That He May Heal You

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“Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God
is the thrill of being merciful,
especially to those who don’t expect it
and often feel they don’t deserve it.”
Elder Jeffrey R Holland

Dear Will:

We’re not really sure why he left. Maybe he thought the old man was too far past his prime to run the place. Maybe somebody said something that made him mad or hurt his feelings. Perhaps he was simply tired of being weighed down by high expectations, of having to live a certain way or having to be a certain kind of guy. Or maybe he just no longer believed in what he was doing anymore.

But for whatever reason, he finally walked away, leaving behind the only life he had ever known and all of the advantages and privileges that came with it. Forsaking the promise of a too-far-distant reward, he cashed in his inheritance and entered the enticing world of “anything goes”—where he could do or be whatever he wanted and no one would be standing by to raise an eyebrow or to sharply remind him of how his choices might besmirch the family name. Thus liberated from obligations and responsibility, he experimented, indulged, spent time and money as he never had before, did things he had been taught he should not do. And all too quickly, the inheritance ran out, “wasted,” we are told, “with riotous living.”

And then, as so often happens in life, extraneous circumstance complicated the natural consequences of choice. Famine brought widespread economic hardship, so that when he had spent every last penny and found himself compelled to look for work, there were no good jobs to be found. Ere long, he who was born to privilege, and had but recently enjoyed some degree of personal wealth, found himself settling for what work he could get. So it was that he was hired on as a farm laborer, assigned (one suspects, with some degree of horror) to feed the hogs—unclean beasts according to the religion of his youth.

Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine him sloshing about his daily chores, nostrils filled with the foulest of stenches, boots covered in unspeakable muck, doling out table scraps to the swine while his own belly remained unfilled. The humiliation of it must have been soul-crushing. Hungry, ashamed, brokenhearted and contrite, he reached such a lowly state that he finally “came to himself,” and in a moment of clarity recognized a potential way out.

Was it possible, he wondered, to ask his father for a job? His father’s servants always had food in their stomachs, didn’t they? And you could be sure that no one in his father’s employ would be asked to slop the hogs. But could he truly go home again after what he had done? Could he ever be forgiven for his foolish choices, his hubris, his transgressions against the family name?

Although he must have felt unbearable emotional anguish, his physical hunger was even greater. Desperate, willing to do anything to reclaim his broken life, he quit his job, put on the best of his tattered and splattered clothes, and began the long walk home.

As he walked, no doubt he rehearsed and re-rehearsed the words that he would speak when he finally arrived back on his father’s doorstep. He would acknowledge his transgressions against God and family and beg forgiveness. He would pledge renewed faithfulness and hard work. He would disavow his vices and welcome whatever conditions might be placed upon him if only he might be granted the lowliest assignment, the most meager of wages, among his father’s group of servants.

His father, in turn, would be fully justified if he ranted a bit, lectured sternly, questioned his son’s judgment, and lamented the tragic waste of time and money and opportunity. What’s more, there might be a time of agonizing uncertainty while his father paced and raged, leaving his wayward son to feel the full extent of a parent’s disappointment. But the young man would willingly endure all of that and more because he felt that he deserved it—and, let’s be honest: He had nowhere else to turn.

Were this a true-life story, that might be exactly how it played out. But this is an allegory, originally told by the Master Teacher who had a different lesson in mind. The ultimate message in this story is less about disobedience and repentance than it is about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus tells it this way:

    And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
    And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
    But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
    And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
    For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. . . . (Luke 15:20-24)

As you envision that scene, please notice how the moment of reconciliation plays out. The father in this tale does not stand proudly in front of his house, forcing his despondent son to complete the long, difficult walk home alone. Rather, when the son is still “a great way off,” the father in this case runs to him, literally shortening the journey back to family and fellowship. As soon as the son has finished his sincere expression of regret, the father envelops him in love and security—restoring the benefits and honor set aside for his children. The natural consequences of the son’s choices have apparently been punishment enough, so that rather than castigate the prodigal for his wastrel ways, the father instead focuses on celebrating his return.

At its very core, the story of the Prodigal Son is the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its promise is intended to fill all of us with hope that, no matter what we may have done and no matter why we may have done it, we can all “come to ourselves” and turn back toward our Father, who will certainly run to us, accept our contrition and make us whole once again. In the Book of Mormon He says it this way: “Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).

That invitation extends to all of us. Who among us has not found him or herself in a similar, lowly state? Who hasn’t at some point made regrettable choices that have caused us to drift ever farther from our Heavenly Father? Even if we may not have been as willful as the prodigal in this story, we can certainly relate to his state of regret and longing for home. Whether we have walked away literally or figuratively, we certainly know what it’s like to feel cut off, wrung out, desperate for help we may feel unworthy to ask for.

It’s true that we do not know why the Prodigal Son wandered off. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether someone has hurt your feelings, or you’re tired of the Gospel’s high expectations, or you have made unwise choices, or you resent the Church’s lofty standards, or you have lost your faith in those in charge, or you’re simply not sure what you believe anymore, may I invite you to turn back toward home? Whatever might be your current source of pain and longing and disaffection, return unto the Savior that He may heal you. Reclaim your divine inheritance which—no matter what choices you may have made or may yet make—will never be fully spent.

I express my own faith in the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the healing power of His Atonement. As one who is also prone to wander, I am well familiar with the long road home. Come. Let’s walk that road together.

PW

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I Assure You: They’re Not

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Dear Will:

I recently spoke with a friend who has not attended church in quite some time. After she shared with me a tender story about what had brought her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place, I felt compelled to ask: “Then why have you stopped coming?” She responded with a common, sad sentiment: “I don’t feel worthy.”

My heart sank. Worthy? As if any of us is ever truly worthy! Her words left me troubled, puzzling over our human propensity to shun God due to our nagging imperfections. And I’ve concluded that this tendency leads to several persistent and problematic misconceptions:

1. We act as if we could hide from Him –This notion has been around approximately forever. You’ll recall that after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they heard the voice of God and hid themselves for shame (see: Genesis 3). They seemed to think that they could hide transgression behind a bush. Likewise, sometimes our indiscretions make us too ashamed to pray or attend church when those are just the things we need in an hour of weakness. “Oh,” you say, “but how could I ever come before Him after what I’ve done?” To which I say: How can you not? He knows already anyway. And He wants to help.

2. We feel that we’re not good enough – I hear this one all the time. “All of those people at church are so much better than I am.” Without going into detail, let me put it this way: NO THEY’RE NOT! In truth, we all have our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It is those weaknesses that draw us together. You’ll recall that Jesus was once criticized for socializing with sinners, to which He responded: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). His invitation was to all—especially to those who might feel unworthy. He said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You’ll note that He didn’t say: “Come unto me, all ye that already have your act together.” Paul reiterated that thought when he said: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That includes, by the way, whoever sits next to you in Sunday School.

3. We believe we can never be forgiven – The scriptures are full of examples of those who felt that forgiveness was no longer possible for them. Yet Jesus was (and is) consistent in His willingness to extend forgiveness to all. And let’s be clear especially about this: You can never be worthy of that forgiveness; you can never earn it. He gives it freely. In this regard, His grace is truly sufficient—no matter what you or I may have done to make ourselves unworthy. In truth, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way: “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. . . . [However] far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012.)

I hope by now you have recognized in all of this an implied invitation, which I will now make explicit: Come join us on Sunday at the Santiago Creek Ward. You’ll fit right in. I’ll be saving you a seat in Sunday School.

PW

His Hand Is Stretched Out Still

Dear Will:

It was near dawn. The men, many of them fishermen by trade, had sailed through the night in an effort to cross the Sea of Galilee. Nevertheless, after many hours, still they had not reached Gennesaret because a powerful wind was working against them. Sleep-deprived and muscle-weary, no doubt they were exhausted by the ordeal, their nerves frazzled as they battled fatigue and fear and frustration. And still the waves rose, the wind blew, and their ship remained far from the distant shore.

If it’s true that it’s always darkest just before the dawn, then perhaps at that early morning hour they had begun to give up hope. Perhaps they felt—with good reason—that they had done all they could and yet all was for naught. Perhaps they felt as if they had been forsaken, left on their own to struggle against the forces of nature, to save their lives if they could or to resign themselves to the inevitable destruction that seemed to loom nearby.

And then, as if enough weren’t already enough, they gazed into the stormy distance and saw some sort of apparition—a phantasm, perhaps—approaching on the waves. It was very frightening—so frightening, we’re told, that they cried aloud.

Somehow, in the midst of the chaos and the panic, at this moment of ultimate desperation, a voice rose above the din. “Be of good cheer,” they heard. “It is I; be not afraid.”

It was a voice they knew. It was the voice of Jesus, their teacher, their mentor, their friend. With renewed hope surging in his breast, one of the fishermen answered back. “Lord,” cried Simon, “if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” When Jesus bade him come, Simon threw first one leg, then the other, over the side of the boat and walked upon the water toward his Lord. And still the wind blew. Still the waves climbed and fell.

We do not know how many miraculous steps Simon took that night. We do not know how far he ventured beyond the rail of that storm-tossed ship. But we do know that he walked toward Jesus, and that at some point he began to consider the difficulty of what he had undertaken, and that when he saw the effects of that boisterous wind—as the waves crashed all around him—it was, at last, too much. Giving in to fear, Simon began to sink, and he called out once again: ”Lord, save me.”

“And immediately,” we read, “Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, ‘Of a truth thou art the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Who among us has not felt at some point that his life was like a boat on a storm-tossed sea? Who among us has not felt overwhelmed, pushed to the point of emotional or physical exhaustion? Who hasn’t felt at one time or another that she simply could take no more? Who hasn’t felt to cry out, “Lord, save me”?

Of course, the promise of this story is not that the winds won’t blow. It isn’t that the waves will not rise up against us nor that journey will be made easy. The promise is that when we move toward Him He will move toward us. The promise is that if we feel ourselves starting to sink, He will reach out His hand and lift us up again.

It is not without effort, mind you. “Take my yoke upon you,” He says (Matthew 11:29). “Draw near unto me and [then] I will draw near unto you,” He promises (D&C 88:63). “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” He urges, and then, indeed, “all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33)

“Come unto me,” says Jesus, “all ye that labour, [all ye that] are heavy laden”—you and you and you and me—all of us—“and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

This brings to mind something I witnessed recently while hiking. A man and woman were climbing a steep trail together. The man was out in front, and after stepping up onto a rock he turned and—in a moment of old-fashioned chivalry—he extended his hand to help the woman up. But the woman would have none of it. In a moment of new-fashioned liberation, perhaps, she bounded on past as if her companion weren’t even there.

That’s right. She totally left him hanging.

I loved it. But as I watched that scene play out, it brought to mind a phrase often repeated by Isaiah in reference to our Lord and Savior: “His hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, etc.). As I wandered the hills that day, I began to consider how often the Lord has extended His hand toward me and I have failed to grasp it.

How often have I have faced obstacles and chosen simply to power through them on my own? How often have I chosen to do things my way in contradiction to the inspired guidance of a loving Father? How often have I allowed pride and stubbornness to separate me from the Divine? And yet, no doubt, His hand was stretched out still.

How often do we disregard the commandments or think we know better than the prophets of God? How often do we make ourselves miserable, allowing ourselves to be dragged down to the gulf of misery and endless wo (Helaman 5:12)—and yet His hand is stretched out still?

How often? And yet—no matter how often—we cannot disqualify ourselves from this promise. We cannot put ourselves beyond His reach. In fact, no matter how foolish our choices may have been, no matter how far we may have drifted—He will be waiting there for us, and His hand will be stretched out still.

Even if we have been richly blessed and have chosen nonetheless to walk away, and even if in our wanderings we seem to have wasted our divine inheritance on riotous living, when we come unto ourselves and look, at last, toward Christ, we will see that His hand, as ever, is stretched out still (see Luke 15:11-24).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has stated: “However many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012).

When Jesus took on a mortal body—when He condescended to become like us—he suffered sicknesses and pains, afflictions and temptations, infirmities of every kind so that He would know, in that moment of despair, how to succor us commensurate with our suffering (Alma 7:11-12). That is, He came to understand and know what it is you feel when you lose your job or when the baby is sick or when you said that awful thing you never, ever should have said. He knows what it’s like when your husband dies or when your son is having a crisis of faith. He knows the ache that comes from feeling unloved or unnoticed, friendless even among the friendly. He knows all about your sleepless worry when the purse is empty and the end of the month is still two weeks away. He knows your disappointments, your frustrations, your hopelessness and your doubts. And above all, He knows the emptiness you feel when you commit that sin—again—that you swore you would never again commit, or when you find yourself bound by addiction or bad habits or spiritual weakness of any kind, weighed down by present-day consequences of bad choices made many years ago.

He descended below them all (D&C 122:8)—suffered them all—that we might not suffer (D&C 19:16). It is for that very reason that He said: “Come unto me,” for that very reason that He promised rest and relief to the heavy laden. It is for that very reason that His hand is stretched out still.

As we welcome in this Easter week, may we reflect on the promise of that outstretched hand—a promise He can keep today because of what He suffered for us nearly 2000 years ago. May we find ourselves, as Simon and Mary and Enos and countless others, calling out to Him in our moments of need. May we show our thanks for His sacrifice by accepting His love and taking His name upon us and keeping His commandments.

And may we always remember what took place on that first Good Friday—the very best Friday of all—when His hands were stretched out across that sacrificial beam. His hands were stretched out then . . . that they might be stretched out now. And to this day, His hands are stretched out still.

PW