How to Figure Out What to Do

Dear Will:

Of my grandfather, it was once said: “Lloyd Taggart is never in doubt. Often wrong, but never in doubt.” In all the ways that my grandfather was an exceptional man, this reputed certainty may have been what made him most exceptional. I believe that, as we look down the dimly-lit road of life, most of us are anything but certain. Especially in those moments when a choice seems most consequential, how many of us have cried out (to anyone that might listen): “Just tell me what I should do!”

Well, at the risk of over-promising, I think I can help you get an answer to that plea. But first: a story.

Saul’s Story
Saul was a hardcore Hebrew. “A Hebrew’s Hebrew,” he called himself (Philippians 3:5). “Zealous toward God,” he was a Pharisee of the first order (Acts 22:3). Which meant that he knew that he was right—pretty much all the time. He knew the scriptures cold, and he kept the law with a zealot’s precision. With a guy like Saul, there could be no wiggle room.

So when people started talking about Jesus as if he were God on earth—come back from the dead, if you could believe it—Saul would have been outraged. That was the kind of heresy the law wouldn’t tolerate. And the consequences of such blasphemy were spelled out clearly by the prophets of old.

Thus when Stephen came around spouting that Jesus nonsense, claiming even to have seen God with the crucified Jesus standing by his side, Saul was there for the stoning—consenting to his death, complicit with those who cast the stones (Acts 8:1).

Thereafter he went about Judea and Samaria, making havoc among the so-called Christians, entering into their houses, committing both men and women to prison for their heretical lies. He breathed out threatenings and slaughter toward Jesus’s disciples, forcing them to scatter throughout the land.

Like I said: He was hardcore—and the Christians were feeling the effects of his righteous indignation. No doubt empowered by his success, he didn’t wait around for his next assignment. That wasn’t Saul’s style. Instead he went personally to the High Priest and asked for authorization to travel to Damascus, to root out the Christians there and to haul them off to prison. Of course, the High Priest was quick to give his consent.

Thus with authorization in hand, Saul headed off, fired up and determined, certain that he was doing his duty as a faithful man of God. But somewhere along that road to Damascus, Saul was surrounded by a blinding light, so powerful (or so surprising) that it knocked him to the earth. More surprising still was what happened next: From the midst of that light, Saul heard a voice saying: “Saul. Saul! Why persecutest thou me?” Saul must have found the query perplexing. “Who art thou, Lord?” he wondered out loud. And then came the stupefying, incomprehensible reply: “I am Jesus” (Acts 9:1-5). 

Two Horrifying Discoveries
Let’s leave Saul there for a moment—on his knees, unable to see—and consider what must have been going through his head. “JESUS? Jesus of Nazareth? The convicted and executed heretic? Speaking somehow to me?”

In that instant, Saul must have made two horrifying discoveries: First, that not only had he been wrong, he had been 180-degrees wrong. It was hardly possible to be more wrong. What he had believed and proclaimed to be true was, in fact, false, and what he had criminalized as false had, in fact, been true all along.

Second, if that were true, then it meant that Saul, the righteous Pharisee of Tarsus, was perhaps the vilest of sinners. He had instigated the persecution of the faithful, thrown many in prison, had them put to death. It’s hard to imagine someone doing anything worse.

Saul was astonished. He knelt there, trembling at the realization of what he had just learned about both Jesus and himself. You’ll recall that Alma described what it might be like to be in Saul’s position—kneeling before God with a full realization of our sinfulness. He imagined that then “we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence” (Alma 12:14). It’s easy to imagine Saul feeling all of that and worse.

But in spite of his overwhelming shame—or perhaps because of it—Saul did something extraordinary—something that changed the course of Christianity forever. Stealing himself for a life of penitent service, he said simply: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).

Eight Essential Words
If you get nothing else from this story, I want you to take away these eight essential words: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” They lie at the very heart of what Bruce R. McConkie has called the “single verse of scripture [which] has had a greater impact and a more reaching effect upon mankind than any other simple sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:246–47). He was referring, of course, to James 1:5-6: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. . . .”

Let me tell you how I interpret this scripture, and why I think Saul of Tarsus is its embodiment.

If Any of You Lack Wisdom . . .
James begins in verse five by describing our condition and, he hopes, our motivation when we turn to God for guidance. He says, “If any of you lack wisdom. . . .” Notice that he doesn’t say: “If any of you lack knowledge.”

It has been said that “wisdom is applied knowledge.” Put another way: Wisdom is knowledge converted into action. Thus the injunction by James comes with the implicit expectation that what we learn from prayer will require us to do something. This is what Elder David A. Bednar has called “the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and to perform, the requirement to communicate and to act” (“Ask in Faith,” Ensign, May 2008).

Put more simply: When we ask God for wisdom, we are, essentially, asking for something to do. And when we are truly determined to follow through, we are demonstrating the sort of faith James mentions later in verse 6.

So how do you ask for wisdom? You say: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

That Giveth To All Men Liberally . . .
To understand what comes next in this verse requires me to tell you what it was like to eat breakfast at my house when I was growing up. I am one of seven children born to my parents in a 10-year span. (Feel free to pause here to be horrified on my mother’s behalf.) That’s nine mouths around the breakfast table, which meant that if we had bacon, you were lucky to get a couple of slices at most.

But when we would drive to visit family in Wyoming, we would typically stop in Las Vegas for breakfast at the house of my Uncle Lloyd (named for his father, to whom I introduced you earlier). He always served his homemade sourdough pancakes—which we loathed—but along with the pancakes he would bring out a platter heaped with bacon. There must have been three pounds easy. For me and my siblings, it was a regular bacon-palooza.

I think that when James says that God “giveth to all men liberally,” he is saying that God gives out wisdom like Uncle Lloyd gave out bacon. In other words, when we ask, He will not be looking for excuses to withhold wisdom, but rather He will be looking for every opportunity to grant us the wisdom we desire.

In this, James echoes the words of the Sermon on the Mount:

 7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
 9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Acts 7:7-11)

Jesus is speaking very plainly here. “Ask and ye shall receive,” He says. But remember: What James says we should ask for is wisdom. When we ask for other things, perhaps God might be more restrained. But wisdom? He gives that out liberally.

And Upbraideth Not . . .
Which brings us to the next part of verse five. If you’re anything like the rest of us, you have, at best, a vague idea of what upbraid means. It is not, as you might expect, the world’s most elaborate comb-over. Upbraid means to find fault with or reproach severely. When your father sternly tells you that you’re not putting enough effort into your homework—and he takes away your cell phone until your grades improve—you know you’ve just been upbraided.

Why does James even bring this up here? Because he knows that many of us stop praying when we feel unworthy. He knows that feelings of inadequacy will often undermine our faith. When James says that God “upbraideth not,” he is speaking to all of us who have ever fallen into the trap of thinking like Laman and Lemuel. Remember that they didn’t even bother praying for wisdom, for they were convinced that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:9). Either that or they knew in advance that they weren’t going to follow through.

In other words, if you yearn to know what God thinks you should do, worthiness is unlikely to be the reason you don’t get an answer. 

And It Shall Be Given Him
This is why the story of Saul is so effective in helping us understand the meaning of these verses in James. Saul had made horrible choices, had done unspeakable things to others. If anyone was eligible for some serious upbraiding, it was Saul. But did that prevent him from asking (or from getting an answer)? Not at all. Even in the face of unprecedented “unworthiness,” Saul went ahead and uttered the great, eight-word prayer for wisdom: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus is a reminder to all of us that if we really want wisdom from God, He will give it to us—generously—provided we ask in faith. And that’s no matter what regrettable choices may have compromised our past. Now perhaps you’re thinking: “It’s not that simple. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Not for me anyway.”

Well, I can’t comment on your particular case, but what I can do is share these words from President Henry B. Eyring. Perhaps you’ll find, as I did, both comfort and insight in his description of how he prays for wisdom:

I’ve had experiences . . . of absolute assurance that I heard the voice of God. Absolute. It hasn’t happened very often. But I’ll tell you this. Every time it’s ever happened, of the times it’s happened, I was quiet inside. I really reached the point where I said, “I’ve got a choice to make here. I have to do something. I’m not wise enough. I give up. I’ll do whatever You want. Tell me.”

. . . The times I’ve really heard have been when I was really—I just had a feeling of complete quiet inside. And saying, “I give up. I just want what You want.”

And then I could hear it. And I realized that if I had been noisy in terms of my own thinking, then I couldn’t have. But yet there’s a kind of coming to a point where you say, “Father, Thy will be done. I’ll do what You want. I can’t go without You.” And then you get an answer. (“Face to Face with President Eyring and Elder Holland,” March 4, 2017)

Eight words: Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Eight words: I give up. I’ll do whatever You want. Eight simple words.

Do you want someone to tell you what you should do? Pray those words and be open to whatever the answer might be. Pray those words with the determination to follow through. Pray those words—and truly mean it—and the promise from James will be fulfilled.

It was true for Saul. It has been true for me. And it will be true for you too.

PW

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A Fitting Symbol

Dear Will:

It’s Easter morning and I awaken to a quiet house. The scene is very different from the one I encountered as a boy, when my siblings and I would arise on Easter morning to find a basket set out for each of us, baskets filled with that stringy, green cellophane stuff (what do you call that?), jelly beans, chocolate eggs, and other candy. Then my brothers and sisters and I would scatter about the house and yard looking for the Easter eggs we had colored the night before. Although I don’t remember ever visiting the Easter Bunny at the mall the way kids do these days, I do recall that one year we received an actual bunny on Easter morning. That was pretty cool.

Easter was fun. It was exciting. And the candy was delicious. But this quiet house now feels much more like Easter to me.

That change in perspective has been gradual, to be sure. At some point—at an age I do not now recall—I remember asking what bunnies and eggs and whatnot had to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I remember that the answer—some convoluted bit having to do with symbols of birth or life or whatever—seemed contrived and completely unsatisfying. It didn’t really make sense.

The problem, of course, is that bunnies and eggs (and bunny eggs, for that matter) have nothing whatsoever to do with the resurrection of Christ. I’m pretty sure these oddments were adapted from some pagan rites of centuries long ago, but no matter. They might have easily been cooked up by the writers of Seinfeld for all they tell us about the event we celebrate at this time every year. And in that sense they are harmless enough, I suppose. Harmless, that is, if they do not prevent us from seeing and feeling and understanding the larger Truth this Christian holiday (holy-day) commemorates.

The essential, truth-telling symbols of Easter are these: an otherwise nondescript patch of ground in a grove of olive trees, stained with drops of sweat and blood; a cross on a hill on the outskirts of town; linen clothes lying in an otherwise empty tomb, the head-wrap neatly folded, separate from the rest; two hands and two feet made perfect by the scars that now remain as a reminder of who He is and what He did for all of us.

When Mary, Joanna, and others arrived at the sepulcher on that historic Sunday morning, they were met by two men in shining robes who said to them: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Later that day, Jesus—the Christ—appeared to Mary, Peter, Luke, Cleopas, and many others of his disciples. The “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was then taken to the world by these eyewitnesses, and it has spread across the globe since that glorious day.

The Apostle Paul, who himself witnessed the Living Christ one day on the road to Damascus, put it this way: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). In simpler terms, Elder David A. Bednar summarized the message of Easter morning this way: “Jesus died; He is not dead.”

That is good news—fitting for an annual commemoration. And while I treasure memories of my own children dashing about the yard, plucking up fluorescent, plastic eggs, those are not what I would consider Easter memories. If asked to choose, the decision for me would be an easy one: To honor the death and resurrection of my Savior, I will always prefer a quiet house at the dawning of a perfect Sabbath day.

PW

Only That Day Dawns to Which We Are Awake

Dear Will:

I woke up this morning to a wet patio. Some time near dawn, it had rained.

There are few things as refreshing to body and soul as a summer rain (around here anyway). It cleans our smoggy air, washes dust from the street and sidewalks, brings welcome nourishment to our parched earth. I suppose in some way it does the same thing for each of us, providing clarity and renewal of spirit.

Happy though I was to see that some rain had fallen, I stood with a degree of disappointment as I looked out on my soggy backyard. It had rained and I had missed it—and who knows when it might rain again around here. I looked up, saw blue skies, and knew that the “shower” had already come and gone. If only I had gotten up a little earlier, I thought. If only.

Near the end of Walden (one of my all-time favorites), Henry David Thoreau says: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” If you want to benefit from new ideas, new thinking, altered perspectives, you have to be open and watching for the possibility, in other words. I think we’ve seen evidence of that in “the Arab Spring,” haven’t we? Thousands of people throughout the Arab world have witnessed and participated in a shift in thinking—the dawning of democracy—because when the moment arrived they were, as it were, awake.

It has caused me to ask myself how I would respond given a similar opportunity. Am I truly open to fresh perspective? If it’s true, as Thoreau says, that “there is more day to dawn,” that the sun is truly “a Morningstar,” am I sufficiently awake to perceive the light? You might even ask it this way: If God wanted to talk to me, would I hear or sleep right through it?

As I ponder all of this, I can’t help but think of something said in our last General Conference by Elder David A. Bednar. He was talking about the way that God communicates directly to his children—the patterns of personal revelation:

A light turned on in a dark room is like receiving a message from God quickly, completely, and all at once. Many of us have experienced this pattern of revelation as we have been given answers to sincere prayers or been provided with needed direction or protection, according to God’s will and timing. Descriptions of such immediate and intense manifestations are found in the scriptures, recounted in Church history, and evidenced in our own lives. Indeed, these mighty miracles do occur. However, this pattern of revelation tends to be more rare than common.

The gradual increase of light radiating from the rising sun is like receiving a message from God “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). Most frequently, revelation comes in small increments over time and is granted according to our desire, worthiness, and preparation. Such communications from Heavenly Father gradually and gently “distil upon [our souls] as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45). This pattern of revelation tends to be more common than rare.*

Like a sudden summer shower, light from God can come upon us unawares, and if we are not truly awake we’ll miss it altogether.

As I finish this note, I look outside to see that the clouds have gathered once again and drops have begun to fall. I’m heading outside to see and feel and celebrate the summer rain.

PW

* You can watch or read the entire talk here. I highly recommend it.