I love words. Like, seriously love them. You know the person who starts off their sacrament meeting talk by saying, “Webster’s defines ‘prayer’ as…”? That’s me. I’m that guy. I read the dictionary for fun, you guys.
I’m not even joking.
I find words fascinating, and I love to look up not only their meanings, but also their roots. I like learning where words come from, how and when they were first used, and what other words they are related to. This is especially true for words used in the scriptures. I have learned some very powerful spiritual lessons, and gained a deeper understanding of the gospel simply by looking up what certain words mean.
Definition of the Word "If"
Which brings me to the word “if.” It’s one of the most common and ordinary words around, and most of us probably use it without giving it too much thought. According to the Gospel Library app, the word “if” appears in the scriptures 4,711 times. But have we ever really considered the importance of this word?
I believe “if” is one of the most powerful words ever invented. It’s such a tiny word, yet it carries tons of significance. So, just like if I was giving a talk, I’d like to turn to the dictionary to share the meaning of the word “if.” But I’m not going to turn to trusty old Webster’s. I have a special dictionary that I use when I study the Bible, called The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. I know. It sounds like a dusty old reference book in the back corner of some ancient library nobody ever visits, but here’s the cool thing about it: it contains every single word in the Old and New Testaments, and gives the Hebrew or Greek word that it was translated from. I use this book all the time, and it has really opened up the scriptures for me.
When we look up the word “if,” Strong’s says that it comes from the Greek word ean, which means “in case that,” or, “provided that." That is basically the same definition you’d get from Webster. But here’s where things get really cool—and this is why I love looking up words so much. As we dig a little deeper into the word ean, we find that it is made up of two smaller words, ea, meaning “conditionality,” and an, meaning “a wish.” So when put together, the Greek word that “if” is translated from in John 14:15 literally means “A wish with a condition.”
In other words, when Jesus says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” it is as though He is saying: “I have this wish, this deep desire in my heart, that each of you show me whether or not you love me. To demonstrate your love for me, here is what I propose: keep my commandments. Then I will truly know where your heart is.”
The Power of "If" and Our Ability to Choose
Humans aren’t always so good at keeping up our end of agreements, which is why it’s sometimes hard to trust people. But that isn’t the case where Jesus is concerned. He will never lie, cheat, or trick us. The true power of “if” occurs when Jesus uses it, because unlike some humans, Jesus has full power to make good on His promises, and we can have full faith that He will always keep His end of the agreement.
The power of “if” is really all about our agency. It’s about our ability to choose. And the most important thing to know about our agency is that it is all about our freedom. In fact, you could make a pretty strong argument that this whole life of ours—this wonderful, difficult, and sometimes frustrating test that we are all going through—is really just one grand “if/then” scenario. In order that this test would be fair, Heavenly Father allowed each of us complete and total agency. Lehi wrote that we were sent here “to act for [our]selves, and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26), and that we are “free according to the flesh . . . free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27).
This means two important things about agency. The first is that we are free to be as smart or as stupid as we want to be. Heavenly Father will not force us to believe or to behave. It’s all up to us. We have been granted great power over our lives, and our agency is evidence of the great faith our Heavenly Father has in us. That says a lot about His character that He would trust us to make good choices without interfering. On the other hand, Satan cannot force us to be bad. The old excuse “The devil made me do it” is simply not true. Satan can tempt us, deceive us, and mislead us, but he doesn’t have any power to make us do anything we don’t want to do.
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President Boyd K. Packer said, “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.”
The second important thing about agency is this: while we are free to choose, we are not free to choose the consequences of our choices. Sometimes we talk about agency and freedom in terms of what we want to do, and what we want to have happen to us. For instance, we may say to ourselves, “I can do what I want, and it won’t hurt me. I can experiment with drugs or pornography, and I won’t ever get addicted.” But we can’t make that claim, because the law of the harvest says that we will reap what we sow, whether good or bad (see Galatians 6:7–9; Alma 3:26–27). When we make a choice, we also accept the consequences of that choice.
So our life here, and our eternal life to come, all come down to a matter of “if.” I was told once that this “if” is the tiny little hinge on which the door of life swings, and I think that is absolutely correct. Every choice we make every day matters. As President Thomas S. Monson taught, “Decisions determine destiny.”
Misconceptions of the Final Judgment
Story time: I love Disneyland. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole world. A few years ago, my wife and I were standing in line for one of the bigger rides. Right in front of us was a family: mom, dad, and three kids, the youngest of which looked like he was about 6 or 7. And this kid was super excited. This was his first trip to Disneyland, and he was going on one of the big rides with his family. He was climbing on the railings, counting the people in line, and reporting back to his dad their progress:
“Dad, there's only 20 people ahead of us! Dad, there’s only 10 people now! Dad, we’re next!”
But before he could get on the ride, the ride attendant said, “Come here, partner, and let’s see how you measure up.” And then he had the little boy stand next to a sign with an arrow that read: “You must be this tall to ride this ride.”
I’m here to tell you that you have never seen anyone try and stand as tall as this kid. He stood there, with a huge grin on his face, stretching himself for all he was worth.
But he wasn’t tall enough. And it wasn’t even very close. He was visibly shorter than the minimum height on the sign. All the paper towels stuffed in his shoes wouldn’t have helped.
The ride attendant frowned and said, “I’m sorry, partner, but I can’t let you on the ride today.”
The little boy’s face fell. He turned to his dad and asked why. And all his dad could do was tell him the truth. With a gentle voice, his dad said, “I’m sorry, but you’re just not big enough.”
And then, in a voice loud enough for everyone in line to hear, this little boy burst into tears and cried out, “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BE ANY BIGGER!”
I think we sometimes have this mental image of what the final judgment will be like, and many of us have probably had some pretty scary thoughts on the subject. I used to imagine the final judgment like a giant courtroom, with God sitting as the angry judge, and me standing far below, alone and afraid. I pictured God going over everything I did in life, and then deciding then and there which kingdom to send me to, like an angry parent sending me to my room.
However, the more I study, ponder, and pray, the more I realize how misguided my image of the final judgment really is. First of all, the image of God as an angry judge, just itching to punish me is inaccurate. He isn’t some impersonal being who doesn’t care about me—He is my Father, and He knows me and loves me. I love what President Ezra Taft Benson said: “Nothing is going to startle us more when we pass through the veil to the other side than to realize how well we know our Father, and how familiar His face is to us.”
Secondly, I won’t be standing there alone. Jesus Christ will be standing right there beside me, because He is my “advocate with the Father” (D&C 45:3). Word nerd alert: “advocate” comes from a Greek word that means “to summon to our side,” as a means of defense. Jesus will be my defense attorney, so to speak, pleading my case before the Father (see D&C 45:4-5).
Thirdly, while the events of my life will certainly be a part of the discussion, I am convinced there won’t be a sign that says: “You must be this tall to enter the Celestial Kingdom.” In other words, I don’t think our judgment will be as much about what we did or didn’t do, as much as it will be about who we have become. “All men shall reap a reward of their works, according to that which they have been” (Alma 9:28, emphasis added). Because the simple truth is that, like the little boy in Disneyland, none of us know how to be big enough on our own. We just can’t do it alone. But we can be with Jesus because He is big enough. He is good enough. And He loves us enough to want to help us become who He knows we can be.
Finally, I don’t believe there will be any surprises on judgment day. Because of our agency, we will have made the choice about which degree of glory we want to be in long before we ever arrive at the judgment bar. God won’t force us into a kingdom where we don’t want to be. We will have made our choice through a lifetime of choices here on earth. Every time you and I choose to keep a commandment, we become a little more like Jesus, and we step a little closer to heaven. Every time we repent, we leave a little more of that natural part of us behind, and we grow a little closer to divinity.
Elder Richard G. Scott put it this way: “We become who we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day.” And Jesus promises us: “For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of [my Father’s] fullness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father . . . ye shall have an inheritance with me” (D&C 93:20, 45).
Think about that for a minute: we can receive the same inheritance as Jesus, which is everything our Father has to give. Those blessings are connected to eternal life, which is the greatest gift God can give us (see D&C 14:7). All those blessings, all those promises, and all that potential . . . all from the power of the “if.”