December is traditionally a time for reflecting on the past and resolving to be better in the future. At Christmas time, we reflect on Christmases past, where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing with our lives. We reflect on the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and on His life and ministry, which brings hope that as He overcame the world, so may all who exercise faith in Him unto repentance and baptism. Then, with the commencement of the New Year, we resolve to change who we are and be better men and women. All too often, however, our efforts to change fall short of our resolutions. How is enduring change accomplished?
First, we must believe that change is possible. “[T]he Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:16). Such freedom to act is inherent to our being and has been protected through our redemption from the fall (2 Ne. 2:26). Consequently, we are “free to choose” (2 Ne. 2:27), and our freedom to choose includes not only the freedom to choose our actions and words, but the freedom to choose thoughts and feelings. If we are not free to choose our actions, words, thoughts or feelings, God could not hold us accountable for them, which the scriptures indicate He does (see Alma 12:14).
Such a principle of freedom is stunningly different from contemporary demands for acceptance of immoral behaviour on the ground that such behaviour is the free expression of the natural man. Contrary to the philosophy of “I was born that way” or “accept it, that is just the way I am,” the Lord and his prophets call on us to “put off the natural man” (see Mosiah 3:19). “Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus they become new creatures” (Mosiah 27:25).
Once we accept our freedom to act in regards to outward behaviour as well as inward thought, we can move to the second principle for achieving enduring change – acting outwardly what we want to be inwardly. Enduring change comes only when our actions are supported fully by the desires of our hearts. In other words, real change occurs when we change our hearts. But how do we change our hearts? We must accept that our agency is more fundamental than our desires.
That we can act in a manner different than our desires is evident with a very simple example. When I do not feel happy, I can still smile. And when I place a smile on my face, it has the effect of making my heart lighter and happier. I can feel happier simply by choosing to put a smile on my face. This simple example confirms the deeper spiritual principle memorialized by the Proverb: “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established” (Proverbs 16:3). This same principle was taught by the Lord when He said that “if any man will do [His] will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 17:3). And this same principle is relied upon by every missionary in teaching investigators. The missionary invites his investigator to act on some principle of the gospel, knowing that when the investigator acts consistently on that principle the investigator will be converted to it (i.e., his heart will be changed).
While our capacity to act outwardly in a manner different than our heart feels may begin to change our hearts, enduring change of heart is not possible without the Lord’s help. “A new heart . . . will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
This power to finally be what we want to be but cannot be on our own comes to us through the Lord’s atoning sacrifice. It is known as the gift of grace (see Bible Dictionary, “Grace”). But such power is extended to us only after all we can do – giving our own best efforts (see 2 Ne. 27:25) and petitioning the Lord with all the energy of our heart (see Moroni 7:48). This is the way that men are “made perfect” (D&C 76:69). We do not receive a “fullness” at first, but line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, “from grace to grace” until the fullness comes (D&C 93:12-20).
As we approach the New Year, may we accept our agency to choose and thus to change. May we act consistently on principles of truth that will change our hearts for the better. And may we look to the Lord, after all we can do, to receive his grace to be and do what we cannot be and do on our own.