The Choices We Make
Brothers and sisters, today we find ourselves embarking on a new semester and year. Traditionally, this is the time of year when many people around the world make New Year's resolutions. It has become very obvious over the years, and also the source of many jokes, that it is far easier to make a resolution than it is to keep one. Why do you think that is the case?
In almost every instance, a New Year's resolution is an attempt to try and reverse the consequences of poor choices made in the past, by replacing those decisions with better ones. You know--exercise more, eat less; study more efficiently, waste less time; be more patient, criticize less, etc. etc.
Making a resolution means an act of resolving to do something.
To resolve means to make a firm decision or to change.
It is interesting to note that making a resolution connotes making a change.
It is also interesting to note that the definition of repentance is to feel such regret for previous behavior as to change one's mind about it. The original Greek definition of repentance denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. In Hebrew the word repent means to change one's mind or a change of heart.
Therefore, making a New Year's resolution is in a sense a form of repentance, an outward expression of one's desire to improve and change.
Now back to the original question. Why are so many resolutions made and so few kept?
Well, the answer is simple: it is hard to break bad habits. A bad habit is a false tradition. Bad habits or false traditions are difficult to change. It takes real determination and resolve to make the change. Remember that our behavior is a result of years of decision making and those decisions, however small, determine our habits and our traditions.
Life is all about making choices. We cannot avoid it. We make them consciously or seemingly unconsciously all day long. When we make our choices we always support one of two possible options. We are either obedient to true principles and choose that course of action, or we choose disobedience and live false traditions. Those are the two options. I define this process of making choices as the "principle of responsibility." We are all ultimately responsible for the choices we make.
Dr. Viktor E. Frankl is one of the world's most renowned psychiatrists, born in Vienna, Austria on March 26, 1905. He ultimately received his MD and later his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He later went on to receive 18 honorary doctoral degrees. He is probably best known for his book; "Man's Search for Meaning." This important work chronicles his observations regarding human behavior while imprisoned in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during World War II. Between 1942 and 1945 he spent time in both Auschwitz and Dachau. Dr. Frankl observed some very interesting behavior:
While held captive in these camps, and writing on small scraps of paper he could find, Dr. Frankl kept notes on what he saw. He observed that under the incredibly horrible conditions of starvation, sickness and torture, there existed two groups of people with diametrically opposed senses of values.
He observed that one group actually would steal from the sick, the aged and the feeble, what little food was available to save their own lives--knowing their actions would probably cause the death of their fellow inmates.
At the same time, Dr. Frankl observed that a different group would actually give their meager allotment of food to the sick, the aged and the feeble, to try and save others' lives--knowing it could easily cause their own deaths.
What is the principle we learn from Dr. Frankl's observations?
In his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," Dr. Frankl informs us that in the concentration camp every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold. All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is "the last of human freedoms" — the ability to "choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances."
This principle is clearly taught in the scriptures. One of my favorite verses which illustrates this principle is found in Helaman 14:30. This verse not only defines the principle of responsibility, it also reveals the two most precious gifts our loving Heavenly Father has given His children.
"And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold you are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free."
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we have been given a knowledge of true principles and the freedom to internalize and apply them or not. In other words, we ultimately decide our own destiny. Our future is determined by our everyday choices.
Even though all of us are living under the same social conditions--and undergoing similar societal temptations--some choose to remain true to the values and principles taught by Jesus Christ, while others choose to cross the line and venture into forbidden paths.
Why do some use their agency to choose the right, and others to choose the wrong?
There are many examples in the scriptures which parallel the experiences observed by Dr. Frankl in the concentration camps, and which likewise illustrate those who decide to make opposite choices, while living under the exact same societal conditions.
In Alma 62:41 it reads:
"But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility."
This verse describes that the same societal conditions which existed at that time for everyone– Lamanite or Nephite. Those conditions existed because of "the exceedingly great length of the war," and the afflictions brought about due to the war. Under these identical conditions two distinctly different groups emerged! Opposite attitudes and choices were manifested. One group hardened their hearts. The other group softened their hearts, and did humble themselves before God.
This phenomena is clearly illustrated in the contrary approach Lehi's sons chose to take, even though they not only grew up in the same society, but in the same family unit. Listen to the incredible differences between the thoughts and attitudes of Laman and Lemuel, compared to those of Nephi. First, let's hear what Laman and Lemuel felt about their experiences in the wilderness after leaving Jerusalem. This is found in 1 Ne. 17: 20-21:
"And thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish imaginations of the heart; yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.
"Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy."
It is evident Laman and Lemuel were not happy campers. They even went so far as to say that "it would have been better that they would have died before they came out of Jerusalem." Now, in contrast, let's hear Nephi's opinion of the exact same experience in the wilderness.
This is found in 1 Ne. 17: 2-3:
"And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeying without murmurings.
"And thus we see the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness."
Incredibly enough, under the exact same conditions in the wilderness, Nephi states "great were the blessing of the Lord upon us" in direct contrast to the words of Laman and Lemuel who stated: " it would have been better if they had died before they came out of Jerusalem."
Another dramatic illustration of this principle of agency is found in the first seven verses of Chapter 3 of 1 Nephi:
"And it came to pass that I, Nephi, returned from speaking with the Lord, to the tent of my father.
"And it came to pass that he spake unto me, saying: Behold I have dreamed a dream, in the which the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem.
"For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.
"Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brothers should go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither into the wilderness.
"And now, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.
"Therefore go, my son, and thou shalt be favored of the Lord, because thou hast not murmured.
"And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them."
Under the same request from Lehi, there resulted two opposite reactions from Nephi and his brothers. Laman and Lemuel murmur against their father and Nephi claims he will go and do the will of the Lord. Why is that? What makes the difference?
Let's look back in verse 5:
"And now, behold thy brothers murmur saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them."
In other words, Laman and Lemuel believe this project is an invention of Lehi. They believe that their father is the one requiring it of them and they already think he's crazy for leaving Jerusalem in the first place!
Now let's flip over to verse 7:
"And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded.."
Unlike Laman and Lemuel, Nephi in his statement of commitment to the Lord, doesn't even mention his earthly father. Nephi states he will do the things the Lord has commanded. Even though the request comes through his mortal father, Nephi has the faith and testimony that his parent is a prophet of the Lord and therefore a mouthpiece for the Lord. Due to this understanding, he doesn't see the need to mention his earthly father in his commitment to do the Lord's will. So back to the original question. Why is it that under the same exact conditions some choose the right and others do not?
It is clear in the examples previously illustrated, that faithfulness and testimony play an important role in decision making. The reason faithfulness and testimony play such an important role is, they are the exact ingredients which allow the companionship of the Holy Ghost–which is one of the greatest blessings we enjoy as faithful members of the Church. The Holy Ghost helps us make good decisions. If you want to make good decisions and choices, be worthy of the influence of the Holy Ghost. Doctrine and Covenants 45: 57 states:
"For they that are wise...have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide.."
Brothers and sisters, is the Holy Ghost your guide? Does he help you make your choices? In this world of ever-increasing promiscuity you are not left alone. One of the great responsibilities of the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, is to help you make good choices. He can be your dearest and most trusted friend when it comes time to make a choice. Our journey through these troubled times is not meant to be a solitary journey. It was intended that we make this journey with a good and capable guide, even the Holy Ghost.
(Ball of Twine Demonstration)
Now, this line represents the line we should never cross. The principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ are simple and very clear. The line of demarcation is well defined. On one side of the line is the Lord's territory, and on the other side of the line is Satan's territory.
If you stay on the Lord's side of the line Satan will have very little ability to annoy or to distress you or to cause you to make poor choices.
If you pass over to Satan's side of the line just one millimeter you are in his territory. You will be subject to his power.
Those who have made the choice to disobey the commandments--or the true principles with which we have been blessed--no matter in how tiny a degree it may be, have gone over into Satan's territory. He will seek to draw you further into his realm, further away from this line of demarcation. You need to know that if he can keep you in his territory, he will be able to maintain power over you. Satan knows that no man can do that which is wrong and stay on the Lord's side of the line. No man can violate the principles of integrity, the Word of Wisdom or the law of chastity and be on the Lord's side of the line.
Remember this: When your choices move you in the direction the world is moving, you are undoubtedly heading in the wrong direction.
(Retrieve the Twine)
Remember Helaman 14:30. Heavenly Father has given us knowledge and freedom. He will not, and cannot, take this freedom or moral agency from us. If we do that which is wrong and cross the line, we do it because we have the will and the power to do it. We cannot blame anybody else.
If we determine to choose the right, and obey the commandments of God, and live as we ought to live, and stay on the Lord's side of the line, we do it because we have the will and power to do it. Boldly take a stand for good. Set firm goals in your lives to always choose the right. Let us not be like Alice in the book ,"Alice in Wonderland." At a juncture in the road, she was contemplating which direction she should go:
"The cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought; still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.
"Cheshire Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name; however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far, " thought Alice, and she went on. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where ---- "said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
Brothers and sisters, not only do we need to care about our direction, we need to clearly understand that our direction is taking us back to Heavenly Father's presence, or it isn't. The consequences of our choices have a dynamic impact far beyond what we may think. When we make a choice, by definition three things happen:
1. We become a teacher and representative of that choice.
2. We establish habits and traditions based on that choice.
3. We enjoy or suffer the resultant consequences of that choice.
To illustrate, let's pretend for a second that you're all married and have children. As a couple and as parents you have made the decision not to hold family home evening. Without saying a word to your children, and in the failure to act in not holding family home evening, are you teaching something to them? Yes! You are teaching them that family home evening is not important. Now when the children go to primary and are taught that family home evening is important, in what position does this place your children?
We need to be careful of our choices because in the moment we make a choice we become a teacher and example of whatever choice we've made. If we have decided not to hold family home evening, does this establish a habit or tradition in our home? Will our children be more, or less, inclined when they grow up to be parents themselves to hold family home evening --if they grew up in a family without that tradition? Of course they will be less inclined.
We know that we should hold family home evening. In this troubled world three hours of church on Sunday will not protect our children all week long. We need to connect our Celestial goals to our everyday life, and one of the connections possible for us is family home evening.
The smokers of the world are typically the children of smokers. The abusers of the world are typically the children of abusers. Never underestimate the power of traditions, whether they be true or false traditions. Poor decisions create negative, non-productive habits. Consequences of such can be the cause of life long suffering. Learn to choose the better part.
The results of sound decisions or choices keep us on track towards exaltation. Unsound decisions detour us from that objective. Among the thousands of choices which will ultimately tell our life's story, there are a handful which I call benchmark decisions. A benchmark decision is one which will create a chain reaction of future events which will greatly impact the direction of your life. They can have extremely positive implication or they can generate heartache and difficulties--all depending on the direction you choose. These benchmark decisions are definitely moments of truth in all of our lives.
Let me share with you what I consider to be the benchmark decisions of my life:
My First Benchmark Decision:
Preparing for and serving an honorable full-time mission as a young man.
It is virtually impossible to over-estimate the positive impact of a full-time mission on the entire future life of a young man. If a young man serves worthily and valiantly on his mission, the primary blessing will be the inner satisfaction of having served the Lord full-time for two years. That should be reason enough to serve. However, we understand many other blessings come as a result of this service. During two years of service, the typical missionary will spend approximately 11,000 hours in service, training and studying. It would take a little over 30 years, one hour a day in like activity to equal a full-time mission.
Having served a mission also establishes the missionary tradition in your future home. Full-time missionary work is just what we do! It is a family tradition.
My Second Benchmark Decision:
Deciding to obtain as much education as possible.
I have always been taught the more education one receives, the more options one will ultimately have in life. The more options one has, the better. I'm not just talking about university studies. I'm talking about vocational and technical training as well. Technology is advancing so fast today, we share a need for constant upgrading of skills. I have never seen someone disadvantaged due to excessive education in university studies or the technical fields.
Doctrine & Covenants 93: 36 states, "the glory of God is intelligence" and Doctrine & Covenants 130: 18-19 adds, "Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come."
Education has been a great blessing in my life.
My Third Benchmark Decision:
Deciding to marry in the temple of the Lord for time and all eternity.
The cornerstone of establishing a successful marriage is to first establish a relationship of trust between husband and wife. There exists no better way to initiate a relationship of trust than to do so through the priesthood ordinance and subsequent covenant of eternal marriage.
From the very beginning, God has been concerned about the family. He covenanted with Abraham that through him, all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Gen. 12:2) According to Abraham, through the priesthood all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Abr. 2:11) We also understand this blessing includes priesthood ordinances, the highest of which is the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage by which a man and woman can be joined together and achieve the third or highest degree in the celestial kingdom. (D&C 131: 1-4)
The Apostle Paul said that he was permitted to go to the third heaven where he saw and heard things he could not teach at that time. (2 Cor. 12: 2-4)
He also said, "...eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor hath entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor. 2: 9)
Being sealed for time and eternity is the promise of exaltation all of us desire for ourselves and for our loved ones.
My temple marriage has been the greatest of blessings in my life.
The Fourth Benchmark Decision:
My wife, Nancy, and I jointly deciding to establish the family tradition of "mom being at home with the children."
A long time ago when I was a little guy I remember blasting through the front door of our home after school, and before the door could slam shut I would always scream out the proverbial: "Mom, where are you?" The fact was, it really didn't matter ‘where' she was but it did matter that she was there, in the home. Even when you're not face to face with mom working on a project, there exists an incredible feeling of security when a little person knows mom is just in the other room.
Our home life has been greatly blessed due to Nancy being a "stay-home-mom." I also know that it has been a great blessing to our children as well.
The Fifth Benchmark Decision:
Nancy and I jointly decided to stay out of debt.
In our family we have established the tradition of always paying our tithing, fast offerings and other church donations and offerings first, without exception. Second, we have always tried to save at least another ten percent of income for a rainy day. That rainy day could be an emergency or an investment opportunity. Third, we have never held a balance on any credit card. In fact our only debts were early in our marriage, when we had a mortgage on our home and a car loan.
Staying true to this benchmark decision has been an incredible blessing in our lives. Because we have always been faithful to the Lord first, and subsequently done our best to stay out of debt, I know the Lord has been very kind to us in our temporal lives.
The Sixth Benchmark Decision:
Nancy and I jointly decided to always accept calls from the Lord and then magnify them.
Accepting calls from the Lord through His designated leaders is a matter of family priorities. It is a matter of what is truly important in this life. I don't know any calling that has been convenient. Ultimately, accepting a call and then magnifying it is simply a matter of serving the Lord and His children.
My personal and family life has been enriched and blessed because we have always accepted and worked to magnify our callings from the Lord.
The Seventh Benchmark Decision:
Nancy and I jointly decided to be faithful to our covenants.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we formalize our relationship with Heavenly Father through participation in priesthood ordinances. The resultant transaction is known as a covenant. When we make a covenant, we make a promise. When we make a covenant with the Lord, we make a promise to the Lord. There is nothing more important in life than keeping one's promises to the Lord. The people of the Lord are a covenant making people. In Hebrews 8: 10 it reads:
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people."
Heavenly Father is our God and we are his people. We became His people through the ordinance of baptism and confirmation and at that time we made covenants or promises to the Lord. This is clearly stated in 2 Ne 31: 17, 20:
" Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye should know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
"Wherefore, ye must press forward with steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus, saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life."
It is interesting to note that the two qualifications to gain eternal life, as stated in 2 Ne 31, "feast upon the word of Christ and endure to the end," correspond exactly to the two gifts which Heavenly Father has granted members of the Church as illustrated previously in Helaman 14.-- knowledge of the truth, and the freedom to apply those truths in our lives.
"Feasting upon the word of Christ" means: striving diligently to gain a knowledge of the truth, and,
"Endure to the end" means: a consistent, on-going effort to apply the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our lives by making good choices and establishing celestial traditions.
Therefore, we can clearly see that learning eternal truths, and then applying them through making good choices, demonstrates to the Lord that we are keeping our promises to Him. When we keep our promises to the Lord, He allows us to progress spiritually.
Well, those points represent the seven benchmark decisions of my life. I hope that you might thoughtfully consider them when it's your turn to make those same decisions. Remember, life is nothing more or less than a long chain of personal and family choices. The choices we make will determine our future not only in this life, but in the life to come.
The greatest gifts Heavenly Father can give us here, are knowledge and the freedom to internalize and apply that knowledge. If we make good choices and properly apply the knowledge of the gospel in our lives, we will gain intelligence, wisdom and understanding- and have the right to further light and knowledge. The conversion of knowledge into intelligence only happens when we make and keep our promises to the Lord through the making of good decisions. This process is called spiritual growth.
May we all consider the vast implication of the decisions and choices we make everyday. May we resolve to be true to our covenants and promises made to the Lord. May our New Year's resolutions reflect our desire to establish Celestial habits and traditions, is my humble prayer.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
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