The Pathway of Discipleship

By Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

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From a talk given at a Church Educational System fireside at BYU on 4 January 1998.The road of discipleship … requires sturdy, all-weather souls who are constant in every season of life and who are not easily stalled or thrown off course.

When striving disciples reflect deeply upon this mortal experience, it becomes clear that we are all immortal individuals whose ever-present challenge is to apply immortal principles to life’s constantly changing situations. With this perspective, we can improve our daily performances because we fix our gaze on eternity and its great realities.

Though we share immortality, our individual traits, talents, trials, opportunities, and circumstances vary widely. Even so, whatever the particular, passing mortal situation, all of the individuals involved are immortals with immense possibilities. C. S. Lewis put this so well when he said: “It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [1980], 19).

It is a profound thought.

I readily recognize that we live in an increasingly secularized society in which people simply don’t see other humans in this true light. Many don’t even believe in an individualized resurrection. I grant, too, that some also assume an absence of immortal truths and absolute principles. As a result, these people prefer to view humans as being without real behavioral boundaries. Given such disbelieving views, it is no wonder that the ways of the natural man quickly prevail. Whether by giving way to materialism or to the things of the flesh, these individuals live without a knowledge of and a commitment to Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation.

Nevertheless, as striving disciples, you and I must strategically focus on the interaction of immortal individuals and immortal principles as applied to life’s changing tactical situations. It is vital, therefore, for you and for me, in the words of Jacob, to see things “as they really are” and things “as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13). It’s interesting that those who have eyes single to the glory of God are those who see the most of reality.

But this road of discipleship which we are considering here is not easy. It requires sturdy, all-weather souls who are constant in every season of life and who are not easily stalled or thrown off course. Likewise, even with this accurate view of the mortal experience we still need time and the wise use of our moral agency. We still need God’s long-suffering to help us. We need all of these combined in order to gain experience in life. Amid this ongoing process, you and I can actually come to know for ourselves, like Alma of old, who “fasted and prayed many days that I might know” that these immortal principles are true (Alma 5:46).

We can also come to know, through obedience, how much God loves us as his immortal children. It happens just as President Brigham Young said it would: “How shall we know that we obey [God]? There is but one method by which we can know it, and that is by the inspiration of the Spirit of the Lord witnessing unto our spirit that we are His, that we love Him, and that He loves us. It is by the spirit of revelation we know this” (Deseret News Semi-Weekly, 26 Nov. 1867, n.p.). If we can get that witness for ourselves that we are his and that he loves us, then we can cope with and endure well whatever comes in the varied tactical situations of life.

Of course, there are going to be puzzling moments. Nephi had this reaction when he was perplexed: “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:17). We cannot always fully or glibly explain everything that is happening to us or around us, but knowing that God loves us is absolutely crucial. Then, as immortals possessed of immortal principles, we can overcome the mortal trials and we can put the pressing things of the day in precious perspective.

The divine attributes of love, mercy, patience, submissiveness, meekness, purity, and others are attributes we have been directed to develop in each of us (see 3 Ne. 27:27; Mosiah 3:19)—and they cannot be developed in the abstract. These require the clinical experiences—those things through which we are asked to pass. Nor can these attributes be developed in a hurry. Thus the scripture says, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7), referring to the mix of mortal experiences, immortal individuals, and immortal principles. When that interplay occurs and we see things through the lens of the gospel, then we can see more clearly and navigate the road of discipleship.

Another thing will happen: we will become much more aware of and alive to the many possibilities for doing good that are present in life’s daily situations. Even the moments that seem humdrum are full of possibilities. Nothing is really routine.

We must look carefully, therefore, not only at life’s large defining moments but also at the seemingly small moments. Even small acts and brief conversations count, if only incrementally, in the constant shaping of souls, in the strategic swirl of people and principles and tactical situations. What will we bring to all of those moments small and large? Will we do what we can to make our presence count as a needed constant in such fleeting moments, even in micro ways? Do you and I not sometimes say appreciatively of individuals who have helped us, “They were there when we needed them”? Will we reciprocate?

The daily discipleship to which I’m referring is designed to develop the very attributes which are possessed to perfection by Jesus. These attributes emerge from a consciously chosen way of life, one in which we deny ourselves of all ungodliness and we take up the cross daily—not occasionally, not weekly, not monthly. If we are thus determined, then we are emulating yet another quality of our Lord, of whom we read, “And there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it” (Abr. 3:17). True disciples are meek but very determined.

To underscore further the dimensions of discipleship in our mortal experience, one way of looking at the “thou shalt not” commandments is that these prohibitions help us to avoid misery by turning us away from that which is enticing but harmful and wrong. However, once we are settled in terms of the direction of our discipleship and the gross sins are left firmly behind—“misery prevention” it might be called—then the major focus falls upon the “thou shalt” commandments. It is the keeping of the “thou shalt” commandments which brings even greater happiness. True, as the scripture says, “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10), but neither is lukewarmness full happiness. Failing to be valiant in Christian discipleship will leave us without significant happiness. Therefore, our active avoidance of wickedness must be followed by our active engagement in righteousness. Then we can come to know true joy—after all, man is that he might have joy (see 2 Ne. 2:25).

It is very often the sins of omission which keep us from spiritual wholeness, because we still lack certain things. Remember the rich, righteous young man who came to Jesus asking, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. …

“All these things have I kept from my youth up” (Matt. 19:16–17, 20).

And then came Jesus’ searching response: “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, … and come, … and follow me” (Mark 10:21).

A customized commandment thus came for that man. It was something he needed to do, not something he needed to stop doing, that kept him from wholeness.

Furthermore, certain taste buds of our souls may have been burned over by sin, and our Father desires that we regenerate these by repentance. Our Heavenly Father also desires the development of what are presently the many other neglected taste buds of our souls. These, when they are really developed, will bring even greater happiness and true joy.

Wickedness is not the only mortal failure. Yes, the avoidance of wickedness remains ever important, but the sins of omission also represent a haunting failure. How often, may I ask you, do we speak about the need for repentance concerning our sins of omission? Or how often do we make personal confessions of them to God?

There is a memorable scriptural phrase about our need to have “faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15, 16). Faith unto repentance covers both sins of commission and sins of omission. And so the faith of discipleship isn’t simply for life’s crises, though they will come. Rather, it is especially needed to ensure our regular repentance. After all, the scriptures are filled with “thou shalt” commandments and with many exhortations for us to do good. James, for instance, speaks of pure religion, urging us to visit and bless the variously deprived (see James 1:27).

Significantly, James declares that those who would do lasting good should themselves also be good—“unspotted from the world” are his words.

This is no small point. We live in a world in which some individuals do a certain amount of good but do so while breaking the seventh commandment—chastity before marriage and fidelity after. Instructively, in the Book of Mormon we read about a political leader, Morianton, who dealt justly with his people but not with himself. Why not? “Because of his many whoredoms,” the scriptures say (Ether 10:11). This is a fascinating insight regarding the ecology of the soul. If we really want to do much good, we must also be good.

Promptings for us to do good come from the Holy Ghost. These promptings nudge us further along the straight and narrow path of discipleship. The natural man doesn’t automatically think of doing good. It isn’t natural. How many people worry about the car behind them or the person below them? The natural man just doesn’t do it. For us, however, these promptings enlarge our awareness of other people’s needs and then prod us to act accordingly. This is why, I believe, when the Lord speaks of enlarging the soul he adds, in the Doctrine and Covenants, that it must be done “without hypocrisy” (D&C 121:42). Our personal righteousness, more than we know, governs how much good we can do.

It is sadly true, as we all know, that many on this planet hunger for bread, but many also hunger deeply to experience the reassuring eloquence of example. This represents a desperate need which is incumbent upon us to provide as part of our discipleship.

You and I all know individuals who do much quiet good by following the scriptural injunction about lifting up the hands that hang down (see Heb. 12:12; D&C 81:5). Some of those hands which hang down once grasped the iron rod and then let go, having simply given up. Hence, those hands need to be reached for because they will not be proffered by such discouraged individuals.

But it takes faith to persist in doing good, particularly quiet good for which there is no recognition. Otherwise, why bother? Therefore, faith in Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation is needed not just for life’s turbulent, traumatic moments but also for daily life’s seemingly small but nevertheless defining moments.

Will we, for instance, remember our true identity as we move through daily life? How much sin occurs because people momentarily forget who they really are?

Will we, for instance, always remember that our behavior must be connected with our beliefs? It must be done without hypocrisy.

The unrelenting reality is that we are never very far away from the need for “faith unto repentance,” including repentance of our sins of omission. Such faith unto repentance is not just for next year or next month or next week but also for tomorrow.

One of the seemingly small things involves being more willing than we sometimes are to give the needed conversational correctives instead of merely going along silently with the prevailing tide of discussion.

The small conversational correctives matter so much. If we have that quality, we will appreciate what General Robert E. Lee reportedly did on one occasion. Asked for his opinion of a military colleague, Lee replied candidly but generously, after which the questioner said in effect, “Well, he doesn’t speak so highly of you.”General Lee replied: “Sir, you have asked me for my opinion of him not his opinion of me” (see Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience [1979], 78–79). Lee had, as one writer described another leader, “furnished his mind with fixed principles” (Walter Bagehot). If you and I can process life’s tactical situations through minds furnished with fixed principles, integrity is the result.

We can be of so much service to others in many “thou shalt” ways. Of course, the problem is that rendering such service takes time and we are all so busy. Some situations may call for service that somehow seems to be beneath us. Besides, we have other things to do. The “thou shalts” are so convenient to put off. Who will notice the procrastination anyway? After all, we are not robbing a bank. Or are there forms of withholding which constitute stealing?

Consider a conversation again, and this conversation was arranged for by an angel:

“And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go. …

“And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,

“Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.

“Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.”

Notice the significant language:

“And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?

“And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:26–31; emphasis added).

How many times are we too busy to “come up and sit” with someone who needs conversation? You and I have divine promptings all the time encouraging us to do good, but we often deflect them instead of doing like Phillip, who “ran thither.”

We sometimes give needed physical cloaks to warm people and to cover them, and it is good that we do. How often do you and I also give what the scriptures call the “garment of praise” (Isa. 61:3)? The “garment of praise” is often more desperately needed than the physical cloak. In any case, as we all know, these needs are all around us, every day. There are so many ways we can “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).

We can also be generous when there are interpersonal differences of opinion. Generosity and fairness are marks of character. Compared to his early days in Parliament, Winston Churchill later developed the capacity to be generous, including to his rivals. This was seen in his tribute to the just deceased Neville Chamberlain, whom he had earlier replaced as prime minister. Churchill had once described Chamberlain as looking at foreign affairs through a “municipal drain pipe.” Nevertheless, on the occasion of the tribute for Chamberlain, Churchill said, “In one of the supreme crises of the world [our colleague was] contradicted by events.” Churchill went on to praise Chamberlain, saying: “The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. … With this shield, … we march always in the ranks of honour” (quoted in Neal A. Maxwell, Meek and Lowly [1987], 23). How generous of Churchill. “Contradicted by events” was intended to explain Chamberlain’s gross and naive failures regarding the rise of Hitlerism.

In each of life’s situations, large or small, if you and I will bring fixed principles and strive to be more like Jesus, including his generosity, then we will be living abundantly and not just existing. The Book of Mormon has those fascinating phrases about our moral agency whereby we are to act for ourselves and not merely be acted upon (see 2 Ne. 2:16, 26; Hel. 14:30).

While we are not always free to choose just when and how all of life’s interactions will occur, we are nevertheless free to choose our responses to these moments. Since we can’t compute beforehand all our responses—there may be no time in which to ponder how we will respond—it becomes vital to set our course as immortals on the basis of immortal principles applied as reflexively as possible. If, for example, one determines that he will keep the seventh commandment, then his applying this fixed principle will result in temptations either being deliberately avoided in the first place or being quickly deflected. All of this can be achieved without great thought, risk, or needless anxiety. If we are truly attached to immortal principles, some decisions need to be made only once, really, and then righteous reflexes can do the rest. Absent such fixed determinations, however, one can be tossed to and fro by temptations which then require case-by-case agonizing.

The same could be said of honesty in business or integrity in human relationships. Each day interactions occur relentlessly involving people, principles, and circumstances.

One of the things we can do to help us develop those reflexes is to further develop our scriptural literacy, so that, as Nephi prescribed, we can “liken all scriptures unto [ourselves]” (1 Ne. 19:23). Each day challenges arise, responses are given, and decisions are made. Will it be in the setting of fixed principles, however, as has been emphasized?

To the rising generation of youth and young adults in the Church, I say that scriptural memories, spiritual memories, can be lost in a generation: “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10). In one generation!

When the scriptures are either not available or are not searched and believed, then two things happen—a loss of belief in God and a loss of belief in the resurrection: “They had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator” (Omni 1:17).

“Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.

“They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ” (Mosiah 26:1–2).

Those vital things always go first, and they can go within a generation unless we truly are feasting upon the scriptures. Feasting on the scriptures, combined with the gift of the Holy Ghost, will “show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:5).

I testify to you that the scriptures give us nourishment for every season of life, and the Holy Ghost can prompt us in all moments so that we can, in fact, be blessed with insight and reassurance.

What can deter our feasting on the scriptures? Jesus warned, “The care[s] of this world … choke the word” (Matt. 13:22). They surely do. Those choked with the pleasures of the world have no time for scriptures. Some actually have pleasure in unrighteousness. Here again we see the natural man gravitating toward the cares and pleasures of this world.

In the cumulative process of living, today’s small inflection for good adds to what becomes tomorrow’s mountain of character. A bad inflection in a defining moment, however, gouges a little more in what later becomes the eroded gully channeling us so swiftly into the “gulf of misery” (2 Ne. 1:13). Life’s experiences of boredom, exhilaration, deprivation, conflict, compromise, mistakes, successes, resentments, loving, excluding, belonging, repenting, and forgiving swirl about us constantly. How will immortal principles be applied by immortal individuals to these swirling situations?

This is why the plan of salvation, which is so extremely important, came with the Restoration, so we can understand life and the discipleship being described here. If people misunderstand life, this leads to murmuring, rebellion, and irreligion. Of Laman and Lemuel we read, “They knew not the dealings of that God who had created them” (1 Ne. 2:12). Without gospel perspective in our lives we just won’t “get it” either. Special moments will come and go unused and unnoticed. How we manage those moments in daily life ends up either developing character or disintegrating character.

Mercifully, when we make mistakes we can recover and learn from them by “faith unto repentance.” We cannot, of course, relive a particular moment in our lives, but we can use it as a spiritual spur to remake ourselves. We need not let yesterday hold tomorrow hostage.

It is for each of us as immortals to make of these moments in daily life that which eternal principles would have us do. We as Church members have a tremendous challenge in being equal to our theology and our opportunity. We fall short. If we stumble, let us arise and continue the climb. The Lord will bless us because we are possessed of truths about “things as they really are, and … things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13). These truths beckon us, even in our imperfections, to be better.

I wish to share what seems to me to be a profound window of divine disclosure through which we are permitted to look. As is the case with many scriptures, there are many multiple meanings. I wish to note one from that moment in which Enoch, in the presence of the Lord, was permitted to see the trauma of the people in the time of Noah. The principle to be noted is that we do not always weep alone:

“And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people [the Noachians], and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?

“And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity and to all eternity?” (Moses 7:28–29).

And then came the marvelous response from God:

“The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;

“And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:32–33).

“Wherefore,” continued the Lord, “for this shall the heavens weep, yea, and all the workmanship of mine hands.

“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:40–41).

An absolutely supernal, marvelous insight! Our Father in Heaven is so tender even for his most mistaken children.

Enoch began to rejoice when God told him of Jesus’ coming in the meridian of time and the Atonement. He rejoiced again when God told him of the great latter-day Restoration.

Not always, but more than we know, when we are confronted in the human circumstance with the difference between what could be and what is, we do not weep alone!

As we consider the application of immortal principles to mortal situations, I feel to add these thoughts in friendship and counsel.

Do not expect the world to esteem the seventh commandment—chastity before marriage and fidelity after. Some people in the world will genuinely fret over the consequences of its violation, such as staggering and unprecedented illegitimacy and marital breakdowns. However, sexual immorality per se will still not be condemned by the secular world as long as the violators have any commendable qualities at all or as long as they are, in some respect, politically correct. We will have to keep the seventh commandment because it is spiritually correct, not because we will get much support from society’s other institutions.

A second suggestion: as you pursue your discipleship and observe the human scene, do not be surprised or unnerved by the natural man’s relentless push for preeminence and power. It really reflects the premortal psychodrama. Nor should you be surprised over the efforts of so many to cover their sins or to gratify their vain ambition (see D&C 121:37).

Be grateful, therefore, for the gospel’s emphasis on meekness. Be careful of the natural man’s milder expressions—craving for credit and rustling for recognition. Alas, so often the hearts and even the moral agency of others can be crushed in the search for self-glorification.

In the push for preeminence and power, one individual sought the role of Redeemer, saying, “Send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost … ; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). God would never have permitted a different Babe to be born at Bethlehem, of course; nor would he have permitted the destruction of the agency of mankind with all its implications for a very different mortal experience. What happened, as you know, is that precious Jesus stepped forward and said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). He was the Babe born at Bethlehem!

Remarkable Restoration windows such as these are provided for our instruction in this dispensation, if we will ponder over them and make their insights a part of our discipleship.

Jesus Christ has shown the meaning of the mortal experience by the eloquence of his example and by his having led the way for us in every particular, including his gallantry during the agonies of the Atonement, which he declared caused him to tremble in pain, “and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18). Not shrinking is more important than surviving, and Jesus is our exemplar. I salute him for the eloquence of his example. I express my everlasting gratitude to the Father for the superb plan of happiness, and, with you, my appreciation for the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and plead that each of us might not deflect these but might receive them as indicators of how much more we could do if we were more serious disciples, willing ever to give the honor and the praise and the glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Electronic compositions by Charles M. Baird and Mark G. Budd

Photo © Comstock

Detail from Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann, courtesy of C. Harrison Conroy Co.

Right: photo of man kneeling by Welden C. Andersen; background: photo © FPG International

Right: photo of hand by Craig Dimond; background: photo © FPG International

Photo by Craig Dimond; background: photo © FPG International