Because the Spirit communicates with us personally, in a way that addresses our specific concerns and needs directly, we sometimes come away from the same General Conference with differing perceptions of what was emphasized and discussed. Within the first three or four talks, it already felt to me that the speakers had coordinated and picked a very distinct theme, though, of course, that is not how these things are done. As conference went on, other themes emerged. In the end, three stood out most strongly to me as organizing categories that the thoughts from so many inspired men and women fell into.
That said, comment below with the themes you saw. Conference is always a reflection of the needs of the people and the issues of our times. What were your takeaways? Here are a few of mine:
Our Power to Choose
“At the heart of God’s plan for your happiness is your power to choose.” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf shared. “Of course, your Heavenly Father wants you to choose eternal joy with Him, and He will help you achieve it, but He would never force it upon you. So He allows you to choose: light or darkness? Good or evil? Joy or misery? Eternal life or spiritual death? It sounds like an easy choice, doesn’t it? But somehow, here on earth, it seems more complicated than it ought to be.”
There was a distinct awareness of not only how complex life’s dilemmas and choices can be, but also, how simple the answer is. We live in a society that sells the idea that every option bears equal value and equal weight. But in the introduction to the new For the Strength of Youth pamphlet that Elder Uchtdorf was presenting, it reads, “this guide will help you build a solid foundation for making choices to stay on the covenant path.” Not making choices that may or may not occasionally cross with the covenant path. Making the choice to stay. It is a choice, but our God-given freedom to choose is also a responsibility to choose wisely. The title of the new pamphlet has even been changed to have the added subtitle, “A Guide For Making Choices”.
“It doesn’t make decisions for you.” Elder Uchtdorf was quick to emphasize, “It doesn’t give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about every choice you might ever face. For the Strength of Youth focuses on the foundation for your choices. It focuses on values, principles, and doctrine instead of every specific behavior.”
Not having the specific guidelines of the old pamphlet doesn’t mean the pressure is off. As Elder Gong said in his remarks, “To missionaries or others who say following the Spirit means not having to obey mission standards or the commandments, please remember that obeying mission standards and the commandments invite the Spirit.” Less specific guidelines require increased closeness to the Spirit. They are not a free pass to interpret things according to your own desires.
We must be cautious not to fall into the trap cited by Elder Dale G. Renlund when he said,
When we ask for revelation about something God has already given clear direction, we open ourselves up to misinterpreting our feelings and hearing what we want to hear. A man once told me about his struggles to stabilize his family’s financial situation. He had the idea to embezzle funds as a solution, prayed about it, and felt that he had received affirmative revelation to do so. I knew he had been deceived because he sought revelation contrary to a commandment of God.
Yet, checking the boxes of the commandments won’t bring celestial living either.
Sister Tracy Y. Browning talked of how, “the children of Israel…believed that the practices and rituals of the law were the path to personal salvation and in part reduced the law of Moses to a set of protocols administered to rule civilian life. This required the Savior to restore focus and clarity to His gospel.” As practices and policies continue to evolve in recent years in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is clear we too are being asked to restore focus and clarity to His gospel.
And we are asked to choose to embrace that focus, of our own free will. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis says [in a conversation between two devils]:
[The Lord] really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. (Letter VIII)
We already know we are the Lord’s children, but we are still learning how to choose, again and again, to stay on the path to becoming more like Him.
Not that it will be easy, as many speakers addressed:
The True Cost of Discipleship
“I am learning that Heavenly Father is more interested in my growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ than He is with my comfort,” remarked Sister Michelle D. Craig in the Saturday Evening Session. This sentiment, that the covenant path is not necessarily the path of least resistance was repeated again and again.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “This speaks of the crosses we bear rather than the ones we wear. To be a follower of Jesus Christ one must sometimes carry a burden—your own or someone else’s—and go where sacrifice is required and suffering is inevitable. A true Christian cannot follow the Master only in those matters with which he or she agrees. No. We follow Him everywhere, including, if necessary, into arenas filled with tears and trouble, where sometimes we may stand very much alone.”
At other times, we may forget that the tears and trouble we face are not something that makes our experience lonely, but something experienced by most people. Our society seems bent on the goal of life being enjoyment and anything that gets in the way of that should be discarded, so it’s easy to forget that some difficulties are just the facts of the mortal experience.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson shared a story of a young woman expressing feelings about the challenges of motherhood (from an article in Deseret Magazine):
Kristina’s difficulties are completely ordinary for a young woman learning how to be a mom and a wife—yet the prevailing attitude among her generation is that life’s difficulties are a threat to one’s well-being and should be refused. Do she and her husband argue at times? Then she should leave him, they say. Are her children annoying her? Then she should send them to day care.
Kristina worries that her friends don’t grasp that trials, and even suffering, are a normal part of life—and maybe even part of a good life, if that suffering teaches us how to be patient, kind and loving. . .
. . . University of Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith found in his study of adults [ages] 18–23 that most of them believe society is nothing more than “a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.” By this philosophy, anything that one finds difficult “is a form of oppression.”
I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old. I absolutely feel for Kristina and her plight, because it is mine as well. It does seem just overwhelmingly difficult and isolating at times and I wonder why the Lord would ask this of us (even though I obviously adore my children). But I felt justly called out and I recognized my generation in the description of seeking joy without responsibility or resistance. Cell phone companies advertise service with no commitments. Social media algorithms will find you a product to solve any problem. Yet people seem to be getting less and less resilient. Perhaps because we expect a life without struggle instead of expecting to become a person who knows how to handle struggle.
Or as it was eloquently stated in a poem I recently read, from the book Phoenix Song by James Goldberg
Don’t hesitate to act
If God calls you
To sculpt the sand
Even as the tide
Rolls up over
Of your hands
May be washed away—
But you will have
The strength of one
Who challenges the sea.
The Lord did not tell us that “men are that they might have enjoyment”, He said, “men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Joy is something much deeper and more lasting, but getting to it also requires more of us.
But that higher requirement brings with it higher rewards. As President Russell M. Nelson said:
Dear brothers and sisters, I grieve for those who leave the Church because they feel membership requires too much of them. They have not yet discovered that making and keeping covenants actually makes life easier! Each person who makes covenants in baptismal fonts and in temples—and keeps them—has increased access to the power of Jesus Christ. Please ponder that stunning truth!
The reward for keeping covenants with God is heavenly power—power that strengthens us to withstand our trials, temptations, and heartaches better. This power eases our way. Those who live the higher laws of Jesus Christ have access to His higher power. Thus, covenant-keepers are entitled to a special kind of rest that comes to them through their covenantal relationship with God.
We have power waiting to be ours. As Sister Michelle D. Craig shared in her memorable story about her sister and the moving prank, we have but to “open the door”. (I won’t recount all the details of this story here, but if you don’t remember it, you should definitely look it up when you have the chance).
We Become One with God Through Service
The last theme I saw repeated again and again was a return to working on one of the most basic tenants of our covenantal relationship with God: service.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks opened the whole conference with an address describing some of the myriad of different humanitarian efforts the Church and good people around the world are working to champion. He said, “Modern revelation teaches that our Savior Jesus Christ is ‘the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ Consequently, all the children of God are enlightened to serve Him and one another to the best of their knowledge and ability.”
Bishop Gérald Caussé added, “As disciples of Christ, we have a solemn duty to work tirelessly for peace and harmony among all nations of the earth. We must do our very best to protect and bring solace and relief to the weak, the needy, and all those who suffer or who are oppressed.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson remarked, “We strive to follow the Savior’s doctrine, ‘Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: . . . For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”
These messages to me felt like a return to basics. If you are yearning for greater spirituality and don’t know how to get it, do what Christ spent his entire earthly ministry doing: service.
Our world encourages us to took more and more inward, but Christ (and in this case, his servants) remind us to look outward again and reach out a hand to others when they need it.
One of the remarkable forms of service unique to our day is temple work. And with President Nelson’s closing remarks of the Conference, that type of service is about to get even easier for thousands of members around the world. The prophet announced 18 new temples to be built as the work continues to hasten.
Hearing the locations and thrilling for the inhabitants of each made me want so much to make sure I am taking advantage of my temple access. It’s so easy to take for granted what you already have. I’m sure there were tears shed over the increased temple access that will come with these new temples. Yet many of us already live within a 10-15 minute drive of our nearest temple and hardly attend.
“May you focus on the temple in ways you never have before” President Nelson admonished us as he closed the Conference.
Only the Spirit can tell you what other things this General Conference directed you to focus on. These themes stood out to me. What stood out to you? (Tell us in the comments below).