Commentary on Chapter 1: The Great Commandment—Love the Lord – Benson Manual

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“President Ezra Taft Benson’s life reflected his love for the Lord and his steadfast commitment to living the gospel. An extended family member once said, “To Ezra and his family religion is a complete way of life—something to be lived seven days a week. It takes first place in his consideration when the time comes for making decisions.”

As a student of psychology, I am often fascinated by questions of what exactly is commitment. I am reminded of various research studies on obedience and leadership which inspire great skepticism whenever 100 percent devotion is ever demanded. When I read this quote about religion being a seven day a week process, I want to be very careful to clarify what we are talking about. I personally believe that commitment is beautiful, but as a virtue I also feel as if it can be used as a crutch. Commitment should not be used as a tool to help us not have to think about the differing events that occur in our live. Instead, we should use it jointly with our intellect as we thoughtfully attempt to engage this beautiful process of life.

However having firm and solid commitments is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to be aware of the many cognitive biases in which we are all susceptible. However, having solid and firm heuristics is something that can provide great value and benefit, as can be seen in the next quote.

“People outside the Benson family also noticed President Benson’s love for the Lord. In 1939, when President Benson was serving as a stake president, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with the directors of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “After looking him over and questioning him, the board of trustees offered him the position of executive secretary of that organization. … Though he was thrilled by this unsolicited bid for his services, he did not wish to accept it. As he understood it, the job would entail lobbying by the use of cocktail parties, which would not be compatible with his religion. ‘Mr. Benson,’ Judge John D. Miller, head of the group, replied, ‘that is why we selected you. We know what your standards are.’ With full assurance from the board that he would not be expected to seek an understanding of agricultural problems over cocktail glasses, he was delighted to accept the position, but only after consultation with the First Presidency and his wife.”

I like this story as it demonstrates a degree of risk.  President Benson was willing to put himself on the line in order to stay true to his deeply held values and interpretations of how he was to engage the world. I think we need to be careful to avoid falling in the trap of blindly accepting particular ideas and interpretations and then rudely attempting to draw unnecessary lines with those around us. However, I do believe there is so much value in staying true to the deeply earned values that we do hold.

This certainly applies to circumstances of relating to individuals who are not latter day saints, but this type of thing applies in our LDS communities as well.  Whether we are thinking of problematic cultural behaviors such as judgmental exceptionalism, anti-scientific attitudes or anti-pluralistic approaches we all need to be willing to stand up for what we see as right.

“President Benson taught that we manifest our love for the Lord by our willingness to do the Lord’s will. He said: “I wish that every Latter-day Saint could say and mean it with all his heart: ‘I’ll go where you want me to go. I’ll say what you want me to say. I’ll be what you want me to be’ [see Hymns, no. 270]. If we could all do that, we would be assured of the maximum of happiness here and exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God hereafter.”

The idea that we are to do what the Lord would have us do is beautiful to me, although also easily misunderstood. I do not see it as a call towards blind adherence to leaders, but instead as a call towards a hopeful humility within a thoughtful search. For us to follow what the Lord would have us do, we have to know first what that would be. It is thus important that we can always be searching to understand the will of the Lord better, and that this can be done in a thoughtful and sincere way.

“In a sermon at the April  1988 general conference—the sermon upon which this chapter is based—President Benson focused on the first and great commandment: to love God. Regarding this sermon, Elder Francis M. Gibbons of the Seventy observed, “All that President Ezra Taft Benson worked for, all that he stood for, and all that he hoped for—for himself, for his family, and for the Church—is embodied in this sermon.”

Thus, as we go through the rest of this lesson, I hope that we can be pondering these vital questions. Questions of how we can come closer to God as we seek to find the most authentic and valuable ways to worship him in a committed and devoted way.

“The first and great commandment is to love the Lord. The great test of life is obedience to God. “We will prove them herewith,” said the Lord, “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” The great task of life is to learn the will of the Lord and then do it. The great commandment of life is to love the Lord.”

“Come unto Christ,” exhorts Moroni in his closing testimony, “… and love God with all your might, mind and strength” This, then, is the first and great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”

The scriptures are filled with these types of pleas directing us towards love and commitment for the Lord. With the distinction that we are to have this love and commitment to God, and not necessarily to what others interpret as simply being his will for us, I still think it is reasonable to question why this devotion is demanded in the first place.

Why does God need our love? Some representations show God as this insecure father who simply wants to be adored, and even that he has a crazy jealous and unhealthy need for attention. I personally feel that this is an unhealthy view, and don’t think it is true.

I would much prefer the understanding that we are commanded to love God for our benefit. I am inspired by thoughts and scriptures that describe God as being gentle and even a being who weeps as he sees the suffering on the earth. Teryl Givens argues that perhaps much of the power of God actually comes from his vulnerability.

Loving God is frankly a vulnerable position which we are led towards in the church. We have to let go of an apparently rational approach and move forward with faith and hope as we try to reach our goals. I believe that perhaps this is to give us a small taste of the power that can come from vulnerability.

“It is the pure love of Christ, called charity, that the Book of Mormon Testifies is the greatest of all—that never faileth, that endureth forever, that all men should have, and that without which they are nothing.”

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren,” pleads Moroni, “pray unto the Father with all the energy of [your] heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him”

One of my favorite spiritual and religious pursuits is this attempt to cleave and reach toward charity. It is an attempt to change and become someone who exemplifies these qualities of true charity and compassion. This idea of gaining these qualities as being a complex and time-intensive process of prayer and searching strongly resonates with me, as I feel it is not something that comes easily.

“In the closing accounts of both the Jaredites and the Nephites, Moroni records that except men shall have this pure love of Christ, called charity, they cannot inherit that place which Christ has prepared in the mansions of His Father nor can they be saved in the kingdom of God.”

The questions of who will and will not be saved are fascinating to me. I happen to fall on the side that God is desirous for all of his children to return unto him.  Since I believe that his plan was constructed to work, I believe that his plan is actually incredibly universalistic. With that said, I believe that for us all to reach our divine potential, we will need to go through a vital transformation. I believe that one of the most important qualities involved in this transformation will be related to empathy which I feel relates highly to the qualities of charity being discussed here.

“The fruit that Lehi partook of in his vision and that filled his soul with exceeding great joy and that was most desirable above all things was the love of God.”

Perhaps this is why we get in the predicaments that we do. Because we have so much love for the gospel, and see the love of God as being the most desirous and valuable thing, we can sometimes act in harmful and forceful ways that are intended to express that love, but may not be done in the best way possible.

“When I think of charity, I … think of my father and that day he was called on his mission [see pages 4–6 in this book]. I suppose some in the world might say that his acceptance of that call was proof he did not really love his family. To leave seven children and an expectant wife at home alone for two years, how could that be true love? But my father knew a greater vision of love. He knew that “all things shall work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). He knew that the best thing he could do for his family was to obey God.”

This is a fascinating point to ponder. A question that I might ask could be if there is ever too much that we can do in our pursuit of showing God our love for him. While it may have been a loving action that led his father to sacrifice for the Lord, I question whether that is always appropriate. I often have seen Bishops and leaders who in an attempt to be devout followers of the Lord end up neglecting their wives and children.  In my singles ward I once heard the idea that perhaps in some of these types of situations the most faithful and devout response would be to be a little less stringent in a particular good choice in order to move forward with something better. This is a great example of why it is so important that we are always seeking to follow the will of god vs. the cultural expectations that are put upon us.

“To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is all-consuming and all-encompassing. It is no lukewarm endeavor. It is total commitment of our very being—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—to a love of the Lord.  The breadth, depth, and height of this love of God extend into every facet of one’s life. Our desires, be they spiritual or temporal, should be rooted in a love of the Lord. Our thoughts and affections should be centered on the Lord. “Let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord,” said Alma, “yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever”

President Hinckley had a talk about the north star and how it can act as a guiding compass in our lives. He then went on to elaborate about how our love of God must be our guiding compass.  I absolutely believe this is true. There is so much need for more love in the world. There is so much selfishness. So much defensiveness. So many excuses for why what we are currently doing is enough. Love pushes against these excuses. Love helps us move the focus from ourselves. Love helps us see the good in others. Love helps us start working to recognize the incredible good that we can do in the world.

“2- We show our love for God when we put Him first in our lives.

Why did God put the first commandment first? Because He knew that if we truly loved Him we would want to keep all of His other commandments. “For this is the love of God,” says John, “that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3; see also 2 John 1:6). We must put God in the forefront of everything else in our lives.”

This is the point I was attempting to make earlier.  Once we have found our north star, which in this case is a connection to the divine, we will be then guided to love and help those around us. I believe this is the most productive way to make a difference in the world.

“He must come first, just as He declares in the first of His Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities.”

The example of putting other Gods before us is interesting as we ponder the cultural pressure that we are all faced with. A potentially controversial question could be whether the church itself or at least certain interpretations and practices, could replace God as an Idol of something we feel to be even more important.  It is undeniable that we do a great deal of good as members. However, we need to remember that even good things should not be a replacement for the personal and living relationship that we can have with our heavenly father.

“We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives. When Joseph was in Egypt, what came first in his life—God, his job, or Potiphar’s wife? When she tried to seduce him, he responded by saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). Joseph was put in prison because he put God first. If we were faced with a similar choice, where would we place our first loyalty? Can we put God ahead of security, peace, passions, wealth, and the honors of men? When Joseph was forced to choose, he was more anxious to please God than to please his employer’s wife. “

Devotion to God may open us up to vulnerability, but I agree that there can be so much power in caring less about how those around us will react to what we do. It is so much more important to worry instead about whether what we are doing matches up to what we find to be right.

“When we are required to choose, are we more anxious to please God than our boss, our teacher, our neighbor, or our date? The Lord said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). One of the most difficult tests of all is when you have to choose between pleasing God or pleasing someone you love or respect—particularly a family member.”

I believe that this is a little bit tricky. I believe that staying true to God is so important, but I also think we need to be careful to not allow interpretations to get in the way of having healthy and strong relationships. For example, let’s say you have a child who is Gay or a parent who lives in certain ways that conflict with some of the church teachings. Even if you believe those teachings are what God would have us do. Putting God first does not mean that you kick your child out of your house or never associate with that parent. In many of those situations, I believe placing God first in our life means acting in a very different and completely loving way. We get these things confused, and many use God as an excuse to do terrible things. We should be wary of doing this same thing in our lives.

“Nephi faced that test and handled it well when his good father temporarily murmured against the Lord (see 1 Nephi 16:18–25). Job maintained his integrity with the Lord even though his wife told him to curse God and die (see Job 2:9–10). The scripture says, “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12; see also Mosiah 13:20). Sometimes one must choose to honor Heavenly Father over a mortal father. We should give God, the Father of our spirits, an exclusive preeminence in our lives. He has a prior parental claim on our eternal welfare, ahead of all other ties that may bind us here or hereafter. God, our Father; Jesus, our Elder Brother and our Redeemer; and the Holy Ghost, the Testator, are perfect. They know us best and love us most and will not leave one thing undone for our eternal welfare. Should we not love them for it and honor them first?”

Again, deciding that we are going to put God first, which I take to be a thoughtful and careful process does not mean that we need to act like smug, arrogant jerks. It simply means that we need to feel the validation and ability to do what we feel is right. I have simply seen too many engage in harmful behaviors while they were assuming to be acting according to God’s will.  Thus, I would say again that even when we are doing what we feel God would have us do, we still need to be kind and considerate to others.

“There are faithful members who joined the Church in spite of the objections of their mortal relatives. By putting God first, many later became the instruments to lead those loved ones into the kingdom of God.”

Again there are good ways to do this and bad ways.  I would say that the film “Meet the Mormons” provides some good examples of positive ways in which you can do this. These people did not reject and mistreat those they loved. They simply followed the path they felt would be best for them.

“Jesus said, “I do always those things that please [God]” (John 8:29).

What is the condition in our homes? Are we striving to put the Lord first and to please Him? Fathers, would it please the Lord if there were daily family prayer and scripture reading in your home? And what about the holding of weekly home evenings and periodically having individual time with your wife and each child? And if your child went temporarily astray, do you think it would please the Lord and He would honor your efforts if you continued to live an exemplary life, consistently prayed and frequently fasted for that child, and kept the name of that son or daughter on the temple prayer roll? You mothers, who are especially charged with the righteous rearing of the youth of Zion, are you not putting God first when you honor your divine calling? … Our mothers put God first when they fill their highest mission within the walls of their own homes. Children, do you pray for your parents? Do you try to support them in their noble endeavors? They will make mistakes, like you, but they have a divine mission to accomplish in your life. Will you help them do so? Will you add honor to their name and bring comfort and support to them in their older years?”

I like these last few paragraphs and suggestions particularly because they demonstrate my point of putting God as our priority. I believe that this prioritization often means that we will then spend our greatest effort not on showing we are right, but instead we will treat and care for those around us.

“If someone wants to marry you outside the temple, whom will you strive to please—God or a mortal? If you insist on a temple marriage, you will be pleasing the Lord and blessing the other party. Why? Because that person will either become worthy to go to the temple—which would be a blessing—or will leave—which could also be a blessing—because neither of you should want to be unequally yoked (see 2 Corinthians 6:14).

You should qualify for the temple. Then you will know that there is no one good enough for you to marry outside the temple. If such individuals are that good, they will get themselves in a condition so that they too can be married in the temple.”

This should be done carefully, but I do believe that both individuals should be on the same page. If one is wanting one thing and the other is not, and yet they are unwilling to compromise and work together the relationship is being built on shaky ground. There should not be a rush to get married, and instead we should be willing to seriously evaluate relationships as we are in the dating stages of life.

3-“When we choose to put God first in our lives, His blessings come in abundance. Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Had Abraham loved Isaac more than God, would he have consented? As the Lord indicates in the Doctrine and Covenants, both Abraham and Isaac now sit as gods (see D&C 132:37). They were willing to offer or to be offered up as God required. They have a deeper love and respect for each other because both were willing to put God first. The Book of Mormon teaches that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11)—and so there is. Opposition provides choices, and choices bring consequences—good or bad. The Book of Mormon explains that men “are 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). God loves us; the devil hates us. God wants us to have a fulness of joy as He has. The devil wants us to be miserable as he is. God gives us commandments to bless us. The devil would have us break these commandments to curse us.”

Life seems to be this constant battle of seeking for the guidance and direction that would be most beneficial, and hopefully in line with Gods will. There are so many pressures within the world pushing us to be one way or the other. As long as we are consistently seeking to know the will of God and to live a life worthy of that will, we need to seek to follow and do those things.

“Daily, constantly, we choose by our desires, our thoughts, and our actions whether we want to be blessed or cursed, happy or miserable. One of the trials of life is that we do not usually receive immediately the full blessing for righteousness or the full cursing for wickedness. That it will come is certain, but ofttimes there is a waiting period that occurs, as was the case with Job and Joseph. In the meantime the wicked think they are getting away with something. The Book of Mormon teaches that the wicked “have joy in their works for a season, [but] by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return” (3 Nephi 27:11). During this testing time the righteous must continue to love God, trust in His promises, be patient, and be assured, as the poet said, that “who does God’s work will get God’s pay.” …

We must persistently move forward no matter what others are doing. Some may want to make the argument that you are engaging in bad choices, but as long as you are sincerely seeking to do what’s right you do not need to worry about what others think.

“I testify to you that God’s pay is the best pay that this world or any other world knows anything about. And it comes in full abundance only to those who love the Lord and put Him first.”

I kind of hope that we can move beyond the need to do good simply because it will mean that we with be paid really well for it.  Instead I hope that we will be able to be on a journey of trying to better come in line with the natural laws of the universe. It is a search to become more like our Father in heaven by always trying our best to be like him.

“The great test of life is obedience to God. The great task of life is to learn the will of the Lord and then do it. The great commandment of life is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30). May God bless us to put the first commandment first and, as a result, reap peace in this life and eternal life with a fulness of joy in the life to come.”

I similarly share my hopes that we can always seek to nurture our relationship with God, as we seek to understand his will. I believe that as we do this we will better learn how to effectively love and care for those around us and will become much more productive members of society.

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