A sacrament meeting talk given 23 July 2023
At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, St. Matthew recorded that the Lord, Jesus Christ stated:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’
“Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:21-27, NRSV.)
Besides being the basis of a very fun song to sing with children, these words underscore the importance of both learning and acting upon the words of the Lord.
Now, why did the Lord believe it was important to base our lives on His words? The Prophet Joseph Smith once asked a similar question, along with other leaders of the Church in Kirtland:
Why, or for what were they given? If the whole family of man were as well off without them as they might be with them, for what purpose or intent were they ever given? Was it that God wanted to merely show that he could talk?
Their response was that:
God has in reserve a time, or period appointed in his own bosom, when he will bring all his subjects, who have obeyed his voice and kept his commandments, into his celestial rest. This rest is of such perfection and glory, that man has need of a preparation before he can, according to the laws of that kingdom enter it and enjoy its blessings.— This being the fact, God has given certain laws to the human family, which, if observed, are sufficient to prepare them to inherit this rest.
The Lord has a purpose to His speaking. He gives us commandments because He loves us and wants the best for us. In order to help us to have the best situation possible, He has a plan that outlines the path to get there, which includes commandments that train us and prepare us. As Elder B. H. Roberts put it: “Salvation is a matter of character-building under the Gospel laws and ordinances, and more especially with the direct aid of the Holy Spirit.”
President Dallin H. Oaks explained it in a parable this way:
A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:
“All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.”
This parable parallels the pattern of heaven. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises the incomparable inheritance of eternal life, the fulness of the Father, and reveals the laws and principles by which it can be obtained.
In this parable, President Oaks captures the underlying point made by Joseph Smith in explaining why commandments are given. The training and preparation that comes through following the commandments shapes our character and way of life in a way that helps us to become more godly. Hence, President Oaks stated:
The prophet Nephi describes the Final Judgment in terms of what we have become: “And if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy; and if they be filthy it must needs be that they cannot dwell in the kingdom of God” (1 Ne. 15:33; emphasis added). Moroni declares, “He that is filthy shall be filthy still; and he that is righteous shall be righteous still” (Morm. 9:14; emphasis added; see also Rev. 22:11–12; 2 Ne. 9:16; D&C 88:35). The same would be true of “selfish” or “disobedient” or any other personal attribute inconsistent with the requirements of God. Referring to the “state” of the wicked in the Final Judgment, Alma explains that if we are condemned by our words, our works, and our thoughts, “we shall not be found spotless; … and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God” (Alma 12:14).
From such teachings we conclude that the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.
And what are we supposed to become? We read in the Lectures on Faith:
Where shall we find a prototype into whose likeness we may be assimilated, in order that we may be made partakers of life and salvation? or in other words, where shall we find a saved being? for if we can find a saved being, we may ascertain, without much difficulty, what all others must be, in order to be saved … for whatever constitutes the salvation of one, will constitute the salvation of every creature which will be saved: and if we find one saved being in all existence, we may see what all others must be, or else not be saved. We ask, then, where is the prototype? or where is the saved being? We conclude as to the answer of this question there will be no dispute among those who believe the bible, that it is Christ: all will agree in this that he is the prototype or standard of salvation, or in other words, that he is a saved being. …
[The] teachings of the Savior … clearly show unto us the nature of salvation; and what he proposed unto the human family when he proposed to save them—That he proposed to make them like unto himself; and he was like the Father, the great prototype of all saved beings: And for any portion of the human family to be assimilated into their likeness is to be saved; and to be unlike them is to be destroyed: and on this hinge turns the door of salvation (Lectures on Faith 7:9, 16).
The Savior, Jesus Christ, is the person we must look towards to understand what we need to be like in order to be saved.
Part of the reason why Jesus is our example is that he modeled obedience to God, even in intense circumstances. During his suffering in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want. … My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, 42.) The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that his: “suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:18-19). Even with this intense suffering, he followed God’s will. This is what is known as kenosis, the emptying out of your own will and allowing God’s will to fill the void.
St. Paul explained kenosis this way:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross….
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phillippians 2:4-8, 12-13.)
While we may not experience the weight of the pain and sins of the whole world, as Jesus did, we each will have difficult times and decisions where we need to choose to keep moving forward, following the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, practicing our own kenosis.
One example of a life that changed in an effort to follow the teachings of Jesus is Joseph F. Smith, pioneer and the sixth president of the Church. Now, the Savior taught that: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Yet, for much of his life, Joseph F. Smith had some issues with anger management.
Now, keep in mind that Joseph’s childhood was traumatic. He was born while his father, Hyrum Smith, was in Liberty Jail. He was old enough to remember the sight of his father and uncle’s bodies being brought back to Nauvoo after their assassination in Carthage. His family had to make their way across the plains to Utah without the support of the company they had been assigned to. And his mother died when he was only 13 years old, leaving him an orphan. So, it is somewhat understandable that he wasn’t even-tempered.
After his mother’s death in particular, he described his state as being “almost like a comet or fiery meteor, without attraction or gravitation to keep me balanced or guide me within reasonable bounds.” When his sister faced a lashing in school, Joseph intervened and beat up the teacher, resulting in Joseph being expelled. Church leaders sent him on a mission to Hawai’i to give him some direction and purpose in his life. His service there was challenging, but did stretch him and helped him grow. Still, he struggled with his anger. For example, in his thirties, when one of his neighbors let his animals wander repeatedly into Joseph F.’s corn patch, Joseph lashed out and hit him with his cane in a fit of rage.
A familiar story of crossing the plains is how his mother, Mary Fielding Smith was told by Captain Cornelius P. Lott that:
If you start out in this manner, you will be a burden on the company the whole way, and I will have to carry you along or leave you on the way.” To this disconsolate harangue Mother calmly replied, “Father Lott, I will beat you to the valley and will ask no help from you either.” At this he seemed quite nettled and said sharply, “You can’t get there without help, and the burden will be on me,” and turned on his heel and went away.
As promised, she arrived with her family in Salt Lake on September 23, 1848, a day ahead of the captain who had doubted her. Part of the zing to the story is that we feel a sense of righteous, karmic justice about her succeeding against the odds.
But part of that sense comes through because of Joseph F. Smith’s feelings of rage about how they were treated. As he put it: “I was then a little boy, and I felt greaved and hurt at the harsh and disencouraging manner of ‘Father Lott,’ and the cold rebuff he gave my mother.” Lott continues as the antagonist throughout his telling of the story. At one point, Joseph F. Smith noted that: “It was well for Father Lott I was only a stripling of 10 /9/ years of age, and not a man. Even four years latter, Such an occurrence would have cost the old man dearly, regardless of his age, and perhaps been a cause of regret to myself. My temper was beyond boiling, it was ‘white hot.'” While Joseph vowed revenge on Cornelius Lott, he died on 6 July 1850, before Joseph was old enough to do anything about it.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that Joseph F.’s behavior was not in line with Jesus’s teachings about anger. While he was trying to live by the Lord’s teachings in many aspects, this was an area where there was some significant room for improvement. He recognized that Jesus taught peace, not violence, stating that:
We are familiar with the doctrines which he taught; and it has always seemed to me that there need be no further proof of the divinity of Jesus Christ than the doctrine which He taught that men should love those who despitefully used them and persecuted them, and that they should return good for evil. … This doctrine was new to the world. It is a doctrine not in accordance with the fallen nature of man. … Therefore, it is not of man. Men could not teach such a doctrine and carry it out in their lives without inspiration and power from on high.
The great thing about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of grace is that it means that people can and do change (with some help from “inspiration and power from on high”), if they put forth the effort. As President Jean Bingham explained:
Because of Jesus Christ’s Atonement, which includes the gifts of redemption and resurrection, we are able to repent, change, and progress eternally. Because of the power He gives us as we are obedient, we are able to become more than we ever could on our own. We may not understand completely how, but each of us who has felt faith in Christ increase has also received a greater understanding of our divine identity and purpose, leading us to make choices that are consistent with that knowledge.
And, as Joseph F. Smith taught: “No mouth profession of repentance is acceptable to God unless it is carried out in practice. We must have works as well as faith; we must do as well as pretend to do.”
Joseph F. Smith did put in that effort to “do as well as pretend to do” and master his temper. For example, in 1875, he noted that:
I have had some little time for sober reflection on my past experience, and can see many crooked ways that might with greater wisdom have been straight . . . not intentionally wrong, but ridiculous, foolish, the result of impatience and nothing more, but bad enough to leave a lasting regret that they ever occurred. Then I deeply regret many foolish, wrong, impetuous actions.
He also wrote that: “I notice in myself a propensity to find fault or grumble, or to be dissatisfied with as many things as I can. I am sorry for it and I am glad I can see it to some extent and I hope to overcome it.” While he still had a long way to go, he had begun to recognize some of what he had to work on. And while I’m not sure whether or not he completely mastered his temper, the incident with his neighbor is the last time I know of an incident where Joseph was violent to that extent.
By the early 20th century, Joseph F. was serving as president of the Church and faced some difficult and strenuous circumstances that showed the progress he made:
In 1904, Joseph endured three days of intense questioning by the Senate committee investigating the election of Reed Smoot, which was really an investigation of the Church…. In 1905, Frank J. Cannon, son of George Q. Cannon, Joseph’s mentor and colleague for forty years, launched a sustained and personal attack on President Smith in the Salt Lake Tribune.
While he might have responded violently in his younger years, he matured to the point that he was able to remain calm and collected through these difficult times. As he explained to his son, Alvin: “My greatest difficulty has been to guard my temper— to keep cool in the moment of excitement or trial. I have always been too quick to resent a wrong, too impatient, or hasty. I hope you will be very careful, my son, on these points. He who can govern himself is greater than he who ruleth a city.” And, at that point in life, he was also known very kind, especially to children. For example, my wife’s great-grandmother was friends with Joseph F.’s granddaughter and recalled that “they would frequently go to his house and they would sit on his knee and he would give them candy, and she just said that his beard smelled like liquorish.” Joseph F. Smith had worked and practiced following the teachings of Jesus, and made progress in mastering his temper and becoming better prepared for heaven.
And while the process of becoming Christlike may seem daunting and impossible to achieve during our lifetimes, it’s best to work on it here and now, doing our best to strive towards that goal. As Samwise Gamgee states in the Fellowship of the Ring: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” And, as Sister Patricia Holland taught: “We must have the courage to be imperfect while striving for perfection.” “We must be patient with ourselves as we overcome weaknesses, and we must remember to rejoice over all that is good in us. This will strengthen our inner selves and leave us less dependent on outward acclaim.”
Hence, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become. And we must follow that plan to be prepared for celestial glory: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
 Letter to the Church, circa February 1834, p. 135, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed June 28, 2023, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-circa-february-1834/1#full-transcript.
 B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1901), 208.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Conference Report, October 2000, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2000/10/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Conference Report, October 2000, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2000/10/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng
 Joseph F. Smith to Samuel L. Adams, 11 May 1888, in “Courage: Joseph F. Smith Letters,” Joseph Fielding McConkie, comp., 2. Excerpts from Joseph F. Smith Letterpress Copybook in private possession.
 Cited in Scott G. Kenney, “Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph F. Smith,” Sunstone (November 2021): 36, https://sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/120-20-43.pdf. See also Juvenile instructor; 1871-1880 (Volumes 6-15); 1871 (Volume 6); 1871 May 27 (No. 11); Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/3eb4a9f1-6c87-4039-9aaa-4cba004c0875/0/0 (accessed: July 22, 2023)
 Cited in Scott G. Kenney, “Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph F. Smith,” Sunstone (November 2021): 36, https://sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/120-20-43.pdf. See also Juvenile instructor; 1871-1880 (Volumes 6-15); 1871 (Volume 6); 1871 June 24 (No. 13); Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/ab7f2e12-3bd4-48d1-8149-1ea8151c5e73/0/0 (accessed: July 22, 2023).
 Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 17 Nov. 1896, 1.
 Jean B. Bingham, “That Your Joy Might Be Full,” CR October 2017, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/10/that-your-joy-might-be-full.p22?lang=eng
 Deseret Evening News, 31 Dec. 1870, 2.
 Joseph F. Smith to Julina Lambson Smith, 21 January 1875.
 Joseph F. Smith to Edna Lambson Smith, 21 January 1875.
 Scott G. Kenney, “Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph F. Smith,” Sunstone (November 2021): 36, https://sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/120-20-43.pdf.
 Joseph F. Smith to Alvin F. Smith, 8 June 1905.
 Oral interview with Holly Ford Slack of Rexburg, Idaho, 23 December 2013.
 Patricia Holland, cited in Susan Christiansen (ed.), et. al. Words of Wisdom: A Collection of Quotes for LDS Women (Independently published), 3, 19, https://www.ldswave.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Words_of_Wisdom-FINAL_Lulu-05-05-11.pdf.