“Shine As Lights in the World”


Neal A. Maxwell

For many years now—in literature, film, and music—we have witnessed increasing expressions of a profound sense of what has come to be called existential despair, a hopelessness beyond hope. Granted, the human scene also includes many individuals who go happily about life’s labors untouched by these feelings. But the holocausts and the wars have taken their terrible toll of hope among twentieth-century man. Said one eminent scientist, “The most poignant problem of modern life is probably man’s feeling that life has lost its significance, … [a] view … no longer limited to the philosophical or literary avant garde. It is spreading to all social and economic groups and affects all manifestations of life.” (Rene Dubos, So Human an Animal [New York: Scribners, 1968], pp. 14–15.)

One need not question either the reluctance or the sincerity with which some despairing individuals have come to such wrong conclusions. In fact, one feels compassion and desires to reach out to them in genuine entreaty!

One recent television drama, in its closing scene in a cemetery, conveyed well this confusion and purposelessness, as one character lamented poignantly:

“Are all men’s lives … broken, tumultuous, agonized and unromantic, punctuated by screams, imbecilities, agonies and death? Who knows? … I don’t know. … Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody, yet everybody got the wrong thing. I don’t know. It’s beyond me. It’s all a darkness.” (“The Good Soldier,” a dramatization of the novel by Ford Madox Ford.)

But such poignancy of view is no guarantee of the accuracy of the view. Moreover, in human affairs, erroneous and unchallenged assertions sometimes assume an undeserved aura of truth. While a response to this hopelessness may not create conviction in disbelievers, it can bolster believers against the silent erosion of their own convictions.

Besides, as an ancient prophet correctly observed, sadness and badness are mutually reinforcing, for “despair cometh because of iniquity.” (Moro. 10:22.)

Let us, therefore, place several such lamentations beside the revelations of God. The expressions of despair beside the divine annunciations of hope. The fears of extinction alongside the reassurances of the Resurrection. The provincialism beside the universalism of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then we shall see how myopic some mortals are, like absorbed children in a tree house pretending they are brave and alone!

The lamentations: Man lives in “an unsponsored universe,” a universe “without a master,” which “cares nothing for [man’s] hopes and fears,” an “empire of chance” in which man falls victim to “the trampling march of unconscious power.” (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays [London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1950], p. 57.)

The revelations: “God himself that formed the earth … created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited.” (Isa. 45:18.)

“For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Ps. 95:7.)

“For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)

“Men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)

“But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (See Matt. 10:29–30.)

Not only are the hairs of our heads numbered, but the planets also: “But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:35.)

The fears: Mankind is destined to extinction … there is nothing we can do. We have no personal life beyond the grave; there is no God. “Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth.” (James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems [London: Bertram Dobell, 1899], pp. 29–30, 35–36.)

The reassurances: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

“And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” (Matt. 27:52–53; see also 3 Ne. 23:9–11.)

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55.)

“O how great the plan of our God!” (2 Ne. 9:13.)

Some despair who are, as Peter said, willingly ignorant (see 2 Pet. 3:5) or, as Nephi said, who will not search or understand great knowledge (see 2 Ne. 32:7). For these, a pessimistic philosophy is “pleasing unto the carnal mind.” (Alma 30:53.) Why? Because behavioral permissiveness flourishes amid a sense of hopelessness. Because if human appetites are mistakenly viewed as the only authentic reality and “now” as the only moment which matters, why should one checkrein any impulse or defer any gratification? Hence, immortality and accountability are intertwined!

Yes, there are some who live without hope who, though having reached such a wrong conclusion, nevertheless maintain right conduct. In such decent individuals, the light of Christ, though unacknowledged, burns still. (See D&C 84:46.) If it were not so, we would despise a Gandhi and admire a Hitler, instead of feeling just the opposite!

Such spreading pessimism does not necessarily mean “back to the catacombs” for Christians, or that secular Caesars will soon reopen the Colosseum. But, already, there are would-be Caesars who will refuse to settle for citizens who render to Caesar only that which is his—and unto God all that is His. (See Matt. 22:21.)

This sense of despair is further intensified by the demonstrated emptiness of materialism. Increased goods will not suffice if men display decreased goodness. Likewise, the mere accumulation of knowledge without purpose and of information without wisdom constitutes ever learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. (See 2 Tim. 3:7.)

Afflicted with anguish, some wander to and fro upon the earth in search of truth without knowing where to find it. (See Amos 8:11–12; D&C 123:12.) One such prominent wanderer was described by a colleague: “It is strange how he persists … in wandering to-and-fro. … He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 20 Nov. 1856 in English Notebooks, ed. Randall Stewart [New York: MLA], pp. 432–33.)

Such is the scene, therefore, of which we are a part. Many reject the scriptures, the moral memory of mankind, and then declare absolutely the absence of absolutes. Others reject the light of the gospel and then grump over the growing darkness. Still others cut themselves off from God and lament the loneliness of the universe. Some pursue the paths of him who openly desires mankind’s misery (see 2 Ne. 2:27), and then bemoan their discontent.

The true Christian, of course, does not see life as an easy passage: “The cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning!” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965], p. 14.) With ultimate hope, however, we can live cheerfully amid proximate insecurity. Life is a test in which man must overcome by faith, walking on the strait and narrow path—which is surely no escalator—but the path is there!

And death is not the permanent annihilation of the human personality and individuality! President Brigham Young wisely declared that the preservation of human intelligence and individuality through the Atonement and resurrection “is the greatest gift that ever was bestowed on mankind.” (Journal of Discourses, 5:53.)

Just as in translating, the Prophet Joseph Smith processed truths more profound than even he then knew—we are custodians and possessors of a gospel of bright and realistic hope. It is a hope for which many hunger more deeply than we can possibly imagine. We poorly serve the cause of the Lord, at times, with programmatic superficiality and by our lack of empathy for those who drift in despair.

Truly, we live and walk on “a streetful of splendid strangers,” whom we are to love and serve even if they are uninterested in us!

Therefore, seen through the eye of faith, the sweep of history is not evidence of a purposeless world. Instead, we see successive waves of humans, as the cast on this mortal stage changes, again and again.

And, however articulate some of those despairing actors are in this human drama, without the gospel light they view only a tiny portion of one scene, not even a whole act. And certainly not the whole play. Such are invited to understand the purposes and instructions of the Author of this drama. But when He finally “comes on the stage, the play is over!”

Meanwhile, we should not impute man’s failures to God! “Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men.” (D&C 3:3.)

Indeed, man’s successes and failures were known from the beginning by the Lord and were taken into account by Him in the unfolding of His plan of salvation. (See 1 Ne. 9:6.) His purposes will be fully achieved.

Justice, love, mercy, and truth will finally prevail in a universe presided over by a Lord who is a determined as well as a loving Tutor. This mortal school is one of which the Father and the Son have solemnly declared, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25.)

The Lord knows how true individual development requires a setting of agency and opportunity. There is no other way.

No wonder Apostles and prophets have told us not to be moved away from the hope of the gospel, for hope is “an anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19) to “make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works.” (Ether 12:4; see also Col. 1:23.)

The need, therefore, is for devoted disciples to do as Paul said, to “shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15), illuminating that latter-day valley foreseen by Joel: “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.” (Joel 3:14; see also Rev. 16:16; Zech. 14:2.)

The very way in which these illuminated individuals “take up [the] cross daily” is a sermon in itself. (See Luke 9:23.) They lead lives not of quiet desperation but of quiet inspiration, constituting what Paul would call their “defence and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philip. 1:7.)

Theirs represents a tinier and quieter history within the larger and noisier human history, a joyful and reassuring drama within the more despairing drama being played out on this planet.

The first scene: A mission president is called on very short notice to replace a mission president who has died. The faithful wife, in one case, brings her husband’s body home, while the other sister, just out of surgery, willingly responds to the call to join her husband far from home. Each sister handles her stern challenge trustingly, sweetly, and without murmuring. They understand that sin is the only real tragedy!

A second snapshot: A young mission president, his wife, and five children in spartan circumstances. Water must be boiled and placed in their van as they drive for hours under a scorching sun to be with scattered missionaries and Saints. Adopted children from another culture are now in a home which is developing a celestial culture, where the mother is the children’s only school teacher. Uncomplainingly, this family goes effectively about their labors—quite innocent of how special they are! They know they are included in this reassuring declaration: “all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God.” (D&C 101:16.)

Next, in Germany a serviceman solicitously rounds up his military friends in his van to go to a special Young Adult conference. One friend cannot be found in time, and this special serviceman left some of his meager and precious savings for an airplane ticket so that individual could then fly to the needed nourishment of that conference. Intrinsically, this benefactor follows the second great commandment and rejects the despairing declaration that “hell is other people.”

Another portrait is of a youthful disciple, a woman gymnast paralyzed because of a tumble. She fell not into paralysis but into saintliness. She becomes a witness in a wheelchair. How tall she stands, and how much she stretches the souls of others! Her deprivation is like an excavation, the readying of a reservoir into which a generous God, one day, will pour the Malachi measure of compensatory blessings, “that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” (Mal. 3:10.)

Another montage: Widows and widowers, waiting patiently and trustingly for the time of their release, when they can rejoin their eternal companions. Meanwhile, they go about their duties. Like Alma and Paul, they have learned to be content in their allotted circumstances. (See Alma 29:3, 6; Philip. 4:11.)

Likewise, one deeply admires those wronged who, nevertheless, go on doing that which is right, refusing to become offended or bitter. Let others charge God foolishly (see Job 1:22); these faithful souls are magnanimous and forgiving, as was a generous Joseph in Egypt to his erring brothers: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” (Gen. 45:6.) Such Saints fashion forgiveness where others would revel in resentment!

One is humbled by the spiritual submissiveness of the dying young mother of twenty-six, understandably anguished at the prospect of not rearing her two children, one of whom she so recently made ready to lay down her life for, if necessary. The baby arrived safely, but, alas, the gallant mother could not tarry. With childlike faith this young sister touchingly inquired, “If I am to die, then how can I help my husband and my parents as they watch me die?” Surely she (and others similarly situated) faithfully conforms to King Benjamin’s portrait of a Saint as one being “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

Such individuals give to us a continuing sermon in sainthood. The gospel light has “infused such joy” into their souls, that any cloud of darkness has been dispelled. (Alma 19:6.)

“By the patience of hope and the labor of love” these are finishing the work the Lord has given them to do. (See “Come, Let Us Anew,” Hymns, no. 17.)

Let the winds and the storms beat and pound upon such faithful Saints; they will overcome the world—not vice versa. Let others falter; these will not! Let others pout and doubt; these will not! Let some noisily mock the temple; these will quietly flock to the temple, to do the work of Him whose house it is!

God bless you faithful brothers and sisters for shining “as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15), as beacons to dispel despair. To a world spiritually illiterate, you give great lessons in the grammar of the gospel, including this one: death is a mere comma, not an exclamation point!

In the holy name of Jesus Christ, amen.