When my husband Chris and I were dating he sent me a love note with this observation of my character. He wrote, “You are always striving for excellence and never quite attaining it.”
Happily, I knew already knew that Chris was a very literal person and what he probably meant was something more along the lines of “You do ambitious things with enthusiasm and still want to improve beyond that.”
But Chris’s first version was right, too. I know I am incapable of doing things quite as well as I hope to do them. All of us who are disciples of Jesus, if we are honest, are in the same predicament. We make covenants – and we’re still not as “excellent” at keeping them as we’d like to be.
Here’s how Brigham Young put it in 1856:
I can see that I yet lack confidence…in him whom I trust.—Why? Because I have not the power, in consequence of that which the fall has brought upon me. … Something rises up within me, at times, that makes my interest and the interest of my Father in heaven not precisely one. I know that we should feel and understand, as far as fallen nature will let us,… that the interest of that God whom we serve is our interest, and that we have no other, neither in time nor in eternity. 
I once saw a billboard that read: “Saved from what? Define and apply your answer.”
I have thought about this billboard for years. What are we saved from? Our inborn inability – by virtue of the Fall – to be as single-minded, as whole, as pure, as clean, as “good” as the justice of God requires, despite our noblest efforts.
Young Joseph Smith describes his wrestle with this predicament. He wrote about this life-changing encounter in his own handwriting in 1832:
When considered … that being who filleth Eternity – who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity – seeketh such to worshep him as worship him in spirit and in truth – therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go to obtain mercy. …The Lord heard my cry … and while in attitude of calling upon the Lord a pillar of … light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of God and … I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy sins are forgiven thee.
Then Joseph got instructions on how to “define and apply” that answer:
Go thy way; walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.
I believe that God’s love is the underpinning for all His plans and hopes for us. The scriptures tell us in 1 John: 4:10, 19: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. …We love him because he first loved us. This God-generated love is so profound that, as we learn in the temple, the need for the Atonement and Salvation for human beings was anticipated, understood and provided for through Divine grace and love before any of us “mere mortals” came here in the first place. Through a love so deep we cannot fully comprehend it, God set in motion a way to redeem humankind before we were even in our mortal condition.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry works with severely traumatized children. Providing healthy behavioral patterns and an environment of trust are essential to helping such children. He says that even more important than protocols, however, “‘lasting, caring connections to others’ are irreplaceable in healing; medications and therapy alone cannot do the job. Relationships are the agents of change, and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
If children cannot thrive until they intuit that they are loved, my faith tells me this is true on a grander scale with our Heavenly Parents love towards us. We are much more capable of growing and thriving spiritually when we both accept God’s love, return it and share it with our fellow beings.
Before any thing else comes Love. This is the heartbeat of the Gospel to me.
Chieko Okasaki, a former member of the General Relief Society Presidency, shares this great news:
Our Savior is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He is not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief.…We know that this world is a dark place sometimes, but we need not walk in darkness. The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and the people who walk in darkness can have a bright companion. Our spiritual requirement for light is just as desperate and as deep as our physical need for light. Jesus is the light of the world. We need him, and He is ready to come to us, if we will…let him.
As is often the case in a Gospel where truth is one eternal round, love powers our desire to make covenants with God and “keeping” those covenants nourishes the love.
When we lived in the Boston area I loved to go to a particularly majestic Christmas music concert held at Memorial Church in Cambridge. It was always jam-packed, and we learned to get there early to get decent seats. We had plenty of time to read through the program on thick, luxuriant paper. Always in the program there was an admonition to “keep silence” before the concert to show respect and reverence. Reading that phrase made the word “keep” mean something active: Protect silence. Nurture silence. Bond with the concept of silence.
That’s the kind of keeping I want to do with my covenants.
“Obeying” in the sense of checking off a list of “to do’s” isn’t usually a good incentive for me. It dulls my sense of the Divine love I want to feel and to develop within myself. Sometimes I can feel my loving God telling me, “Do it!” and I comply. (God was quite emphatic when telling me to join this church for example, even knowing what He knows about me.) Folks with other personality types may find the structure of lists exactly what they need to flourish spiritually. Our behaviors would be the same, but the motivations are different.
The Pharisees once asked Jesus about ranking commandments:
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Besides being Savior of the world, Jesus was also an excellent editor, succinct and to the point. When I “keep” Christ’s interpretation of the most vital commandments, I find a Divine reciprocal love fest. The Gospel is infused with love at every turn. Once again we see that Eternal round: love builds covenant behavior builds love builds covenant behavior…. Instead of the notorious Pride Cycles of the Book of Mormon, I call this the “Lovedience Cycle”.
Because of the challenges of mortal life I’m always going to fall short of where I might like to be in the “love” or the “edience” parts of this growth wheel. Here are more encouraging words from Sister Okazaki:
It is probably true that our own wisdom is inadequate, our own love too quickly exhausted, our own patience in short supply, our own resources too scanty, our own capability too limited, our own talents too stunted. But the good news of the gospel is that we are not alone. This mortal probation is not a test of any of those things. It is an invitation to walk with faith with the Savior, and his promise is that he will make up all of our deficiencies. That’s what grace means. That’s what grace is for. If we will give Christ our trust, then he will provide everything we lack.
There are some promises we make as Mormons that may seem extreme. Think about the counsel to eat meat sparingly as we head full bore into BBQ season, for example. Some covenants we make are couched in 19th century language that may not connect well with our 21st century sensibilities. Wrestling with God for understanding in unclear areas provides vigorous workouts for my spiritual muscles.
I try to live by the meaning of this poem by Carol Lynn Pearson:
I know only as much of God and this world
As a creature with two eyes must.
What I do understand I love,
And what I don’t understand I trust.
Living a life built on love and covenants with God is a robust activity for mortality.
Yes, our covenants help us follow the Savior. Yes, we are grateful to Him for sacrificing His life on our behalf. Yes, He provided a holy example for us to emulate in our mortal lives. Yes, we appreciate Him as the one who accomplished the Atonement.
Gratitude and Reverence are good, but I think they are not enough. Let’s not settle for less when God offers so much more.
Jesus is more than Saint Jesus – a good man who provided a fine ethical discipline for life and who happened to have the correct “genetics” for our passage into the Eternities.
Good people frequently talk with enthusiasm – and maybe some anxiety – about the day when they can “return to live with our Father in Heaven”.
My question is, why wait until then to begin Eternal life? I’m not talking about ending your earthly life. I mean, why wait for an intimate, spiritual, loving relationship with God to begin? Eternal life is right here. It is now. It is real. Christ calls us to that kind of engagement.
In 3 Nephi 10:4 Jesus says, How oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you.
This holy promise continues: [H]ow oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.
I look forward to a long and adventurous life exploring the joys and challenges of the Lovedience Cycle Christ has called me to. Because I love my Savior, I want to make binding covenants knowing that, as the hymn goes:
O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let thy goodness as a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.
I am grateful to God for allowing me to live my eternal life right now as well as later. I want to “keep” the words of Moroni 10:32:
Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, … and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
 Brigham Young, “Discourse,” Deseret News, Sept. 10, 1856, 212.
 JosephSmithPapers.org, Accounts of the First Vision, History, circa Summer 1832
 Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog
 Chieko N. Okazaki, Lighten Up, Preface, p. 174
 Chieko Okazaki, Being Enough
 Carol Lynn Pearson, from Consider the Butterfly
 Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson in 1757