Some years ago a young man joined the Church in the Madison Ward and became very enthusiastic about the Church and about the gospel. His wife, however, was not so enthusiastic. She came with him to church a few times, but clearly did not warm to anything she saw. She vigorously opposed his activity in the church. In time, he became discouraged and confided in me that it was becoming too hard for him. I knew what he was going through because I had a very similar experience. My wife bitterly opposed my activity in the Church for many years.
I asked him if he knew that the Church was true, that it was the Church of Jesus Christ? He said, yes, he did. I asked him if he loved his family? He said, yes, he did. The choice then, I said, is simple. Not easy, but simple. You either lead, or you follow. But if you choose not to lead your family back into eternity, who will? To me, the answer was always obvious.
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Christ sacrificed his life in a way that we are not called upon to do. He died for us. But as we follow Christ and seek to emulate Him, is it not possible that we may be called upon to sacrifice our lives also in a manner of speaking? Would it be an inappropriate paraphrase of Christ’s words to say “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his family?” A family that doesn’t understand. A family that will not follow. A family, even, that severely persecutes you for your beliefs within the walls of your own home. A family of whom it might be said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
Some of us in the Church understand very well the meaning of these words of Christ:
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
Indeed, “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his family.” Meekly, patiently, with humility. Christlike.
Unfortunately, the young man I speak of left the Church and never returned. In my own case, I trudged on. In time, my wife simply became reconciled to the fact that I was determined to stay the course. Though she still has no interest in the Church or the gospel, she at least now can joke that the only person she knows who can out-tough her is me.
But for me, the long struggle is far from over. Our three children have all abandoned the things I worked so hard all those years to teach them and are wandering, as Lehi might have put it, in strange paths. I promised each of them, when I gave them their names and a father’s blessing, that I would always be faithful to their mother and to the Lord, and that I would do everything I could to teach them the truth and to lead them back into the presence of their heavenly Father. I promised them that I would never fail them. Over the years, I brought them to church faithfully, held family prayer daily, struggled to have family home evening regularly, and even taught seminary for five years. Today, I carry on alone. There is no family home evening in our home anymore. No family prayer. I know they don’t want these things, so I hold my peace.
When I received my patriarchal blessing in 1978, I was counseled not to be preachy to my family. I assumed that the counsel referred to my parents and brothers and sisters. But I have come to realize that that admonition from the Lord to me pertained most importantly to my wife and my children. I could never have imagined that at the time.
Responding to a sister who had inquired of Pres. John Taylor, the latter-day prophet wrote:
“Where did I come from? What am I doing here? Wither am I going? And what is my destiny after having obeyed the truth, if faithful to the end?” Pres. Taylor answered in part, “Knowest thou not that eternities ago thy spirit…madest a covenant with one of thy kindred spirits to be thy guardian angel while in mortality, also with two others, male and female spirits, that thou wouldst come and take a tabernacle through their lineage, and become one of their offspring. You also chose a kindred spirit whom you loved in the spirit world…to be your head, stay, husband and protector on the earth and to exalt you in eternal worlds. All these were arranged, likewise the spirits that should tabernacle through your lineage…” (Origin and Destiny of Woman, President John Taylor, “The Mormon,” August 29, 1857, quoted in “The Vision or the Degrees of Glory,” by N.B. Lundwall)
There is a principle here which I believe is true. The principle is that just as we are free to prepare for and work out our eternal destiny while we are here in mortality, so we were free, it seems, in our first estate, to work out and prepare for our mortal probation.
There is evidence that some of the children of God, perhaps all of us, volunteered to fulfill certain callings or missions during this mortal probation.
I have often thought of a young man named Chris Johnson in the Canoga Park II (CA) Ward where I joined the Church. Chris was about 14 when I knew him in the late 1970s. As I recall the story, he got turned around in the birth canal, was strangled by his umbilical chord, and was born a quadriplegic. I remember Chris saying once in a testimony meeting that there were two things he had always wanted to do: go to a high school dance like everyone else, and play soccer. When I think things are tough for me, I think of Chris.
I think it is reasonable to ask, why Chris, but not me? Does heavenly Father arbitrarily designate one of his children to abide in mortality in a wheelchair, while another gets to play soccer? Where is the principle of agency here? Was not the lynchpin of the great controversy in the first estate which culminated in the war in heaven the issue of the agency of man? What about Chris’ agency?
In his book “Life Everlasting” Duane Crowther prefaces the account of a man named DeLynn with these words:
“Inseparably connected with the premortal education program is the process of selecting the challenges one is to deal with during his mortal probationary period. Earth life clearly is an extension of the premortal training environment, as we undergo a variety of challenges which we chose for ourselves prior to coming to earth, each person tailoring his selected mortal tests and experiences to best enhance his eternal progression” (Life Everlasting, Duane S. Crowther, Second Revised Edition, pg. 101).
This is a fascinating prospect because, if it is true, it reinforces the idea that the divine principle of agency is never violated by a just and loving Father. The account of DeLynn buttresses the point.
DeLynn had suffered with cystic fibrosis for 37 years. In a near death experience, he found himself in a conversation with a voice that was very familiar to him, but which he hadn’t heard in a very long time. He recognized it to be the voice of his Father in Heaven. Among other things, he asked why he had had to suffer so in mortality. DeLynn states:
“When he told me that it was my choice, in a premortal environment, to suffer when I came to earth, I was both astonished and incredulous. He must have understood my incredulity, because I was immediately transported to my pre-mortal existence” (Ibid pg. 99).
DeLynn saw himself in a kind of classroom with an instructor. He recounts:
“He was instructing us about things we had to know in order to come to earth and get our bodies. Then he said, and I’ll never forget this: You can learn lessons one of two ways. You can move through life slowly, and have certain experiences, or there are ways that you can learn the lessons very quickly through pain and disease. He wrote on the board the words: Cystic Fibrosis, and he turned and asked for volunteers. I was a volunteer; I saw me raise my hand and offer to take the challenge. The instructor looked at me and agreed to accept me.”
“That was the end of the scene, and it changed forever my perspective of the disease that I previously felt was a plague on my life. No longer did I consider myself a victim. Rather, I was a privileged participant, by choice, in an eternal plan. That plan, if I measured up to the potential of my choice, would allow me to advance in mortal life the fastest way possible. True, I would not be able to control the inevitable slow deterioration of my mortal body, but I could control how I chose to handle my illness emotionally and psychologically. The specific choice of cystic fibrosis was to help me learn dignity in suffering. My understanding in the eternal sense was complete – I knew that I was a powerful, spiritual being that chose to have a short, but marvelous, mortal experience.”
“While I was marveling at this new-found knowledge, or rather, from the reawakened knowledge that I previously had, I was again transported to another era. This time I found myself looking on a different scene – the scene was the Garden of Gethsemane. Looking down from above, I saw Christ undergoing his ordeal of pain with dignified endurance…I felt bad that he had to go through it, and I felt empathy for him. I also realized why he was doing it; I understood that it was his choice, just as cystic fibrosis had been my choice…” (Ibid pg. 102).
Another revelation to me in my patriarchal blessing is that I have a mission to fulfill on this earth. Leading my family is no doubt a very important part of that mission. But I think there is something else as well. I don’t know exactly what it is yet, but I believe it is also very important. Whatever the sum of my mission in this life is, I believe I volunteered to fulfill it before I ever came into this life.
Examples of such volunteerism are not unfamiliar to us. We know that in the great Council in Heaven before the foundation of this earth, our Father outlined the plan for our progression and salvation. There were many missions which needed to be fulfilled to bring all things to pass in the best interests of each of His children, the most important of which was the need for a Savior, an Exemplar, a Redeemer. No doubt the requirements were set forth and the call was issued:
“And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first” (Abraham 3:27-28).
Isaiah, much like DeLynn, was given a glimpse of a seminal moment in his premortal existence. The Lord had need of a prophet at a time of great wickedness. He again issued a call, and Isaiah recounts:
“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
Likewise Jeremiah received his call to be a prophet before he was born:
“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
I have had the feeling for some time that in those premortal councils the Lord described a mission that needed to be fulfilled. There were several of his children, good children, but weak in some ways, who needed a strong guide. If they were to traverse the long, perilous journey through mortal life and successfully find their way back to presence of God, they would need someone who would lead them. Someone who could endure many years of spiritual rejection and loneliness. Someone who would never slacken in faith. Someone who would never give up on them, never abandon them. Someone who would bear the loneliness and discouragement and disappointment for a long, long time. Someone who would endure to the end for them. It would not be easy. It would feel like a lifetime of failure. But with faith and endurance and patience, these children would make it.
I expect that the Lord asked for a volunteer. “Whom shall we send?” I expect that I raised my hand, “Here am I, send me.”
There have been times when I have looked at families in the Church that seem whole and healthy, where everyone seems to be, relatively speaking, on the same page – families with sons who have served honorable full time missions and daughters who were married in the House of the Lord – and I have ached. I couldn’t avoid the question: why is my family so spiritually dysfunctional? I have come to understand the answer to that question line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little.
It has to do with the principle of agency. It has to do with what one author called “divine initiative.” It has to do with what I would call the principle of leaven.
Agency is that divine principle by which “…every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78).
When agency is combined with “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22), the result is “divine initiative,” the willingness to say “Here am I, send me,” to voluntarily take up the cross of Christ and bear it, alone if necessary.
Leaven is that powerful living agent a small amount of which, after much blending and kneading and in the heat of an oven, causes a mass of dough to rise to the full measure of its potential and become life giving bread. That principle, when applied to souls, calls for small quantities of strong souls (often only one) to be kneaded in amongst the many, and in the furnace of affliction, cause the many to rise to the fullest measure of their creation and become the sons and daughters of God. How much less good would be accomplished if the Lord organized us with all of the strong in strong families, and all of the weak in weak families? How could the strong come to know of their strength? And how could the weak become strong? Where would the service be? Where the eternal gratitude?
I have come to realize that my role in my family is, essentially, to be the leaven.
There is much talk today of heroes and role models. Sometimes I question the world’s definition of just what a hero is. To me, the designation is often misapplied. The true hero is that person who, without fanfare, usually without recognition, often without even thanks, effectively lays down his or her life in the hope of bringing to pass some good for others. Here is living evidence of “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22). These are they who, alone, take up their cross and follow after Jesus Christ, and in so doing, sacrifice their life in this world because they volunteered to do so at another time, in another place. To them it is promised that they shall not lose their lives, but that they shall find their life with those whom they have saved at yet another time and yet another place.
Do you recognize a little bit of yourself in all of this? Remember, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good…Therefore, hold on thy way” (D&C 122:7-9).
You are not a victim of circumstance. You are a person of destiny. You have exercised divine initiative in all of this. You are a volunteer.
You are one who once said, “Here am I, send me.”