by Elder Joe J. Christensen of the Presidency of the Seventy
These are excerpts from a talk given at a Brigham Young University devotional on the campus of Brigham Young University on January 9, 1994
To a degree, we all understand the gospel and know what we should be doing in our lives. Very likely, we know more than we apply. It may be a little like the young county farm agent who wanted to put his college training to use and said to the farmer, “Sam, you know that now we use something called contour plowing.” He went on to also expound on the benefits of hybrid strains of grain and crop rotation. About the time he got to the benefits of milking the cows three times a day rather than two, the old farmer said, “Hey, sonny, just a minute. I’m not farming half as well as I know how already.”
Isn’t that the way life is? We seldom perform to the level of our knowledge. This brings me to the subject of resolutions—resolutions to conform our lives more closely to what we already know about the gospel. While many of us take seriously our New Year’s resolutions, some of us may not have made any because of our prior problems in keeping them. We must not overlook the power that making good resolutions can have in helping make our lives happier and more successful—regardless of our past performance.
In an informal survey that I requested be taken among 150 young adults, they were asked to list three resolutions they felt would help them become happier and more successful during the new year. Almost everyone in the survey (98 percent) included resolutions to increase their spirituality. Two out of three (68 percent) indicated they would like to improve their social skills. Half (49 percent) indicated a desire to improve their physical fitness, and half (48 percent) wanted to grow intellectually. Everyone indicated a desire to improve. After all, self-improvement by coming unto Christ is at the heart of why we are here in mortality.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior is recorded as saying, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In the Joseph Smith Translation, the first part of that sentence is rendered, “Ye are therefore commanded to be perfect” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 5:50). The translation of the Greek word for perfect means “complete, finished, fully developed.” Some biblical analysts indicate that the suggestion to become perfect is exaggerated idealism or scriptural hyperbole. We as Latter-day Saints believe that the Savior meant what he said and that becoming like our Father in Heaven and the Savior is a commandment, not just a suggestion. We should strive continually to be more like them. After his resurrection, the Savior asked his disciples, “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and then answered, “Even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27).
Only one verse of scripture in the entire King James Version of the New Testament suggests what the Savior did to develop himself from age twelve until he began his formal ministry at age thirty: “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52; see Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 3:24–26). In other words, the Savior developed in the same areas indicated on the poll: intellectually (in wisdom and knowledge), physically (in stature), socially (in favor with man), and spiritually (in favor with God).
I am convinced that if we make and keep resolutions in those four areas, we will have a happier and more successful new year this coming year and every year for the rest of our lives. Let’s consider the nature of such resolutions and the benefits that can be ours if our resolve to improve ourselves is firm.
Resolution number one: I resolve to expand my intellectual horizons, to increase in wisdom. This year, commit to read good books throughout your life. Some people learn to read but don’t read very much. A few years ago, a disturbing poll indicated that 56 percent of college graduates never read a book all the way through after their schooling. We might ask ourselves, Are we reading? Are we growing in wisdom?
The scriptural commandment to us is to “seek … out of the best books words of wisdom” and “become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118; Doctrine and Covenants 90:15; emphasis added). What we choose to read will make a huge difference in the development of our minds and character.
We cannot justify mentally shifting into neutral and failing to exert our efforts to progress intellectually. In 1838 Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency, addressed a group of relatively new members of the Church, some of whom apparently thought all they had to do was be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and then just sit back and wait to receive the celestial glory. He said: “Vain are the hopes of those who embrace the gospel, and then suppose … they have nothing more to do. … The great God … never thought of … raising up a society of ignoramuses, but of men and women of intelligence … as high as human nature was susceptible” (Elders’ Journal, Aug. 1838, p. 53).
So the challenge is the same for us all—to continue learning throughout our lives, and especially learning more about the gospel.
In the area of continued learning, my father-in-law, Albert, was a real inspiration to me. He was the twelfth of thirteen children of a very poor convert emigrant family from Switzerland. After he had finished the first six years of elementary school, he, like many others in his time, was encouraged to drop out to learn a trade. At the behest of a new schoolteacher, Albert resumed his education, and his future life was dramatically changed for the better. The teacher would write on the chalkboard the titles of books in which students could find answers to questions raised in class.
Albert developed a thirst for learning that was never quenched. He was a hardworking farmer providing for a large family, yet he nearly always had a thick book in his work-worn hands when he was at home. An avid student of history and Church doctrine, he would circle words he didn’t know and write their definitions in the margins. Although he never had the opportunity to go beyond the eighth grade, he read much more than most college graduates. He not only learned to read, but he read widely.
Suppose you were to read an entire book each week for the next seventy years. You would read 3,640 books. That sounds like a lot, but in the Library of Congress are more than 27,000,000 books. Futurist Alvin Toffler said that books are spewing from the world’s presses at the rate of one thousand titles per day. That means that in seventy years there will be an additional 25,000,000 volumes. Even if we read continually, we could not read more than the smallest fraction of the books in print. Therefore, we should not waste time reading anything that is not uplifting and instructive.
It also would be very beneficial if we resolve not to watch even one movie, video, or television show of R-rated quality or worse—from now on. I assure you that much of our future happiness and success depends on that choice.
There is safety in following the prophet. President Ezra Taft Benson said: “We counsel you … not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 45).
In our day, immoral entertainment is one of the most effective tools Satan has to pacify and lull us into carnal security, cheat our souls, and lead us carefully down to hell (see 2 Nephi 28:21).
Now for resolution number two: I will be resolute in preserving and strengthening my physical health. It is impressive that more than 160 years ago the Lord revealed a health code, the Word of Wisdom, that can make all the difference in how we feel and perform. With good health, we can be happier and more successful. Without it, we are curtailed in almost every way.
Resolve to get an adequately balanced diet. Getting healthful nutrition is another area where it is hard to perform to the level of our knowledge. Follow the do’s in the Word of Wisdom: eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains. Discover that meals need not feature the meat dish every time in order to be enjoyable and that a healthful diet will also benefit your budget. It really is a “win-win” situation.
Also, avoid completely the don’ts—tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea, as well as drugs and addictive stimulants in any form—and you will be blessed in a multitude of ways. What an improved society we would live in if the whole world were to make a similar resolution!
Resolve to get adequate physical exercise. Choose a sport or other vigorous physical exercise consistent with your situation and physical condition, and be regular in pursuing it. Get the blood circulating, and give your major muscles a workout. An appropriate amount of time and effort spent in exercising will help you to be more effective in all other areas of your life.
Resolve to get adequate rest. Really follow the counsel of the Lord to “cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:124).
Are you getting the rest you need, or are you habituated to going to bed late and sleeping much longer than your system really needs and thus missing out on some of the personal inspiration you could be receiving? Great value can come to you as an early riser. Years ago, President Marion G. Romney, First Counselor in the First Presidency, told me that after receiving his call to be a General Authority in 1941, he went to Elder Harold B. Lee for advice on how to be successful as a General Authority.
“If you are to be successful as a General Authority,” Elder Lee said, “I will give you one piece of advice: Go to bed early and get up early. If you do, your body and mind will become rested, and then, in the quiet of those early morning hours, you will receive more flashes of inspiration and insight than at any other time of the day.”
President Romney said to me, “From that day on, I put that counsel into practice, and I know it works. Whenever I have a serious problem, or some assignment of a creative nature with which I hope to receive the influence of the Spirit, I always receive more assistance in the early morning hours than at any other time of the day. Following that counsel has helped me a great deal through the years.”
You can have a similar experience in your own life. You can change, even if you consider yourself a “night person.” Experts say that you can set a new habit in twenty-one days. When it comes right down to it, it is a matter of strong resolve and “mind over mattress.”
Now to the third major resolution: I resolve to be a truer friend and to become more socially acceptable to people of high standards. Learn to be the kind of person with whom others of high standards enjoy associating. We all would like to have more friends. More than fifty years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People (rev. ed., New York: Pocket Books, 1981). You should read and reread the entire book. Among his suggestions that are equally valuable today are these time-honored principles for making friends:
Become genuinely interested in other people.
Smile. (Remember, the Lord commands us to “be of good cheer.”)
Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.
Occasionally, look in a full-length mirror. Certainly we should not become obsessed with how we look, but we should work to maintain a pleasant physical appearance. President Spencer W. Kimball said: “How nice and easy would it be if we had a magic wand! But we haven’t. You might take a careful inventory of your habits, your speech, your appearance, your weight, … and your eccentricities. … Take each item and analyze it. … What personality traits please you in others? Are your [clothes] too short, too long, too revealing, too old-fashioned? Does your weight drive off [others]? Do you laugh raucously? … Are you interested only in your own interests … ?” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, pp. 295–96.)
Good advice for those not yet married is rather than working so hard to find Mister or Miss Right, work harder to become Mister or Miss Right. You will more likely have the social life and marriage you desire. You will have good friends, and in the end, hopefully, you can be fortunate enough to marry your best friend.
The Lord expects us to do the best we can with what he has given us. After we have done what we can to improve our appearance, we should forget about ourselves and think of others and their needs.
Let’s turn to the fourth resolve, the one mentioned by nearly everyone in the poll: I will grow spiritually—I will increase in favor with God.
A few items are essential to our spiritual growth. Let’s start with the one that is most difficult and universally applicable. If we are to increase in favor with God, we must resolve to overcome as much as possible the sin of pride. President Benson maintained that pride is the universal sin (Ensign, May 1989, p. 6). That means that every one of us, to one degree or another, suffers from the problem and must do all in our power to overcome its influence. As human beings, we have a remarkable capacity to fall under the influence of pride—even when we think we are in the safest of religious settings.
I remember reading about the Sunday School teacher who taught her class that great scriptural lesson on the proud Pharisee who thanked the Lord that he was not a sinner like the publican, a penitent sinner who prayed for forgiveness. Jesus said the publican was more justified than the Pharisee (see Luke 18:9–14). The Sunday School teacher then suggested to her class that they should all thank God that they were not like that Pharisee! (See Robert J. McCracken, What Is Sin? What Is Virtue? New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p. 14.)
Another story relates that a Carthusian monk, explaining to an inquirer about the distinctive features of his monastic order, said: “When it comes to good works, we don’t match the Benedictines; as to preaching, we are not in a class with the Dominicans; the Jesuits are away ahead of us in learning; but in the matter of humility, we’re tops” (ibid., p. 14).
Even in Church callings there can be danger. We may fall into the trap of aspiring to position, something akin to praying, “Father, I want to serve. Use me—in an executive position!” Remember that even the greatest of all—our Savior and Redeemer, Creator of worlds without number—set the example of humble service by kneeling and washing his disciples’ feet (see John 13:4–16). Where we serve does not matter. How we serve matters a great deal.
In the scriptures are many indications that pride has risen to destroy individuals, nations, and in some cases even the Church itself. No less than thirty times in the Book of Mormon the cycles of prosperity and peace were destroyed principally by the effects of human pride (see, for example, 3 Nephi 6:4–14).
Some years ago, just after finishing graduate school, I was visiting with an acquaintance much older than I. Earlier in his career, he had gone to a major university and had received some graduate training from some of the then-known scholars in his field.
In the course of our conversation, my friend was critical of Church leaders and some Church policies he felt should have been changed. Then he said words that still ring in my memory: “You see, Joe, I am an intellectual.” In my experience, the genuine intellectual does not have to announce it. Since that time, this man has spent his life on the fringe, speaking, writing, and associating with those who felt they knew more than the designated leaders of the Church. His negative and critical attitudes affected his wife and some of his posterity. He seemed to me to be trapped by the sin of pride and seemed to be an incarnation of the type of individual who disregards Jacob’s warning:
“O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
“But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28–29; emphasis added).
An insightful man, Robert J. McCracken, wrote: “If we make a listing of our sins, … [pride] is the one that heads the list, breeds all the rest, and does more to estrange us from our neighbors or from God than any evil we can commit. … [Pride] is not only the worst of the seven deadly sins; it is the parent sin, the one that leads to every other, the sin from which no one is free” (What Is Sin? pp. 11–12).
Resolve now that you will read from the scriptures daily. President Ezra Taft Benson has repeatedly emphasized that we should read from the Book of Mormon daily. It really is another testament that Jesus is the Christ. Scholars have counted within its pages 3,925 references to the Savior. On average, one reads in this book something about Jesus every 1.7 verses. If we started each January first reading just two pages of the Book of Mormon each day (even slow readers can read two pages in ten minutes or less), by each September we will have finished another reading of that book. Then we can start over and continue feasting on Christ’s words, as we are commanded (see 2 Nephi 31:20). Every decision of our lives could be more inspired if we do this.
Next, resolve to really pray and not just say prayers. There is a big difference here. Learn to pour out the real in-depth feelings of your heart to your Heavenly Father, rather than merely saying the same trite words and phrases that you have become accustomed to using. Remember President Brigham Young’s counsel that if we don’t feel like praying, that is the time to pray until we do feel like it (see Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, p. 44).
For all single young men who have not yet done so, resolve now that you will prepare yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally to serve as a full-time missionary. There is no other experience in which you will grow spiritually more effectively and efficiently than you will while serving a full-time mission. If an elder follows the schedule, in two years he will receive seven thousand hours of specialized instruction in the scriptures, on the basic principles of the gospel and how to teach them, and on how to relate to people. By our attending the three-hour block of Church meetings every Sunday, it would take us more than forty-six years to accumulate seven thousand hours of instruction! Young brethren of the Church have the responsibility to serve a mission, and some of the sisters will have that opportunity.
Next, if you are really serious about growing spiritually, then “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8; emphasis added).
After my mission, I enrolled at Brigham Young University and found the study requirements stringent. One advanced course taught by a demanding professor had a detailed examination every Monday morning. The competition was keen, and I was highly motivated to do well.
I started a practice of studying for those exams on Sunday afternoons after church. One such afternoon my roommate, also a returned missionary, observed what I was doing and said, “Say, Joe, do you really believe in keeping the commandments?” My answer was obvious: “Sure.” “Then how about ‘Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work’?” I got the message, and from that time on I changed. I began to do a better job of organizing my study time during the remaining six days of the week, though I sometimes needed to get up very early on Monday mornings to finish an assignment. There was less procrastination, for I couldn’t let myself get behind. I felt better about myself, and my grades improved. I began to look forward to the change of pace that Sunday provided, the time to turn to things more spiritual.
There is some essential work that must be done on the Sabbath, and occasionally the ox does get in the mire. But usually, through poor organization or procrastination, we may give the ox a little nudge.
Temptations to break the Sabbath are greater now than they used to be. Television is a challenge. I enjoy just about any athletic event, no matter who is playing whom. Some of the best games are televised on Sunday, and the temptation is great. Yet we simply cannot afford to be like those who justify regularly spending hours on Sunday in front of the tube watching sports—the plays, replays, and almost endless postgame commentary—or other shows that are anything but spiritually uplifting.
I have discovered that we can take advantage of technology. You who have VCRs can simply use them to record the Sunday program you don’t want to miss; then in a fraction of the time on another day at your own convenience, you can watch that program or special event, fast-forward through the commercials and time-outs, and not miss a thing. After attending our meetings and fulfilling other Church duties, we don’t have to sit and fold our hands on Sunday. President Spencer W. Kimball suggested many things we can do to make the Sabbath special: meditate; serve others; read the scriptures, conference reports, Church publications, and uplifting literature; study the prophets’ lives and teachings; prepare Church lessons and family home evenings; visit relatives and friends; write in our journals or to missionaries and others; enjoy uplifting music and sing Church hymns; read with a child; do family history research; develop appreciation for the cultural arts; friendship nonmembers; and visit the sick, the aged, and the lonely (see Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 217). Make Sundays special, and they will help make you special in the sight of the Lord.
It will take energy and effort to keep the resolutions we have made together. I pray that we will do this so that we can, as Jesus did, increase in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man. In so doing, we will become happier, more successful, and more like the Savior every day for the rest of our lives.