Most of us wonder how we are doing. In our hearts we pray, “Father, am I acceptable to Thee? Is my progress sufficient? Am I on the path? Will I make it?”
I often don’t do what is right. I regularly and unexpectedly lose my patience. My stubbornness and selfishness regularly flare up and override my conscience. I certainly don’t feel like an angel – or even a saint. So I worry. “Father, how am I doing?”
Through a latter-day prophet, God has given us a measure of our progress:
The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. My talk is intended for all this society; if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241)
Notice that this is expressed as a direct relationship: “The nearer we get … the more we are disposed.” An old math teacher might express this in a formula:
n(HF) = k c(ps)
[the nearer we get to Heavenly Father the more we have compassion for perishing souls]
where k is the universal compassion constant
This formula suggests that there is a direct proportion between nearness to God and compassion for perishing souls. As we get closer to God, we will have more compassion. But also as we experience more compassion, we may know that we are getting closer to God.
Approaching the Throne
Of course the ultimate closeness comes as we develop “the mind of Christ.” As Elder McConkie said, “We do not know the Lord unless and until we think what he thinks, say what he says, and experience what he experiences. In other words, we know God when we become like him” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration, pp. 372-3).
So the test is simple. How do we feel about the person who zooms around the traffic and cuts into line, making everyone wait because of his impatience? How do we feel about the person at church who seems just a little too self-assured? How do we feel about the person who bluntly tells us off? It seems that life provides unlimited opportunities to check our nearness to God.
The familiar rumor suggests that confession is good for the soul. So I make this confession. I am often sorely tempted to pull into the zoom lane and dawdle so that traffic cutters are thwarted. I confess that I chafe at the man at church who seems to think he is always right. I acknowledge resentment for the man who told me off.
Sometimes we all want to chase off the lost lambs even as He is leading them back to the fold. I know I need to repent. I need to open my heart to the healing of Heaven’s balm.
Our Way and His Way
Joseph Smith contrasted our way with God’s way:
While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men (TPJS, p.218).
I yearn to be more like Him.
It seems that there are two stages in our change. At the outset we simply try to resist evil. We stop throwing logs on the fires of resentment that burn in our hearts. We know that judgment is not our prerogative; it belongs to the One who knows everything and loves perfectly. We feel the tug of temptation and we try to resist.
To manage resentment for those who cut into traffic, we remember our own youthful impatience. We hope they will ultimately find the peace to wait their turn in life’s lines.
For the one at church who seems to feel superior, I can consider how I might be seen by others. Surely I seem dogmatic and over-assured to some.
In response to the brother who is blunt I can picture Captain Moroni, a man of great courage and directness. I can rejoice in the greatness of his heart (See Alma 61:9).
In some ways this is like the popular Southern ritual of softening our observations with good will. “Well, some say he’s a cheatin’ scoundrel, but he never had much, and he sure tries, bless his heart.” Those last three words hint at good will – either real or pretended. Yet when we genuinely wish goodness to those who, like us, are still painfully imperfect, we are headed in the right direction.
But this is only a beginning. This only holds the natural man at bay. This is no more than an uncomfortable truce with evil. I must go the next step: I must throw my soul open to God.
I beg Him for His mercy. I beseech Him to take up occupancy in my soul. I seek His face.
Of course this process is not something that we finish in an earnest afternoon. It is the work of a lifetime. Having cast out evil, we cultivate new life. We tend it with care and patience. One day we will harvest a crop of charity.
We may judge our progress toward charity by asking, “For how many people do you wish heaven?” If we think heaven is a place reserved for a very few, we have not looked into the heart of God. God wishes heaven for everyone. Some, of course, will refuse His offer. But God wants love, joy, and peace for every one of His children. He gives us commandments to point us toward glory. He paid an infinite and eternal price so that every one of us could be rescued.
Rightly understood, LDS eschatology is the most gracious on the face of the earth. We believe that virtually every single one of God’s children who comes to this earth will go to a degree of glory – a heaven! Even the least kingdom is more than we can comprehend (See D&C 76:89)! So, other than those relative few who openly fight against God, every one of His children will inherit a mansion that is uniquely prepared for him or her.
My personal estimate is that 99.99999%1 of God’s once-mortal children will go to a heaven. While we might quibble about the percentage, I hope we can agree on the central point: God really wants to bless us, even those of us who are stubborn, contrary, and slow-of-heart. He, our perfect Father, has more reason to be offended by us than any, yet He is the perfect example of graciousness!
A New Day
After struggling endlessly with our pettiness, we one day quite unexpectedly find that forgiveness distills upon our souls as the dews from heaven (See D&C 121:45). We see differently and we feel different. At this point we are ready to cast the offenders’ sins behind our backs and carry them upon our shoulders – just as Joseph invited us to do.
This is a milestone to be celebrated.
Unfortunately this is rarely a “once-for-all” process. We must all be diligent in cultivating the divine nature. For mortal souls it is more of an occasional visitor than a permanent resident.
Yet all of this fighting against evil and striving for goodness serves God’s eternal purposes. As we choose again and again to push resentment out of our souls and invite goodness in, we become more like Him. We move toward the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Our ultimate character will be the result of choosing His way thousands – millions – of times.
Richard L. Evans observed that:
Our Father in heaven is not an umpire who is trying to count us out. He is not a competitor who is trying to outsmart us. He is not a prosecutor who is trying to convict us. He is a Loving Father who wants our happiness and eternal progress and everlasting opportunity and glorious accomplishment, and who will help us all he can if we will but give him, in our lives, the opportunity to do so with obedience and humility and faith and patience (Conference Report, October 1956, p.101).
So God has given us a reliable barometer for our spiritual growth. How do we feel toward those who hurt and offend us? How do we act toward those whose lives are littered with foolishness? Beloved Joseph reminds us that “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” ( TPJS p.174).
I can lay down my enmity. With His help I can “beat [my] swords into plowshares, and [my] spears into pruninghooks” (Isaiah 2:4). I can move closer to the Zion in Heaven.
“Dear Father, help me choose charity again and again.”
1 This estimate is based on the assumption that there might be as many as 1,000 sons of perdition in a total world population of 100,000,000,000. Obviously this is pure speculation.