I gave this talk in the Caldwell, ID 15th Ward, 16 Dec 2018. It was my first, maybe ever, where I wrote the whole thing out in advance. I’ve long believed the best talks are prepared on a loose outline that allows for the Spirit to guide the delivery. However, my anxiety, nervousness, and the Spirit testifying of eternal truths often create a perfect storm when I give a talk, causing me to cry through most of it. This causes the message to be less effective and hurried for time as I try to get control enough to speak clearly.
This time I decided (and felt nudged by the Spirit) to ask Heavenly Father to send his Spirit to help guide me as I wrote it. The results were surprising to myself. As I wrote, I realized several things I’ve posted on this blog previously were integral to it. New ideas and connections I’d never though of before, were introduced to my mind as I wrote and researched.
I want to tell you a story. It’s the story of a smart, intelligent, well-educated military man. He was selected as a spy to go to the homeland of his ancestors. His people had been away from their original homeland for many generations, but were attempting to return. To do so, they wanted to attack their enemies who had driven them out generations before. This man was tasked with spying on their enemies to discover how they could best be destroyed. While he was doing this, he saw goodness in his enemies. He returned to his army and recommended making a treaty with their enemies, so they could peacefully live together in the land.
When his commander refused to try the peaceful route, many of his fellow soldiers took this man’s side. His commander ordered that this man be executed for rebellion, and a battle ensued within their own ranks. They fought and killed each other. This man and his supporters ultimately won, but they were rewarded by having to return home and face the families of the men they’d killed.
Now if you haven’t guessed yet, this is the story of Zeniff from the Book of Mormon. He was the father of wicked King Noah, the one who’s famous for having Abinadi burned.
Zeniff was still set on his original plan to make a treaty with the Lamanites and live in the land of Nephi. He found many other people who shared his zeal. Rather than form another army, he gathered families to go with him.
Eventually this new group of Nephite families reached the land of Nephi. Zeniff and a few men met with King Laman. They made a treaty with him. They agreed that the Lamanites who were living in the land of Nephi would move out and allow the Nephites to settle in their place.
Let’s think about this for a moment: was Zeniff wrong in his desire to live in the land of Nephi? Probably not. In the Old Testament the major goal and blessing of the Israelites is their return to the land of their inheritance. So maybe Zeniff had studied those stories and found support for his desire to return to this land.
One thing is very clear: his hyper-focus on living in the land of Nephi was his greatest weakness. That weakness led him to make a deal with the Devil. The Lamanite King had no intention of letting the Nephites live on their lands for free. King Laman made the treaty so that he could make the Nephites his slaves and benefit from their prosperity.
I’m sure we’ve all been there: we’ve worked and fought so hard for something, that it doesn’t matter anymore whether it’s still the right thing to do or not. Our stubbornness has kicked in and we’re going to finish it no matter what. Zeniff himself and his grandson both call him “over-zealous.”
Zeal can be a good thing, if it’s used correctly for righteousness that includes the entirety of the gospel. Elder Packer said it this way:
“The gospel might be likened to the keyboard of a piano—a full keyboard with a selection of keys on which one who is trained can play a variety without limits; a ballad to express love, a march to rally, a melody to soothe, and a hymn to inspire; an endless variety to suit every mood and satisfy every need.
“How shortsighted it is, then, to choose a single key and endlessly tap out the monotony of a single note, or even two or three notes, when the full keyboard of limitless harmony can be played.”Boyd K. Packer – The Only True and Living Church
So Zeniff had great strength in leading people, in setting a goal and a vision and getting people behind it. He even had great compassion and wasn’t willing to wipe out the Lamanites to accomplish his goal. But those were the two or three notes that he kept tapping over and over until his strengths proved to be weaknesses and the Lamanite King exploited them.
In the church today, we sometimes refer to this kind of overzealousness as “gospel hobbies.” We all have our favorite parts of the gospel. We all enjoy some callings more than others, or are better at doing or studying some parts of the gospel than others. We should certainly maintain our talents and not lose them. The danger comes when we over-emphasize those strengths like Zeniff, to the point that we become prideful. Satan is then able to use our pride to begin to pull us down. Elder Oaks said the devil can:
“…corrupt a person who has an unusual commitment to one particular doctrine or commandment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This could be an unusual talent for family history work, an extraordinary commitment to constitutional government, a special talent in the acquisition of knowledge, or any other special talent or commitment.”
It all really comes down to pride. Pride in assuming that we know better or can do something better. It’s all pride. Our overzealousness for our gospel hobby crowds out other aspects of the gospel. And that’s why it’s so dangerous: it seems like we’re doing a good thing, something commanded by God. But ultimately, if we’re overzealous, we get in that same mindset as Zeniff and move forward without regard to what the Lord actually wants. There’s no room for the Spirit to guide us and keep us safe from the evil one and his demons.
Warning and Defense
After twelve years of prospering in the land of Nephi, King Laman decided the time was right to move forward with his plan to enslave the Nephites. So his armies attacked one group of Nephites at the edge of their lands. Many were killed. Zeniff then armed his people and they prayed mightily to the Lord to help and protect them. God strengthened them and they defeated the Lamanite army with minimal losses.
At this point, Zeniff had fully realized his mistake and what a terrible situation it had put him and his people in. It had become clear to him that he made a deal with the Devil and that his pride was going to cost him and his people dearly. He’d also repented of these sins, and was trying to make it right. So he went about arming the Nephites with weapons and put guards all around the land to give them early warning when the Lamanites attacked again.
The question is: “how can we create weapons for our own defense, and post guards around ourselves to warn us against overzealousness and Satan’s attacks?”
Some people might respond, “so the answer is ‘moderation in all things’, right?” Actually we don’t believe in that at all. That would mean we’d only be moderately righteous, and also make sure to include a moderate amount of wickedness for balance.
It’s actually a misquotation of Alma the Younger who encouraged the people of Gideon to be “temperate in all things” (Alma 7:23). Today we often use “temperate” and “moderate” to mean the same thing. But they actually have slightly different meanings. The word “temperance” is closely related to self-control and is limited in scope so that it only applies to good things. It suggests that we have self-control in all good and positive things. It’s exactly the opposite of being overzealous. Being “temperate” means not being overzealous for one good thing, to the detriment of other righteous things.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it this way:
“How important it is to the symmetry of our souls that we interact with all the gospel principles and with all the Church programs, so that we do not become so highly specialized that, if we are deprived of one source of satisfaction… we are in difficulty. It is possible to be incarcerated within the prison of one principle. We are less vulnerable if our involvements with the kingdom are across the board. We are less vulnerable if we care deeply about many principles—not simply a few.”Neal A. Maxwell – But for a Small Moment
Having temperance by embracing all parts of the gospel, is one way we can arm ourselves against Satan exploiting our strengths. Put another way, we need to spiritually cross-train. We can’t just go to the spiritual gym and bench-press every day because we’re good at it. If we do, our spiritual legs will be small and whoosie. Satan can then use our pride in our huge pecs and biceps and the top-heaviness that accompanies them, to trip up our wimpy legs and bring us down. As we visit the spiritual gym, we need to run, squat, jump, do balance exercises, work on our core, and all the other things that make our entire spirit strong in the gospel and ready for any challenge that might come our way.
A good warning sign is anytime you find yourself thinking, “my favorite part of the gospel is so good and safe that it can’t become a weakness.” Pretty much everything can be taken to unhealthy extremes.
For example, I love to study the scriptures. We’re taught that daily scripture study is one of the most powerful ways we can grow closer to God and strengthen ourselves against Satan’s attacks. On the other hand, I know of several men who took study of scriptures to the extreme, some even studying for many hours every day over many years. At least one studied the scriptures instead of providing properly for his family and eventually interpreted the scriptures in ways that took him and much of his family out of the Church, where they began practicing their own version of the gospel.
No matter how safe we feel, we need to use the whole gym, the whole Gospel.
Elder Oaks asked the same question when he said: “How, then, do we prevent our strengths from becoming our downfall?” He immediately answered that question with:
“The quality we must cultivate is humility. Humility is the great protector. Humility is the antidote against pride. Humility is the catalyst for all learning, especially spiritual things.”
It’s hard to want to run when your legs are atrophied and your lungs are only used to bench pressing. It’s embarrassing to go from benching respectable weights, to being last in the race, or not being able to squat as much as you bench. Trust me, I know. Our pride kicks in and we want to go to what we do best, what makes us look best. It’s safe, it’s easier, and it strokes our ego. But that’s exactly how Satan gets in. Elder Oaks continued:
“Those who engage in self-congratulation over a supposed strength have lost the protection of humility and are vulnerable to Satan’s using that strength to produce their downfall. In contrast, if we are humble and teachable, hearkening to the commandments of God, the counsel of his leaders, and the promptings of his Spirit, we can be guided in how to use our spiritual gifts, our accomplishments, and all of our other strengths for righteousness. And we can be guided in how to avoid Satan’s efforts to use our strengths to cause our downfall.”Dallin H. Oaks – Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall (link added by me)
In fact, the Lord told Moroni that weaknesses are a good thing, a gift from Him:
“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”Ether 12:27
Returning to our gym metaphor, the Lord will help us make our legs strong and resilient too, if we’re humble enough to only care what He thinks of us, and let him coach us to become great at squatting and running, and all the other areas we are spiritually weak.
Becoming Disciplined Disciples
“Discipline” is another great word that’s very similar in meaning to “temperance.” It can mean punishment, but originally meant following a particular program of self-control and boundaries to become a better person. Interestingly, it comes from the same latin root word as “disciple.” A “disciple” is someone who follows a particular “discipline.” So, if we say we are “disciples of Christ,” that means that we will follow him in a disciplined way.
I testify that we can all be armed with the armor of God and have the Spirit to warn us of coming attacks. We can all become temperate, humble, disciplined disciples of Christ. We only have to give up our pride and be willing to repent. We only have to trust Jesus when he says His grace is sufficient. He knows how it feels. He knows how to arm us and warn us against Satan’s attacks. Through His grace and atoning sacrifice, our weaknesses can become strengths, and our strengths can remain strong but in balance with the rest of the gospel. I know this from personal experience and testify that it is true, in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, amen.