HOW TO BUILD THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
One of the most stirring dramas ever recorded is the one enacted between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness--the story of the Savior overcoming every known temptation that the cunning of Satan, the most evil of the evil, could devise. The drama as portrayed in Matthew lifts the heart, feeds the soul, and inspires courage. It should be read by every Latter-day Saint as a source of strength to withstand temptation.
I call this encounter a drama because, unlike the parables, it was acted out in real life. It was dramatized by Jesus in courageous, heroic deeds. It was not a matter of words alone. The encounter was actual. The principals two of the most famous in all history were Jesus, the Son of God in both spirit and flesh, and Satan, God's son of the morning in the world of the unembodied. Satan was a son who had defied his father and, through a violent rebellion, had led astray one-third of all God's children in the premortal existence.
It was inevitable that such a showdown should take place, a battle of the opposing powers, so to speak, a struggle enacted on neutral ground under circumstances that afforded every possible advantage to the aggressor.
Let's follow in detail the events in the life of Jesus that preceded this monumental contest and strengthened him for his ultimate mission. Of his childhood we know little--only that he grew, waxed strong in favor with God and man, and confounded wise men in the temple at the age of twelve.
According to the account in Matthew, on the eve of his final preparation for his life's work, Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John didn't want to perform the ordinance. He said: "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
"And Jesus answering said unto him, suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:14-17.)
In other words, John said, "This isn't proper. I am the one who needs to be baptized of you." But Jesus was firm in his request and insisted upon John's proceeding with the baptism, saying, according to one translation, "Come now, this is how we should fulfill all our duty to God. I must do all that's right." I like that statement. Let us ponder with our hearts and spiritual resources upon this uncompromising statement. If it could become a guide to all our actions, it could transform and renew our lives. No matter how upright we are, it could carry us still closer to the ideal toward which we all are striving. It could transform and improve our families, our neighborhoods, our nation, and even the confused and deteriorating world. If we were each to practice the furthest implications of that statement--"I must do all that's right"--the world would be leavened.
Edward Everett Hale wrote, "I am only one, but still I am one." That is all the world is. It is made up of ones--not populations or mankind, but individuals, persons, you and me, so many "ones." The poet continues: "I cannot do everything, / But still I can do something; / and because I cannot do everything / I will not refuse to do / The something that I can do." That was the undeviating course Jesus took.
But baptism was only a single epic in the preparation of Jesus for his triumph over evil. Immediately afterwards, the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God came down in the form of a dove as the voice of his divine Father was heard, saying, "This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17.)
In doing what was right, Jesus was given his Father's wholehearted approval, the highest honor that could come to a worthy son. The word beloved and the statement "in whom I am well pleased" highlight the importance of always doing what is right. The objective of each of us should be to live so righteously that we may please Heavenly Father.
Then, the scriptural account records, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to finish his preparations for his life's mission. For forty days and forty nights he fasted, but throughout the long ordeal he pondered, prayed earnestly, and gathered miraculous inner strength. Through his example he also tells us how important it is for us to disengage ourselves from the forces and influences that enslave us and hold us prisoners to our physical appetites. Basic to our lives, for example, is the unrelenting demand of our bodies for food and drink. In this experience in the wilderness, Jesus made the instinctive hungers of the flesh subservient to man's eternal nature--his spirit.
When Jesus was weak after his forty-day fast, Satan saw an opportunity to tempt him to gratify his hunger through an unworthy use of his divine powers. Satan, unprincipled and shrewd, suggested that Jesus transform stones into food. The suggestion sheathed a twofold evil: that of demeaning Jesus' divine power for personal gratification, and, in so doing, that of demonstrating that he was indeed the Son of God.
What Jesus said to rebuke Satan constitutes a dependable guide for each of us. He declared without reservation, "Man is not to live by bread alone, but by every word that issues from the mouth of God." To Satan's enticements Jesus gave an emphatic "No!" The reason for this response must be obvious to anyone who has truly pondered life's challenges and purposes. Bread will not and cannot feed people's souls. To accomplish this, obedience to every word of God is what we need. This alone will strengthen the soul and endow it with the power to develop godlike attributes. This is surely wisdom for each of us to consider.
With the rejection by Jesus of his apparently irresistible appeal, Satan did not retreat or concede defeat. Evil is tenacious above all the forces and influences known to man. Satan persisted, and in his second attempt he employed that appeal which, next to the gratification of man's insatiable physical appetites, overwhelms most all other appeals: the appeal to exercise power. The brilliant Lord Acton said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Human beings are prone to dominate. It is a heady intoxicant. They exercise excessive power over their children, their spouses, and their neighbors. They seek power to rule, to command, to dictate. They seek power to determine the destiny of nations and the utilization of the earth's resources. They crave power to control nearly everything except themselves.
So diabolical is this urge that in a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith, God issued a special warning: do not exercise arbitrary and tyrannical power. Heed these eloquent words from the Doctrine and Covenants: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned." (D&C 121:41.)
In his desperate effort to conquer the divine nature of Jesus, Satan took him to Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple. "Jump off," he commanded, "and prove that you are the Son of God: for the scriptures declare that 'God will give his angels charge of you; they will bear you on their hands, lest you strike your feet against a stone.' It is as simple as that. God will send his angels to keep you from harm."
But Jesus was prepared in the solitude of the wilderness and had made up his mind far in advance of the critical moment when temptation presented its deceitful ploys.
In this regard, there is only one hope for any of us and that is to steel our minds and hearts against temptation, against the enticements of the devil, before temptation arises. This we can best do through pondering in solitude, when we can clearly see, understand, and listen to the promptings of our conscience and the still small voice. This practice is extremely valuable if we are to resist and conquer evil.
Prepared for any temptation, Jesus merely retorted, "You should not tempt the Lord your God." In other words, "Satan, don't you remember--it also says not to put the Lord your God to such a foolish test." I sincerely hope that none of us do this either.
Satan seldom--almost never--gives up; at least he is convinced that his blandishments are futile and that the character and purpose of his intended victim are so invincible that he is wasting his time and effort. But even if Satan does give up for a time, we can never relax our vigilance, for we cannot see the forces of good and evil that surround us from birth. They swirl around us everlastingly.
For Jesus, there was one more assault upon his integrity, one more attempt in the wilderness to discredit him. This time Satan made an appeal to that drive which accomplishes the downfall of the otherwise invulnerable individuals: the almost irresistible hunger to win, to possess, to accumulate money, goods, trinkets, lands, buildings, possessions, wealth. The setting for this enticement was important. As many of us know, when we consider the purchase of a precious stone at some exclusive emporium, we are ushered into an intimate room where the lighting and decor are designed to create a proper atmosphere. The gorgeous jewel is displayed on a piece of velvet, with a spotlight centered on it. Breathlessly and in hushed tones, the sales consultant exults, "Isn't this the loveliest, most exquisite gem you have ever seen?"
So for his third and final attempt to tempt Jesus, Satan next took him to the summit of an exceedingly high mountain and showed him all the nations of the world and all their grandeur and glory. "I'll give it all to you," he glowed, "if you'll only kneel and worship me." This time Jesus dismissed him forthright. "Be gone, Satan!" he commanded. "It is written, you must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone."
This was the climax of the masterful resistance of Jesus to Satan's carefully contrived schemes to lead him astray and rob him of his divine destiny and inheritance.
I tell this story in great detail because of its significance in our lives. I believe that frequent pondering upon its message would decisively strengthen us and give us direction. It would alert us constantly to many of the pitfalls and temptations that are rife today, such as seeking instant gratification, indulging in excessive appetites, falling prey to vanity and pride, and striving for worldly wealth and power. These temptations, made glamorous, are some of the most prevalent evils known to mankind. Being aware of them and pondering the God-given resources that may be utilized to overcome and resist them comprise our safety and salvation.
To muster the faith and the strength essential to cope with his ordeal, Jesus fasted, prayed, and meditated in the wilderness. He withdrew from the multitude to solitude.
Since most people find it relatively easy and convenient to pray, if only mechanically, and to perform in some areas, if only listlessly, I want to emphasize the pondering element. I testify that when the quality of the pondering improves, the quality of prayers and performance improves also.
It was in solitude, pondering, and praying that Jesus made ready to battle Satan face to face and resist and overcome all of his enticements. It is not in the hurly-burly of everyday life, amid the pressures of business, society, and even family, that we marshal our greatest strengths, discern our hidden resources, and learn how to utilize our God-given powers in order to fight and vanquish the enemy. It is only in solitude, pondering, and meditating that we live in closest relationship with our Lord. It is also in pondering that we can relive the example of those noble souls of the past who are motivation for us, models of the exemplary life, leaders who have received the revelations and the lofty thought of inspiration.
Our destiny is perfection if we will perform our full duty as taught by the Church. Jesus set the example by seeking solitude at frequent intervals. It provided priceless opportunities for him to commune with God and angels, to ponder their messages, to identify his strengths and discover how to turn weaknesses into qualities that fortified him for a life of unrivaled beauty and example. It will do the same for us.
The book of Proverbs proclaims, "As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he." (Proverbs 23:7.) William James, an illustrious pioneer in psychology at Harvard University, stated, "What commands attention determines action." The process of genuine introspection actuates the heart and determines action. The message is clear and compelling, as further explained by William James in these challenging words: "What the mind attends to continuously, it believes, and what the mind believes it eventually does."
Here again is another strong recommendation for each of us to seek frequent and regular escape to solitude and self-renewal through pondering. According to author Bruce Barton, "It would do the world good if every man in it would compel himself occasionally to be absolutely alone. Most of the world's progress has come out of such loneliness."
President David O. McKay once counseled the General Authorities on the importance of taking the time to ponder and meditate in order to keep spiritually attuned. He said, "It's a great thing to be responsive to the whisperings of the Spirit. We know that when these whisperings come, it is a gift and our privilege to receive them. But they come only when we are relaxed and not under pressure."
In the quiet of our pondering, we can listen to the whisperings of the Spirit. We can listen to the divine voice in such a way as to enhance our faithfulness to the Lord's church and prepare ourselves to withstand temptation.
Self-Control: Overcoming Temptation
Learn to control your actions. In all your acts and conduct, ever have the consciousness that you are now preparing and making yourselves a life to be continued through eternities. Act upon no principle that you would be ashamed or unwilling to act upon in heaven--employ no means in the attainment of an object that an enlightened conscience disapproves. When feelings and passions excite you to action, let principles pure, honorable, and virtuous govern you. (1 December 1851, MS, 13:363.)
Self-denial preserves character. Our character, as Latter-day Saints, should be preserved inviolate, at whatever cost or sacrifice. Character approved of God is worth securing, even at the expense of a lifetime of constant self-denial.
While thus living we may look forward far away into the spirit land, with full assurance that when reaching that happy clime, we shall be crowned with the sons and daughters of God, and possess the wealth and glory of a celestial kingdom. (10 January 1886, JD, 26:368.)
We must learn to govern ourselves. We have received principles of truth, but not in blindness. We do not walk in blindness, but we walk in the light of truth. We know what we are about and what will be the result of our faithfulness. But we should be wise and prudent; we should learn to govern ourselves, to control our passions, and to bring all our faculties and powers into perfect obedience to the mind and will of God, so that these bodies, which God has given to us, may be governed and controlled in all respects as He would wish. (6 October 1899, CR, p. 2.)
Total devotion overcomes temptations. It is impossible for Latter-day Saints to move along in the path of glory we are now treading unless they devote themselves fully and wholly to the work and make the preparation which is absolutely necessary to meet and overcome the temptations that might otherwise overpower us. (6 October 1898, CR, p. 2.)
Withstand Satan. God admires the men and women today who pursue a course of rectitude and who, notwithstanding the powers of Satan that are arrayed against them, can say, Get thee behind me Satan, and who live a righteous, a godly life, and such people have influence with God and their prayers avail much. (6 May 1882, JD, 23:191.)
"Get behind me, Satan!" You may expect, if your lives are spared to the common age of man and womanhood, to encounter obstacles in the path of life which will test to the uttermost your best resolutions, and some of you may be tempted to swerve from the path of truth and honor, and, like Esau, feel to relinquish the glories of eternity for a few passing moments of gratification and pleasure; then, my dear children, seize your opportunity to emulate the example of our Savior when offered the glory of this world, if he would stoop to an act of folly; he replied to his tempter, "Get behind me, Satan!" (May 1884, BLS, p. 486.)
We must fortify ourselves against temptation. So soon as we discover ourselves in a fault, we should repent of that wrongdoing and as far as possible repair or make good the wrong we may have committed. By taking this course we strengthen our character, we advance our own cause, and we fortify ourselves against temptation. (6 May 1882, JD, 23:192.)
It is better to suffer a thousand deaths than to discard true principles. I wish to offer a word of caution to my brethren that you may beware, and commit no grave errors when brought into positions of trial and temptation. Some, unfortunately, have disregarded this injunction, and have imprinted a stain upon their character, and a blot upon their record which cannot be erased in time--perhaps not in eternity. These are fearful mistakes. Better suffer a thousand deaths than succumb to the force of persecution by promising to discard a single principle which God has revealed for our glory and exaltation. (10 January 1886, JD, 26:368.)
Some Church members are unfit for fellowship with the Saints. There are those among us who are recognized as members of this Church who take a vast amount of pains to be favorably known by those around them, but whose real character, or the inwardness, so to speak, of such people, is veiled or disguised, being to all outward appearance reputable Latter-day Saints, but whose inward character, the character that is written indelibly upon their own hearts, would, if known, render them unfit for the association and fellowship of the people of God. (6 May 1882, JD, 23:190.)
Greater temptations lie ahead, but the Saints will overcome. We are considerably advanced in the knowledge of the things of God, and are qualified to act in His behalf; yet we are not entirely out of the wilderness, if I may be permitted to use that expression. The time will come when we shall overcome the world and every temptation that can be advanced to affect us. We are now advancing to that point; but we have not yet reached it. And now comes a time when the Latter-day Saints will probably be subjected to temptation greater and more subtle than we ever again will experience as a people. But let me tell you that after we have passed through the scenes that are now before us, the clouds will break; and as President Woodruff has said, we will stand on a much higher plane of righteousness, of faith, power, and influence than ever before. We will have the approval and blessings of the Almighty, and we will have influence with the world. They will respect us more than they ever have done. (6 May 1889, DW, 38:763.)
Search me, O God. "Search me, O God, and know my heart and see if there be any wicked way in me." (Psalm 139:23-24.) If we as a people could live so as to be able at all times to bow before the Lord and offer up a prayer like this, what a delightful thing it would be, what an attainment we should have acquired in righteousness and good works! To every person who has at heart the preparing of himself for the great change, that is the work of regeneration, I would recommend that he adopt this prayer of David, and see how near he can live according to the light that he has, so as to make it in all sincerity part of his devotions to God. Many fail in coming up to this standard of excellence because they do things in secret where mortal eye cannot penetrate, that has a direct tendency to alienate them from the Almighty, and to grieve away the Spirit of God. (6 May 1882, JD, 23:190.)
We should repent for the right reason. Undoubtedly it is too much the case with some that they consider and fear the publicity of the wrong they commit more than committing the wrong itself; they wonder what people will say when they hear of it. (6 May 1882, JD, 23:192.)
Repentance brings the Spirit. If you see that you have weaknesses which have brought you into some trouble, do not be discouraged; but repent of that which you have done wrong, by which you have lost more or less of the Spirit of God, tell the Lord what you have done, and resolve in your hearts that you will do it no more. Then the Spirit of the Lord will be upon you. (9 October 1898, CR, p. 56.)
We should govern ourselves wisely under all conditions. Whatever may be the difficulties or the temptations that a person may labor under, he should so govern and control himself that in every condition he may act wisely and in a way that will increase his intelligence, power, and faith. (9 October 1898, CR, p. 55.)
The Saints should prepare for the difficulties ahead. It is our privilege as Latter-day Saints to seize upon those opportunities that are afforded us to make a proper preparation for the scenes that are before us and in which we may be called to act; and as the difficulties which we have to meet shall increase upon us perhaps and become harder to overcome, we need more strength in order to resist the temptations and to discharge the obligations that devolve upon us. (10 April 1898, CR, pp 61-62.)
No external force can keep us from celestial glory unless we allow it. It is interesting to contemplate and estimate the abilities we have received from the Lord to continue prosperous, notwithstanding the opposing forces that have been brought to bear upon us. No external power can prevent us from attaining to the high destiny marked out for us on the condition of faithfulness. We did not lay out the path to salvation for ourselves. It was delineated by God before the earth was organized. The Lord has seen fit to make known the path. It depends upon ourselves as to whether we continue to travel on that road which leads to celestial glory. (5 April 1890, CD, 2:33-34.)
When things go wrong, do your duty and you will be given power. When things go against you, when everything seems black, do your duty and you will become strong men, powerful men; the sick will be healed under your ministrations; devils will flee from you; the dead will rise; and everything that was ever done by man since the days of Adam, you will be able to do through the power of God and through a proper ambition. (7 April 1899, DN, p. 9.)