The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
To see the previous chapter, click here.
During a long plane ride a few years ago, I learned a great lesson about how the Lord strips us of pride, and how the resulting guilt turns to our good. After finishing the work I needed to get done on the flight, I put my things away and began mindlessly surfing the menu on the seatback screen to see if there was anything worth watching. (Think about how completely the miraculous can become mundane. From a vantage point that anciently could have been occupied only by heavenly beings, my primary concern was what to watch on TV!)
Nothing in particular interested me, and for a moment I contemplated a nap. With the thought that perhaps a slow and lousy movie could help me to sleep, I selected a show that at least had an actor I admired. I leaned back to watch, yearning for leaden eyelids. What I received instead was a lightning bolt to the heart.
The movie itself was unremarkable. An elderly woman was dying, and the narrative took us back to scenes from her life. At that level, the story was like many I have seen. But for some reason, on this mechanical, aimless day, the perspective of a life lived compelled me to evaluate the life I was then living. From within the cocoon of the plane, I felt pressure building within me. Something was trying to burst outsome truth, some insight, some yearningsomething I needed to know about myself.
I felt it in the tears that tumbled down my cheeks as the movie by proxy invited me to see my life from my own dying eyes. The old, expiring version of myself knew with clarity something that the striving, effort-filled, middle-aged version of me was missing. That lesson was at the tip of my souls tongue. I could feel it, almost taste it, even. I felt an overwhelming desire to write.
Hastily, I pulled some paper from my bag. I put the tray table down and set the paper on it. Inhaling deeply, I wiped the water from my eyes and began writing. This is what burst from my pen:
You try all your life to be somebodywell thought of, accomplished, substantialand then in a flash of light you realize: it was an ill quest. And unnecessary. The things of import are right before usall around us, even. Offering ourselves in love to those around us is the work of greatest import. Nay, work it is not; it is all there is. And to find joy in all there is, is to have found Him who made himself of no import that we too might choose each other over fame, selflessness over admiration, oneness over glory. And when we do, the glory comes.
Lifes irony: Lose yourself and you find; live to find, and you never really live.
Every word cut deeply yet gently, each thought at once devastating and hopeful.
As I fell back into my seat, I knew two things as clearly as I had ever known anything. First, I knew that the way I had been living my life was somehow fundamentally amiss. It wasnt that I had committed any grave outward sin. On the contrary, it was that the Spirit was compelling me to consider how my apparent outward gospel compliance had blinded me to a spiritual rot that was nevertheless eating away within. I was being chastised about what the Lord called “the weightier matters of the law” the matters of the heart, or what I have come to understand to be “the deeper gospel.” “Ye . . . outwardly appear righteous unto men,” he chastised the scribes and Pharisees, “but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
What I had written suggested that I had been specializing in living the gospel outwardly and had in some ways mistaken that effort for living it inwardly. “Thou blind Pharisee,” I felt the Savior speaking to me, “cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” My own pen had revealed my guilt.
But this brings me to the second thing that I knew as I leaned back in my seat: My soul was on fire. The Spirit had filled my breast and made even my extremities tingle with warmth. I knew that God was mindful of me; the flame of his Spirit reassured me of his love. Being guilty before the Lord did not keep me from his love.
On the contrary, it was the guilt that he helped me to see that invited me to him.
I have noticed in myself how I sometimes prefer to focus on the happy topic of receiving forgiveness rather than on what seems like this hard and difficult and discouraging work of repentance.
But when I am feeling this way, I am in the middle of a misunderstanding. The repentant path is the path of happiness. It is only to those who are on that path that the Lord can say, “Be of good comfort, for I . . . will . . . ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs.”
My misunderstanding in these moments goes even deeper than this. I do need to be forgiven for the sins I have committedthat is the work of justification. The greater work, however, remains: the work of sanctification. And that is achieved not through forgiveness but through repentance. Between the two, repentance is the even greater gift. Alma was making this point when he said, “May the Lord grant unto you repentance.” Notice he does not say, “May the Lord grant unto you forgiveness.” Ill repeat it again: “May the Lord grant unto you repentance.” Elder D. Todd Christofferson spoke of the gift that is repentance in his October 2011 general conference address. Paul, too, oriented us to this gift when he said that what we need is for “God [to] peradventure . . . give [us] repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.”
Thinking of the ordinance of baptism, which is the gate by which we enter the path that leads to eternal life, we most often associate it with forgiveness. However, there isnt a single verse in the scriptures that links the word baptism with the word forgiveness. Rather, the linkage is with the word repentance. We are baptized, the scriptures say, “unto repentance.” “I . . . baptize you with water unto repentance,” John the Baptist declared. Another verse says of him, “John did . . . preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” The word remission, here, is often read to be synonymous with forgiveness, but I dont believe that is an accurate rendering. To be baptized is to begin clinging to a rod that is designed to put sinfulness into remission within us. Remission refers not only to forgiveness of past sins but also to sanctification from future ones.
As we cling to the word of God, we will continually be awakened to the additional repentance that is needed. Early on, the rod of iron teaches us of the outward laws we are to obey. Relatively speaking, these are the easier laws. We learn regarding tithing, for example, and the Word of Wisdom, that “clinging to the rod” means keeping those laws with exactness no matter the external circumstances. As we grow in the gospel, however, the rod and its path will take us to deeper and more difficult placesto the interior terrain of our hearts, where holiness is formed.
The law commands us to love, for example, to be charitable, and not to judge, to be angry, or to be envious. And at that level of life we must learn anew the same lessonthat clinging to the rod means that we will live by these standards toward others no matter the external circumstancesno matter what, for example, another has or hasnt done to (or for) us. When we meet circumstances where we are struggling to do this, we have just entered our own personal mists of darkness. The temptation will be to let go of the demand of the law. But we must remember: This is the path not of perfection but of repentance. We remain on that path so long as our hearts are broken and our spirits contrite, believing in the Creator of the rod enough to allow his words to invite us, once again, to repent of our failings.
From the perspective of the gospel of up, it seems a hard and foolish thing. The multitudes in the great and spacious building certainly think so, pointing their fingers and mocking those who continue to press forward and struggleespecially since, from their point of view, the ease of life in the great building is so appealing and ever available. But the ease of up-ness is an illusion. The pride of the world always fails to deliver, as its promises are mere vapor, untethered either to law or to reality. “And the fall” of those who put trust in those promises is “exceedingly great.”
What the observers in the building dont understand is that those who are struggling along the path, clinging to the rod, are being supported in their struggles by the Lord. They are not merely walking, they are being changedone repentant step at a time. As a young missionary in the city of Gifu, Japan, I remember watching in awesome wonder as Brother Ono, a member of the ward, passed the sacrament every Sunday cradling the tray as he would a babe, tears streaming down his cheeks. Upon seeing his tears, those in the great and spacious building would presume a burden that didnt exist. “Come and be relieved of whatever troubles you,” they might call to him. But his tears were already in relief. He was crying for joy. The joy of the tree stretches back along the rod of iron, and the travelers become filled with what Nephi called a “perfect brightness of hope.” What seems a burden is a delight.
“This is the way,” Nephi declared, “and there is none other”none other way to real happiness and lasting joy. The way to happiness is to let the rod deliver us in humility at the Lords feet. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning,” James taught, “and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”
Any counsel that invites me to reach up rather than fall down will ultimately keep me from the joy that awaits in the Lords embrace. Such counsel, although appealing to the carnal spirit, is an invitation to join the throngs in the building rather than the disciples on the path, who are anxiously engaged in the happy effort of repenting.
Unfortunately, I still see the building and some of its philosophies in myselfparticularly when things get difficult.
I would like to consider with you some of the “pleasing” things I sometimes feel myself thinking, or hear myself or others saying, that I believe are coming from across the terrible gulf rather than from the direction of the tree.
After all, one of the things that we must repent of is the desire to join the voices in the building.