I, like many of you, take delight in watching the extraordinary performance of outstanding athletes on the field of competition. It is always a thrill to see the fulfillment of thousands of hours of practice, dedication, and sacrifice manifest through an unusual play, a last-second touchdown pass, a game-winning goal, or pressure-filled free throws. It always amazes me to see a basketball player step up to the free throw line and consistently, shot after shot, pressure upon pressure, calmly put the ball through the hoop—all net. Last year Jeff Hornacek, after joining the Utah Jazz in midseason, hit thirty-three consecutive free throws—a Jazz season record. He was shooting with great confidence.
I am interested in free throw records because I believe I also set a free throw record in high school—unrecorded, but a record that I believe would stand even today. It was in a game between my alma mater, Preston High, and Malad High in Idaho. It was played in the old Malad High School gymnasium in 1954.
Early in the game I was fouled in the act of shooting and was awarded two foul shots. I calmly stepped to the free throw line, set my toe about one-eighth of an inch from the line, and did my best imitation of my then basketball idol, Bob Cousy, by bouncing the ball twice, spinning it in my hands, taking a deep breath, and shooting. It was a pretty good imitation—until I released the ball. I missed both shots.
A few moments later I was again at the foul line going through the same established routine. To my despair I missed again—twice. As fortune would have it, we were into the game only six or seven minutes, and I was at the line missing my sixth and seventh foul shots. As I approached my ninth and tenth shots, I noticed that the basket, which was regulation size at the beginning of the game, was in some magical way beginning to shrink. Each time I came to the line, it got smaller and smaller.
My confidence wasn’t bolstered much as I saw images of distress in the faces of my teammates and expressions of calm glee and a twinkle in the eyes of my opponents each time I came to the line. By my fifteenth miss, my arms and legs were frozen stiff, and I could see the basket getting so small that even a softball couldn’t pass through it. When I approached the line to miss my eighteenth consecutive free throw, the basket seemed about the size of a golf hole, and I knew that even Bob Cousy would not stand a chance. I was not shooting with much confidence.
Thankfully, the final buzzer sounded and my record ceased at eighteen consecutive misses—a record not easily achievable and one I doubt any of you sports enthusiasts have ever witnessed. As I left the court, my confidence was devastated, and ahead of me remained the frightening task of getting ready to face the foul line again in upcoming games. My challenge was not so much related to foul shooting as it was to confidence.
I am fully aware that when Jeff Hornacek was establishing his record, each time he approached the line he was full of confidence, and the basket, in its magical way, was getting larger and larger. Confidence—the big difference.
As recorded in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 45, the Lord tells Joseph Smith during his hour of deep despair in Liberty Jail, “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.” [D&C 121:45] What a wonderful promise for us bearers of the priesthood—confidence in the presence of God!
Each of us present in this great body of the priesthood has been called and ordained of God. We are His emissaries and have entered into a holy covenant with Him to honor and magnify the priesthood, and this becomes our most important and sacred assignment on earth. I repeat—our most important assignment on earth is to honor and magnify the priesthood. It is more important than hitting crucial free throws. It is more important than catching a touchdown pass or kicking goals. It is more important than being accepted by your peers. It is more important than closing on a vital business transaction.
Every time we use the priesthood, whether by assignment or through voluntary acts of service, it is as though we are stepping up to the foul line. Every time the priesthood is tested by temptation or trial, it is as though we are stepping up to the foul line. The hits and the misses that have preceded the moment of testing have a great bearing on how we will perform the next shot. Our spiritual confidence is largely determined by our prior spiritual successes and, unfortunately, by our prior spiritual mishaps. Our prior choices will greatly influence how our spiritual basket will look, large or small, the next time we are at the line.
We cannot say we will sow a few wild oats in our youth or that we will just dabble a little around the fringes of sin. There are no fringes of sin. Every act, good or bad, has a consequence. Every good act improves our ability to do good and more firmly stand against sin or failure. Every transgression, regardless of how minor, makes us more susceptible to Satan’s influence the next time he tempts us. Satan takes us an inch at a time, deceiving us as to the consequences of so-called minor sins until he captures us in major transgressions. Nephi describes this technique as one of pacifying, lulling, and flattering us away until Satan “grasps [us] with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance” (2 Ne. 28:22; see also 2 Ne. 28:21). There are no fringes of sin. We are constantly shooting our foul shots, and the basket is either getting bigger or, as Satan would have it, smaller. Our confidence is either waxing strong in the Lord or waxing strong in Satan.
When Nephi and his brothers were asked to go back to Jerusalem for the plates of brass, Nephi, because of his past experiences and preparation, saw the basket as very large. He knew he could do it. He said, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Ne. 3:7). On the other hand, Laman and Lemuel, who already had a history of complaining and neglecting their responsibilities, saw the basket as very small and thus rebelled. Laman and Lemuel did not have the confidence or the faith that comes from righteous preparation. They did not believe they could make the shot.
When David went to battle against Goliath, he was discouraged by Saul, who reminded him that he was just a child and was not able to go against this giant, Goliath. David replied: “Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:
“And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth” (1 Sam. 17:34–35). David had made his previous foul shots, and he saw the basket as very large.
When Joseph Smith went into the grove of trees, when he began the translation of the Book of Mormon, and when he organized the Church with just six members, his confidence was strong in the Lord.
The Savior talked about teaching line upon line and precept upon precept. This is also how we prepare ourselves to magnify our callings—act upon act and deed upon deed. Each good act makes the basket larger and prepares us to further magnify our callings. When you young Aaronic Priesthood bearers administer and pass the sacrament worthily and reverently, the view of the basket becomes a little larger, as does your confidence in the Lord and your ability to act in righteousness. For those who have withstood so-called minor temptations, your ability to overcome Satan in the moments of major testing becomes easier. For those of you who have developed a relationship with your Heavenly Father and the Savior through scripture study and prayer, your basket is large and your confidence waxes strong.
I am acutely aware that each of us sees our own basket as a different size. Some may feel as though they are on a string of eighteen consecutive misses, and the basket they are now shooting at is very diminished. I have known men, young and old, whose previous decisions or actions have caused them to lose confidence in themselves and in the Lord. It was as though their arms and legs were frozen stiff, and the task of breaking the cycle of sin or failure seemed almost insurmountable. But a true understanding of the Savior’s mission lets us know that through true repentance our baskets can be restored to regulation size. Every wise choice, every responsible exercising of the priesthood, and every act of service enhances our confidence in the Lord.
Brethren of the priesthood, let us hit our foul shots, let us do our duty—every single time we step to the line—that our confidence might wax strong in the presence of God, that the doctrine of the priesthood may distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven—for we are the priesthood of God. Of this I humbly testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.