Snapshots of Life

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Grace is Sufficient

It has been forever since I posted. I've been more busy than I have in years, or maybe ever! Anyway, my counselors and I were asked to speak in sacrament meeting today. I thought I would post my talk. I tend to always write a much longer talk than I have time for, so I had to cut this way back in the meeting. Here it is in its full form:

My dear brothers and sisters, the Savior taught His disciples that where two or three are gathered together in His name, He would be in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). We have gathered together in the name of Christ as a congregation of saints. I prayerfully invite Him, through His Spirit, to continue to be in the midst of us and in our hearts as I share these remarks. I have fervently sought His guidance and acknowledge my need for His strength and inspiration in this assignment.

We have heard much about power this afternoon. What is the power we have referred to and from whence does it come? Power can be defined simply as the ability or capacity to do, to act, or to accomplish effectively. The scriptures teach us that our Heavenly Father “worketh by power” (Moro. 10:7). We also learn that “a man (or woman) may have great power given him from God” (Mosiah 8:16). Let us remember this as we proceed – that God works by power and that He is willing to share that great power with His children. Let us also hold in our mind the question: In regard to the power of God, which He is so willing to bestow, am I living up to my privileges?

At this Christmas season we are often drawn to the beautiful passages of the Gospels that tell of Jesus’ miraculous birth. In what are likely some of the most familiar verses of scripture in all of Christendom we read that Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). To the lowly shepherds abiding in their fields the angel appeared, saying, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day…a savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Is it possible that we were among that heavenly host accompanying the angel singing “Glory to God in the highest”?! The sacred event was surely cause for celebration in the realms of heaven! It is a moving image indeed to consider the humble shepherds kneeling before the Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the world. He was the king of Israel, yet in this moment His royal courts were a stable and His throne a bed of hay.

Why is the birth of Jesus called “good tidings of great joy”? What cause do we have now to sing with the heavenly host or kneel at the mangerside? John declares, “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…And as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God” (Jn 1:1, 12, 14). Can we fathom it, brothers and sisters? That the God of heaven and earth came to live as man? To dwell with man? Even more remarkable, that He came to give us power to become His sons and daughters? Paul said, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor, that [we] through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). If ever there was reason to rejoice, is this not it?

What is this power then to which John refers? It is grace! From where does it come? Only through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Jacob, the brother of Nephi, taught:

Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit;…there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah… (2 Ne. 2:6-8).

According the Bible Dictionary, grace is the “divine means of help or strength given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ”. It is the enabling power of the atonement that opens the way for man to be forgiven of sins, to rise in immortality, and ultimately to inherit eternal life and exaltation. This is foundational to our doctrine and something we all know and understand. A less understood (and less applied) truth regarding grace is that it is also the wonderful power by which man receives “strength and assistance” beyond his natural or mortal capacity in the activities and vicissitudes of life. Elder David A Bednar has instructed:

I suspect that you and I are much more familiar with the nature of the redeeming power of the Atonement than we are with the enabling power of the Atonement. It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for us. That is fundamental and foundational to the doctrine of Christ. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to live in us--not only to direct us but also to empower us…I frankly do not think many of us "get it" concerning this enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement, and I wonder if we mistakenly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities. (David A. Bednar, In the Strength of the Lord, BYU Devotional October 23, 2001).

It is obvious to us that no man can receive eternal life on his own. No matter how righteous we think we are, no matter how smart or capable, no matter how skilled or gifted we may be, we know that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We know that we need Christ to overcome our sin. But do we know, do we believe, do we live the doctrine of the empowering Christ? Do we seek His grace – that enabling power – in the happenings of our everyday life? Too many of us, I’m afraid, focus on our own “grit, willpower, and discipline” (or perceived lack thereof), only to leave us discouraged by power that is deficient in doing and being all that we hope to do and be. In the meantime, we lose focus on the Messiah, whose grace is fully sufficient! (Ether 12:27).

Truly, the empowering Christ gives us cause to rejoice. It is the atonement of Jesus Christ that can enable us in our roles as husbands, wives, and parents to make us more than we are on our own. It is by the grace of God, through His son, that we can exercise and benefit from power in the priesthood. From the effects of the Savior’s great expiation we can be strengthened beyond our natural capacity in our callings and responsibilities as saints. It is by grace that we have access to the Holy Ghost with all of its attendant gifts. It is by grace that we can be assisted in our friendships, our occupations, and our personal strivings. It is by grace that we not only receive forgiveness of sin, but receive strength to overcome it. It is grace that provides comfort in trial. No wonder Paul so passionately invited, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

The powerful apostle Paul was no stranger to grace. He reveals in his second epistle to the Corinthians that he was given a “thorn in the flesh”, which evidently caused him significant affliction. We do not know what his thorn in the flesh was, but Paul says that he “besought the Lord thrice” to remove this trial. I am told that in the original Greek this connotes not just three prayers, but three periods of prayer. We might safely assume that his supplications were fervent, faith-filled, and accompanied by fasting and obedience. The mighty apostle shares with us the result of his beseeching. The thorn in the flesh was not removed but God responded to his prayers.

“And he (God) said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me…for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

What a comforting truth! His grace is sufficient! His strength is made perfect in weakness! We might ask ourselves: Am I struggling with a thorn in the flesh? Perhaps I am burdened by some weakness or I feel overwhelmed with inadequacy. Maybe I am crippled by doubt or isolated by loneliness. Am I bound in the chains of addiction, bereft in crushing loss, consumed in anger? Am I grappling with illness or disability? Has a loved one strayed? Am I overcome with temptation? The reassuring word of the Lord, repeated time and time again throughout the scriptures, is, “My grace is sufficient!” Remember the sacred scene at the temple in Bountiful following the Savior’s appearance to the people in the Americas. The Great Physician was moved with love and invited all who were present, “Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy” (3 Ne. 17:7). I imagine that in this case healing meant the immediate removal of the affliction, but I am convinced that many times healing occurs over time. Like Paul, we can receive grace wherein the power of Christ rests upon us to make us perfect in weakness, though our thorns may remain. In this kind of affliction, no matter the affliction, the pain of the heart that results from it can be “swallowed up in Christ” and literally healed, even when sometimes the affliction persists! This is what the people of Alma experienced when God “strengthened them that they could bear up their burdens with ease” so much that they “could not feel them” and did submit “cheerfully” to the will of the Lord (Mosiah 24:14-16). Of this form of merciful grace I am both a witness and a recipient.

If we are not careful we may misunderstand the oft-quoted scripture from 2nd Nephi, “it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Brother Brad Wilcox, quoting Elder Bruce C. Hafen explains, “’The Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during and after the time when we expend our own efforts’ (The Broken Heart [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 155). So grace is not a booster engine that kicks in once our fuel supply is exhausted. Rather, it is our constant energy source. It is not the light at the end of the tunnel but the light that moves us through the tunnel. Grace is not achieved somewhere down the road. It is received right here and right now. It is not a finishing touch; it is the Finisher’s touch (see Hebrews 12:2).”

We access God’s sufficient grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Recall the words of the prophet Ether, “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; 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). To have faith in Jesus Christ means to have confidence in Him, His character, and His promises (see Bible Dictionary). Faith is a principle of action that results in power. Thus, as we have faith in Christ we look to Him and try to follow Him. We act to keep His commandments, to repent of our sins, and to receive saving ordinances. We strive to adopt His divine nature and to trust in His will for our lives. Mormon taught, “And Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me” (Moro. 7:33). What is the power we receive as we exercise faith? I suggest that it is the enabling power of the atonement – the grace of Jesus Christ.

Let us remember that sometimes faith takes away our challenges, but most of the time it accesses grace to help us through them. Elder Richard G. Scott proclaimed:

Even if you exercise your strongest faith, God will not always reward you immediately according to your desires. Rather, God will respond with what in His eternal plan is best for you. He loves you to a depth and completeness you cannot conceive of in your mortal state. Indeed, were you to know His entire plan, you would never ask for that which is contrary to it even though your feelings tempt you to do so. Sincere faith gives understanding and strength to accept the will of our Heavenly Father when it differs from our own" (Elder Richard G. Scott, The Sustaining Power of Faith, Ensign, May 2003).

Ironically, even faith itself comes as a gift by grace. William Tyndale, the bold reformer and vessel through which God worked to translate much of the Bible into English, wisely spoke, “Now faith…is the gift of God, given us by grace…I never deserved it, nor prepared myself unto it; but ran another way clean contrary in my blindness, and sought not that way; but he sought me, and found me out, and showed it me, and therewith drew me to him. And I bow the knees of my heart unto God night and day, that he will show it all other men” (William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue).

Powerful faith and powerful grace require a powerful price. Elder Bruce C. Hafen has explained:

We need grace both to overcome sinful weeds and to grow divine flowers. We can do neither one fully by ourselves. But grace is not cheap. It is very expensive, even very dear. How much does this grace cost? Is it enough simply to believe in Christ? The man who found the pearl of great price gave “all that he had” for it. If we desire “all that [the] Father hath,” God asks all that we have. To qualify for such exquisite treasure, in whatever way is ours, we must give the way Christ gave—every drop He had…Our all by itself is still only almost enough—until it is finished by the all of Him who is the “finisher of our faith.” At that point, our imperfect but consecrated almost is enough." (Elder Bruce C. Hafen, The Atonement: All for All, Ensign May 2004).

Christ has called us to “deny [ourselves], and take up our cross, and follow [him]” (Matt. 16:24).

From the JST we learn that to take up our cross is to deny ourselves of all ungodliness and every worldly lust. We remember that crucifixion was a cruel way to die. It was also a shameful way to die. Jewish tradition said, “cursed is the man who hangs from a tree”. Imagine, the God of Heaven, He who was without shame, carrying a cross of shame upon which He would die! But those who had eyes to see kneeled before their thorn-crowned King, whose throne was the cruel cross in the royal courts of Calvary. Surely, “He was wounded for our transgression, He was bruised for our iniquity” (Isa. 53:5). It seems to me that by inviting us to take up our cross, He is inviting us to take up our shame, our sin, our pain, our worldly inclinations – no matter what they are or how we came to possess them – and to follow Him to Gethsemane and Golgotha. In those holy places of discipleship we are required to give our all, just as He gave His.

Moroni says it this way, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” (Moro. 10:32). Indeed, it is through grace that we become heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, to become perfect even as they are (Titus 3:7; Rom 8:17).

In giving us this assignment to speak today Brother Hansen asked that we bear testimony and share with the congregation not only what we know but how we know. In this spirit I hope you will forgive me if I turn autobiographical. Close to twenty years ago I experienced a Christmas that I will never forget. My brothers and sister and I were filled with the excitement and entitlement of the season. I distinctly remember providing a whole catalogue to my mom to pass onto Santa with numerous circled items as my Christmas list. The much anticipated day finally arrived. At the time I had a paper route with my brother that required us to get up very early, even on Christmas morning. My room was in the basement. I made my way up the stairs expecting to see heaps of gifts piled under our light-covered tree in the living room at the top of the stairs. But instead, to my horror and dismay, I discovered that there was not one single gift under the tree! By this time I had been fully enlightened regarding the source of gifts on Christmas morning and I was quite annoyed with “Santa Clause”. Had he been too lazy or mean to deliver our presents? Could he even do that legally, I wondered? Throughout the paper route I stewed about this situation. I grew more and more anxious and angry with each toss of the paper. I decided that the presents better be there when I returned.

You might imagine that the first thing I did after I got home was hurry back to the living room to check the status of the tree. I quickly but quietly headed down the hallway, past the family room, into the entry, and turned the corner. To my shock and disbelief there was still not one single gift anywhere to be seen! And then, I saw it. My eyes were drawn to what I had previously failed to see in my rush and in my selfishness. Under the tree was a large picture of Jesus Christ. As is so often the case with spiritual learning it is difficult to describe what then took place for me. All in a moment I knew. I knew that I had been selfish, I knew that I had missed the mark. I knew that Jesus is the Christ and that He is the real reason for the season. The Spirit struck with such great force and power that it was as if, for a moment, that living room became like unto His heavenly courts and the Christmas tree His throne. There before the evergreen tree, the brilliant lights, and the crowning star – all symbols of His miraculous birth and mission – my little Spirit could not be constrained. I instinctively, literally fell to my knees in reverent worship with tear-stained cheeks. It is a sacred moment in a chain of grace-filled experiences wherein God, in His kindness, has spoken to my heart and strengthened me onward in His path. Those experiences have prepared me for and sustained me in all that has followed in my life.

I bear my witness that God lives and that His grace is sufficient. He is truly in the details of our lives and empowers us in our weakness. I humbly acknowledge His everlasting kindness in my behalf and gratefully praise Him. I know that Jesus is the Christ, the living son of the living God. He is my source of strength and succor. He has led me through my years as a child and been a lamp unto my feet. He has sustained me in the mission field, directed and magnified me in my studies, taught me in my callings, and answered my fervent prayers in time of need. He has spoken softly to me in quiet moments of revelation and chastened me in my pride and selfishness. He has blessed me with the miracle of eternal marriage and the gift of a child. He has been my comfort as I lay on a jungle floor, with guns at my back in the highlands of Guatemala. But perhaps even more important and certainly more profound, He has been my hope in the face of excruciating emotional and spiritual trial; trial found in the secret chambers of my heart but nevertheless known by Him who, as Paul said, “has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities”. I have gone before His throne of grace and He has fully proffered it, not always in ways or in timetables that I have asked, but He has always given. I join with Jacob, “Yea, my soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power and mercy in the great and eternal plan” (2 Ne. 11:5).

I have faith that the day will come, if I honor my covenants, when I will kneel before His literal throne. Then He will stretch forth His powerful but gentle hands of grace. Those same hands that have broken bread in sacred settings, that have given sight to the blind, and healed the sick, those same hands that were clasped in the agony of Gethsemane and wounded in brutal crucifixion, will also touch me! Then I will be fully healed – my wounds bound up, my robes washed white, my spirit freed – and so shall it be for all. Until then, His amazing grace will be my power in weakness.

I close with words from the great vision of the prophet Joseph, “And thus we saw the glory of the celestial, which excels in all things—where God, even the Father, reigns upon his throne forever and ever; Before whose throne all things bow in humble reverence, and give him glory forever and ever. They who dwell in his presence are the church of the Firstborn; and they see as they are seen, and know as they are known, having received of his fulness and of his grace; And he makes them equal in power, and in might, and in dominion. (D&C 76:92-95). In the name of the giver of all grace, even Jesus Christ, amen.