We Are Here to Become More Christ-Centered
I heard President Harold B. Lee on more than one occasion say that, in his many years of ministry in the Church, the most effective teaching and preaching was always accompanied by beautiful and inspiring music, and I want to thank these young people for the beautiful testimony of the Savior they have borne to us today, which sets a marvelous foundation—sets the stage for us to consider that a little further.
I’m grateful to be with you. I’ve never spoken to this group before, so I’m honored to be asked to be with you. I’m grateful for the good you are doing, for the way you’re not only building yourselves, but in your individual ways, building the larger kingdom of God. I meet with a lot of young people who have returned from missions, who feel they’re sort of in a spiritual funk and find themselves a little depressed. When I push, I get this kind of comment: “Well, you know, when I was on a mission, I was doing so many great things for other people. I was always serving others. And now I feel selfish. I feel like I’m serving myself. Everything is about me, me, me.”
I remember saying to one young man, and it must have been true, because I felt the seriousness of it. I said to him, “Your mission was very significant. It was an important milestone in your life. But it just may be that what you’re doing right now, by way of preparing yourself to serve, may in the long run prove to be as significant if not more significant than your full-time mission.” And I believe that. Education, training, preparation—the world has need of men and women who bring those qualities and characteristics with them into the world of work.
I appreciate the sweet invitation and the introduction. On more than one occasion when someone has supposed to have introduced me as “Brother Millett is a professor of Ancient Scripture,” I’ve been introduced as “Brother Millett is an ancient professor of scripture.” So I’m grateful he got it right this morning.
I want to tell you a story. It’s a true story. Many, many years ago—I’ve served as a bishop twice, in different parts of the country, and—on one occasion I sat on the stand. My counselors and I tried to be on the stand seven to ten minutes before the meeting started, just to listen to the prelude and try to prepare our minds and hearts for the meeting. And as was often the case in that mood and in that attitude, my eyes would end up on a particular individual or couple or someone that I sensed needed to talk to me. This particular day, my eyes focused on a husband and wife, both very active, both very involved in the Church, both very dependable. But for some reason, I sensed they needed to talk to me. Being stubborn like I am, I didn’t act on it. The next Sunday I was sitting in church, I was sitting looking out again, and my eyes focused again on that husband and wife. They had three beautiful sons, beautiful boys, handsome little characters. Just a great family. But I felt again, “You need to meet with that couple.”
So I made arrangements with my executive secretary to set a time. They came in on a Wednesday evening. I said, “Well, how are you?”—just to sort of break the ice.
And she answered and said, “Well, we’re a little surprised it took you this long to get us in here.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Well, we’ve been expecting to hear from you.”
I said, “Why? Is there something wrong?”
She said, “We’re not sure.”
I said, “What do you mean? Is there anything out of order in your life?”
She said, “No, it’s nothing like that, as far as sin.” She said, “It’s just that…it’s that…it’s that….”
And he cut in and said, “What we mean, Bishop, is this: She was president of her Beehive class, her MIA Maid class, her Laurel class; she received her Young Women’s Medallion. I was active in the Aaronic Priesthood, I was an Eagle Scout, I served a full-time mission. We were married worthily in the temple. We had three handsome young boys. We have a good job and are well provided for. And I guess what we’re asking is, Is this it?”
I didn’t know what they meant. I said, “What’s that again?”
“Is this it? Is this all there is? I mean,” he said, “is there any place to go from here, or have we arrived?”
I was a little buffaloed by their question, but they began to be clear to me after awhile what they were saying. They had done all the right stuff. They had, as far as they could, kept the commandments. They had done their duties. They had done it the way they were told. She had qualified for the Young Women’s Medallion. He had qualified for Eagle Scout. They had married in the temple. He had served a mission. And they were asking—we’ve kind of done everything we’ve been asked to do. Do we just sort of hold on until we’re really old and die?
We talked for a while that night, but we met several times thereafter, and I came to appreciate that what they were doing was simply being more honest than most members of the Church about their plight, their situation. You will, at one time or another, find yourself feeling a little vacant, a little empty, a little befuddled about “Where do I go from here? I’ve done all the stuff that you can check off. What now?”
Well, I learned some lessons from that experience. I think they did too. And one of those lessons was this: Sometimes we can, if we’re not careful in the Church, confuse means with ends. Meaning, we can be so caught up and so excited—and we ought to be—about serving a full-time mission, that that becomes the great end in life. Or more practically, we can be so...we can have drilled into our heads and taught to us for so many years in such a loving way that the greatest thing in life is to be married in the temple. Now I have to tell you, it is the greatest things in the world in many, many ways. I would say that the most significant decision I have ever made in this life was to marry, as Elder McConkie used to say, in the right place to the right person at the right time.
And yet, brothers and sisters, that is not the end. It is but a means to an end. A mission is not an end. It is a means to an end. And if I may be so bold, the Church is not an end, but a means to an end. And if I may be even a little bolder, the temple is not an end, but a means to an end.
Then what is the end? I’m convinced that the great end in life is to become more and more Christlike, to become more and more like our Heavenly Father and to become one who knows and truly loves his or her God. Coming to know God is the great end. That’s why Jesus would say, “This is life eternal,” in his high priestly prayer, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
And so, while they were on the path, this young couple, while we are on the path, we must remember that the great end in life is not just—as important as this is—keeping a lot of rules and commandments.
I was at a “Time Out for Women” program that Deseret Book hosts around the country a few years ago, and I was chatting at lunch with Sister Virginia Pearce, President Hinckley’s daughter. He was president of the Church then. And she said, “Bob, where do you think we as a Church need to go?”
I said, “What?”
She said, “Where do you think we as a Church ought to be going?”
I said, “You know, you probably ought to talk to your dad about that. I think he’d have a better feel than I would, and he certainly has a little more authority.”
She said, “No, what do you think? Where do you think we need to go?” And it was a thoughtful question, I think deserving of a thoughtful answer.
My response was, “I think we have to get to the point where we get the gospel first in our minds, down into our hearts, yes in our behaviors, but permeating our very being. That is to say, we become men and women of Christ, not just by behavior, but by being.” That is to say we’re doing the right things, but we’ve begun to do them for the right reason.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I will occasionally hear people say, “Hey, given the way I feel right now, it would be better not to go to church.” No, no. It would be better to go to church. “Given the way I feel about this assignment, it would be better not to go home teaching.” No, it’s better to go home and visiting teaching. It’s always better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing. Okay? But there is a higher motive.
I presume that many of you do your visiting teaching and your home teaching out of duty, because it’s your assignment. That’s noble. I applaud that. It’s something we ought to do. We should feel a sense of duty. I assume many of us go to church because it’s our responsibility as members of the Church to go to church. That’s wonderful.
But I would warn that unless we’re growing, not only in proper behavior but in proper motivation—that unless a kind of conversion/transformation is taking place within our hearts so that we begin doing the right things for the right reason, we will experience what many people in the Church experience, and that is what I call “Spiritual Burnout.”
The way we avoid spiritual burnout is to get the Spirit of the Lord in our life. We get the Spirit of Christ in our souls, and then we begin to serve, gradually, for other reasons than just duty. Of course it’s always a duty. But it begins to transcend duty, and we just begin to serve because we want to, because that’s just the way we are.
This is all about conversion, change, a change in direction. Now you and I, if we’re going to church, if we’re actively involved, if we’re qualified for a temple recommend, and if we’re able to use that temple recommend, we are moving in the right direction. We continue to move in that direction, praying all along that God will not only strengthen us to do the right thing, but that He will transform our hearts that we may long to do the right thing, that we will want to do the right thing, and that we will be consumed with righteousness and less and less impressed with wickedness.
It’s a marvelous thing to be enticed by righteousness and to be turned off by wickedness. And as time passes, there ought to begin to exist in our lives a broadening chasm between what is of God and what is of Satan. We don’t dabble, we don’t tempt ourselves. We say, “No. I’m going another path entirely.”
It’s not unimportant in 4th Nephi, when we read about after the Savior’s visit, we read about the people who had experienced the personal presence of the risen Lord. It’s not unimportant that it says of them, they were all converted unto Christ (see 4 Nephi1:17). It didn’t just say they were converted unto the church, which is important. It didn’t just say they were converted unto their duties, which is good. They were first and foremost converted unto Christ. And when we are converted unto Christ—do you know what the word “Christian” really means? It means “little Christs.” We become little Christs.
Now don’t misunderstand me. We don’t save people from their sins like He did. But we become little representations, little representatives of Him.
They were converted to Christ. And he goes on to say, “There could not have been a happier people” in all the world (v. 16).
In what I consider to be one of the greatest addresses in the last half century, Elder Dallin Oaks in October of 2000 said the following: “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of the sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone to just go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to make in some heavenly [bank] account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become” (“The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, November 2000).
Elder Oaks continues: “We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life.” You know, it just hit me about a month ago—I have been praying for the gifts of the Spirit for fifty years. I’ve been praying for the fruit of the Spirit—namely patience, longsuffering, gentleness and kindness, and self-control and love—for fifty years. It occurred to me that the greatest of all the gifts of God is eternal life. And so I have a new prayer now. I may pray for discernment and wisdom and judgment and healing and teaching and writing. I may pray for a number of spiritual gifts, but I always find myself praying for the gift of eternal life, now.
Elder Oaks: “This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason—for the pure love of Christ…The reason charity never fails and the reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness…is that charity…is not an act but a condition or state of being.” Charity is nowhere in scripture equated with an action. It is always associated with a spiritual gift, fruit or endowment from heaven.
Now what we’re saying is something you’ve heard many times. I want us to reflect on it, though. Clearly, a person can have a testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel and not be truly converted. Our example from the meridian church, our best example, is Peter.
Peter was a noble soul. Peter was with Jesus on so many marvelous occasions, where Jesus performed magnificent miracles—the healing of Jairus’s daughter, raising the son of the woman of Nain, and on and on and on. All of these marvelous things. On the Mount of Transfiguration. He was clearly a member of the meridian First Presidency, and was within the inner circle of the leadership of the Church. There is no question at all that Peter had a testimony. You know the experience at Caesarea Philippi where he bears that powerful testimony: “Thou art the Christ,” he said, “the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Another occasion which is a little less well known is following the Bread of Life sermon. As Jesus gives this powerful but spiritually divisive sermon in which he encourages people, only he that eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have eternal life, (see verses 53-58) meaning only those who truly partake of Christ. And the account says, in John 6, that at that point, many of the people did not follow Jesus anymore. And Jesus, in the spirit of pathos I think, a spirit of disappointment and pain, turns to the Twelve and says, “Will ye also go away?” (v. 67).
And once again that marvelous apostle, that seniorest of special witnesses, says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we [know] and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 68-69). There’s no question but that the man had a testimony. But there’s no question, too, that he stumbled, that he fell, that he bumbled things occasionally, that he was impetuous. I mean, right after bearing witness at Caesarea Philippi of the divine Sonship of Christ, Jesus begins to tell the people, the Twelve, about all the things He must go through, including His death and crucifixion and so forth, at the hands of wicked men. Peter jumps in and says, “Not so, Lord”—there’s no way we’re going to let you go through with that (see Matthew 16:22).
And Jesus turns to him and says, “Get thee behind me, Satan: [for] thou art an offense unto me: [you savor] the things” that be of man, and not of God (v. 23). So Peter, the rock, suddenly becomes Peter, the stumbling block. So here was a man that had a testimony. And of course, what’s the greatest example of just a blunder—his denial of knowing Jesus. A man who had a testimony, but struggled.
I think the answer to that dilemma lies in the conversation that Jesus had with him at the Last Supper, as recorded in Luke 22, where Jesus says something that to me is very touching. “Simon, Simon,” he said, “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” Listen to this line: “But I have prayed for [you].” It’s a little thing, but think about that—Jesus saying, “I have prayed for [you], that [your] faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (vv. 31-32).
Peter had a testimony, but he hadn’t yet made that turn—which is what conversion is all about—that shift in the way he looked at things, the way he saw the world. There really were two things that made a difference in Peter’s life before and after. One was clearly the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As the Savior was resurrected, it all began to make sense. It all began to fit into place. Many of the things Jesus had taught him that he hadn’t understood before, he now began to understand. Two, perhaps more important, was the coming of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost.
Those two factors, the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead, and the coming of the Holy Ghost that plants that indelible witness in the soul and remakes the heart if we’ll let it, made of Peter an indefatigable apostle. You see him standing, not fearfully but boldly before the Sanhedrin and saying things like, “You know, we really ought to obey God rather than man” (see Acts 4:19).
And so it is with us. We can have a testimony, which is an important and vital foundation. But the extent to which we are truly converted—the extent to which we have turned our lives and pointed ourselves in the proper direction—that’s conversion.
I read a book once by a woman not of our faith who made this observation. She said, “The word sin—one of the definitions for sin in both Hebrew and Greek, is ‘missing the mark.’” If you can picture yourself shooting a bow and arrow, and trying to hit that target. I’ve never been very good with bow and arrow, and so consequently most of mine soar over the top of the target or fall some thirty feet before the target. She said, “Sin is missing the mark. Well, if that’s the case,” she said, “what is righteousness?” And I love this. She said, “Righteousness is target practice.”
I’m convinced, as she suggested, that our father in Heaven and our Lord Jesus are less concerned with how many times we hit the bulls eye than with whether we’re aiming in the right direction, whether we have pointed ourselves in the direction of eternal life, whether we’ve received the covenants and ordinances of salvation and are moving in that path.
There are two verses in the New Testament, in Matthew 7, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that I think we’ve all heard many times. I’d like to give them a slightly different twist. You recall that Jesus said, begins by saying, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (v. 21). We usually stop there and say, “See? You’ve got to do the stuff. You’ve got to perform the works.” This is especially true when somebody says to us, “You’re saved by the amazing grace of Christ”—which is as true as it can be. We come back with, “No, see here? You’ve got to do the stuff.” “He that doeth the will of my Father.”
But it’s the next verse that is to me haunting. “Many will [come] to me in that day,” meaning the judgment day, “[and say] Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
“And then will I profess unto them,” Jesus said, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (vv. 22-23).
I know, as many of you know, the Joseph Smith Translation of that passage is slightly different. “Then will I profess unto you, ye never knew me; depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Now, putting those two verses together, I think the Lord is trying to give us both sides of the coin. One side of the coin is, well, of course we do the works of righteousness. That’s what Christians do. Followers of the Christ are expected to act like the Christ, and to do the works of righteousness, remembering always though, that the purpose of the good works are not, as Elder Oaks said, to deposit some money in some celestial account. Keeping in mind that the good works of themselves have a sanctifying influence in our lives, if we allow them to. For what purpose? So that we can come to know God.
I had a sobering experience a few years ago as I sat with a friend of mine who was a very, very celebrated scholar, a person not of our faith, president of a seminary—meaning an organization for training people for the ministry. We were talking about grace and works, and he wanted to understand what we believe. I shared with him many things from the Book of Mormon in particular. He said, “You know, Bob, I guess it gets down to this question. Ask yourself this: you are at the judgment bar of God, and the Lord turns, the Father turns to you and says, ‘Robert Millett, what right do you have to get into heaven? Why should I let you in?’”
And then he turned to me and said, “Bob, how do you answer Him? How do you answer God? What right do you have to get into heaven? Why should I let you in?” Now, I’ve been asked a lot of questions through the years, but I’ve never been asked that one. What do I say to God? I really searched my soul. What is the right answer? What is the right approach to this? I suppose thirty or forty seconds—I know it was getting a little tense as he waited. But he was staring me in the eye the whole time.
And finally I said, “Okay, do you want to know what my answer would be?”
He said, “Yes.”
Let me just play a game with you for a minute. What if I asked you that? What would your answer be? Would you say, “Well, look. Okay, look, here’s my answer. I deserve to get into heaven, number one, because I was blessed as a baby by persons holding the Melchizedek Priesthood; I was in Cub Scouts, I won the Pinewood Derby two years in a row, I was an Eagle Scout, I served a mission, I married in the temple, I’ve been bishop twice, I’ve been in four stake presidencies, I’ve been stake president and on the Correlation Committee, and I’m a really good home teacher. And have you seen the list of books that I have written?”
Do you feel just a little discomfort in that kind of an answer? Why?
Well, here I am, standing before the holiest Being in the universe, dragging out my press clippings and my mortal medals, and holding them up and showing them and trying to impress Him. No, that’s not the answer that I gave. I said to my friend, “I believe I would answer this way: ‘I claim the right to enter the celestial kingdom by virtue of the merits and mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.’”
Now, does God care about all those good works? Well, of course He does. Those things help to make us what we must become. But I will never rely upon me to save me. That’s what Nephi means when he says, “Relying wholly upon the merits” of Christ (2 Nephi 31:19). It’s what Moroni means when he says, “Relying alone upon the merits of [Him], who was the author and finisher of [our] faith” (Moroni 6:4).
How do I know I’m making progress spiritually toward this? Elder Oaks suggested a couple of scriptures, and I’ll suggest a third. He said, for one thing, we gradually begin to gain the “mind of Christ,” as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2. (verse 16) Now what does that mean? That doesn’t have to be mysterious; it just simply means that we keep the Spirit of the Lord with us. We almost make it a personal motto: I would never do anything that would cost me the influence of the Spirit of the Lord. We keep the Spirit of the Lord with us, and what do we begin to discover? We begin to discover that we begin thinking like the Lord and feeling like the Lord.
The second thing Elder Oaks mentioned was the fifth chapter of Mosiah, verses 1 and 2, after King Benjamin’s sermon. The response of the people: “We have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Gradually, over time we begin finding ourselves, as I mentioned earlier, more enticed by righteousness and more turned off by evil.
I would add a third: section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and 1 John 5:3. They go together. How? Well, section 59 says—I’ll just read this quickly and then I know I’ve got to quit because I’m over time—but I will say this fast. Here’s a fabulous thing. It’s a little odd. Speaking to those who have just come to Missouri, those “who have obeyed my gospel; …they shall receive for their reward the good things of the earth…And they shall also be crowned with blessings from above.” Listen to this: “Yea, and with commandments not a few” (vv. 3-4).
You read that and you say, “Oh, terrific. More commandments. I’ve always wanted more commandments.” Well, guess what? Our lives are changing when we look upon commandments differently—when we look upon them as godsends, when we look upon them as the Lord’s loving way of helping us stay in course. And interestingly enough, in 1 John, the language is this: “His commandments are not grievous.” They’re not oppressive. We no longer find ourselves bound down by them. We feel ourselves blessed by keeping them.
I bear you my testimony, brothers and sisters, that these things are true, that we’re here to participate in so many wonderful things, including the celebration of and the sanctification of our families. As important as family is to you and me, and the continuation of the family unit into eternity, it’s even more important that we remember what means are and what ends are. We are here to become men and women of Christ. We are here to become more Christ-centered. We are here to come to know God. I bear testimony that, as Jesus taught, this indeed is life eternal, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.