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As a young missionary, I was thrilled with all the new things I was learning. I kept a notebook filled with my favorite quotes. Recently I rediscovered the old notebook and paged through it. I found many quotes that still inspire me. But I found a surprising number that made me uncomfortable. For example:
The most important means for bringing eternal life about are not what lies behind us or what is before us, rather it is what is inside of us. Within ourselves can be found the reasons for whatever happens in our lives and we ourselves must accept the primary responsibility for bringing about our own eternal accomplishment.
I appreciate the idea that we should take responsibility for our spiritual growth. We must be “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” But I now think the quote is misleading. It can get in the way of spiritual progress. If I were to rewrite that quote based upon the life experiences and gospel study that have shaped me since my mission, I might say:
The most important means for bringing about my eternal life are Father’s perfect plan, the Son’s perfect love, and the Holy Ghost’s relentless inspiration. My role is to cooperate with them as they work to redeem me.
So the original quote is not entirely mistaken but, in my experience, it places the emphasis in the wrong place. Here is another notebook quote:
What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.
Is “what I become” primarily the result of my efforts? I would advocate a different perspective today:
God has worked tirelessly to bring us where we are today. If we throw ourselves fully on His merits, mercy, and grace, He will make something glorious out of us.
As I reviewed the quotes I had recorded long ago, the theme in many of the quotes was: “Be responsible. You can make yourself into the type of disciple you desire to be if you just work hard enough!”
Maybe that was a theme I thought I needed as a young missionary. But it was a theme that ultimately would leave me confused and desolate.
The Problem with the Premise
I discovered that although I kept working harder at taking responsibility for overcoming my faults and deficiencies, the evidence of decades was clear. The longer I lived, the more I became aware that I have unnumbered weaknesses and imperfections. I am fallen—and it pains my spirit. No matter how much effort I put into perfecting myself, I continue to be plagued by falling short of the heavenly standard.
As I have talked with respected friends, I found many of them were making that same discovery. We are all fallen. We are self-centered. We often want the wrong things. We often do the wrong things. We make excuses for ourselves. As we acknowledge this dilemma, we can and should work towards becoming more Christ-like. But in the end, we simply are not able to fix our shortcomings on our own, even with great determination and the help of the most energizing quotes on earth.
Here is another quote from my notebook:
There is no defeat except from within. There is really no insurmountable obstacle save our own inherent weakness of purpose.
So, is the key to my spiritual success getting my purpose strengthened? I absolutely believe that I must be committed. God requires that. But I am uncomfortable with the idea that I am the primary agent in my spiritual progress. I have learned that no amount of resolve can save me or perfect me. The Lord taught Paul something very different:
My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
The most important power in my life is not my determination; it is His redemptiveness.
Illumination for our Struggle
The scriptures illuminate our mortal struggle.
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; (Ether 12:27)
There is a purpose to what we experience as fallen humans in a fallen world. Our weaknesses cause us to be humble. We recognize that we are not what we were ultimately meant to become. And when we humbly acknowledge that no matter what we do, we are not able to save ourselves on our own, we know we must turn to His grace.
. . . for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)
Our weaknesses and struggles drive us to Him. Self-determination won’t get us where we long to be. Believing we can “fix” ourselves by depending upon our own powers is the opposite of the humility this scripture passage counsels us to strive for. It is only by turning to the Lord and attaching ourselves to the power and grace that is offered through the atonement that we can begin the process of truly changing our hearts.
Individual willpower, personal determination and motivation, and effective planning and goal setting are necessary but ultimately insufficient to triumphantly complete this mortal journey. Truly we must come to rely upon “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah”. (Elder David A. Bednar, “In the Strength of the Lord”, BYU Devotional, October 23, 2001)
Certainly we must do our part as He works within us to change our hearts. As He leads us down the path to new outlooks and new behaviors, we must choose to follow that path. But we understand true redemption is enabled by Him. We do not treat His power as a lovely garnish on top of our efforts.
Sign of a maturing Church?
Reflecting upon my old notebook led me to ponder another question. Is this new perspective on the means to bringing about eternal life only a result of my own spiritual maturing? Or is there a larger cultural shift taking place that heralds a maturing Church? Have we as a Church repented of treating lightly the new covenant and are now being blessed with a greater understanding of God’s plan?
And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written— (D&C 84:54-57)
Elder David A. Bednar stated, “May I suggest that the Book of Mormon is our handbook of instructions as we travel the pathway from bad to good to better and to have our hearts changed.” (“In the Strength of the Lord”, BYU Devotional, October 23, 2001) Maybe as we have taken the Book of Mormon more seriously in the last generation, God has blessed us with greater light on the processes of spiritual development.
Maybe the early generations of the Church—charged with establishing the foundation of Zion—had to develop pioneer determination. We honor their faithful determination. Perhaps today’s generation is now being called upon to cultivate the next level of faithfulness. In an era when worldly philosophies trumpet self-focus, self-confidence, and self-determination, this generation of Saints is being invited to that next level of faithfulness—greater divine reliance.
God is inviting us to discover His power. Our spiritual progress depends upon looking to the Lord Jesus Christ.
You may enjoy reading insightful quotes from great thinkers in the family field at the DrWally Facebook page.
Wally has written gospel-centered books on personal well-being, marriage, and parenting. Go to
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