Don't try to follow all the Lord's counsel at once
There are many things in our day to day, secular lives that we “ought” to do. Like putting the junk mail in the recycling bin instead of the trash can. Or opting for the salad over the meat lover’s pizza. But we often don’t do what we know we should. Why? Because we’re lazy?
Maybe. But I think it’s mostly because we see these “suggestions” as optional– like “extra credit” in life. They are something to strive for when time permits, but not something so important we should bend over backward trying to make it work. Trying out all the little “suggestions” in life all at once is impossible, and we know it. So we accept the fact that we simply can’t lose 50 pounds and reduce our carbon footprint and double-pay our mortgage and get that promotion and spend more time with family and learn a new language and write that novel all at the same time. Not everything is worth the effort right now. We have to focus on what’s most important (provide for our families, etc) and then decide which “suggestions” we want to focus on with our remaining attention. In other words, when it comes to secular matters, we are realistic and we prioritize.
But wait. We are faced with the same deluge of suggestions about the spiritual matters of our lives, too. Every talk in General Conference contains a multitude of such suggestions. They always start with “I invite,” “I urge,” “Let us all,” and “May we try.” If you’re like me, each time you hear these invitations to improve, they sting a bit. Each one represents one more effort to be made, and one more reminder of how we are failing at spiritual life.
So, we try to fix everything all at once. We try to strengthen our testimony of fasting while practicing patience with our kids and attempt to force ourselves to feel the Spirit during Church while striving to magnify that nursery calling like a telescope. And then our Stake President invites us to read the Book of Mormon from start to finish by the end of next month. But we’ve been taking Pres. Nelson’s prophetic invitation to go through the Topical Guide and study the life of Christ, so now we just have to make personal scripture study 3 hours long each day which means we need to reschedule our Family History work for 5 AM…
You see where I’m going with this. You know how that ends because you’ve likely tried it. At some point in your life, when you were feeling particularly jazzed after a Youth Conference or EFY or receiving a calling or something, you felt, like the people of King Benjamin did, that you had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). And so you tried to run a spiritual marathon and check off all the boxes. Maybe you made it a few weeks. Maybe only a few hours. However long you lasted, you ultimately burned out, dropped all the balls you were juggling, and felt like a failure.
So here’s an idea: if we are so good at being selective in how we prioritize the overwhelming deluge secular good ideas, why don’t we do the same for the spiritual advice we receive?
Suggestion? Or commandment?
Hopefully, at this point, spiritual alarm bells are going off in your head right now. You should be saying to yourself something like:
Wait a minute, buster. That spiritual advice you mentioned is far more than “good ideas.” It’s scripture! It’s commandments! It’s the mind and will of the Lord. Just because they don’t thunder it down from Sinai doesn’t make it any less of a responsiblity. After all, we’ve been taught: “The prophet can receive revelation on any matter—temporal or spiritual… The prophet does not have to say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ to give us scripture.” “Buffet Christianity doesn’t fly in this Church. “A prophet is not one who displays a smorgasbord of truth from which we are free to pick and choose. And even if some of what is said doesn’t represent the mind and will of the Lord, who are you to try and classify which of the counsel from General Conference is a commandment and which is just a suggestion?”
And you’d be right. We can’t categorize spiritual counsel into the “commandment” category or the “suggestion” category. Because to the Lord, _there is no difference. Check out this bit of counsel from Jesus Christ to the Nephites when He visited them:
And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently.
– 3 Nephi 23:1
See what He did there? Christ first suggested that the Nephite Saints study Isaiah, then upgraded His suggestion to a full-fledged commandment. But why? Why even bother saying they “ought” to do it? Why not just command them to read Isaiah from the get-go and save the few extra lines of engravings for something else?
When I pondered on that the words of Joseph Smith came into my mind: “When the Lord commands, do it.” Except that my mind was impressed slightly differently: “When the Lord suggests, do that, too.” And then I remembered this profound teaching from the Doctrine and Covenants:
And now, verily I say unto you, that as I said that I would make known my will unto you, behold I will make it known unto you, not by the way of commandment, for there are many who observe not to keep my commandments.
But unto him that keepeth my commandments I will give the mysteries of my kingdom, and the same shall be in him a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life.
What I get out of this is that the Lord is always giving out His will to as many as will receive it. But He doesn’t explicitly put everything in what we think of as the “commandment bucket” right now because we are not all ready to receive everything as commandments yet. So for now, they are given as words of wisdom. To those ready to receive them, they are the mysteries of the kingdom and the will of God, drawing them forever unto everlasting life. Sometimes, in cases like the Word of Wisdom, these words of counsel are initially given “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom,” but then eventually upgraded to what we’d call commandments when “the weak and the weakest of all saints” are capable of living them.
There is too much to do all at once
Everyone knows the basic commandments. They are pretty black and white and serious enough that if you break them you probably won’t qualify for a Temple recommend. Everyone can keep those all the time. But what about all the rest? The counsel and invitations we hear all the time in General Conference? It’s impossible to make every single topic of the Gospel a serious focus in our lives every day. “It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength,” (Mosiah 4:27). So there’s gotta be some advice/suggestions/invitations/commandments that need to carry more weight in our lives right now than others.
The brethren are consistent in their teaching that this is indeed the case. Even among the spiritual counsel we receive, we need to learn to discern between what Pres. Oaks called “Good, Better, Best” for our lives right now. As Richard G Scott counseled:
We need not worry if we can’t simultaneously do all of the things that the Lord has counseled us to do. He has spoken of a time and a season for all things. In response to our sincere prayers for guidance, He will direct us in what should be emphasized at each phase of our life.
This principle was driven home to me by Elder Larry R Lawrence’s talk, “What Lack I Yet?” If you haven’t read it, go read it. Like right. Seriously, I’ll wait…
Did you see what he recommends? Instead of going crazy trying to follow every prophetic invitation all at once, he counseled us:
The Holy Ghost doesn’t tell us to improve everything at once. If He did, we would become discouraged and give up. The Spirit works with us at our own speed, one step at a time,… Humbly ask the Lord the following question: “What is keeping me from progressing?” In other words: “What lack I yet?” Then wait quietly for a response. If you are sincere, the answer will soon become clear. It will be revelation intended just for you.
Personal spiritual priorities
I’m not exaggerating when I say this principle changed my life. One day, in my personal prayers, I decided to try this novel concept of asking God what He wanted me to focus on in life and promised I would dedicate myself to living that one thing. And to my surprise, I received a specific prompting. And that was the trick that got me out of a spiritual funk. Focusing on all things at once, I could make no progress. But a few weeks after that prayer and commitment, I could see distinct progress in that specific aspect: what I called my “personal spiritual priority.”
I kept this pattern up. Each day before going to bed, I would go to my office where I could pray alone and out loud. In my prayer, I would follow up on how I did that day on my personal spiritual priority. Some days were better than others, but I gradually grew over time. Each day, I would ask God if that priority should stay my priority, of if I should choose another. Sometimes, I felt divine approval and a whisper that God had a new priority for me to focus on. Sometimes it was a pat on the head saying, “Good work so far, but this is still what I need you to focus on the most. Keep going.”
Often, when it was time for a new priority, God would not have an answer for me about what to select. So, like the Brother of Jared, I would have to come back the next day with a proposal of what I thought was the most important thing to focus on. Sometimes, God agreed and said that was what He wanted me to do. Other times, He responded with something else clear out of left field I had never considered. Sometimes, He would explain why my particular choice indicated a deeper problem I needed to focus on instead. As Elder Lawrence promised, “The Holy Ghost really does give customized counsel.”
Sometimes my inspired personal spiritual priorities were simple “do or do not” assignments: Ask your wife what you can do to help her at least once per day. Mention Church when a coworker asks about your weekend. Don’t watch more than X hours of TV this week. Write in your study journal each day. Study before 9 in the evening so you are awake. Listen to a General Conference during your morning commute.
Other assignments were less cut and dry: Be more patient with your son. Be sweeter to your wife. Learn to see the purpose of fasting. Be less critical of others.
But all assignments were specific, realistic, and measurable. Each day, I could think back through the day and honestly report how I did on my personal spiritual priority.
That has made all the difference in my spiritual growth. Some priorities I had developed stuck and stick with me to this day. Others tend to deteriorate over time and make repeated appearances as my personal spiritual priority. But that’s not the point. The point is I am trying to make progress every day. Progress I can measure. I cannot do it all. I cannot focus on every good thing at once. But I can focus on at least one at a time. And it gives me great joy to know that my focus right now or any point in time is what God has said is the most important focus for me at that time. Maybe some see that priority as a suggestion. But for me, for now, it is a commandment, and I count it as a blessing (Doctrine and Covenants 59:4).