After receiving the call from President Worthen asking me to speak at devotional today, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what I might say.
One evening my daughter Andrea, who is a recent graduate of BYU, said, “Dad, don’t worry. I always went to devotional to feel the Spirit and to have a rest from the stress of a week of school. As long as you bring the Spirit, it will be okay.”
My prayer since then has been for the Spirit to attend us here today and to teach us all something new.
I would like to start with a favorite scripture. In 1 Nephi the young Nephi desired to see the same things that his father, Lehi, saw in a vision. An angel came and showed him what Lehi saw—and even more—and asked him, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Nephi 11:16).
Nephi replied, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17).
I remember reading the Book of Mormon as a boy and coming to these verses and thinking, “I don’t even know what that word—condescension—means! But wow, I love Nephi’s answer! He knew that his Heavenly Father loved him, and that was what mattered most to him.”
I have spent years pondering this declaration of Nephi’s. It tells me who I am: I am a child of a loving Father in Heaven. Many in the world today deny the divinity of man. They claim that we are merely the victors in a biological race for superiority of the species on this planet. But I testify that, through holy prophets, God has revealed that as we are His children, there is a purpose to our lives. We should all rejoice in this knowledge that we have. But we should realize that not all people have it.
After arriving in the mission field many years ago, one of the first things I learned was that most of the people in Taiwan with whom I came into contact had no concept of God as their Father in Heaven. I realized that I, however, had always just taken that knowledge for granted. Back then the discussions were memorized and were designated by letters of the alphabet. My favorite discussion quickly became the D discussion, the plan of salvation. I loved it mainly because it allowed us to teach this most fundamental truth—that of our relationship to a loving Heavenly Father. I saw this truth change the lives of the Taiwan Saints. Once they learned it, they were changed people; they radiated a love for their Heavenly Father.
In contrast, a few years ago we had a graduate student in our department who exhibited the opposite. Having been raised in a communist and atheistic country, he had no knowledge of what we are talking about here today. At one point in his studies he had a series of setbacks. From these he concluded that “fate” had turned against him. He felt powerless and not in control of his own destiny. He concluded he was not meant to complete his degree and decided to leave our graduate program. However, he was an excellent student who was making good progress toward his degree. His advisor counseled with him and eventually convinced him to stay. He completed a strong dissertation and obtained an excellent position with a major corporation but never came to understand the love of his Father in Heaven.
I have found that when I think about God—specifically in the context of His being my Father and me being His son—I have learned important insights. Further, when I combine those insights with what I have learned as a son of earthly parents and as a father to my children, I have learned even more. I would like to talk about four of these insights today.
Insight 1: Children Grow Up to Be Like Their Parents—and That Applies to Us
If God is my Father, then I am in the process of growing up to become like Him, if I so choose. We have been taught that that is the purpose of this life—to ultimately live the kind of life that God lives.
God told Moses, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Regarding this eternal life, God has given this promise in the Doctrine and Covenants: “If you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). Elder Delbert L. Stapley taught, “Eternal life is God’s life, which he hopes to share with all his children” (“The Path to Eternal Life,” Ensign, January 1974, 42).
How do we come to inherit eternal life? That is, how do we become like God? Christ gave us the ultimate goal when He said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
That is a tall order to fulfill indeed. I remember that as a young boy I viewed the gospel mainly through the lens of commandments. The gospel was a set of rules that I was to follow, and that was it. Later I realized that the gospel was maybe more than a checklist of rules to keep. I realized that it was about what I was trying to become and whom I was trying to become like. It was all about helping me fulfill my eternal destiny of becoming like my Father in Heaven.
If this is our focus, does that mean we won’t keep the commandments—that we won’t study the scriptures or do our home teaching or attend the temple or pay our tithing? No, we will do these things, but we will do them for different reasons—for better reasons.
Have you ever thought about the purpose of the commandments? As a father, what do I want for my children? I hope that what I want for them has some similarities with what Heavenly Father wants for me. Every night when I pray for my children, I pray for their safety, happiness, and growth. I believe that is precisely why our Father in Heaven has given us commandments. He knows that if we follow them, they will lead us to safety, happiness, and growth, and that growth will lead us in the direction of being therefore perfect even as our Father, who is in heaven, is perfect (see Matthew 5:48).
Insight 2: What Are the Ways in Which Father Might React to My Disobedience?
I have always assumed that God is unhappy with me when I fail to do what I should and when I do dumb things. I don’t think I had thought much more about how He really might feel until I had an experience with one of my own children.
One day my wife, Julie, called me on the phone, fairly upset, and said, “I just got off the phone with the high school. Child So-and-So’s teacher just called me to say that our child had been a real problem in class the past few days and has been disciplined.”
I was surprised by my reaction. I was not angry; all I felt was a mixture of disappointment and sorrow. At that moment I just wanted to take my child into my arms and tell him how much I loved him and how badly I felt that he had not lived up to his potential and had fallen short. Then it hit me: could this possibly be how my Father in Heaven feels about me when I make mistakes—that He is disappointed and sad? I am a bit embarrassed to say that this thought had never occurred to me in quite that way before then.
Further, all I wanted was for my child to learn and grow from this experience. Could this also be how my Father in Heaven feels about me? Is that why He is so ready to forgive? That was a very reassuring thought for me. It was in that moment that I think I may have caught a finite glimpse into the infinite love and care God has for me, even though I am often a wayward child.
To finish the story, were there consequences for our child as a result of the bad behavior? There were, but they were motivated by our wanting to help a child learn from a bad choice rather than by our desire to mete out punishment. I only wish I always was able to respond in that way.
Insight 3: We Are Given Experiences, Often Challenging Ones, by Our Father to Help Us Grow
As parents, Julie and I have regularly tried to provide experiences for our children simply because we thought these experiences would be good for them and help our children grow. For example, in our home everyone took piano lessons. The goal was not for them to play in Carnegie Hall but simply to become proficient and to learn to love music. I think our children realized early on that piano lessons were just a part of being a Nelson. Now that our children are grown, you could ask each of them if they always saw practicing the piano as a positive and growing experience. If they were to say yes, you would know they were lying, because at times they all grew tired of the effort required. They either did not comprehend or had lost sight of the goal! But none has ever expressed regret for learning to play, and, at one time or another since, all have expressed gratitude for it.
Does our Father in Heaven give us specific experiences—sometimes challenging ones? Does He ask us to do things because they will be for our own good? I believe that absolutely everything Heavenly Father asks us to do is because it will be for our own good.
Take family history for instance (one of my favorite topics). President Gordon B. Hinckley said that as we search out our ancestors and do their temple work, “we literally become saviors on Mount Zion . . . to those . . . who have no means of advancing unless something is done in their behalf by those on earth” (“Closing Remarks,” Ensign, November 2004, 105). How many commandments have ever been given in which, by our fulfilling the commandment, we are referred to as saviors? What a blessing!
That said, as I look at the state of my genealogical records and the mess that they often are in, I wonder if God couldn’t find a far more efficient way to get families sealed together if that was the only goal. But I believe there is more to it than that. Our lives are blessed beyond comprehension as we do family history work. I testify that in my life I have felt closer to the Spirit while doing family history work than while doing anything else.
This is only one such example. Can you not say that you have benefited as much or more than anyone else when you have magnified your calling as a missionary or Scoutmaster or visiting teacher, paid your tithing, fulfilled your priesthood duty, or given service to someone in need? To me the miracle of the gospel is that everything we do benefits us as well as others. To use a popular phrase, it is win-win.
Insight 4: God Is Mindful of Me and Provides Tender Mercies to Bless My Life
As a father, I am always watching my children, and at times I try to provide help. This help comes in a variety of forms, from giving advice to providing for their physical needs. But sometimes it seems that what my children need most is simply encouragement and to know that they are loved and that we, as their parents, are there to help.
In my experience our Father in Heaven treats us similarly. Often His help comes in the form of tender mercies. In 2005 Elder David A. Bednar gave what to me was a landmark talk in general conference. His talk focused on the tender mercies provided to us by a loving Father in Heaven. In his talk he said:
The Lord’s tender mercies are the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, the Lord suits “his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men” (D&C 46:15). [“The Tender Mercies of the Lord,” Ensign, May 2005, 99]
In other words, tender mercies are the customized blessings and direction that God gives to each of us to suit our needs. Importantly, as Elder Bednar said, “often, the Lord’s timing of His tender mercies helps us to both discern and acknowledge them” (“Tender Mercies,” 99). That is a very telling comment. According to Elder Bednar the Lord wants us to recognize and acknowledge His tender mercies for what they are: customized blessings, assurances, and protection.
To me there is nothing so exciting as to see the hand of the Lord working in my life and to see that things didn’t simply happen in their natural course but that God has truly stepped in and done something just for me or, alternatively, as President Thomas S. Monson has said, that God has used me to provide help to someone else.
When giving talks I think we all like to talk about such experiences, and I am no exception. Why? I think it is because these experiences are the rarest of jewels—the most precious experiences we have in our lives. They are the very substance of our testimonies. They confirm our faith that God lives, that He loves us as Nephi said, and that, out of the billions of people on the earth, He knows each of us and is interested enough to step in and help us in specific and personal ways.
Tender mercies come in many ways and varieties, but because I have a daughter, Wendy, who is now serving a full-time mission, I would like to share some missionary work–related tender mercies I have received in my life. I have spent the years since I returned from my mission many years ago deeply pondering the effects of my service. Did I do what the Lord wanted me to do? Could I have done more? And the most pointed question I have asked is, Did I accomplish any good?
The Lord has provided me some specific tender mercies over the years to give me comfort and at least partial answers to these questions. These tender mercies did not come at once, but in hindsight I can see they came when I needed them. Importantly, they came at times and in ways that have helped to build my testimony that God knows me and is personally mindful of me.
In 2006 I returned to Taiwan to teach a short course in my research area. While there I attended church in the last area I served as a missionary. That day, immediately after I had returned from church to my hotel room, the phone rang, and the caller, who was in a different city in Taiwan, told me the following.
She said that as a part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Church in Taiwan, the members had been given a form in church meetings that very Sunday to fill out. The purpose of the form was to help them locate “lost missionaries” they hadn’t heard from for years. She and her sisters had filled out the form and had decided to put my name on it. She said that almost immediately after returning home from their church meetings, their uncle had called to say that I was in Taiwan—he had seen me at church. As a result, they were immediately able to find me!
I was speechless. My companion and I had taught this family all through the late fall and winter of 1977. We had fallen in love with them, especially the six children, who ranged from junior high school age down to a toddler. They were a wonderful family. But when I left, they had not accepted the gospel. Only later I learned that they had been baptized. As we visited on the phone that day in my hotel room, I learned that not only had they joined the Church but that almost all of the children in the family—daughters and sons alike—had served missions, had married faithful members, and were now raising their own families in the light of the gospel!
A few days after receiving that phone call I traveled to where some of the family now live so I could visit them. Upon arriving, I walked in and saw that the room contained more than forty family members! During the visit many tears—certainly many of mine—were shed.
To quote Elder Bednar:
Some may count this experience as simply a nice coincidence, but I testify that the tender mercies of the Lord are real and that they do not occur randomly or merely by coincidence. [“Tender Mercies,” 99]
I have since wondered just who that tender mercy was intended for. This family’s desire to reconnect with one of the missionaries who had taught them the gospel had been fulfilled that very day, and I had been allowed to see a part of the results of my missionary labors. I will forever love the Tan family.
My second experience is quite recent—it actually occurred while I was writing this talk. But, by way of background, we first need to go back thirty-six years. My companion and I were some of the very first missionaries to work in a town called Chunan. There was no branch of the Church there; there were no members there. Over a series of weeks we knocked on hundreds of doors in that town, without any visible success. At that point, to me the only memorable thing about the town was that at night, after tracting all day, as we trudged in the dark with our bikes through the rice fields back to our apartment, we would often stop and admire those rice fields filled with fireflies.
One day, after weeks of no success, we came to a house. A teenage boy answered the door and said, “没有人在,” which literally means “nobody is here.” He had been coached by his mother to say that.
We looked at him, and I said, “Well, you are home. Can we talk with you?”
He turned out to be a wonderful young man, and he quickly developed a strong testimony of the gospel and of the reality of his Heavenly Father, and he entered the waters of baptism. Brother Wu very soon thereafter went on to serve a mission himself and then married and raised a righteous family.
Now, fast-forward to just four weeks ago in early May of this year. I was accompanying the BYU Ballroom Dance Company on their tour of China and Hong Kong. Shortly before we left I learned we would be in the city where Brother Wu’s son, Wilford, was living. I emailed ahead and asked if we could meet. My wife and I spent a wonderful evening together with him and his wife, Alice, and talked at length about what a blessing that day thirty-six years ago had been in both of their lives as well as in ours.
The next morning, on Sunday, we attended a local branch meeting with them and afterward were taking pictures together to remember the occasion.
At that moment someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I know you. I used to be your missionary companion.”
I looked up to see Elder John Vance and remembered we had been companions when Brother Wu was baptized so many years ago. We had had no contact since the mission field.
I pointed to Wilford and asked, “John, do you know who this is?”
He did not. Imagine his surprise when I told him that Wilford was the son of our very own Brother Wu from so many years ago.
There we were, on separate business trips to a third country in which none of us had ever had any contact and in a city of twenty-four million people, and we just happened to run into one another—and at the same time I had located Brother Wu’s son, Wilford. I knew it was an answer to my own prayers, but, as with my previous experience, it blessed everyone involved and was not just for me.
During the visit my wife and I had with Wilford and Alice, Alice told us of a similar experience she had had. I share it with her permission.
Last year she was on an internship in Berlin. While attending a Church meeting one Sunday, she was introduced to a Chinese woman who, after shaking hands, said, “Wait—you served a mission a year ago, right? You are the first missionary who taught me the first lesson!”
Alice did not recognize the woman at first glance, but she soon remembered her face, her name, and how they had met near the Hong Kong Temple eighteen months earlier while Alice was a missionary. She remembered how she and her companion had taught this woman the first lesson. It was a powerful lesson, and they gave her a Book of Mormon, but they couldn’t do more because the woman had to return to her home country the next day.
What Alice didn’t know was that after that initial lesson, the woman had returned home, but she wasn’t able to attend church meetings or learn the gospel because the Church is not recognized there. When she later moved to Germany for her graduate studies, she immediately found the Church in Berlin, was taught, and soon was baptized. And there she was when Alice “randomly showed up in Berlin” (to use her words) because of an internship.
Insights into the Love of God
As I reread Elder Bednar’s talk while preparing this talk of my own, I was struck that he repeated, essentially, the same phrase three different times in his talk. Three times! The points of his repeated phrase include the following:
• “The Lord’s tender mercies do not occur randomly or merely by coincidence.”
• “Faithfulness and obedience enable us to receive these important gifts.”
• “Frequently, the Lord’s timing helps us to recognize” and acknowledge tender mercies. (“Tender Mercies,” 100.)
The experiences I have just related are gifts, even tender mercies—specific blessings given as answers to prayers by a loving Father to provide comfort and encouragement. To me they are also unmistakable evidence of the truthfulness of Nephi’s declaration: “I know that he loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).
Brothers and sisters, in summary, my testimony today is that, along with Nephi, I glory that I have a Father in Heaven who loves me and knows me. I am grateful for knowledge about my Father in Heaven that has been revealed through latter-day prophets. I have found great insights into the love of God for me by thinking specifically about Him as my Father. These insights include the following:
• We all have the potential to become like Him.
• Everything He asks of us in this life is for our benefit and is designed to help us in the growing process.
• There are parallels between the love and caring we have within proper family relationships and the love our Father in Heaven has for us.
• Just as earthly parents give their children challenging experiences to help them grow, our Father in Heaven does the same with us.
• God gives each of us customized blessings in the form of tender mercies. These do not occur by chance or coincidence, but faithfulness and obedience enable us to receive them. Often the Lord provides them to us at a time and in a way that helps us recognize and acknowledge them.
I am grateful for the gospel in my life and for the foundation it gives me. It is everything to me. I am grateful for a loving Heavenly Father who has designed the plan of salvation to become “the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) for each of us. I am grateful for modern-day prophets who have revealed important truths to us about God. I am grateful to have family ties here that help teach me about my life’s quest to become more like my Father in Heaven. May we each learn to better qualify for and recognize the tender mercies of the Lord in our lives.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
© Brigham Young University. All rights reserved.
Brent E. Nelson was a professor in the BYU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering when this devotional address was given on 10 June 2014.