I was just nineteen, a relatively new missionary in Japan; but despite my belief in the gospel and my desires for righteousness, I seriously doubted whether I could ever really be good enough to be acceptable to the Lord.
I had seen the temptations to selfishness, pride, unchastity, power, and money that the world knows how to make so alluring; and I felt weak. How could I possibly restrain all these “human” desires? Sometimes I felt as though keeping the commandments was a self-imposed straitjacket, an unnatural posture that the gospel would stuff me into while Satan kept snipping at the seams.
But that was before I made my discovery.
Like many missionary experiences, that discovery was precipitated by a special family. The first time we came to the Uno family, we were shocked by the father’s behavior. He cursed his wife and his beautiful boys shrank from him with fear on their faces. But he listened to us and invited us back. Five weeks later, we shed tears as we shared our testimonies of the gospel and saw Brother Uno scuffling and laughing with his loving and beloved little boys.
As my companion and I left that night, I felt the keenest joy I had ever experienced as I thought of that same loving family united in eternity. And I also felt sharp terror as I thought that I might not be there to rejoice with them. I realized then that my best efforts to restrain myself from sin might not be enough and I knelt that night, imploring the Lord with all my heart, to show me how to be righteous.
I renewed that prayer daily, week after week, through my mission and afterward, and searched the scriptures for an answer. Then one morning it came. Elder James E. Talmage, in Jesus the Christ, explained that the Savior “had the capacity, the ability to sin had He willed so to do … Nevertheless his insurance against [sin] … is not that of external compulsion, but of internal restraint due to his cultivated companionship of the spirit of truth” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973, chapter 10, paragraph 2 from the end, p. 134).
It was a moment of real revelation for me; I understood finally that Christ’s ultimate defense was not his supreme will power but simply that, nurtured by the Spirit, he had no desire for Satan’s grimy alternatives. He loves the things his Father loves. Thus, as his desires became deeds, those deeds reflected a spontaneous righteousness that came from the very depths of his being.
That was the key: to love the things God loves, to make his desires my own, and thus to be truly like him. My problem was that I had been trying to act in godly ways while wanting ungodly things. If I could change the desires of my heart, then my actions would spontaneously become godly.
I felt a kind of hope I had not felt before. I went back to the scriptures, seeking hungrily to learn what God loves. Mormon put the explanation into words for me. What I wanted was charity, which was “the pure love of Christ.” And I could receive it if I would “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” And Mormon also included the promise I needed: “that ye may become the sons of God … that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moro. 7:47–48; italics added).
I felt the lists of commandments and precepts suddenly transformed by power—the power to change not only appearances but feelings, loves, and desires.
Cautiously, I chose my first goal. It wasn’t a very great thing, but it was a persistent problem. I didn’t enjoy attending church. So, morning and night, I would pray: “Lord, bless me to feel about our worship services just the way thou do. Help me to find in them the things that you would find. Help me to participate in the ways that you would.” And unbelievable things began to happen. Sunday became a day filled with light; I found myself hungry to greet the other members of the Church, to share my testimony with them, to learn from the teachers, to express in song the feelings I had no words for, and to partake of the emblems of our Savior’s sacrifice with humility and gratitude. Sunday became a Sabbath. Attending Church did not mean that I had suppressed my desire to rest, read, study, ski, or play. Now it was an expression of righteous, loving desires.
That simple experience made another scripture acquire new meaning. The doctrines of the priesthood had indeed begun to distill upon my soul; as I felt the companionship of the Holy Ghost, spontaneously keeping the Sabbath day holy, “without compulsory mean,” its blessings flowed to me (see D&C 121:45–46). As this astonishing experience progressed, my faith grew and I began to have real hope that from now on my challenges could become changes.
Another challenge was an individual I had to work closely with. I felt no particular admiration for him, and he obviously felt contempt for me. As our interchanges grew more quarrelsome, I found him deliberately trying to sabotage my work and needling me to provoke quarrels. I responded in the best tradition of the natural man and soon a bitter feud was underway. In my quieter moments, I realized that I was destroying myself and that the Spirit was leaving me because of this contention.
Again, I turned to the Lord and prayed, night and morning, “Father, I’m having a terrible time with this man. Wilt thou bless me that I may feel about him as you do.” Soon a vision began to open to me of an entirely different person than the one I’d been perceiving. I now saw a sensitive, easily hurt individual who felt alone, vulnerable, and afraid in new situations. I began to see the great strengths he had developed that had brought him to this point. But more than that, I gradually came to feel reverence and even awe for him. Here was a son of God, beloved and cherished of him. And who could resist loving such a person? Not I. It came. The love just came. Another small corner of my heart had been changed, and the Lord’s promise had been fulfilled.
My experience has been that it may take weeks of pleading with the Lord at least twice a day for these changes to come. But they will come, and, if we “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men,” we need not lose those feelings of joy and peace (2 Ne. 31:20).
What miracles would be performed if we felt the same delight in loving others that our Eternal Father feels, or felt his own respect for our children and used the same wisdom in disciplining them? If we loved the things that God loves, how would we feel about money, prayer, honesty, work, or our Church callings?
Few among us will experience the dramatic “mighty change” wrought upon King Benjamin’s hearers so that in an instant, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Most of us must change slowly, “—For he will give unto the faithful line upon line precept upon precept—” (D&C 98:12), grace upon grace, until it can be said of us that each “suffereth long, and is kind, … envieth not; … vaunteth not [him] self, is not puffed up, … seeketh not [his] own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:4–7).
We could speculate that those who will inherit celestial thrones and eternal lives will be those whose love for the good, the true, and the pure is so great and spontaneous that they would choose it day after day even if there were no life after life. Indeed, for such persons, returning to our heavenly home would be as natural as awakening to another day this side of eternity.