What is the most well-known Christian scripture verse? John 3:16 right? It’s become a bit cliché. It’s a New Testament passage that has found its way into pop culture, predominantly through college football, and I would wager it to be one of the top ten scriptures memorized by Latter-day Saints.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
You may have even skimmed past the latter half of that sentence because you’ve heard it a thousand times or more. I had too. But lately I see it with new eyes. With all the topics scrolling across your favorite cable news channel in mind, I have heard too many Latter-day Saints speak about “the world” as if it is something to be hated. Or if not hated, definitely something we should be distancing ourselves from. Yet here, in this most well-known verse, what does God think about “the world”? He loves it. This comes harder for us because we tend to simplify things into binary – black and white, good and bad, which is much easier. While we look out upon the surface of humanity in disgust, God, first and foremost, sees the world through the loving eyes of a parent.
The subsequent verse, 17, explains even more of God’s attitude toward the world:
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
This is the difference between God and us. He doesn’t sit back enthroned in yonder heavens pointing at His creations and shaking His head in cosmic disappointment. He hasn’t adopted a “lost cause”, separatist attitude. No, instead He sees suffering and goes to work in an attempt to save what He so clearly and desperately loves. My theory as to why He is able to so freely work and love, is that He has mastered the art of selflessness. He has been liberated from the chains of “me”.
These chains bind the world, and therefore, all Latter-day Saints. Some have loosened them, or at least work to do so, while others have befriended them and embrace them as if holding them captive. It is in the best interest of the natural man not to see outside of self. It’s true we feel we have too much to work on, and really we do. We chip away at our idea of sins that have burdened us for years, maybe even decades, failing to see in our obsession with self, that Jesus has already obliterated them. The good news must just seem too good to be true. We stubbornly continue to bear burdens that haunt us, which keeps us from God’s work, bearing the burdens of others.
God has provided a gift that is one key to unlocking the power to overcome this obsession with self. It’s a gift that you and I have taken for granted. I wonder too, if it’s a gift we may not fully appreciate due to our culture and what we teach about this gift. Growing up I had countless lessons on the topic of the gift of the Holy Ghost. It’s not that I wasn’t taught about this gift being the cleansing baptism of fire but, just as baptism sometimes is, the gift of the Holy Ghost was misconstrued as a one-time cleansing agent. The constant companionship that is promised is often accepted as a magic 8-ball that will tell us about our future or an unembodied whisper of caution in our ears when danger is imminent. While I don’t mean to denigrate the very real protection that personal revelation provides, the idea of a phantom bestie, there to fulfill your wildest dreams or act as your bubble to shield you from the world, only tightens the chains of self.
In his last General Conference address, Elder David A. Bednar spoke of the phrase, “always retaining a remission of your sins” stating:
Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost is an ordinance administered in the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. In the process of coming unto the Savior and spiritual rebirth, receiving the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost in our lives creates the possibility of an ongoing cleansing of our soul from sin . . . made possible through the companionship and power of the Holy Ghost – even the third member of the Godhead.
This is why this gift is so precious and endows us with such power. Constant companionship means constant burning away of our dross. It is an everlasting fire that is steadily refining. This is made possible by the atonement of Jesus Christ who has invested in our potential to progress toward godhood. Understanding that the gift of the Holy Ghost is a constant sanctification is what enables us to focus outward and go about our Father’s business to save.
Now whom do we attempt to save? Often, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we naturally choose to focus our effort on those we deem to be deserving of it. This usually begins with those closest to us; family and friends, maybe my neighbor but who knows? I don’t know them very well. Certainly not a stranger. I don’t know what they’ll do with my love. Maybe they’ll buy drugs with it! In the book of Luke, chapter 17 we have an account of ten lepers who came to Jesus to be healed of a disease that cast them from society, “they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus does indeed extend His mercy to all ten but only one returned, and “fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks.” One could say that the other nine were undeserving of Jesus’ mercy. Do you not think He knew the hearts of the nine before healing them? Yet He still healed.
That isn’t fair, is it? Justice was not served in the account of the ten lepers. If it was, only the leper who expressed gratitude would have been healed or Jesus would have cast leprosy back onto the ungrateful nine. Often times we are still obsessed with the justice of the old law. This is why we deify a captain who, as great as he was, lived according to the old law, while we sometimes ignore actual deity who fulfilled the old and expressed the new:
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Mercy, the blanket term for benevolence, forgiveness and kindness, is our instruction. God is merciful and we each can be an extension of that mercy. He is also just but His perfect knowledge makes justice perfect. We mortals, on the other hand, tend to turn justice into a seesawing battle for self, due to our limited understanding. If we take the instruction to be merciful seriously, our journey will naturally bring us to seek to understand the motivations behind the actions of others.
When it comes to understanding, our forerunner Jesus Christ has already blazed this trail. All we have to do is follow. He went to the ultimate extreme so that He could understand and in turn, lift and succor. The great Jehovah of the Old Testament “descended below all things” (D&C 88:6) in order to understand, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). By doing this, He set the standard of seeking to obtain ultimate empathy and understanding. The highest form of understanding is experience. God is God because of His experience. Yet sometimes we can’t even be bothered to think about what the plight of another might be like. We are often damned by our own limited sphere of experience, so if we can’t experience directly, we may need to descend below others in humility so we can look up and be taught by their experiences.
Applied to our society, these ideas are often realized through the idea of social justice. While protesting the killings of black citizens by police and the subsequent lack of punitive action, members of the recent Black Lives Matter movement often shout, “No justice, no peace!” These incidents were the drop that caused the cup of brimming frustrations to spill over from a community that, whether you agree with their actions and ideologies or not, feel marginalized. But is justice really the answer? The shooter in Dallas, who killed five police officers in retaliation, may have erroneously thought he was evening the scales of justice, an eye for an eye. I’m not saying this movement shouldn’t demand justice, rather that the fact that a group of our brothers and sisters feel they have to cry out for it in the first place, exposes an ugly blemish on a nation many refer to as a Christian one.
Many have responded to these cries for justice with the phrase “all lives matter”. On the surface this sounds great. Of course all lives matter, especially to the Creator of those lives. Although I’m sure well intentioned, this response to suffering is justice in human hands. It is meeting need with negligence. Mercy, on the other hand, demands more from us all. It would take the care and time to understand the Black Lives Matter movement and see that their very name is a call of questioning, “Why don’t you think we matter? Why don’t you see us?” In the popular young adult novel A Monster Calls, the protagonist, Conor, is bullied in what could possibly be the cruelest of ways. Conor comes to a point in his story in which all he craves is to be seen and understood, even if it means through cruelty. At least when being bullied, he’s not ignored. So rather than continue his physical assaults, his bully deduces what will hurt most and so he tells Conor coldly, ”I no longer see you.”
Think of your moments of darkness and hopelessness, when you dropped to your knees and cried out in a panic to God, “I need you! Where are you? Please, hear my prayer!” What if the cosmic response was, “All prayers matter.” The fact is they do. God would be correct and just in saying so, but God does more. He offers more than pointing out the obvious. In little personal, sacred moments of clarity, He assures you that His eye is on the sparrow but His heart is yours. He responds: “Daughter, I hear you. Son, I see you.” Should not our response to the cries for help in our society be similar? “Sister, I hear you. Brother, I see you.” This is social mercy.
Some may cynically label this social mercy as a patronizing mission to stroke the ego of those with a savior complex, but this accusation is often only a bandage over the wound that festers when we choose to neglect our fellow men and ignore the whispers to invest in them by caring. The natural man is a comfortable man and caring often demands being a little uncomfortable. This is human justice trying to force its way back into the story by assuming that focusing on others cannot be altruistic. So we sacrifice the higher law for the one that makes more sense to us, the path of least resistance. We do need to be vigilant and try our best to be sure our motives are pure, but even if imperfect, when they lead to actions that reflect the example of Christ, our motives can be purified in Him.
We Latter-day Saints, constantly on fire with the gift of the Holy Ghost, should not be running away and seeking shelter from the world in fear. Or standing aloof, dealing out unholy judgment from afar. We should be blazing trails in the direction of the Prince of Peace, providing and preaching charity and compassion. We can love our covenants and preserve them, becoming ourselves preservatives in the process. We can throw ourselves into the world and love the hell out of it, causing the whole to rise. This reckless but sincere love will lead to advocating for social mercy, which will cause a craving to understand. Understanding will shed new light, which will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day, and until then:
No mercy, no peace.