"Draw near unto me, and I will draw near unto you..." (D&C 88:63)
Most of us would like to feel closer to our Heavenly Father. Ask yourself, has it been a long time since I've felt spiritual communication, or spiritual joy? Don't we all seek a deeper spiritual connection to God? When was the last time you felt his love?
Sometimes we go to church, we sit through meetings, even accept and work in our callings, and still don't feel the spiritual blessings. Nephi charged his brothers with being "past feeling", and said that the when Lord had spoken to them in a still small voice, they "could not feel his words" (1 Nep 17:45). Does the Lord desire to speak to us, but we are not able to receive it? Is the problem with God, or with us?
How can we come to feel what we should be feeling, and what we desire to feel? I think we all seek those wonderful spiritual communications... those whisperings from the Holy Ghost. I know for me, it is what I desire most each day - to feel our Heavenly Father's helping hand, His love and concern for me. Why sometimes do I not feel it?
There are some scriptures I would like to review, and see if we can draw out some ideas to help explain why we might feel distant from God. Of course there may be different possible reasons. One reason is highlighted in 2 Nephi 7:1. Here are the words of the Lord through Isaiah, speaking to the House of Israel - in a time where it seems that the children of Israel feel the Lord has left them alone, as though he has deserted them to their tribulations and challenges.
He says to them:
"Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away." (2 Nep 7:1)
I know a good brother who was an active member of the church growing up, but when it came time to serve a mission he chose a different path. He decided to follow the advice of his non-member friends and allowed himself to get pulled into the world. He eventually left the church entirely and over the years has completely lost his testimony of things he once believed to be true. Today, many years later – he looks back on his life and it's been a very difficult struggle. He did not complete his education, and has struggled with employment, financial security, and personal relationships.
He was expressing to me recently that he hoped fortune would turn his direction one of these days and that good things would start happening in his life. I wanted to tell this brother the hard truth as I see it – that years ago he turned away from the Lord, and decided to take on life alone and without the Spirit and the blessings of God to help him. He's been on his own these many years. Had he made a different decision early on, and continued to make decisions to follow God's commandments, I believe his life would have turned out very differently.
I'm not saying that living the Gospel will keep us away from trials or adversity. Of course we all experience our fair share of trials and challenges. But there are great blessings my friend missed out on, because he chose not to live close to the Lord. Having the Spirit of the Lord there to help guide us through our trials is a tremendous blessing.
We all have experienced this turning away from God to varying degrees in our live, have we not? Any time we commit sin, we are turning from God. When the heavens fall silent we should remember the Lord hasn't gone anywhere. Isn't the problem always with us? Aren't we the ones who put up the barriers and block the Lord's influence in our lives? We do this through our disobedience, or simply neglect. We neglect our relationship with God. We slip in our daily prayer and scripture study, and thus let go of the iron rod.
The scriptures teach that God does not change:
"For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith" (2 Nep. 27:23)
He is the same from the beginning. He created this beautiful earth, and all things upon it. He placed us here so that we might learn & gain experience and knowledge. What sort of knowledge? Knowledge of good and evil. The Lord said to Adam about his children - that as they "begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they might know to prize the good." (Moses 6:55) That is why we are here, to gain an understanding of good and evil - and to learn to choose good for ourselves.
He has given us commandments, and also, agency. God does not force obedience. Living according to His commandments, choosing to be obedient – and there is no compulsion to any degree – our choosing to live by His laws is what opens the heavens to us. Being close to God, and having access to those powers of heaven is conditional. The condition is obedience.
But when we say: Well, I'm not going to live by God's rules I'm going to live my way and by my own rules – then we place a barrier between ourselves and God. We set up our own conditions, in effect – we make ourselves our God. In any event, He hasn't gone anwhere, we are the ones who are responsible for the barrier. If we feel distant from God, we should begin by looking inward at ourselves.
This pride and stubborness is the attitude of many Latter-day church members. In 1831 the Lord gave the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants wherein he said:
"...and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither the give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people." (D&C 1:14)
Notice he refers to church members here, to be "cut off from the among the people" means being cut off from his church. Some few are excommunicated, but the vast majority simply drift away from the church, they stop attending and move themselves away from the church and into the world. In effect, they cut themselves off from the blessings of church membership.
"For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;" (D&C 1:15)
Again we see these are members of the church (note -- the broken covenant).
"They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon..." (D&C 1:16)
If we turn from God and choose to follow our pride, and our stubborness, usually God's response is to simply leave us to ourselves. Consider the following scripture:
"...the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled, only upon the principles of righteousness.
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true, but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
Behold ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints and to fight against God." (D&C 121:36-38)
So if we choose the path of sin, after making the most sacred covenants with God – promising through the covenant of baptism, and the sacrament, in all solemnity that we would be faithful to Him, if we choose sin His first response is to pull back from us. Spiritual communication ceases, and we have placed ourselves in a situation where Satan can exercise greater control over us.
Initially God does all that can be done to try to recover us. He might prompt a parent, a church leader, or a friend (or even all of these individuals) to reach out and make attempts to try to bring us back. He will surely give us many warning signs regarding the danger of our path. But the more stubborn we become in our sins, the more of a barrier we put up before God and the greater control we give to Satan.
Satan is an expert at lying and decieving. God however, cannot lie. Enos felt his guilt taken away from him, because when God said he was forgiven - "Enos knew that God could not lie". (Enos 1:6). Similarly, the brother of Jared was privileged to see the Lord in person after first only seeing the finger of the Lord. This great experience came because of his faith. When he expressed a desire to see the Lord, he was first asked a direct question:
"...Believest thou the words which I shall speak?
And he answered, Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie." (Ether 3:11-12)
It is not possible for God to lie. It is not in his character. Even if it were possible, Alma tells us that He would "cease to be God" (Alma 42:22). Will we believe the words which God has spoken? We can trust Him completely and without reservation. He has said that the souls of all men are precious to Him, and that He loves us (Alma 39:17).
We also learn that the decrees of God are "unalterable" (Alma 41:8) and that "...no unclean thing can dwell with God;" (1 Nep 10:21). He is a perfect being, He is both perfectly just (or fair) and also merciful (Alma 42:15). His judgments are perfect, and He always acts out of love. Although He loves us, even He cannot shortchange the eternal laws of justice. But the great plan of mercy is always available to us, that we might repent and become clean and pure.
Does God punish us when we choose to be disobedient?
There are occasions where God punishes the wicked. There have even been times when the wicked have been destroyed (or killed) by God. We can think of the people in the days of Noah and the great flood, the people of Sodom & Gomorrah, or the Jaredites, or even the Nephites.
Perhaps the best explanation in scripture that we have for this comes from Nephi, in 1 Nephi 17 as he was trying to teach his brothers about the great power of God. He speaks about the children of Israel who inherited the land of Canaan, and of the wicked people they had to first drive out of the land. Nephi writes:
"35 Behold the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them...
36 Behold the Lord hath created the earth, that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it.
37 And he raiseth up a righteous nation, and destroyeth the nations of the wicked.
38 And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands, and the wicked he destroyeth, and curseth the land unto them for the their sakes.
39 He ruleth high in the heavens, for it is his throne, and this earth is his footstool.
40 And he loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made... " (1 Nep 17:35-40)
He favors the righteous, his blessings are upon them.
But what right does God have to punish or destroy the wicked? How is he justified in doing so? This right is described in verse 36, "the Lord hath created the earth... and he hath created his children that they should possess it." He created us in the first place. No man has a right to take life, but God has every right. He gave us life, he gave us this earth to live on.
What have we done of ourselves to merit life or the earth? Have we created the air that we breath each day and take for granted? Have we given any thought to the sun that shines, or the weather that allows us to go about our day, or the blood that our heart is beating through our veins every moment?
This earth is the Lord's and yet, he gives it to man. And for God to destroy a people is very rare. He does not seek to destroy - but to save. These people were taught repeatedly. They were warned many times by prophets, but they "rejected every word of God." God tries repeatedly to reach out to us, to teach us, and to help us see the path of repentance and true happiness.
Our ideas about God are often far too limited. He destroys the wicked and we consider Him to be veangeful or angry. Or we overlook his commitment to justice and judgment, imagining him to always be loving, and forgiving, as C.S. Lewis once described "... not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven- a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves’..." (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 31)
But God is our father. He is the most intelligent of all beings (Abr. 3:19). His thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways. (Isa. 55:8-9).
Nephi speaks of the last days in these words:
"And they that believe not in him shall be destroyed, both by fire, and by tempest, and by earthquakes, and by bloodsheds, and by pestilence, and by famine. And they shall know that the Lord is God, the Holy One of Israel." (2 Nep 6:15).
But then Enoch witnessed God weeping as He contemplated that his children in the days of Noah must be destroyed by the great flood:
"28 And it came to pass that the God of Heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept, and Enoch bore record of it...
32 The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold, these thy brethren, they are the workmanship of mine hands; and I gave them their knowledge, in the day that I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency.
33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and given commandment that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father, but behold they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;
34 And the fire of mine indignation is kindled against them; and in my hot displeasure will I send in the floods upon them, for my fierce anger is kindled against them.
35 Behold, I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name, also.
36 Wherefore I can stretch forth mine hands and hold all the creations which I have made; and mine eye can pierce them also, and among all the workmaship of mine hands there has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren.
37 But behold their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmaship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? " (Moses 7:28, 32-37)
He goes on to say that he has created a prison for these people, and they will be shut up and in torment until the time of the resurrection of Christ. But that Jesus Christ has pled before the Father for them, and suffered for their sins, and in that day they will finally be able to repent and return unto God (Moses 7:38-39).
Isn't our concept of who God is, and what he feels and how he thinks greatly enhanced by this wonderful passage? He cannot alter the eternal laws of justice. Righteousness and goodness lead to happiness, that is the only way. Yet he weeps for his children who turn against him, especially when they become "ripe in inquity" (1 Nep 17:35) and must be destroyed.
One might ask, well – why doesn't he just choose not to destroy them? If it causes him to weep, why do it? Why not let them live? Because such a course undercuts, and ultimately destroys justice in the universe. God is in fact the custodian of justice and the ultimate arbiter of mercy. It is his right and awful responsibility to govern (or preside) over all things. And He is completely perfect in his judgments.
We get some small taste of this ourselves in dealing with our own children, do we not? Is not the family, and the parent - child relationship itself a pattern, wherein God allows us to come to know in a very real way what it means to exercise this terrible responsibility of judgment? What would become of our children if we never punished them when they did wrong? It is easy to love our children and bless them when they are doing as we wish. But how should we react to them when they choose to go against us?
And most often – if they would choose as we wish, we know it would be in their own best interests! We only want what is best for them – but convincing them of this is sometimes difficult. It would help them to go further and to become more successful if they would simply study & do their schoolwork as they ought, refrain from drugs and alcohol, turn off those video games, get away from that that boy, or that girl, or those friends, etc. And yet we also know that they must become strong on their own. We do not wish to guide them and have to make all their decisions for the rest of their life! They need to grow to become mature and responsible adults on their own.
Our Great Worth
There is another reason we might not feel close to God. Sometimes our distance from Him is not due to our disobedience. I have met some people – often sisters, but not always, who have an incorrect view of themselves and their own personal worth in God's eyes. This is particularly a problem with some of our youth. They need to know and understand that our Heavenly Father loves them so very much. Each one of us is a precious son or daughter of God. When we have an incorrect idea about God, or incorrect assumptions about who He is, or how He feels about us – that can place an unnessary barrier between us. It can diminish our ability to exercise faith, and God can only work according to our faith.
God loves each of us - His entire work, His whole effort and the entire plan is to help us gain immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39). Our Father "doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world." (2 Nep 26:24). All of his thoughts and all of his works are put towards helping us to come back to live with Him, and to achieve our full potential.
"Behold, doth he cry unto any saying: Depart from me? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth..." (2 Nep 26:25)
"...hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all are men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden." (2 Nep 26:28)
God has promised that He "will give liberally to them that asketh", and "not upbraid" (2 Nep 4:35 and also James 1:5-6).
And remember that God cannot lie, it is not possible. Then you must understand that He loves you.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Sin into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:16-17)
He loves you so much that He gave his only begotten Son on your behalf, to enable you to come back to him and have "everlasting life" (John 3:16). You have every right, every opportunity to take full advantage of the Lord's atonement and qualify for celestial glory. You have just as much right as anyone! In fact you have been foreordained to be where you are today, as a member of the church with a bright future ahead of you. Do not give in to Satan's lies about your own worth or potential.
Sometimes even though we know about the atonement of Christ – we think what we have done in our lives is so terrible that we can't ever be fully forgiven. Some torment themselves and don't allow themselves to be forgiven. This lie of Satan's does an injustice to the reality and eternal scope and power of Christ's infinite atonement.
I love the description of these church members early in the book of Helaman:
"Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the santification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God." (Helaman 3:35)
It is my prayer and hope that we can each – myself included – draw nearer to God through fasting and prayer. That we can gain more humility and a softer heart. For I know when I have worked to open my heart, and to yield myself to God, those have been the times when I have felt his Spirit most powerfully. I pray that we will each draw near to him, open our hearts to his inviting spirit, and more fully become his disciples.