Covenants: The Union of Mr. Independence & Miss Commitment


Victor Ludlow

Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

March 30, 2006
Victor Ludlow
Visiting professor of religion

Friends, brothers and sisters in paradise—ALOHA!

My wife mentioned that we are game players. One game we like to play with family and friends is called 'ImagineIff'. In the game set-up, you select the names of a few people, such as those playing the game, famous personalities or family members, and write those names around the game board. Then depending upon which name the marker lands, you all answer the same question about that person from a randomly selected card. For example, 'ImagineIff' President Eric Shumway were a boat - what would he be: 1- an ocean liner, 2- a yacht, 3- an oil tanker, 4- a tugboat, 5- an aircraft carrier, or 6- an outrigger? The object of the game is to select the most popular answer others would choose and to move your game-piece along the board to victory. However, we often find ourselves distracted as we discuss and justify why we have selected a particular answer. To return to the example, I could imagine Pres. Shumway as an aircraft carrier because an aircraft carrier is like a small complex city with all its members working under the leadership of a dedicated captain to fulfill a special mission.

For the next few minutes I would like you to 'Imagine If' you were in a special, favorable situation and how you would relate to it. 'Imagine If' you found yourself on a beautiful tropical Pacific island. Previous occupants had left cultivated fields, livestock and fine buildings for you. In fact, you had a great beach-house on both the windward and leeward sides of the island along with a gorgeous cabin near waterfalls and hot springs in the mountains. All three homes were outfitted with well-stocked food pantries, modern appliances, fancy entertainment and game centers, marvelous collections of books, art and music, and great exercise and sports facilities, including the best surfing, scuba and camping equipment. Nobody since Adam in the Garden of Eden had it so good.

You had everything you needed to live and enjoy life - and it was all yours - alone. Yes, no-one else lived on the island. No-one else who would mess-up your stuff and interrupt your schedule. No-one else who would tell you to pick up your clothes or to clean up your bedroom. No-one else who would want you to satisfy their needs or desires. How long would you enjoy your life alone in paradise? Although it might be nice to have time to explore and enjoy the place in solitude, I sense that you would soon desire some companionship. I'm sure those of you who are married would immediately want your spouse to join you. Would any of you want additional family members and friends to come and live on your paradise island, especially if once on the island they would not be allowed to leave? Would you have any special expectations or commitments that you would have these people adhere to? Would their presence be an enhancement or a distraction of the quality of life on your paradise island? For those of you who are unmarried, how, where and when would you find your special companion? And, perhaps even more significant, would this person want to come and live alone with you on your paradise island? These are some questions and alternatives you could consider if you were to 'Imagine If' your earthly life could be experienced in a true paradise. Father Adam found himself in a similar situation when he was alone in the Garden of Eden. It does not appear that he even considered the questions of companionship and family when he found himself alone in paradise. He knew no other options and he remembered no other existence outside of his brief life in the Garden. Although Adam was left alone for awhile, we do not know if he had much time or the inclination to become lonely. We do learn from the Scriptures and the temple, however, that it was not good for him to be left alone and thus Heavenly Father provided a companion and helpmate for him.

And why was it not good for Adam to be left free and independent in paradise? Let us discuss two reasons why there is a far better life to be enjoyed above and beyond living alone in paradise. First of all, it is not wise that a person remain alone or solitary - we stagnate and risk becoming entirely focused on our own little world. Good parents, teachers, mentors, friends, role-models, and family members help us learn, grow, and make better decisions than we would ever do if we were left entirely on our own. Above all, the good companionship of a 'helpmate' provides valuable support in our personal path towards perfection.

Adam must have liked his companion relationship because when Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden after partaking of the forbidden fruit, Adam had a choice to stay alone in paradise or to follow Eve by eating the same fruit and leaving the garden together with her. He chose to leave with her! Somehow he felt it was better to live with a loving companion in a lowly, telestial world than to live alone in a paradisical, terrestrial world. We now understand that a deep, intimate, productive eternal companionship is not only good for this earth life but it also will characterize those living in the highest degree of the celestial realms.

And the second reason that it is not good to remain alone in paradise is because there is a better quality life than paradise that God's children should eventually enjoy. Granted, a paradise-like existence is better than the 'hell-on-earth' that we sometimes experience in this life. But even if Adam and Eve had stayed in the Garden of Eden, their paradisical lifestyle was just the halfway stage between a telestial existence and the potential glory of God's celestial kingdom. There was a more glorified state of physical existence to be enjoyed than the Garden of Eden. And why should one be satisfied with something inferior when something more superior could be enjoyed? Why be satisfied with a basic college education when you could have a superior university one? Why be satisfied with the cool light of the moon when you could have the brightness and warmth of the sun? Why be satisfied with a healthy but imperfect body living the good paradisical life when you could have a much more perfect immortal body enjoying eternal celestial life with family and friends? To move above a paradisical existence and to enjoy bliss in the heavenly realms, we need to follow Heavenly Father's plan of progression and happiness. To return to those celestial realms with our renewed and improved resurrected bodies, we must follow the path of righteousness laid out by our Savior. Along the path, we progress upwards upon spiritual stepping stones and we pass through required ordinance gateways as we make and then keep sacred commitments, called covenants, with God. God's gospel plan requires that we make covenants with him to serve others. And to enjoy 'eternal life' in the very highest degree of God's celestial kingdom, we also need to enter into covenants with a special someone in the new and everlasting covenant of temple marriage. To be sealed with our spouse in an eternal marriage, we need to commit ourselves with covenant vows and then we must adhere to these solemn promises. Covenants mark the path and open the gate into the celestial kingdom - a society of glory, beauty, peace and harmony far better than life on any paradise island. To appreciate and honor the covenants we have made or will make with God and others, we should first understand the nature of covenants:

A covenant is a solemn agreement between people (or between a person and God).

A covenant relationship begins when two (or more) people come together, develop trust in each other and make commitments for the future.

They 'seal' their agreement with a symbolic act (such as signing a contract, shaking hands, or sharing a kiss) -- a special physical, outward sign of their personal, internal commitment.

The relationship develops through good times and bad, often with the assistance of others, hopefully enduring for the mutual benefit of all involved parties.Solemn commitments or covenants could document a professional business relationship or describe an espousal marriage relationship - they definitely define our sacred gospel relationship with God.

Let us be a little more precise and discuss what it means "to covenant"? Entering into a covenant is an active process. The ancient Hebrew phrase is karat be'rith, which literally means 'to cut a bond'. This phrase carries some strong irony. 'To cut' means to sever, slice or separate. 'To bond' means to join, cement, or connect. So, karat be'rith could be translated as 'to sever a joining' or 'to separate a connection'. As I thought about the process of cutting or taking apart something and then bonding or connecting it back together again, I came up with a few interesting examples where a certain amount of separation precedes a stronger coming back together:

a carpenter cutting pieces of lumber and then joining them together to make a strong, beautiful bookcase.

a young adult separating from family and friends and bonding in marriage with a chosen eternal friend.

Latter-day Saint converts being in the world but not of it (or 'bound' to it) as they choose to leave a worldly lifestyle and unite with God's children in Christ's Church and kingdom on earth. I can also think of two unique examples of 'separation and bonding' that build dedicated servants of God - one during biblical times and one in our day - the Nazarite and the full-time missionary. A Nazarite, such as Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist, was literally a 'separatist'. The Hebrew root nazar means 'to separate' - both to separate from certain practices and to separate unto some type of dedicated activity. The Nazarite, who could be male or female, was to separate from three things; 1, partaking of any part of the fruit of the vine (such as grapes, raisins, juice or wine, etc.); 2, touching the dead; and 3, cutting or trimming their hair. They were then 'to separate unto' or connect to a pre-determined period of learning, activity or special service dedicated to the Lord and Israel. In a similar pattern, LDS full-time missionaries have to separate from certain elements usually experienced by young adults (such as family gatherings, social activities with special friends of the opposite persuasion, dancing, popular music and entertainment) and then commit themselves to the missionary lifestyle and dress standards for the 'best two years' of their life (or, at least, the best two years up until then). In either case, the Nazarite and LDS missionary separate themselves from worldly activities and then bond themselves to the Lord and His service. This separating from the natural world and then connecting to more spiritual activities accurately describes how we enter a covenant relationship with God.

First, one separates from heavenly parents as we leave their celestial realms and come here to earth to establish our independent identity. Then after growing up in our earthly family environment, we leave home for our university experience. Indeed, you young, single adults are, for the first time in your entire existence, a complete independent being with your pre-mortal intelligence and spirit now present in a mature human adult form. For eons of eternity you first existed as an unorganized intelligence, which had no beginning. (See Abraham 3:18; D&C 93:29.) Using Abraham's terminology, your intelligence was then organized and many thousands of years ago you were present as a spirit being in the pre-mortal councils with Elohim and Jehovah. (Abraham 3:22.) Some twenty years ago, you were born and, since then, your infant body has finally matured into young adulthood. To emphasize again - for the first time in your eternal existence, you are a complete independent adult being with intelligence, spirit and flesh. You are now truly free to 'be yourself' and to act on your own as you establish your own personal destiny.

And now that you have separated from God's presence and become an independent, complete adult, you have the challenge of also separating from the natural, materialistic, immoral and self-centered behavior of many of your peers. You also have an opportunity to re-connect with Heavenly Father through a new and everlasting covenant relationship made efficacious through the power and atonement of Jesus Christ, as witnessed by the Holy Spirit. You would then be prepared and worthy to move from this telestial realm into the terrestrial existence of paradise as found in the post-mortal world (or, if you live long enough, the terrestrial life during the millennial era). Then ultimately you should move into the celestial realm of God's heavenly kingdom.

To move from where we are towards those higher future realms, it will be helpful to understand some essential elements and the basic steps of a covenant. To help explain them, I'm going to use two fictional friends that you might identify on Oahu - Surfer Sammy and Sargent Samantha. As you remember, we earlier reviewed how the ancient Hebrew phrase for 'to make a covenant' literally means 'to cut a bond' or 'to separate a connection.' Let us create a simple chart to see how the opposite actions of separation and connection might come together in a hypothetical covenant relationship.

SURFER SAMMY represents the separation process as an individual seeks for personal freedom. Surfer Sammy is a 'free spirit' type who is known as 'Mr. Independence.' His free will attitude is allowed and even encouraged by Heavenly Father as he has given us the gift of Agency, one of the key gospel principles.

SARGENT SAMANTHA represents the connection action as an individual seeks for a moral obligation. Sargent Samantha is an 'authority figure' type who is known as 'Miss Commitment." Her desire for legitimacy is supported and encouraged by Heavenly Father as he seals our promises through his Authority, another key gospel principle. Agency and Authority are often seen as strong opposites. But these opposites are each necessary in making covenants. Agency or freedom is the 'capacity to exercise choice or one's free will.' One must have agency in order to freely enter into a covenant. Authority or obligation is the 'constraining power of a promise or sense of duty.' Authority must be present to guarantee the validity of a covenant. Let us look at how the opposite actions of separation (or agency) and bonding (or authority) come together in a lasting union as we discuss the seven common steps of covenants. We'll let Surfer Sammy be the spokesman for Agency and Sargent Samantha will be the advocate for Authority and I'll stay between the two as I present the seven basic elements of the baptismal covenant, the primary gospel ordinance. I will introduce the seven steps and Surfer Sammy and Sargent Samantha will help explain them from their opposite perspectives.

Sargent Samantha and Surfer Sammy

Scholars call the first step of a covenant the Introduction, or the Preface or Prologue. Since a covenant is a solemn agreement between two or more parties, this Introduction is where we first identify the individuals involved in the covenant process. We need to know who the key parties of the covenant are. Surfer Sammy says "Yes, we must remember that each individual is a free agent who, as a mature child of God, can choose for him-or-herself whether or not to enter into a covenant agreement."

Sargent Samantha responds and reminds us that an authorized representative of God, such as a prophet or priesthood leader, must also be present to supervise any covenant ordinance. Although the baptismal covenant is between us and God, a proper priesthood leader represents God in the interview process as we make our commitments with him. Thus, in the Introduction of the key people involved, we have identified three key individuals - God, his representative, and us. Other important involved parties will later become part of the covenant process.

The second step of a covenant is called the Historical Context. This is where the person to be baptized must first learn about the purpose of life, the fall and the Atonement, the message of the restoration and the gospel, and so forth. This instruction helps the baptismal candidate appreciate the historical events and the doctrinal foundation of the covenant. Sargent Samantha will be quick to tell us that this earth life experience is a probationary period where we learn how to return to Heavenly Father's presence. "We must obey his divine commandments as we follow the prophets" she tells us. Surfer Sammy likes to highlight the many opportunities for personal choice that we have had in our past experiences with God. After all, Sammy's personal motto in life is "I want to be free; just let me be me!" In our pre-mortal existence, he reminds us, we were free to accept Heavenly Father's plan of salvation and we were free to support and follow Jehovah as he advocated God's plan and fought against Satan's rebellion. With both Samantha and Sammy providing helpful information, we learn the ancient and more modern Historical Context of the baptismal covenant. Now we are ready to move from the past to the present and from theory or doctrine to reality and application. The third common element of a covenant is the Stipulations. Like the 'fine print' of a contract, this is where the general and specific expectations of the different covenant parties are laid out. The commandments of God include physical, moral, and spiritual laws that God wants us to commit to obey as we are baptized. For our 'free spirit' Surfer Sammy, this is a hard step. He wants to say, "I don't want to make any promises that I don't know for sure that I can keep." Although he recognizes that there are certain physical laws in force as he rides the waves, he is not as willing to accept the validity of even more important moral and spiritual laws in his life. This is where some good gospel teaching and some strong testimony and some listening to the Spirit is necessary for Sammy and others to commit to divine commandments. Sargent Samantha, on the other hand, applauds the importance of laws and commandments in our lives. She has the desire and self-discipline to be obedient. However, she struggles with God's stipulation that we must respect each person's right to choose for him-or-herself. Her personal motto, after all, is "I know what's best for you - do it!" She is learning that we should not force laws and covenants upon others! So, understanding all the implications of these Stipulations is a difficult step for both Sammy and Samantha. They and we need encouragement to accept all of God's expectations. As we do so, we are ready for the actual baptismal ordinance.

The fourth and pivotal step of a covenant is the Symbolic Act. Some type of an external, physical act is necessary to verify our internal, personal commitment. For the sale of some used clothing or electronic equipment, the symbolic act could be as simple as 'shaking hands on it." For something as precious and eternal as baptism, a specific ritual is required. This is where the different personalities of Sargent Samantha and Surfer Sammy come into strong play upon the baptismal candidate. Samantha, Miss Commitment, is strong in her opinions. "Why hesitate? Don't wait!" is her mantra. She keeps asking "What have you against being baptized?" On the opposite extreme, Sammy, Mr. Independence, firmly admonishes the person, "If you have any reservations, it is better to pull back and wait!" "Be sure you are ready for this serious commitment" is his mantra. Actually, both opinions have elements of truth and value for the baptismal candidate. Once Samantha's and Sammy's concerns are resolved, the person is indeed ready to be baptized. The fifth element of a covenant quickly follows. It is the Rewards and/or Punishments of the covenant contract. Depending upon the adherence to or the breaking of the covenant requirements, certain consequences are sure to follow. In the Scriptures, these results are called 'Blessings and Curses.' In today's politically correct language they are labeled as 'incentives and penalties.' Whatever you call them, either positive or negative consequences will follow as the covenant is either kept or broken. Surfer Sammy learns to accept this because he has seen how good consistent effort with his surfboard is rewarded with success while poor actions produce a variety of failures. Sargent Samantha agrees and follows-up with a favorite saying of hers: "Poor Preparation Precedes Potential Problems." Both Sammy and Samantha recognize that physical, moral and spiritual laws have their consequences. Almost any kind of action or activity has both inherent values and also potential risks associated with it. Although the Surfer and the Sargent may approach a covenant action from different perspectives, they both recognize that Rewards and Punishments follow our actions. They also appreciate that life should not be experienced in a passive mode. One should be active in a covenant relationship with God, even if it is risky, because activity is far better than doing nothing at all.

The sixth covenant step involves others, even many others, as Witnesses become a part of the covenant process. Witnesses not only testify that the covenants have been properly made, they also sustain the covenant parties as they provide help and encouragement to honor and keep the covenants. Sargent Samantha represents the Church leaders, especially the local stake presidents and bishops who are the authority figures in our lives. In their callings as 'judges in Israel,' they witness our actions and help us along the path of righteousness and service. They become our mentors and guides. But we often need more help along the way. Surfer Sammy represents those who bring a free will offering of service. Family, friends and Church members may not have a specific church calling to serve and sustain us - but they do it anyway out of their love and concern for us. A combination between those who serve through a calling and those who provide free will service should be found in our home teachers. If they catch the vision of their potential power in our lives, they go far beyond the monthly visits and messages to continuous acts of teaching, testifying, and service. With the synergy of many Witnesses or co-workers serving in unison, love and power, we bring to pass much good in the lives of the Saints in Zion.

The final critical element of a covenant is in the Perpetuation of the covenant relationship. A true covenant is not just made for the here and now. It is just the new beginning of what should be an everlasting commitment. Did you hear that - a true covenant is always new and everlasting. It is vibrant and continual. It is dynamic and perpetual. It is a part of what we often call the 'fifth principle' of the gospel as we 'endure to the end.' To help us endure to the end, Surfer Sammy constantly reminds us to 'love thy neighbor' while Sargent Samantha constantly admonishes us to 'keep the commandments.' They both want us to remain faithful to our covenants to the end.

One helpful way to keep our covenants is to regularly review and recommit to our covenant promises. The baptismal covenant is perpetuated and constantly renewed through the sacrament covenant. All seven covenant elements are found in the sacrament service as we come together, sing a hymn that places us in an ancient historical setting, agree to certain commitments, partake of symbolic emblems, receive promised blessings, witness with each other by partaking of the bread and water, and renew our vows with God. As we partake of the sacrament emblems, we covenant to 'always remember him [Jesus Christ].' The word 'always' is a contraction of the English phrase 'all the way.' This means that 'all the way' through our daily activities, weekly schedules, yearly events, and lifelong pursuits we should remember the Lord Jesus Christ and the truths he has taught, the deeds he has done, and the perfect being he has become so that we can follow him as we honor our covenants.

Covenants go beyond helping us know Jesus Christ and his commandments. Covenants go beyond helping us keep his commandments and teachings. Covenants help us become like him and our heavenly parents. Covenants help make us better children of God, ready to live a celestial life better than any paradise on this earth. As we talked about Surfer Sammy and Sargent Samantha, did you notice how covenants made both of them better children of God. Surfer Sammy has learned that always putting off making a commitment or a choice is in itself a choice - with lasting consequences! All choices or non-choices have consequences, and he has found out that he would rather make his own choices early so that he can enjoy the opportunities and blessings of service and obedience. He knows that the lasting, eternal rewards that he wants comes through entering into and keeping covenants. Sargent Samantha has learned that demanding commitment and action from others will not produce the lasting success that she desires. Success is often defined as a combination of 'productivity and morale.' The best success comes when people are free to act with their own choices as they commit themselves to a noble cause. As Sammy and Samantha progressed in their covenant understanding, they became wiser and more committed and loving.

So what have we learned? At first we had the 'free spirit' and the 'authority figure' in conflict with each other. But as they understood the true nature and value of covenants, they were brought together! And can we identify at least one essential part of the gospel that brought Mr. Independence and Miss Commitment together? Indeed, what is the key principle that brought the opposites of Agency and Authority together? It is an all important gospel principle that also begins with the letter 'A' - Atonement.

The Atonement brings the seemingly opposites of Agency (or freedom/independence) and Authority (or obligation/commitment) together in wonderful harmony. The Atonement brings all the covenant parties together as they are willing to accept the redemptive role and follow the exemplary role model of Jesus Christ in their lives. As we make and regularly renew our baptismal covenant through the emblems of the sacrament, we will continually take Christ's name upon us, always remember him, and keep his commandments. This weekly connection to his Atonement keeps us on the path to the celestial kingdom and eternal life where we can not only live with Heavenly Father, our Heavenly Mother, and our Elder Brother but we can also live like them with wisdom, love, and virtue.

And what brings it all together - the gospel principles of Agency, Authority and the Atonement in a covenant relationship - is the wisdom, power and plan of God the Father as manifest through the works and sacrifice of Jesus Christ and as sanctified by the witness and purification of the Holy Ghost. All three members of the Godhead work in harmony and unity to bring about our eternal life and happiness as we evolve from our telestial existence and prepare for our own post-earthly paradise. Eventually, the covenant path will lead us past paradise into the heavenly celestial realms. But we need to exercise our will, respect God's authority and then enter into sacred covenants in order to connect to these divine powers and gifts. This is our choice and it is my hope, prayer, and testimony that as we choose to enter and keep our covenants - we will enjoy life eternal far better than any paradise on earth. 'Imagine If' this is your choice and choose wisely to honor your covenants with God.