Setting the Stage for a Deeper Understanding of Spiritual Conversion
Today I want to talk about a topic that is close to many of our hearts, yet often neglected in our daily conversations: genuine spiritual conversion. In an era where faithfulness crises seem to be increasing, we must strive to find answers to the why, the how, and what we can do about it. It is my humble endeavor to explore these questions and to remind us all about the central role of intrinsic motivation, meaningful spiritual experiences, and personal commitment in our journey towards Christ. It’s a challenging journey, requiring us to be childlike and surrender our life to the Lord, but it’s the most rewarding journey we could ever undertake. Join me as we delve into this vital subject and find ways to help ourselves and others stay steadfast in our faith, even amidst trials and tribulations.
From time-to-time, most of us find ourselves pondering how we can help those who are struggling with their faith and commitment to God. Sometimes, those people are us, and we find ourselves wondering about our own personal discipleship and degree of conversion and conviction. On the roller-coaster of life, sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down. Sometimes we’re frolicking like naïve kids in the Garden of Eden, and then we fall into a dreary world that is a lot more challenging than we envisioned, and that includes how we feel about our covenantal relationship with God and His beloved Son as taught by the Savior’s prophets and administered by His Church.
And that’s the way it was designed to be. So, if you’re struggling, you’re in good company. Conversion is a lifelong process, and then some — it is not a one-and-done event. Like lifting weights — like I know anything about lifting weights — when you stop doing it, or dial it back a bit, or don’t accept greater challenges, it all goes flabby. And flabby is something I understand. Likewise, our degree of conversion increases with the amount of effort we invest into following Christ. So how are we doing? How converted are we?
Today I’d like to consider three aspects that we might want to consider as we examine our own measure of conversion and how we navigate through the ups and downs of our spiritual lives. And to do that I’d like to ask and answer three questions. First, why is this is happening? Second, how do we know when it is happening? And third, what can we do about it?
Insights from Elder Featherstone
As I pondered this topic, the first thing that came to mind was an experience I had 36 years ago as a young missionary. My companion and I had the assignment to drive the energetic Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the Seventy from a stake conference to the nearest airport. It was a two-hour drive, but we had 90 minutes to make it because Elder Featherstone was speaking that night at a BYU fireside. We had to make sure he made his flight.
As we approached the mission van, he asked, “Which one of you has ever gotten a speeding ticket?” My companion from Simi Valley, California, sheepishly raised his hand. Elder Featherstone told him, “Thanks for being honest. You drive.” My companion hopped into the driver’s seat and Elder Featherstone sat down on the passenger bench in the van and patted the little spot next to him and said, “Why don’t you sit here next to me.”
Then he said, “Don’t worry, Elders. The Lord will make sure I make that flight. But do try to drive quickly.” By the way, in spite of making that drive in record-breaking time, we did arrive late, but for some reason his flight was delayed just long enough so that this great servant of the Lord was able to board right before the cabin doors shut. The date was Sunday, September 7, 1986, and the speech he would deliver was one of his most memorable, which was called, Building Bricks without Straw.
As we settled into the drive, Elder Featherstone asked, “What questions do you have, Elders? You have my undivided attention.” While the van flew down the freeway, all previously queued-up questions flew out of my head and my mind went completely blank. After he warmed us up with an inspirational story or two, finally a question we had been discussing that week with the mission president came back to mind, and so I asked it: “How can we help investigators and members make and keep their commitments?”
He just smiled and with a twinkle in his eye said, “Oh, that’s an easy one.”
I’m glad he thought it was easy because this seemed like the ultimate golden question, the one whose answer would solve any problem anyone working in the Lord’s vineyard would ever have. And here is his answer: “Help them have spiritual experiences, because the Spirit will show them how to turn back to the Lord.”
A Crisis of Faithfulness
As I’ve tried to apply that simple counsel over the years, I’ve seen the wisdom in it. People don’t necessarily struggle with understanding gospel truths. It isn’t that they don’t understand or don’t believe. They struggle with remaining true to the truths they have received and remaining faithful to the faith they once embraced.
Some people, after they have intentionally chosen to sin, deflect ownership by blaming their lack of commitment on the Church, its leaders, its members, or on some “new fact” they just discovered. They may express that they have lost faith in prophets, faith in the Savior, and even faith in the very existence of God the Father. But I’m not entirely convinced this is a crisis of faith.
If I may be blunt, it sounds to me like a crisis of faithfulness. For one reason or another, they haven’t chosen to fully exercise their faith or have set it aside in favor of something else. They aren’t in a position where the Holy Ghost is able to influence them as much. If this continues, the light in their countenance dims, they feel alone and confused, and the once bright flame cools off and they become an angst-filled, smoldering ember.
I’ve been there. Many of us have. We will all have our faithfulness tested. And not just once, but over and over again. That is by design. But it is my witness that if we hold on to the word of God during our times in the darkness, then that is precisely when our faith will grow. Like muscles, we are stretching our faith and working it out. As a result, we’ll come out of the darkness and into the light spiritually stronger and healthier. Sometimes we are successful; sometimes we are not. And that’s okay. Only the Savior managed to do this perfectly, and even though He was sinless, He too experienced a withdrawal of the Spirit of God at a time when He needed it the most.
Which is why remaining on the covenant path takes far more than a personal testimony. Full-time missionaries usually end their missions with a strong testimony because they have personally witnessed the mighty change within themselves and others. But this knowledge, born from experience, if not accompanied by faithfulness, is quickly forgotten within mere months. Individuals, acting on their own, relying on their own rationale and instincts, will always revert to the entropic natural man, and become carnal, sensual, and devilish. Always. Unless, of course, they seek after and accept the grace of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Only His atonement can lift us up and set us on a new course, and then change us, line-upon-line, bit-by-bit, year-after-year.
Reading the Signs
This is genuine conversion: the life-long struggle to replace any natural man ideas and behaviors with Christ-like ideas and behaviors. You know this mighty change is happening in someone’s life when they shift from thinking of themselves to thinking of others, when their behaviors reflect the type of self-denial and self-sacrifice that comes when we align our will with the will of God. Whenever selfishness is replaced with selflessness, people turn outwards rather than inwards. They no longer are the center of the universe. They no longer worship themselves. Those are the signs of the believers.
On the other hand, when people persistently turn inwards, the signs of spiritual sickness always manifest themselves. For some, this manifests inwardly, such as addiction, greed, avoidance, lack of confidence, withdrawal from interpersonal relationships, and so forth. For others it manifests itself outwardly such as disobedience, defiance, hostility, intemperance, guile, and petulance, among others. When you spot the relationship-destroying behaviors of blaming, complaining, criticizing, shaming, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing or rewarding to control, then we know that this person needs help. These, sadly, are also the signs of apostasy and rebellion.
What Can We Do?
What do we do when we see these things happening to us, or to those we love, or to those in our community? According to Elder Featherstone, the best help comes doesn’t come from mere mortals — it comes from the Gods. It comes in the form of meaningful spiritual experiences. But those often need mortals to help set up the conditions and circumstances that invite the Spirit to do His work. They need someone to set up the chairs, perform the music, say the prayers, pass the sacrament, and deliver the sermons. They need human hands that lift, human knees that bow, human backs that bear burdens, human ears that listen without judgment, human lips that never speak evil. When God sees that His children are trying, and doing the best they can do, however imperfect it might be, then He promises to get involved.
Sometimes, caring people need to step in and do something to help prime the spiritual pump. This is especially true for those who are new to the duties of discipleship, and often lack the wisdom to differentiate good from better, and better from best. Special experiences like camps, conferences, and treks can be pivotal in helping kindle and rekindle the flame of faith. All of us need activities like this from time-to-time, which is why we are commanded to meet often and strengthen one another.
Furthermore, to successfully fight off our unseen but armed-to-the-hilt, hate-filled adversaries, we need reliable, time-tested comrades-in-arms who will help fight our spiritual battles, where each soldier can contribute their unique spiritual gifts and talents that will protect and defend the others, especially when one of us becomes wounded. Who here hasn’t been spiritually wounded? Who here hasn’t been lifted from the spiritual strength of someone else? I testify that I have been lifted by those in this ward, far more often than I’ve lifted others. That’s why we desperately need each other.
Therefore, regular spiritual experiences, provided by families, ministering servants, neighbors, and supplemented by the Church, are quite essential for everyone’s spiritual health and well-being. But what happens when the music fades, the fun finishes, the event ends, and we find ourselves in our darkened rooms feeling alone and unseen?
Extrinsic to Intrinsic Compliance
Extrinsic reactions — a reaction that is dependent on external factors to generate — is only temporary. Everyone obeys the teacher when she is in the room, but the moment she leaves, compliance leaves with her. The extrinsic must be replaced with intrinsic reactions as soon as possible. These are reactions that are generated from deep within an individual. They come from a person’s heart and mind because that is what he or she values and desires. And even better, intrinsic reactions occur regardless of what goes on outside of that person.
As far as I can tell, the only intrinsic motivation that lasts permanently, comes when a person truly decides to abandon their natural, carnal, sensuous, and devilish man, and then intentional turns to the Savior for saving. This is known as genuine conversion. Only the Light of the World can give the light someone needs to find and stay on the covenant path. We don’t want the type of temporary and shallow extrinsic compliance to God’s covenants and commandments that only comes from cultural or social expectations–we want to see intrinsic compliance, despite external pressures to do otherwise.
How to Strengthen Intrinsic Motivation
So, how do we help others have the spiritual experiences that will intrinsically motivate them to consistently come unto Christ?
First, we need to remember that we can’t force this mighty change of heart on anyone. After all, the only person we can ever hope to motivate to be converted to genuine Christianity is ourselves. The law of agency prohibits us from trying to control the thoughts and behaviors of anyone else. In a great eternal paradox, we will never find our salvation if that becomes our primary focus. We can only find it if we are willing to give up everything, as Christ Himself did. That is the Doctrine of Christ. Only when we lose ourselves in the work of salvation, will we find ourselves changed and saved. Salvation is a consequence of the grace and love of the Savior, not the result of anything we did for ourselves. This is why we need to reach out to love and serve others; this is why we need to help others experience the influence of the Holy Ghost. As we do so, we will feel the influence of the Holy Ghost ourselves.
Second, we also need to remember that while we can and should patiently and lovingly entice and encourage others to turn to the Lord and turn to others, this will ultimately lack convincing power and authentic authority unless we, as ministering servants, are constantly turning away from our natural man instincts and constantly turning towards God.
It is the Savior’s job to save, not ours. All we can do is represent the Savior and do what He would do if He were here. Which means we have to acquire as many Christ-like characteristics and virtues and spiritual gifts as are needful. Which means we have to be anxiously engaged with God and carefully and painstakingly work out His mind and His will. This revelation only occurs after we have put in the work of personal prayer, fasting, service, study, pondering, sacrificing, preparing, etc.
To a real extent, our love of God is measured by the amount of quality time we personally spend loving and caring for His children in the manner He desires. We don’t treat people the way we want to be treated, or the way they want to be treated, but in the highly individualistic, one-by-one way in which God wants them treated. As the only all-wise being I know (except for a few 16-year-olds), He’s the only one that knows the right time, the right place, and the right interaction for every one of His children.
When we turn outwards towards others, our efforts are always magnified and maximized beyond our natural abilities. Our ordinary talks, lessons, meetings, conferences, interviews, and events become extraordinary, holy, sacred, and sanctified. They don’t merely enlighten or entertain, but they also empower and edify, and encourage and energize.
Again, this isn’t the result of our efforts, even though it will require our best efforts, but because we tried to create the circumstances and conditions that promote meaningful spiritual experiences. You see we did everything we could do to elevate the environment to a state where the Holy Ghost can do the mind-prickling, heart-softening, and values-realignment job that only He can do.
But even then, if individuals choose not to listen to the Holy Spirit at that time, we never, ever, give up. We humbly try to create another experience that is conducive to the Spirit of the Lord. At some point in time, after He has done His work, the truly heavy-lifting, soul-saving work, can we swoop in with our imperfect motives, flawed hearts, but good intentions, and do whatever the Holy Ghost tells us to do next to help that specific individual.
At the beginning of this sermon, I asked three questions to try to figure out how to help people who are struggling with their conversion to the Lord. Why does it happen? How do you know it is happening? What can we do about it? I’ve attempted to provide some answers although there are certainly better answers, and even some better questions. I encourage you to ask your own questions and formulate your own answers. That way you can make it intrinsic, so it sticks like Velcro to your brain. But to recap, here are my conclusions:
- WHY do people have a faithfulness crisis? Because they haven’t yet been fully converted and surrendered their life to the Lord. I think that pretty well describes all of us.
- HOW do we know when they are struggling? When we see them focused more on themselves than on their relationship with God and His children. I think that pretty well describes all of us.
- WHAT can we do about it? Provide and promote more extrinsic and intrinsic spiritual experiences.
Brothers and sisters, if you are doing something that doesn’t invite the Spirit into your life, stop doing it as soon as possible. Now is a good time because time is clearly running out for this fallen, telestial kingdom. We must rise above it or we’ll be destroyed along with it. In our days we need the Holy Spirit to survive and thrive. May God help us as we learn how to genuinely help each other and become converted to Christ, even as a child.