I feel like this last week has been a little bit of a spiritual bootcamp for me, or at least a bootcamp for my sense of how I'm doing. Every month or so, I feel like I get into a restless mindset that reminds me that I'm not doing as well as I should be, so I get into gear and motivate myself until I run out of steam and become restless again later. I wish it weren't so cyclical, so hopefully every time I wake myself up from my spiritual snooze, I hope that it's a more powerful awakening with a better resolve not to slack on things of importance.
Here's how I came to my state of awakening this time: I was sitting in a writer's group at work, pitching sketches for Studio C, and I just felt awful. I hadn't written good material, and everybody knew I hadn't written good material, but I was still frustrated with everyone's feedback. I wanted something good said to me; I wanted some positive feedback, and I was getting more and more frustrated with my lack of positive feedback and everyone else's abundance of it. How's that for a red flag? As Jeffrey R. Holland put it, “Obviously we suffer a little when some misfortune befalls us, but envy requires us to suffer all good fortune that befalls everyone we know! What a bright prospect that is—downing another quart of pickle juice every time anyone around you has a happy moment!”
Even when we left the meeting and a family was touring the broadcasting building and wanted a picture with us, I remember feeling even more annoyed that the family kept talking to one or two other people in our group of writers and not to me. I mean, how dense can we get when we don't have the Spirit with us? It's easy to see that now, but at the time, I just felt awful. That night, when I was reflecting back on my day, I finally saw what a mess I was in. I had been self-centered. I had been doing things for glory and not for the building up of my Heavenly Father's kingdom, and it had made me turn so far inward that I couldn't see much outside of my own problems. This is a prime example of what Maxwell calls being “mired in the ooze of self-pity” (“Meek and Lowly”).
Well, thank goodness I saw this because now I'm on the mend. And this talk totally helped me, so hopefully it will help any of you who are trying to put away the natural man, as well. I feel like there are a few steps I go through every time I engage in discarding my old self, so I will outline this post in those experiences:
1. I feel guilty
This is the first stage I enter when I start to make a change in myself. I started feeling it that night after work when I realized what a doofus I was being and how I might've treated those around me. As Maxwell says, “The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance” (“Notwithstanding My Weakness”). The person I want to become is very far from the person I am now, but when I recognize that, I am motivated to make the trek.
2. I feel a desire to change
This desire is very important. We cannot make any movement in our trek toward God, we cannot make any strides in our discipleship, unless we desire to do so. This desire is so important because we can “let it work in [us], even until [we] believe in a manner that [we] can give place for a portion of [his] words” (Alma 32:27).
3. I ask God for help
As soon as I get on my knees in humility for all of the work I've got ahead of me, I feel a warmth rush over me and an overwhelming feeling of love fills my heart. This is God's way of thanking me for coming to Him. Of course! God wants to help us! There is proof in each of these experiences of divine discontent that He loves us and wants to help us change. As Maxwell noted,
So much of life’s curriculum … consists of efforts by the Lord to get and to keep our attention. Ironically, the stimuli he uses are often that which is seen by us as something to endure. Sometimes what we are being asked to endure is his help. Help to draw us away from the cares of the world. Help to draw us away from self-centeredness. Attention-getting help, when the still small voice has been ignored by us. Help in the shaping of our souls. And help to keep the promises we made so long ago to him and to ourselves. Thus there is clearly no immunity from these stimuli. There cannot be. No immunity from afflictions. There cannot be. Whether the afflictions are self-induced as most of them are, or are of the divine tutorial type, it matters not. Either way, the Lord can help us in a most interesting manner. Our afflictions, said Alma can be quote “swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (Alma 31:38).
How often have I ignored feelings of being stagnant because I do not want to make the effort to awake from those spiritual snoozes? How often have I ignored the feeling to look outside myself? These are the moments that I can be “swallowed up in the joy of Christ.” I should not treat them as bothers or burdens, but as gifts.
4. I use resources from God to strengthen my resolve and change my perspective
We have so many resources at our disposal! We can pray, we can attend the temple, we can read our scriptures. There are many lines of communication between us and God, and what may have been a resource we took for granted can truly become a helpful resource in our quest for motivation and the desire to change. Take the scriptures for example--it is easy to see reading your scriptures every day as drudgery, but how joyful it can be when you recognize these books as sources of truth and light--as the source of answers to your struggles.
This staying power about which we’re speaking requires strength, and that strength is to be achieved by feasting upon the gospel of Jesus Christ regularly, deeply and perceptively. If you and I go undernourished by the gospel feast which God has generously spread before us, we’re vulnerable, instead of durable. As Paul intriguingly warned, we then become “wearied and faint in our minds” (Hebrews 12:3). Think upon that, brothers and sisters. There are some among us who have become intellectually weary and faint in their minds because they are malnourished, they are not partaking regularly of the fullness of the gospel feast. Instead you and I brothers and sisters should partake from that feast in the spiritual rhythm which Alma described as thanksgiving daily. (Maxwell)When I read this from Maxwell's talk, I recognized a need to shift my perspective. As of late, I've been reading my scriptures late at night, before I go to bed, and I haven't been getting anything out of them because of how tired I am. But one morning, when I had time for myself, I started reading this Maxwell talk and the principles in it touched me in ways I was not able to receive when reading my scriptures so late at night. I realized that the answers I was getting that morning while intently searching Neal A. Maxwell's words were from God and that I could get answers like that often if I made time in the day to devote myself to this search.
5. My personal habits begin to change
This stage can be very slow, as Maxwell said, “The fact is, that as one might begin for instance to move away from self-centeredness toward compassion and empathy, that slow shift may be hardly perceptible. Trying to watch it would be like trying watch the grass grow. But the change occurs. And the quiet periods of life often lend themselves to this sort of alignment.” I like that Maxwell mentions the quiet periods of life, because that is where I often sense changes in my life, when I am quietly reflecting.
I must note, however, that these changes do not happen simply because I read my scriptures more and ask God for help. They happen through trial and error, and, over time, with a readier mindset to change because I more easily recognize my mistakes. When at one point it took weeks of muddling through self-pity and envy and other dark feelings before I'd finally had enough of these sins of commission and wanted to change, I can eventually recognize more quickly when I am off track simply by committing sins of omission. As Maxwell mentioned in his talk, Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father, “Once the telestial sins are left behind and henceforth avoided, the focus falls ever more on the sins of omission. These omissions signify a lack of qualifying fully for the celestial kingdom. Only greater consecration can correct these omissions, which have consequences just as real as do the sins of commission. Many of us thus have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission, but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions.”
Focusing more closely on these sins of omission allows me to be on guard when I make a mistake--and I make many--so that I can hopefully correct that mistake in the future. I guess I don't notice so much the change in my habits during this stage as I do the change in my focus on these habits. I am more aware and thus more ready to change.
6. I am more helpful to those around me
This is usually the last step for me because service is a tough principle for me to adopt. Even in my goals to build up the kingdom of God, I usually see my contributions in terms of my effect on people. How can I write better sketches to uplift my audience? How can I write better blogs to help my readers? How can I use my talents to help those around me? These are not necessarily bad thoughts at all, and when I use my talents with the intent to help others, I generally do feel more aligned with God. But I exercise this form of service and charity much more than the Christ-like, nitty gritty acts of person-to-person interaction and upliftment.
There was one Sunday a few months ago where I felt impressed to write a note to my Relief Society president from my ward. She and I were not close at all, in fact, I found her personality to be rather different from mine and so assumed that we would probably not be very close. However, this one Sunday, I felt impressed to write a personal note to her. I do not receive many of these kinds of impressions you hear of in Conference and from other in-tune people, so I decided to follow it because who knew when I'd get this impression again? As I sat down to write this note, feelings of love flowed over me for this girl. Yes, she communicated her feelings differently than I did, and yes, she and I had different perspectives on many things, but I didn't see that at all when I wrote this note. I saw my sister. I saw a girl who was struggling under the weight of her calling and feeling distressed with the circumstances in other areas of her life that made her feel small and alone. I saw that! And I can guarantee that wasn't because of my people skills. It was because the Lord saw an opportunity to use me as an instrument to uplift one of His daughters. I cite that experience because I haven't had one like that since, but it's stuck with me and served as a reminder to me that I can be an instrument in God's hands for personal acts of service.
7. I feel truly one with God
This is because God and I share delight in the same event--the refining of my spirit. Even though I usually do not see all of the changes happening in me, as noted in step number five, I feel a change in my perspective. I feel the presence of the Spirit in my life more fully. That which might have been a burden before is now a joy. I find joy in obeying God because I can feel all of the wonderful effects of living the life He wants for me.
This is truly a beautiful stage to find myself in. I don't know that I've reached it just yet during this particular set of isometrics, but I look forward to reaching that point, and that desire is what fuels me to keep chipping away at my old self.
8. I am open to further shaping of my soul
By this point, my spirit has softened up a lot. I feel joy instead of resistance when met with an opportunity to grow because I know I am growing closer to the Savior. I need to work to keep my spirit soft, though, and that requires what Maxwell calls “Graceful endurance, and it includes becoming and growing. It includes, but is not limited to, hanging on for one moment more. It is as has been observed, a circumstance in which ‘all virtues at the testing point take the form of courage’ (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters). And then after you and I have passed breaking points without breaking, our virtues take the form of endurance.” It is utilizing these virtues we've gained when it comes time to be tested and stretched again that really keeps us close to God. We must remember that we've gained more tools in our fight against our old selves and we must remember that the fight is ongoing.
Obviously, this wasn't meant to be easy. “Endurance is also the recognition that the very process of being born again is not a one-time-thing. Hence Paul said that he ‘died daily.’ 1 Cor 15:31. Such is the process, of putting off the old self as one becomes a woman or a man of God ... It is that stern competition of what we are in the process of becoming which is assaulted and attacked by that which we are that provides this tremendous isometrics in which we’re to pull free, cast off that which is not good, which we have been.”
This openness to being shaped and refined does not stay. It requires a new resolve every day to be open to refinement. This openness means I must keep my will flexible, and be willing to submit my will to God. Christ was the perfect example of this submissiveness when He performed the Atonement for all of us:
Think about it, brothers and sisters … as the pressure of that enormous weight of the awful arithmetic of atonement fell upon [Jesus], beginning to intensify in Gethsemane and in Calvary, we find Jesus groaning under the weight thereof, needing to be strengthened by an angel who appeared to strengthen him. That perfect soul untouched by sin, then took upon him all our sins. Even though he was intellectually brilliant, uniquely so, even though he was the creator of other worlds and he knew what he had to do, when the moment came, since he had never passed personally through an atonement himself, it was much much worse than even he with his brilliant mind could possibly have imagined. Hence the great soul cry [My God, my God, why . . . ] and in one of the gospels, only one, does he, Jesus, in his pleading to the Father plead that the cup pass from him, but Jesus also said, ‘Father, all things are possible unto thee” (Mark 14:26) take this cup from me. I do not presume to know what went through his mind. Whether there might have been a moment in which he wondered if there could be some other way, he quoted back to the Father that which he as Jehovah had said to Abraham ‘is anything to hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14). He quoted back that scriptural statement which he had used a number of times in his ministry, that to him that believeth all things are possible. So great was his agony as he felt the weight of the atonement, that he made that special pleading. And then in spiritual submissiveness, “nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
It is enormously important that Jesus’ grip on himself is seen as our grip on eternity for in fact it was, on that occasion. Now significantly, being spiritually submissive as he was to perfection has been something he has now laid upon us as his followers, when he said ‘and what manner of men (and women) ought ye to be and I say unto you, even as I am’ (3 Ne 27:27). Incorporated therefore in our developmental objectives is the acquisition and the further refinement in each of us of that spiritual submissiveness about which we’re speaking, which requires that we endure to the end. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Christian virtues, one of which we’re speaking about tonight spiritual submissiveness and enduring well to the end, are those qualities which will rise with us in the resurrection, and not much else. And to the degree that we have developed them in ourselves in this life we will have so much the advantage in the world to come (D&C 130:11).
Christ’s submission is the perfect example of how our attitudes should be toward our Father in heaven. Again and again, we must sacrifice our comfort, habits, time, talents—we must consecrate ourselves to God, and in so doing, submit our wills to Him.
Flat periods may come
In fact, they will come. Maxwell noted, “There are also the flat periods in life which may be those periods when before new lessons come in upon us. The past lessons of life are allowed to seep quietly and deeply into the marrow of our souls. These outwardly flat periods of life when enduring well may not seem to be purposeful are probably the period of time in which quietly attitudinal realignments are occurring within our hearts and within our minds. And this means frankly that an experience must not only be passed through but absorbed into the marrow of the soul. Thus, when we really look at it, it is we, not God who need more time.”
Constantly reshaping ourselves and submitting our wills to God is hard to do when we're asked to do it every day for the rest of eternity. But that is why we must constantly refuel our desires to change. These desires are fueled by the recognition of the why behind the what. And a big why in this process is God's love for us:
[God] would not be a loving Father if he ignored our imperfections and we must not forget that he would not be a true Father if he were content with you and me as we now are… “For all those who will not endure chastening but deny me cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:5). Why is non-endurance a denial of the Lord? Because giving up is a denial of the Lord’s loving capacity to see us through all these things. Giving up, suggests that God is less than he really is. It is a denial of his divine attributes, and also a denial of our own possibilities. We should therefore brothers and sisters see life as being comprised of clusters of soul-stretching experiences. Even when these are overlain by seeming ordinariness or are wrapped in routine.
God wants us to always be improving. So there are some times when we seem to be experiencing flat moments. These moments are when we can adjust the more subtle traits in ourselves that are hindering our ability to come that much closer to being God-like. When I am experiencing divine discontent, it is an opportunity to change something that God wants me to change.
It is also important to keep an eternal perspective. What may seem like drudgery after a while ("Do I have to read my scriptures tonight?" "I'm not going to hell if I complain about my co-worker." Etc.) can instead be seen as another stepping stone in our big change, our intense progression towards a perfect goal--Godhood. As Maxwell put it, “So much of mortality of necessity involves teeth to be brushed, beds to be made, cars to be fixed, diapers to be changed, groceries to be bought and on and on those endless chores go. They are mundane matters. But in the midst of these things is the real business of living. A friendship to be formed. A marriage to be mended. A truth to be driven home. A child to be encouraged. A Christian attribute to be further refined and developed.”
The take home message
This is the process of life. The gathering of Christ-like attributes is how we measure our progress in this world. As Maxwell notes, “This life is not lineal it is experiential. It is not really chronological, though we use clocks and calendars and wristwatches. It is essentially experiential. Someone said it well, ‘We live in deeds, not years, in thoughts, not breaths, in feelings, not figures on a dial and we really should count times, by heart throbs’ (Phillip James Bailey).”
I have a testimony that these little struggles we have within ourselves are how we make it back to God, inch by inch. It is important to treat each battle we wage with reverence and that we are in communication with our Father about how this will play into the grand scheme of things. As President Gordon B. Hinckley's father said, “When a man makes war on his own weaknesses he engages in the holiest war that mortals ever wage. The reward that comes from victory in this struggle is the most enduring, most satisfying, and the most exquisite that man ever experiences. … The power to do what we ought to do is the greatest freedom” (Bryant S. Hinckley).
I promise that when you recognize the importance of what you're doing when you make the decision to change, you will start to lengthen your perspective so that eventually, it will see eternally, as our Father in Heaven sees. And that makes you free. Free from the ooze of self-pity. Free from the short-sighted perspective that comes with selfishness. Free from the boundaries Satan has set for you as a mere mortal. Free from any doubt you've ever had about your worth and your potential. This is how we become like God.