Thursday, September 28, 2017

Adoring Idolatry

by Kimber Albrechtsen

We often think of idolatry as something like praying to a stone carving or being overly interested in sports cars, but modern-day idolatry can involve more subtle and nefarious "false gods": religious leaders.

While dumb-idol-idolatry was easier for Satan to promote in ancient times (perhaps because most people were still humble enough to seek and accept some kind of higher power), today he works more subtly. We can be enticed to be idolatrous while still believing that we only serve and worship God. How does this confusion work? Satan does this by encouraging us to conflate things, ideas, or people with God. For example:

"I am justified in wanting this expensive dress because it is important to wear my Sunday best to church to show respect to God. Also, I worked hard to earn the money for this dress, and hard work and self-reliance are important to God. My money is also a blessing from God because I pay my tithing, so this dress is a blessing."

"God is love, so restrictions on when/who/how we romantically love are not of God."

"God speaks through prophets, so I should obey and trust everything the prophet says. God also deserves my respect, reverence, and gratitude, so I will show that by being respectful, reverent, and grateful to his prophet."

The problem with this way of thinking is that it uses God and His priorities to justify our own desires. We use God to rationalize our idolatry, making Him in our own image.
"They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall." (D&C 1:16)
"How is obeying and reverencing our church leaders idolatrous?"

This behavior becomes idolatrous when the object of obedience and reverence is a mortal person instead of God. We should obey the commandments of God and reverence God, not His servants. Of course God's commandments often come through His servants, but it is important to understand that God is the one we are obeying. His servant is merely the messenger; the message and commandments should not originate with the servant, therefore the obedience is not directed toward the servant.

The chasm between men and God is vast; putting church leaders on the same plane of deference and adoration is blasphemous and a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. We cannot bring God down to us by designating earthly substitutes for our worship. We must ascend to God on His terms. God did not say, "If ye love me, adore my prophets and lavish them with honors." He said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).

Idolatry is when we substitute something telestial, fallen, and carnal, for God.

The Lord says in Exodus 20:
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
Are we expected and encouraged to participate in excessive physical displays of reverence and admiration for our leaders? Standing when the prophet enters the room, singing hymns for him, and even dancing for him? While I can't think of any instances of members literally bowing down to church leaders, we often use the symbolic and sacred phrase "at the feet of" when referencing the "honor" of being taught by general authorities, especially in person.

We're just showing respect! you might say. Really? Do you stand when your Bishop enters the room? Do you sing for your boss? Dance in costume for your favorite professor? Common respect looks very different from the adoration and worship we Latter-day Saints reserve for our favored religious authorities.

The Lord taught this poignant lesson during the last supper:
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
(Luke 22)
In this passage Jesus highlights the tendency of the Gentiles (among whom Joseph Smith identified the Saints in D&C 109:60) to idolize those "that exercise authority upon them," and then completely rejects that tradition. The Lord's apostles are to be humble servants, not oligarchical, authority-wielding celebrities endlessly praised for their service (and is it really service if they are paid?).

What attitudes do we see in this picture? 

When you receive a gift in the mail, do you send a thank-you note to your mailman? No, you send one to the person who is actually responsible for the gift. Prophets are basically mailmen. Do you treat your mailman with basic respect and civility, and perhaps a simple expression of gratitude when you happen to see him at the mailbox? Sure. Do you throw him celebrity-hosted birthday parties? Do you keep a framed photo of him on your wall? Do you encourage your children to write in their journals about him? No, because that would be weird and completely disproportionate to their personal importance in your life. When we rationalize the same honors for our church leaders, that's a strong sign that we have come to prize the messenger more than the message, and that such adoration has become a dangerous distraction from God.

If you aren't faithful enough to get the initial message from God Himself (eventually you should be), then God will utilize someone else to pass on His truth. This method is merciful and loving, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the real value we receive from prophets exists completely independent of them; God's truth and work depend on no specific, mortal man. If one prophet dies, fails, or rebels, God can use another. Prophets are replaceable and interchangeable. Their worth is not in their heart-warming anecdotes, their sophisticated speech and accomplishments, or their likable personalities; their worth to us depends solely on their ability to receive and transmit God's word.

Why should we care if the prophet "sends his love"? Why should we care when his birthday is or what he likes to eat? Why should we learn anecdotes about the General Authorities' righteousness, rather than hear stories of their witnesses of God's power? Why should we place extra value on their examples, when we have Jesus Christ as our example?

"But loving, celebrating, and learning about our leaders aren't harmful!"

The fact is that life is generally a zero-sum game when it comes to time and resources. The time and energy you spend learning the GA's birth places and hobbies with printable flashcards could have been put towards studying the scriptures or serving someone in need. Of course the same could be said for each moment you spend on Facebook, pursuing a hobby, or exercising, but what's especially problematic about more subtle idolatries is that you give yourself credit for doing "something spiritual." Because "honoring the prophet" is equivalent to "honoring God" in your mind, you are okay spending an hour at church learning about all the great stuff a former church president did, feeling no alarm that the name "Jesus" was only mentioned during the opening and closing prayers. You feel like a good Mormon if you read a prophet's biography on Sunday afternoon, even if it means you didn't crack open your scriptures. You feel like you have "taught the gospel" to your kids when they've memorized the names of the Quorum of the Twelve or can sing the latest verse of "Follow the Prophet" (the anthem of Mormon idolatry). The fact is that living the gospel has nothing to do with following or adoring or learning trivia about our leaders. Living the gospel is about following CHRIST and obeying GOD.

Beyond the expenditure of time and resources, what can be most nefarious about idolizing our leaders is that it leads to outsourcing our relationship with God while also dulling our ability to discern truth from fiction in what they say. When you idolize your leaders and put them on a pedestal, questioning the veracity of their teachings becomes taboo. Questioning a man becomes as offensive to you as questioning God, a sentiment that is in direct conflict with the Lord's declaration that, "Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost" (2 Nephi 28:31). I wrote more here about our duty to verify everything by virtue of the Holy Ghost, and not by our level of admiration for the messenger. If you can't wrap your head around the idea of our leaders teaching us anything but pure truth, read this to see how the teaching that "the prophet can never lead us astray" is a false precept.

Why was this picture staged this way? Why wasn't a simple headshot used to announce a devotional?

When your evaluation of a leader's message is clouded (or completely prevented) by your emotional connection to the leader, you can know you're guilty of idolatry. When your loyalty to a church office is greater than your loyalty to truth, you can know you're guilty of idolatry. The Lord said in D&C 50:17-21:
17 Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? 
18 And if it be by some other way it is not of God. 
19 And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? 
20 If it be some other way it is not of God. 
21 Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?
In these verses the Lord is 1) establishing that it is possible for one of his ordained servants to deliver a message that is not of God, and 2) explaining that it is necessary to receive a message through the Spirit of truth (as opposed to "the Spirit of loyalty to your leaders" or "the Spirit of admiration for nice elderly men" or "the Spirit of warm-fuzzy groupthink"). Carefully examine your standards for evaluating the truth of the messages you receive from your leaders; it is telling if you have no such standards.

"Even if these things are idolatry, what the members do is not the fault of the leaders!"

Maybe not, but I wonder why they don't denounce such behavior and adoration as idolatrous. What would you do if President Monson walked into the conference center and said, "Sit down! I'm no one special. All your reverence should be reserved for God. In fact, why am I sitting in a chair comfier than yours? Why is anyone who isn't speaking in this meeting sitting behind the pulpit? And why all the memes praising me and other general authorities or the vapid things we say? They are vain and trifling, offensive to a jealous God. Stop acting like I'm a superhero, stop thinking it's an honor to be in my presence, stop putting my picture on your wall, and stop caring about anything I say or do unless I say I have a message specifically from God and that's confirmed to you by the Spirit. Oh, and don't read my biography, To The Rescue. You'd be much better off reading the New Testament--now there's a biography worth your time! Now for my talk, the content of which was provided me by an angel who visited me last night..."

Do church leaders encourage and enjoy the adoration they receive from members?

Does the church foster idolatry by promoting a cult of personality surrounding leaders? A cult of personality is the deliberate curation of an individual's public image through flattery and praise; positive traits and stories are emphasized while potentially negative traits and events are erased or minimized in the authorized narrative. The church certainly created an idolized mythology around Joseph Smith ... is the same true for current leadership?

What emotional reaction were the producers of this photograph aiming for?

General Conference is this weekend. If you're watching, I hope you'll evaluate each message on its own merits, and not based on your feelings for the speaker.

Listen for these phrases:

-"God instructed me to say ..."
-"An angel revealed to me ..."
-"In a vision I saw..."
-"Thus saith the Lord ..."
-"The Lord said to me ..."
-"The word of the Lord ..."

Watch out for:

-Flattery, especially directed at women.
-Boasting about the accomplishments of the church, missionary force, or leadership.
-Rationalization of disobedience.
-Anecdotes that highlight the righteousness of an individual rather than the power and mercy of God.
-The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.

Follow Jesus Christ alone. Only He can save you.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Knowing Christ in His Fulness

by Erin West

Lately more people are coming out and sharing their experiences with the Savior. At first I found this to be comforting. I enjoy hearing about these kinds of experiences, because it encourages me to seek Christ and obtain my own experiences with Him. However, every now and then I’ve noticed something happening that is concerning.

I’ve seen some people insisting their experience with the Savior is superior to another’s, and claim the Jesus they met is better than the Jesus someone else met. To paraphrase, your Jesus might chew out someone and rip into them harshly, but my Jesus would never do that, because He is loving and merciful. Or, your Jesus oozes with too much love, but my Jesus is just and lets the hammer drop, etc.

It was getting to the point where I felt like Joseph Smith when it came to trying to decide which church to join. Except in my case, it was, “Which Jesus do I follow? People’s perspectives seem so different at times, and the result is that they are at odds with each other. What’s the deal?” I posed this question to my husband. He grew very thoughtful and then told a story about six blind men and an elephant. It may be a familiar one to some; it is an old fable from India.

“Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, ‘Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.’They had no idea what an elephant was. They decided, ‘Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.’ All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.’Hey, the elephant is a pillar,’ said the first man who touched his leg.’Oh, no! it is like a rope,’ said the second man who touched the tail.’Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,’ said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.’It is like a big hand fan,’ said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.’It is like a huge wall,’ said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.’It is like a solid pipe,’ Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.”

My husband ended the story there, looked at me and asked, “Who of the six is right?” I thought about it for a moment, and thinking about it in the context of our discussion about the numerous perspectives of Jesus, I replied, “All of them are right.” I then told my husband the problem is that they are all arguing and insisting their perspective is correct while the other’s is wrong.

An impression quickly came to my mind, one that I had heard before when pondering this issue. “You need to experience and know ALL of my characteristics and attributes.” This old story proved the impression to be true. What if, instead of the blind men arguing, they moved around the elephant to a new spot, and the one who touched the tail got to touch the elephant’s belly? He would gain added perspective to what he already knows from touching the tail. He knows the elephant a little more fully.

So it is with our experiences with Jesus. The other guy who met a Jesus who is the Almighty Judge, may actually be correct. But we won’t know until we seek Jesus and ask Him to help us understand that attribute in Him, just as we won’t know Jesus is merciful unless we seek to know. If we do that faithfully, Jesus will not only reveal those characteristics and attributes, but He will teach us how to obtain them ourselves.

I’ve always believed Jesus to be a just judge, who will let the punishment drop when it is needed. I also believe He is longsuffering and merciful. I also believe that two characteristics that seem to be at odds with each other actually work together. In short, I believe the Lectures on Faith to be correct in its description of Christ’s characteristics and attributes.
“And again, the idea that he is a God of truth and cannot lie, is equally as necessary to the exercise of faith in him, as the idea of his unchangeableness….” (Lecture 3:22; emphasis added)
“And lastly, but not less important to the exercise of faith in God, is the idea that he is love…” (Lecture 3:24; emphasis added)
“And it is not less necessary that men should have the idea of the existence of the attribute of power in the Deity.” (Lecture 4:12; emphasis added)
“It is of equal importance that men should have the idea of the existence of attribute of judgment in God…” (Lecture 4:14; emphasis added)
All of Christ’s characteristics are equally important and are harmonious, even if we don’t see that right away. Seek Christ and ask Him to help you understand how His characteristics work together. Ask Him to help you obtain the same characteristics with the same balance and harmony. Do the same with His attributes. Take time to consider another’s experience with Jesus, as they may have encountered an aspect of Him that you didn’t.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Treating Others the Way God Treats Us

by Nicky Smith

Recently in our morning scripture study I was reading with the kids about the people of King Limhi. They had been slow to hear and obey the word of God and as a result, when they began pleading with God to help lighten their burdens, God was slow to hear their prayers:
And now the Lord was slow to hear their cry because of their iniquities.... (Mosiah 21:15)
I reflected on how the scriptures say that the degree to which we are merciful to others, God will be merciful to us.
14 For, if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you;15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (3 Nephi 13)
Jesus also said:
1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7)
I thought about my relationship with my children. (Although this post focuses on the parent-child relationship, the concepts apply to all our relationships with others.) What if I feel impatient when they keep asking me questions or if I feel frustrated when they talk to me non-stop? What if I am distracted and I don't even hear them talking to me? What if I am harsh or unkind to them in my discipline? Our behavior towards others is often based on how we judge them. For example, if a child is going on about something we find boring, we may ask them to be quiet or tell them we are too busy to listen to them. If we treat our children as boring, irritating, or needy, for example, how will God judge us? The way we deal with others will be reflected in God's attitude and behavior towards us. We may legitimately have more important things to do than listen patiently to our children, but think about how God feels about us. Somehow, despite being God of the universe He listens to our cries and answers our prayers. 

My kids regularly wake up several times in the night and they often come and wake me. One particular night I had been woken several times by my daughter and I couldn't fall back to sleep, despite being so tired. I knew the next day was going to be difficult. Then, my daughter came into my room yet again and I was really upset. I yelled at her to go back to bed. The Lord then rebuked me, asking me if He had every yelled at me when I come to Him over and over again. I knew my behavior towards my daughter was not Christlike and I needed to repent. I apologized to her and I determined to be longsuffering when they wake me. Ever since that experience, my aim is to remember how God treats me and reflect that in how I behave towards my children. If I continued my impatient behavior towards my children when they need me in the middle of the night, can I expect that God would be quick to answer my prayers at all hours of the day and night? I know how I desire God to treat me and so I know I need to mirror that behavior towards my children. 

As I interacted with my children in various ways, I have tried to reflect on how God deals with me. At times He rebukes me when I have sinned, but somehow I am able to feel so loved by Him simultaneously. I want my children to feel loved as I discipline and teach them. Is your love for your children reflected in the manner in which you discipline them? God never tries to control me. He teaches me truth and does not rescue me from the consequences of my rebellion. In raising children it is easy to slip into a routine of trying to control our children's behavior. Does your discipline aim at teaching your children truth and consequences, rather than controlling them? God is so patient and longsuffering with me. He is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Are we patient and slow to anger with our children? I know I need to treat my children in the way God has treated me, else I cannot expect to receive this treatment from the Lord. Remember, "with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matthew 7:2)

God loves us. His love is unconditional. However, every blessing we receive is based on law (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10). Manifestations from God (such as greater or more frequent revelations and quicker answers to prayers) are based (in part) on the degree to which you have become like Him. If you desire greater interactions with God, you need to become more like Him. Study His characteristics. Learn about His attributes. (Of course, having an incorrect or limited understanding of His characteristics impedes our progression.) It will be evident that everything He does stems from love. Be willing to critically examine your behavior and your heart. Seek to know the Lord's perspective on the way you treat others. Be open to being corrected. Then, begin to align your thoughts, desires, and actions with those of the Lord's. As you incorporate His attributes into your life and treat others as He treats you, you will become more like Him. Over time, you will become love too. At some point, when you have become pure and more like Him, Jesus will manifest Himself to you. 
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, 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; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hope Based on a Promise From God

by Nicky Smith

We live in the Northwest of the United States and we've been having a lot of forest fires. North of where we live is a small town which was evacuated due to a fire. On the first night they were given the evacuation warning prior to the evacuation order, some friends of ours came to stay the night. When everyone went to bed that night I went to pray. I pleaded with God for people to not suffer unnecessarily. After my prayer, the Spirit immediately whispered that the town would be protected. 

A few weeks later most of the town was evacuated. While some of the evacuees seemed to feel calm about it all, there were others who were very worried about their homes. I, however, had hope for those evacuated that their town was going to be spared. I had hope because I had received the word of God on the matter. 

Hope is generally understood to be a desire that something will happen. "I hope I can spend time with a friend this weekend." "I hope my husband keeps his job." And so on. Hope in the scriptures, though, is something much more. The type of hope the Lord wants you to have is meant to be so much more. 

Hope is Based on a Promise From God
Paul wrote to the Hebrews encouraging them to show diligence till they obtain the full assurance of hope for after this life. He then explained that hope ought to be based on a promise from God:
11 And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end:
12 That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
13 For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself,
14 Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.
15 And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.
16 For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.
17 Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:
18 That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:
19 Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil... (Hebrews 6; emphasis added)
Paul states that when we have hope based on what God says to us, we can know that our hope will be an anchor to our soul and will be a strong consolation or comfort to us, since God never lies. Consider where you believe you are headed after this life. Do you hope you will live in the presence of God? That is what we are all after, but that hope can't be sure and steadfast until God has confirmed that by giving us His word through revelation. If you found out that you were soon to die, you would see that any hope you had for after this life that is not based on revelation given to you would dissipate. While those who have received promises from God can have strong hope, providing them necessary comfort.

Knowing what the scriptures say on a matter (such as who will receive eternal life) can provide a person with hope. Paul wrote: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4).  However, this is not sufficient for us to have sure and steadfast hope. For example, a person who has repented knowing that Jesus said, "....except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3) would not have as much hope as a person to whom God said through revelation "you will not die." Hope must be based on promises received through revelation for them to be sure and steadfast. Paul invited the Romans to obtain the kind of hope based on revelation: "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Romans 15:14)

Conditional and Unconditional Promises
God's promises are either conditional on our obedience to His word or unconditional. Through Ahijah the Lord gave promises to Jeroboam. Some were unconditional, while the last was conditional:

"For thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee:... And I will take thee, and thou shalt reign according to all that thy soul desireth, and shalt be king over Israel." (1 Kings 11:31,37)

"And it shall be, if thou wilt hearken unto all that I command thee, and wilt walk in my ways, and do that is right in my sight, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did; that I will be with thee, and build thee a sure house, as I built for David, and will give Israel unto thee." (1 Kings 11:38)

We can be given conditional and unconditional promises. Both of these provide hope, although unconditional promises provide greater hope. Nearly two years ago I received a conditional promise from God saying that if I sanctify myself, Jesus will unveil Himself to me. This promise was the first time I felt real hope that I could see Jesus in the flesh. Before, I knew people received the Second Comforter, but I doubted it would ever happen to me. This hope has been a source of comfort as I have been on the path of sanctification. Without it, it would have been harder to go through all the sanctifying trials I have experienced. 

John wrote about this exact same hope. He said that although we might not have a full understanding of what we are working towards as we repent, we can know that when Christ appears to us we will see Him as He is. This understanding provides hope and when we have that kind of hope we will purify ourselves. 
2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3)
We can all receive promises from God. Some will be conditional on our obedience, while others will be unconditional. The promise we ought to be after is God giving us an unconditional promise that we will receive eternal life. This is called making your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). To obtain this promise we need to show God that we are willing to sacrifice all things. I desire to do this! Joseph Smith said, "After a person has faith in Christ, repents of his sins, and is baptized for the remission of his sins and received the Holy Ghost (by the laying on of hands) ... then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and living by every word of God, and the Lord will soon say unto him, Son, thou shall be exalted. When the Lord has thoroughly proved him, and finds that the man is determined to serve him at all hazards, then the man will find his calling and his election made sure." (HC 3:380.)

What Do You Hope For?
Consider the things you hope for. Perhaps eternal life is one of your hopes? You can work towards obtaining a promise from God that you will obtain this. Perhaps receiving the Second Comforter is something you hope for? You can ask God to give you a promise you will obtain this blessing. These (and other) blessings are written about in scripture and are available to all if we do what is required. 

Perhaps you also have hopes pertaining more to keeping your job or your home? Maybe you hope to have children? These things are not promised to all. However, you can obtain promises pertaining to your life and the lives of those around you. Much depends on what God's will is but as you inquire, He can give you promises. 

God's promises to you will form an anchor to your soul. They will provide comfort and security. Don't rely on the promises given to others. Obtain those same promises for yourself. Then when troubling times come, you will be able to stand because you have hope founded on promises from God Himself.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Cheerios Gospel

by Kimber Albrechtsen

I live in the Middle East, so some of my favorite foods can be hard to find. There are a lot of imported Western products available, but there are still many of my favorites that are either very difficult or impossible to find. One is Cheerios. Plain, no-frills Cheerios.

One thing I love about living abroad is experiencing the support network among expats. We all know how hard it is to live in a foreign country, so we look out for each other, commiserate over challenges, and share tips and resources that make life easier.

A friend of mine knew I was desperate for original Cheerios, and so when she saw some being stocked at a grocery store, she texted me to see if I wanted any. HECK YES. She got me four boxes, and now I owe her my soul (I've already paid her the $24 for the four boxes).

What's funny is that there are several other varieties of Cheerios available in many stores: Multi Grain Cheerios, Chocolate Cheerios, Honey Cheerios (not to be confused with Honey Nut Cheerios), Frosted Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, and I think I've even seen the abomination that is Yogurt Burst Cheerios.

It's odd to me that the derivative varieties are so available, while the original is ridiculously rare. Apparently demand for the trendy, flavored, sugary Cheerios surpasses demand for the original, which admittedly might be less palatable to the masses...but these are Cheerios we're talking about!

There is only one gram of sugar per serving of original Cheerios. There are TEN grams of sugar per serving of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios ... but it is actually has 13x more sugar than original Cheerios because of manipulated serving sizes. Multi Grain Cheerios, so strategically named, has 6x more sugar than the original, and despite their attractive "made with 5 whole grains" line, sugar is still the third ingredient. I won't even get into the Frankenstein list of ingredients required to make Yogurt Burst Cheerios.

Ready for the metaphor? Cheerios are like the truth. Original, unadulterated truth is hard to find. People want to sugar it up, dress it in attractive boxes, and add a bunch of other crap to it to make it more palatable. In the process, the product becomes less nutritious, eventually causing more harm than good.

The Lord said in D&C 132:22, "For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me." Truly knowing the Lord and His truth is hard; finding the way takes diligence, humility, and discernment.

You want religion, do you?

Most religious institutions are trying to sell you junk Cheerios. Why? Because that's what most people want, and it's what keeps the coffers full and the leaders paid. Just like some product developer at General Mills had the "good idea" to make Multi Grain Cheerios: Dark Chocolate Crunch (with ~40 ingredients), men have been inserting their "good ideas" into the gospel for ages.

"O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!" (2 Nephi 28:15)

The problems with having a spiritual diet of junk Cheerios are many: your spiritual palate atrophies and your taste for pure truth is weakened, false teachings crowd out truth (inhibiting progression), and false teachings cause spiritual disease (promoting regression).

When you are used to hyper-sweetened food, eating something unsweetened isn't usually enjoyable. The same is often the case with truth. If you are used to hearing how special you are, how it's okay to just try to repent, and how awesome the leaders are that you follow, it will not be pleasant to hear the truth that contradicts those ideas. But truth is not meant to be palatable, it's meant to reveal the glory of God and the path back to Him (even if it's a path different from the one you're on). If you insist on only consuming teachings that satisfy your carnal desires to feel special and justified in your sins, usually packaged in warm-fuzzy memes and devotionals and scripturally-deficient talks, you will remain spiritually malnourished and diseased.

"And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center."
(1 Nephi 16:2)

I stopped eating nearly all refined sugar about six months ago. After a few weeks, I was amazed at the level of discernment I regained for flavor and natural sweetness. Eating fruit was transcendent--the natural sweetness was layered and complex, perfectly balanced. I gained a new appreciation for savory foods as well as my cooking became more focused on fresh, whole ingredients. Instead of turning to salt, grease, and sugar for flavor, I learned to use things like lemon zest, fresh ginger, and spices to augment the natural deliciousness of my main ingredients. I may be stretching this metaphor too far, but the same process applies to truth. When you stop applying a harmful metric to teachings (Does it make me feel good in the moment? Does it satisfy my pride? Does it make me comfortable? Does it flatter me?), you are better able to discern the true nature and value of a teaching (Does this help me repent? Does this humble me? Does this increase my love for others? Does this help me experience the fruits of the spirit?).

"For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God." (Moroni 7:16)

Look at the "gospel" you are consuming. Does it validate your mediocre obedience? Does it justify you in "a little sin"? Does it encourage reliance on your leaders instead of your own connection with God? Does it downplay scriptures in favor of greeting-card-worthy truisms? Does it make you feel like you "are incredible" and are part of a "special and chosen" group/generation? Does it discourage a thorough examination of its doctrines and precepts and policies? If yes to any of these questions, your gospel is Cotton Candy Cupcake Cheerios.

"Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark." (2 Nephi 28:9)

Let me take this breakfast metaphor another step further (I can't help it!). Most people I know have their cereal with reduced fat milk. While some people may legitimately prefer the taste, most people reference concerns about calorie intake and weight control when explaining their choice. This is ironic, because people who consume full-fat dairy products tend to be leaner than those who consume low-fat dairy products and they also have a lower chance of developing Type-2 diabetes (source).

Whole milk has this magic component called FAT. It's not a bad word! Fat is crucial to making you feel satiated and helping control sugar absorption rates. So what happens when you take some or all of it out of your milk? Without the satiating fat, you're actually hungrier sooner, and you end up eating more calories than you would have if you'd used full-fat milk. The sugar/fat ratio is also thrown out of whack, so you start getting more of your calories from sugar (whether that's the lactose in your milk or the refined sugar in the candy bar you eat at 10am because you are starving). While of course natural sugars and carbohydrates are important, things start to fall apart when you have too much in your diet: weight gain, diabetes, blood sugar craziness, poor energy, nuclear holocaust, you get the idea.

The same effects can be experienced spiritually when we take a vital ingredient out of the gospel: repentance. Of course the "sweet" parts of the gospel are vital and necessary: grace, forgiveness, the love of God, etc., but when we insist on only consuming the sweet, we miss an important aspect of the gospel that is necessary to our obedience and progression. In fact, without the "fat" of repentance, the "sweet" of God's love is incomplete: to fully experience God's love and blessings in our lives, we need to align our will with His. Likewise, if you only consumed butter, you'd feel pretty crappy. "Repentance" without considering the love of God isn't really repentance, it's a Pharisaical fixation on sin, rules, castigation, and guilt.

The gospel consists of the perfect blend of spiritual nutrients. If you reject the need for repentance, you're left with a fluff gospel that produces no real progress. If you're scared of examining how far you really are from God because you think it will hurt, you're actually missing out on the amazing blessings that come from obeying the commandments. If you don't acknowledge the differences between your faith and the faith of those who wrote the scriptures, you'll never get your butt in gear and fulfill the amazing potential you have. Repentance brings light, joy, and love into your life. Do it!

Here's an exercise. Read the following and examine how you feel after each:

1) God is merciful to those who try. Each morning you can decide if you will do a little better and be a little better, and if you choose that better path, that is enough. Follow the light of our beloved prophet, and you will be blessed and your family will be blessed with prosperity and the peace of knowing you belong to God's one true church.

2) You are no different from the Pharisees, with your concern about clothing, outward righteousness, and commandments given by so-called religious authorities who take the Lord's name in vain by invoking His authority when He has not spoken to them. You neglect the poor, prize vapid entertainment over studying God's words, and justify your anger and pettiness towards your spouse, family, and strangers.

A Yogurt Burst Cheerios disciple will react emotionally to both. An original Cheerios disciple will check both statements against scripture, examine them with humility and the Spirit, and then make a judgment about both, perhaps making changes in their life based on their conclusions. Which are you?

Monday, September 11, 2017


by Nicky Smith and Hannah

It's easy to sit back and think you are doing great because the kids are fed and the laundry is folded. You then realize that you are so busy with the activities of the day that you have little time to focus on that thing in your heart that you have been meaning to get to.... You know prayer? Pondering and meditation? Praising God? You find yourself crawling into bed, another day gone and pledging to make the next day better. But, day after day not much changes. 

We are often distracted from the things we are meant to be doing. Distractions are sometimes large and obvious, like binge watching your favorite shows on Netflix. (Oh, you do that?) These diversions are easy to spot, easy to evaluate and easy to turn off, or set a limit and maintain. But, distractions are often disguised and seem so small that they don't seem to be a problem, like Facebook. Facebook connects us to our families and friends from far away.  It supplies news, information, recipes, and even food for thought. However, it's also easy to lose hours scrolling though the endless sea of pictures, ideas and advertisements. There have been evenings I have sat down after putting the kids to bed to check Facebook for a moment and then suddenly two hours have passed. (It's ok I can quit whenever I want to....)  Still yet, there are other distractions. These seem like the best use of our time like chatting with friends or searching for better ways to clean or manage our home.

What is a Distraction?
 A distraction is defined as "a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else." In this case, a distraction is anything that interferes with you giving full attention to the Lord's will for you right now. Our kids can be fed, clothed, clean, and happy and still be neglected because we spent a couple hours researching the best potty training methods. Sure, learning how to be a better parent or be more efficient with our tasks can be helpful, but when we neglect to do the Lord's will, it's a busywork. It's a distraction! Satan loves to give us busywork. These are the kind of things that seem helpful or like they are important but in the end, they yield no fruit and cost way more time and resources than the good they did. Yes, Satan will use good things, and true things to keep us from Christ.  

A short while ago I had a moment in the day. The Spirit said to use the time to pray and read the scriptures. As I opened up my scriptures, my husband contacted me asking me to look into something online. Since it wasn't an urgent request, I should have left it for a few hours and focused on what the Spirit had told me to do. Instead, I got distracted and spent the entire time doing something that could have been done later. Helping my husband was a good thing to do. It was something that needed to be done. However, doing it at that time ended up being a distraction from what I should have been doing. 

There have been many other times where I have been chatting to a friend when I should have been focused on my children or studying the scriptures or sending someone who needs help a message. Although there is nothing wrong with talking to friends, it can be a distraction from what the Lord desires us to do in that moment. We end up neglecting what we are meant to be doing. 

Why Does Satan Want You Distracted?
We tend to think that Satan is going to try to get us to focus on sinning: yelling at your kids, gossiping, telling a small white lie, and so on. Yes, Satan will try to entice us to sin, but more often than that he is far more subtle. In the end, his objective is to create distance between us and God. One very effective way of doing that is creating distractions which if we give into, means we aren't doing the Father's will. They are difficult to recognize though because they are often good things we're engaged in. 

Satan can even distract us by encouraging us to focus on studying and pondering doctrines that don't matter. They end up replacing what we ought to be doing: Seeking to know how to repent and becoming more like Jesus. In fact, almost anything that takes us away from seeking the Lord's will and repenting is a distraction. 

How to Change Focus
So how do you know if you are distracted? Well, most of us are to some extent. Some more than others. We first must admit we are distracted. "Hi, I'm addicted to distractions." It's easy to assume that eliminating the problem fixes it, however that just keeps it out of sight and out of mind. The problem isn't that there is a distraction, it's that we can be distracted. There will always be things in our lives that can potentially distract us: friends to chat to; Facebook and other social media; our favorite television shows; and so on. 

The way to overcome distractions is to improve our connection with the Lord and get to the point where we are asking what His will is for us throughout the day. Paul similarly encouraged the Corinthians to "attend upon the Lord without distraction" (1 Corinthians 7:35). Understanding the Spirit is key in overcoming distractions. Once you know what God's will is, don't be enticed to do something else. Focus on accomplishing what the Lord has instructed you to do. 

Jesus tells the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15). He sows seeds in various places, but one group of seeds fell among thorns. When the plant grew, it was choked by the thorns. Jesus said about these seeds:
And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. (Luke 8:14)
These seeds are symbolic of the word of God (Luke 8:11). As we become consumed with the cares of the world ("cares"), material possessions ("riches"), and entertainment ("pleasures"), it is like the word of God being choked because we cannot do the Lord's will each moment of the day while still seeking our own will. 
5 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3)
We must desire the Lord's will more than our appetites for entertainment, or our desire to do what we believe to be productive. We must understand and submit fully to his will. This means we must be willing to give up anything that may be filling our time or taking our attention away from what really matters: repenting and doing God's will. 

Through constant prayer, regular fasting, and worshiping God, we can open a connection with heaven that is so powerful it will better enable us to overcome the ability to be coerced away from God's work. We can know how the Lord would have us use our time and attention, and gain heaven's help in resisting the proclivity to be pulled from it. Distractions can be addictive and habit forming. Just like most bad habits we can break it by learning temperance and submitting to the Lord's will.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Fasting: A Tool of Sanctification

by Nicky Smith

Isaiah wrote: "in the day of your fast ye find pleasure" (Isaiah 58:3). I have never understood how fasting can be pleasurable. I have never enjoyed being hungry and as a result I have always struggled with fasting. I can't think of a time where I really wanted to do it. I could see that it could be used with prayer, but I never saw any direct results where it was more efficient than just praying. 

Several months ago one of my friends started fasting regularly. She was finding it to be a wonderful experience and I desired to have a similar experience with fasting. I prayed asking the Lord to teach me about fasting. I wanted to know how to fast in order to make it an effective experience. 

Recently, as I have been trying to become more healthy, another friend of mine introduced me to fasting regularly as a way to become healthy. She was doing it and it was working for her and so I thought I'd try it. During the fast as I was saying my regular prayers, I was surprised when the Lord rebuked me, stating that I was not using the fast as a way to connect to Him. Like the Israelites, I was doing it for selfish purposes and not as a way to draw closer to God:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5)
I immediately stopped the fast and repented, determined that I would pray about something specific the next time I fasted. Within the next week I realized that I had a question for the Lord. I had actually been praying about it for a while but hadn't yet received any answers. During that week I began to become more desperate for an answer. I felt stuck and unable to progress without knowing what the Lord's will was in this situation. I then realized this was the perfect opportunity to fast. As I fasted, I prayed in my heart constantly for an answer. I begged the Lord for revelation. Every time I felt hungry, my prayers intensified. I wanted understanding from Him more than I wanted food. I told Him that I would continue to fast until I received an answer from Him. (This was not an outrageous request but something I knew He was wanting to tell me so that I could progress.) After about 40 hours I received an answer from Him and I knew what His will was for me. I was able to stop my fast then.  

Every time I fast now I consider how food is symbolic of the word of God (see Hebrews 5:12-14) and through my fasting I am able to obtain revelation from Him. In other words, I think about how I am able to feast on His word as a result of my fast. Then, when I eat after my fast, I think about how it is symbolic of receiving revelation as a result of my fast. 

After that particular fast, I began to fast more regularly. I love how close I feel to the Lord and fasting no longer feels burdensome. Yes, it is hard because it isn't pleasant feeling hungry, but I want to feel as close to the Lord as I can and fasting enables me to do so. Sometimes I just fast for a day and other times I fast for longer. (There are many examples in the scriptures of people fasting for 2-3 days.)

I have been working on overcoming a specific weakness for a long time and I have made a lot of progress, through God giving me understanding as well as experiences. However, I still have the weakness. I have begged God to take it from me because I have done everything I can to overcome it, but I still have it. Recently I had the thought that I ought to fast to help me overcome this weakness. As I fast for help overcoming this weakness, I beg God to help me overcome my flesh. I feel like I am slowly getting closer to overcoming it, although I can tell that it will take much time. 

Isaiah said that since we are begging God for help, we ought to be willing to help alleviate the burdens of others. This is an important part of fasting. 
6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58)
King Benjamin also wrote about the importance of knowing we are all beggars before God and if we want answers and help from Him, we ought to be willing to help others:
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. (Mosiah 4)
We can fast for various reasons: fasting gives us access to the power of God (Matthew 17:14-21; Esther 4:16); fasting enables us to receive light and truth (Acts 10:30-33; Acts 13:1-3; Alma 5:44-47; 17:3); fasting humbles us (Psalm 35:13). I have come to realize that fasting can also help me as I strive to develop a pure heart and overcome my weaknesses. Every time I fast, I can feel how I am subduing my flesh and developing a deeper, closer connection with God. In fact, when done correctly, fasting is a vital tool in sanctification. 

My understanding and appreciation of fasting has grown over time. I have sought the Lord to enlighten my mind regarding it and He certainly has. The changes in how I fast are subtle, but at the same time significant enough so that I can now say "in the day of [my] fast [I] find pleasure" (Isaiah 58:3). If fasting still feels like a burden to you, pray and ask God to help you understand how to improve your fasting and use it as a tool to become sanctified. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Are You Forsaking Those Sins?

by Nicky Smith

The scriptures repeatedly teach that repentance is crucial (Ezekiel 18:30; Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19; 3 Nephi 9:13-14; Doctrine and Covenants 58:42-43). I have always tried to repent of my sins but in the last couple years I have realized that my repentance was incomplete. As a result, I have to question if I was really repenting. 

When I did something I knew was wrong, I would feel really bad about it. I would express my sorrow to the person I had sinned against and I would express sorrow to God. I didn't want to do that sin, but over and over again I would find myself repeating the same mistakes and sins. Sometimes I excused myself in my sins, thinking I was repenting despite repeating the sin, and other times I felt really frustrated by the fact that again I had become offended or impatient. 

As I have walked the path of sanctification, I have come to learn the importance of forsaking my sins (never committing the sin again) when I repent. Repentance involves so much more than repeatedly saying, “I am sorry!” to the Lord. Although I have known that this was part of repentance, I rarely seemed to do so. Now, when I repent, I am very determined to no longer commit the sin. 
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy. (Proverbs 28:13; emphasis added)
Think about some of your sins for a moment. Perhaps you occasionally become impatient with others. Or maybe you struggle with a temper? Other times perhaps you say a white lie? Or maybe you feel prideful or judgmental at times? If you are repenting, why do you continue committing these sins? Why aren't you forsaking them? I think sometimes we lack faith that we can overcome our sins and other times we consider our sins not that bad and that surely because we become cranky every now and then, God isn't going to keep us out of His presence. Nephi wrote:
And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Nephi 28:8)
However, there are several places in the scriptures where it is written that we cannot be saved in our sins. God "cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). Isaiah wrote, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). Alma wrote:
O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility. (Alma 42:30)
Paul similarly wrote that when we repent we ought to become dead to sin, meaning we no longer commit the sin. Our old sinful self is crucified and we are freed from the sin, but this can only happen when we forsake the sin. Without forsaking the sin our old self isn't crucified yet and we are still under the bondage of that sin. 
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin. 
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. (Romans 6)
Sometimes forsaking a sin can be immediate. God once told me that there were certain situations in which I became malicious. The moment I saw that in myself, I stopped. I felt freed from that sin. Other times forsaking the sin can take a long time, but repentance demands that we constantly be making progress. I have several things in my heart that I need to change. I am aware of them and I have been working on them for a long time. I have been able to forsake facets of the weaknesses, but I still have aspects of it that just take time. My desire to overcome these things is great. I think about it a lot. I pray and fast about it constantly. I know that over time I will “crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Galatians 5:24).

Paul wrote, “…our old self was crucified with him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” (Romans 6:6) As we forsake our sins, we become “a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Not only are we no longer committing those same sins, but we become the type of person who is incapable of doing those things any longer. They no longer are a temptation. 

True repentance involves forsaking our sins. In some cases, forsaking our sins will take time, but as long as we are working on it and making progress, we are repentant. In time we become freed from those sins and we become a new person who is incapable of committing those sins. As time goes on, God will reveal new sins and weaknesses to us. These may be outward acts (such as gossiping, lying, or criticizing another) or states of our hearts (such as pride, envy, jealousy, greed, a focus on worldly possessions or appearances, and so on). As we overcome these things (as well as develop the attributes of Christ) we will eventually become pure and holy before God. It is at this point that we can be in the presence of Jesus. Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8; see also Hebrews 12:14).