Just before the children of Israel crossed into the promised land, Moses, their leader, gave them a great final lecture. Their leader for forty years, Moses delivered this sermon about the essential knowledge of life, knowing full well he would not accompany his people into their new homeland. What would he have said this last time? Moses told his people the most important things to know if they were to live happily and return to their Heavenly Father.
Near the end of his message he laid out their choices very clearly. He said these significant words:
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:
That thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days. [Deuteronomy 30: 19–20]
My dear brothers and sisters, like Moses, I stand watching you, the young adults of the Church, prepare to cross into many lands of promise. Tonight I repeat Moses’ words and ask you to choose life, to understand with your heart and your head that the Lord is indeed your “life, and the length of thy days.”
To “choose life” is only possible when we understand that we have the power to do it. In the book of Moses we read about Enoch’s discussion with the Lord. At one point Enoch recorded,
The God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept. . . .
And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?
And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever;
. . . how is it thou canst weep?
The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;
And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. [Moses 7:28–33]
The power of agency is enormous. From the beginning of men and women’s journey through mortality on this earth, agency has been a critical factor. The Lord gave us agency so we might choose for ourselves. When Moses told us to “choose life,” he wasn’t speaking lightly. He was suggesting that when it comes right to the bottom line, each of us makes a decision to obey the commandments or not to obey them.
There are many and varied circumstances that exist in each individual’s life that govern our views of the world. But agency is still there, given to all. Your ability to choose can be one of your greatest blessings, if you learn to use it well.
A young man newly out of graduate school got a new job, bought a home, and made all kinds of plans to remodel it into his dream home, complete with a gym and study. Within seven months he got engaged to a woman with three young daughters. Six months after they were married his wife was expecting a baby. Things weren’t easy for this family. The young man’s job was promising but not lucrative. To meet expenses he took a second job as a newspaper delivery man.
One Saturday morning, cold and early, he pulled out of his driveway listening to a blues song on the radio. He resonated to the song about love and life and the pain of trying to get ahead in a grueling world, and he sank right into the blues himself. As he drove from site to site making his deliveries, the blues deepened into what you might call the blue funk. Now, to be in the blue funk is to feel like two cents looking for change. It is to think hope has gone south for the winter and has forgotten to come back.
As the sun crept into a new day, he thought about his life. He mentally looked at the faces of each one in his family and walked through the halls of his home. He considered his profession, his extended family, his neighborhood, and his church responsibilities. He weighed the complexities and challenges, the satisfactions and pleasures. And into his mind came one sentence: “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”
It was a realization that arrived unbidden. It didn’t mean life couldn’t get any easier or that I wanted to have the blues. It simply meant I had everything I needed. And it hadn’t been that way when I lived alone and roamed my house, planning the interior. [Bruce Sylvester, “Making Room,” Christian Science Monitor, 25 August 1992, p. 19]
Some years later he invited his aging parents to come live with him and his family. As he rose at 3 A.M. daily to help his mother with her needs, he often thought, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” He never got his library or gym, but in the midst of his very full house, he thanked the Lord often for what was also a very full life.
In the midst of finals, a romantic crisis, or a conflict with a spouse or roommates, it’s a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity to remember “life doesn’t get any better than this.” That’s because it’s your life right now, and nothing is more invigorating than living your life, which is truly the process of making your choices based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. To do so is to really live.
A woman came into my office a few months ago. She was in tears as she described the challenges of living in these days. Her husband was in school and working, but he wasn’t as satisfied with his job as he thought he could be. Her children were healthy and prospering, but they didn’t have all the things she wanted to give them. Her house was comfortable, but it wasn’t as large as she had dreamed it would be at this point in her life. Her friends were supportive, but they didn’t give her as much time and attention as she wished they would. Her in-laws loved her, but her mother-in-law couldn’t help her with the children as often as this young mother thought she should.
Another woman wrote me that she had lost hope of ever finding a man she could marry. She described in detail her failed relationships and efforts to find a husband. She talked about her diminished feelings of self-worth and her questions about whether or not the Lord really loved her as she’d been taught in church all her life. She has a good job, good health, good friends, good family. Yet she spoke of life in dismal terms and referred to herself as a second-class citizen in the Church. Fully realizing that I don’t walk in either woman’s shoes and that each has justified concerns, I still want to give this bit of counsel: Get a life. We are sons and daughters of God. We have the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to rise, not wallow. Brothers and sisters, let’s get a life.
At this time of year I find myself reading the story of Lehi and his family. Few stories in scripture tell more about the process of getting a life. After years in the wilderness and a lot of what he could justifiably complain about, Nephi wrote,
We did pitch our tents by the seashore; and notwithstanding we had suffered many afflictions and much difficulty, yea, even so much that we cannot write them all, we were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore. [1 Nephi 17:6]
Difficulty is an essential element in the bedrock underlying mortality and does not preclude rejoicing. Everything doesn’t have to be marvelous for us to rejoice. Earlier in the same chapter of 1 Nephi, Nephi says this about their journey:
And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings. [1 Nephi 17:2]
Nephi then adds what is almost a postscript about this experience:
And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them. [1 Nephi 17:3]
To get a life is to build on the good bedrock of your own experiences and testimony. Nephi made his choice young. He chose life, and despite the remarkable series of trials that came into his own life, he did not waver. He knew where he was going spiritually, so he could hold on even while he was lost in a desert wilderness.
To get a life is to be strong. The two women I just referred to are leading good lives, but they’ve lost heart for the tasks that are theirs. President Hinckley’s stirring message at the October 1992 priesthood meeting is instructive to all of us. He said, “Be strong,” and he talked about how we can do that through self-discipline, standing for the right, showing mercy, simple honesty, and having personal faith. Personal faith requires strength and is a source of strength at the same time. As Nephi explained about his family’s experiences in the wilderness, the Lord will nourish and strengthen us and give us the means to accomplish the thing he commands us.
Personal faith is a reality you need in your life. It’s a source of strength and comfort and resolution under the happiest and most trying moments of your life. If you want to get a life, get a testimony. Yours may be a life of little or lots of money, considerable or conservative success, a married life or a single life. In every circumstance choose to be strong so, like Nephi, you can weather the thousands of circumstances that will be part of mortality.
To get a life is to rejoice in the dailiness of living. Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina about Levin, a Russian landowner. One day he chose to mow hay with the peasants who worked his fields. At first all he could think of were the developing blisters on his hands and the constant aching of his bent back. The rows seemed longer and longer as he worked through them. He feared he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the others. But then Tolstoy describes this, just as Levin was about to give in:
Another row, and yet another row, followed—long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him. [Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1939), p. 301]
There’s a kind of magic in getting into a task so thoroughly that you relish the process itself. Maybe that’s why some of us get so much satisfaction from full jars of fruit in a storage room. Others may find it in a completed term paper or in an overhauled motorcycle or in cleaning the neighbor’s garage. The tasks give us the opportunity to literally throw ourselves into work that brings us joy.
Looking at a freshly mowed lawn, a completed family group sheet, a photocopied dissertation, loaves of perfect homemade bread, a washed and polished car, a poem just written with an elegant turn of phrase, or an exam well-taken and then reflecting that it is good—these are some of the most satisfying experiences of life. Life at its best is in these moments. We’re rejoicing in the harvest and reaffirming that we are indeed made in our Creator’s likeness, for he, too, paused after his six days of labor, looked on everything that he had made, and saw that it was good. Rejoicing in the harvest goes hand in hand with acknowledging our Creator. One who looks at a full granary and remembers the plowing time, the planting time, the weeding time, and the gathering time must also remember the miracle beyond his own power that brought that seed to fruition.
To get a life is to be grateful. When we see most clearly, we see the Lord’s hand in everything. The truly grateful, like Nephi, dwell on the goodness of life even while acknowledging that there may be more adversity than there are even words to describe it. Perhaps the biggest difference between Nephi and his elder brothers was Nephi’s unwavering ability to graduate through all kinds of spiritual levels as he increased in gratitude and faith while Laman and Lemuel never progressed past murmuring, withholding, and rebellion—low-level pursuits, indeed.
Each of us only has so much energy and time in a day. Nephi put his energy into activities reflecting his faith and thanksgiving. Laman and Lemuel sowed their energies in the barren fields of discontent, disaffection, and disbelief. Their lack of gratitude led to endless mortal trouble for Nephi and endless eternal trouble for themselves.
In my experience I’ve learned that the people who are spiritually mature are people who are truly grateful. I’ve felt humbled to meet people whose very lives as well as their words express their gratitude for the blessings of life and for the blessings of truth. In the Philippines a young mother was thankful for a small, old-fashioned sewing machine that had allowed her to earn the extra money she needed for their family with eight children to travel to the Manila Temple to be sealed together. Thousands of Saints are leading a rich life, whether they are living in a mansion in Jakarta or in a home with a leaking roof. In a home with a leaking roof, a sister expressed gratitude that two of her daughters had done extremely well in final tests that qualified them to be midwives, and then explained to me that sometimes she has to “wear an umbrella” in the kitchen when it rains.
Sometimes I fear we have expectations that the good life is the life being led by someone else. The truth is that the good life is the life you have, for it’s the only one you can lead. I believe Nephi understood that—with a full heart he could thank the Lord in the midst of trials that often were life threatening. To thank the Lord for his blessings to us is to understand how good life is, even when it seems unpleasant, unsuccessful, or just plain hard.
To get a life is to think about and to do for others. During 1992, Relief Society women throughout the world have joined together in service projects in their own communities. I know many of you were involved. A sister from Peru wrote that the women of her Relief Society had helped a family whose mother had died. The sister said, “We felt fellowshipped and strengthened spiritually, and we were happy to have been able to imitate our Lord, Jesus Christ, by serving our needy brothers and sisters.”
Women in the Apia Samoa East Stake told us,
We . . . decided to approach the government if it was all right for the Stake Relief Society sisters to plant some flowers around the town clock. We chose the town clock because it is right in the middle of the town, and we felt it would be just the right place to have a beautiful garden. Its flowers would bear the theme of the Relief Society, “Charity Never Faileth.” The government was thrilled. . . . They thanked us wholeheartedly, and then they asked us if there was any way we could paint the 20-foot clock tower as well. We told them . . . we would see what we could do. . . . The stake did not have money, which did not worry us a bit. We only wanted them to approve it, as we had a strong feeling and belief if it was the will of the Lord, things will work out. . . . Paints and equipment were donated, professional painters offered themselves and their time, and the priesthood of our . . . stake also helped out with the work. The sisters of the eight units of our stake worked in scraping the old paint off, scrubbing and cleaning the clock tower, and, of course, in planting the flowers. We will be taking turns in maintaining the gardens there for the whole year. Again, the sisters were generous and willing.
I love these stories and the many others that sisters have sent to Relief Society. Can you imagine the good that has been done in over a hundred nations by thousands of Relief Society sisters? Can you imagine the blessings that have come into the lives of those women? If you do not learn to do for others, yours will be a dull life.
I think the best experiences I’ve had in my life have all involved helping others. Maybe it was setting up a game at a family reunion or merit badge counseling. Such good times have come from working in Church callings, in directing a road show or teaching Laurels or in neighborhood projects, maybe organizing a worthy fund drive. In every case I’ve enjoyed situations in which I could work with others on some good cause.
The motto of Relief Society is “Charity Never Faileth.” What a great thing to base an organization on the most important values of our faith.
To get a life is to remain open to new ideas. Not long ago I heard the story of a man who was leaving a long career in one industry. Still a relatively young man, he had to get another job to support his family. The transition would be rough since he had never worked anywhere other than at his first job. At the meeting of a community group of which he was a member, a subject relating to this longtime job came up. He leaned back in his chair and immediately began to tell the group how things were in that industry, all the problems currently in the marketplace, and why he was right. After a rather lengthy oration, he critiqued the ideas being proposed and basically left the group without hope that anything could be done.
When the meeting adjourned one committee member said to another, “I think our friend will have a hard time getting another job. The ability to pontificate is not very marketable these days.” How true that is! It’s easy to use old knowledge and experiences to shoot down current or future possibilities. It’s easy to say, “Well, in my mission field it was done like this,” or, “In my last job we did it like that.”
It’s a lot harder and a lot wiser to use what you know as the basis of creating something new and better. The Lord commanded Nephi, “Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters” (1 Nephi 17:8). Nephi responded, “Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?” (1 Nephi 17:9).
Probably Nephi had some knowledge of toolmaking and possibly of building. I doubt he knew much about ships. But he was willing to apply what he knew to a new situation. His brothers, on the other hand, had no desire to enter into this new domain—an unknown domain. Instead, they did what people often do when they’re afraid, unsure, unskilled, or lazy—they criticized and demeaned Nephi. Nephi noted,
And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters.
And thus my brethren did complain against me, and were desirous that they might not labor, for they did not believe that I could build a ship. [1 Nephi 17:17–18]
You recall that it took divine intervention before Laman and Lemuel would get to work.
Lack of belief is a convenient excuse for not undertaking new projects. New tasks can be very frightening, but they are good for us, too. They force us out of our current comfort zones. Sometimes we need to leave our spiritual comfort zone. The hard work we do spiritually will benefit us in many, many ways, just as the hard work you are currently doing intellectually and professionally will have lifelong value.
To get a life is to respect others. There are many times in our working relationships when we would do well to check our egos at the door along with our coats. Church callings are one of those times. We all serve along with others. We work in presidencies and bishoprics or as members of the corp of teachers in Sunday School or in the auxiliaries or quorums. We serve two by two as home or visiting teachers or as missionary companions. Presidents serve with counselors or advisors. All of this togetherness is for a good purpose. These working relationships teach us to work together. We have the benefit of others’ ideas and spiritual insights. We join as brothers and sisters in synergistic relationships that benefit those who serve and those we serve. These working relationships may not always be easy.
In the Church we are not building a kingdom, we are building the kingdom. We only do this when we are unified and truly working together. An early Church leader, George Q. Cannon, remarked, “We are not the people of God when we are not united. Union is one of the fruits of the Spirit” (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, comp. Jerreld L. Newquist [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987], p. 165). When we fail to work in unity in our Church positions, we prevent the Lord from blessing us as he could. When was the last time you asked those with whom you serve, “How can I help?” “What do you need?”
You will realize great growth in sincerely asking those questions often and then acting on the responses you get. These questions suggest humility, the ability to listen, to learn, to collect feedback from others. They help us realize that we know we are not the center of the universe but rather one important worker in the Lord’s kingdom, a kingdom that is eternal in scope and significance. We are valuable, each of us; and because we are, we should treat each other with respect.
To get a life is to be kind. Few things are as healing as simple kindnesses—a gentle touch, a pat on the arm, an encouraging word, patient silence, a probing question when something is obviously wrong, a withholding of judgment until all the facts are known. If we are sincere about being followers of Christ, if we really mean it when we partake of the sacrament on Sunday or attend a temple session, we will be kind.
We are called to kindness by the scriptural definitions of charity and godlike working relationships. Paul wrote, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Mormon said, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind” (Moroni 7:45). Joseph Smith penned, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness” (D&C 121:41–42).
We owe each other kindness. Kindness can be shown in so many small ways. The scriptures don’t say that we should go on a date with someone we don’t choose to be with. They only say we must be kind in saying no to the offer. The scriptures don’t say we have to loan money to a brother or sister, or to a roommate. They don’t tell us we have to write a paper for a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. They do say clearly that we must be kind about our dealings with one another. Kindness does require that we measure our own responses against a righteous standard. Sometimes kindness means we should keep quiet or leave a situation. Sometimes kindness requires us to remain and try to make things right. Ask yourself before you act or speak, “Is what I am about to do or say kind?” If it is, proceed confidently. If it isn’t, frame another response.
To get a life is to love life. In Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology is a wonderful poem entitled “Lucinda Matlock.” In this poem, which reads almost as an epitaph, Lucinda tells of her hard life, her challenges, and joys. She concludes:
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.
Two friends were talking. The one was outlining her concerns about graduate school and her upcoming finals. She was also worried about her boyfriend and getting married before she graduated. She wondered if she could find work after she did get her degree. Her father wasn’t very well, and she was worried about getting together enough money to go visit him. She was feeling some stress in her roommate situation, too, and wondered about trying to find another place to live. The friend listened carefully and then asked, “Which of these problems can you really do anything about right now and which are just recreational anxiety?”
The next time you consider spending some time in recreational anxiety, consider Nephi’s words about our Savior:
And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men. [1 Nephi 19:9]
Nephi reminds us that our Savior suffered willingly because of his love for us. There is nothing we experience that our Lord does not understand.
I know this to be true. At times when I feel overwhelmed or alone, unsure or defeated, I remember that I have a Savior who understands and loves me. His atonement was personal; it was for me. He knows. He understands.
When Moses gave the last lecture I referred to at the beginning of these remarks, he knew what he was sending his people into. He told them, “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid . . . for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Deuteronomy 31:6). He knew they were not going into a new land alone. Unfailing help was with them, for the Lord was with them. Moses could, therefore, with confidence counsel that they be strong and of a good courage, for he knew there was a sure base for their strength and courage.
We go through mortality with the same promise. The Lord is with us and will not forsake us. A friend of mine tells her older children, “Pray at night, plan in the morning.” What she means is that night is the time for rest for body, mind, and soul. Day is the time for action. I like the sign one of my neighbors has over her kitchen sink: “Every night I turn my worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.”
When the urge for recreational anxiety hits, remember courage, for the Lord knows and understands, and he loves you. Six years ago Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles for twelve years, lay on his deathbed. His wife, Amelia, leaned down to him and said, “Bruce, do you have a message for me?” Though weak and dying, he responded in a firm voice with his last words, “Carry on” (see Marvin J. Ashton, “Stalwart and Brave We Stand,” Ensign, November 1989, p. 36).
To carry on—what a grand message. What a way to live and love life.
The choices Moses laid out are the choices. You are wonderful. Get a life by choosing the Lord, “for he is thy life.” I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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Elaine L. Jack was the Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this fireside address was given at Brigham Young University on 3 January 1993.