to Eve and to all of us today!
God, our Father is who he is because of the choices he made and the experiences he gained. Jesus Christ is who he is because of the choices he made and the experiences he gained. Our Savior chose to live and die so he can satisfy the requirements of justice and provide mercy to those who will do his Father’s will, but also, he came to this world to gain experience. On Earth, he was also Joseph’s son, who was a carpenter. Though he was our savior, he had to learn to live a normal life – learn how to walk, learn how to read or do simple math, play with other children, learn the craft of his earthly father and do other chores around the house, learn how to make choices and handle successes and disappointments. The people of Nazareth saw him as just a man without any special qualities. When the time came, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted and tried. He had to go through this experience to qualify for what followed – to give us his gospel and to die so that we may live. This was a consequence of his choice to do his Heavenly Father’s will.
We are also here to gain experience. Every day we make hundreds of choices. We usually choose things because we connect with them. Our choices represent our desires. They demonstrate what we want, what we like, what we value in life, how decisive we are, how patient we are, how do we express love, how do we express anger, how much do we love ourselves and those around us, are we honest, do our actions follow our words or are they different. These and many other characteristics define who we are and who we want to be. Our choices will determine the experiences we will have. Our experiences will help us learn and gain wisdom which will help us build a personal testimony of the truth that surrounds us.
All who learn about and know the gospel of Jesus Christ should understand that it is a God-given pathway to help us become like our Heavenly Father. We have been created in the image of God, and we have the potential to become like God. Jesus Christ taught us the way to achieve this perfection. When a Pharisee asked him, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. In his epistle, apostle James taught, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Our choices should be based and focused on these principles, in order to develop Christ-like characteristics and to be able to return to live with God, we must love God and our brothers and sisters, show compassion to those around us, and especially to those who are in need, and keep ourselves pure from the unclean things of this world. It is now our responsibility to learn and choose for ourselves, through the guidance of the Spirit, how are we going to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our lives should not be focused on the fear that we will be punished because we have made a wrong choice and have sinned against God, or religious traditions or customs. We are here to walk the rocky path of our perfection, where it doesn’t matter how many times we have fallen, but rather how far ahead on this path we have advanced.
The choices we have made, the lessons we have learned and how we improved ourselves and others is all we would be able to take with us when we move across the veil of mortality. What we are given in life, abilities, challenges, opportunities, and experiences prepare us to become who we need to be and to fulfill the work we need to do on this earth. We need to be mindful of that when we make choices.
The Lord uses minds and bodies who are prepared to accept and do the work. How is he going to demonstrate that we are prepared, or even better, how would we know that we are living right and that we are prepared for what is ahead of us. It would be by giving us experiences, by placing us in situations where we will be required to make choices, which by the way, happens every day. How we go through these experiences will help us understand who we are and what are we capable of.
Living right doesn’t always involve success. It often involves failure and pain. It is difficult to feel good and right when we are failing at something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are on the wrong path. Failure is needed so we can understand and appreciate success. The only way to understand that something was a failure is for us to have a proper understanding of what is right and wrong, in other words for us to have proper standards and controls. If one’s standards are set wrong, failure can be interpreted as benign, insignificant or even as success; or pain can be interpreted as fun or joy. The failure itself can hurt us, but not having the correct understanding of failure is life-threatening because it will prevent us from correcting our ways. Having proper standards and following the will of God is essential for a successful life. Remember the Israelites led by Moses out of Egypt. They witnessed miracles of magnitude perhaps no other group of people had experienced, but because of old habits, unwillingness to accept new principles revealed to them by God through his prophet, and having a mindset of slaves, they had to spend 40 years in the wilderness until all of them died, so that their children, who were raised with correct principles, can be lead to the promised land.
Every action adheres to certain rules leading to given outcomes. In this world, the shortest path from one point to another is a straight line. Everyone is free to choose how they want to get from one point to another, but if you want to go the shortest way, you have to choose a straight line. We are all free to choose our actions, which is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we cannot choose the consequences of our actions. No matter what action we choose, we will adhere to certain governing principles. If we don’t choose the straight line between two points, we WILL choose a longer line or a longer path whether we like it or not. A person can choose to rebel against parents, church, or university rules, and choose, for example, to take illicit drugs, either to numb their pain, make them feel good, or simply to show that they are above the rules. What that person may or may not realize at that time is that they are choosing to obey a different set of rules which are governed by the substance they are taking, and that substance will affect their behavior and actions in a way that they will not be able to control very well. It will give them the false perception of freedom and a good time, but in effect, it will make their life more and more dependent on the substance they take - feeling good not because they have achieved something or solved a problem, but because they have consumed something.
Choosing our friends is up to us, but together with that we are choosing people that will influence our lives, the situations we will be placed in and the choices we would have to make in the future. Choosing to have a bold appearance is a statement of freedom, but how people will react to your choice or what thoughts you would influence, or what kind of people you will attract will be something that will come with it. No one is absolutely free to choose a life without influences and to be free of the consequences. Whether we like it or not we are constantly under influences. The people we see around us, the words we read, the music we listen, the smells we sense, the touch we feel, the thoughts we have and anything else we perceive and know are all influences that affect us and our choices. The concept of freedom in the sense to be completely independent of our surroundings and for us to be the only one determining the outcomes of our choices is false and inexistent. The agency Adam and all of us have been given is, through knowledge, to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong, between living with God or without God. No man or woman of accountability can avoid the consequences of this God-given agency. We must strive to live a life where we are free to choose for ourselves which principles we want to follow because our choices will determine who we are and who we will become and if we will be able to return and be with God. Having this freedom is what God wants for us.
We know that primarily through the Book of Mormon. In 2 Nephi 2:26-27 it says, “And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon… Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil;” In addition, in 2 Nephi 10:23, we read “… cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves - to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.” Furthermore, in Heleman 14:30, we read “…for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you knowledge and he hath made you free.” Moreover, Alma 41:7 says, “…and thus they stand or fall; for behold, they are their own judges, whether to do good or do evil, Unfortunately, not all in the world have that freedom, mostly because they don’t have complete knowledge or a complete understanding. Our role is to spread the good news of the gospel and to be influencers for good. We also need to understand, that having that freedom also means that wrong choices are allowed, followed by appropriate consequences. We must not take away the freedom men and women have to choose their consequences. We must also keep in mind that only God truly knows the way and what it takes, or how many mistakes it would take, for men or women to be converted and become true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our actions should represent the type of person we aspire or try to be and become. We should strive to understand why we do what we are asked to do. Sometimes we will disagree or dislike what is required of us. Who we are will show by the way we act in such cases.
I often think about the time, when as a bishop of a BYUH YSA ward, I had to give ecclesiastical endorsements. I have spent many hours trying to understand and reconcile rules, behavior, consequences, justice, and mercy. The Honor Code is a moral standard for leading a good life, not only during our time at this university but also in the years to follow. Because of its conservative nature, it has also become a litmus test revealing the value of our word and promises. I believe our Heavenly Father cares very much about what happens in our minds and hearts when we deliberately make a choice to do what is contrary to our promises. Forgetting or being absent-minded or doing something wrong as a result of weakness, or an error in judgment is one thing, but knowingly, openly and deliberately disregarding something we have promised to do, is hypocrisy and mockery. If there are some who have chosen such behavior, I suggest you consider the question of the bluegrass song “what would you give in exchange for your soul?” No honor code consequence is worse than the consequences in our minds and hearts, whether we realize it or not, as a result of the deliberate and open disregard of rules we have promised to keep. How long are we going to spend in the wilderness gaining and proving our souls, 40 days or 40 years? The saddest part is when a person doesn’t even know that they are in the wilderness.
All experiences, easy and challenging, good and bad, whether given to us by God to try us, or simply because of circumstances, or perhaps because of our unwise choices, can potentially lead us back to our Father. We may spend some time in the wilderness, but if we have a clear understanding that we are in it, and we want to get out of it, then there is always hope because our Father welcomes everyone who loves him and does their best to be like Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, we don’t entirely understand the purpose of the rules we need to follow or the principles of the gospel, and because we don’t understand, or we have a logical, alternative explanation we choose to do everything else but follow the rule. During the marshmallow tests where 3 to 5-year-old children were given a marshmallow and were told that if they wait for 10 minutes, they will be given a second marshmallow, only about 30% waited. There are many good theoretically possible explanations for the children's choices. Some may say, well the children that didn’t wait didn’t really want two marshmallows. All they needed was one because they were taught well by their parents and have good nutritional values – don’t eat a lot of sugar. Another explanation might be that the children didn’t trust the person who conducted the trial. What if the person lied and they would not get a second marshmallow, or worse, lose the one they have now. It is better to eat it now before they lose it. Another could be that the child simply cannot eat more than one and for that reason didn’t care if there will be another. Of course, the most obvious explanation is that 2/3 of the children couldn’t resist the temptation and chose to satisfy their appetite as soon as possible. All these seem possible explanations, with good reasons, but no matter the reasons, the result was one and the same for all, the children who chose not to follow the given instructions and promise, did not receive the promised result. We may have good reasons not to follow a principle or a promise, but we must keep in mind what is at stake and whether or not we will be happy with the consequences.
In conclusion, I hope that we all use our gift to choose for ourselves wisely. I would like to encourage you to have good standards for yourselves and your lives and to live according to them. Don’t lower them because you like more what is outside of these standards or because you are struggling to follow them. Be patient and walk the path to perfection. Trust the Spirit when you make decisions and learn the ways of God. Learning the language of the Spirit is a life-long process during which you will make mistakes, but don’t blame the Spirit or our Heavenly Father for that. Falling is part of the learning process. Our Father knows that we will fall, many times. And, while we should not deliberately try or desire to fall, if we do, he expects us to get up, maybe cry a little, but then choose to change or repent, and continue onward living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some challenges we will overcome, but some we might have to live with for the rest of our lives. Regardless, we must always live by doing our best. While going through life, don’t put yourself down because someone else seems to be doing better. What we see in others is usually not exactly what we think it is. Our Father wants us to choose him and his way of life. He wants our humble hearts, willing minds, and our best efforts. So, let us do our best, and be a little kinder towards those who seem to struggle walking the path. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.