Terryl and Fiona Givens are the authors of the new book All Things New. Some of their ideas from this book are reflected in this article. 

In the walk of discipleship, the first thing we would do well to remember is that we never know what cross our neighbor is carrying. We cannot know its bruising weight, its coarse textures, or its hidden origins. In his one-on-one engagements with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the blind man—Jesus engaged individuals as individuals, knowing them and their wounds intimately.

Scripture is replete with the call to have mercy and to stop judging one another by our own—or our interpretation of the Lord’s—standards. “As all have not faith;” “to some is given;” “ye shall both have according to your desires;” “neither do I condemn thee.”[1] In these and countless other pronouncements, we are reminded that we are at different stages along the covenant path, bearing different burdens, with different gifts and capacities.

Hence, it is doubtless true that some disciples are prepared to give all, to make any sacrifice, climb any mountain, in faithful service to the Lord. And some—perhaps many—believe, like Peter, that they are ready to make any sacrifice required. But it is equally true that a great many of us, maybe most, are just struggling to keep our heads above water in the roiling waves of life’s demands upon us. We are all at moving at different rates in our faith journeys. Some may indeed need a reprimand for sloth and inattention. Some may benefit from a sharp rebuke for their wandering in forbidden paths. But others just desperately need a drink of water and a place of shade before continuing the ascent up the mountain.

God has given to each one of us a circle of influence, people within our orbit, to whom it is in our power to minister. Dorothy Dunnett wrote that “Some live all their lives without discovering this truth; that the noblest and most terrible power we possess is the power we have, each of us, over the chance-met, the stranger, the passer-by outside your life and your kin.”[2] And whether we recognize the fact or not, there is no community known to us, no matter how small or unnoticed, that cannot stand to benefit if we heed the Lord’s plea to work with Him to “succor the weak, lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”[3]

We only see the world through the prism of our own experience; my service in the church taught me a simple truth that revolutionized my outlook on my neighbor. A single mother came to me as her bishop, in her distress. Fatigued, falling short of her own expectations as mother, and angry at the lack of mentoring and ministering the ward provided she half railed and half pled: “where is the support I desperately need? Why is no one helping me?”

I mentally reviewed again the rolls of a weak and struggling ward. There were simply more souls in crisis than there were hands to succor. It struck me forcefully from that pained perspective- that rare is the individual who awakes in the morning, finds his or her reservoirs of emotional, physical, and spiritual waters brimming, and says, “to whom shall I bestow the superabundance of my energies and resources today?” Would that that were the case; alas, the truth is otherwise.

In our writing and speaking, Fiona and I have tried to respond to that recognition. We don’t know the exact reasons why a third of our spirit siblings opted out of the ascent into mortality. Origen thought boredom and spiritual “satiety” led to rebellion. Edward Beecher was probably closer to the truth when he opined that the “discipline of suffering” we probably previewed was sufficiently appalling to dissuade legions.”[4] Similarly, we may never know the real reasons why some of our fellow Saints—like some of Christ’s disciples—choose to “walk no more” with us. Doubtless the motives span the gamut. Anyone who thinks one size fits all is deluded. But we think we know some of the reasons operative in some of the cases—and those are the ones we choose to address in our books and talks. We have become attuned to those fellow disciples who have too seldom tasted the refreshing water along the route; or who in their self-doubt and anxiety and insecurity, feel that the voice that beckons to them is threatening rather than inviting.

So what are we not saying? We are not denying the reality of sin, as a willful choice to satisfy selfish rather than godly impulses. We are not denying the rationalization that some make for their choice to avoid the rigors of discipleship. We are not failing to recognize that some experience understandable disquiet about historical and cultural chapters in our story. And we do not deny that some believe they have been called to other paths.

Each of those constituencies, we trust, may yet find their way Home. We have found great comfort—and hope others may as well—in some of the earliest Christian conceptions of a God more patient and generous than the ominous Figure who begins to take shape in the era of the creeds. The third century Origen wrote that ‘’whatever it is that we are able to sense or know of God, …he is by many degrees far better than what we perceive him to be.”[5] Elder Marion D. Hanks used to quote Ugo Betti to his missionaries: “To believe in God is to know that all the rules will be fair, and that there will be wonderful surprises.”[6] And regarding those who do not in their lives find an undeviating course of righteousness, Origen wrote:

it is, moreover, perhaps expedient for [some] … to obtain salvation slowly…. God, who knows the secret things of the heart and foreknows the future, through great forbearance allow certain things to happen, which, coming from without upon human beings, provoke the passions and vices which are concealed within to come out and proceed into the light, so that by these means those may be cleansed and saved. For God deals with souls not merely with reference to this time of our life, which is concluded in sixty or a few more years, but with reference to an everlasting and eternal age, as he himself is eternal and immortal, exercising his providence over immortal souls. For he made the rational being, which he fashioned in his own image and likeness, incorruptible, and therefore the soul, which is immortal, is not excluded by the brevity of the time of our present life from the divine healing and remedies.”[7]

We think this is the heavenly Parent that Joseph rediscovered, and is the one (the Ones) that we celebrate. Accordingly, we have focused on those concepts that follow in the wake of a God who is “far better than what we perceive.” And we have primarily in mind those Saints who have not, in the poet’s words, managed to “behold the beauty of God’s face.”[8] At times, given the cultural detritus that we have inherited and sometimes inadvertently promote, that is understandable.

It is, of course, not enough to simply wish into being a God of infinite patience and tender mercies. When Peter urged us to have a “reason of the hope” that is in us he might well have been recognizing that there is much convincing of ourselves that must precede our full conversion.[9]  Skeptics get this psychology wrong: we humans are not easily self-deceived into visions of Santa Claus gods and eternal felicity. As Flannery O’Connor said, real Christians know our faith is a cross, not an electric blanket.[10]

Our most prolonged and painful arguments are generally with the most stubborn of listeners: the over-vigilant judge in our own head. We demand concrete grounds to trust that God is not disappointed in us; that angels are not “silent notes taking” of every wrong; that our failures are not final, and that perfection is not the appropriate standard for self-acceptance. And so Fiona and I have worked to excavate the most inspired voices from the Christian past, determine the verifiable historical intrusions into, and excisions from, “the plain and precious things,” and ascertain the precise ways in which “the traditions of the fathers” continue to poison the waters of life that the Restoration offer.

Our entire religious vocabulary is inherited from a tradition that in crucial regards lost its way—and the consequences were prophesied in the Book of Mormon. The world is in a state of “awful woundedness,” according to Joseph Smith’s 1830 translation (“blindness” our modern version reads),[11] and that woundedness is specifically attributed to the ways the inadequate transmission of gospel truths has muddled our understanding. To be more specific, “language does not just register experience,” Robert MacFarlane wrote. “It produces it.”[12] But as also prophesied, Jesus came “with healing in his wings.”[13] And his invitation to us, as to the Nephites, is to “be converted that I may heal you.”[14] In our most recent book, we share the ways in which we believe our religious vocabulary—from “sin” to “salvation”—bears the traces of woundedness but can furnish the seeds of healing.

The best news of all, the one we believe caused the sons (and daughters) of God “to shout for joy” in a primeval moment,[15] was the assurance given before the first mortal ever took breath that Heavenly Parents had all power and wisdom to bring to accomplish what they set out to do: and foremost in this regard was their self-designated project to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of every one of us. “There is such a thing,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “as a small and cramped eternity. You may see it in many modern religions.”[16] The heaven of the Latter-day Saint-day Saints is no such place. The most transformative understanding we can get into our heads is that Christ is with us for the long-haul. If this life is an academy for souls, a school of love, then He is the ever-patient tutor; not the scowling headmaster waiting for our test results. Our stumbling steps were all foreseen. Our faltering faith was anticipated.

Anxiety appears to be the default human condition. We are fragile creatures, and at the best of times we have a tenuous hold on happiness. We are anxious about loved ones, about the state of our world, about our work, our health, and the ineradicable burden of measuring up to our own fears and expectations. Even those secure in their discipleship find all too few moments of respite from a world strewn with reminders of our vulnerability, the brittleness of life. Anxiety is more than a drain on our body and soul; it short-circuits the flourishing that we are here to cultivate in ourselves and engender in others. The great Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love.”  

That “adventure of love” may be the grandest consequence of a life of faith, though little noted. Faith liberates us to listen, to fully attend, to clearly see, the other. And so it may even be the case that as our aptitude for, and exercise of, faith increases, so does our capacity for what Clement of Rome called, “the practice of love.”[17] Most of us do not fall neatly into categories of belief and non-belief, perfect faith and debilitating anxiety. Faith occupies a spectrum, as does our other-directedness. None of us has yet reached that perfect day when we see as we are seen. That is why the nurturing of faith is an incremental task that beckons to us all.

[1] D&C 109:7; 46:12; 7:8; John 8:11.

[2] Dorothy Dunnett, Queens’ Play (New York: Vintage, 2019), 499.

[3] D&C 81:5.

[4] Edward Beecher, Concord of Ages: or The Individual and Organic Harmony of God and Man (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1860), 98. Elder Quentin Cook agreed that we learned in heavenly councils that “there would be mortal pain and even unspeakable tragedy because of the abuse of agency.” “Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteousness,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/04/personal-peace-the-reward-of-righteousness?lang=eng

[5] John Behr, Origen: On First Principles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 15-16.

[6] Cited by Quentin L. Cook, “Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteousness.”

[7] Behr, Origen, 167-8.

[8][8] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, ed. Bertram Dobell (London: Bertram Dobell, 1908), 151

[9] 1 Pet. 3:15.

[10] Flannery O’Connor, “To Louise Abbot,” in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), 354.

[11] 1 Nephi 13:32.

[12] Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks (New York: Penguin, 2015), 25.

[13] Malachi 4:2.

[14]  3 Nephi 9:13.

[15] Job 38:7.

[16] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dover, 2004), 12.

[17] Clement of Rome, First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (Savage, Minnesota: Lighthouse, 2019), 29.