Will I Ever Receive His Image in My Countenance?
Alma surrendered his civil leadership so that he could minister to the spiritual well-being of the people. He traveled the cities and villages giving the polished message recorded in Alma 5. Though Alma did not have the technology to deliver his speech to all the people at once, he did deliver the same powerful invitation to people all over the land. I think of this as one of the earliest recorded General Conference addresses.
In Alma’s great speech to the people, he suggested that one of the evidences of spiritual re-birth is to have Jesus’ image in our countenances (Alma 5:14). I have been both inspired and burdened by that expectation. I want to radiate like Jesus. I want people to see Him in me. But, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see any hint of His remarkable goodness. I see tired eyes and a profusion of wrinkles.
Since I have a great talent for self-accusation, I have assumed that I am not really spiritually reborn. I may have had powerful spiritual experiences, I may love Him dearly, but my cankered soul has not yet yielded to the mighty change.
I am grateful for the opportunity I have of teaching Institute in the Little Rock area. When it came time for us to study Alma’s great plea for spiritual renewal, I begged God to open my mind and heart so I could understand his meaning. I studied and pondered. I continued to love the chapter but still felt more accused than encouraged by Alma’s description of the changed soul.
It wasn’t until we were in the middle of the lesson on a Wednesday evening in early March in the Relief Society room of the chapel that God gave the answer I had sought. Suddenly God made the connection between Alma’s words and the practical reality.
The world’s best scholar on marriage is arguably John Gottman. I have read and studied his books. I regularly use his materials in both writing and teaching.
In Relationship Cure (2001), Gottman suggested that many ordinary behaviors are really bids for connection. When I ask Nancy if she would like to go to Home Depot with me, I am not requesting help with loading lumber. I am really telling her that I love to be with her and would be delighted to have her accompany me to one of my favorite places. I am making a bid for connection.
Very often we miss the significance of these invitations. Maybe Nancy asks me if I would like to take a walk with her. If I am in a foul mood, I might respond: “Are you saying that I am a lazy slob, that I need more exercise, and you don’t approve of my reading newsmagazines?”
YIKES! We can be so absorbed in our own thoughts and feelings that we hardly see a partner’s loving intent. We respond to invitation with insult. When we respond to a bid for connection in such a harsh way, Gottman calls it “turning against.”
I might respond to Nancy’s invitation in a gentler, but still self-focused way. I might shrug, sigh, and announce with non-verbals that I really don’t want to go. Gottman calls this “turning away.” I suspect that we do a lot of this with family and friends. They invite us into their lives and we shrug them off.
There is a third alternative. Imagine that, in response to Nancy’s invitation, I say, “I love doing things with you, Dear.” Maybe I jump up and join her in a walk. Yet my warm response does not require that I take the walk. Maybe my back is hurting or I’m in the middle of something pressing. But I can respond to a bid for connection by “turning toward” Nancy. Maybe I say, “I love doing things with you, Dear. I just need to finish this project, but as soon as I’m done, let’s spend some time together.” I can respond to her message of love by offering a message of love. I can turn toward her whole-heartedly and appreciatively. I can embrace her invitation.
As I thought about “turning toward,” it seemed that maybe that is exactly what Alma meant when he asked if we have Jesus’ image in our countenance. I think he means that we welcome their invitation into their lives, and offer grace, goodness, and appreciation in return. Turning toward people may be the sign that Jesus is in our hearts and souls.
Jesus as the Perfect Model
Jesus life was filled with turning toward His confused and troubled siblings. One of my favorite examples is Jesus’ dealings with the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). While Simon and his hard-hearted buddies judged and condemned both Jesus and the woman, Jesus “turned to the woman,” pointed out her generosity of spirit and “said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven” (v. 48).
At least ten times in scripture we are told that, in spite of our wickedness, “his hand is stretched out still.” That is His attitude, His posture, His stance. He is reaching for us-even when He has reason to turn away or turn against us. In Elder Maxwell’s powerful words: “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds [our] recurring wrongs” (“Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King,” Ensign, May 1976, 26).
He is always turning toward us whether we turn toward Him, turn away from Him, or turn against Him. When we, like Him, turn lovingly and redemptively toward our brothers and sisters, then we have His image in our countenance.
The older meaning of the word countenance included far more than our facial expression; it meant our bearing or behavior. Thus God invites us to turn squarely toward the people in our lives, to see them redemptively-as He does, and to stand ready to serve them gladly.
When a neighbor needs help with a home repair, I can turn toward that neighbor and that need. When a friend seems burdened, I can turn squarely toward him and open my arms. When a fellow saint is not living up to my ideal of gospel standards, I can avoid turning against with scolding and lectures or turning away with an attitude of judgment, and instead turn toward that child of God with love and encouragement. When someone irritates or offends me, I can turn toward that person with acceptance and forgiveness.
That is what He would do. That is what He would have me do to radiate more of what He is.
An Irony and Trap Along the Way
As we read about turning toward others, we may instinctively think of others’ failures to do that for us. We may wish that our parents, spouses, bosses, co-workers, and friends had His image in their countenances! Yet Alma did not ask whether the people around us have experienced the mighty change; he asked whether we had. In His ministry, Jesus-our model–was gracious and redemptive with both those who were gracious and those who were not. He asks that we turn toward others regardless of whether they turn toward us, turn away from us, or turn against us.
In family relations, this is a terribly important idea. I often hear people tell me that they have tried everything to get their spouses engaged and involved in their marriages. I readily grant that some spouses are remote and inflexible. I have also observed that many of us really haven’t tried everything. We have tried the thing that we think should work and we have done it over and over again in spite of its demonstrated ineffectiveness. We get frustrated and we blame the failure on recalcitrant spouses.
For example, I can get mad at my beloved Nancy for being so engaged in Relief Society work that I feel neglected. But getting mad at her is not an effective way of pulling her into my life. If I can adopt the mind of Christ, I know that I should approach her humbly, kindly, and lovingly: “Sweetheart, when you get so involved in Relief Society, I feel left out. I miss you. I get lonely. I would like to do more things with you.”
Rather than conclude that our spouses are hopelessly dull when they do not respond to our bids for connection, we can refine, clarify, and sweeten our invitations. In other words, we can repent. Repenting ourselves is always better than condemning our spouses. It is also more consistent with Jesus’ commands.
At the same time, we can work to be more sensitive to our spouses’ bids for connection. They may be inviting us into our lives in ways we fail to recognize. We can pray for Heaven to give us discerning eyes so that we see and appreciate our spouses’ invitations.
When my dear wife invites me to take a walk, I plan to jump up and take her hand. And when Jesus reaches towards me with enlightenment, an invitation, or any opportunity to more deeply connect, I plan to fully turn toward Him instead of mentally sighing and turning toward a book, a TV program, or a hobby.
Someday I hope to develop His image in my countenance. I now know how.
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