The Inner Life

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Marshall BartlettDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

March 29, 2007
Marshall Bartlett
Assistant Professor of Physics

Brothers and sisters, "Aloha!" It is an honor to address you today. I feel particularly privileged to have the chance to address the student body of this institution. You are a generation of promise, hope, and opportunity.  It is a great privilege to spend each day in your company and to, in my own small way, assist you as you chart your course ahead. I have the hope of great things for this University, our church, and God's kingdom because of the decisions you are making and will make.

Being a physicist carries with it a certain degree of social stigma. When you introduce yourself at a party, for example, the responses predictably fall into one of three categories. There are those who politely and quickly excuse themselves to seek out other company. I have learned not to take it personally. There are those who respond with a comment along the lines of "Wow, physics, huh?..." usually followed by an awkward stare of some duration while they wait for the topic of conversation to change. My favorite however, are those who respond by recounting for me there horrific experiences with college physics. I can count on one two hands the number who have recalled pleasant hours joyfully spent solving problems in celestial mechanics or thermodynamics. My all time favorite response, however, came a few years ago when I was introduced to a sociologist at a cross disciplinary University social function. "Physics?" he said. "Do you pray regularly?" A little taken aback, I said, "Well, yes; why do you ask?" He replied, "I just figured that anyone who is going to make a profession of monkeying around with the laws of the Universe ought to get a little advice on the topic from an expert, don't you think?" Today, with apologies to those who make a profession of "monkeying around" with the non-physical laws that govern our Universe, I want to share with you a few of my thoughts on the spiritual side of our existence. I warn you in advance that the topic is hardly the purview of a physicist. Consequently, I will beg your understanding and forbearance if the views I advance seem a bit naive.

I. Defining the Inner Life

To judge by their writings, Christian authors of all generations have concerned themselves deeply with a specific aspect of the human experience, what they refer to as the "inner life" of human beings. Their exhortations encourage each reader to tend to his or her "inner life"; to become "alive inwardly" and to perfect the "inner virtues." Though it admittedly sounds a bit mysterious and mystical, I think there is great practical wisdom in what these authors are suggesting.

To approach the subject of becoming alive inwardly, however, we should begin by carefully considering what is meant when we discuss the inner life. Evelyn Underhill, an atheist convert to the Anglican faith who wrote substantially on the subject summarizes the idea succinctly. She wrote that, "[the inner life encompasses] all that [which] conditions the relation of the individual soul with God, the deepening and expansion of the Spiritual sense, in fact the very heart of personal religion."1 I understand from Ms. Underhill's definition that the inner life is the portion of each of us which communes directly with our Father in Heaven. His omniscience requires, therefore, that our inner life be always the truest portion of ourselves. Thus, the inner life is another name for our character, our true nature. Though we may, and many do, endeavor to keep our true nature sheltered and hidden from the world; the part of ourselves that God understands better than we do ourselves is never hidden from Him.

The prophets and apostles have long recognized the importance of the inner side of who we are. Throughout the scriptures they refer to it constantly. Examples are abundant and the verbiage they use to demarcate the inner life is diverse. I will cite just two examples from the myriad found throughout the scriptures to help elucidate the idea.

From the first book of Samuel, chapter 16, verse 12: "the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh upon the outward appearance but the Lord looketh upon the heart" (1 Sam. 16:12). This oft quoted verse says it plainly enough  the Lord sees what we often cannot.  He sees our heart. Note the connection here between the scriptural term "heart" and what we have termed the "inner life." They both refer to that part of ourselves that God sees clearly. When the Lord requires of us a "broken heart and a contrite spirit" He is really asking us to modify the nature of the most personal aspects of ourselves. We shall return to look at how we might accomplish this feat in a bit later.

My second example comes from the gospel of St. John, the sixth chapter. Here, the Lord's instructs his followers following the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The Lord chastises the people for being overly concerned with the physical aspects of their lives and failing to understand that the Lord's kingdom must first be established in the inner life of each follower of Christ. This, Jesus explains, is the meaning of the sacrament which would later be established. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.  He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." (John 6:53-56). Christ dwelling in us, making us alive from the inside, filling our inner life with himself.  This is the new doctrine which people then and now find so hard to swallow.

II. Perfect Beings

So the inner life is not only the truest portion of ourselves, it is also the portion of us with which Christ is the most concerned. If that is still not enough, let me point out one other reason why thinking about the inner life is a worthwhile endeavor. The goal and purpose of the plan of salvation and a gospel-centered life is to return to the presence of our Father in Heaven. In order to achieve this goal, we must become like God is. Christ commanded, "Be ye therefore perfect." I feel fairly confident in stating that none of us in this room today has yet lived up to this injunction. This suggests something interesting: in order to live with God again we must do something that none of us (and, probably, no one we know) has managed to accomplish yet. I don't think it is for lack of trying. I see great examples of striving for perfection in many with whom I associate at this institution and in this community. For my own part, what I find holds me back and prevents me from attaining perfection is, simply put, who I am on the inside. My inner character and perfection seem to just be incompatible. It is a hard truth, but (at least in my case) true none-the-less. Therefore I find myself with two options: 1) I can give up the attempts at perfection and move on, living out my imperfect life and finding as much contentment as I can with who I currently am, or 2) I must admit that to become perfect I need to be a fundamentally different creature than I now am; I must do surgery on my inner life, cutting away the parts of who I am that are just incompatible with what I want to become. If I am to achieve the purpose of my existence, to return and live again with my Father in Heaven, this is not really a choice at all.

What do I mean by we must become fundamentally different than we now are? Well, I mean to suggest that we must become the sons and daughters of God. Now some of you may object, "Aren't I already a Son of God? Haven't I been taught since I was in Primary that he is the Father of my spirit?" While it is true that He is the Father of our spirits, there are many passages of scriptures in which the Lord refers to mankind as becoming the sons and daughters of God. Though we all come to this earth as spirit children of our Father, it would appear that becoming a son or daughter of God means something else entirely. C.S. Lewis2 draws the distinction quite clearly by distinguishing between the verbs "to make" and "to beget." To make something simply means to form it. To beget something is to endow it with a portion of what you are. We make statues but we do not beget them. Once they are made, that is the end of it. There is no "becoming" for a statue. God is our Father in that he made us, fashioned our spirits and our bodies to house them. Becoming a son or daughter of God means choosing to "be begotten" of Him, to become like he is. It means finding space in our inner life for His characteristics, personality, and perfections. It means fulfilling Christ's commandment, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) Perfecting our character, perfecting our personality, perfecting our inner life requires practice, patience, a willingness to reflect seriously on ourselves and the strength to cut away the parts of our nature at odds with His character. While this life is certainly a test of our moral courage and personal loyalty to His commandments, it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a laboratory in which we can develop the habits of mind and spirit which define His perfection. We are in training.

With this in mind, brothers and sisters, I want to dissuade you from a rather dangerous way of thinking that I fear is a bit too common these days: the idea that it is the sum tally of our good versus our misdeeds in mortality that will determine our station in the eternities. If the point is to become fundamentally different than we were when we began, there has to be another benchmark of our achievement. While the actions we take in this life are important indicators of the progress of our training program, the most important measure of our achievement is less the summation of all of our good deeds than it is the integral of our state of mind and heart. But recall that we have already said that when our mind and heart are right, our actions will naturally follow suite. This brings us, once again, up against our inner life.

All of this talk of an inward life may give you the false impression that I am advocating a rejection of the material world, its trials, and problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Latter-day Saints we firmly hold that this earth with all of its imperfections, problems, and ills is a work of divine providence and that mankind, while wicked, idle, and corrupt by nature are still capable of the most sublime achievements. We are not here on earth by accident; we are not meant to abandon completely the environment of our lives nor are we to turn away from the needs of our brothers and sisters. What I am suggesting is that the following Christ changes one from within and that change manifests itself in the actions we choose to take in the exterior world. President Ezra Taft Benson described the process in this way: "The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of the people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature" (Conference Report, October 1985, p.5).

III. Education for Spiritual Beings

Let's bring this discussion to the hear and now. The majority of you in attendance today have come to Brigham Young University-Hawaii with the intention of advancing your education. Let me comment for a moment on some of the ways in which I see the quality of your inner life affecting your current educational pursuits.

First, I would like to suggest to you that the influence your educational experience will have on your life depends less on the skills you master, the information you analyze, the papers you write, or the equations you solve here at BYU-Hawaii than it does on the character you develop. Both your secular and religious education at this institution are targeted not at making you more efficient or effective contributors to society (though they may certainly have this effect); they are intended to make you fundamentally better people than when you arrived here. What I mean is that education is intended to improve your character, to aid in the development of your inner life. If your inner life is not altered by the your time here, though you may graduate with a diploma in hand, in a very real way you will not have achieved the purpose for which this institution exists. There are many ways to progress through the University; we live in an age in which many, having lost site of the true value of a general, rounded, liberal education would have you believe that all roads through the University are equally valid means to the utilitarian gains a college education can bring. I assure you that not all means of getting from A to B are equal in value. Specifically, if you progress through the University seeing the classes, lectures, and laboratories in which you enroll as offering little more than the practical purpose of putting you in a better position upon graduating to pursue the dollar, yen, pound or other material means, you will have missed entirely the actual intent of a University education. Like the gospel, even the secular subjects you study at this institution.  Yes, even physics are meant to make you a fundamentally different creature than you where before you arrived here. Those of us who work at this institution are in the business of changing who you are—changing your inner life.

The same classes that some of you may see as necessary evils, proverbial hoops to be jumped through, have a much deeper objective and offer students a much more profound experience than you may realize. They are opportunities to stretch yourself in new ways, to reevaluate and reconnect the internal pathways of your mind and heart. While your professors may not always be the most entertaining, and the texts you study may at times seem obtuse, obscure, overblown, or out-of-touch, keep in mind the goal: remaking who you are. So, how do you gain access to this deeper level of the educational experience here at BYU-Hawaii? Let me suggest that the most important thing for you to do is to develop a genuine thirst and hunger for learning. The apocryphal Buddhist story (also attribute, to Plato, Socrates, and de Vinci, among others) of a master and a would-be pupil illustrates the student's role in this process:

A young man of considerable means came to a sage and indicated that he wanted to study under the master and would pay any price for the chance. The sage sent the young man away with the comment, "You are not sincere in your desire." Upset at the reply, the young man returned day after day determined to indicate his eagerness. Rebuffed each time by the sage he finally came one day visibly angry that the master seemed to have such little regard for his request. The master laid down his work and told the young man, "Follow me." He led him down to the ocean and walked with the young man out into the waves. The master then turned to face the young man who eagerly awaited the wisdom the old man would impart. The pupil was instead surprised when the old sage grabbed him by the back of the neck and thrust his head under the water. Unable to breath, and young man flailed wildly until unconsciousness began to close in around him and his only thought was of air. Just then, he was yanked from the water by the old master. Gasping for air, the student pleaded with the sage, "What have I done to deserve this?" The master's reply to the boy rings as true today as it did then: "When you want to learn as badly as you wanted that breath of air, then I can teach you."

To obtain what this institution has to offer you must approach your courses, every course, with a desire that strong. When you want your education to affect you as badly as you want success, leisure, rewards, enjoyment, and the other distractions that surround us, then you are ready to be taught.

A second aspect of the inner life related to your time here as a student has to do with the honor code we are all devoted to maintaining at BYU-Hawaii. The honor code is a standard of moral and ethical conduct which encapsulates an understanding of the type of person we are striving to become through our time here at the University. Note the connection to the inner life: the honor code is a statement of our character, our inner life, as an institution. Keeping it is a testament to inner virtue. This is why violation of the honor code, be it immodesty in dress and action, inattentiveness in our behavior towards one another, or academic dishonesty through plagiarism or cheating is such a serious matter in addition to violations of a code we have agreed to obey, these are all indications that we are failing in the deeper aspects of the educational process. They all indicate that our inner life is not developing as it should. The major issues the world faces today from the deterioration of family and community life to global warming and the rise of militant religious factions are all, at heart moral problems. They can only be successfully addressed by persons rooted in a moral tradition which provides a set of internal values that are superior to the changing character of the world's problems. For you to execute the prophetic mission of this institution and to be a force "for peace internationally," you must each take from this place a set of internalized values, values imprinted on your "inner life" that will pilot you through the troubled waters of the world. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "It is not our part to master all of the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know so that those who come after us may have clean earth to till."4 Before we "do what is in us", brothers and sisters, we need to make sure that what is in us is in touch with the divine light we seek to spread abroad.

IV. Charity Within

Finally, I would like to close my remarks today with a few thoughts on the connection between our developing inner lives and the virtue of charity. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, in his book Mere Christianity spends considerable time discussing the new men and women that God is trying to help us become. As this process unfolds, he makes the following observation:

We begin to notice, beside our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; we begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity. I have sulked, or snapped or sneered or stubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to mind is that the provocation [against me] was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had no time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul. Now that cellar is out of reach of my conscious will. I can to some extent control my acts: I have no direct control over my temperament. And if (as I said before) what we are matters even more than what we do - if, indeed, what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are - then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about. And this applies to my good actions too. How many of them were done for the right motive? How many for fear of public opinion or a desire to show off? How many from a sort of obstinacy or sense of superiority which, in different circumstances, might equally have led to some very bad act? But I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.5

This is critical. Not only is our inner life ever present before the Father, but he is also the one with the power to refashion it. He is the one who can do the begetting and make us come alive. It is a gift he bestows on those who will receive it. It is the best gift. What is left to us? We have our agency; we must decide to open ourselves to the experience: to pray, and fast, and plead, and petition God to grant unto us this rebirth. We must make the room for Him to dwell within us; we must open the door. Sheri Dew comments,

"Charity is a bestowal from the Father to true followers of His Son. He and only He can change our hearts and our natures. Now, becoming like the Savior meaning, having our nature become like his, is not a quick or an easy process. But we are admonished to "covet earnestly the best gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31). The pure love of Christ is the best gift. It is to be coveted, sought after, and even craved. As we pray with all of the energy we can muster to be filled with His love, our nature will gradually change, we will slowly become more and more like Him, and our actions and feelings will increasingly be manifestations of pure charity. Thus, charity is a healing, transforming balm bestowed by the Father, applied by the Holy Ghost, to true followers of the Son that will change our very nature as it purifies us. So on those days when we're not ready to stop being offended about something, not ready to forgive someone, still determined to give someone the silent treatment, and so on, what we're actually saying is, "Wait! I don't want to become more like the Savior today, maybe tomorrow when I'm able to let go of some irritation or injustice." Perhaps those are the times when we need to pray the hardest, the times that make it clear that a change in behavior is not enough; that we must have a change in nature. As the Father applies the balm of charity to our hearts and souls, everything from emotional wounds to personality flaws can be healed and even transformed."6

We can become new creatures, sons and daughters of God, the new men and new women of the kingdom. What is required is for us to loosen our hold on our own natures, to give up our sins and our sinfulness. It is what we are about at this institution; it is what we are about as human beings. That we may find the courage to do so is my prayer, in the Holy Name of our maker, He who will bring us to life, even Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 Underhill, Evelyn. Concerning the Inner Life. E.P. Dutton and Company, 1926.
2 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1st paperback edition, 1960.
3 Allen, James. As a Man Thinketh. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4507
4 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. 1955.
5 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1st paperback edition, 1960.
6 Dew, Sheri. If Life Were Easy It Wouldn't Be Hard and Other Reassuring Truths. Deseret Book, 2005.