When I was in junior high, I happened to miss a school day. That one missed day nearly wrecked my life.

That day in algebra class, the teacher apparently taught a concept called “the order of operations.” She explained that math problems must be solved in a certain order: parentheses first, then exponents; then you can multiply, divide, add, and subtract. In that order. She warned that if we didn’t do algebra problems in that order, we would get wrong answers.

Well, I missed that lesson.

Since I never got the message about the order of operations, I ended up confused about math for the rest of my life. I never understood algebra because I never understood the concept of order. I watched smarter friends of mine do the homework, mystified as they solved problem after problem, and I couldn’t do it.

This hole in my knowledge affected me for years. My grades suffered. I got nearly perfect scores on my college-entrance exam in every subject but math, which dragged me down. I had to settle for a puny scholarship. In later years, I couldn’t help my children with their math homework.

A few years ago, as a senior missionary, I was called on to tutor some Pathway students in math. Worried sick, I studied the lesson very hard. And what was the lesson about? The order of operations! I learned for the first time that things had to be done in a certain sequence! I had never known that.

I slapped myself in the head repeatedly for weeks after that. If only I had understood the importance of order, my life would have been transformed. My personal growth and progress had been stunted because I missed that lesson.

This is a universal law: All things must be done in the proper order. “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion” (D&C 132:8). If we fail to do things in order, we become confused—as I was about math—and our progression stops.

The Lord cannot bless us if we don’t obey that law: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21).

If we observe the order decreed in heaven, we will receive the promised blessings. That law is as sure as the order of operations in math: by following the sequence, we get the right answer every time. But “if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned” (132:4).

“Damnation” is a very wintry word. The ancient Hebrew term meant to be “bound” or “caught in a net.” According to the Guide to the Scriptures, damnation is “the state of being stopped in one’s progress. . . . to be limited in progress and privileges.” When I missed the lesson on order of operations, I was automatically stopped in my educational progress. It was the natural consequence of a gap in my knowledge. As the Lord says, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (131:6).

Clearly, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the steps to salvation and exaltation. Fortunately, in this lesson the Lord reveals the order of steps we must take along the covenant path.

In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase. (131:1-4.)

What qualifies us to enter the celestial kingdom? The Lord could not have been clearer about this: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). The gate of the celestial kingdom of God is opened by the covenant and ordinance of baptism. Unless we faithfully keep this covenant, the gate stays closed: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

In the temple, we enter the celestial room “by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Heb. 10:20). Once baptized, we are “saved”—that is, we are covered by the Atonement of Christ and belong to Him—as long as we remain faithful to the covenant.

Entry to the celestial kingdom does not automatically exalt us. The revelation does not tell us the purpose of the second degree of the celestial glory—perhaps this “heaven” is reserved for those who receive their endowment, but we don’t really know. But we do know that exaltation—the highest degree of celestial glory—is open only to those who enter into “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” We also know that those who decline that covenant remain worthy (“in their saved condition”) of the other degrees of celestial glory, but they do not obtain the highest degree. The revelation tells us that they “are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants” to those who are exalted to the highest degree (132:16). That is the end of their kingdom; they cannot have an increase.

In the temple, the rooms for performing sealings are often accessed through the celestial room, symbolizing that we must pass through the veil and enter the celestial kingdom before receiving “exaltation and glory in all things . . . which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (132:19). 

Humble faithfulness to this sequence of steps can bring a man and woman together to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, which is an “order of the priesthood.” Tragically, even many Latter-day Saints fail to understand this sequence. But if they learn and follow these steps, “then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue . . . they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them” (132:20). At this point, His work and his glory—to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life—becomes our work and glory—to bring to pass the salvation and exaltation of our own families (Moses 1:39).

The Lord can safely trust this kind of power only to those who have demonstrated their faithfulness in following the steps on the covenant path. Skipping steps or taking shortcuts cannot work because we would fail to learn our lessons in the proper sequence, just as I failed to learn that there is an order to solving math problems.

We learn step by step. The challenge of achieving exaltation may seem overwhelming, but the Lord in His mercy helps us along if we will only persist in the path. President Thomas S. Monson said, “Don’t say to yourselves, ‘I’m not wise enough, or I can’t apply myself sufficiently well . . . so I shall choose the easier way.’ I plead with you to tax your talent, and our Heavenly Father will make you equal to those challenges” (“Decisions Determine Destiny,” New Era, November 1979).

Through His atoning power, the Savior bears the weight of our challenges along the path, as Isaiah promised: “They shall hang upon him all the glory of his father’s house, the offspring and the issue” (Isa. 22:24). Gradually, with His help, we learn to carry the weight of glory ourselves. Those who are exalted become “worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory” (132:16).

It is a demanding path with many difficult stages, but from each stage we take knowledge essential to our exaltation. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). This knowledge should bless our lives now—to know that the burdens we carry along the path teach us the meaning of eternal love. 

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Joseph Smith revealed that marriages and families are meant to be eternal. Families are not just meant to make things run more smoothly here on earth and to be cast off when we get to heaven. Rather, they are the order of heaven. They are an echo of a celestial pattern and an emulation of God’s eternal family” (“In Praise of Those Who Save,” Ensign, May 2016, 77, emphasis original).

Note President Uchtdorf’s emphasis on the order and pattern of the celestial kingdom. Our mission here is to do our best to adapt to the order of heaven and the pattern of the eternal family. Some people chafe at those requirements, but doing so makes as much sense as protesting the order of operations in math. We are free to choose to conform our lives to eternal principles or not—but we are not free to choose the consequences of our choices.

How will we respond to these monumental revelations that define the purpose of our lives?  As Alma asked, What is the desire of our hearts? (Mosiah 18:10) Will we choose to keep our baptismal covenants? To follow the path that leads not just to the celestial kingdom, but to the highest degree of glory?