On February 16, 1849, Brigham Young stated to the Twelve, “As God was, so are we now; as he is now, so shall we be.” (Manuscript History.) One of the greatest blessings of the restored gospel is the knowledge that we can become perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect. We know that through living certain principles we can approach perfection. In fact we are told that by taking the gospel to others and bringing them to repentance, by doing genealogy and temple work, and by living Christ-like lives, we can come to stand as saviors on Mount Zion. By freely giving his life, Christ, and Christ alone, atoned for all mankind. We have the opportunity of aiding others to accept his love and his sacrifice—the gift of the atonement—and thereby aid in the work of exalting the human family, becoming saviors on Mount Zion.
Becoming a savior for others is not an easy task. If we study the life of the Savior, it becomes apparent that he suffered to aid his brothers and sisters. His anguish was so great that he wept; he often sorrowed for the unrepentant sinner; he prayed for the human family. And can we doubt that as he suffered for us and with us, his Father also suffered? When Jesus grieved to the point of bleeding at every pore, there is little doubt that his Father, loving him, wept with him. For we believe in a God who is personally involved in the salvation and exaltation of his children. God is so involved that he was willing to give his Only Begotten Son as a sacrifice to suffer and die for us. The scriptures seem to show us that even God is bound by law—for while his work, his glory, his joy is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of his children, he can only accomplish this by granting us the freedom to reject that gift, the freedom to sin, hate, and die. God cannot force us to be exalted. He loves all his children but must allow them to reject the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal life and the joy that accompanies it. We must ask if to become as Christ is we must learn in some degree to suffer for others as he suffered for us.
Michele grew up physically in a comfortable upper middle-class environment in upstate New York. It was not until after having left that world, when she found herself “on the streets” in New York City, that she really began to mature spiritually. Like many of this generation she came to earth with a spirit capable of giving and loving equal to the challenge of today’s world. But it is one thing to love and another to learn how to effectively give. In seeking to fulfill herself, Michele sought many avenues for giving. Before coming to know the gospel, she saw how many ways people suffer in this life. For a time she lived in an apartment leased by the county to two heroin addicts and their three children. The parents were always on the streets in pursuit of drugs or the money to purchase drugs. What care the children got, Michele gave. Simultaneously she worked at fund raising for and as a volunteer in a hospital for children with cerebral palsy and also spent up to six hours a night on the telephones at a crisis center. Michele spent more hours working for others than one body can really stand—she kept going by taking speed. It is amazing that she kept going as long as she did.
When Michele found the Church, she had been involved in so many of the snares Satan has set for this generation that she knew she had to break cleanly with the past. She moved to another town and set about rebuilding her life according to the gospel plan. When I first met her, she was still struggling to overcome many of the temptations from her past and through repentance be reborn in Christ. As she trusted me, we talked out many of her problems and often cried together, sharing the sorrow and joy that can only come through regaining the Lord’s Spirit. Some problems I could only ask her to work out with her bishop, and after great struggles, she did. Other problems she brought to me because she felt I could understand, having known the world she knew. Late one night she revealed what seemed her greatest problem. She felt a continuing desperate urge to return to using speed. It was not the craving of an addict that drove her, however. As she learned more of the gospel of Christ and our responsibility to serve our fellowmen, she again became involved in many avenues of service to others. But this time it was not so easy. She tired quickly and could not do as much as she had previously. She felt her capacity to serve was lessened. Wouldn’t it be justified, she asked, to use speed to enable her to do more? If the drug took some toll on her body, was that so wrong, considering why she was doing it?
I knew that when she spoke of doing things for others, it was no simple rationalization. Michele really wanted to help others. It took more than a few moments of silent prayer before I was able to answer. Finally, I said, “All right, you want to give, but what do you want to give? What, for instance, did you give those three children? Can you tell me?” Though she knew I had heard the story, she repeated how she had washed clothes, fixed meals, dried tears, and tucked the children in at night. To that I responded, “Yes, but what did you give them?” This puzzled her. She started to repeat herself and then, realizing that I was asking something else, remained silent. Finally I talked for a moment about the unbelievable advances made by technology—we are on the verge of making machines that can do almost anything—and asked her what she had done for those children an existing machine or some machine that might be invented soon couldn’t have done. What, I asked, had she really given; what could she really give to anyone? She started to answer that she had given them love, but I stopped her. “Michele, tell me about speed. What does it mean when you crash?” The change took her back. Slowly she answered, reciting how methamphetamines can keep you up for only so long and then you come down physically, whether you want to or not. We talked about why it’s nice to be able to fall asleep as soon as you crash, and how if you don’t, problems start. She remembered how emotions, real and deep emotions, would well up from where the drug had suppressed them, suppressed them for as long as she had been high, and the wave of depression that followed those emotions. We talked about how being “wired” was a way to operate physically while ignoring the real-life, day-to-day sufferings that go on around you. One could do countless tasks without really feeling anything. And then I asked her again, “Michele, what did you really give those children? Even when you cuddled the little boy and bandaged up his knee, did you really feel his hurt and cry with him, feel and share his pain as we have cried together? What did you really give them?” She fell silent. “Michele,” I finally asked, “what can any human being give that is worth giving?” Gradually we began to talk again. We made a distinction between presents, things people buy, and gifts. I reminded her of how Christ contrasted the gift of the widow’s mite, a gift based on sacrifice, with the offerings made from the rich man’s surplus. We saw how every real gift involves a sacrifice on the part of the giver, a willingness to suffer for the good of others if need be. And as we talked, Michele gradually began to understand that she had been tempted to return to speed because the kinds of social commitments she knew she should make weren’t so much physically tiring as they were emotionally draining. She admitted that in trying to do the things she had once done so easily she found herself suffering with the people she wanted to help, and she recognized that it was bearing other people’s burdens, crying with them and praying for them, that left her tired, not the physical effort. It became apparent that she could not do as much physically as she once had, but by resisting the temptation to take speed, she was placing herself in a position where she could give much more. Only by keeping spiritually in tune and open to sharing could she truly give a gift worth giving, a gift no machine could duplicate. For real gifts involve the love and sacrifice of the giver; they can never simply be bought or sold. When Christ set us the example of the Good Samaritan as an ideal, the epitome of the Christian life, it seems obvious that he had in mind more than giving ambulance service to the wounded Jew. We must ask ourselves whether the Samaritan simply bore the Jew’s physical burdens, taking him to the inn and paying his lodging and care, or if he sought to comfort the Jew, offering him love and concern and fasting and praying for him. Did the Good Samaritan seek to bear the Jew’s emotional burdens; did he seek to love him? The answer seems obvious. And so we both learned a lesson about Christ-like service.
There is no question that righteous suffering can be for our benefit. The 122nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants makes this abundantly clear. But it has to be Christ-like suffering. It is not something we can impose upon ourselves. It is something that comes from serving others. Generations of mankind have sought a shortcut to ennobling suffering. Monastic asceticism is a deceiving counterfeit for Christ-like suffering; it is an easier substitute for active, involved compassion. There is a basic and essential difference between physical and spiritual suffering. Wearing a hair shirt is easier than bearing an agonized heart. The penitent bearing a spiny cactus across his bleeding shoulders, the bare-backed monk cutting his flesh to ribbons with a whip—these introspective self-tortures have nothing to do with the agony Christ suffered for others in Gethsemane. And if we would be like him, we must anticipate personal Gethsemanes, times when our hearts are torn asunder with love and anguish for our fellow beings. Not that we can ever atone for their sins; there is only one Savior for all mankind. But we can seek to love and sustain others in their pursuit of righteousness.
In the words of Brigham Young, when we come to know good from evil, “this probation is given us that we may learn this … how to succor those who are tempted and tried as we are, when we have the power to rescue them from the ravages of the enemy.” (Journal of Discourses 17:142–3.)
The good news of the gospel is the good news of God and Christ’s unselfish willingness to suffer for our redemption. The gospel of unselfishness is a gospel of service—not mechanical service, but loving service. Not giving simply until it hurts and then stopping, but giving even though it hurts, and continuing to give, if need be, for eternity. I think of a mother’s agony at viewing her young child, already diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis and facing a life of relative helplessness and suffering. That mother sees the prospect of giving a great deal to a child who will be able to respond less and less, returning little but the love it is given. But that mother and her family will grow in their ability to love and serve, just as the child learns to accept help and care from them. And all will have to endure to the end. We think of that phrase as referring to temptations to sin. Some even twist it until it would seem they think our task is to “endure” happiness, but happiness is not joy. Rather we are to endure the trials and sufferings that may overcome us, sustained only by the peace and joy that come, as Christ promised, not as it does in the world but only as it is available through him. A peace that surpasses all understanding. A knowledge that learning to give is the beginning of eternity. For many will reject exaltation in the celestial kingdom, not because they do not want the joy that can be had there, but because they are unwilling to pay the price—being willing to suffer for and serve a posterity as God has served us.
Exaltation depends on how much you are willing to give. It begins with the offering of a broken heart and a contrite spirit upon the altar of the Lord, and it grows as we dedicate ourselves through covenants to serving our fellowmen, our spouses, and our posterity. To become as God is, we must learn to give freely, to love freely, to be willing to suffer even the humiliation and sorrow of seeing our love rejected—willing to love all as God loves us, unconditionally, throughout eternity.
A special blessing came to me as a result of my conversation with Michele. Since it was late, I walked with her back to her apartment. As we walked, I suddenly gained a new and fuller understanding of the gospel. There are many principles I do not yet understand. My testimony is strong enough that in those cases I mentally put my questions in a back corner and proceed on faith, knowing that in time I will come to understand many things. In that way I had long before “filed” a question in my mind about Satan. I thought that I had understood why one-third of the hosts of heaven wanted Satan’s plan. They were afraid of the risks of mortality and free agency. I thought that I had understood why the plan wouldn’t work, why no real growth would have been possible, and no exaltation. But why, I had asked, would Satan, a son of the morning—already a great and mature spirit in the pre-earth life—want such a plan. What was in it for him? Did he fear mortality? As we walked it suddenly hit me. Satan wanted to be the Savior. He wanted to redeem mankind and receive the glory, but he did not want to allow anyone to sin, because he was not willing to suffer to atone for mankind. Satan was unwilling to suffer for others, unwilling to give the ultimate gift, unwilling to give Christ-like service. In a moment the gospel plan was more visible in contrast to Satan’s plan. He would have denied men their agency—and thereby their exaltation—to avoid suffering for others, while Christ was willing to allow us the opportunity to choose between good and evil and willing to suffer and to give Christ-like service, even to die to redeem us.
Giving Christ-like service is not easy, nor is accepting it. Society teaches us to say things like “I don’t want to burden you with my troubles,” and often, when we are less than we could be, give subtle cues to others that say, “Don’t tell me your troubles; I have enough of my own.” And so Satan turns us inward, away from our fellowmen, refusing to give or receive Christ-like service and love.
There are many substitutes we are tempted with today. It is so much easier to give a small amount to some charity (which we should do) than it is to spend a few hours each week visiting the sick, working with the crippled, or simply giving our love and time to a severely retarded child. It is so much easier to substitute money for our time, protecting ourselves from sharing the pain and anguish many suffer, avoiding the burdens we could help them carry. If we desire exaltation we must answer two questions: How happy do you want to be, and how much are you willing to give? For if we truly desire the work and glory that can only come through bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of other spirits, we must be willing to suffer with them and for them, living the gospel of unselfishness.