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What It Means to Me to Be a Latter-day Saint

Recently, I’ve been taking stock in terms of what it means to me to be a Latter-day Saint. I appreciate the opportunity afforded me by Mormon Scholars Testify to share some thoughts along these lines.

In the early 1960s, around the time I was beginning graduate school, the question of God loomed large for me. Eventually, I found myself drawn toward philosophy and religious thought, ending up in religious studies. Looking back, I suspect gravitating toward this course of study was part of an effort on my part to better understand my faith. I’ve never regretted this; I just wish I’d known earlier to listen more intently for God’s call.

In this academic setting I was trained to think and write about things religious in a particular way. It has been my good fortune over the last several years, as a result of several influences in my life (not the least of which has been the help of friends and colleagues at Brigham Young University and elsewhere, along with those of other faiths, based elsewhere, who have written insightfully on such matters), to have learned how to think about such things differently. Consequently, I now view my faith in a different light, one that puts the emphasis on what it means, first and foremost, to love God and depend wholly upon him.

Part of what this entails, at least for me, is learning to read the scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon, but also the Old and New Testaments) in a particular way. Doing this, I find in them an overarching message. It is one of covenant and hope. It tells how God calls us and how, if we respond properly, he brings us into covenant with him and blesses us. It is part of a much larger message about what he is doing to redeem the whole of creation. I’ve heard God’s call. It came long ago and continues to come, bidden or unbidden. Long ago, I responded by binding myself to him. Ever since, I strive day-in and day-out to live my life in covenant with him.

While doing this I also struggle to come to terms with such things as evil, suffering, and death. I have discovered that this requires me to think about religious beliefs differently. Many view such beliefs as hypotheses or conjectures that can be used to explain how things are. Some, for instance, try to explain God and the things of God in the face of all the negative things that surround us. That is, they adhere to the well-established, modern view of religious beliefs. I used to view my religious beliefs this way. But not any more. Now I see them as a form of response or a mode of acceptance of a world where evil and suffering happen and are only too real. Doing this and learning more each day about what it means to love God and to be solely dependent upon him, I’m able to see his hand in all things – in the good things and the bad – and can thus better grapple with such negative realities.

I’ve also discovered that my love affair with God is best expressed in terms of a range of things that I try my best to do – worship him with full intent (with all that this entails in terms of fasting, prayer, singing hymns, and so forth), partake of the Lord’s Supper (in an attitude of repentance and thanksgiving, while promising to always remember him and abide by his commandments), and participate in prescribed priesthood ordinances aimed at blessing others (while also being the recipient of blessings by this same means) and by this and other means try my level best to deal properly with them and do right by them (with all that it entails) – more so than by focusing on my beliefs about God or other related matters or on what I say or write about him.

I find that my perspective on this differs from others, including, it seems, some fellow Saints. It has been my experience that many Latter-day Saints view their faith almost exclusively from the vantage point of what they believe, rather than in reference to the many things the Savior asks them to do. This may account, at least in part, for why some find a need to elaborate on, if not speculate about, a whole range of church teachings or beliefs (what are often referred to as “doctrines”), thereby giving the impression that the gospel of Jesus Christ is complex and that to be a Latter-day Saint means devoting a great deal of time and effort trying to figure out what all these beliefs mean, how they hang together, how they can best be used to explain things, and so forth. I once understood my faith this way. But not any more.

For me, the message of the gospel is simple on its face yet it is profound in its implications. I discern in the way the brethren and other church leaders speak about it in general conference and on other occasions and how they write about it in church sponsored publications that, for the most part, they see it this way as well. In a rich variety of ways they readily proclaim this plain and precious truth to all the world, resting assured that its profundity will manifest itself in the lives of those who take it to heart and live it.

For me, the message is clear. We need to hear and heed God’s call. We need to be thankful for the faith in him that has been given us (and for all of the other gifts he continually bestows upon us). We need to love and trust in him with our heart and our mind. And, in particular, we need to evidence this by how we live our lives – by striving to relate properly with him and with others while doing right by them and by viewing the world from this vantage point. This is what it means to me to be a Latter-day Saint.

Given how I understand my faith, I find myself thinking and writing about Heavenly Father and the Savior largely in terms of the many gracious things they have done and will yet do for us. Two events in particular stand out: the unique things they began to do nearly two thousand years ago, in ancient Palestine (referred to as the “Good News” or the gospel of Jesus Christ). And what they did (in furtherance of this) in the nineteenth century, in this land, working through the Prophet Joseph Smith and others (referred to as the Restoration).

My core beliefs about Heavenly Father and the Savior are grounded in these two events and in other things they have done and will yet do for us. What is more, I have come to realize that these beliefs take on the meaning and value they do for me to the extent that I diligently strive to live in covenant with them. At the same time, I confess (with Paul) that I glimpse such things through a glass darkly. That is, I acknowledge that what I’m able to grasp about Heavenly Father and the Savior pales in comparison to my sense of how much I’m not able to comprehend about them – who they are in and of themselves, how they have accomplished what they have to this point, how they will yet accomplish many great and marvelous things, and so forth.

But I’m at peace with this, since, for me at least, the goal is not so much to learn more about God in this regard as it is to try my level best to master the life that he has called me to live. Besides, I’ve discovered that by putting the priority this way, he guides me in terms of what I seek to understand about him and the things associated with him, and, what is more important, he makes himself known to me.

Presently I’m comparing my particular covenantal approach to God with the traditional theological one. The latter is a long, well-established way of coming to an understanding of him and the things associated with him. It is a mainstay for most Christians. It is utilized by some fellow Saints. I used to follow this path, at least to some extent. But over the years I have come to realize that I actually approach him quite differently.

Like others, I strive to do this by searching the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets, relying principally on guidance from the Holy Spirit. But I now know there is more to it than this. The scriptures urge us to get ourselves into a position where we can say that we know God. But what does this mean? What is required of us in order to be able to say this? What I’m learning is that the answers to these and similar questions are found in the manner in which I’m struggling to live my life with God. As he has always promised, having heard and answered his call (with all that this entails), he has brought me into covenant with him and blesses me and my loved ones. He protects me and my loved ones. Over the course of my life he is changing me – for the good. He is teaching me more about himself (and about myself), and he is making himself known to me.

Trying my best to do all of this is sufficient to guide me in all things, especially in my dealings with others. It is what enables me to withstand the things I am confronted with in this life. It allows me to see God’s hand in all things. It evidences to my Father in Heaven that I truly have within me the hope that by his grace, and being led by the Savior, my loved ones and I can someday become more like him and thus ascend into his presence. It represents my best efforts at being the kind of disciple he wants me to be. It is what it means to me to be a Latter-day Saint.

It also means one other important thing: learning to live in community (communion) with others. This is prefigured in the scriptural message of covenant. It is tightly woven into the fabric that our lives with others should become, as we were taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Let me explain. In the course of participating in the various ordinances associated with entering into the covenant, I did so openly and willingly, in front of God, angels, family members, and fellow Saints, just as JeNeal and I did when we pledged ourselves to each other and to God when we were sealed in the temple.

However, having done these things individually, we now realize that we have changed our status before God. Now both of us stand before him as members of a much larger community, a covenant community. We experience this, first and foremost, of course, in terms of our own immediate and extended family (including those for whom we and others have performed vicarious priesthood ordinances in the temple). But we also experience this in terms of those who are members of our ward family, our stake family, even the entire family of the church. The Savior loves us individually and cares about us personally; nevertheless, the salvation we hope for is more than an individual thing, more than just something between the Savior and each of us. It is this, but it is so much more.

JeNeal and I will always be able to relate personally with the Savior and with Heavenly Father; however, being in covenant with them also makes it possible for us to relate with them as a family. My hope is that the day will soon come when the Savior will lead us and our loved ones by the hand into the presence of the Father. The joy this contemplation brings is magnified all the more because I anticipate being able to experience this with them.

The Restoration happened so that everyone who hears God’s call and responds may be able to do so by agreeing to be bound to him. It again established the authority and means by which this key thing can be done. God is again calling all of us throughout the world (and on the other side of the veil), not on the basis of race, ethnic, tribal, class, gender, or any other form of identity or ideological affiliation (political or otherwise), but simply because we are his children. He is again gathering us into his earthly family, his earthly kingdom, in anticipation of the mighty things he will yet do for us and for the whole of creation. And he is again reminding us that the time is coming when he will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares.

This is why, for me at least, following the Savior entails much more than merely declaring his name or renouncing my own private, personal sins (as important as it is that I do these things), but then pretty much living my life like everyone else. Instead, what I need to do is adopt a totally different way of life, become (according to the ways of the world) a peculiar person, a member of a distinct community, a child of the new covenant.

Indeed, such centrally important things as our understanding of God, the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the authority of the priesthood on the basis of which saving ordinances are performed on our behalf, and the conviction I have that the life I’m struggling to live is the one I should be living – all have the meaning and significance they do for me precisely because they are securely anchored within God himself and the household of faith he has again established on earth and of which I am a part.

It is in this community with fellow Saints (as I assume it may have been in the community formed by those who followed the Savior anciently) that we teach one another these and other important truths, again, largely by the simple, straight-forward things we do in the course of worshiping God – we fast and pray together, sing hymns together, tell stories about the acts of God in our life, bear testimony to one another of him, read the scriptures together, love and care for one another, especially those in need, and worship in the temple together. And, of course, we do one other vital thing. We share the emblems of the Lord’s Supper with one another. Doing this in an attitude of repentance while making an offering of our broken heart, we witness to God our intent to keep the commandments and thus stay within the covenant and make it real in our lives, in light of all that it has come to mean to us. We express our hope that by so living we may continue to have the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Partaking of these emblems nourishes and renews us (it is a meal, after all) in our on-going efforts to follow him. In doing this (indeed, in doing all of these things) we remember all that God has done and is doing for us and contemplate all that he will yet do for us. And we achieve one other thing, a pearl of great price – we knit ourselves tighter together as a community and thereby share God’s love for us and the many ways in which he blesses us.

I’ll conclude with an acknowledgment, a confession really. It is one thing to strive to live according to promises I have made to God. It is something else altogether to actually do this. I am the first to admit that I often stray from God, not in the sense of being in open rebellion against him, but in regard to choosing to focus too much on things of little import, the wrong things of the world. I find myself not doing what I know I should and vice versa. I find myself wandering back toward center stage, forgetting God and how much I depend on him every day and in every way. I find myself treating others as objects and not doing right by them.

When this happens I know what I need to do to make amends, to set things right. I need to remember him (and forget about myself), seek him out in fasting and prayer, repent and plead for his forgiveness, worship him once again with full intent, concern myself with the welfare of others, strive to do good in all my dealings with them, and otherwise struggle to live the life I know I should. In short, I need to live my life in covenant with God – what it means to me to be a Latter-day Saint.

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M. Gerald Bradford is the executive director of Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Since 1995 he has held various administrative positions with the Institute and its predecessor organizations. From 1988 until he came to BYU, Jerry was the executive associate of the Western Center of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with offices on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. From 1980 to 1988, he was administrative director of the Robert Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, located on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. For four years prior to this appointment he was associate director of the Institute of Religious Studies, an organized research unit on the UCSB campus. While pursuing these administrative responsibilities, Jerry also taught courses in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB and in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at UCI. He has also taught at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and at BYU. Jerry received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from UCSB in 1977. He has a M.A. in Religious Studies, also from UCSB, and in 1965 received a M.S. in Business Administration and Finance from San Francisco State University. He is a graduate of the University of Utah.

Jerry is married to JeNeal (Jones) and they live in Provo, Utah. They have two children and seven grandchildren. He currently serves in a branch presidency in the MTC in Provo.

Posted June 2011