Finding Grace

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Cynthia Compton

Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

May 25, 2006
Cynthia Compton
Special Instructor in the History Department

Have you ever played the word association game where you were given a word, and then you were supposed to give the first word you associated with it. If I were to give you the word "parent," would you think of the word "child"? Suppose I were to give you the word "husband." What word would you associate with it? How about if I gave you the word "repentance"? What word would you automatically think of? I am afraid that for years, when I heard the word "repentance," I automatically thought of the word "sin." I conceptualized repentance as something negative because it meant that I had let Heavenly Father down. This attitude was reinforced in an Institute religion class I took in college where one of my instructors stated in unequivocal terms that if we knowingly did something wrong it was a sin. This troubled me, because although I truly wanted to do what was right, I had habits and weaknesses that did not go away overnight. I asked my teacher what to make of such weaknesses. Was I sinning when I lost my temper even though I was earnestly endeavoring to let go of that weakness?

This morning I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on this issue. I will testify of and celebrate how integral our weaknesses are to the plan of salvation. What I will suggest is that as we wrestle with our weaknesses, we can forge a loving relationship with God, realize our dependence on him, and become more like him. So today I will explore how our weaknesses help us find God's grace.

When I was a little girl I assumed that when I grew up I would become a mother. Shortly before Chad and I were married he bought a used Volvo station wagon, buying it not only because its price fit our very limited budget but also because we anticipated filling it with a baby and baby paraphernalia. However, that used car died a miserable death years before we ever had a baby. For thirteen years we could not get pregnant. Chad and I decided early on that we weren't going to let that get in the way of our happiness, and it didn't.

However, it did change things. For example, I found myself struggling with who I was. If I wasn't a mother, what did it mean to be a woman? One day when I felt particularly identity-challenged, Chad suggested that I go back to school and study the history of women. I loved that idea, and so embarked on three years of studying the lives of women from the past. While I focused on women in American history, my studies gave me an increased appreciation for women in the ancient scriptures.

One of the reasons, I love studying the worlds of the nomadic Patriarchs, the village judges, and the urbanized monarchies of David and Solomon in the Old Testament is that those who chronicled the lives of these great prophets showed little hesitation in recording the weaknesses of these men and their families. Yet we are told that many of these prophets were among the great spirits that resided with God in the preexistence and that they were chosen to be prophets because of their greatness (Abraham 3: 22-23), and despite their weaknesses.

One of the women that I most connect to in this ancient record of wrestling with weaknesses is Sarah. Like many of the women in ancient scriptures, her life is recorded primarily in relationship to her husband Abraham. In particular, I can relate to her laughter after years of waiting when she found out she was pregnant in her old age. Like Sarah, we prayed for many years to have children sent to our home. Still, Chad was incredulous when I told him I thought was pregnant. After I "passed" the store-bought pregnancy test, Chad insisted that I look on the package to find its reliability. When I couldn't find it, we rushed over to Safeway to buy a new test to confirm what the first test had hinted at.

Thus it is with empathy that I can imagine some of the reasons Sarah laughed when she discovered that she was pregnant in her old age. Her identity as a woman had been challenged by her infertility at a time when childbearing weighed heavily in society's measure of a woman's worth. Yet when she finally found herself pregnant, her response was complex. The Biblical scholar, Robert Alter, translated Sarah's response in the following way: "Laughter has God made me, Whoever hears will laugh at me." (Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, 97). In explaining Sarah's response, Atler wrote that it "is wonderfully suited to the complexity of the moment. It may be laughter, triumphant joy, that Sarah experiences. . . . But in her very exultation, she could well feel . . . [that] all who hear of it may laugh . . . at her" (97).

In a sense, this story works as a metaphor for the complexity of womanhood and of mortality.

In my own case, at the very time I found I was pregnant I had recently graduated with my Masters Degree and was planning on embarking on a Ph.D. I found myself wanting both an education and motherhood but I wasn't sure I could do both without hurting the child I was expecting. My feelings were not monolithic but full of layers and complexity.

There is another woman, named Sariah, who exemplifies how our faith can grow as we wrestle with our emotions and fears. My image of Sariah, the wife of Lehi, for years was shaped by Arnold Friberg's picture of a careworn, tired woman huddled next to her husband on a boat. It is only recently that I have come to think of her as a role model full of life and vitality.

The first time we learn about her is in the first verse in the Book of Mormon, where Nephi starts his record by testifying of the goodness of both of his parents. He also tells us that she accompanied Lehi from Jerusalem (1 Ne 2:5). Again, I take great comfort in the fact that this good woman, who raised two of the great prophets of the Americas, was not perfect.

After the Lord asked Nephi and his brothers to return to Jerusalem to get the plates from Laban, the danger of the quest combined with the delays Nephi and the brothers met meant that Sariah struggled between her faith in God and her fears for her children. I think that this struggle illuminates for us the beauty of the plan of salvation. Sariah was a woman of faith, she believed in God enough to leave her home and to let her sons embark on a dangerous task. Lehi's dream of the tree of life where he saw his wife partake of the fruit that signified her tasting the love of God suggests that if she were here today, she could probably stand at this pulpit and say: "I have a testimony, I know that Lehi is a prophet of God, and I know that God lives" (1 Nephi 8:16, 11: 25).
Here is the blessedness of mortality. Our knowledge of God and the process of truly believing what he says comes through experimenting with the words and promptings that He gives us. Sariah was faithful, she believed. But she most likely also knew Laban and feared his greed and power. Did she lay in the tent at night unable to sleep worrying over her sons' safety? Was it on a particularly sleep-deprived day, feeling cranky and out of sorts, with fear for her sons stalking her, that she snapped at her husband: "You are a visionary man." Did she weep as she imagined her sons languishing in prison or lost in the desert without water and food? But there she was "experimenting" with the word of God (Alma 32). When her sons returned she exclaimed: "Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them" (1 Nephi 5: 8). She could have attributed their return to the cleverness of her sons, but she turned to God, rejoiced, and her faith was sustained and expanded.

The Apostle Paul tells us something of this process. He prayed for the ability to be able to "comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length, and depth, and height" of God's love (Ephesians 3: 18). We may know that God lives, but that is not all that God asks of us. He asks us to apply that knowledge in our daily lives so that we learn of the breadth and length of his love. Sariah knew enough of God's goodness to leave her home, her comfort food, her friends, and her family. Yet in the wilderness she wandered in she was offered an opportunity to add depth to her faith and knowledge.

Isn't this how it is. Before Chad and I had children, we knew everything there was to know about raising children. When friends were having problems with teenagers, we were there to help with free advice. Babies, no problem. I found that I was generally one of the most patient people I knew, particularly with other people's children. But almost immediately after I had Marissa I discovered there were serious limitations to my patience. Shortly after Marissa was born, we were awakened by her one night (after several nights with not enough sleep). She was hot, with a high fever. I found myself irritated, scared, and fatigued beyond anything I had ever felt before. Chad and I found ourselves quite unsure of what to do. We feared that her high fever would lead to brain convulsions and ultimately brain damage. We put her in a cool bath. She screamed louder and her temperature dropped only slightly. I hardly knew what to do and found myself angry at Chad for not knowing any more than I did. Like Sariah, I was afraid for my child. I was absolutely exhausted and found myself snapping at my sick baby and my exhausted husband. I remember thinking: "I need my mother. She is more patient and knows more than I do."

Like my mother, I learned slowly, line upon line, how to be more patient with babies. But I was shocked, I tell you, shocked, when I discovered that being patient with Marissa and Elle as eight-years old is different than being patient with a baby. And being patient with a 13-year old is different than being patient with an eight-year old. As my children get older, I add layers and layers to the depth and breadth of my patience.

One day when I was walking home from a jog on the beach, I felt the heavy burden of my weaknesses and how they negatively impact my children. Although I try to repent of my sins as soon as I see them, I also see that my repentance does not mean that they are automatically healed from my errors in mothering.
It was on that walk that I had an epiphany. I am like Sariah. My love for Heavenly Father and my children motivates me to seek God and repent. Heavenly Father sent me these children knowing full well that I am not perfect. He knew that I would bequeath many of my insecurities and pathologies to my own children. But our love for our children can motivate us to let go of our weaknesses, to turn to God for strength, and to add to the depth of our faith. Moroni tells us: "And if men [and women] come unto me I will show unto them their weakness, I give unto [them] weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all . . . that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27).

This is what Sariah did. It appears that she saw her fears for what they were. She humbled herself and turned to the Lord for strength. And he made her strong. He taught her in the wilderness. She had enough faith to walk onto a ship made by Nephi, who had never made a ship before, and then cross a mighty ocean.

She also had faith when dealing with rebellious sons. I have faith in free agency. I believe in it, particularly when it is my own. But I also believe that most of us wrestle with the principle of free agency when we see someone we love making decisions that are hurtful to themselves and others. Certainly, Sariah and Lehi faced this testimony building time with Laman, Lemuel. It is recorded that the pleadings and tears of Sariah did not soften the hearts of these older brothers who physically threatened Nephi (1 Nephi 18:19).

And I imagine that Lehi and Sariah loved Laman and Lemuel even as these sons willfully rebelled. I think it is no accident that Lehi is the prophet who taught us how important free agency is (2 Nephi 2: 11, 26, 27). It is he who wrote of the necessity of opposition, of people choosing to act and not be acted upon. How many nights did he lay awake and talk and pray with the Lord about his sons. How many times did he and Sariah speak of what to do with these sons who chose to physically threaten family members?

It was not just Sariah and Lehi that struggled with Laman and Lemuel. It appears that Nephi did too. In first Nephi, he rarely appears to wrestle with feelings of inadequacy or resentment; however, in second Nephi we find an older Nephi wandering through an inner wilderness. We can only surmise that when he asked why he was angry at his enemies, he was referring to his brothers. Did he feel hurt that after all those years of frankly forgiving his brothers and of trying to help them, Laman and Lemuel continued to accuse and threaten him. While scriptures are rarely formulaic, Nephi gives us the pattern of how to find grace in the midst of our weaknesses. First, he lists all that the Lord did for him:

"My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep. He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh. He hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me. Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the night time. . . ."

Here is the key, like Sariah, Nephi rejoiced in how the Lord blessed him and then he then sought for grace. "O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow. . . . Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God and the rock of my salvation" (2 Ne. 5: 20-30).

In tribute to Sariah and her family who taught these great truths, I would like to draw on the words of her son, the great prophet Jacob. He said: The Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condensations unto the children of men, that we have power to do . . . things." (Jacob 4:7)

I would like to speak of a personal experience where I felt God's grace, his condescension, and in turn how He gave me the power to make progress on one of my weaknesses. Sometimes I get my feelings hurt easily and find it hard to forgive other people. Even though I have found it hard to forgive, I have always wanted to be able to forgive. Once when I was having a particularly hard time forgiving someone, I made it a point of earnest and extended prayer. I alternated between pleading with the Lord to take away my hard feelings to just gritting my teeth and deciding I would forgive. I would just do it. Neither of these tactics worked. I was still burdened with anger and resentment. Finally, I humbled myself and I asked the Lord why it was that I could not forgive. He answered my prayer with one of the most wondrous moments I ever experienced. I felt embraced in his love. Part of what made that love so powerful was that at the very time I felt His love I also felt how clearly he saw my weaknesses. While the answer to my prayer was not in words, what was communicated to me was something like this: "You are not capable of forgiving right now. But if you will come to me I will tutor you and guide you and help you learn how. But you must do it my way and on my timetable." It was kind of strange because I found myself somewhat embarrassed that the Lord told me I wasn't at that time capable of extending forgiveness. But that feeling was only momentary. The feeling that has stayed with me all these years is gratitude for God's knowledge of where I was at, his love for me (even though I was in that place), and for the tutoring and grace he has extended to me. I am grateful that He did not take my anger away in a moment but that He cared enough to teach me. By doing so, I learn more of the depth, the breadth, and length of forgiveness both for myself and others.

Today when I hear the word "repentance" I think of the word "rejoice" and the word "grace." Repentance is not just about sins of omission and commission, it is manifestation of God's love for us. The gift of repentance that God offers us is the ability to experiment with his word. When he asks us to forgive, He gives us room to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Just as my Marissa and Elle could not learn to walk without falling down, we cannot learn to forgive without falling down. Repentance is about each day turning our heart to God and asking him to tutor us.

It is for these reasons that I stand before you this day and give thanks for my weaknesses. I am also so thankful that Lord blessed me with children, not only because I so love hanging out with them but also because my love for them gives me the courage to look see my weaknesses and the courage to recognize that I cannot heal myself on my own. Truly Heavenly Father was wise in knowing that in sending us children we are motivated to transcend our habits and sins by turning to him. I give thanks that at those moments I can rely on Heavenly Father to guide me and strengthen me. However, my gratitude for my weaknesses is rooted in my faith in the grace of God. Without that grace, our weaknesses would be our downfall. I can only be healed, my children can only be healed, and you can only be healed of these weaknesses if we, like Sariah, repent and seek the grace that comes from Christ's atoning sacrifice.