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The Path We Walk Together

Aloha. It’s good to be with you.

Jennifer and I have been married for nearly 21 years now. You see here pictures of when we were married, then ten years later, and then twenty years. (The last photo was taken by a member of the ship’s crew on a cruise in the South Eastern Passage of Alaska. At this very moment, we were watching whales.) Our life together has truly been an adventure, but as the idealized pictures don’t show, our marriage, as any marriage, has been a mixture of enjoyment, difficulty, laughter, disappointments, growth, good times, learning, and hard work. Of course, it’s occasionally required genuine exertion, testing and proving my manliness in strenuous activities such as cutting down the apple bananas in our backyard. Jennifer and I try to move ahead together, but lest there be any misunderstanding about who is the more emotionally and socially mature here, I’ll tell you that in February a few years ago, the little girl next door (then about three or four) brought by a Valentines card she had made for Jennifer and me. Jennifer wasn’t home, so I accepted the card at the door, thanking her very much. She turned to go home and said, “It’s for your Mom, too.” 

The Doctrine and Covenants says that the Melchizedek Priesthood “holds the keys of the mystery of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” and that “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:19-20). Through these ordinances, we enter covenants with the Lord, covenants that are acted out symbolically in such a way to point to Christ, the way we should follow, and how we receive the merciful, enabling grace and power He has to give. They form a foundation and a road map for the life of a Latter-day Saint.

Like many of you, I grew up in a Latter-day Saint family. I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church at age eight. When I was baptized, I didn’t fully understand all I was doing. I did know, however, that something important was taking place, that I should be different, and that I would be more responsible than before to try to be like Jesus. With that humble, even meager, beginning, the importance and meaning of that baptismal covenant, the symbolism of the ordinance, the way that ordinance orients our lives, the grace and power given, all of this has, through the years, been made more clear. I continue to find a depth and a wellspring of living water from it.

Similar experiences transpired when I had the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods conferred on me but especially when I was endowed in the temple. Much was clear from that endowment as to what I was covenanting to do and the greater responsibility I would now have, yet much was still opaque to me. But with continued experience, with study and prayer and attendance at the temple, the way this ordinance orients one’s life, the symbolism and meaning of this gift has been made clearer and continues to give more and more. I find that an insight here or there opens up further understanding and also other questions. The Spirit breathes understanding and meaning. There’s always more, and it continues to be, as the covenant is described, both new and everlasting.

When I was engaged to be married to Jennifer, the spiritual significance of the whole thing was impressed upon me. This was a profound undertaking—reaching into every aspect of my life. It wasn’t a matter of whether I was going to be active in the Church, striving to live the gospel. That wasn’t the question. It also wasn’t a question of whether I should marry Jennifer. I wanted to, and I knew I would be foolish—maybe even a little stupid--not to do so. But what was impressed on me was the seriousness of what I was deciding to do. As with the temple endowment, there was a step up in truly living a good, consecrated life, and here it didn’t just involve every aspect of my life but also the life of someone else. I was going to have to be different. 

I remember as we knelt across the altar, each one covenanting with God, accepting each other as husband a wife, the intensity surrounding the moment we were pronounced husband and wife and the overwhelming sense of joy, relief, accomplishment, blessing, responsibility, gratitude, love and then being given commands with respect to our marriage with the promise of joy and the promise of eternal life and the attendant blessings being spoken upon us. It was a simple ceremony, but like the other ordinances, I continue to experience and understand more of what this means and how it plays out in our lives.

If you haven’t guessed, I want to say something about marriage. Not about how to get married, how to find someone, how to have a successful marriage, etc. Instead, I want to say something about its place in following Jesus Christ, in making us more fully like Him, and in receiving all that God has for us. To do this, I want to ask a question or two now, have you think about it as I speak, and return to them later on in my address. I do not think what I have to say is the only thing that could be said about these matters, but I hope with what I say, and with your own thinking about this, to help us see the place of eternal marriage with fresh eyes.

Here are a couple of (related) questions to think about:   

What does it actually mean for a couple to be married in the temple? 

What role does the ordinance of marriage play in our discipleship of Jesus Christ, in following and becoming like Him? 

(Or better yet, how might you answer the student who, after we had discussed the basics of the gospel—how we come to Christ through faith, repentance and baptism, getting on the path and being made like him—asked (with what seemed a mixture of puzzlement and frustration at the requirement), “So why do I have to be married to get in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom?” Somehow the connection of being made into righteous, saintly beings and being married eternally wasn’t clear.) I’d like you to think about these questions with the hope that the Spirit will attend us so that I’ll have something good to say with respect to them and that (with the help of that Spirit) you’ll come to find good answers and deeper understanding yourself.

If you’ll follow along with me, what I’d like to do is describe the basics of discipleship and how we are made into Christ-like beings. Having laid that out, I’ll return to the place of the endowment and temple marriage in this larger scheme of things. To do this, I want to turn briefly to Nephi’s discussion of the Doctrine of Christ as the foundation for what follows.

When Nephi gets to the end of his record, he writes that he’s essentially said all he has to say except that he wants to speak some words concerning the doctrine of Christ. He then speaks of Jesus being baptized to show the way and to show his willingness to submit to the Father. “Thy will be done” ever marked his way of being from the beginning. (See 2 Nephi 31.)

Nephi then remarks that if we are to follow the Son, we must keep the commandments of the Father by having faith in the Son, repenting of our sins and following Christ’s example and entering the waters of baptism. If we do this with real intent, acting no hypocrisy before God, having a willingness to take on us the name of Christ, the Father promises the same thing that was visibly bestowed in a sign when Jesus was baptized: He will give us the Holy Ghost. (2 Nephi 31:13.)

Nephi then speaks of the necessity to endure to the end in following the example of Christ and that if we do this, the Father promises us Eternal Life (2 Nephi 31:15-20). Notice that when Nephi speaks of this process of taking on us the name of Christ through faith, repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Ghost, he speaks of it in terms of a gate we enter—a gate that leads to a path, that path being a following of Christ, which we much follow to the end. Nephi then says, “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31: 20).

We enter that path, willing to take on us the name of Christ. I understand this “taking on us the name of Christ” to be a willingness to become like him in goodness, righteousness, compassion, obedience, love, and holiness—to follow Him as we abandon evil and take on His godly way being, the Divine way of living, which is itself Eternal Life. To take on us the name of Christ, to be true Christian disciples, is to turn our hearts and souls to Him, so that through His atonement, we can be forgiven and cleansed of sin and also, by that enabling grace, be made like Him. That is to say, we are to continue with a steadfastness in Christ, a hope in Christ, and with the love of Christ (and of all people), feasting on the word—those things that will make Him central to our lives. Note that the gift promised to us—the Holy Ghost—plays an integral part in all this. We press forward on the path, striving to live the way that faithful, hopeful, and loving followers of Christ live. As we do this, we see that the Holy Ghost works with us and, as Mormon writes, fills us “with hope and perfect love” (Moroni 8:26). These are spiritual capacities that we strive for but which are also a gift—something we find happening to us as we give our humble, heartfelt effort.

We enter the path, in other words, giving the best we can give and loving God with all we have and are. We follow the Lord’s command to partake together often of the sacrament, renewing our willingness to take on the name of Christ, thus retaining a remission of sins and striving earnestly day by day, week to week, to be more like our Savior. God blesses us, through Christ’s merits and power given through the Holy Ghost, to be changed, converted, made holy—taking on us the “measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). This is the end and purpose of Christian discipleship. And, as Nephi says, “This is the way; and there is no other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the Kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21).

Having discussed this gate and path that Nephi describes, one might rightly ask how the other, higher ordinances of the temple fit here, particularly when they’re not explicitly mentioned in Nephi’s discourse. One way to think about this is to consider what might be meant by enduring to the end. We enter the path desiring and seeking to take on us the name of Christ—to be fully like him. The end of the path is Eternal Life, to finally not simply be with God and Christ but to be like them. Enduring to the end includes receiving all that God offers us to make us like Him, and that includes the blessings to the temple.

President Harold B. Lee said, “The receiving of the endowment requires the assuming of obligations by covenants which in reality are but an embodiment or an unfolding of the covenants each person should have assumed at baptism” ( Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 574). When we enter the path, we promise to take on us His name. Being well-established in the path, the Lord gives us a gift—an endowment—showing us more fully how to take on us the name of Christ. 

Additionally, note these words by Elder David A. Bednar (quoting Elder Oaks).

“Elder Dallin H. Oaks has explained that in renewing our baptismal covenants by partaking of the emblems of the sacrament, ‘we do not witness that we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. [Rather], we witness that we are willing to do so. (See D&C 20:77.) The fact that we only witness to our willingness suggests that something else must happen before we actually take that sacred name upon us in the [ultimate and] most important sense.’ The baptismal covenant clearly contemplates a future event or events and looks forward to the temple.” (“Honorably Hold a Name and Standing,”  Ensign May 2009)

While the covenant of baptism anticipates lives of obedience, of sacrifice, fidelity, and giving all that one has and is, the covenants of the temple make those more concrete or, to use President Lee’s words, embody those for us, creating deeper, more committed disciples, who in turn are endowed with God’s power to be better persons and to better carry out the work of His Kingdom in establishing goodness and holiness.

I return now to the question asked earlier: What does it mean to be married in the temple? What difference does it make? How does marriage fit in this path of discipleship? 

To the question of the difference it makes to be married in the temple, I’m guessing that nearly everyone has thought something along the lines of “Well, the marriage that is sealed there can last through eternity.” I agree that this is true, but that’s not all. It’s a necessary part but not enough. The question is what exactly is it that is supposed to last forever? Saying only that it lasts through eternity may not place the marriage clearly enough in its place in the gospel of Christ, of following Christ. Let me explain what I mean. To do this, I want to consider some of the good reasons (religious and not religious) why people might want to get married. To the degree that they are genuinely good reasons, Latter-day Saints would embrace them, even while seeing them as incomplete of themselves.

Many years ago, having returned from my mission a little over a year, I worked in a grocery store in southeast Idaho. A few of us (all men, some married, some not) were discussing married life and single life. One man, not a Latter-day Saint and not particularly religious, said, “One good thing about being married is that you don’t have to be lonely. If Friday or Saturday rolls around, you have someone to be with.” Now clearly someone can be married and still feel lonely because there isn’t in that particular relationship the kind of love and companionship possible, and it’s probably not a good thing to marry someone just to not be lonely. Nevertheless, if one thinks beyond just not being lonely, one can see the value of companionship, of having someone to share a life with. And though someone could share much of life with friends, neighbors, family, and so on, there is something desirable and good about having someone who loves you as husband or wife with whom you could share all of life. And, of course, Latter-day Saints will know that some aspects of life aren’t to be shared outside of marriage. Marriage allows that. These are good things but not yet sufficient. Eternal marriage isn’t only so you have someone to be with, to hug and kiss for eternity.

Many will see in marriage a blessing for society. Good marriages make for good families. Good families make good society. This is recognized by many, from Confucius, who saw filial piety as the foundation of a good society, to Shakespeare’s Benedict (in the play  Much Ado About Nothing) who, trying to give reasons for pursuing a romantic relationship with Beatrice (something his heart already desires), comes to this final, triumphant reason: “The world must be peopled.” The rearing of families and the good society that will come from them is indeed a good reason. It’s one Latter-day Saints would embrace and is probably one of the main reasons marriage and family are central to the Creator’s plan of happiness. I’m not certain, however, that it gets totally to the root of how marriage fits in our discipleship of Christ.

In many religious traditions, marriage is held up as blessed, helpful, divine, and immensely good. God blesses the marriage with a shared happiness and joy. Furthermore, the marriage causes one to get outside of oneself and can be very helpful in teaching the virtues of patience, love, compassion, work, unselfishness, etc. These virtues might be learned easily in a marriage where the very situation requires them. Of course, such virtues can clearly be learned in other places as well. As Latter-day Saints, we would agree that marriage and family are good places to become more loving and unselfish. Where our Latter-day Saint theology may differ is with its non-arbitrary place in the plan of salvation. We become something godly in marriage that we can’t become in any other way. Marriage is not simply one good way among others to receive all God has to offer or to be all that He hopes we will be.

Consider what it is we do when we marry in the temple for eternity. It isn’t that the Lord wants to pronounce the words “eternal” on just any kind of marriage. The temple marriage, in other words, is not just a good marriage that gives one companionship or simply a socially productive marriage with the stamp of “everlasting” on it. What God does want to pronounce eternal is the uniting in marriage of two followers of Christ—a marriage of disciples, joined in the cause of building the Kingdom, establishing Zion, bringing Christ fully into ourselves, our marriages, our families, and into the community and world in which we live. 

Think of what is required of those to be married in the temple. Before a couple is married, both are temple-endowed members, both have made covenants that their hearts and minds, all they have and are, will be consecrated to Him. Discipleship is not simply a part of their lives. It is the very center. The man and the woman are then joined in a marriage that unites their beings and their discipleship. 

The Lord commands his people to be one, saying that if we are not one, we aren’t his. The baptismal covenant unites us to the body of Christ—the Church—and He commands that body to be one. There is a unity He requires of us as Saints. In the union of husband and wife, however, He creates a union, and therefore a discipleship, not possible with the other relationships. It is a sacred union, bringing both responsibilities and blessings. In marrying, we become something different, taking on a new identity if you will. I don’t know how fully to describe this, but you will know what I mean when I remind you how we talk about couples (and yes later, families, but couples for now) such as the Lanes, the Wheelwrights, the Kailis, the Lukovs, the Graces, the McArthurs, the Nemrows, the Mehas, the Fords, the Kesters, the Lesumas, the Rams, and so on. Consecrated lives are joined together to create a new union that both enjoys the blessing of the Lord and worships together and unitedly works to love and be good and take on together the name of Christ.

Notice this description by Elder Marion D. Hanks of the meaning of the temple and temple ordinances, including the marriage ceremony:

“The first and the last of Temple work relates to him [Christ]—the cleansing through his redeeming love (and the blessings), the symbolic journey back into the presence of the divine—all of this coming through the atoning sacrifice of the Savior who declared “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” [John 14:6]—and the culminating moment at the altar when clasped hands point toward the indescribable love of the Lord in what he did and what he paid and what he suffered—in all of this there is only one theme, so far as I am concerned. Every stop along the way where we learn principles and make covenants relates us directly to him and the way he lived and the principles central to his holy life” (quoted in  Religions of the World: A Latter-day Saint View, 269).

Significantly, the same things that are required of one and help one after the gate of baptism—that is, pressing forward with steadfastness in Christ, with a hope in Christ, and with the love of Christ, all the while feasting upon the word of Christ—are the same things that will propel this new creation, this new union of two, along the path of becoming like Christ. And just as disciples have the Holy Ghost to help and change them, so the marriage has the Holy Ghost to help and change and unify them, to make them like Christ.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent” (John 17:3). Eternal life is to know Him, both knowing about Him but more knowing Him because, by the experience of following along the path, He has revealed Himself, and we have been made like Him. Note this passage from the Doctrine and Covenants, speaking about the gate and the law of marriage that leads to exaltation (so what’s being said here will apply to the married couple):

For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me. But if ye receive me in the world, then shall ye know me, and shall receive your exaltation; that where I am ye shall be also. This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law. (D&C 132:22-24)

We receive and know God fully by (among other things) receiving all He has to give through the ordinances, including eternal marriage. We come to know Him fully, together as husband and wife.

I’ve brought us to marriage and therefore to the door of family. That is a talk for another day, but this lays, I hope, a foundation in thinking about why and how marriage fits in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A uniting of a man and a woman, equally yoked disciples under covenant (and therefore under the obligations of the covenant, but also the blessings) is the ideal laid out in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. In saying this, I know there will be many who are not married but who want to be, some whose marriages are not ideal, and others who have, for good reasons, divorced. Such talks like this may, at times, be painful, saddening, or just plain annoying. 

I understand this completely. I was well into my thirties before Jennifer and I were married. I know what it’s like to want to be married but not be. Generally speaking, I was trying to be as good a disciple the years before I met and married Jennifer as I was after. 

Similarly, Jennifer and I have never been able to have children. There are some experiences and blessings, therefore, that we do not have. We see and know that, but we also know that the key point in all of this is to be committed, covenant-keeping disciples wherever we are, whatever the context—to be one with God, seeking to do His will here and now. The way will unfold in God’s own time and way; the crucial thing is to be following our Lord. While some blessings and responsibilities may be out of reach for now, God also opens up a multitude of doors for doing good, for finding joy, for being disciples and building His kingdom in our various circumstances. In all our living, ideal and not ideal, we will find that if we are established in our discipleship, pressing forward along the path, His grace is sufficient, His love overflows.

I testify of the reality of our Savior and His love. It reaches to all of us, whatever our condition. We follow Him on the path, individually, as friends and fellow travelers, as a Church, in our marriages, and in our families. I am grateful for the truth taught in the restored gospel that united as husband and wife we may follow Him fully and unreservedly on the path of Eternal Life. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.