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I gave the following talk in my ward today. I feel the need to convey here what I said over the pulpit before giving these remarks, namely, that this talk was for myself as much as anybody else. I claim no moral superiority or perfection at all, but simply have made observations based on my study of what the correct principles are as they relate to this topic. I, as much as anybody else, stand to benefit from the understanding and implementation of these principles.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ often employed very direct and stern language in rebuking the Pharisees. This group’s focus on rigid observance of the law publicly, while failing to internalize the law’s purposes privately, earned them the label of “hypocrite” by the Master. “Do not ye after their works,” Jesus counseled his disciples, “for they say, and do not.”
This, of course, was a definitive example of hypocrisy, which is when a person puts on a false appearance, pretending publicly to be what they truly are not in private. The Pharisee’s outward actions were specifically engineered to attract attention, praise, and respect; enlarging their phylacteries, disfiguring their faces while fasting, and practicing their religious observances in plain view of others were only part of what this group did. Jesus noted that though they “outwardly appear[ed] righteous unto men,” they were inwardly “full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
After discussing ways in which we may be similarly hypocritical, Elder Bednar recently taught that “we need to be and become more consistent.” Consistency is the method by which we act and behave in ways that reflect our inward thoughts and desires. Any public manifestation of righteous behavior should not be a mask that is taken off when in the privacy of our home, but rather the reflection of a sincere, inward dedication to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are not immune from hypocrisy. It is found in the Latter-day Saint who criticizes an associate who occasionally smokes marijuana but who himself has a strong Diet Coke addiction. It is found in the Brother or Sister who somehow finds time for the temple, but prioritizes most other things above his family’s needs. Hypocrisy is evident in the individual who dutifully pays his tithing, but engages in appropriate or immoral business activity to defraud or deceive another person. Plenty of other examples exist, but the point is simple: we members of the Church can at times be similarly guilty of publicly professing ideals that we don’t personally exemplify, while in some cases criticizing others for failing to comply with the very standard we ourselves do not adhere to.
The Antidote to Hypocrisy
The antidote to such hypocrisy, as Elder Bednar mentioned, is consistency. The Apostle Paul taught that we should be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” It is perhaps important to note that Paul did not list exemptions for those cheering on a sports team, or engaging in an online discussion, or when participating in political activities, or when managing a business. Being an example of the believers, or, rather, being an example and disciple of Jesus Christ, requires both external and internal manifestations. Consistency comes when our outward actions demonstrate an inward spirituality that is anchored to a firm conviction of and dedication to the gospel.
This is not to say, of course, that Latter-day Saints are perfect. Though we are commanded to achieve that lofty standard, we fall short repeatedly. This means, then, that we who proclaim a moral standard fail to adhere to that standard with complete fidelity. We say one thing and do another. In short, we are all, at times, a hypocrite. What, then, distinguishes us from the Pharisees?
The difference, I believe, is one of degrees. If we continuously proclaim one standard in public that we likewise continuously disregard when nobody is looking, then we clearly are not justified. If, however, our sincere desire is to internalize the principles which we publicly profess, then our infrequent inability to continuously abide by that standard may be seen as a byproduct of our mortal, fallen nature. This does not excuse any sins of commission or omission, of course, but it does at least put them into context. Those who stumble along the path while clinging to the iron rod are trying to follow the counsel of Moroni, who said that we may become “perfect in Christ” “by the grace of God.” We achieve perfection by applying the Atonement and purging our infrequent infidelities from our soul.
The Key is Consistency
The Latin root of the word consistency suggests that the word entails “standing firm.” Elder Maxwell referenced this notion when suggesting that discipleship “requires sturdy, all-weather souls who are constant in every season of life and who are not easily stalled or thrown off course.” This theme permeates the scriptures. King Benjamin, for example, exhorted his people to be “steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his.” The Lamanites, when “converted unto the true faith… would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.” Helaman taught his sons that they should build their foundation “upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God… that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down… because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”
We may not fall, but it’s likely that we will falter at times. To lessen our deviations from this divine course, Elder Richard G. Scott recently suggested four essential principles as cornerstones in God’s eternal plan: 1) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; 2) Repentance to rectify the consequences of mistakes of omission or commission; 3) Obedience to the commandments of the Lord to provide strength and direction in our lives; and 4) Selfless service to enrich the lives of others. When these “are applied with diligence and consistency,” said Elder Scott, “they produce strength of character…”
This character, as Elder Scott further explained, “is a precious manifestation of what you are becoming. Righteous character is more valuable than any material object you own, any knowledge you have gained through study, or any goals you have attained no matter how well lauded by mankind. In the next life your righteous character will be evaluated to assess how well you used the privilege of mortality.” The consistent application of divine principles to cultivate our Christian character is not a process that allows for vacations or luke-warm commitments. “We become what we want to be,” said Elder Scott,” by consistently being what we want to become each day.” Elder Maxwell elaborated:
The daily discipleship of which I’m speaking is designed to develop these very attributes that are possessed to perfection by Jesus. These attributes emerge from a consciously chosen way of life; one in which we deny ourselves of all ungodliness and we take up the cross daily–not occasionally, not weekly, not monthly. If we are thus determined, then we are emulating yet another quality of our Lord, of whom we read: “And there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it” (Abraham 3:17). True disciples are meek but very determined.
The consistent development of our Christian character requires faith. As Elder Scott said, “Your consistent exercise of faith builds strong character. A secure foundation for your growing character is laid by making Jesus Christ and His teachings the center of your life.” Faith in Jesus Christ is the core of Christian character; our outward actions, such as service, kindness, love, honesty, and compassion, as well as our inward thoughts and feelings, must all revolve around the gospel of Jesus Christ. We apply Christ’s teachings not only when congregating at Church, but when in the privacy of our home.
It is appropriate, then, to speak of faith not only as having faith in Christ, but being faithful to Him. Our character exemplifies Christ’s when we are committed to the gospel, when we obey His teachings, and when we do what He would do. Just as spouses should be faithful unto one another by strictly adhering to their marital covenant, so too should we be faithful to the Bridegroom by strictly adhering to the covenants we have made with Him and one another.
The relationship between faith and character is reciprocal. Our application of faith in Jesus Christ strengthens our character and helps us be consistent in abiding by the principles we proclaim. Strengthening our character in this way “expands our capacity to exercise faith,” as Elder Scott has taught on another occasion. “The more [our] character is fortified, the more enabled [we] are to exercise the power of faith.”
Having faith in, and being faithful to Christ requires, of course, knowing who He is. We cannot have Christian character if we do not know what Christ’s character is. Joseph Smith taught that “it is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God. I want you all to know him and to be familiar with him.” In our articles of faith, written by the prophet Joseph, we read that the first principle of the gospel is faith. Thus, to Joseph, faith is synonymous with understanding the character of God.” This idea is further expounded in the Lectures on Faith, presented by Joseph in the School of the Prophets in 1835. As Joseph taught, “faith could not center in a being of whose existence we had no idea, because the idea of his existence in the first instance is essential to the exercise of faith in him.” He then quotes a few verses from Romans 10, which read:
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
The prophet continues:
Let us here observe, that three things are necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.
First, The idea that he actually exists.
Secondly, A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes.
Thirdly, An actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing, is according to his will.
For without an acquaintance with these three important facts, the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive; but with this understanding, it can become perfect and fruitful, abounding in righteousness unto the praise and glory of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Understanding the character of God, our faith “can become perfect and fruitful.” Applying our faith, we match our character to Christ’s by “becoming perfect in [Him].” With strengthened character, we are able to more consistently act according to Christ’s teachings, thus reducing, if not eliminating, any hypocrisy we might otherwise have.
Consistent in our Covenants
A few moments ago, we partook of the sacrament. This ordinance allows us the opportunity to renew the covenants we made at baptism. Upon being baptized, and as part of that covenant, we committed to enter the Church of Jesus Christ, be called after the name of Christ, serve God and keep His commandments, serve one another bear each others’ burdens, and be a witness for Christ and His Church. As part of the sacrament, we commit to “always remember [God] and keep his commandments which he has given [us].” An article in the Ensign over 30 years ago places in context this covenant-making process, and how it relates to our need to consistently build Christian character:
[T]he sacrament [is] a dynamic process of covenant-making—of remembrance and recommitment that helps us in our upward struggle toward perfection. The process becomes a way of answering affirmatively the piercing question asked by Alma: “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26; italics added.) Speaking to precisely this issue, King Benjamin taught his people that it is through remembering God and showing steadfast commitment that we become capable of always feeling the redeeming love of which Alma spoke: “If ye have known of [God’s] goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceeding great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of [the Atonement] which is to come. …
“And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.” (Mosiah 5:11–12.)
As the history of Israel demonstrates, learning to remember and remain committed is no easy task; the forgetting of covenants has too often been the dominant theme of the scriptures. But as King Benjamin’s teachings indicate, it is only through keeping our covenants—through constantly remembering and recommitting—that we become heirs to the promise of constant joy, divine love, permanent remission of sins, and an ever-growing knowledge of God. Only then can we affirmatively answer Alma’s question, “Can ye feel so now?”
Imagine what life would be like if we treated our marital covenants with the same level of fidelity with which we often treat our baptismal covenants. This imaginary widespread marital infidelity, infrequent on an individual basis, perhaps, but significant in the aggregate, would rightly generate a large amount of outrage and shock. A collective inability to remain faithful to our spouses would be seen, ultimately, as a disinterest in, if not rejection of, our covenants. Should the standard be different for our baptismal and sacramental covenants? Why does similar outrage and shock not exist when observing the degree to which we Latter-day Saints are faithful to our covenants with God? Are we as consistently faithful to God as we are, or at least should be, to our spouses?
In Elder Scott’s discourse, he taught that “a consistent, righteous life produces an inner power and strength that can be permanently resistant to the eroding influence of sin and transgression.” The reciprocal nature of character building faith, and faith building character, allows us to progressively perfect ourselves through applying the Atonement. We learn of Christ in order to know who He is. We know who He is that we might become like Him. We become like Him that we might match our character to His, and thus achieve perfection.
The development of our Christian character comes as a result of consistently making correct choices. We must daily—minute by minute—ensure that we think, feel, and act in a manner that is both internally consistent, and consistent with Christ’s gospel. Despite our inconsistencies and infrequent infidelities, we have the assurance that so long as we are trying to become perfect in Christ, we will be justified. As President Hinckley taught:
There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord uses imperfect people—you and me—to build strong societies. If some of us occasionally stumble, or if our characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that we accomplish so much.
We Latter-day Saints understand the importance of being faithful to Christ. We have been given His teachings, we are able to learn of His doctrine, and we are commanded to make His character our own. Joseph Smith taught:
There are but a very few beings in the world who understand rightly the character of God. The great majority of mankind do not comprehend anything, either that which is past, or that which is to come, as it respects their relationship to God. They do not know, neither do they understand the nature of that relationship; and consequently they know but little above the brute beast, or more than to eat, drink and sleep. This is all man knows about God or His existence, unless it is given by the inspiration of the Almighty.
… Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach Him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God, and know how to come to Him, He begins to unfold the heavens to us, and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to Him, He is ready to come to us.
Therein lies the end goal of a consistent Christian character: to become sufficiently like Christ that we receive Him in our lives and are ultimately able to return to God’s presence. I testify that though we all face temptations, trials, and times in which our grip on the iron rod may be weak, the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real. Repentance is possible, and forgiveness is assured. Despite any past character flaws or infidelity to our covenants, we can remember and recommit ourselves to the cause of Christ. I testify that when we make and renew that commitment, our capacity for increased faith, and our ability to exercise it, is increased. We, the Saints of God, can commit today to be like Christ, and become perfect in Him.