The apostle Paul told the Romans, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God" (Romans 8:16). He also told the saints of Galatia, "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26).
As Latter-day Saints, we believe that all people, regardless of their religious convictions, or lack of them, are, literally, children of our Father in heaven. Our message is that each of us have lived prior to coming here into mortality, where we were begotten as spirit children to heavenly parents.
Most other churches, however, disagree with that view. They not only believe that our birth into this life was the first time we ever existed, but they further believe that at the very time of our conception in the womb we were tainted with sin, thereby becoming children to the devil at birth (1 John 3:10). As such, he is our real father (John 8:44), not God. To become the children of God whom Paul was speaking about, they say we need to be born again. The first time we were born it was into the family of Satan. The second time we are born it's into the family of God. Thus, only those who accept Christ as their Savior are truly the children of God.
And, indeed, this is what the scriptures indicate. If we look at the above quotes in context we read, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:14-17).
Notice that Paul first declares that the sons of God are those who are "led by the Spirit of God." Next he talks about receiving the "Spirit of adoption, whereby we [can then] cry, Abba, Father." Lastly, he indicates that we will become "heirs of God.. if [it] so be that we suffer with him." The strong implication is that if we don't suffer with Him, then we are no longer heirs, and if no longer an heir of God, then we are no longer counted as a child of God.
Speaking to the Galatians, Paul more fully wrote, "God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ... For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:4-7,26,27). Notice that he says it is because of the redemption of Christ, our faith in Jesus, and our baptism that we become children of God.
Thus, we see two different views of mankind. One doctrine claims we are children of God, begotten in a lineage sense, and the other states that we are children of God, begotten spiritually. But which belief is the correct one?
The answer is that they are both correct.
To non-Mormons, this seems like a contradiction. How can we be born the first time as children of Satan and children of God? And why must we be born a second time into the family of God if we were already part of that family in the first place? To Mormons, the answer is clear and obvious. As spirit children, born to heavenly Parents, we left our home on high and were born a second time into the world of evil and darkness. We were given a physical body that deliberately has the natural tendency to be selfish and self-serving. But it is in struggling against these inclinations and learning to control them that we grow spiritually stronger. When we give into these tendencies, we become spiritually weaker and grow further apart from God. However, to add misery to our burden, we are further allowed to be sorely tempted by Satan, who uses every means to convince us to follow the base desires of our physical body. It is in following these unrighteous desires that we become children of the devil.
Does God therefore disown us because of this? Quite the contrary! He is still the Father of our spirits, even though we often decide to disobey Him and rebel against His will. But there are consequences to our disobedience. Since, "all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God," "the wages of sin is death." Furthermore, since " no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven" we have disqualified ourselves from dwelling with God again.
But does God look down on us with scorn because of our weakness to commit sin? The apostle John says, "No" (John 3:17). He taught that our Father, which is in heaven, "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). More than that, "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
Despite all of our sinful ways, God, in his infinite compassion, still loves each one of us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to redeem us from the effects of our own, personal sins. Does this sound like a God who considers us as Satanic creatures and angels of the devil who are unworthy of His affection and kindness? Not in the least.
But that still doesn't change the fact that we are subject to the temptations of the flesh and of the devil. And too very often, we give into these enticements. When we do, we become subjects and servants of Satan, or, in other words, children of the devil. However, God loves us more than we can possibly imagine, even while we are yet sinning! And that is true of everyone, whether they believe in Jesus Christ or not. To free us from this slavery and restore us back to the presence of God, Christ died for our sins. When we put our faith and trust in Him, and are baptized, we are once more born again. This time, however, our birth is not a physical occurrence, but a spiritual event. As such, we are not just pedigree children of God, but have become spiritually begotten children as well. If that is so, then it stands to reason that He must love and care about us even more after we have accepted Him as our spiritual Father.
Most Christian churches stress the religious aspect of being born again. On the other hand, most LDS members tend to stress the physical aspect of our common ancestry with God. Although we talk about being born again through baptism, and we talk about the need to become more like Christ, yet we tend to side-step the importance of being spiritually begotten children of God.
According to the prevailing Christian doctrine of salvation, we are saved by grace and not by any works we might perform (Romans 11:6). In contrast, Latter-day Saints believe that we are saved by grace after all we can do (2 Nephi 25:23). As a result, most Christian churches place very little emphasis on doing works, while Mormons constantly talk about the need to work. Over and over again we hear about doing our home/visiting teaching, genealogy/temple work, attending church meetings, reading the scriptures, holding Family Home Evenings, saying personal/family prayers, and a long list of other duties.
In addition to these works, we also stress the importance of developing Christ-like attributes, such as being loving, patient, charitable, forgiving, caring, helpful, and a host of other characteristics that we associate with Christ. Furthermore, we believe that all these things are necessary if we are to inherit the highest degree of heaven.
Because of this kind of teaching, the pressure to become perfect in the Mormon faith can sometimes be overwhelming. There are those who strive with all their hearts to do what is expected but can't seem to do all the things that are required. Their life is a juggling act of trying to balance family needs against church duties and personal goals. Worse yet, there never seems to be enough time to do it all. And when we try to do it all, it seems that everything tends to go wrong. Therefore, some things get done only part-way, some things get done carelessly, and some things don't get done at all. The result is a feeling of frustration, despair and incompetence, all tinged with a feeling of guilt and hopelessness.
Since not everyone has the same abilities, and since the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, it's easy for someone who's struggling to live the perfect life to compare themselves to someone who seems to be doing it all, and think, "What's wrong with me? Why can't I do what they're doing?" Unfortunately, too often the answer that comes to their mind is, "Maybe I'm not righteous enough." But the harder they try, the worst things may seem to get. And when that happens, they tend to conclude, "I'm such a failure." Since God knows everything, they further conclude that He too knows that they're a failure.
To feel that you have disappointed God is a very, very hard burden for anyone to carry. It's a spiritually crippling disease that eats away at the heart and gnaws at the conscience, leaving a person feeling miserable and worthless. This is not what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Father Lehi told his sons, "men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25), but some in the church wonder how they can find happiness when they are such failures at being perfect.
It's times like that when we forget that we are children of God, not just in a genealogical sense but in a spiritual sense. We are children! We are not spiritually grown adults. As children, we not only can't do what our Father can, but we're not expected to. What father, who honors his priesthood, would look at their three-year old child and feel great disappointment because the child acts their age? What virtuous mother would be condemning of a four year old who has trouble tying their shoes? What devoted parent would expect and demand that a five year old behave like a twenty year old? I don't know of one righteous person who could treat their child like this. Yet, there are faithful Mormons who behave as though this is how God must feel toward them.
Jesus once taught, "If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke11:10-13).
If we, as imperfect parents, can treat our children with love, patience and understanding when they do something wrong, how much more loving, patient and understanding is our Father in heaven toward His spiritually begotten children as they stumble in their efforts to do what is right? If we, as sinful parents, don't condemn our children because they have trouble learning to do the right things, what would make us think that our Father in heaven condemns His spiritually begotten children when they so often fail? If we, as demanding parents, wouldn't expect our children to be perfect overnight, why would we think that our Father in heaven would treat His spiritually begotten children any differently?
Yet, there are some who allow themselves to believe that God is an intolerant, critical judge, sitting sternly on His throne, ready to condemn us for being human. Then they are surprised when He treats them with loving kindness, despite their faults.
Although we are striving to become like God, the fact is that we are not yet to His level of righteousness. That is why we are called children! And because we are children, God not only loves us when we act immaturely, in a spiritual sense, but He understands why we behave that way. He knows our heart better than we do. He knows what we are going through better than we can imagine. He knows our capabilities, great or small, better than anyone else. He loves us as we are better than any parent could ever love their child. As faithful saints, earnestly trying to live the gospel, we too many times condemn ourselves because of our faults far worse than God ever will.
Does this mean God will be tolerant when we are disobedient in keeping His commandments? Does God's understanding of our weaknesses and frailties allow us to be slothful in doing what is right? Does God's love excuse us from doing those things that are necessary to become perfect? To answer those questions, all we need do is put ourselves in the shoes of a parent.
As parents, we teach our children to do what is right and needful and insist on them doing what we ask. As parents, we require certain behavior from our children and correct them when they stray from our standards. As parents, we require more of our children as they grow older and increase in maturity. Is it not reasonable to think that God, our Father, would treat His children any differently? The scriptures tell us "For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth" (Proverbs 3:12).
No matter how rebellious, disobedient, or spiteful our children sometimes behave towards us, and no matter how sternly we might speak to them on occasion or how many times we might correct and discipline them, we still love our children with all of our hearts. If God is the Father of those who have spiritually accepted Him, would He still not love us, even when we make mistakes? After all, if we have been spiritually born into His family, why wouldn't God be delighted in us? When we don't do what is right, or when we stray from righteous behavior, God corrects us, yet, if we are striving to become more like Him, would He not treat His children with greater compassion, love, tolerance and understanding than any earthly parent is capable of giving their children?
Those who have been born again into the family of God have a special relationship to their Father than most people. And that relationship is not one-sided. Because of our increased love for Him, He responds with an increase of love for us. The more we struggle to become like Him, the more patience He grants our short comings. And as parents, don't we do the same for our children?
Who hasn't watched a parent's pride as their child takes their first step? Yet, the child's efforts are mostly made up of failed attempts! Even after the first successful step has been taken, parents don't become irritated or disappointed when the child's next several attempts end in failure. They wait in hopeful, eager anticipation for the child to once more do it right. Rather than being condemning or scornful, they praise the child for what they have done and encourage them to keep trying until they get it right again.
As spiritually begotten children of God, we are struggling to learn how to walk uprightly before the Lord. Especially in the beginning, we make more mistakes than we have successes. Yet, even after we've been in the church for awhile, some things still come hard for us to master. And the more we try to improve ourselves, the more things there are for us to learn how to do. As a result, there are more things for us to stumble over and fail at. Many times, as we labor to overcome our bad habits, often falling and bruising ourselves spiritually, we tend to look at the mess we've made of our lives and think, "God must really be disappointed with me. I know that I am." Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The prophet Joseph Smith wrote that God is giving us "line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!" (D&C 128:21) While we make our way on wobbly legs, God, our Father is there "giving us consolation". As a proud parent, He is holding out His hands, encouraging us to move forward by giving us a glimpse of "that which is to come." He is full of hope for us and seeks to confirm that hope in our hearts.
We learn and grow, not by leaps and bounds, but by one small, faltering step at a time. The scriptures tell us that even Jesus "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52). His wisdom came, not all at once, but line upon line. His favor with God wasn't complete at birth, but increased as He lived precept by precept. His favor with man came by a little incident here, another little incident there and by one little incident after another. If Christ Himself grew in godliness this way, why should we think that it is any different for us?
There is a proverb which says, "Yard by yard any journey is hard. But inch by inch anything's a cinch." Sometimes, in our quest to become perfect, we try to get there by taking giant leaps. Because of the hope of exaltation that is held out to us, we may become impatient to take one small step at a time. We want to be perfect now, or shortly thereafter. As a result of such zeal, we tend to bite off more than we can chew, and when we don't live up to our expectations, it's all too easy for us to become discouraged. Discouragement fosters a feeling of hopelessness and despair, which can then lead to abandoning to the struggle for exaltation.
Many people have the commitment to follow Christ, but often lack the skill to succeed as they desire. It's no different than playing the game of golf. In the beginning, it looks so easy to hit a small white ball with a metal stick and get it to roll into a hole in the ground. With high hopes of doing well, many people eagerly start playing the game, only to find that, even after many attempts, the ball doesn't always go where they want it to. It doesn't take long before the hopes of becoming a great player begin to fade.
Like any sport, the game of golf takes a great amount of practice if one is to become any good at it. And it isn't practicing just one thing that makes a person a pro at golf. It takes practice to acquire the right swing. It takes practice to maintain the right stance. It takes practice to gain the right control. It takes practice to learn the proper judgment. And so it is with becoming a pro at spirituality. It takes practice to acquire the right direction in one's life. It takes practice to maintain the right attitude. It takes practice to gain the right knowledge. It takes practice to learn the proper wisdom. And, as with any practice, growth comes only in small, seemingly insignificant increments.
When we try to do more than we're prepared to accomplish, failure is the sure outcome. But, even in failure, we can learn and grow from our mistakes if we remember that God knows that our growth comes only "line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little [while] giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!" It isn't how fast we are traveling along the path of righteousness that matters as much as the direction in which we are heading. As long as we are moving forward, we are progressing. It's been said that discouragement is one of Satan's greatest tools. If he can get us to give up, even though we may only be inches from heaven's doorstep, he will have succeeded in keeping us from reaching the kingdom of God.
But there is still another problem which seems to plague many Latter-day Saints. Our friends in other churches believe that the good works they do is not because of any effort on their part, but is a result of God working through them to do His will (Philippians 2:13). On the other hand, Mormons have the tendency to think that they must put forth all the effort needed to become perfect. However, it was Ammon who taught his brother Aaron, saying, "Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:12). Even the great apostle, Paul, told the Philippians, "I can do all things [only] through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phillipians 4:13).
The Lord has never required us to become perfect solely through the power of our own efforts. He has stated that His work is to bring about the immortality and eternal life of mankind. To accomplish that goal, our Father expects us, as spiritually begotten children of His, to call upon Him for help, for strength, for guidance, for wisdom, for blessings, and for all other gifts which we need to become perfect and holy, even as He is perfect and holy. Even in mortality, no child could properly develop and mature without such assistance from a father. How much more important is it then to our spiritual growth to receive the same assistance from a perfect Father in heaven?
As believers in Christ, we must always remember the very intimate companionship we have with God. He is not just the Father of our spirits, but He is also the Father of our spirituality. As such, He does treat us as though we truly are the children of God.
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