Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 3: Freedom of Choice, an Eternal Principle

When I first saw this chapter listed in the book’s index, I wondered if it would be centered on the need for liberty in the sense of freedoms allowed by governments, especially the United States of America since that was an important theme to Ezra Taft Benson. As it turns out, this is a chapter aimed at humankind’s use of moral agency for good or for bad.  The “from the life” section focuses on how working on a farm alongside his parents helped instill values of self-reliance and responsibility for actions into Ezra Taft Benson. Section one deals with the presentation of the Plan of Salvation at the Council in Heaven and the war over freedom of choice during this earth life. Section two deals with this mortal life by stating that it is a period of probation to see what we’ll choose. Attached to this is the corollary that while God could intervene to prevent wickedness, He does not do so in order to allow us the freedom of choice. Section three moves into the eternities after this life, essentially stating that our choices here determine our place there. In light of that idea, choices during this life are extremely important and both God and Satan are hard at work to get us to choose the things that they want for us. Section four states that prayer and personal revelation are essential to making wise decisions. Section five states that God’s design is the salvation and exaltation of His children and that He allows us to work some things out on our own, which “prepares men for godhood.”

Ezra Taft Benson

Resources:

Suggested Hymns

“Know This, That Every Soul is Free”

“Choose the Right”

Videos

Thomas S. Monson: Individual Agency

Mormon Message: The Freedom To…

Object Lesson

From The Ready Resource for Relief Society:

Set up a game of Jenga or Stak Attack or simply stack up wooden blocks in a weave pattern where you pull out the blocks and restack them on top until the tower tumbles. Invite class members to remove one of the blocks and mention a commandment we need to obey. When we obey a commandment, it strengthens our testimony of that principle. As you play the game, discuss the consequences of disobedience. Eventually, the tower will fall, and so will our spirituality when we continue to choose evil over good. We have the freedom to choose, but we can’t select the consequences.[1]

Further Reading

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 3

Terryl Givens: Joseph Smith, Romanticism, and Tragic Creation

Terryl Givens: “Moral, Responsible, and Free” Mormon Conceptions of Divine Justice

D. Todd Christofferson: Moral Agency

Robert D. Hales: Agency: Essential to the Plan of Life

Sugardoodle Lesson Helps

Quotes

Boyd K. Packer: The old saying “The Lord is voting for me, and Lucifer is voting against me, but it is my vote that counts” describes a doctrinal certainty that our agency is more powerful than the adversary’s will. Agency is precious. We can foolishly, blindly give it away, but it cannot be forcibly taken from us.

There is also an age-old excuse: “The devil made me do it.” Not so! He can deceive you and mislead you, but he does not have the power to force you or anyone else to transgress or to keep you in transgression.[2]

Boyd K. Packer Image courtesy LDS.org

Boyd K. Packer
Image courtesy LDS.org

David O. McKay: Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.[3]

Freedom of the will and the responsibility associated with it are fundamental aspects of Jesus’ teachings. Throughout his ministry he emphasized the worth of the individual, and exemplified what is now expressed in modern revelation as the work and glory of God—“To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” [Moses 1:39.] Only through the divine gift of soul freedom is such progress possible.

Force, on the other hand, emanates from Lucifer himself. Even in man’s [premortal] state, Satan sought power to compel the human family to do his will by suggesting that the free agency of man be inoperative. If his plan had been accepted, human beings would have become mere puppets in the hands of a dictator, and the purpose of man’s coming to earth would have been frustrated. Satan’s proposed system of government, therefore, was rejected, and the principle of free agency established.[4]

Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man. . . . Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give. It is inherent in the spirit of man. It is a divine gift.[5]

David O. McKay

David O. McKay

Joseph Smith: The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he would save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him.[6]

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

Brigham Young: You cannot give any persons their exaltation unless they know what evil is, what sin, sorrow, and misery are, for no person could comprehend, appreciate and enjoy an exaltation upon any other principle.[7]

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

George Albert Smith: We choose where we will be. God has given us our agency. He will not take it from us, and if I do that which is wrong and get into the devil’s territory, I do it because I have the will and power to do it. I cannot blame anybody else, and if I determine to keep the commandments of God and live as I ought to live and stay on the Lord’s side of the line I do it because I ought to do it, and I will receive my blessing for it. It will not be the result of what somebody else may do.[8]

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith

A Deeper Look

During the mid-1800s, President Brigham Young made the following, very interesting statement:

It is a mistaken idea that God has decreed all things whatsoever that come to pass, for the volition of the creature is as free as air. You may inquire whether we believe in foreordination; we do, as strongly as any people in the world. We believe that Jesus was foreordained before the foundations of the world were built, and his mission was appointed him in eternity to be the Savior of the world, yet when he came in the flesh he was left free to choose or refuse to obey his Father. Had he refused to obey his Father, he would have become a son of perdition. We also are free to choose or refuse the principles of eternal life. God has decreed and foreordained many things that have come to pass, and he will continue to do so; but when he decrees great blessings upon a nation or upon an individual they are decreed upon certain conditions. . . . God rules and reigns, and has made all his children as free as himself, to choose the right or the wrong, and we shall then be judged according to our works.[9]

The basic problem being addressed in this statement is the question of whether or not we are truly free. A connected question concerns the difference between foreordination (as spoken of by Brigham Young) and predestination. My hope is to explain and address both of these questions within the Mormon viewpoint. What follows will be a relatively brief crack at explaining things as I understand them and will involve some simplification of deep ideas on all sides of the question. I will not be able to really do justice to any of the issues involved, but can at least introduce the subject. That being said, let us proceed.

The first question—are we truly free—is largely dependent upon our natures in relation to God both in how He created us and His foreknowledge. According to classical Christian theology, God is a being of unlimited power who created all things out of nothing (ex nihilo is the technical term for this type of creation). Since He is the absolute creator of all things, God is the only being who could not exist and all other things are entirely dependent on Him for their existence and for their natures. The logical conclusion for our relationship to God from this belief is that if God created our natures and entire beings, our faults and weaknesses, our tendency to do evil or to do good, were all created according to His will. If God created human beings with complete control over what they are, then of course they will carry out everything according to His will. If He created me with the inclination to salvation, I will take the path to salvation and be saved. If He created me with a nature that leads me to damnation, I will take the path to damnation and be damned and it is according to God’s will. Ultimately, if my nature is dependent on God, so are my choices, and my freedom to choose is curtailed.

Jehovah Creates the Earth, Walter Rane

Jehovah Creates the Earth, Walter Rane

Mormon theology, as outlined by Joseph Smith, takes a radical departure from this approach, denying the ex nihilo creation. Concerning the creation of the world, the Prophet taught that:

God did not make the earth out of Nothing; for it is contrary to a Rashanall [rational] mind & Reason. that a something could be Brought from a Nothing; also it is contry to the principle & Means by witch God does work; for instance; when God formed man, he made him of something; the Dust of the Earth, & and he allways took a somthing to afect a something Else.[10]

Later, in the King Follett discourse, he continued this thought and taught that the God’s approach was an organization of previously existing things, “the same as a man would organize and use things to build a ship. Hence, we infer that God Himself had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter—which is element and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had.”[11] In that same discourse, Joseph Smith applied the same idea of creation to the souls of humankind:

The soul—the immortal spirit—the mind of man. Where did it come from? All doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning, but it is not so. The very idea lessens the character of man, in my estimation. I don’t believe the doctrine. . . . The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself. . . .

Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God.[12]

The creation of human beings, then, was not an act of God making everything according to His will out of nothing, but one of inviting already-existing spirits (intelligences) to come under His tutelage in order to learn to become like Himself:

All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement and improvement. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him, so that they might have one glory upon another in all that knowledge, power, and glory. So He took in hand to save the world of spirits.[13]

the-creation-of-adam

“Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God.”

In relation to our free will, then, our natures are not created by God. We already existed with an independent will and were given a choice to follow His tutelage or not. This ability to choose whether to follow God carries on through each stage of the Plan of Salvation. As Elder B. H. Roberts later wrote:

This conception of things relieves God of the responsibility for the nature and status of intelligences in all stages of their development; their inherent nature and their volition makes them primarily what they are, and this nature they may change, slowly, perhaps, yet change it they may. God has put them in the way of changing it, by enlarging their intelligence through change of environment, through experiences; the only way God effects these self-existent beings is favorably; He creates not their inherent nature; He is not responsible for the use they make of their freedom; nor is He the author of their sufferings when they fall into sin: that arises out of the violations of law, to which the “Intelligence” subscribed, and must be endured until the lessons of obedience to law are learned.[14]

The idea of a premortal existence also provides at least one potential explanation for another aspect of our relationship with God that affects our freedom—the paradox of God’s foreknowledge. The problem, in essence, is if God knows the future and understands what is going to happen, wouldn’t that be because He has willed everything to take place in a certain manner? If He has willed everything to take place and knows what will take place, then did we really choose anything on our own? The answer that premortality furnishes to this paradox was beautifully outlined by Elder James E. Talmage:

Our Heavenly Father has a full knowledge of the nature and disposition of each of His children, a knowledge gained by long observation and experience in the past eternity of our primeval childhood; a knowledge compared with what that gained by earthly parents through mortal experience with their children is infinitesimally small. By reason of that surpassing knowledge, God reads the future of child and children, of men individually and of men collectively as communities and nations; He knows what each will do under given conditions, and sees the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge is based on intelligence and reason. He foresees the future as a state which naturally and surely will be; not as one which must be because He has arbitrarily willed that it shall be.[15]

With the understanding that comes from these ideas—the uncreated nature of the human spirit and God’s foreknowledge stemming from an understanding of people—we can differentiate between foreordination and predestination. Predestination is a concept held by many Christians that—as defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary—is “the belief that everything that will happen has already been decided by God or fate and cannot be changed.”[16] The Google definition search states that it is, “the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others. It has been particularly associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Calvin.”[17] As discussed above, if God has complete control over my nature in the creation, my will is subject to Him and I will carry out a predestined path in my choices in mortality. Thus, in this view, my salvation would depend on God’s will and not my own.

Foreordination, as defined by LDS.org, is the idea that “in the premortal spirit world, God appointed certain spirits to fulfill specific missions during their mortal lives. This is called foreordination. Foreordination does not guarantee that individuals will receive certain callings or responsibilities. Such opportunities come in this life as a result of the righteous exercise of agency, just as foreordination came as a result of righteousness in the premortal existence.”[18] From these definitions, a distinction may be seen between foreordination and predestination. Foreordination is the premortal appointment of human beings to certain missions to be fulfilled in mortality. Individual choice allows for the opportunity to reject these responsibilities during the course of their lives. Predestination is the absolute determination of things that will be by God, including salvation of certain individuals, without regard to human agency.

christus-statue

“We believe that Jesus was foreordained before the foundations of the world were built, and his mission was appointed him in eternity to be the Savior of the world, yet when he came in the flesh he was left free to choose or refuse to obey his Father.” ~Brigham Young

Come Unto Christ

All this has a bearing on another important question—the problem of evil. In the Ezra Taft Benson manual, President Benson is quoted as stating that: “There is no evil that [Jesus Christ] cannot arrest. All things are in His hands. This earth is His rightful dominion. Yet He permits evil so that we can make choices between good and evil.”[19] The editors of the manual emphasize this statement by inserting this question at the end of the chapter: “People often wonder why God allows evil to exist in the world. How do President Benson’s teachings in section 2 help to answer that question?”[20] This problematic question of why God allows evil was succinctly summarized by Mormon intellectual Sterling M. McMurrin when he wrote: “The problem of theodicy [the problem of evil’s existence] in theism is how to reconcile the absolute power and absolute goodness of God with the facts of moral evil and the suffering caused by such natural events as floods, earthquakes, and disease. One of the angles of this triangle has to go.”[21] In other words, if God is able to do all things and loves us, why does He allow evils that cause human suffering to occur? McMurrin went on to write elsewhere that:

It is in the explanation of moral and natural evil, the most persistent problem with which theistic philosophy must contend, that Mormon theology exhibits its chief theoretic strength. It is a strength that has never been fully exploited, however, for here again the Mormon theologians generally seem to be unaware of this advantage that accrues from the radically unorthodox character of their primary philosophical commitments. Here the concept of the free will of the uncreated self joins the non-absolutistic conception of the divine power to absolve God of any complicity in the world’s moral evil, the evil that is done by men. And the uncreated impersonal environment of God provides the explanation of natural evil, the evils of the world that are not the product of an evil personal will.[22]

We’ve already discussed the “free will of the uncreated self” in the previous section, but not the “non-absolutistic conception of the divine power.” What the scholar is proposing with this latter idea is that God is not limitless in his power and control in the universe. Hence, he is stating that out of the three angles of the theodicy triangle—God’s absolute power, absolute goodness, and the existence of evil—God’s absolute power is the corner of the theodicy triangle that falls in Mormonism. Though we should be hesitant to accept McMurrin as an interpreter of doctrine, I do believe he has a point here. In one of Joseph Smith’s revelations it is stated that “all kingdoms have a law given” and those who would be perfected and sanctified in the highest kingdom of God must abide by the laws of that kingdom (see D&C 88:34-39). President Brigham Young made it clear that there are laws that apply to God Himself when he taught that, “Are they [gods and the angels] governed by law? Certainly. There is no being in all the eternities but what is governed by law.”[23] Elder John A Widtsoe restated this concept when he wrote that: “God is part of nature, and superior to it only in the sense that the electrician is superior to the current that is transmitted along the wire. The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God can not transcend them.”[24]  In the Book of Mormon, Alma even goes as far as to suggest that if certain principles were not followed, “God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:13, 22, 25.)

"The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God can not transcend them." ~John A. Widtsoe

“The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God can not transcend them.” ~John A. Widtsoe

What this idea of God having laws that He is governed by would suggest is that He is limited and not limitless in His powers. He may be omnipotent within the parameters He is working within, but the fact that he has parameters implies limitations. Applying this to the idea of the existence of natural evil, McMurrin stated that “the uncreated impersonal environment of God provides the explanation of natural evil, the evils of the world that are not the product of an evil personal will.” In other words, God does not necessarily enjoy or desire inflicting destruction on His children in the world through earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that cause suffering on earth. In some cases, He may have hand in causing such things to be as part of a greater plan, but it is also possible that in other cases such things are part of a natural order in the universe that cannot be overcome. That is just a suggestion and not an established doctrine in the Church; however, it does have some merit in explaining the existence of natural evils.

When it comes to moral evil—evils caused by the decisions of human beings—we have already seen that the freedom inherit in being uncreated spirits limits how much control God exerts upon us. Building upon B. H. Robert’s idea that “Salvation is a matter of character-building under the Gospel laws and ordinances, and more especially with the direct aid of the Holy Spirit,”[25] and Brigham Young’s statement that God intends us to learn to “act . . . as independently in your spheres as I [God] do in the government of heaven,”[26] we may gain a clearer understanding of David O. McKay’s belief that, “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.”[27] We must be free to make decisions in order to learn to act independently in our spheres and to grow in our character. To truly know good from evil, we must experience both and learn that we want to choose the good and make that choice a part of our character. Hence, Brigham Young’s teaching that “you cannot give any persons their exaltation unless they know what evil is, what sin, sorrow, and misery are, for no person could comprehend, appreciate and enjoy an exaltation upon any other principle.”[28] God binds Himself by the rules of allowing freedom of choice and the creation of evil through bad choices to achieve his greater goal of our exaltation in the end.

That being said, it must also be stated that the existence of moral evil is not a pleasant thing, even for God. While we describe His state of being as a “fulness of joy,” it must be similar to the state of the three Nephites who were translated to a condition where “they might not suffer pain nor sorrow save it were for the sins of the world.” (3 Nephi 28:10, 38.) That sorrow for the sins of the world, though, is immense. Enoch saw God look “upon the residue of the people, and he wept.” When pressed for a reason, God explained that Enoch’s brethren were “without affection, and they hate their own blood” rather than obeying the commandment “that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father.” God further explained that, “Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of my hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:28-33, 37.) This dilemma of evil caused by the free agency of man as set up in God’s methods and purposes in our creation has been referred to by Terryl Givens as a “tragic creation”:

In loving man enough to give him his agency, God set up the conditions for a tragic universe. Here is how the dilemma unfolds. Man, in his freedom, chooses sin. The freedom to sin collides with God’s desire to save. . . . The tragic cost of this agency is comprehended in all the misery that sin and alienation entail.[29]

While God does have some limitations, He is also “mighty to save” through “the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.” (Alma 7:14.) In the words of Joseph Smith: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (Articles of Faith, 1:3.) “What hath Jesus said?—[for] all sins & all blasphemies every transgression except one there is a provision either in this world or in the world of spirit. Hence God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferreted out in that world that has not sinned the unpardonable sin neither in this world or in the world of spirits.”[30] All wrongs may be righted, all wounds may be healed, and there will come a day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” (Revelation 21:4.) The tragic creation will eventually work out as a triumph for God.

It can be understood from all of this that evil isn’t something that stems directly from God but is an inherent part of the entropy-driven universe. He works through mastery of natural and spiritual laws to bring things to order and to work towards eliminating evil while bringing self-existing spirits into a state similar to His own through tutoring them in His ways. This puts us in a position that we may work with God to overcome evil and alleviate suffering in our lives and the lives of others by learning to be subject to the same laws He subjects himself to. This is accomplished through obedience to the Gospel as revealed to us through prophets and the Holy Spirit and by reaching out and building positive relationships with our fellow travelers in mortality. By so doing, we may increase the sum total of this world’s happiness, for, in the words of Joseph Smith, “happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof if we pursue the path that leads to it.”[31]

gethsemane carl bloch

“Have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.” (Alma 7:14.)

[1] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 420-424). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition

[2] Boyd K. Packer, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” CR, October 2010, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/cleansing-the-inner-vessel?lang=eng.

[3] David O. McKay, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206.

[4] McKay, Teachings, 207.

[5] McKay, Teachings, 208.

[6] Joseph Smith, Jr. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 209.

[7] Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 51.

[8] George Albert Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 198.

[9] Young, Teachings, 51-52.

[10] Ehat and Cook, Words, Kindle Locations 1356-1359.

[11] Stan Lason, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978): 10-11.

[12] Larson, “Newly Amalgamated,” 11-12.

[13] Larson, “Newly Amalgamated,” 12.

[14] B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith the Prophet Teacher: A Discourse by Elder B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1908), 59-60.

[15] James E. Talmage, Calvin R. Stephens (ed) A Beginner’s Guide to Talmage: Excerpts from the Writings of James E. Talmage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 48-49.

[16] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/predestination

[17] https://www.google.com/search?q=predestination+definition&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS579US579&oq=predestination+definition&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.6410j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=93&ie=UTF-8

[18] https://www.lds.org/topics/foreordination?lang=eng

[19] Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ  of Latter-day Saints, 2014), 62.

[20] Benson, Teachings, 66.

[21] Sterling M. McMurrin, “Introduction: The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in B. H. Roberts and Stan Larson (ed), The Truth, the Way, the Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xix.

[22] Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 91.

[23] Young, Teachings, 15.

[24] John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientists: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 137, 138.

[25] B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed (Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 208.

[26] Brigham Young, Discourse, 3 December 1854, JD 2:139.

[27] David O. McKay, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206.

[28] Young, Teachings, 51.

[29] Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith, Romanticism, and Tragic Creation,” Richard Bushman Mormon Studies Symposium 2011, http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Bushman_Talk_2011.pdf.

[30] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 6395-6397). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[31] Joseph Smith, Jr. and Marvin S. Hill (ed.), The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 159.

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Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 2: Pray Always

This chapter, as the name implies, is focused on prayer. The life section focuses on how prayer was an integral part of President Benson’s life with specific mentions of his parents teaching him about prayer, his insistence on starting each cabinet meeting with prayer while he was secretary of agriculture, and Gordon B. Hinckley’s recollections of what Ezra Taft Benson’s prayers were like. Section one focuses on Ezra Taft Benson reflecting on the Savior’s teachings on prayer, particularly focusing on the idea of praying always. Section two focuses on encouraging family prayer to teach children and unite families at night and in the morning. Section three focuses on several ways to improve our prayers. Section four gives examples of the power of prayer from both Joseph Smith and Ezra Taft Benson’s lives with particular emphasis on some of Elder Benson’s experiences in post-WWII Europe.

Prayer helped Ezra Taft Benson make his way around Europe shortly after WWII

Prayer helped Ezra Taft Benson make his way around Europe shortly after WWII

Resources:

Videos

Since the end of this chapter deals with some of the stories about prayer getting Elder Benson places in post-WWII Europe, it is worth noting that there is a section in Sheri Dew’s presentation on Ezra Taft Benson that deals with those stories more extensively and even emphasizes how prayer and revelation led Elder Benson. In addition, there are several clips in the Church History Gallery on Ezra Taft Benson that apply to the subject of prayer—such as a missionary experience with prayer saving him and his insistence on prayer while he served as Secretary of Agriculture.

Object Lessons

Two object lessons taken from a “ready resources for Relief Society” book are quoted below. Please note that while they are geared towards women (and hence use terms like Sister, she or her for the volunteers), they work just as well for Priesthood quorums:

Invite the class to share their experiences of trying to find a moment in their hectic lives for personal prayer. Before the discussion ask a volunteer in private to keep raising her hand while you ignore her. You could even acknowledge her, but tell her you need to say a few more things before she can talk. Finally, when you call her have her tell the class of your plan and explain that sometimes our prayers are like that; we do all of the talking and don’t let the Lord participate in the discussion.[1]

As you walk into the room, talk loudly on your mobile phone as if you are talking to a friend. Talk about your plans for the day, the things you need to do, and then ask for advice. Ask the class to compare your conversation to prayer. Remind them that talking on a cell phone is different from prayer in the following ways:

  • God is never out of range.
  • We never “lose the signal.”
  • The battery never runs dead.
  • We never run out of minutes.
  • We don’t have to remember God’s number. Just talk![2]

Another option available as an activity is to copy the section on prayer in Chapter Four of Preach My Gospel and have the class read the suggestions for prayer from that manual (adapting them to non-mission life) or just have them read section three of this chapter in the Ezra Taft Benson manual,  and then have class members work through the personal study activity on page 95 of Preach My Gospel which allows individuals to gauge how meaningful their prayers are. Invite them to periodically re-evaluate themselves throughout the upcoming weeks while they work on improving their prayers.

Family prayer. Image courtesy LDS.org

Family prayer.
Image courtesy LDS.org

Quotes on Prayer

James E. Talmage: “Are our homes kept pure by prayer? Prayer is the Lord’s great sterilizer against the germs of spiritual disease that make their way into our homes, contaminating the atmosphere, poisoning the food we eat. I don’t mean your family prayers only; but do we individually pray?”[3]

Thomas S. Monson: “Prayer is the passport to spiritual power.”[4]

Neal A. Maxwell: “We are often not only too slow to get on our knees but too quick to rise from them, as if prayer involved physical calisthenics.”[5]

Gordon B. Hinckley: The trouble with most of our prayers is that we give them as if we were picking up the telephone and ordering groceries—we place our order and hang up. We need to meditate, contemplate, think of what we are praying about and for and then speak to the Lord as one man speaketh to another. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18). That is the invitation. Believe in the power of prayer—it is real, it is wonderful, it is tremendous.[6]

J. Golden Kimball: “There seemed a friendliness between my father and God, and when you heard him pray you would actually think the Lord was right there, and that father was talking to Him. Can you pray that way? Are you on such friendly terms with the Lord? I don’t mean that we should get too friendly and take advantage of it, like children with parents, but that we should manifest reverence and love for the Lord, ask only for what we need, and not for what we want.”[7]

Joseph Smith, Jr.: Henry W. Bigler recalled: “Speaking about praying to our Father in heaven, I once heard Joseph Smith remark, ‘Be plain and simple and ask for what you want, just like you would go to a neighbor and say, I want to borrow your horse to go to [the] mill.’”[8]

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (a Catholic Saint): “I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and he always understands me.”[9]

St. Alphonsus Liguori (a Catholic Saint): “Acquire the habit of speaking to God as if you were alone with God. Speak with familiarity and confidence as to your dearest and most loving friend. Speak of your life, your plans, your troubles, your joys, your fears. In return, God will speak to you—not that you will hear audible words in your ears, but words that you will clearly understand in your heart.”[10]

St. Edmund the Martyr (a Catholic Saint): “Countless numbers are deceived in multiplying prayers. I would rather say five words devoutly with my heart than five thousand which my soul does not relish with affection and understanding.”[11]

J. Golden Kimball Folklore (not a Catholic Saint): “Brother Golden was out in the field (while he was serving his mission in the southern states), praying and praying. He finished, then looked up and saw two men eyeing him and his companion, the men were armed. Brother Golden said, speaking to his companion, “Hell, didn’t I tell ya those longwinded prayers’d get us in trouble.”[12]

J. Golden Kimball

J. Golden Kimball

Come Unto Christ

One of the parables and teachings of Jesus Christ that Ezra Taft Benson briefly touches upon is the parable of the unjust judge. The entire story, as recorded in Luke, is as follows:

And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. (Luke 18:1-6.)

This parable is interesting in that it compares God to an unjust human, indicating that He can be swayed in his course by persistent prayer. To make more sense of that comparison, one might cross-reference the parable with another teaching moment on prayer, where the Savior gives an early example and then states that, “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?” (Matt 7:11.) In other words, if this unjust judge can be swayed by constant pleadings, how much more willing will your loving Father in Heaven be to grant your requests when asked repeatedly for a blessing?

Couple praying in Ghana Image courtesy LDS.org

Couple praying in Ghana
Image courtesy LDS.org

While there is evidence that God can indeed be swayed by prayer, particularly in the older traditions held in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the true point of the parable is “that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” This indicates that there is power in consistent prayer. One of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr. on the matter that has always struck me comes from a Nauvoo-era discourse in which he states: “God is not a respecter of persons, we all have the same privilege. Come to God weary him until he blesses you.”[13] The idea of praying enough to weary God sounds wearying, but there is truly a power in having a consistent relationship with God.

There are also many other ways to increase the power of our prayers. Section three in the lesson focuses on five different ways, which work fine. Briefly, I just wanted to share one or two thoughts on making our prayers meaningful and pertinent. There is mental effort required in prayer, a striving with God. I remember when Elder Tad Callister came to a stake conference here in Logan, Utah a year or so ago, he spoke of practicing tennis against a garage door growing up and observed that if he drove the ball into the door harder, the ball would return faster and more forcefully. He went on to compare this to prayer, saying the more effort and energy we put into the prayer, the more likely we are to have strong responses. In this regard, I find the following words of Patricia Holland on prayer insightful:

We are women now, not children, and we are expected to pray with maturity. The words most often used to describe urgent, prayerful labor are wrestle, plead, cry, and hunger. In some sense, prayer may be the hardest work we ever will engage in, and perhaps it should be. It is pivotal protection against becoming so involved with worldly possessions and honors and status that we no longer desire to undertake the search for our soul.[14]

Prayer is hard work that requires consistent effort, if we wish to pray as the Savior would have us pray.

Young man praying in Brazil Image courtesy LDS.org

Young man praying in Brazil
Image courtesy LDS.org

A Deeper Look

Another interesting statement from our Savior on prayer is that “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” (Matt 6:8.) Why is it that if we have a loving, all-powerful Father-God who knows what we need without us even asking Him that we even need to ask Him? Shouldn’t He just take care of our needs either way? Well, the answer to that is complicated. Of course He does take care of us regardless of prayers, though we can indeed gain special blessings through prayer. There seems to be something that we need to learn or experience in prayer.

In another Nauvoo-era sermon, Joseph Smith stated that, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20-21.) God follows certain laws in running our earth experience. Whether it is because He is required to operate by these laws or whether He chose to put them in place because they are the best way for us to progress is not always clear, however, we do know that certain laws are put in place. When applied to prayer, Joseph Smith taught the Saints to: “Supplicate at the throne of grace, that the Spirit of the Lord may always rest upon you. Remember that without asking we can receive nothing; therefore, ask in faith, and ye shall receive such blessings as God sees fit to bestow upon you.”[15] Hence, as the LDS Bible dictionary states: “The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.”[16]

To my eyes, one of the purposes of requiring us to pray to receive certain blessings is to remind us that we are working out our salvation in an ongoing relationship with God. Prayer is both a turning to God to request divine help and a time of meditation to experience our relationship with Him. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell so beautifully wrote: “Prayer is that point where the agency of man meets the omniscience of God, and it is where time melts as it touches eternity.”[17] A BYU professor by the name of Mary Jane Woodger observed along these lines that: “Although the Lord has promised to grant our righteous desires, I recently learned to look at prayer in a new way. ‘The miracle of prayer does not reside in the ability to manipulate situations and events.’ Rather, the miracle is that we have a relationship with God and have the knowledge that He is there, that He loves us and desires to bless us.”[18]

“Prayer is that point where the agency of man meets the omniscience of God, and it is where time melts as it touches eternity.”

“Prayer is that point where the agency of man meets the omniscience of God, and it is where time melts as it touches eternity.”

While we experience our relationship with God during prayer, it is a time to listen to His will for us. Returning to the LDS Bible Dictionary, we read that, “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” While serving a mission in Illinois and Iowa, I had an experience that drove that point home to me. We were scheduled to visit a college student who had unwittingly had a Book of Mormon ordered on his behalf as a prank, but had agreed to meet with us a few times anyway. On this particular evening, my companion began expressing that he didn’t want to go. I dismissed these objections as some sort of laziness, but as we knelt to pray before leaving our apartment to travel to the appointment, something happened. As I prayed, the Spirit began working inside of me to tell me that we should not go to this appointment. At first I prayed for help “when we go” to the appointment, which soon turned to “if we are going.” Then, after a pause, and some reflections on the feelings the Spirit was giving me, I began praying to know where we should go and what we should do with the rest of our evening. Over the course of this prayer, my heart and mind were brought into line with the will of God in a way that I wasn’t allowing beforehand.

Prayer is a powerful thing for us in multiple ways. It is the required work to receive certain blessings, an opportunity to meditate and feel the Spirit as we experience our relationship with God in a unique way, and it is a time to bring our will into correspondence with His will. Hopefully some of what I’ve shared will be helpful as you teach in the upcoming weeks. Happy teaching.

rane-first-vision_MD

[1] Boice, Trina (2013-11-13). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teaching: Joseph Fielding Smith (Kindle Locations 2560-2563). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Boice, Trina (2013-11-13). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teaching: Joseph Fielding Smith (Kindle Locations 2564-2568). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[3] James E. Talmage and Calivn R. Stephens (ed.), A Beginner’s Guide to Talmage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013), 264.

[4] Thomas S. Monson, Teachings of Thomas S. Monson, Lynne F. Cannegieter, ed. (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 2011), 229.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, Cory H. Maxwell, ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 262.

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1997), 469.

[7] Mikal Lofģren, Wheat: Humor and Wisdom of J. Golden Kimball (Salt Lake City: Moth House Publications, 1980), 65.

[8]  Joseph Smith, Jr. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 131-132.

[9] Carol Keely-Gangi (ed.), The Essential Wisdom of the Saints (New York: Fall River Press, 2008), 28.

[10] Keely-Gangi, Essential Wisdom, 26.

[11] Keely-Gangi, Essential Wisdom, 27.

[12] Eric A. Eliason, The J. Golden Kimball Stories (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 104-105.

[13] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 717-718). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition, emphasis added.

[14] Patricia T. Holland, Young Women Presidency “One Thing Needful: Becoming Women of Greater Faith in Christ.” Ensign, October 1987

[15] Joseph Smith, Jr. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 131, emphasis added.

[16] LDS Bible Dictionary, “Prayer”

[17] Neal A. Maxwell, 260

[18] Mary Jane Woodger, Professor at BYU “What I Have Learned About Mighty Prayer.” Ensign, December 2006

Ezra Taft Benson, Life Sketch and Introduction

Some priesthood quorums and Relief Societies give leniency towards starting out the year with a lesson specifically devoted to introducing the new manuals and pick up on the lesson chapters later in January. Other teachers will work to introduce Ezra Taft Benson for part of the first lesson and then segue into chapter one of the manual. Either way, I thought I would offer some resources and info to help with the discussion of this man’s life.

Ezra Taft Benson

Resources

Since most people probably don’t have time to read the full Sheri Dew biography by Sunday, shorter life sketches are a good thing to have access to. In addition to the sketch presented in the manual, the Church has published several other manuals and provided other resources that can be used. Several of these are listed below:

Manuals:

The Presidents of the Church manual chapter on President Benson (highly recommended—includes video links on the page)

The Church History in the Fulness of Times manuals, with a chapter focused on his presidency and another on the post-WWII recovery efforts, which features stories from Elder Benson’s ministry during that time.

Church History Website Resources:

Video of lecture presentation by biographer Sheri Dew

Exhibit for Ezra Taft Benson

18-minute Documentary on Ezra Taft Benson

Other Recommended Resources:

The Truman G. Madsen Presidents of the Church lecture series (available as Audio CDs and as a book) are also a great resource, if you can get your hands on it.

Overview and advice

It would be advisable to remind class members why this manual was created in the first place. This can easily be accomplished by reading the First Presidency Introduction on page v, which reads as follows:

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have established the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series to help you draw closer to your Heavenly Father and deepen your understanding of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Church adds volumes to this series, you will build a collection of gospel reference books for your home. The volumes in this series are designed to be used for personal study and for Sunday instruction. They can also help you prepare other lessons or talks and answer questions about Church doctrine.

This book features the teachings of President Ezra Taft Benson, who served as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from November 10, 1985, to May 30, 1994.

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

When it comes to introducing the content of the manual, it could be useful to discuss how each president of the Church had different focuses according to the needs of the time and their own interests. Some were more theologically minded than others. The three presidents named Joseph Smith (with varying degrees of Fielding in-between) were the main theologians, though other presidents, particularly in the 19th century Church were interested and had some influence on theology in their day. For the most part, however, Church presidents have been more interested in encouraging Saints to live the Gospel than exploring theology. Ezra Taft Benson was one of those presidents. That is reflected in his major themes. As enumerated by Truman G. Madsen, the major themes of Ezra Taft Benson throughout his life are as follows:

  • The Book of Mormon
  • The Atonement
  • Home and family
  • America
  • Joseph Smith
  • Priesthood and the law
  • Pride
  • The temple
  • Scouting[1]

The big four are, of course, the Book of Mormon, the Atonement, home and family, and priesthood and the law, though his most famous sermon is on pride. Many of these themes are reflected in the manual. America and scouting aren’t covered explicitly (though it is in this introduction/life sketch section of the book), but there are two chapters on the Book of Mormon with references to the book in almost every chapter, three chapters on Jesus Christ or repentance, and four chapters that have direct bearings on the home and family. In addition, there are chapters specifically devoted to Joseph Smith, pride, and the temple. When it comes to priesthood and the law, Madsen focused on honoring the priesthood and obeying the will of God as revealed through modern revelation to the Church and ourselves. This being the case, there are chapters devoted to following the prophet and seeking the Lord in all that we do, as well as three chapters on leadership and caring for the Church. Other chapters in the manual focus on living the Gospel, missionary work, and welfare.

As for the life sketch and history, the section in the book is very good for the most part. I divided up his life into five major divisions:

  1. Childhood
  2. Adulthood
  3. Call to be an apostle and post-war recovery
  4. Service as Apostle and Patriot
  5. Church President
Benson_Ezra_Taft

Ezra T. Benson

The section on childhood focuses on him being a farmer in Whitney, Idaho (a small community near Preston in Cache Valley) and the sacrifices made when his father was called on a mission. Other notable things from this period of life are that his great-grandfather was Ezra T. Benson, who served as an apostle under Brigham Young, and Ezra Taft Benson’s service as a missionary. When it comes to his time as missionary, there is a general conference talk (with video and audio files available) given in April 1985 where President Benson shares an interesting experience related to the mission, available here. A related comment given by Truman G. Madsen is that “the practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was for a mob to link arms and rush the victim, trampling him to death or critically injuring him. Since all of them were involved, no one could point a finger or blame any one man for the death or injuries.”[2]

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

When it comes to his pre-apostolic adulthood, I don’t have much to add to the manual. He loved his wife and she loved him despite their differences in background. He graduated from college with honors, pursed a master’s degree and gradually rose in the agricultural world as well as in Church leadership. This took him away from his family a lot, but when he was with them, he did his best to truly be with them.

Ezra Taft Benson with his family. Image courtesy LDS.org

Ezra Taft Benson with his family.
Image courtesy LDS.org

His call to the apostleship came at the same time as Spencer W. Kimball, and he was ordained only minutes afterwards. His first major assignment was to re-establish the Church in post-WWII Europe. This is perhaps the greatest story moment in his life, so it’s okay to linger here for a little while. The manual has some discussion on this mission in the life sketch, in chapter 2, and in chapter 21. In addition, I recommend referring to the chapter on the post-WWII recovery efforts in the Church History in the Fulness of Times manual and prayerfully considering which stories to include in the lesson.

Europe

When it comes to his service as apostle and as a patriot, it is important to explain that President Benson was among the most conservative and patriotic of all men who have served in the highest councils of the Church and that he did a lot to serve his country. As Truman G. Madsen mentions, America was an important theme for him, especially while he served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. There are some great stories in the manual about his time serving in the cabinet of the United States under President Eisenhower and how he stood up for his beliefs and shared his religion. This is another major story point of Ezra Taft Benson. One thing to be aware of is that Ezra Taft Benson was somewhat politically controversial in his day, both while serving for the US and due to some of the things he said while serving as an apostle. He was staunchly anti-communist and against atheism. At times he got carried away in his crusades against communism, particularly during President David O. McKay’s time as Church president. This was offensive to some individuals (a few of which are still around today), and Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Wright spend a lot of time focusing on this issue in their biography of David O. McKay, so you may have some individuals who are aware of this. If you feel the need to address this issue, you may simply note that Ezra Taft Benson was motivated by good principles, but simply carried them too far and let them get out of balance with the rest of the Gospel. Not everything that he said about America, politics, and communism are considered to be the word of the Lord, even though he was an apostle at the time. You may even refer to what Elder Neal A. Maxwell calls the Spiritual Ecology in making this point.

Ezra Taft Benson, the Patriot Prophet

Ezra Taft Benson, the Patriot Prophet

Continuing with his service as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he was known as the workhorse of the Church, and his theme was “What is best for the Kingdom?” I don’t plan to go into much beyond those two main points, though, admittedly, that will not do him full justice.

As for his presidency in the Church, it is possible to focus on his major themes, particularly how hard he pushed for Church members to read and share the Book of Mormon. If you feel up for hitting on another current, but sensitive topic, you could also talk a bit about President Benson’s health problems during the latter part of his presidency and how the Church was able to carry on. As it states in the manual, he had a stroke and other health problems that made him incapable of carrying on a lot of the work for half of his nine year tenure as president of the Church. He came to the presidency at eighty-six, making him the second oldest man to be called as President of the Church (after Joseph Fielding Smith, who was called at age 94), and he showed some of the effects of that age. Notable among those problems was dementia. He had at least one grandson defect from the Church because he felt like there was a conspiracy in the Church hierarchy of propping up President Benson to make it look like he was running the Church when he was physically incapable of doing so while his counselors, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, who were really running things.

Ezra Taft Benson reading the scriptures

Ezra Taft Benson reading the scriptures

Now, I said that this is a current issue because there are some indications that we are reaching a similar point with President Thomas S. Monson. He is getting older and has been retreating from public view more and more. In addition, there are rumors coming from Salt Lake City that state that he is suffering from dementia. Even if this is the case, which would be sad, it should not be a major cause for concern for the management of the Church. The Church has functioned with leaders in poor health before. Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson and Howard W. Hunter all had major health problems during portions of their presidencies and the Church has carried on. Elder Russell M. Nelson tackled this issue head-on during the last general conference when he said:

The Church today has been organized by the Lord Himself. He has put in place a remarkable system of governance that provides redundancy and backup. That system provides for prophetic leadership even when the inevitable illnesses and incapacities may come with advancing age.17Counterbalances and safeguards abound so that no one can ever lead the Church astray. Senior leaders are constantly being tutored such that one day they are ready to sit in the highest councils. They learn how to hear the voice of the Lord through the whisperings of the Spirit.

While serving as First Counselor to President Ezra Taft Benson, who was then nearing the end of his mortal life, President Gordon B. Hinckley explained:

“The principles and procedures which the Lord has put in place for the governance of His church make provision for any … circumstance. It is important … that there be no doubts or concerns about the governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts, including the right to inspiration and revelation in administering the affairs and programs of the Church, when the President may be ill or is not able to function fully.

“The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices.”

President Hinckley continued:

“When the President is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors together comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency. They carry on with the day-to-day work of the Presidency. …

“… But any major questions of policy, procedures, programs, or doctrine are considered deliberately and prayerfully by the First Presidency and the Twelve together.”18

Last year, when President Monson reached the milestone of 5 years of service as President of the Church, he reflected on his 50 years of apostolic service and made this statement: “Age eventually takes its toll on all of us. However, we join our voices with King Benjamin, who said, … ‘I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen … and consecrated by my father, … and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power, to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me’ (Mosiah 2:11).”

President Monson continued: “Despite any health challenges that may come to us, despite any weakness in body or mind, we serve to the best of our ability. I assure you that the Church is in good hands. The system set up for the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] assures [us] that it will always be in good hands and that, come what may, there is no need to worry or to fear. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, whom we follow, whom we worship, and whom we serve, is ever at the helm.”[3]

Conclusion

Now, to find a conclusion to the lesson, one could either refer to the burial in Whitney or some other event that highlights how great Ezra Taft Benson was, or some powerful quote about life from President Benson. There are videos linked to the Presidents of the Church manual that may be useful for this purpose. If you are blending this lesson with chapter 1, some quote from there that can be related to his life would work great. Happy teaching.

Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson

[1] Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church: Insights into Their Lives and Teachings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004), 373-377.

[2] Madsen, Presidents, 358-359.

[3] Russell M. Nelson, “Sustaining the Prophets,” Conference Report, October 2014.

Ezra Taft Benson, Ch. 1: “The Great Commandment–Love the Lord”

I apologize for not keeping up on all the posts for the end of the year. My schedule became very busy, leaving me with little time to focus on this blog. I’m hoping to do better for a little while now and keep on it this year. I will try to come back and write about creating a lesson from the life sketch section of the manual for those quorums and Relief Societies that are having their teacher teach an introductory lesson from that section of the manual.

Lesson Overview

Chapter one of the Ezra Taft Benson manual is focused on loving and obeying the Lord. The introduction section focuses on President Benson’s commitment to God and his religion and the respect he earned from that commitment. Section one focuses on how obedience to God and love of God are the greatest tests of life and the great commandments. He also focuses on how demanding and all-encompassing these commandments are. In section two, President Benson focuses on how loving of God puts everything else into place and encompasses all other commandments and how we need to put Him first in our lives, no matter what the challenge. In section three, Ezra Taft Benson speaks of the blessings that come from putting God first in our life.

It should be noted that in some priesthood quorums and Relief Societies, it might be advisable to blend this lesson with the life sketch of Ezra Taft Benson presented earlier in the manual. To do this, one would need to pull out a few important quotes from the lesson and use them to introduce or start discussion about portions of Ezra Taft Benson’s life. In a way, the lesson 1 provides the principles and the life sketch shows them demonstrated in how President Benson lived his life.

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

Extra Quotes and Resources

The lesson is mostly drawn from one general conference talk given in April 1988. As such, video and audio files are available here. Windows Media Player can be used to chop clips out of the video and there are audio programs like Audacity that can be used to chop out clips from the audio files if those are preferred.

The rest of this section of the blog post will be quotes from other people that could be used in the lesson.

On Obedience

Joseph F. Smith: You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven…. When we are obedient we may be guided to the accomplishment of all that is required of us by our heavenly Father, for it is on this principle that the designs and purposes of God are accomplished.[1]

Heber J. Grant: It is not the miraculous testimonies we may have, but it is keeping of the commandments of God, and living lives of absolute purity, not only in act, but in thought, that will count with the Lord.[2]

B. H. Roberts: “Latter-day Saints, keep the commandments of God.” . . . That thunderbolt utterance of his, of course, is all inclusive. What exists outside of it as duty of man or requirement of God?[3]

Neal A. Maxwell: The submission of one’s will is placing on God’s altar the only uniquely personal thing one has to place there. The many other things we “give” are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us.[4]

For the Strength of Youth: As you do these things [follow the standards in the pamphlet], the Lord will make much more out of your life than you can by yourself. He will increase your opportunities, expand your vision, and strengthen you. He will give you the help you need to meet your trials and challenges. You will gain a stronger testimony and find true joy as you come to know your Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, and feel Their love for you.

Obedience as a test

Neal A. Maxwell: Obedience is the outer expression of our inner gospel gyroscope.[5]

Hugh Nibley: This life becomes a special test of probation set before us in this world—it is an economic one. If the law of consecration is the supreme test of virtue—the final one—money is to be the supreme temptation to vice; sex runs a poor second, but on both counts, this is the time and place for us to meet the challenge of the flesh. It is the weakness of the flesh in both cases to prove our spirits stronger than the pull of matter, to assert our command over the new medium of physical bodies before proceeding onward to another state of existence. As Brigham Young often repeats, “God has given us the things of this world to see what we will do with them.”[6]

Love as a motivator

When it comes to God’s love for us and our love for God acting as motivation for obedience to the commandments, Dr. Terryl Givens and his wife Fiona Givens wrote that:

The paradox of Christ’s saving sway is that it operates on the basis of what the world would call weakness. Christ aimed to “draw all men unto” Himself by His ignominious crucifixion, not His triumphant resurrection. We are drawn to the suffering Christ, not the victorious Christ. As the Christian martyr to Nazism Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a friend, “The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. . . . The God of the Bible . . . wins power and space in the world by his weakness.”[7]

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

At least one way the Atonement has impact in our lives is by seeing the love manifest in Christ sacrificing himself for our salvation. Knowing of that love and sacrifice motivates us to love him in return and to follow His commandments, for, as John the Beloved quoted Jesus as teaching, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me.” (John 14:21.) And again: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) The Mexican poet Miguel de Guevara wrote the following sonnet, which I have found both inspiring and thought-provoking:

I am not moved to love thee, my Lord God,

by the heaven thou hast promised me;

I am not moved by the sore dreaded hell

to forbear me from offending thee.

I am moved by thee, Lord; I am moved

at seeing thee nailed upon the cross and mocked;

I am moved by thy body all over wounds;

I am moved by thy dishonor and thy death.

I am moved, last, by thy love, in such a wise

that though there were no heaven I still should love thee,

and though there were no hell I still should fear thee.

I need no gift of thee to make me love thee;

for though my present hope were all despair,

as now I love thee I should love thee still.[8]

Come Unto Christ

Fiona and Terryl Givens wrote that: “Central to all Christian conceptions of human aspiration is the idea of the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, the elevation of Christ as the supreme example we attempt to emulate.”[9] We look to Christ as our perfect and ultimate example. As he himself taught: “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Peter, who was present at the time, later stated: “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was there guile found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21-22). During Christ’s visit to the Nephites, he told his disciples: “what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). He is the exact example of what we ought to do and to be.

I know that my Redeemer liveth. Image courtesy LDS.org

I know that my Redeemer liveth.
Image courtesy LDS.org

This teaching—to follow Christ’s example—is not only a good thought, but a commandment essential to salvation. In the insightful Lectures on Faith, we find the following discussion:

Where shall we find a prototype into whose likeness we may be assimilated, in order that we may be made partakers of life and salvation? Or in other words, where shall we find a saved being? For if we can find a saved being, we may ascertain, without much difficulty, what all others must be, in order to be saved—they must be like that individual or they cannot be saved:  we think, that it will not be a matter of dispute, that two beings, who are unlike each other, cannot both be saved; for whatever constitutes the salvation of one will constitute the salvation of every creature which will be saved: and if we find one saved being in all existence, we may see what all others must be, or else not be saved. We ask, then, where is the prototype? Or where is the saved being? We conclude . . . that it is Christ . . . and he was like the Father, the great prototype of all saved beings: And for any portion of the human family to be assimilated into their likeness is to be saved; and to be unlike them is to be destroyed: and on this hinge turns the door of salvation.[10]

From this we learn that it is ultimately God the Father that we need to become similar to in attributes and all other aspects. Since the Fall of Adam, however, God the Father has rarely revealed Himself directly to mankind. Usually it is through angels, the Spirit and Jesus Christ that He has revealed His will. Thus, as Paul says, Christ:is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Colossians 1:15)—that is, Christ is the spitting image of the God that we usually don’t see and is our way of seeing what He is like, what we must become, and how to do it. As Elder B. H. Roberts stated, “I like to contemplate the Christ as the revelation of God!”[11] “Jesus Christ is God, and, moreover, is God manifested in the flesh. . . . Men were without the knowledge of God, when it pleased God to reveal himself to them through his only begotten Son, Jesus, the Christ.”[12]

Christ is the revelation of God

Christ is the revelation of God

Christ followed the example of God the Father so perfectly that he became a representation of God’s nature.  Thus, he stated: “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him…. He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9). Similarly, the author of Hebrews stated that the Son of God is: “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person” (Hebrews 1:3). Paul also stated in the epistle to the Colossians that: “it pleased the Father that in him [Christ] should all fullness dwell;… For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15, 19; 2:9). The last verse quoted is one of the more interesting on the subject. It has been used to state that Christ is the manifestation of the Trinity in a body. However, closer study indicates that that isn’t quite what was intended. Three key words are dwelleth, fullness and Godhead. The word in the Greek for Godhead is theotēs which denotes deity or the state of being God. The word for fullness is plērōma denoting fullness or abundance, as in everything. The word for dwell is katoikeō meaning to dwell in or inhabit. In other words, everything that it means to be a God—all the Godly attributes and powers connected to Deity—inhabit or dwell in Christ in the flesh. He is an embodiment of all that it means to be like God the Father himself. This also shows what Christ meant in stating: “I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one” (D&C 93:3). He had taken into himself the attributes of the Father (thus the Father was in him) and became exactly like him, thus they were one. Just as two identical mathematical functions will graph the same and look like one function, the Father and the Son were exactly alike and as one.

The foregoing adds insight into Christ praying that his disciples “may be one, as we are” (John 17:11). He wanted His followers to achieve the same thing as he did. Elder Neal A. Maxwell captured this thought beautifully when he wrote that: “He who is our Great Redeemer was fully qualified to become such, because He was and is the Great Emulator! We, in turn, have been asked to emulate Him.”[13]

A Deeper Look

I’ve already hit on this idea some in a past post, but I will return to it again here. At a Priesthood session of general conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught the following about priesthood service:

We need to be constantly reminded of the eternal reasons behind the things we are commanded to do. The basic gospel principles need to be part of our life’s fabric, even if it means learning them over and over again. That doesn’t mean that this process should be rote or boring. Rather, when we teach the foundational principles in our homes or in church, let the flame of enthusiasm for the gospel and the fire of testimony bring light, warmth, and joy to the hearts of those we teach.

From the newest ordained deacon to the most senior high priest, we all have lists of what we could and should do in our priesthood responsibilities. The what is important in our work, and we need to attend to it. But it is in the why of priesthood service that we discover the fire, passion, and power of the priesthood.

The what of priesthood service teaches us what to do. The why inspires our souls.

The what informs, but the why transforms.[14]

While President Uchtdorf applies this to priesthood duties in particular, the same could be said about the Gospel as a whole. One of the great whys of the Gospel and the commandments is our belief that we can become like God. As a recently-published article on the Church website states:

The desire to nurture the divinity in His children is one of God’s attributes that most inspires, motivates, and humbles members of the Church. God’s loving parentage and guidance can help each willing, obedient child of God receive of His fulness and of His glory. This knowledge transforms the way Latter-day Saints see their fellow human beings. The teaching that men and women have the potential to be exalted to a state of godliness clearly expands beyond what is understood by most contemporary Christian churches and expresses for the Latter-day Saints a yearning rooted in the Bible to live as God lives, to love as He loves, and to prepare for all that our loving Father in Heaven wishes for His children. . . .

While many Christian theologians have expressed the magnitude of the Savior’s Atonement by emphasizing human depravity, Latter-day Saints understand the magnitude of the Atonement of Christ in terms of the vast human potential it makes possible. [15]

Concerning the power of this why in inspiring Mormons to love and obey God, President Lorenzo Snow once wrote in a poem:

As man now is, our God once was;
As now God is, so man may be,-
Which doth unfold man’s destiny.

For John declares: When Christ we see
Like unto him we’ll truly be
And he who has this hope within
Will purify himself from sin.

Who keep this object grand in view,
To folly, sin, will bid adieu,
Nor wallow in the mire anew; . . .

A son of God, like God to be,
Would not be robbing Deity;
And he who has this hope within,
Will purify himself from sin.

You’re right, St. John, supremely right:
Whoe’er essays to climb this height,
Will cleanse himself of sin entire-
Or else ’twere needless to aspire.[16]

Lorenzo Snow

Lorenzo Snow

While this idea of becoming like God (theosis) is important in both understanding and motivating us to live the Gospel, it has often been subjected to cartoonish interpretations that lead people to categorize Mormons as strange and heretical. Returning to the Church website article, it is noted that:

Since human conceptions of reality are necessarily limited in mortality, religions struggle to adequately articulate their visions of eternal glory. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” These limitations make it easy for images of salvation to become cartoonish when represented in popular culture. For example, scriptural expressions of the deep peace and overwhelming joy of salvation are often reproduced in the well-known image of humans sitting on their own clouds and playing harps after death. Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets.

A cloud and harp are hardly a satisfying image for eternal joy, although most Christians would agree that inspired music can be a tiny foretaste of the joy of eternal salvation. Likewise, while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.[17]

One interesting and relevant insight gained from Dr. Terryl Givens about the history of theosis in the Church that: “Under the influence of the Pratts [Orson Pratt and Parley P. Pratt] especially, theosis acquired highly speculative and extravagant dimensions. But in [Joseph] Smith’s thought, the most important element in the understanding of the divine pertained to his character and attributes.”[18] While achieving the powers of God in creation and other realms of existence are inspiring to Latter-day Saints, it is the idea of becoming like God in attributes over the course of this life that is most important. Hence, Elder B. H. Roberts wrote that, “Salvation is a matter of character-building under the Gospel laws and ordinances, and more especially with the direct aid of the Holy Spirit.”[19] Ultimately, this belief in theosis leads Mormons to understand that God has a great purpose in giving commandments—they are expressions of love meant to guide us into achieving the fullest potential we are capable of reaching.

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[1] Journal of Discourses, 16:248.

[2] Cited in, B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Churchof Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1965), 6:486.

[3] Roberts, Comprehensive History, 6:486.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, ed. Cory H. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 292.

[5] Maxwell, Quote Book, 228.

[6] Hugh Nibley, The Essential Nibley, ed. Marvin R. VanDam (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 260.

[7] Givens, Terryl; Fiona Givens (2012-10-01). The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Kindle Locations 504-507). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[8] Miguel de Guevara, “I am not moved to love thee, my Lord God,” in Mexican Poetry: An Anthology, Octavio Paz, comp., Samuel Beckett, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 61-62.

[9] Givens, Terryl; Fiona Givens (2012-10-01). The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Kindle Location 1140-1141). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] Lectures on Faith, 7:9, 16.

[11] B. H. Roberts, The Essential B.H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 348.

[12] B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: the Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion. (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1903), 172-173.

[13] Neal A. Maxwell, “Jesus, the Perfect Mentor,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 8– 17.

[14] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Why of Priesthood Service,” CR, April 2012, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/04/the-why-of-priesthood-service?lang=eng

[15] “Becoming Like God,” Gospel Topics, LDS.org, retrieved 1/1/2015, https://www.lds.org/topics/becoming-like-god?lang=eng

[16] Lorenzo Snow, “Man’s Destiny,” Improvement Era, June 1919, pp. 660–61.

[17] “Becoming Like God,” Gospel Topics, LDS.org, retrieved 1/1/2015, https://www.lds.org/topics/becoming-like-god?lang=eng

[18] Terryl L. Givens, “The Prophesy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint,” 18th annual Arrington Lecture, given 16 September 2012 in Logan, Utah. Retrieved 1/1/2015, http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Prophecy-of-Enoch.pdf.

[19] B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 208.