Adam and Eve represent all of us. Their lives tell the story of humanity.

Imagine how terribly desolate Adam and Eve felt after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. The couple that had once daily walked and talked with God were now desperately on their own. Their lives became vastly messier at the same time that they were separated from the goodness and power that had once inspired and guided them.

Adam and Eve approached God in prayer. They cried out for connection. And Satan showed up claiming to be the one who presides in this world. Adam and Eve were not convinced.

Satan offered preachers who would give them religion. But they wanted heavenly messengers who would give them guidance.

Satan wanted to talk with them about God and His power. Adam and Eve wanted to talk with God and feel His assurance.

Satan offered religion. Adam and Eve wanted a relationship.

We face the same choice. If religion is defined as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices” (Merriam Webster), then religion might give us some faint sense of order and maybe a feeling of community. That is useful.

But, as we wend our way through the torturous landscape of mortality, we want more. Much more!

We want assurance from heaven that we are not forgotten or alone. We want to know our lives have value and purpose. We want directions for making the journey. We want someone to turn to in times of need who will provide comfort and hope. We want reassurance that, though strangers in a strange land here, we will be welcomed as beloved family when we arrive in heaven.

God offers us a relationship with Him that fulfills those desires. He sends us clear messages inviting us into that relationship.

The temple endowment teaches us that, as we keep covenants, the atonement of Jesus Christ will take a firmer and firmer grasp on us. Ultimately, Jesus and His atonement will draw us back to Father who will remain by our side through our earthly journey and then, ultimately, embrace us and welcome us home.

With this in mind, there are two potential problems with a narrow focus on religion. Religion, as the world knows it, can result in a never-ending battle about who is right. It has created animosity, war, and division. If we are focused upon our own “rightness,” we can be tempted towards judgement and condemnation of others. We can justify the building of walls that divide “us” from “them”—both with those not of our faith and those within our own faith communities. This is opposite of what the Savior taught: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you…” (John 13:34)

And when we are narrowly focused on religion, we can be tempted to reduce faith into a long list of “do’s and don’ts”. We might adhere to a checklist of spiritual practices for their own sake instead of engaging in those practices to deepen our relationship with God and His Son. For example, sometimes we as individuals or groups might set a goal to read a block of scripture on a certain time frame and the emphasis becomes more about accomplishing a specific number of pages per day rather than connecting with God and His Son through our reading. We might consider it important to attend church meetings each week, but not give any thought to how Christ might be inviting us into a closer relationship during those meetings.

“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf “The Gift of Grace,” General Conference, April 2015) In other words, it isn’t our adherence to a set of “do’s and don’ts” that is meaningful on their own. It is committing to what Christ asks of us in order to follow Him and gain a more profound connection with Him.

Please do not misunderstand me. The Restoration is the greatest blessing to humanity since Jesus walked the earth. It teaches us about God’s goodness, His glad participation in our lives, and the path to glory. It provides ordinances and assurances. But, if we understand the heart of the Restoration, we use it as message of invitation to relationship.

The teachings of the Restoration lead us to God’s embrace:  “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Ne. 1:15, emphasis added).

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you” (Alma 5:33, emphasis added).

How do we move from bare religion to renewing relationship? We accept His embrace. And we pass it on.

How do we accept His embrace? For the first 35 years of my life, I rejected His embrace. I was so determined to make myself a good person. I tried to accomplish all the recommended checkpoints in order to be worthy of His love and was so frustrated by my failure that I didn’t even consider that He already loved me. Finally, His messages got through to me. The accumulated messages of scripture together with my complete despair at self-improvement opened the way for me to surrender to Him. I cried out to Him in Alma’s words, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18).

Only after I surrendered did I realize that He had been sending hundreds—even thousands—of messages over the years. Every moment of rejoicing and every experience of inspiration was a message that He loved me and delighted to partner with me. He was reaching out even if I did not recognize the invitation.

I still work at doing all that He asks of me and invites me towards. The difference is that everything I do is with an eye towards relationship with Him. I look for His gifts of love, encouragement and invitation on a daily basis. I am trying to be ever-more attentive. As I search the scriptures and follow the counsel of leaders, I do so with the intention of drawing closer to Him.

Then, having received His embrace, we pass it on. “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race,” taught Joseph Smith. When we have felt His embrace, we reach out in helpfulness to our neighbors. We offer good will to every human being. We hope that others—both members of our faith and those who are not—will be able to see God’s love for them through us.

And when we talk with others about the principles of our faith, we reflect the love of God for them. There may be occasions when He invites us to challenge another person. Yet Elder Maxwell describes the general attitude of the true disciple of Jesus. “His generosity reassures the repentant and also beckons the almost-repentant who warily probe the possibility of both fellowship and forgiveness” (True Believers in Christ, October 7, 1980).

Sometimes when we are encouraging faithfulness in the saints, we recommend scripture reading and prayer. These are worthy practices. But the measure of discipleship is different: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

In the end, it is not religion that rescues us. It is relationships with God, His Son, and His children.

Invitation to Share Gratitude!

This season, consider a holiday gift that will help you build the spirit of gratitude in your family and among the people you love. God’s Trophies is a heartwarming children’s tale about Rupert learning gratitude for all of God’s creations. Rupert’s whimsical adventure also teaches children that they are each God’s most beloved creation. Wonderful illustrations accompany the joyful story. This book would make an excellent holiday gift for any special people in your life. For the holiday season, I am offering five copies of God’s Trophies—a $65 value—for $25 with free shipping in the US.

To get this special offer, go to Etsy.