Few mortals share with Alma the Younger or Paul the Apostle the dramatic experiences which resulted in their spiritual rebirths over short periods of time. In fact, I believe those experiences are recorded in the scriptures not to define the time frame during which one may be reborn but to provide a vivid picture of what the accumulated, subtle changes are that take place in a faithful person over a lifetime.
For most of us, trying to be Christlike is a lifelong process and comes “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Ne. 28:30). Most of us, if faithful, are baptized “with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites … were baptized … and they knew it not” (3 Ne. 9:20). In other words, spiritual rebirth is a gradual process for most individuals. At any point in time the changes are almost imperceptible; indeed, many of us worry that we are not becoming more Christlike even though we are.
Given the lifelong task of receiving Christ’s image in our countenances, I wish to discuss three key phases in building a Christlike life: developing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, losing oneself in the service of others, and being refined by enduring trials and tribulations with a soft heart.
The Apostle Peter describes the process of building a Christ-centered life as one of accepting the great and precious promises of the Lord in order to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). As one accepts and is obedient to the covenants associated with our Heavenly Father’s promises of a Savior, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and eternal life, one’s nature is changed as virtue is added to faith, followed by knowledge (or testimony), temperance (or self-discipline), patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity (see 2 Pet. 1:5–8). King Benjamin describes the same process: one builds a Christ-centered life by yielding “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” and accepting the promises, both of which help one put off the natural man or woman and become a Saint through the Atonement, and become as a little child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, and willing to submit to all things (see Mosiah 3:19). A key promise of the Father is the gift of the Holy Ghost, whose purpose is to lead us along the strait and narrow path helping each person develop unshakable faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:33; 2 Ne. 31:18–21). If one makes and keeps gospel covenants, he or she will yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and become a Christ-centered person.
It is interesting to note that the first characteristic of the divine nature mentioned by Peter is faith, meaning faith in the Father and the Son and in the plan of salvation. The process of building a Christ-centered life must be based on and begin with the first principle of the gospel. The Prophet Joseph Smith spoke of this subject:
“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 348).
Years ago as a missionary, I taught investigators that faith was a belief strong enough to cause one to act. In other words, one could define faith as “belief plus “witness.” The Prophet Joseph Smith changed one word when translating Paul’s definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1 [Heb. 11:1]. The King James Version says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Joseph Smith changed the word substance to assurance (see JST, Heb. 11:1). Substance means something tangible, something that one can hold, whereas assurance refers to an inner conviction or witness that comes from the Holy Ghost. Thus, faith is belief plus action plus a spiritual witness.
Adding spiritual witness to the definition of faith is consistent with Alma’s description of how faith grows within one’s soul. Alma says that the first step is to believe. A person can begin the process “even if [he or she] can no more than desire to believe” (Alma 32:27). President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, expressed Alma’s thought in the following way: “You exercise faith by causing, or by making, your mind accept or believe as truth that which you cannot, by reason alone, prove for certainty.
“The first exercising of your faith should be your acceptance of Christ and His atonement” (“Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 60).
Alma’s second step is to plant the seed in the heart and nourish it with care (see Alma 32:28, 37). This is the “action” portion of the definition. Alma explains that the seed is the word, meaning the words of the living prophets and the scriptures. “Word” also refers to Christ (see John 1:1), who is the “author of [our] eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9). The planting and nourishing of gospel principles in the heart and soul involves diligent searching of the scriptures and the words of the living prophets and then obedience to those words.
For those who pray with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, the Holy Ghost will answer their prayers and reveal the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon to them (see Moro. 10:3–5). In Alma’s terms, the seeker of truth will feel a swelling motion, the seed will taste delicious, and the understanding will begin to be enlightened and the soul enlarged. This is the “witness” step in the faith process. The Holy Spirit gives witness to the honest seeker that his or her hopes are true even though outward evidence may not be available. Thus, it is as President Packer said: “As you test gospel principles by believing without knowing, the Spirit will begin to teach you. Gradually your faith will be replaced with knowledge” (Ensign, Nov. 1994, 60), even your own witness or personal knowledge.
The importance of this process as a foundation for developing a Christ-centered life was impressed upon me many times when, as a stake president, I interviewed returning missionaries. One interview in particular left an indelible impression on me when a young man shared an experience that had changed his life. This elder had spent two years serving a mission in Mexico. Like many others, his gospel foundation had been somewhat shaky before he entered the missionary training center. But as the interview progressed, I could tell that significant changes had occurred within him.
After a few weeks in the field, this elder had become concerned that he was telling people that the Book of Mormon was true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet when he didn’t know for himself. How could he assure others when he did not have his own assurance? In discussing the problem with him, his companion challenged him to follow the counsel he was giving investigators: read the Book of Mormon and pray with a sincere heart, with real intent, even if he could only desire to believe.
A month went by and my friend’s feelings did not change. He read parts of the Book of Mormon and prayed daily that he would know the truthfulness of the message, but nothing happened. Two or three more weeks passed. He was obedient in his scripture study, prayers, tracting, and teaching, but he still lacked conviction.
As this missionary and his companion were tracting during the third week, they made an appointment to teach a new family the next evening. When they arrived home that night, the elder, who, at his companion’s request, had agreed to teach the Joseph Smith story to the new investigators, began reading the Book of Mormon again. He read and prayed and then read some more. He was determined to have an answer before teaching the family. Through most of the night he repeated the pattern of reading and praying. As morning came he was disappointed; no swelling motions, no particular enlightenment or feeling had been received.
He dutifully followed his companion during the day but worried about the evening appointment. When the hour came, they knocked on the door. The husband answered and ushered them into a small home. Sitting on the dirt floor were nine children, and the father joined the mother behind them. Soon it was time for the struggling elder to teach his part of the lesson. He began by describing rather methodically young Joseph’s confusion regarding which church to join and his subsequent prayer on a beautiful spring day in 1820 in a secluded wooded area near his father’s farm.
As the elder reached the point in the story where the Father introduced the Son, saying, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17), a warm feeling began to envelop him, starting in the deep recesses of his soul. Within moments, it had filled his entire being, and he began to cry. He dropped his head in embarrassment. Why was he crying? What were these feelings? He had never felt them before. The feelings were sweet and penetrated his very being. As thoughts rushed through his mind, he realized that he knew that the Father and the Son had appeared to the boy Joseph, that the Book of Mormon was true, and that the gospel had been restored. Regaining control of his emotions, he looked up at the father and mother. Tears were streaming down their faces! They were feeling the same powerful influence of the Spirit that he was feeling. He looked at the children. They, too, had tears in their eyes. The Spirit had borne witness to them of the truthfulness of his words. He continued the story and finished with a humble witness that the Father and the Son had appeared to the boy Joseph.
As this elder concluded telling me his story, he said: “President, I never had a problem teaching people after that. I knew the gospel was true, for I knew that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith. I knew why I was in the mission field.”
As I listened, the Holy Spirit bore witness of the extraordinary missionary that the young elder had become. I thought of how efficient Heavenly Father is. The father, the mother, the nine children, and the young missionary were all converted that evening. Twelve were converted that night, whereas only one would have been converted the night before. Moreover, the test required for a witness had been completed. The missionary had been obedient to his companion and to his mission president. He had exerted his desire to believe, and he had acted on that belief. And he now had a more sure hope through the witness of the Spirit!
Did the missionary have a perfect knowledge? Alma would answer yes with respect to Joseph’s experience in the grove, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and the restoration of the gospel! A desire to believe had been replaced by an assurance. But there were still many truths yet to be discovered by the young missionary. In Alma’s words, though “your knowledge is perfect in that thing, … after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good” (Alma 32:34–36). There is still considerable nourishing and caring for the seedling that must take place before a mature tree will emerge and bring forth much fruit. As the prophet Jacob states in the Book of Mormon, unshakable faith comes with many witnesses (see Jacob 4:6).
During the Savior’s earthly ministry, He told His disciples, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). A personal witness teaches one about God and about oneself and one’s purpose, whereas a person untutored by the Holy Spirit is less sure regarding self and life’s meaning. The person who is unenlightened focuses inward and is concerned with self, but once a person receives a spiritual witness and tastes the Savior’s love, he or she is freed from constant introspection and concerns about self. By yielding to the Holy Spirit, such people may put off the natural man, turn their attention outward, and serve others.
Following baptism, a commandment-keeping member seeks to “bear one another’s burdens, … mourn with those that mourn, … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8–9). As we keep the commandments and render that kind of service, the Lord can “pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon [us]” (Mosiah 18:10; see D&C 20:77). The reward for obedience and service is not only the gift of the Holy Ghost but also special gifts of the Spirit. Paul defines the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, and meekness (see Gal. 5:22–23). The Holy Spirit blesses us with Christlike attributes as we serve each other.
Through service to others, we develop a Christlike love and we experience joy. Service teaches patience and long-suffering as well as gentleness, goodness, and faith. The Bruce and Joyce Erickson family of Centerville, Utah, illustrates this process. The Ericksons were blessed with six children, three who are strong and healthy and three who suffered from a rare genetic disease called glutaric acidemia that causes a spastic, permanent type of paralysis (see Bruce and Joyce Erickson, When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair , 280–81).
The two oldest children, Michelle and Lara, were blessed with healthy bodies. Cindy, the third child, was normal for the first seven months of her life, but then the disease overtook her. For 18 years doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. Terror struck the family as they tried to understand and deal with Cindy’s suffering. Sister Erickson sometimes spent seven hours a day trying to feed her, and Cindy cried day and night and seldom slept more than 45 minutes in a 24-hour period. At the time of her death in 1995, Cindy was one of the oldest persons with the disease. She never was able to walk or talk. Her body was constantly racked by the twisting and contracting of her muscles, and she weighed less than 50 pounds as a young adult.
When Cindy reached a point in her development that was a little less demanding, the Ericksons had a fourth child, Heidi, and then a fifth, Heather. Heather developed normally for the first six or seven months, but then she too started showing subtle yet troubling symptoms. Sister Erickson decided to take Heather to a doctor, but he could see nothing wrong. Unconvinced, Sister Erickson made an appointment for Heather to see a physical therapist.
A few days before the appointment, the visiting teachers came by. When they asked how the family was doing, Sister Erickson mentioned her concern about Heather’s development and indicated that she was taking the baby to see a physical therapist on Friday.
“Little did I realize,” Sister Erickson writes, “but at that moment the ‘still small voice’ whispered to those wonderful sisters that I would need help on Friday. So, acting on that prompting by the Spirit, one visiting teacher volunteered to watch Heidi, and the other one later called Bruce and arranged to get a key to our house so she could clean our kitchen while I was gone.
“Friday finally came. As I drove Heather to the clinic, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and a prayer in my heart. I was trying to muster the courage to accept that which I had already suspected” (When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair, 17–18).
The therapist confirmed Joyce’s fears, and she felt devastated. After an hour with her husband at his workplace, where they shared a heartfelt prayer, Sister Erickson headed home. As she opened the front door, she was immediately hit by the aroma of freshly baked bread. She saw that the dishes were done, the kitchen counters were spotless, the floor was mopped and waxed, there was a new tablecloth on the table, and the stove and refrigerator were clean. The kitchen was immaculate! When she walked into the living room, she saw that the floor had been vacuumed, the furniture dusted, and freshly cut flowers in a new vase had been placed on the television. With a heart less heavy, she went upstairs. The beds were made, the bedrooms and bathrooms were spotless, and the laundry was done.
As she entered her bedroom to pray, her previously heavy heart was filled with gratitude and love—gratitude for the gospel and an immense love for her visiting teachers, who had followed the promptings of the Spirit and asked five other sisters to help.
“Although their cleaning my house didn’t change anything about Heather’s handicap,” Sister Erickson writes, “it helped me focus on something outside my immediate feelings of hurt and pain, and it helped me see that I really did have blessings to be thankful for. In a very real sense, it lightened my load and, in the process, taught me once again that the way we help each other is by serving and ‘bearing one another’s burdens, that they may be light.’ How grateful I am to have learned that lesson, for I believe it is central to the entire gospel plan” (When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair, 19).
I wonder what feelings the seven sisters had after baking the bread, cleaning the house, and doing the laundry. I have not heard their side of the story, but I suspect that peace and joy filled their hearts. Special feelings of love and gentleness must have pervaded their spirits. Increased faith must have swelled within them. The greatest miracle of the Atonement is the power Jesus Christ has to change our character if we come to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Brother and Sister Erickson. I felt of their soft hearts and gentle spirits. I saw the love they shared for each other and felt the love and respect they have for their children. They assured me that it was not always that way; the early years were extraordinarily stressful. When Mark, the sixth child and only son, developed the disease at seven months of age, the mother, assisted by the father and healthy siblings, spent 18 hours per day caring for three severely handicapped children who were totally dependent on them for everything. Feelings of entrapment, frustration, and discouragement had to be overcome; the antidotes were service, prayer, forgiveness, obedience, and love.
At one point, the Ericksons were prompted to fast and pray over a period of weeks that little Heather would be healed through a priesthood blessing. Instead of promising the little girl that she would be made well, the father’s blessing promised the family that Heather would bring love and peace and joy into their home. Heather’s body was not healed, but over a long period of time family members experienced a more important healing—the healing from within. As I listened to Bruce and Joyce Erickson share their feelings, I felt in them a deep love, increased faith, joy, peace, patience, long-suffering, and the meekness of broken hearts and contrite spirits.
Adversity comes to everyone, including the righteous (see Ps. 34:19). Trials and tribulations take many forms: the death of a loved one, a marriage that is different than expected, no marriage, a divorce, a child born with a disability, no children, losing a job, parents who make mistakes, a wayward son or daughter, ill health. The list is endless. Why did God make allowances in His plan for disappointment, pain, suffering, and death? Is adversity necessary for one to build a Christ-centered life, to receive the image of God in his or her countenance?
An understanding of the plan of salvation, of premortality, earth life, and life after death provides perspective that helps one endure. As stated in the scriptures, the earth was created by God as a testing ground (see Abr. 3:24–26). Mortal life on earth is a probationary period (see Alma 12:24; Alma 34:32). Opposition, disappointments, pain, suffering, and death are necessary to protect agency and provide for spiritual development (see 2 Ne. 11). On the other hand, if life were limited to our mortal experience, adversity could not be understood and life would be unfair. Without an understanding of God’s plan, it is natural to define moral standards in terms of the natural man. Without an eternal perspective, there are no meaningful explanations for man’s inhumanity to man or for earthquakes, floods, or children with disabilities.
We should remember that it was Satan who wanted an earth with no disappointments, no tests, no adversity, and no glory except for himself. He would not protect agency. It is interesting to note that once rejected, he became a major source of adversity—the tempter, the author of sin. But trials and tribulations have many sources; sin is not the only one. Personal mistakes, mortal living conditions, and the Lord’s chastisements are also part of the refining process. When one understands that trials are not necessarily the result of one’s own doing (see Mosiah 23:21), the test may be easier to endure.
Thanks be to God, for He has a plan. Although the polishing process may be difficult at times, we should be grateful that adversity may bring us closer to Him and that His plan provided for a Savior and Redeemer who understands our trials and tribulations. The book of Alma states that Christ would suffer our “pains and afflictions and temptations” and would “take upon him … the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11). Further, the Lord took death upon Himself so that the bands of death would be broken; and He also took upon Himself our infirmities, “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, … that he may know … how to succor” us in our weaknesses (Alma 7:12).
The scriptures point out that the Holy Ghost does not speak for himself, but he speaks for Christ (see John 16:13–14). No wonder the plan calls for us to yield to the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we are yielding to Christ, who knows us and is the source of the Spirit’s promptings. He knows how to help us become Christlike. He knows if the lesson needs to be on faith, or love, or patience, or diligence. The Savior’s power is also sufficient to help us grow from grace to grace and to receive grace for grace until we become perfect in Him (see Moro. 10:32–33; D&C 93:12–13, 19).
I bear witness that obedience to the gospel plan is the only way to build a Christ-centered life. The first step is to have faith, to believe and live so that one receives a personal witness of the reality of the Father and the Son, of the gospel plan, and of the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith. As faith grows, one is free to forget self and serve others. Service is the second step to a Christlike existence, a key part of the Lord’s refining process. The blessings of service are love, increased faith, patience, and other qualities of the divine nature. Finally, enduring trials and tribulations with a soft heart made possible by faith brings one closer to Christ. If our hearts are prepared, the Holy Ghost can infuse divine qualities in us—even when we are in the midst of adversity—through the power of the Atonement.
The prophet Alma states that the seed planted in our hearts matures into the tree of life (see Alma 32:41–42). The angel taught Nephi that the tree of life is a symbol for Christ (see 1 Ne. 11:7, 20–22). If we follow Alma’s counsel of planting and nourishing the seed until it becomes the tree of life within our hearts and souls, the image of Christ will be in our countenance and we will have built a Christ-centered life.