Living According to the Covenants

----------------------

Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

September 23, 2004
Elder Kenneth Johnson
First Quorum of the Seventy

Being here with you in this setting reminds me of an experience from my youth.

At the college where I attended the students were organized into four groups or "Houses" as they were called.

Each was designated by name and color: Blyth (blue), Gannon (green), Ramage (red), the fourth being White.

A house captain was appointed to lead each group.

These were selected from students in their senior year who were to be the leader and provide an example for all the students assigned to that house.

A great deal of pride was associated with belonging to one's group, and whenever a student participated in a sporting activity, they would wear the color that identified the house they were representing. I was assigned to Ramage House.

The Housemaster of Ramage was Mr. Ben Burgess. He was a formidable individual standing over six feet tall.

Shortly after the commencement of my final year at the college, I was summoned to the office of Mr. Burgess.

Because of his reputation as a stern disciplinarian, it was with great trepidation that I walked the corridors to keep my appointment. My first knock on his office door was intentionally feeble. It was my hope that he would not hear me knocking and that I could return to the classroom without having to face whatever fate awaited me. As I stood, gazing at the sturdy wooden door, I concluded that this strategy would not succeed, so I knocked a second time more loudly than before.

The response came by way of Mr. Burgess's strong, deep voice inviting me to enter. Nervously, pushing the door open, I ventured into the room to be greeted with the words, "Ah, Johnson!"

Mr. Burgess then launched into a passionate address expressing his deep feelings about the honor of belonging to Ramage House. It was all rather overwhelming to the mind of a young student. He continued his discourse, declaring that this would be a year of glory and achievement for Ramage and that he had chosen me to be the House captain. He further informed me that it would be my duty to enthuse and motivate the other students to the greatest achievements ever recorded in the history of Ramage House.

I am confident that Sir Winston Churchill, the noted British statesman and orator, never delivered a more stirring speech. As I recall, I had no opportunity to respond or even express my willingness to accept his kind invitation. Mr. Burgess simply assumed that I would be honored to serve in such a privileged position. He indicated that I would be expected to lead by example, participating in all activities, beginning with the boxing tournament to be held in four weeks time.

My senses were dulled as I left his office that day. Was this really an honor, or had I simply been selected to be a sacrifice in furthering the cause of Ramage House?

The imagery evoked by Sir Winston Churchill in his epic speech following the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War did not elude me. He declared:

"We shall fight them on the beaches ....we shall never surrender.....let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties....that men will say, this was their finest hour."

I considered the two possibilities that were open to me; One was to disobey Mr. Burgess, which I determined was inconceivable, or to participate in the boxing tournament.

I concluded that there was no way to escape. The latter was, I decided, the safer of the two options.

Shortly thereafter it was announced that Mr. Burgess was convening an assembly of all students belonging to Ramage House. On the day and at the appointed time the students gathered and Mr. Burgess repeated his stirring address, announced my appointment as house captain and my pending participation in the boxing tournament. He then invited others to indicate their willingness to participate. The response was not enthusiastic. This provided me with an opportunity to demonstrate my effectiveness in my newly assigned leadership role.

My attitude was not yet comparable with that of David, who, when he saw that the Israelites lacked the courage to face Goliath, uttered the words, "Is there not a cause?"1

Even though I was a reluctant enrollee, I was already gaining a feeling for the cause and developing a spark of dedication to duty.

Eventually, through encouragement, cajoling and coercion, we assembled a sufficient number of competitors to participate in the boxing tournament.

Several days after the meeting, at which my appointment was announced, I saw a growing group of students gathering around the college notice board. I walked over to see what had attracted their interest. Standing at the rear of the group and raising myself on the tip of my toes, I scanned the notices and saw one that was headed,

"The College Boxing Tournament."

Looking down the list of bouts I located my name and was dismayed to see that my opponent was a student named Mike Dewing. I knew him to be an amateur boxer with the Norwich Lads Club boxing team.

This further heightened my feelings of anxiety.

The day of the boxing tournament arrived and I traveled to college contemplating the possibilities, which were not very encouraging.

Each bout consisted of three rounds of three minutes each. All I could remember of my contest with Dewing was being hit in the face once and hitting something three times.

You can imagine my surprise when at the end of the fight the referee raised my right arm in the air, indicating that I had won the contest.

After returning to the changing room, Mike explained, that he had always found it difficult to fight against a south-paw.

I responded, "What is a south-paw?"

With a puzzled look on his face he replied,

"A boxer who leads with his right hand!"

Until that moment, he had believed that I had some previous boxing experience. Apparently my inner fears had not been transmitted to my outward appearance.

Mr. Burgess was elated with the outcome and Ramage House enjoyed an auspicious beginning for the new year.

I have observed how our interests regularly fluctuate as we grow to maturity to the extent where, that which is of supreme importance for a season may be replaced by some other activity or association that absorbs us.

This process tends to slow down when we reach adulthood but for some never seems to totally abate.

I still recall with fondness the memories of my college days but the excitement of my affiliation with Ramage House is not now what it was then.

It is noticeable how many of the causes that dominate the days of our youth are stimulated by a temporary stirring of our emotions and do not result in a lasting commitment to a particular pursuit.

Notwithstanding this phenomenon, experiences of my formative years also helped me to appreciate the value of loyalty, commitment and dependability.

I learned much later that the word commitment has a deeper meaning than I first understood.. A dictionary definition states:

"Commitment is - A decisive moral choice that involves a person in a definite course of action." 2

The word "moral" has reference to the law of God as the standard by which a decision is measured. 3

Although my understanding of the real essence of these attributes was very limited, exposure to them provided excellent preparation for my introduction to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My understanding was increased in magnitude through my desire to become a disciple of the Saviour and by making covenants.



Returning to the account of David's encounter with Goliath I am impressed by the remarkable courage he displayed in defense of the cause of Israel.

He demonstrated his commitment by standing courageously to face the giant Philistine but was not strong enough to subdue his carnal desires when he looked upon Bethsheba. It appears that he was willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his nation and yet lose his honor by yielding to temptation.

There is, it seems, a difference between courageous behavior and sustainable moral courage.

The words of a poem penned by Ella Wheeler Wilcox describes how the strength of our resolve can be tested.

"It is easy enough to be virtuous
When nothing tempts you to stray,
When without or within no voice of sin
Is luring you away.
But it is only a negative virtue
Until it is tried by fire,
And the soul that is worth the honor of earth
Is the soul that resists desire."

As is true with other aspects of our lives, strength and capacity in one sphere, does not automatically transmit to another.

Let us compare the response of David with the plight of Joseph who at age seventeen was sold into slavery by his brothers. He maintained his dignity and displayed great faith to gain the respect and trust of Potiphar. The scriptures record that Potiphar made Joseph,"..overseer over his house and all that he had he put into his hand." 4

When he was enticed by Potiphar's wife his response reflects more than a great strength of character.

You will undoubtedly recall these words, "...how then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" 5

I wondered what it was that separated such great men at their moment of decision.

Could it be that the answer is found in these words from the Book of Mormon? In 2 Nephi Chapter 3: verse 4, when referring to Joseph who was sold into Egypt, states, " And great were the covenants of the Lord which he made unto Joseph."

The prayers pronounced when administering the Sacrament provide a sacred opportunity to renew covenants and include the words, "...and always remember him.." 6

From studying the Biblical account it becomes apparent that Joseph remembered his covenants, and honored them at the time of temptation, whereas David did not.

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Carlyle who said,

"Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct."

There is a binding power associated with making sacred covenants with the Lord exceeding that which is possible in the promises of men.

When and how do we make covenants? Most often it is in connection with an ordinance. Elder John A. Widtsoe emphasized the importance of doing so in these words,

"Everyone who receives an ordinance must make a covenant, or the ordinance is not fully satisfactory." 7

There is I believe a significant difference between a commitment to live the Gospel and a covenant with the Lord to do so. A covenant includes an extra dimension of spiritual power with the potential of supernal sanction. In section seventy six of the Doctrine and Covenants, it describes how those; "...who receive the testimony of Jesus" and the saving ordinances, "And who overcome by faith and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true. 8

One of the most sacred covenants is the marriage covenant. I believe marriage between a man and a women is of divine design and not simply a man made tradition.

A recently published book entitled, "Marriage: Just a piece of Paper?" 9 explores current attitudes and in many ways apathy toward this divinely ordained institution. Many consider marriage vows to be no more than words that are spoken, a contract to be broken, not a covenant of an enduring nature. Unless one acknowledges and accepts divine investiture in such a union, pledges and promises may be more easily set aside with the words, "It just didn't work out".

These words of the poet, Helen Steiner Rice, express a sad sentiment that is becoming increasingly apparent in our society:

"The world is rife with promises that are fast and falsely spoken,
For man in his deceptive way knows his promise can be broken;
But when God makes a promise it remains forever true,
For everything God promises He unalterably will do.
And when you're disillusioned and every hope is blighted,
Recall the promises of God and your faith will be re-lighted."

There appears to be a growing tendency toward self interest and selfishness built on the belief that happiness results from having things our way when in reality the very opposite is true.

Samuel Johnson, one of the great minds of his day made the following observation;

"The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove."

The relevance of these words has not faded with time. They have a lasting application.

When we live according to the covenants we see things from a different perspective. What were once believed to be insurmountable difficulties can become opportunities for personal growth and spiritual development.

As we draw closer to the Lord we also become more sensitive to that which is, "...virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy..." 13th Article of Faith.

Elder David B. Haight provides an insight into what can happen by sharing an experience from his life.

When he and Sister Haight were returning from Scotland, where he had presided over the Scotland Edinburgh Mission, they decided take a boat to New York leaving from Southampton in England. After the first day they observed a billboard advertising the entertainment that was available. They noticed the title of a movie they had enjoyed many years before. The movie was called "Gigi".

It featured Maurice Chevalier, a French actor and singer. They remembered the film as being happy and wholesome and decided it would be nice to see it again.

As they left the theatre following the performance, and walked along the deck of the ship holding hands, Ruby said, "They changed it."

As they walked and talked about it, Ruby said,

"That is not the show we saw before. They had some scenes we did not approve of in this production that were not in the previous version!" After a prolonged discussion Elder Haight said they concluded that the movie had not been changed. But they had changed.

Such experiences provide an excellent indicator of our progress toward true discipleship.

Some may see such things to be of little significance. Does it really matter what movies we watch, the books we read, the internet we browse or the music we listen to?

In a letter to her son John, Susannah Wesley wrote;

"Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sight of God, takes from you the thirst for spiritual things, or increases the authority of your body over your mind, then that thing to you is evil.

By this test you may detect evil no matter how subtly or how plausibly temptation may be presented to you."

Her words provide us with a means to measure where we stand with regard to gospel ideals for righteous living.

If such things are left unchecked our sensitivity to spirituality will diminish until we like Laman and Lemuel are, " ... past feeling.." 10

In his publication, "The Screwtape Letters."

C. S. Lewis shares this perspective;

"The more often a person feels without acting, the less he will be able to act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel." 11

We can also content ourselves with inferior standards that initially appear to be acceptable until exposed to the test of time. An example from my own life illustrates what I mean.

Our family home had a lawn at the rear with flower borders and was enclosed with a six - foot high wooden fence which was painted white. Over time the painted surface began to deteriorate, losing its luster and peeling off in some places. A green powdery fungi also appeared in several areas. I decided that the fence needed attention.

Working on three sections initially, I first scraped and sanded the old paint, exposing the bare wood. Then I applied a wood primer, an undercoat of paint, and finally a finishing coat. The result was impressive but the exercise had taken a considerable time to complete, and I still had twelve more sections to work on. I decided the task would take more time than I could dedicate to the project, unless I could find a way to accomplish the work more quickly. So. Rather than scrape all the paint off, as I had on the first three sections, I determined to simply brush away the particles of grime, fungi and flaking paint, then smooth the surface with sandpaper before applying a single coat of paint. Initially, the finished result looked comparable to the first three sections, and I was satisfied with my efforts.

Six weeks later the paint began to flake, and the fungi reappeared on the sections of the fence which had not been given sufficient time and preparation. The first three sections that I had properly prepared, however, retained a pleasing, satiny, finished look.

We may elect to accept the easy option now and then look back in future years regretting that we had not made the extra effort and chosen to take the high road in our endeavors.

Covenants require deeper consideration and more preparation than man made agreements but when honored they will endure forever.

Moral transgression is not the only form of opposition to hinder our spiritual progression. The Prophet Joseph Smith observed:

"Such was, and always will be, the situation with the saints of God, that unless they have an actual knowledge that the course they are pursuing is according to the will of God they will grow weary in their minds and feint." 12

How can we really be sure that we are living our lives in harmony with His will and with the assurance that we are not straying off course?

In 1992, following the remodeling and refurbishment of the London Temple, there was intense media interest in the impact of the closure and re-opening on the local community. The Temple is located on the flight path to London's Gatwick Airport and one of the reporters took the initiative to interview some airline pilots who regularly navigated this route. It was remarkable to read

their responses. The light on the pinnacle of the spire had not been illuminated for over two years. They had missed this beacon as it provided them with a landmark that could be referred to with certainty on the planes final descent to the runway. Just as the light on the spire of the Temple helped chart the course for temporal travelers, so Temple covenants provide a light by which we can chart our course in the quest for exaltation.

In his epistle to the Hebrews the Apostle Paul wrote;

"...let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith...lest ye be wearied and feint in your minds." 13

It is often our outlook or attitude that restricts our ability to enjoy life's greatest opportunities. Maintaining an eternal perspective can lift our vision of possibility above the mists of darkness. The importance of wholesome thoughts is emphasized in the words of James Allen who wrote;

"Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts, your vision, or your ideals. You will become as small as your controlling desire, or as great as your dominating aspiration." 14

How can we maintain pure and positive thoughts in an environment where so much emphasis is placed on that which is unseemly and degrading?

Once more we can turn to the scriptures for guidance and enlightenment. Ponder this counsel recorded in Romans Chapter 12 verse 2:

"And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

I conclude from this that if our minds are weighed down with worldliness and our hearts are set on temporal things then the fire of faith diminishes within us. This can only be remedied through the healing power of the Spirit.

The Lord gave the following counsel; "Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly;

Knowing that the quest for moral fortitude begins in the mind... the counsel continues, "then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God;.... Qualifying for such a blessing is, I believe, the crowning accomplishment of the human soul.... and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion...." 15. To be receptive and responsive to divine revelation is the mark of a true disciple.

What greater incentive could there be for living according to the covenants?

Each time I read of Nephi the son of Helaman my admiration for him increases. Consider with me these words of blessing that were pronounced upon Nephi because of his unfaltering devotion to the Lord.

"And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will." 16

Attendant with every covenant there is a promised blessing for which one can qualify through faithful adherence.

For example, we are invited to prove the validity of the Lord's law of tithing with the assurance that if we have the faith to do so He, ".... will open the windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." 17

Revelation on the Word of Wisdom was also given for a principle with a promise expressed in words with which I am sure we are all familiar.

"And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments shall receive health in the navel and marrow in the bones;

And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures."

The Saviour also made the following promise;

"....If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." 18

Through revelation the Lord has defined what it takes and what it means to be his disciple expressed in these words;

"He that receiveth my law and doeth it, the same is my disciple; and he that saith he receiveth it and doeth it not, the same is not my disciple..." 19

Doing without becoming is not sufficient. Only through cultivating Christlike attributes can our preparation be complete, as indicated in the following familiar passage of scripture;

"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." 20

The list of blessings are not limited to those previously expressed they extend to include remembering to keep the Sabbath Day Holy, magnifying ones calling in the priesthood and every other covenant culminating in the covenant of marriage. A fulness of joy being the ultimate promise. We should also remember, "...that it is by grace that we are saved after all that we can do." 21

The sporting world has just celebrated the 28th Olympiad. Apart from the achievements of the champions there are those who did not feature in the spotlight of the medals podium, and yet in many ways may have accomplished far more.

One such account written after the 1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico titled, "The Greatest Last Place Finish",

is worthy of reflection:

"Out of the cold darkness he came.

John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania entered at the far end of the stadium, pain hobbling his every step, his leg covered by a blood stained bandage.

The winner of the marathon had been declared over an hour earlier. Only a few spectators remained. But the lone runner pressed on.

As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd roared out its appreciation. Afterwards, a reporter asked the runner why he had not retired from the race, since he had no chance of winning. He seemed confused by the question. Finally he answered:

"My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish."

What a remarkable example of human endeavor and dedication to a cause. Allegiance to our country of birth, to earthly institutions, interests and organizations is a commendable characteristic as long as they do not distract or detract from our allegiance to the Lord.

The Saviour set the example with his submissiveness to the Father. Visualize if you can the scene when Jesus was paraded before Pilate. The question was asked;

"Art thou a king then? Jesus answered. Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth." 22

Jesus was himself committed to the cause of truth. But the greater test came as he voluntarily endured the suffering in Gethsemane followed by the pain of Calvary. Which suffering was necessary to fulfill the demands of justice and essential to effect the infinite atonement. The scriptures record his petition to the Father expressed with deep affection in words of poignant prayer

"O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." 23

None of us will ever have to endure anything comparable to the Saviour's suffering.

Nevertheless each one of us will face soul stretching moments of decision in our lives. When we do so, will we remember Him and in humility exclaim " Thy will not mine be done"?

Whether we stand firm and true like Joseph, or falter and fall as did David, will I believe, largely depend on how faithfully we live according to the covenants.

Those who have fallen can, through the process of repentance, be lifted up and washed clean, through the atoning blood of Christ.

Not only did he loose the bands of temporal death for all mankind 24, it is through him that repentant souls can break free from the shackles of sin.

I believe that by living according to the covenants we answer his call to, "Come follow me." 25

I declare my testimony of his infinite atonement 26. He is the divine Redeemer the Lamb prepared from the foundation of the world 27. He is the only begotten of the Father in the flesh 28 and there is no other name or any other way whereby man can be saved. 29

I believe that we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses 30 to which I now add my personal witness of Him and of His divinity.

In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

References:

1. 1 Samuel 17: 29
2. Webster's, Third New International Dictionary. Pg. 457.
3. Noah Webster's First Edition of an American Dictionary of British Language.
4. Genesis 39: 4.
5. Genesis 39:9.
6. Doctrine & Covenants 20: 77 & 79.
7. Evidences and Reconciliations. P.196-197,
8. Doctrine & Covenants 76:: 53.
9. Katherine Anderson, Don Browning, and Brian Bover, eds., Marriage: Just a Piece of Paper? (Grand Rapids, Mi:Berd)
10. 1 Nephi 17:45.
11. The Screwtape Letters, MacMillan Publishing Co. 1982. P61.
12. Lectures on Faith Number 7.
13. Hebrews 12: 1, 2 & 3.
14. As a Man Thinketh p.42.
15. Doctrine & Covenants 121: 45 & 46
16. Helaman 10: 4 & 5.
17. Malachi 3: 10.
18. St. John 8:31 & 32.
19. Doctrine & Covenants 41: 5.
20. John 13:35.
21. 2 Nephi 25:23.
22. John 18:37
23. Matthew 26:39
24. Alma 11:42
25. Luke 18:22
26. Alma 34:10
27. Revelations 13:8
28. John 3:16; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.197-198
29. Mosiah 3:17
30. Hebrews 12:1