The Law of Moses, a system of performances and ordinances, is attractive in many ways. Expectations are clear: do this, but don’t do that; sacrifice on these specific days in this specific way; check the boxes and know you are in good standing. That is appealing. It feels manageable. I know what I need to do, I do it, and I am in control. No wonder Nephi’s brothers said “we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statues and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people, and our father hath judged them” (1 Nephi 17:22). The inhabitants of Jerusalem were observing the law as they marched the road to destruction.
I have been invited to live the Law of the Gospel, but sometimes I look back over my shoulder with yearning for a simple checklist that won’t require me to discern truth from error. Just tell me what to do! Make it easy, and I will check the boxes and rest in the knowledge that I am acceptable to God. This subtle desire for universal instructions undermines the growth that comes from seeking personal guidance through the Holy Ghost.
Meeting God on the Mount
Come Follow Me and the Children and Youth programs gently move us from lesson plans and printed requirements to an experience with God. Elder Steven Owens explains the danger of a performances-and-ordinances focus:
“It is possible for young people to be raised in a Latter-day Saint home, attend all the right Church meetings and classes, even participate in ordinances in the temple, and then walk away, ‘into forbidden paths and [become] lost.’ Why does this happen? In many cases it is because, while they may have been going through the motions of spirituality, they were not truly converted. They were fed but not nourished.” (“Be Faithful, Not Faithless”, Oct 2019)
This isn’t just true for young people. All followers of Jesus Christ must be following Him: not a church leader, no matter how admirable; not a program, no matter how useful; not a tradition, no matter how precious. The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is where our faith begins and where it must stay focused. But how do I make sure my necessary “motions” and behaviors are infused with faith in Jesus Christ? I found one answer as I responded to President Nelson’s invitation to read and study Doctrine and Covenants 84.
The Lord begins teaching us principles concerning the priesthood in verse 16. He distinguishes between the lesser priesthood, given to Aaron, and the greater Melchizedek priesthood with ordinances that manifest the power of godliness. In verse 23 He explains that Moses sought to sanctify his people, “that they might behold the face of God.” As a result of the people rejecting this opportunity to come to the mount and know God, Moses and the Holy Priesthood were removed and the lesser priesthood continued with the people. What is the essential difference? Look for what is missing in the following verse describing the preparatory gospel:
27 Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.
The preparatory gospel, administered through the Aaronic priesthood, includes repentance and baptism, but not the gift of the Holy Ghost. Can you imagine the 4th Article of Faith ending with “baptism by immersion?” Joseph Smith said “You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half—that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost.” It is the Holy Ghost who sanctifies, who guides and directs and comforts, who enables the power of godliness.
What Kind of Gospel Life Am I Living?
As I studied, I was struck by an important question: what kind of gospel life am I living? Am I living by the law of performances and ordinances, going through the motions of spirituality, but without the Spirit that actually gives life? Am I turning to God at every opportunity, or am I trying to get by on my own? Whether it comes from a misguided sense of self-reliance or from a distracted and busy life, when I don’t turn to the Lord with my questions or thoughts or feelings or gratitude, seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost, I am living a preparatory gospel life—far beneath my privileges. But I have entered into the ordinances of the Higher Priesthood, and so I am privileged to be nourished continually by the Holy Ghost.
What does that look like? The Children and Youth program is an excellent model. We had great youth programs in Boy Scouts and Personal Progress. But what used to be good enough isn’t good enough anymore, so what is the difference? Both Boy Scouts and Personal Progress came ready-made; merit badge requirements and personal progress goals were, for the most part, scripted. Check boxes. There was some latitude for personal choice in value projects and Eagle Scout projects, but for the most part the performances and behavior were outlined in the book, and we worked our way through. There was great value in what was learned, but mostly it was not learner-directed.
Now our children and youth start with four blank boxes and pray to know what goals fit in each. They don’t look it up in a book; they turn to God in prayer, discussing with Him their individual interests and needs, and receive direction through the Holy Ghost. This is a higher level of gospel living! It sets a pattern moving forward to discover, plan, act, and reflect, beginning and ending with prayerful contemplation and the guidance of the Spirit.
Whom Shall I Serve?
As an adult, this pattern can be reflected in my life as well, as I consider whether my behaviors are in response to what I believe is expected, or to a higher awareness of partnering with God to determine what comes next. When I live by my own light and “common sense,” I may be missing opportunities and experiences that God would like to bless me with, if I would only ask Him. My experience with revelation has been that it usually takes me in an unexpected direction. A simple but powerful example of this is asking in morning prayer what He would like me to do that day, or whom I should serve. When I ask, I am always directed to something I didn’t come up with on my own. My life is transformed from living by my own light and expectations to living by the Spirit, through something as simple as the question “Whom shall I serve today?”
I want to experience the full blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to come into His presence through prayer and receive guidance directly from Him, specifically in response to my needs and gifts. It doesn’t require moving a mountain to shift from living a preparatory gospel life, focusing on the next scripted act, to living by the gift of the Holy Ghost. We turn to God and ask and listen. It is a small change by which great things will be brought to pass.