This is talk I gave in church today. The bishopric did the usual 'give someone a general conference talk to talk on.' I'm no fan of this, especially when I don't think the original talk is that good to begin with. I fished out a topic I could expand on though and came up with this. I think it turned out alright. I'll post a link to Angela's talk after she revises it and posts it.
In the October 2009 General Conference, Elder Renlund compares our physical heart to our spiritual hearts, and says that just as with someone who receives a physical heart transplant, those who have experienced a mighty change of heart must care for and preserve that heart in order to endure to the end.
To understand how to preserve this so-called mighty change of heart, it is important and crucial that we understand where this mighty change of heart came from. By recognizing the source we can see what we must do to maintain it in our lives.
As latter-day saints we often have a cultural aversion to talking about the role that grace plays in our salvation. In my experience this happens for two reasons: First, we might be turned off by our misconceptions of ‘cheap grace’ that we assume other Christians believe. We often falsely hold a view that grace is a means by which we can avoid keeping God’s commandments and still be saved by a mere a vocal expression of faith. Second, we often hold a confused belief that grace is a magical power that swoops in and magically cleans actual spots and stains from our spirits. Because of this, we over-emphasize our own works and relegate grace to something that we essentially earned, that comes in with its magical cleansing power after we have already done most of the work. In a way, grace simply becomes a spiritual Lysol spray to clean up the remaining bacteria after we have scrubbed away the dirt.
If, however, we look at the way that grace plays in the scriptures and in our own lives, we will quickly see that it isn’t something that comes in after we have had a mighty change of heart, and after we have kept the commandments, but—and to the contrary—grace is the reason why we were able to experience the mighty change of heart, and why we keep God’s commandments. Put simply, grace is not just a spiritual Mr. Clean that we earn with our faith and works, but is the unearned and undeserved act of God’s love that interrupts our normal lives and serves as a catalyst for this mighty change of heart.
In the Book of Mormon, where Alma the Younger gives a sermon about the mighty change of heart, Alma points out (without using the term) that each person who has had this mighty change, did so because of an act of grace that preceded it. The people of Zarahemla were able to experience this mighty change of heart because of the grace or love of God they experienced through the preaching of Alma ‘s father. They didn’t earn or work for this. That he came to them was not an act of their own, but an act of God’s grace. Similarly, Alma’s own father had a mighty change of heart that resulted from an act of grace that was exemplified through the service of the prophet Abinidi.
And Alma knew this well. He, along with the sons of Mosiah, was the recipient of this grace that he clearly didn’t earn, deserve, or ask for. In his own words, Alma was rebelling against God, not keeping His commandments, and trying to lead people to destruction when an angel literally interrupted his activities, forcing him to reconsider his life and actions. It should be noted that this grace, this interruption of God’s love, was not from God alone, but was begun through the loving prayers of Alma’s own father.
As Angela has just pointed out in her talk, our experience of God’s love and grace doesn’t usually come in the form of miraculous visitations of heavenly beings, but our experience of God’s love is almost always felt through the loving service and acts of those around us. All of us, who have had a mighty change of heart have had so because of this interruption of God’s grace in our normal lives, an interruption that we did not deserve, earn, nor work for. For some it may have been a unexpected knock on the door by missionaries, for others it was the loving service of a friend or stranger. It may have been the example of a co-worker, or perhaps the grace of God was experienced by being born into a loving family who taught us well from the beginning. For all of us though, if we look back into why we are here, why we have at one time experience a change of heart, or why we have a testimony of God’s love, we will see that it all began with an act of God’s grace—usually experienced through the acts of another—that was not earned or deserved from our own doing.
My all-time favorite expression of God’s love is found in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In this story, Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, is finally released from prison. Because he is forced to carry identification which marks him as a former inmate, he is unable to find work or shelter, and is forced to live on the streets. One day his suffering is briefly alleviated by the kindness of a local bishop, who brings him into his home to feed Valjean and give him a place to sleep. Valjean, however, repays this kindness by waking in the middle of the night to rob the bishop of his silverware.
Soon after, when Valjean is caught for his theft and taken to the bishop, this loving bishop—in the embodiment of God’s love—tells the authorities that Valjean did not steal the silverware, but that it was, in fact, a gift from the bishop. He then even gives Valjean two more silver candlesticks that he claims Valjean had forgotten, telling Valjean that he is to use these to make himself an honest man. In Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s beautiful musical adaption, Valjean asks:
Yet why did I allow that man / To touch my soul and teach me love? / He treated me like any other / He gave me his trust / He called me brother / My life he claims for God above / Can such things be? / For I had come to hate this world / This world which had always hated me / Take an eye for an eye! / Turn your heart into stone! / This is all I have lived for! / This is all I have known! / One word from him and I'd be back / Beneath the lash, upon the rack / Instead he offers me my freedom, / I feel my shame inside me like a knife / He told me that I have a soul, / How does he know? / What spirit came to move my life? / Is there another way to go?
This loving act, the interruption of God’s grace that he clearly did not deserve, transformed a thief who had lost all hope into a man who, with a mighty change of heart, regained a hope for life.
If the mighty change of heart we experience is the result of the interruption of God’s grace into our lives, what must we do to preserve that change? The typical primary answers—which Elder Renlund emphasizes—are to go to church, say prayers, read scriptures, etc. While it is true that we should do these things, the scriptures are clear that this is not sufficient. As Jesus pointed out, the Pharisees did these things better than anyone else. He wasn’t being sarcastic. The Pharisees really did attend their services, say their prayers, and read their scriptures more than anyone else. As Jesus repeatedly taught, true religious worship and expressions of love for God are not found in normal religious services and devotion, but through service and love for another. To the rich young man who inquired what it was that he must do to inherit eternal life, Christ taught that preserving God’s grace in our lives was in extending that grace to others. Yes you may be maintaining your basic religious devotion, “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”
To preserve the mighty change of heart, we remember how that change originated and continue to be a force in the world by being agents of God’s grace for others. When confronted with the choice of either preserving his own well being or putting himself at risk for one who had been wrongfully accused, Valjean pondered: “My soul belongs to God, I know / I made that bargain long ago / He gave me hope when hope was gone / He gave me strength to journey on.” That memory of the grace that God gave him, drove his desire to do what is right, preserving his mighty change of heart.
Similarly, my hero of the Book of Mormon, is prince Ammon. Along with Alma, Ammon experienced the interruption of God’s grace, causing a mighty change in his own heart. After experiencing this change, he decided to turn down the throne and decided that he would go to extend that grace to his nation’s enemies. Upon meeting the Lamanites, Ammon choose to serve and love them. The Book of Mormon records how this act of love interrupted King Lamoni’s thought and life, leaving him confused and lost, eventually coming to his own mighty change of heart. Later, Lamoni’s father witnessed “the great love [Ammon] had for his son,” and experienced the same interruption of grace, being “astonished exceedingly,” leading to the greatest conversion and missionary success in all of the scriptures.