The Power of Conversion

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Steven C. WheelwrightDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

January 15, 2008
President Steven C. Wheelwright
President of BYU-Hawaii

My dear brothers and sisters, ALOHA!

What an inspiring sight! It is wonderful to be with you and to welcome you to a new academic semester on this beautiful campus. Over the past several months, Sister Wheelwright and I have come to know and appreciate you and the great spirit that you bring to this campus. This is indeed a very special place, in large part because of your faith, devotion and obedience. It is a place of both great spiritual development and learning as well as outstanding academic development and learning. We thank you for all you do to help make this the kind of place that the Lord and His prophets would have it be.

As we each know, one of the wonderful aspects of the mission of BYU-Hawaii is "to integrate spiritual and academic learning." President Gordon B. Hinckley has said,

"It is incumbent on each of us to equip ourselves to do something worthwhile in society -- to acquire more and more light, so that our personal light can help illuminate a darkened world. And this is made possible through learning, through educating ourselves, through progressing and growing in both mind and spirit." (President Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something, New York: Random House, 2000, p. 79.)

As President Hinckley points out, we need to progress and grow both in mind and in spirit. While all universities focus on educating the mind, many often fail to consider the importance of educating the spirit. This is not the case on this unique campus. We intend to train both, and for two important reasons: First, because we recognize that all intelligence comes from God, and, second, because, here at BYU-Hawaii, we are in the salvation business, and mental intelligence is not sufficient for eternal success. Ours is a divine directive to provide an "education for eternity."

I'd like to discuss today the education of our spirit by examining the life of Peter from the New Testament. In particular, I'd like to analyze his conversion process, or in other words, his spiritual growth and development, so that we might better understand our own. It is important to note here that the term 'conversion' is often used interchangeably with the term 'testimony'. I would propose that they are not the same thing. Testimonies come in many different shapes and sizes, if you will, but true conversion, that is, the Lord's kind of whole or complete conversion is much more than a simple testimony.

The story of Peter's conversion begins in Luke, chapter 5, when he first meets and listens to the Savior. On this occasion, Peter and his fellow fishermen have labored all night, catching nothing, and they are on the shore of the Sea of Galilee cleaning their nets before going home to sleep. The Savior approaches Peter, followed by a pressing crowd of people eager to hear His message. Jesus requests that Peter take Him out in one of his boats, just a short distance off shore, so He can address His followers more comfortably.

While we don't know what the Savior taught on that occasion, we do know that Peter was in the boat and heard the Savior's message firsthand. Let's pick up the dialogue between the Savior and Peter in verses 4 and 5 of Luke, chapter 5:

"Now when [Jesus] had left speaking, He said unto Simon [Peter], 'Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught'.

"And Simon [Peter] answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing; nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net." (Luke 5:4-5)

Peter seemed aware that Jesus was not a trained fisherman, and felt to inform Him that they had been fishing in this area all night unsuccessfully. Nevertheless, at the Savior's invitation, he was willing to let down his nets one more time. And when he did so, the nets encompassed a great multitude of fish -- so great that Peter required the help of his associates on the shore to keep the nets from breaking and the boat from sinking.

Simon Peter and his two partners, James and John, were so astonished at this miraculous result that they fell down at the Savior's feet and worshiped Him. The Savior responded saying, "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men." And then, according to the scriptures, Peter, James and John "forsook all, and followed Him."

This begins the first phase of Peter's conversion. He hears the word of the Lord, and accepts the invitation to follow him. Most of us have done likewise -- we have heard the Savior's message and accepted the invitation to follow Him. We have decided that we want to be obedient to the Lord. And in today's world, that's no small thing. Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed that

"In today's society, at the mere mention of the words obedience and submissiveness, hackles rise and people are put on nervous alert. These virtues are unfashionable because [the world] quickly assumes them to be a threat to one's independence and agency. People promptly furnish examples from secular history to illustrate how obedience to unwise authority and servility to bad leaders have caused much human misery and suffering. It is difficult, therefore, to get a hearing for what the words obedience and submissiveness really mean -- even when the clarifying phrase, 'to God,' is attached." (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Not my Will, But Thine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 1.)

We know that wanting to be obedient and submissive to God really means the divine and powerful process of conversion has begun.

Unfortunately, the path toward full conversion is a challenging one. Not only is the world unsupportive, but the new convert faces three immediate tests. First, he must overcome pride. He will have to submit to all the Lord requires, not just the easy parts. Second, the new convert must willingly change, leaving behind old habits and thoughts that may not coincide with new understanding. As the Christian writer C.S. Lewis put it, some want to retain a few "souvenirs from hell" rather than give them up in exchange for the Lord's promises. And, third, the new convert will need to internalize his new understanding, taking that idea that is now only in his mind and securely embedding it in his heart. Amulek, devoted missionary companion to Alma, understood the difference between where a belief resides. Speaking of the days before his conversion, he said:

"I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know." (Alma 10:6, emphasis added)

Until a hardened heart softens and welcomes in a testimony, the process of conversion will not be able to progress.

So in phase 1 of conversion, the believer, Peter in our example, accepts Christ's invitation to follow Him and decides he wants to obey and submit to the Lord's will. But the critical step is that change of heart. Christ Himself described this requirement while encouraging the believer to follow Him:

"Wherefore, settle this in your hearts, that ye will do the things which I shall teach, and command you." (JST Luke 14:28, emphasis added)

This important internalization, this "settling it in our hearts," represents the transition to phase 2 of godly conversion. I imagine that many of you, particularly the returned missionaries in the audience, can remember the actual moment you made this transition from phase 1 to phase 2 of your personal conversion. There may have been a period of time, either just after opening your mission call, or while at the MTC, or perhaps even in your first area, that you realized that you were not comfortable with bearing your testimony to strangers because you were, in fact, unsure of your own testimony. In that situation, you probably felt clearly, and maybe even uncomfortably, the awkwardness of the dilemma, and you wrestled with yourself and with the Lord to know for sure. And it was at that point, thanks to the witness of the Holy Spirit, that many of you felt an actual bend in the road, a turning point, and you knew you had entered this next phase of personal conversion.

For all of you listening to me today who have felt that, who have "settled this in your hearts", I commend you, and for those of you for whom accepting the invitation from the Savior to follow Him is not yet quite settled, I encourage you to study and pray so that you, too, might have the witness of the Holy Ghost, confirming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and your personal Savior.

In phase one of conversion, if that is characterized by wanting to begin to live the commandments and follow the Savior, phase two could be described as actually trying to do so. Phase two requires developing our faith in the power of the Atonement. Our faith grows and develops as the result of a divine cycle that Alma likened to the growth of a seed. When in phase one we accept Christ's invitation to follow Him, the seed is planted, but it only begins to grow when we exercise faith unto repentance, and work to be more consistently obedient. Our increased obedience generates blessings and strength and leads to increased faith, which blesses us with a stronger desire to repent and live even more obediently; the upward spiral takes shape and we begin to climb.

Returning to the New Testament, we can see how this change took place in the life of Simon Peter. His turning point was confirmed in his answer to two very pointed questions. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the Apostles,

"...Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?"

They promptly respond that some say He is John the Baptist, some say He is Elias, and others say that He is Jeremiah or one of the prophets. The Savior then asks Peter directly,

"...But whom say ye that I am?

Simon Peter answers,

"...Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

The Savior then commends Peter,

"Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 16:13-17.)

At this point, Peter verifies that he has a firm testimony and has settled the matter in his heart. Peter's testimony came through the power of the Holy Ghost, just as yours and mine did, and through that wonderful cycle of faith, repentance, and increased obedience. Peter was actively trying to follow Christ. He was now willingly declaring Jesus' divinity. This same cycle of faith, repentance, and increased obedience will likewise support each of us in our continuing conversion. The Spirit not only will provide a confirming witness of the Savior and His Atonement, but of each and every one of the gospel principles we learn and live. The seed that was planted will begin to grow.

And like Peter, we then become ready to move to the third phase of our spiritual growth and development.

Peter's transition to the third, and final, phase of true conversion occurs at the Last Supper. Jesus warns and counsels him,

"...Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." (Luke 22:31-32)

We all know Peter's response. He insists that he is willing to go with the Lord to prison and even unto death. But the Savior knows that Peter is not yet wholly converted and prophesies that before morning arrives, Peter will deny Him three times. The fulfillment of that prophecy a few hours later causes Peter to go out and "weep bitterly".

In this third phase of spiritual growth and development, Peter would need to become wholly converted. Peter thought that he was converted already, but the Savior was trying to teach him, and through him, all of us, that conversion is more than just a testimony. President Marion G. Romney defined and clarified the nature of true conversion:

"Conversion is a spiritual and moral change. 'Converted' implies not merely mental acceptance of Jesus and his teachings but also a motivating faith in Him and His gospel, a faith which works a transformation, an actual change in one's understanding of life's meaning and in his allegiance to God in interest, in thought, and in conduct. In one who is wholly converted, [the] desire for things contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ has actually died. And substituted therefore is a love of God, with a fixed and controlling determination to keep his commandments." (Elder Marion G. Romney, Guatemala Area Conference Report, 1977, pp. 8-9, emphasis added)

Jesus had sought to teach the need for this final phase in true conversion to His disciples earlier, when they had asked Him who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. He responded by calling a little child unto Him, and then teaching:

"Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Entrance into the Lord's Kingdom requires our complete conversion, not just a testimony. President Harold B. Lee put it this way:

"Conversion must mean more than just being a 'card carrying' member of the church with a tithing receipt... [or] a temple recommend. [One who is converted] strive[s] continually to improve inward weaknesses and not merely the outward appearances." (Church News, 25 May 1974, p. 2.)

Through great obedience and sacrifice, we know that Peter did become wholly converted.

We all recall the resurrected Lord's interaction with Peter on the shore of Galilee, where Peter is asked three times if he loves the Lord. Each time he responds affirmatively, to which the Savior's response is "Feed my sheep." Within a short time Peter can be found doing exactly that. Starting with his stirring missionary message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), who can doubt the veracity of that conversion after reading in the third chapter of Acts how Peter is approached by a man lame from birth seeking alms, and responds by declaring,

"...Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.

"And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength.

"And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking and leaping, and praising God." (Acts 3:6-7)

Throughout the Book of Acts and the remainder of the New Testament, the "transformed" Peter demonstrates his "motivating faith" through his "fixed and controlling determination" to carry out any commandment, whether it be taking the gospel to the Gentiles, building the Kingdom throughout the known world, or defending the Savior before kings and emperors. His love of God firmly defines him and how he lives his life.

This third and final phase of spiritual development represents true conversion, what the Lord means when He commands us to be converted. In phase one, the new convert has merely gained a testimony. He wants to follow Christ, which is a powerful seed that he has planted. In phase two, he nurtures that seed. He begins to actually try to follow Christ. His young faith leads him to repentance, which encourages his further obedience. The blessings of obedience strengthen his faith, and his testimony grows, and his conversion progresses. In the third and final phase of his spiritual growth and development, his love of God is so securely settled in his heart that his only desire is to serve the Lord.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks expanded on this final phase of conversion:

"We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life. This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason -- for the pure love of Christ. The Apostle Paul illustrated this in his famous teaching about the importance of charity (see 1 Cor. 13). The reason charity never fails and the reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness [Paul] cited, is that charity, 'the pure love of Christ' (Moroni 7:47), is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in [full] conversion. Charity [or conversion] is something one becomes. Thus as Moroni declared, 'except men shall have charity they cannot inherit' the place prepared for them in the mansions of the Father (Ether 12:34)." (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "The Challenge to Become", Ensign: Nov. 2000, pp. 32-34.)

Having identified these three phases of the development and progression of our spirit, we might ask ourselves two questions. First, what phase are we currently in? And, second, how can we progress faster?

Looking at where we currently stand along this path of conversion, do we at least want to follow the Savior? Have we accepted His invitation to come unto Him, and is our testimony finding access to our hearts? Signs of this first phase are baptism and confirmation, attendance at church meetings, and a desire to follow the Savior. If this is where we find ourselves, we are in phase one and moving forward.

Now, if we find that we are actively trying to follow the Savior and are "experimenting on His word," as Alma suggested, we have progressed to phase two. Our faith and testimony and beliefs are beginning to settle comfortably into our hearts. Accepting church callings and making sacred temple covenants are clear signs that our spirituality is developing.

But if we determine, on close and sincere examination, that not only do we want to keep the commandments, and not only are we trying to keep the commandments, but we really are keeping the commandments, and for all the right reasons, we can be confident that we have entered phase three and, at least for now, are truly converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Once we have determined where we stand in terms of our spiritual development, how do we then bridge the gap between partial conversion and total conversion? How do we move from doing our home and visiting teaching in large part because we have to, and doing it because we love the people we visit and because we love the Lord?

I'd like to suggest that we focus on what I call the four "minimum daily requirements." They are quite simple and can be summarized as follows:

1) Obtain doctrine
2) Implement doctrine
3) Look for results
4) Say "thank you"

Learning to meet these four simple goals each day will rapidly improve our spirituality and systematically direct us toward complete conversion.

Obtaining the doctrine of Jesus Christ's restored gospel is very straightforward. We ought to start each day with personal prayer and scripture study, including studying the counsel of modern-day prophets. If you have not yet acquired this habit, you will be amazed at the immediate difference you feel in your life when you do so. Starting your day with the Lord will give your thoughts, words, and actions direction as the Holy Ghost becomes your constant companion. The power of His companionship will bless your life each day.

When you begin each morning by obtaining pure gospel doctrine, the rest of the day can be spent implementing that knowledge. With what you studied earlier fresh in your mind and with the help of the Spirit, you will notice countless opportunities to help others and help yourself. You will become more aware of areas in which you may have room to improve, and you will see numerous possibilities for extending charity.

I suggest that you humbly and honestly examine where you may be holding back time, service, obedience, or commitment; as you do so, you will begin to see a clear pathway for progress. One area that may need your attention is the magnifying of your church calling. If you are striving to reach the third phase of total, complete conversion, you will seek to learn and carry out the associated duties and responsibilities of your current callings to the very best of your ability, and you will have power from heaven to help you do so.

After a full day of applying the gospel to yourself and your interactions with others, you'll want to look for results. As Elder Eyring advised at our last general conference, we should end our day by looking for signs of "God's hand in our lives." It will be easy to spot those signs because the blessings that come from obedience and commitment are overwhelming! You will be able to feel more strongly than ever before how much the Lord loves you. That knowledge and those feelings bring with them humility and gratitude which will then further bless your life. Your charity towards God and others will increase and deepen until you can truly begin to love others unconditionally. You'll no longer be hindered by judging others unrighteously or by harboring ill feelings towards those who may have offended you. The power of charity will improve all your relationships.

Finally, as you retire to your bed at night, you'll be ready for the fourth and final daily requirement: to say "thank you." Your personal evening prayers are the perfect time to thank the Lord for the gospel and the blessings that come through living it. Gratitude is critical if we desire to be truly converted. The Lord left nothing to equivocation when He said, "And in nothing doth man offend God... save those who confess not his hand in all things" (D&C 59:21).

Together, these four "daily minimum requirements" will help us reach our goal of full conversion the way the Lord intends. They will empower us with a truly motivating faith to live the gospel and share the gospel. Our commitment to our Savior will be so securely embedded in our hearts that it will have become who we are, not just what we do.

Let me close by again encouraging each of us to recommit our lives to the Lord -- to serve and obey Him and thereby become like Him. And to do so at the start of this new semester so that our development and progression of both mind and spirit will continue as our prophet has challenged us. As President Harold B. Lee has stated,

"One is converted when he sees with his eyes what he ought to see; when he hears with his ears what he ought to hear; and when he understands with his heart what he ought to understand. And what we ought to see, hear, and understand is truth -- eternal truth -- and then practice it. [This] is conversion." (President Harold B. Lee, "When your Heart Tells You Things Your Mind Does Not Know", New Era, June 2002, p. 46.)

We are all sons and daughters of God. He loves us and wants us to be happy. But He knows that true happiness comes not just from gaining a testimony of the Savior and His Atonement, but from settling in our hearts our commitment to follow Him and obey His commandments. I know that it is our divine destiny to become fully converted, so that we can be like Him and inherit all power and all glory.

I also know that through following our prophet's counsel each day, and pursuing those four daily minimum requirements, we can become truly converted. As each day we obtain and implement doctrine, we will recognize and receive the promised blessings that follow, and will humbly acknowledge that those blessings come from God. May we each be so blessed is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.