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We are assured in Doctrine and Covenants 76:3 that the purposes of God cannot fail, “neither are there any who can stay his hand.”
Thus we know that what God begins he will finish. There will never be a time when he will scratch his head and say, “My goodness!. I really thought that was going to work.” Or, “I had no idea that was going to happen.” He does not have a plan “B”. You remember his affirmation in D&C 1. “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled… (verse 38).
We can take comfort and find peace in the oft-repeated truth that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (2 N. 2:4; 2 N. 27:23; 2 N. 29:9; Alma 31:17; Mormon 9:9; Moroni 10:19; D&C 20:`12; D&C 31:1). The divine purpose in making this declaration so many times must be an intent to reassure his people that they can trust him. Imagine the difficulty of worshipping a god who was occasionally unreliable or ineffective. We honor those who try to do the very difficult things, but God’s vocabulary does not include the phrase, “Well, I tried.”
But filtered through that reassuring reality is the certainty that often we will have no idea of what he is doing. Isaiah said it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
In Doctrine and Covenants 76, the Lord said it this way: “The extent of his doings none can find out: (76:2).
One of the results of this truth is that we will often be participants in the purposes of the Lord without our knowledge. How often have you read stories of people that found themselves in a place or situation where they were needed, or where prayers needed to be answered, but who arrived without any premonitions or preparations.
It was family reunion time and my family was heading for Utah from a small community in northeastern Arizona. As we passed through Flagstaff, we stopped at a department store to purchase some supplies. Acting on what I considered a whim, I decided to buy a pocketknife. I had never carried one, and had no need to do so then, but the inclination was there, and I made the purchase.
Many miles later on the reservation, and some distance from Cameron, the car began to shudder madly. We stopped at once and I opened the hood. I am not a mechanical wizard. When I have car trouble, I look for an on-off switch in the off position. If I cannot find one, I call for a professional. In fact, I carry no tools in my car because I would not know what to do with them.
It was a sweltering day, the temperature near one hundred degrees. The car held the family: my wife and me and six kids. I did not know what to do. I tried to drive the car again. It was useless.
I explained the problem to the family. Debbie, eight, was the first to suggest prayer. We all bowed our heads. No one remembers the words, nor any particular feeling during the prayer. But when it was over, I walked once again to the front of the car and surveyed the engine compartment. An impression came. “Cut that belt.” And I knew which one!
I looked at the belt for a long time. It connected two pulleys fastened to pieces of equipment whose purpose I could not understand. But the impression persisted. I leaned through the open window of the car and told my wife what I was feeling. She shared my concerns. There was simply no way to know in advance the consequences of the act. The car was already nearly undrivable, but I had no desire to make things worse.
However, because of the knife, I had the courage to proceed. Without it, such an impression would have been meaningless. I reflected a moment on the coincidence of purchasing the knife and my present impression to use it. I opened a blade and cut the belt. When I started the engine; the shaking ceased.
We stopped in Cameron thirty-five minutes later and talked to a mechanic. The belt had something to do with the air conditioner. By cutting it, I had disconnected a worn out bearing, nothing more. We drove on to Utah, sweating and rejoicing.
I believe that it was the Lord’s purpose to bless our family, and to provide a tender mercy for us on our journey. But I had no awareness of divine direction when I bought the knife. I did have that awareness when the Spirit whispered, “Cut that belt.” But both experiences were real, and both involved divine direction.
When Nephi found Laban drunk on a Jerusalem street, he found him after being “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). It seems possible to me that he was unaware until the discovery of that Jerusalem despot that he was being led by the Spirit.
Philip was directed by an angel to go toward Gaza where he met the Ethiopian eunuch and baptized him. But Alma found Amulek in Ammonihah simply because “He entered the city by another way, yea, by the way which is on the south of the city of Ammonihah” (Alma 8:18). The encounter occurred by divine design, but there is no indication of divine direction in Alma’s choice of the south way, except an apparent desire to avoid those who had recently reviled him and spit on him and cast him out (see Alma 8:13).
All of this is a preparation for me to make this declaration: God often works with us, directs us, or inspires us without our knowledge.
This thought came to me one Saturday. I was watching a DVD of my presentation about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith one December at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I had assumed the character of Willard Richards, Joseph’s most intimate friend and used his words and experiences to testify of Joseph Smith. I pulled my mind back from the content of the film to take a look at my acting skills and to consider the impact of my presentation on the testimonies of sixteen hundred missionaries.
Suddenly I remembered the beginning of that summer after 6th grade when Mom called me into the living room and offered me a choice. She said something like this: “You are not going to waste this whole summer.” She pointed out two want-ads in the local paper. One was for lessons in French and the other for lessons in Creative Dramatics. She told me to choose. The thought of studying a foreign language was less-attractive than a root canal with a chain saw. I chose drama and took weekly lessons for over three years. I participated in Summer Workshop Theater at Utah State University while I was still in High School. I had parts and responsibilities in the school plays and musicals at Logan High. I attended USU on a drama scholarship. I have taken part in community theater in two states and several cities.
That Saturday night, watching that DVD, I suddenly understood that all of those activities were, in part at least, divinely directed preparation for my experiences in bearing testimony as Willard Richards of the prophet Joseph Smith, a presentation I have now made over 2000 times in the United States and Mexico.
But how could I have seen the arm of the Lord, the purpose of the Lord, in those drama lessons when I was thirteen? His mysterious motives, unless he decides to make them known, are almost impossible to detect.
There are also those times when God, in order to accomplish his purposes, will whisper promptings about preparation in order to keep us on a path whose end we cannot see, a path that we might not otherwise follow.
Paul, during his missionary journeys was “forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them” (Acts 16:6–10)
The Lord through the Spirit constrained Paul to turn away from Asia and Bythnia, and found himself in Troas, just across a corner of the Aegean Sea from Macedonia, where he was needed.
Let me tell you about my experience of being hired to teach Seminary for the LDS Church. After I graduated from Utah State University in 1971, I was offered a job by Church Education to teach Seminary. I had been enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) classes at USU but I knew that this involvement would require only three months on active duty. The service was offering the three-month option in a new program called Active Duty for Training for ROTC graduates. Vietnam was winding down and there was less need for 2nd Lieutenants to spend two years in the Army.
I told Church Education of my circumstances and agreed to take the job. But at commencement exercises for ROTC I was named Distinguished Military Graduate in my class. I had worked hard in those military classes because I understood that my standing in that group of ROTC students would determine the order in which I would choose my branch of service from the branches that were available to our particular class. I knew that those on the lower end of the continuum would all join infantry. The other options would have been taken. I had less interest in the infantry than I had in French lessons so I worked hard. Too hard. I was not offered the three-month ADT option they gave everyone else. As a Distinguished Military Graduate, I was required to spend two years on active duty.
After eighteen months in the Army, I took some leave and returned to Utah to announce my imminent availability for employment by Church Education.
As I met with program directors, I was told that the scores on the instruments used to evaluate prospective teachers had increased during my absence, that there were very few openings during the coming year, and that I would need to make other plans. I was distraught. I had talked to the Lord about this and pled with him for the opportunity to teach, but I suddenly was in a place where I would have to make other plans for my future.
After a month or two more of military service I was called to be the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my Fayetteville ward. I was set apart for that position by the 2nd Counselor in the Bishopric, Kent McDonald, in the choir seats of the little chapel there. He laid his hands on my head and began. Then, during the blessing, he stopped speaking for a moment or two. It was a strange and unexpected pause. When he spoke again, as nearly as I can recall, he said, “Brother Gibbons, the Lord will grant you the desire of your heart.”
Thirty-seven years later I encountered Brother McDonald in an adult religion class I was teaching. I told him that if it had not been for his declaration in that blessing, I would probably not have been in that chapel in that city teaching that class. I probably would not have been a part of seminaries and Institutes at all. I asked him if he remembered. He did not, of course.
But I remembered, and I knew what the Lord was saying to me. I understood from those twelve words that the door to Church Education was still open for me and that the Lord would allow me to walk through it at some point.
Because of that blessing, I stayed on the path I had chosen after my mission. Without that promise, I would have moved in other career directions after my time in the Army. It was because of that message that I returned to school and enrolled a second time in the classes for potential seminary teachers. Late in the summer of 1973, after my discharge from the Army, a school district in Arizona made a decision to allow release-time seminary, and teachers were needed. I received a call from Salt Lake, and a job offer to teach seminary at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, Arizona. That fall I began a career that lasted thirty-eight years.
I am confident that Brother McDonald did not feel any particular surge of inspiration in that setting apart, but the words he spoke must have come from an unseen but divine purpose. I did not know how or when the promise would be fulfilled, but I believed that it would, and as a consequence stayed on the path that would take me in the correct direction.
I am grateful to worship a being whose “purposes fail not,” and I am honored and blessed to be a part of a kingdom presided over by a God of omnipotence and omniscience. My own experiences teach me that all the promises of God to the faithful are available to me, and that God will lead me along the right path if I am willing and worthy. I may not always be aware of the gentle push of his heavenly hand, but if I am faithful, I will arrive at last as those destinations planned for me in the purposes of God.