Let's be anxious. Let's be devastated. Then let's do something about it
In chapter 6 of Moroni, we get a glimpse of what it was like to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Nephite Saints:
And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.
In the Church today, you'll see a lot of fasting (like today). You'll see a lot of praying. And you'll probably see a little too much speaking one with another. But how often do we speak to each other about the welfare of our souls? When you take those words at face value, it just sounds a little… I don't know… invasive? I got a chuckle imagining how conversations at Church might sound if we were to start asking about the welfare of our souls:
Me: "Pretty good. The kids took turns exchanging a cold all week, you know how that is. You love it because they're cuddly, but at the same time you know they're going to make you sick."
EQP: "Haha, yeah kids are nothing but cute little disease vectors. Anyways, how's your soul doing? Are you studying your scriptures every day individually and as a family?"
Me: "I mean sometimes the kids can't handle scripture study but we try to hit most days. I always get my personal study in though."
EQP: "I see. Well, my soul is not doing too bad, either, in case you were wondering. Although I remember my coworker sent me some troubling YouTube videos about some stuff in Church history. I think I'm fine, but it just kind of bugs me that I don't have answers, you know? Do you think that means my testimony is not strong enough?"
Me: "I think you're probably fine."
EQP: "Nice. You know Bro. So-and-so told me last week that his marriage is kinda rocky right now. Let's go talk to him and see how that's going."
What does it mean to speak concerning the welfare of our souls?
Somehow I don't imagine that's quite what Moroni had in mind. So previously as I've read that verse, I just interpreted it to mean that the members talked about the welfare of their souls with ecclesiastical leaders in the Church. Or that they just focused a lot on the Atonement (the source of welfare for all souls) or discussed the welfare of their souls in super general terms like Sunday School lessons. But last week in Elders Quorum, I experienced something different.
We were discussing Pres. Nelson's challenge to the Priesthood holders last April to "do better and be better." If you haven't read it recently, go do it now. There are many parts of the talk where you just want to take a sentence out of it and study it for a few minutes by itself. There is so much there.
The talk is all about repentance– what repentance is, and what it is not. How Satan tries to get us to see repentance all wrong, and how not repenting is seriously depriving families and individuals in the Church. Priesthood holders who were paying attention will remember the prophet of God taking us all by the lapels, shaking us a little, and taking us to task in as bold a sermon as I have heard in a long time. But with tons of love and great insights, as usual.
The discussion in Elders Quorum was great. Brethren shared their insights about what repentance means in their lives. We talked about how to repent. We shared stories of when we had misunderstood repentance in the past. We discussed how to properly teach repentance and the Atonement in our homes. We talked (in general terms) about temptations we have faced and the work we have done to try and not just be clean again, but be better. It was a great discussion.
As I drove home today, I realized this is what Moroni was describing. Frank, open, honest, edifying discussion about the basic principles of the Gospel and how to apply them in our lives. We didn't go into Bishop interview territory, but we were truly "speak[ing] one with another concerning the welfare of [our] souls."
We don't care about each others' souls enough
So here's the question I'm pondering now: why is that lesson different from the everyday? Why don't we get down to brass tacks more often? Why do we talk in concepts but rarely share something personal and relatable in our lives? Why was this Elders Quorum lesson the exception and not the norm in the Chuch?
I think there's a lot to be said about propriety– we want to stay as far away from matters of worthiness as we can, obviously. But honestly, I think when it comes down to it, we frankly just don't really care about the welfare of each others' souls.
I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out.
Imagine a less-active family you are ministering to is not improving in their Gospel living. How do you feel?
Imagine a member of the quorum or class you have stewardship over has stopped attending as regularly. How do you feel?
Imagine that you have an old friend who was strong and active growing up, but now you see a picture of him/her on at a ball game holding a beer and obviously not wearing the Temple Garment you know they at one point covenanted to wear day and night in the house of the Lord. How do you feel?
If you're like me, in almost of these situations, you immediately start thinking things like:
- It's not my place to get involved.
- I'm not her Bishop or parent. I'm sure they've already talked to her.
- He's free to make his own choices. I can't stop him.
- Maybe they're just going through a hard time and will return someday.
- I was never really that close to her, so it shouldn't really matter to me
- I never really knew that family very well anyway.
Looking back on all the times I have thought such things, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for not feeling more. I feel guilty for not taking a more active interest in the welfare of the souls of those around me.
Don't let it roll off your back
My wife and I had this discussion just the other night as we reminisced about our teenage years. We had grown up in the same ward. It was a pretty large ward and at the time had a very large, very active group of close-knit youth. As we started listing off all our friends and class members from those years, I started wondering how they were all doing.
Luckily, Facebook is a great stalking tool, and when someone stops living their covenants and have left activity in the Church, they usually make it pretty obvious on social media. By the end of the night, we had determined that at least half of the active young women and well more than half of the active young men we had known were now living lives that obviously prevented them from enjoying the blessings of the Sacrament and the Temple.
I felt a little melancholy about that the rest of the evening. My wife didn't initially understand how I could feel bad about them. We were both pretty introverted as teenagers, so we wouldn't list any of the youth in the ward as our "best" friends, and it had been 12+ years since we last talked to many of them. Why should their choices affect me like this? Why should I really care all that much? I was a missionary for crying out loud– certainly, I didn't get bummed out every time someone rejected the message of the Gospel right?
It's so easy as a missionary to steel yourself against rejection by becoming uncaring. I don't mean that you harbor ill will for the person who slammed the door– more that you just don't care at all and move on. After all, what's one slammed door among the three hundred that you will knock that day? That's a common attitude to take on the mission. It keeps you from getting depressed. It keeps you from feeling like the work is pointless. My mission president would often tell us how buffalo on the prairie have no shelter when storms come, so they orient themselves to their oily hair would channel the torrential rains to run right off their backs and weather the storm standing. The point was for us to steel ourselves against rejection and let it roll off our back just like the buffalo.
But if we're not careful, we can go too far and just stop caring. And that's the wrong feeling to have.
Let's be a little more devastated
I couldn't explain it to my wife at the time, but now, reflecting on the words of Moroni and the elders' quorum lesson, I realize now that I was not feeling bad about the choices of those young men and women from our ward. I was also feeling bad about not feeling bad earlier.
In a stirring rebuke that only Elder Holland can really pull off, we are told that when those around us– our brothers and sisters, children of God– either avoid or break sacred saving covenants, the proper response is to:
Be devastated! … Much of the time we are just too casual about all of this. This is eternal life. This is the salvation of the children of God. Eternity hangs in the balance. … It is the most important path [a person] will ever walk. But if he or she doesn’t know that, at least you do! So take control of this situation. Teach with power and authority, and then be devastated if [they don't follow through].
When we remember that we are brothers and sisters– children of God– all of the sudden it's not weird or nosy or improper to be concerned, even anxious about the choices others make. What kind of friend or brother or sister sits and watches silently while their sibling commits spiritual suicide? Who sees a family member on the bridge about to jump and says "well, they have their agency and there are so many people jumping nowadays that I can't afford to get too emotional about this one instance?"
It's painful to watch someone turn away from the truth. As well it should be. And no one knows that better than Heavenly Father. He watched a third of His children rise up in open rebellion against Him premortally. He has watched individuals, families, nations, and entire dispensations destroy themselves in rebellion against Him here on earth, too. He knows our potential– worlds without number. He knows the price His Son paid. And yet would you think that God would eventually grow "used to it" or stop caring when one of His sheep wander from the pasture to the lions' den? Of course not. He is devastated.
We can't kill God. We can't hurt Him. We can't even change His mind. But there is one power over God that we mortals have– we can (and frequently do) break His divine heart. We make God and all the hosts of heaven weep over us through our bad choices (see Moses 7). If God weeps at the loss of one child, how can we not weep at the choices of others?
If you're saying to yourself right now, "It sounds like this guy is advocating for us to all develop stress and anxiety," then I have two words to say to you:
At least about the anxiety part. We need to be more anxious. Not in the emotional struggle kind of way. But in a scriptural way. The way prophets and apostles are anxious in the Book of Mormon:
- "I desire that ye should remember to observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord; behold, this hath been the anxiety of my soul from the beginning."
- "I am desirous for the welfare of your souls. Yea, mine anxiety is great for you; and ye yourselves know that it ever has been.
- "Because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us… many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy; wherefore, we knew of Christ and his kingdom, which should come."
- "I this day am weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of your souls"
- "My beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you."
- "[they] became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance"
- "And now, my brethren, I wish from the inmost part of my heart, yea, with great anxiety even unto pain, that ye would hearken unto my words, and cast off your sins, and not procrastinate the day of your repentance;"
- "They were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble."
There are so many more examples. But yes, I am calling for more anxiety about the work.
Ministering to the welfare of souls
While serving in a branch presidency, I was humbled by humble members who poured their hearts into "small" callings like hymnbook coordinator. They were amxious to make sure they gave it their all. They taught me a great lesson. A lot of us are engaged in the Lord's work, but how many of us are anxiously engaged?
The fact is, when it comes to the welfare of souls, we have a lot to be anxious about. As ministering brothers and sisters, whatever our callings, we are on the front lines in the battle for the souls of men and women. As Pres. Eyring taught, if you assume someone is in serious trouble, you'll be right more than half the time. That means there is a lot of rescue opportunities out there, even if we don't see them. When we minister, we need to take that into account and take it seriously.
Again, am I suggesting we get in everybody's face and show up with furrowed brows any time someone misses a Sunday? Of course not. But I am calling for us to be a little more direct in our conversations with others. We should maybe drop the veneer of "everything is wonderful" once in a while and actually speak about the welfare of souls in a frank but loving, uplifting way.
I'm calling for us to be especially careful and observant. I am calling for us to minister with more of a sense of urgency. I'm calling for us to be a little more devastated when covenants are not made or not kept. I'm calling for more sincere prayers for those we know are struggling– even when they really don't want our prayers. Maybe especially when they don't want our prayers. I'm calling for us to take quick action when we see our brothers and sisters start to slide. Most will not ask for help– it's up to us to go outside our comfort zone and rescue them while the rescue is easy. Christ didn't wait for Peter with his failing faith to sink to the bottom of the sea– He was instantly at his side pulling him up. That's the kind of rescue Christ gives us. And that's the kind of rescue He asks in return.