Thursday, June 18, 2015

Staying Focused on Love

      "Love is the motivating principle by which the Lord leads us along the way towards becoming like Him, our perfect example. Our way of life, hour by hour, must be filled with the love of God and love for others." - President Henry B. Eyring1
        President Kimball once said the most important word in the dictionary might be the word "Remember."2 If that's true, perhaps Satan's favorite word is the word "Forget." So often when we feel ourselves downcast or overwhelmed, it is because we have forgotten the most essential truth God has revealed to man on earth: His love for us.  
            As Latter-day Saints we understand we need to be doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22). Because of this, we get really jazzed about doing good works. Our Christian neighbors think we focus on works too much sometimes, but good works naturally follow a disciple who loves God. The challenge, then, is keeping love as our primary motivation for living the gospel. If we're not careful, over time our motivation can shift from love for God to fear of His punishments.

       When we forget God's love we often continue to do the right things, but the reason we do is basically to avoid going to Hell. That might sound a bit harsh, but how often do you and I start to forget that God is a being of love and start to see Him instead as a being of judgment - an austere figure ready to condemn anyone who doesn't do exactly as He says the moment that He says it? When we see God that way we're more anxious to avoid His wrath than expressing love for Him.

       When we start looking at God in this way, the gospel seems to be all about checking boxes. It seems like we have to play a game of spiritual Whack-a-Mole, where every mole is a commandment we have to keep before it's too late. We think if we can just do 100% home teaching, index 20 names, and put in one hour at the cannery, then we can avoid that low score and keep ourselves in the running for the celestial kingdom. Worst of all we think we have to do all of this alone. We think Jesus is sitting on the sidelines to see if we mess up. We forget that what He really wants to do is get in the game with us and offer us His grace every step of the way.

       So how do we get ourselves out of this trap? First of all, we have to get rid of shame. Notice we're talking about shame, not guilt. Guilt and shame are different. Guilt makes us penitent. It's what Alma talked about when he told Corianton "I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance" (Alma 42:29). Guilt makes us realize we've done something wrong. But so often we warp that guilt into its ugly counterfeit: shame. Shame makes us think we are something wrong. Shame makes us think they we're inherently worthless. It says "you'll never be acceptable to God anyway, so why even try?" If we can get rid of shame and only let ourselves be troubled by guilt, and then leave that guilt behind after repentance, we'll be able to put love back in its proper place.

      Love is the key to the gospel. Love makes us feel happy and hopeful, it makes us feel empowered to go out and do better. Love is the big picture of the gospel. Too often we get caught up in the details instead. We focus on how many inches a neckline can drop, which movies are gospel appropriate, and whether it's appropriate to chew gum while fasting. This is precisely what is meant when we say someone can't see the forest for the trees. When love is at the center of our lives, all those little details will fall into place and we'll be more concerned with expressing our love for God and doing His will than with following some intricate, step-by-step recipe for righteousness.

       Consider the story of the woman taken in adultery. She was brought before Jesus and publicly humiliated by those who condemned her behavior. These men made her feel completely worthless and ashamed because of what she'd done. But Jesus caused the crowds to disperse and spoke to her respectfully. He told her He did not condemn her and assured her of His love for her. Then He told her to go and sin no more. That was His only word on the subject, and remember, we're talking about adultery here. Not once did He mention the law of chastity to her. He didn't sit her down to tell her where she went wrong and how she could do better. There was no need. The woman already knew what she should and shouldn't do. She had been taught the outside-in approach to the gospel all her life. But now she knew Christ loved her. Christ worked on her from the inside out. He had saved her and she was now willing to follow any commandment He gave her because she wanted to reciprocate His love.   

       Then there was Peter. When Jesus was resurrected He visited Peter and dined with him and the other apostles. Jesus asked Peter three times "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?" and Peter answered three times "Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee." So Jesus said "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). Jesus didn't give a long lecture about missionary work. He didn't have to. He established that Peter loved Him, and with that motivator in place Peter was ready to go out and live the way Christ wanted him to.

      Jesus works from the inside out, using love to get people to follow His commandments. He changes our hearts, which inevitably changes our actions. His is a gospel of love. He does not condemn us. He loves us and asks that we keep His commandments as our way of reciprocating that love.

       As we go about living the gospel, let's keep love at the center of everything we do. Let's take time to express love to God and feel His love in return. Let's do our home teaching out of love. Let's teach every Sunday school lesson and give every sacrament meeting talk based on the gospel of love, because that's the only way Christ would have us do it. Guilt has its place and commandments need to be clearly taught. But once that's all established it's our duty to keep love at the center of it all. Love should be our primary motivation for all we do. After all, love is God's motivation for all He does for us. Remember love.     

1. Eyring, Henry B. "Our Perfect Example." Ensign, November 1, 2009.
2. Kimball, Spencer W.. "Circles of Exaltation." Lecture, Address to religious educators from Brigham Young University, Provo, June 28, 1968.

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