The Magnificence of Man


Russell M. Nelson
This is an edited version of a talk delivered at Brigham Young University on 29 March 1987.

The Magnificence of Man

I invite you to ponder things magnificent. The word magnificent is derived from two Latin roots. The prefix magni- comes from a term meaning “great,” and the suffix comes from the Latin facere, meaning “to make” or “to do.” A simple definition of magnificent, then, might be “great deed” or “greatly made.”

Think of the most magnificent sight you have ever seen. It could be a meadow in springtime filled with beautiful wildflowers. Or perhaps you have been awestruck, as have I, at the magnificence of a single rose. I have come to appreciate the magnificence of an orange, with each droplet of juice packaged in an edible container, joined with many other packets, grouped in sections, and all neatly wrapped in a disposable, biodegradable peel.

Some would say the most magnificent sight they have ever beheld is looking heavenward on a summer night, seeing stars beyond number dotting the sky. Those who have traveled in orbit through space say that their view of planet earth was one of the most magnificent sights ever observed by man.

Some might choose the view of the Grand Canyon at sunrise; others, the beauty of a mountain lake, river, waterfall, or desert. Some might select a peacock with its tail in full fan, or a handsome horse. Others would nominate the beauty of butterfly wings, or a hummingbird seemingly suspended in midair while feeding. These magnificent sights are wondrous beyond measure. They are all “great deeds” of our divine Creator.

Now, ponder the magnificence of what you see when you look in the mirror. Ignore the freckles, the unruly hair, or the blemishes, and look beyond to see the real you—a child of God—created by him, in his image.

If we peek beyond what we see in the mirror and lift the lid on the treasure chest of the marvelous attributes of our bodies, we can discover, at least in part, the magnificence of man.

Embryonic Development

In the first compartment of the treasure chest, we might look at the magnificence of human creation itself.

We don’t know precisely how two germ cells unite to become a human embryo, but we do know that both the female cell and the male cell contain all the new individual’s hereditary material and information, stored in a space so small it cannot be seen by the naked eye. Twenty-three chromosomes from both the father and the mother unite in one new cell. These chromosomes contain thousands of genes. A marvelous process of genetic coding is established, by which all the basic human characteristics of the unborn person are determined. A new DNA complex is thus formed, and a continuum of growth is instituted—which results in a new human being. Approximately twenty-two days after two germ cells unite, a little heart begins to beat. At twenty-six days blood begins to circulate. Cells multiply and divide, some becoming differentiated to become eyes that see. Some become ears that hear, while others are destined to become fingers.

Specific Organs

In our treasure chest of understanding, each jewel merits admiration, appreciation, and awe. The eyes with which we see are magnificent. No doubt you have stood before the mirror, as have I, watching pupils react to changes in the intensity of light—dilating to let more light in, constricting to reduce the light allowed to reach the eyes’ sensitive retinas. A self-focusing lens is at the front of each eye. Nerves and muscles synchronize the function of two separate eyes to produce one three-dimensional image. Eyes are connected to the brain, ready to record sights seen. No cords, no batteries, no external connections are needed; our visual apparatus is marvelous—infinitely more priceless than any camera money can buy.

If we admire good stereophonic equipment for sensing sound, we can appreciate the magnificence of the human ear. Compacted into an area about the size of a marble is all the equipment needed to perceive sound. A tiny tympanic membrane serves as the diaphragm. Minute ossicles amplify the signal, which is then transmitted along nerve lines to the brain, which registers the result of hearing. This marvelous sound system is also connected to the recording instrument of the brain.

A large portion of my life’s study and research has been focused on the jewel of the human heart—a pump so magnificent that its power is almost beyond our comprehension. To control the direction of flow of blood within it, there are four important valves, pliable as a parachute and delicate as a dainty silk scarf. They open and close over one hundred thousand times a day—over thirty-six million times a year. Yet, unless altered by disease, they are so rugged that they can stand this kind of wear seemingly indefinitely. No man-made material developed thus far can be flexed so frequently and for so long without breaking.

The amount of work the heart does is amazing. Each day it pumps enough fluid to fill a 2,000-gallon tank. The work it performs daily is equivalent to lifting a 150-pound man to the top of the Empire State Building, while consuming only about four watts of energy—less than that used by a small light bulb in your home.

At the crest of the heart is an electrical generator that transmits energy down special lines, causing myriads of muscle fibers to beat in coordination and in rhythm. This synchrony would be the envy of any orchestra’s conductor.

All this power is condensed in the human heart—only about the size of one’s fist, yet energized from within by an endowment from on high.

One of the most wondrous of all jewels in this treasure chest is the human brain with its intricate combination of power cells and recording, memory, storage, and retrieval systems. The brain serves as headquarters for the personality and character of each human being. The capacity of the brain is seemingly infinite. Wise men can become even wiser as each experience builds upon previous experience. Indeed, continuing exercise of the intellect brings forth increased intellectual capacity.

Each time I marvel at a computer and admire the work it can do, I respect even more the mind of man, which developed the computer. The human brain is certainly a recording instrument that will participate in our judgment one day as we stand before the Lord. The Book of Mormon speaks of the “bright recollection” (see Alma 11:43) and “perfect remembrance” (see Alma 5:18) we will have then. Each one of us carries that recording instrument guarded within the vault of the human skull.

We could spend hours—even a lifetime—studying the incredible chemical capacity of the liver, the kidneys, and any or all of the endocrine and exocrine glands of the body. Each is a shimmering jewel, worthy of our study and our deepest gratitude.

Conceptual Considerations

Now let us turn our attention to jewels in another compartment in the treasure chest of understanding. Let us consider some concepts that go beyond that of individual organ systems.

The first concept I would mention is that of reserve, or backup. In the theater, major actors have understudies. In electrical instruments, backup in the event of a power failure may be provided by batteries. Think of the backup provided by a number of paired body organs such as the eyes, ears, lungs, adrenal glands, and kidneys. In the event of illness, injury, or loss of one of these organs, the other is there ready to keep our bodily functions intact. In the event of loss of sight or hearing altogether, other sensory powers become augmented in a miraculous manner.

Some backup systems are not so apparent. For example, crucial single organs, like the brain, the heart, and the liver, are all nourished by two routes of circulation, which minimizes damage in the event of loss of blood flow through any single blood vessel.

Another dimension of backup is that of collateral pathways. For example, if our nasal passageways are obstructed by a stuffy nose, we may breathe through our mouths. Similarly, collateral pathways may grow in the event of obstruction or severance of blood vessels or nerves.

Consider another concept—the body’s self-defense. As I watched some three-year-old children playing one day, I saw them lap water from the sidewalk after it had spilled through a neighbor’s garden. The germs they ingested were incalculable in number, but not one of those children became ill. As soon as that germ-infested water reached their stomachs, hydrochloric acid went to work to purify the water and to protect those innocent children’s lives.

Think of the protection provided by the skin. Could you make, or even conjure in your mind how to create, a cloak that would protect you and at the same time perceive and warn against injuries that excessive heat or cold might cause? The skin does that. It even gives signals which indicate that another part of the body is ailing. The skin can flush and sweat with fever. When one is frightened or ill, it pales. When one is embarrassed, it blushes. It is replete with nerve fibers that communicate and often limit possible harm through perception of pain.

Pain itself is part of the body’s defense mechanism. For example, sensory areas of the mouth guard the delicate esophagus, which has very few nerve fibers. Like a sentinel, the mouth receives warnings that protect the tender esophagus from becoming burned from drinks that are too hot.

The body also produces chemical antibodies in response to infections. These antibodies not only combat infection; they also persist with memory to strengthen resistance in days to come. When military conscription was required in World War II, soldiers from isolated rural areas had much less immunity and were more prone to infections than were those from highly populated urban areas, whose resistance was better developed.

Closely related to the concept of self-defense is that of self-repair. Broken bones mend and become strong once again. If I were to break one of the legs of a chair, that leg would never heal itself. Yet many of us walk on legs that once were broken. Lacerations of the skin heal themselves. A leak in the circulation will seal itself. Circulatory systems outside the body do not have this power—something I gained appreciation for early in my research career when working to create an artificial heart-lung machine. Whenever tubing in the machine sprang a leak, it meant long hours cleaning up in the lab. Never did a leak in the machine seal itself.

The concept of self-renewal is remarkable. Each body cell is created and then regenerated from the earth’s elements according to the “recipe” or formula contained within our unique genes. The average red blood corpuscle, for example, lives about 120 days. Then it dies and is replaced by another. Each time we bathe, thousands of dead and dying cells are scrubbed away and replaced by a younger crop. To my thinking, this process of self-renewal prefigures the process of resurrection.

Another remarkable concept is that of auto-regulation. In spite of wide fluctuations in the temperature of man’s environment, the body’s temperature is carefully controlled within certain narrow bounds.

Have you wondered why you can’t swim under water very long? Auto-regulation limits the time you can hold your breath. As breath is held, carbon dioxide accumulates. Partial pressure of carbon dioxide is monitored continuously by two carotid bodies situated in the neck. They transmit signals through nerves to the brain, which then sends stimuli to muscles of respiration, causing them to work so that we might inhale a new refreshment of oxygen and eliminate the carbon dioxide.

The number of such systems exceeds our ability to enumerate them. Sodium, potassium, water, glucose, protein, and nitrogen are but a few of the many constituents continuously monitored by chemical regulators within our bodies.

Consider the concept of adaptation. People on the earth dwell amidst climatic and dietary differences of vast variety. Eskimos in the Arctic Circle consume a diet with a large component of fat, which is acceptable and even necessary to sustain life in a cold climate. Polynesians, on the other hand, eat a diet appropriate for a tropical environment. These different groups work and adapt to varying conditions and to the foods that are available where they live.

The concept of identity in reproduction is marvelous to contemplate. Each of us possesses seeds that carry our unique chromosomes and genes, which help determine specific cellular identity for our children. For this reason, tissues surgically transplanted from one person to another can only survive if the host’s immune response, which clearly recognizes tissues foreign to one’s own inherited genetic formula, is suppressed. Truly we are blessed with the power to have children born in the likeness of parents on earth as well as in heaven.

As we consider self-defense, self-repair, and self-renewal, an interesting paradox emerges. Limitless life could result if these marvelous qualities of the body continued in perpetuity. If we could create anything that could defend itself, repair itself, and renew itself without limit, we could create perpetual life. That was what our Creator did with the bodies he created for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If they had eaten the fruit of the tree of life, they would have lived forever. According to the Lord as revealed through his prophets, the fall of Adam instituted the aging process, which ultimately results in physical death. We do not understand all the chemistry, but we are witnesses of the consequences of growing old. Those consequences assure us that there is a limit to the length of life upon the earth.

Of course, our bodies can develop troubles that do not repair themselves with time. Death, when it comes, may seem untimely to our mortal minds. But we need to have a larger view—that death is part of life. Alma tells us that “it was not expedient that man should be reclaimed from this temporal death, for that would destroy the great plan of happiness.” (Alma 42:8; see also D&C 29:32.)

When severe illness or tragic injuries claim an individual in the prime of life, we can take comfort in this fact: The very laws which could not allow life to persist here are the same eternal laws that will be implemented at the time of the resurrection, when that body “shall be restored to [its] proper and perfect frame.” (Alma 40:23.)

Thoughts of life, death, and resurrection bring us to face crucial questions. How were we made? By whom? And why?

Created by God

Through the ages, some without scriptural understanding have tried to explain our existence by pretentious words such as ex nihilo (out of nothing). Others have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been a natural selection of the species, or organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these people have concluded that the universe began as a “big bang” that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it.

To me, such theories are unbelievable! Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable! Even if it could be argued to be within a remote realm of possibility, such a dictionary could certainly not heal its own torn pages or renew its own worn corners or reproduce its own subsequent editions!

We are children of God, created by him and formed in his image. Recently I studied the scriptures to find how many times they testify of the divine creation of man. Looking up references that referred to create, form (or their derivatives), with either man, men, male, or female in the same verse, I found that there are at least fifty-five verses of scripture that attest to our divine creation. I have selected one to represent all the verses that convey the same conclusion:

“The Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness. …

“So the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them.” (Abr. 4:26, 27.)

Spiritual Discernment

I believe all of those scriptures that pertain to the creation of man. But the decision to believe is a spiritual one, not made solely by an understanding of things physical, for we read that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14.)

It is incumbent upon each informed and spiritually attuned person to help overcome such foolishness of men who would deny divine creation or think that man simply evolved. By the Spirit, we perceive the truer and more believable wisdom of God.

With great conviction, I add my testimony to that of my fellow Apostle Paul, who said, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” (1 Cor. 3:16, 17.)

Duality of Man

The Lord said that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15.) Therefore, each one of us is a dual being—a biological (physical) entity, and an intellectual (spiritual) entity. In the beginning, man, the intellectual entity, was with God. Our intelligence “was not created or made,” nor can it be. (See D&C 93:29.)

That spirit, joined with a physical body of such remarkable qualities, becomes a living soul of supernal worth. The psalmist so expressed this thought:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained;

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? …

“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.” (Ps. 8:3–5.)

Why were we created? Why are we here? Why are we upon the earth?

God has made it plain over and over again that the world was made for mankind. We are here to work out our divine destiny, according to an eternal plan that was presented to us in the great council of heaven. Our bodies have been created to accommodate our spirits, to allow us to experience the challenges of mortality and continue our eternal progression.

Avoid Desecration of the Physical Temple

When we understand our nature and our purpose on earth, and that our bodies are physical temples of God, we will realize that it is sacrilege to let anything enter the body that might defile it. It is irreverent to let even the gaze of our precious eyesight or the sensors of our touch or hearing supply the brain with memories that are unclean or unworthy.

Could any of us lightly regard precious seeds of reproduction—specifically and uniquely ours—or disregard the moral laws of God, who gave divine rules concerning their sacred use?

We know we are children of God—that he created us and that he has given us agency to choose. We also know that we are accountable to him. He has defined the truth and prescribed commandments. Obedience to his law will bring us joy. Disobedience of those commandments is defined as sin. Because we live in a world that seems increasingly reluctant to designate dishonorable deeds as sinful, the scriptures warn us: “Fools make a mock at sin: but among the righteous there is favour.” (Prov. 14:9.)

No one is perfect. Some may have sinned grievously in transgressing God’s laws. But God is merciful. We can repent and learn to control our appetites of the flesh.

Substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and harmful drugs are forbidden by the Lord. We have similarly been warned about the evils of pornography and unclean thoughts. Appetites for these degrading forces can become addictive. In time, physical or mental addictions enslave both the body and the spirit. Full repentance from these shackles, or from any other yokes of sin, must be accomplished in this life, while we still have the aid of a mortal body to help us develop self-mastery.

When we truly know our divine nature, we will want to control our appetites. We will focus our eyes on sights, our ears on sounds, and our minds on thoughts that are a credit to our physical creation as a temple of our Father in Heaven. In daily prayer, we will gratefully acknowledge him as our Creator and thank him for the magnificence of our physical temple. We will heed his counsel.

More Yet to Learn

Though we cannot fully comprehend the magnificence of man, when we understand more about our nature, we may join with Jacob in this marvelous declaration:

“Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. …

“For behold, by the power of his word man came upon the face of the earth, which earth was created by the power of his word. …

“Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand.” (Jacob 4:8–10.)

For years I have attended scientific meetings of learned societies. Thousands of medical scientists and practitioners from all over the world participate in such assemblies annually, to learn about the latest scientific discoveries and procedures in the field of medicine.

The quest for knowledge is endless. It seems that the more we know, the more there is yet to learn. It is impossible that man may learn all the ways of God. But if we are faithful and are deeply rooted in the scriptural accounts of God’s magnificent creations, we will be better able to understand future scientific discoveries. All truth is compatible because it all emanates from God.

Beware of False Doctrine

Of course, we know that “there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) In the world, even many so-called “educators” teach ideas that are contrary to divine truth. We must be mindful of this prophetic counsel:

“O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

“But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (2 Ne. 9:28–29.)

We need not be reminded that the work and glory of the Lord are opposed by the forces of Satan, the master of deceit. Remember, “Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave.” (JS—H 1:71, footnote.)

Let us be wise and keep away from temptations and snares. Let us cautiously avoid “foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” (1 Tim. 6:9.) Let us “flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” Let us “fight the good fight of faith” and “lay hold on eternal life.” (1 Tim. 6:11–12.)

Spiritual Dominion

The magnificence of man is matchless. But, glorious as this physical tabernacle is, the body is designed to support something even more glorious—the eternal spirit, which dwells in each of our mortal frames. The great accomplishments of this life are rarely physical. Those attributes by which we shall be judged one day are spiritual. With the blessing of our bodies to assist us, we may develop spiritual qualities of honesty, integrity, compassion, and love. Only with the development of the spirit may we acquire “faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, [and] diligence.” (D&C 4:6.)

Let us pattern our lives after our great Exemplar, even Jesus the Christ, whose parting words among men included this eternal challenge: “What manner of men ought ye to be? … even as I am.” (3 Ne. 27:27.)

We are sons and daughters of God. He is our Father; we are his children. Our divine inheritance is the magnificence of man. I pray that we may honor and magnify it.