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Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Gift of Discernment Part 8: Undistracted

Sorry, but you probably won’t be bringing that giant stuffed animal home.

This time of year, many places across the U.S. are seeing the state fair coming to a town.

Every year when I approach the gaming area, I hear, "Step right up! Everybody's a winner!" all over the place. I mean, from 5-10 feet away, who couldn't shoot a target, throw a ring onto a bottle or make a basket? Well, the sad truth is, a lot of these games are technically rigged so the winning isn't as easy as it first appears. 

So it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many members tend to gravitate to exhilarating prospects which:

  • Guarantee heightened spiritual development ("Step right up, and get your Calling & Election / Second Comforter")
  • Guarantee temporal salvation ("Here's where the future tent camps are going to be" or "You don’t need personal revelation about the future. Just wait 'til the prophet says to head to the hills!") or 
  • Promise a better way to worship, based on a foundation of dissatisfaction with the church and its leaders. 
So, hoping to score some successes, they step on right up, unwittingly start throwing overinflated basketballs into narrow, oval basketball hoops and walk away with their countenances definitely none the better.

It's not just those within the "Calling & Election Now" crowd* or the "It's Good to be an Apostate" group who are succumbing to the sensationalistic. It's sadly commonplace among we Saints to see those who prioritize the following over being good Christians:

  • Worshiping of Images (including images that "turn away" people's heart from God, such as images from television, movies, and videos).
  • Violence and Sex (the legitimizing of carnality in our culture...especially in our own homes via our choices of entertainment). This carnality now makes itself apparent -- and is legitimized -- in places where you'd least expect to find it.
  • Rock Music (how many forms of music corrupt our souls and encourages us to descend from the divine to the carnal).
  • Organized Sports (ancient Romans devoted so much exorbitant resources to sports, that charitable programs rated a poor second. Today, our devotion of time, money and fanfare to sports is a replay of ancient Rome).
  • Human Idols (when you revere, venerate, stand in awe of, extol, put on a pedestal or idolize anyone -- or those who don't dissuade/stop people from doing the same).
  • Imaginations of the Heart (studies or desires that draw us away from God).
  • Nature Cults (a preoccupation with parks or gardens to escape devotion toward God and humanity).
  • Babylon (the manufacture, promotion, and sale of the works of men's hands which constitute idolatry). Babylon also makes itself apparent -- and is legitimized -- in places where you'd least expect to find it.
  • The Arm of Flesh (trusting in any other mortal for temporal or spiritual salvation).
  • Elitism-Pharisaism (participation in, or legitimizing, a group which places itself above, instead of equal to, another group of people. Where authority is a badge of man-made superiority).
  • Pollution of the Temple (by entering it unworthily).
  • Mammon (the lure, promise or extolling of riches).
  • Not Keeping the Sabbath Day holy (we seek out and do many activities which do not bring us closer to God on this, the Lord's day).
  • Our Emotions (greed, envy, jealousy, selfishness, an unforgiving heart, magnifying small imperfections, unfavorably comparing ourselves with others, etc).
  • Busy-ness (being so preoccupied with the flurry of daily life and your church calling that you fail to immerse yourself in the gospel of Jesus Christ).
  • Not seeking spiritual knowledge (which will get you a lot further in the eternities than the NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, MLB, Facebook or Instagram ever will; see Hosea 4:6).
Thus, we’re surrounded not by one carnival worker, but over a dozen, all vying for our attention. That may be why Elder Richard G. Scott observed, "Satan has a powerful tool to use against good people. It is distraction" ("First Things First," Ensign, May 2001, p. 7).
"Satan tempts us with alluring distractions, attitudes, and circumstances, which appear on the surface to be harmless; but as one partakes of them, the spirit slowly suffers, creating a weakened condition which can produce eventual alienation from God. Jesus told his disciples in ancient America to 'watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat' (3 Nephi 18:18)."  (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., "Second Nephi: The Doctrinal Structure," p. 302).
The happy (and also the scary) part?
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)

How We Make Sense of the Sounds

Amidst all this "signal noise", we seek to be more aware of "The Three Voices": the voice of God (goodness), Satan (evil) and ourselves (indecision/uncertainty, which is swayed by the previous two voices). 

God's voice is always broadcasting and is usually very quiet. Said Isaiah,

“And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever” (Isaiah 32:17).

Yet sometimes, we categorically dismiss promptings and intimations because:
  • They don't fit our paradigms
  • We get tired of waiting for a response which should come on our timetables (not God's) and 
  • We put God in a box, or recreate Jesus in our own image. We dress Him up in the clothing of our own culture, knowledge, biases, preferences and prejudices, subjecting a limitless, omnipotent God to our mortal "omniscience" and even our expectations (which He regularly delights in far exceeding). We say we really want to be like Jesus, but in reality, we often want Him to be like us. We don’t give Jesus a chance to reveal Himself, as He really is. All. The. Time.
The apostle Paul admonished us to recognize Satan’s voice (which is also always broadcasting) and turn away from it -- that we "not [be] ignorant of his devices" lest "Satan should get an advantage of us" (2 Corinthians 2:11). That can be a rather tall order, for Satan’s voice can also be subtle.
"for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever." (2 Nephi 26:22)
"Who has not heard and felt the enticings of the devil? His voice often sounds so reasonable and his message so easy to justify. It is an enticing, intriguing voice with dulcet tones. It is neither hard nor discordant. No one would listen to Satan’s voice if it sounded harsh or mean. If the devil’s voice were unpleasant, it would not entice people to listen to it. Shakespeare wrote, “The prince of darkness is a gentleman” (King Lear, act 3, sc. 4, line 143), and “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, act 1, sc. 3, line 95). As the great deceiver, Lucifer has marvelous powers of deception. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14; see also 2 Nephi 9:9)." (Elder James E. Faust, "The Great Imitator," October 1987 General Conference)
Because the characteristics of these two signals can be very similar, a third voice -- our own -- often comes to the forefront as we weigh the validity of the two other signals. It’s no wonder that one of this blog's most frequently-asked questions is, "How can I know if a prompting is from God, Satan or just myself?" or "How do you know when you've heard the voice of the Spirit?" (Click here for links which help answer that question).

In fact, the more spiritual exertion we put forth in discerning the signals, the more resistance we receive from the adversary:
“The nearer a person approaches the Lord, a greater power will be manifested by the adversary to prevent the accomplishment of His purposes” (The Prophet Joseph Smith, in Orson F. Whitney, "Life of Heber C. Kimball", Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, p. 132).
Why is this? It’s because Satan knows that [1] if you can’t hear Christ’s voice, you’ll eventually be cut off, not gathered with the elect and will be overtaken by death, and [2] if you’re aligned with Satan’s voice, then there’s a better chance that you’ll negatively influence others as well.

So let’s put this all together:
  • Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re influenced by a cacophony of spiritual sounds every minute of our lives.
  • Just the sheer diversity and attractiveness of these sounds makes it nearly impossible to focus on what’s right.
  • Further complicating the situation: Satan is highly motivated and extremely adept at drowning out these loud, colorful, enticing signals with his own counterfeit subtle signals.
  • Naturally, it’s difficult for us to make heads or tails out of what is right and what is wrong.
  • Some of the best and brightest among us have been led away by these sounds in hopes of better spiritual or temporal statuses for themselves.

When disengaging from everyone and everything is sometimes the best way to be anxiously engaged

We LDS are taught since we're babies that we should be busy as bees. In fact, that's where the word “deseret” comes from -- a beehive.

We're expected to be busy with our kids, our spouse, our extended families, our church callings, our work and our communities. And as for spirituality? Yep, we’d better be anxiously engaged! Read your scriptures. Pray. Fast. Eat and drink healthy. Be a member missionary. Do your family history. Go to the temple. Go to church meetings. And then go to more meetings.

Everything. Busy Busy Busy.

It's not just tradition. It's not just our culture. It's practically ingrained in us at the DNA level.

So what do we think or say when we see someone NOT being busy as a bee? For example, perhaps a woman sitting in the pews after sacrament meeting, praying. I mean, oh my gosh! She’s not beeing busy! She’s not where she’s supposed to bee! Something's gotta bee wrong!

This kind of reminds me of the Savior and His life.

During Jesus’ mortality, He didn’t have one mission companion. He gradually gathered 12 of them. And if you believe historical accounts, he had a 13th. Her name was Mariah, or as we call her, Mary.

As you well know, when you're a missionary, you stay by the side of your companion except when you're in the bathroom or with mission president, right? So what if you wander off from your companion? You’re in BIG trouble.

Yet during his 3½ year mission, Jesus often used to ditch his companions (sometimes, for hours)!

And what would he be found doing?

The same thing that person sitting in the pews after Sacrament Meeting (who should be in Sunday School!!!) was doing.


Pres. David O McKay said,
“Jesus set the example for us. As soon as he was baptized and received the Father's approval—"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). Jesus repaired to what is now known as the Mount of Temptation where, during forty days of fasting, he communed with himself and his Father and contemplated the responsibility of his own great mission. One result of this spiritual communion was such strength as enabled him to say to the tempter: "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Matt. 4:10)

Before he gave the beautiful Sermon on the Mount, he was in solitude, in communion. He did the same thing after that busy Sabbath day, when he arose early in the morning after having been the guest of Peter. Peter undoubtedly found the guest chamber empty, and when he and others sought Jesus, they found him alone. It was on that morning that they said: "All men seek for thee" (Mark 1:35-37)

Again, after Jesus had fed the 5,000, he told the Twelve to dismiss the multitude. Then Jesus, the historian says, went to the mountain for solitude; and "when the evening was come, he was there alone" (Matt. 14:23) Meditation! Prayer!” (Pres. David O. McKay, “Consciousness of God: Supreme Goal of Life”, April 1967 General Conference).
Further examples are found in:
“And when it was day, he departed and went into a desert place: and the people sought him, and came unto him, and stayed him, that he should not depart from them.” (Luke 4:42)

“And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed.” (Luke 5:16)

“And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12)

“And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him: and he asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am?” (Luke 9:18)

“And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.” (Mark 6:46)

“And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed” (Luke 22:40-41)

“One of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord”

I find it fascinating that just before almost every major event of the Savior’s ministry, He broke away from the world and everybody in it and retired to a place of meditation and prayer. 

Why meditation?

Pres. McKay continues:
“I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. In our worship there are two elements: One is spiritual communion arising from our own meditation; the other, instruction from others, particularly from those who have authority to guide and instruct us. Of the two, the more profitable introspectively is meditation. 
Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.”
Even Pres. Monson asked,
"In this fast-paced life, do we ever pause for moments of meditation – even thoughts of timeless truths?" ("The Race of Life," April 2012 General Conference)
That’s a good question. With all this abundant evidence that the Savior of the World saw the need to just (literally and figuratively) get away from it all, meditate and pray, what about you?

If we are so anxious to enjoy communion with God -- to pass through the most secret, most sacred doors into His presence -- then why are we emphasizing busy-ness, and not meditation (as not one, but two, latter-day church presidents have asked us to do)?

The Sound of Silence

There’s a story about a Japanese Zen master who was once visited by a university professor, who came to inquire and learn from the master.

It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have tea. The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. “The cup is overfull, no more will go in,” he said.

The master said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Like the university professor, our cups are overflowing with cares, concerns and worries about ourselves, our families, our jobs, our health, the world, as well as the past, present and future.

It’s no wonder that we find solutions to our problems so elusive at times.  Our cups are so overflowing, we are unable to tune in and receive wisdom from Our Master.

So what do we do?  We rely on OUR mortal abilities and OUR mortal wisdom and OUR mortal relationships to resolve those cares, concerns and worries. All done in OUR way and on OUR timescales.

Or we may also rely on others, like a spouse, mentor or church leader. You know, that whole “trust not in the arm of flesh” commandment which we conveniently create exceptions to?

Combine that with a propensity to categorically dismiss promptings and intimations, think in-the-box and consistently struggle to make sense of all the spiritual sounds and signals, and yes, discernment can be a pretty uphill battle. 

Luckily, D&C 52:14 says God will give us a pattern in all things.  And in this case, He definitely did.  Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Nephi, Enos, the Brother of Jared, Joseph Smith and more gave it a whirl, and God blessed them not only with discernment, but also a whole lot more (e.g., His presence).

What did they all do? We’ll cover that -- as I conclude this series of articles about the Gift of Discernment -- in my next post.

* This is not a condemnation of the doctrine, but instead, a concern over those who seek after their C&E for their own gratification and purposes, or have a simplistic view of its acquisition, without fully understanding the tremendous agony and sacrifices required of them.