Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Image v. Substance

I gave this talk to a group of incoming freshmen a few years ago at BYU. I was thinking about it tonight and thought it was worthy of sharing on this blog (Really though, what isn't worthy of being shared on a blog?). My mind tends to get stuck on one topic for long periods of time, and this one occupied my thoughts for the better part of a year. This is the result. I should thank Kitt Tanner for bringing the idea to my attention while serving our LDS missions in France and even giving one of the examples I use at the beginning. I should also apologize for the lack of photos on this post. Let's be honest though. Anyone visiting my blog isn't coming for its design features.


Aug. 21, 2007

I have one thought tonight. It is not as focused as I would like, but by and large it is all part of this same thought. My thought is that we can only be (emphasis on “be”) a true disciple of Christ—what I consider to be the highest mark of distinction— when we learn to emulate Him with all our heart, might, mind and strength and when we learn to do, think and desire the same things that He does.

We live in a world that puts a premium on image. We learn at any early age that appearing to be something often works when we feel that actually being that thing is asking a little too much.

Example, I am not a morning person. When I was young, my mother would have to constantly monitor me to make sure that I was right on schedule to make the bus. If my hair wasn’t combed and my shoes not on by 7:00, she would get after me — not a pleasant experience coming from my angel mother. I soon learned that by combing my hair and getting dressed long before I had eaten breakfast and brushed my teeth – things she couldn’t notice – I could trick her into thinking that I was further along than I really was. I was trying to have the image of something, when the substance wasn’t all that appealing to me.

But I am not the only one who struggles with this.

Americans spend thousands of dollars traveling to explore the intricacies of a foreign country and then when we get there, we stay in American hotels, speak English at the train station and eat at McDonalds. And when we return to the states, we tell our friends all about our “cultural experience.” It doesn’t matter that we missed the essence of the people and their culture; we got the image of being cultured when the substance of it all seemed less than comfortable.

The problem is that this doesn’t just apply to getting ready in the morning and travel plans; it has penetrated into the way we live the Gospel. We too, as Saints, have sometimes learned (from which source I am unsure) that the image will do when the substance of the matter is a little too demanding and stretches us a little too far.

Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ and becoming one of His disciples is not an activity, nor an event in which we temporarily or half-heartedly engage. The Savior wants and needs commitment. Indeed, it is the only way it can work. In a Gospel where the human soul is the only project on the Master’s mind, our going through the motions void of substance, becoming and consecration can never reach His desired ends.

As Elder Bednar said,

“In our customary Church vocabulary, we often speak of going to Church, going to the temple, and going on a mission. Let me be so bold as to suggest that our rather routine emphasis on going misses the mark. The issue is not going to church; rather it is worshipping and renewing covenants as we attend church. The issue is not going to or through the temple, rather, the issue is having in our hearts the spirit, the covenants, and the ordinances of the Lord’s house. The issue is not going on a mission, rather the issue is becoming a missionary and serving throughout our entire life with all of our heart might mind and strength. It is possible for a young man to go on a mission and not become a missionary, and this is not what the Lord requires or what the Church needs.”

My guess is that we have not fully realized this. We become so concerned with what others think about us that we forget that the only accountability that matters is the one held between us and God.

You see, there is no salvation in empty sacrifices, meaningless images and the opinion of others—either for those that we would have otherwise blessed had we sought to become who the Lord would have us be – or for ourselves individually.

Elder Bednar rightly places the issue on the substance of the matter rather than the image or going through the motions. It is the state of our heart, in many cases, that makes our offering acceptable to the Lord.

In the end, this problem of image and substance proved to be the major problem with ancient Saints in living the Law of Moses and especially the Law of Sacrifice.

As Elder Holland said,

“A fine man, a high priest, would teach his morning seminary class, and remember that it was the hour of sacrifice, and go up to the alter and offer his lamb and come down and scream at his wife and kick his kids and say, ‘I fulfilled my obligation. I stand before God with my hands clean and my lambs at the ready.’ And God in His heaven surely must have wept and shook His head one more time.”

“‘I desire mercy,’ says Jehovah, ‘not sacrifice. I am not really all that interested in dead little animals, but you somehow seem to forget the meaning behind the meaning; when I really wanted knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. Don’t sing. Don’t dance. Don’t do any more that you’re doing. You have not understood.”

And so the Lord tried a new sacrifice. The meaning is the same, but a new symbol is used.Instead of asking for the fat of lamb, He asks for a broken heart and a contrite spirit. This is the meaning of discipleship. It is submission and consecration. It means becoming. How do we do this? Yes, it is through partaking the sacrament, but as it was with the lambs, going through the motions cannot bring salvation.

Continuing from Elder Holland, “Cain was the first to learn this lesson. Abel sacrifices his lamb and Cain says, “You can have these tomatoes and bananas, but I’m not going to offer any lambs. I don’t have a lamb. They are going to have to be good enough.”

And the Lord patiently said, “It isn’t the tomatoes and the bananas. It isn’t even the lambs. What I need Cain is submissiveness and obedience. And in this case, symbolic remembrance of my gift.’ Cain says, ‘That’s tough. You can have these tomatoes and that banana or forget it.’

And he did not understand that tomatoes and a banana would not bleed and die for him. He didn’t understand that a lamb, going like a sheep to the shearer, would silently, sweetly, respectfully, bear Cain’s stripes and shoulder his burdens. You know what became of Cain. The danger is that some portion of that is what can come to so many of the human family, I suppose including us, if we do not understand any better.”

When the Savior asks us “Come follow me,” it is not only call to do things similar to the things He did. It is a call to follow Him in thought, word, deed and most importantly substance. Ultimately it is a call to become.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said

The gospel challenges us to be "converted," which requires us to do and to become.”

The gospel doesn’t just challenge us to believe. It asks us to act; and even then it does not merely ask us to act, it asks us to consecrate and become converted. Someone who has become and is becoming a disciple of Christ lives for the substance of all things. He does his home teaching to watch over and care for the Saints the Lord has placed in His care, He goes to the temple to tie his heart to those past on, renew his own covenants, and perform saving ordinances for the deceased. He takes the sacrament to once again promise a broken heart and contrite Spirit to He who bought him with a price.

Becoming is a process. It happens little by little until the realization of the baptismal and sacrament promise — that they may always have His Spirit to be with them. Persons striving to become disciples analyze their own heart and the substance of what they are doing. As they follow Christ — in the true sense — the Holy Ghost will become a natural part of their being. It becomes wired into their system. That which is inspired of God becomes intuitive to them.

Indeed the challenge to become is a tall order — one that might make you feel like shrinking because of your own inadequacy. I assure you that you are surrounded by people just like you who all too often fall asleep during Church, pray a little too routinely and fail to fully remember the Savior’s atonement each week when partaking the sacrament.

The Lord knows and understands this – and yet He graciously continues to love and bless us for the times we do get it right. The key to becoming is not perfection. It is getting the substance of it all right more often than we have before. It is sacrifice. That is all that He asks of us.

I bear you my testimony that there is power in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but I bear you my witness that it is a power that comes in living the substance of salvation. There is no power in flimsy wishes and thoughtless rituals. The power of discipleship comes in becoming like the Savior—in short, doing the right things for the right reasons. As we become, the Gospel and the Holy Spirit promised by the Gospel, becomes intricately woven in our being.


  1. Great message Brandon. Sometimes I think that while I go through my specific challenge (you know what I'm talking about) that all I have to do is learn the lesson I'm supposed to and move on, but that's not it. "Becoming is a process" and it isn't going to happen while I work through this tough time. I appreciate your message.

  2. Thanks, Laura. You're my number one fan. I can always count on you to read my posts, or at least enough of them to make a coherent and insightful comment. You and Ben are great examples or friends (maybe both) to me.

    The Lord has curious ways of getting at His end product, and it's a product that often differs from our own. We look at immediate problems and events. He looks at hearts and souls with His eternal perspective. With this in mind, we begin to understand why God would ever let someone suffer as Job, or why He answers Joseph Smith the way He does in D&C 122. Hidden in the chastisement "Art thou greater than He?" is the humbling question "What could be more worthy than becoming like Him?" — in whatever small degree we can handle.

    I admire your patience and faith, Laura. Not to mention your uncanny ability to keep it real.

  3. Keeping it real was my greatest lesson at BYU, all of which I learned from you in the BYUSA office. I appreciate your insight Brandon, and yes, I read it all. In fact, I'm scared NOT to read it all since I'm almost positive you'll call me out on something. Thank you though, I appreciate your thoughts on these things. You have great perspective and new insights that help me reflect and often provide answers I have been seeking.

    Oh, and we think you're pretty chill as well. Speaking of, when are you coming to visit?