We live in a world where the latest story, the buzz, the hype, the “new thing” is much sought after and then publicized throughout the world. Movies, television, and other media often celebrate heroic gestures, dysfunctionality, conflict, and sexuality rather than the quiet, everyday acts of sacrifice, service, and love that are so much a part of the Savior’s message and example. The wild rush to find the new often tramples on what is true.
The 17th chapter of Acts gives an account of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens. Athens had been in a long period of decline but still was proud of its philosophical traditions. The account mentions the Stoics and the Epicureans, whose philosophies were among the more dominant of the time. The Stoics believed the highest good was virtue, and the Epicureans believed the highest good was pleasure. Many Stoics had become proud and used the philosophy as a “cloak for … ambition and iniquity.” Many Epicureans had become hedonists who took as their motto “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.”1
Paul was invited to address this difficult mixture of people on Mars Hill. In Acts 17:21 we read, “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (emphasis added).
Paul attempted to gain their attention by referring to an altar that contained the inscription “To the Unknown God.” But his real message was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. When the crowd realized the religious nature of this message, some began to mock him, while others, equally uninterested but perhaps more polite, said, “We will hear thee again of this matter” (Acts 17:32).
This Athenian response to Paul was not unlike that of the people described by the prophet Jacob during an even earlier period: “But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble” (Jacob 4:14; emphasis added).
Today there is a tendency among some of us to “look beyond the mark” rather than to maintain a testimony of gospel basics. We do this when we substitute the philosophies of men for gospel truths, engage in gospel extremism, seek heroic gestures at the expense of daily consecration, or elevate rules over doctrine. Avoiding these behaviors will help us avoid the theological blindness and stumbling that Jacob described.
Some people seem to be embarrassed by the simplicity of the Savior’s message. They want to add complexity and even obscurity to the truth to make it more intellectually challenging or more compatible with current academic trends. The Apostasy occurred in part because of this problem. The early Christians adopted the Greek philosophical traditions, trying to reconcile their own beliefs with the existing culture. The historian Will Durant wrote: “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life.”2
Some in their spiritual immaturity attempt to appear sophisticated and intellectual. Instead of accepting revelation, they want to dissect it and add dimensions and variations of meaning that distort its beautiful truths. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has pointed out, “The Jewish people … rejected the gospel, in part because it lacked adequate intellectual embroidery.”3 We look beyond the mark when we refuse to accept simple gospel truths for what they are.
Another sign of spiritual immaturity and sometimes apostasy is when one focuses on certain gospel principles or pursues “gospel hobbies” with excess zeal. Almost any virtue taken to excess can become a vice.
Certain members have wanted to add substantially to various doctrines. An example might be when one advocates additions to the Word of Wisdom that are not authorized by the Brethren and proselytes others to adopt these interpretations. If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark.
Some who are not authorized want to speak for the Brethren and imply that their message contains the “meat” the Brethren would teach if they were not constrained to teach only the “milk.” Others want to counsel the Brethren and are critical of all teachings that do not comply with their version of what should be taught.
The Lord said regarding important doctrine, “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me” (D&C 10:68) and “That which is more or less than this cometh of evil” (D&C 124:120). We are looking beyond the mark when we elevate any one principle, no matter how worthwhile it may be, to a prominence that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or when we take a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Brethren.
In a lecture at Brigham Young University, James S. Jardine, former chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Utah, indicated that when he was a student, he thought “of consecrating [his] life in one grand, heroic gesture” but came to realize that “consecration is not a once in a lifetime event; it is a daily devotion.”4
When I was young, I too wanted to prove myself through some heroic gesture. My great-grandfather David Patten Kimball was one of the young men who helped carry the members of the Martin handcart company across the Sweetwater River. That sounded like the kind of consecration for which I was looking. Later, as I visited with my grandfather Crozier Kimball, he explained that when President Brigham Young sent the men on their rescue mission, he instructed them to do everything they possibly could to save the handcart company. Their consecration was specifically to “follow the prophet.” My grandfather told me that consistent, faithful dedication to one’s duty or to a principle is to be much admired. As heroic as it was for David Patten Kimball to help rescue the pioneers, it might be equally heroic today to follow the prophet by not watching immoral movies or by refraining from using vulgar language.
My mission president put all this into perspective for me and taught that, in some cases, seeking to perform a heroic effort can be a form of looking beyond the mark. He shared a wonderful poem that reads, in part:
O, one might reach heroic heights
By one strong burst of power.
He might endure the whitest lights
Of heaven for an hour;—.
But harder is the daily drag,
To smile at trials which fret and fag,
And not to murmur—nor to lag.
The test of greatness is the way
One meets the eternal Everyday.5
Some members profess that they would commit themselves with enthusiasm if given some great calling, but they do not find home teaching or visiting teaching worthy of or sufficiently heroic for their sustained effort.
God uses us “not according to our works, but according to his own purpose” (2 Tim. 1:9). We are looking beyond the mark if our consecration is conditional or does not involve daily devotion.
The Savior was concerned when others elevated rules over doctrine. In Matthew 23:23 we read, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles pointed out that Jacob’s teachings with respect to looking beyond the mark applied to the Jews of Jesus’ day:
“They took the plain and simple things of pure religion and added to them a host of their own interpretations; they embellished them with added rites and performances; and they took a happy, joyous way of worship and turned it into a restrictive, curtailing, depressive system of rituals and performances. The living spirit of the Lord’s law became in their hands the dead letter of Jewish ritualism.”6
Doctrine usually answers the question “why?” Principles usually answer the question “what?” Whenever we emphasize how to do something without reference to why we do it or what we do, we risk looking beyond the mark. At the very least, we fall into the trap Paul described to the Corinthians: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has used the example of teaching our Aaronic Priesthood deacons the doctrines and principles of sacrament meeting so they will understand that the rules they follow (such as dressing appropriately and passing the sacrament in a nondistracting way) support what the Lord would have us accomplish in sacrament meeting (renewing our covenants and remembering the Atonement in a reverent manner).7 In many areas we are guided only by doctrines and principles rather than rules. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”8 We are responsible to the Lord for how we respond in such situations.
Those who are committed to following rules without reference to doctrine and principle are particularly susceptible to looking beyond the mark. Equally dangerous are those who get mired in rules and are thus less willing to accept change resulting from continuous revelation.
When we look beyond the mark, we are looking beyond Christ, the only name under heaven whereby we might be saved. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “Jacob saw that the Jews would look ‘beyond the mark’ and stumble in their search for the Holy One of Israel, this literal Son of God to be known as Jesus Christ: ‘By the stumbling of the Jews they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation.’”9
One of the great tragedies of our day is that many so-called Christian scholars refuse to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. To some He is merely a great teacher. This is the ultimate example of looking beyond the mark. It happened in Jacob’s day, it happened in the meridian of time when the Savior was on the earth, and it is happening today when the gospel has been restored to the earth.
One of the great challenges of this life is to accept Christ for who He is: the resurrected Savior of the world, our Redeemer, our Lord and Master, our Advocate with the Father. When He is the foundation for all that we do and are, we avoid the theological blindness that results from looking beyond the mark, and we reap the glorious blessings He has promised us. “Come unto me, ye blessed,” He tells those who follow Him; “there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father” (Enos 1:27).