What is the purpose of life? What happens to us when we die? What is sin? Why does God give us commandments?
These are the eternal questions of man and there are many different philosophies which seek to provide us the answers. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe that all of us lived with our Father in heaven before the earth was created. However, there we were merely spirit beings, without physical bodies. We believe that God created this earth to help us learn, through our own personal choices, how to choose good instead of evil so that ultimately we can become gods ourselves - just like our Father in heaven.
Furthermore, we believe that death is not the end of this training, but is a continuation. When we die we move from this sphere of existence into another realm where we continue our progress to become like God. However, this earth life contains elements of evil, which are not present in any of the other realms we have lived or will live in. Yet, it is precisely because of this influence that we have the opportunity to progress spiritually much more rapidly than we could without these adversities. Therefore, this physical, earthly life is very important in the overall design of our progression. The apostle James explained it this way: "My brethern, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:2-4).
To put it another way, the difficulties we encounter in this earthly life are designed to help us become perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.
But how do we become perfect?
To understand the answer to this question we must first understand what it means to be righteous. Although this word is used much in the Christian world, the concept of "righteousness" is often not easily defined because it is a vague, catch-all word that sums up many different mental attitudes, personality characteristics, and behavioral traits. Often, we tend to think that the way to achieve righteousness is by keeping a long list of dos and don'ts which we commonly refer to as the commandments of God. To most people, not following this list of commands is usually what constitutes committing a sin.
However, this still does not explain what righteousness is.
Perhaps to get a better feel for this word, let's look at it from a different perspective. We often hear the term "Christ-like", which is usually interpreted as meaning "behaving like Christ". Certainly, He is the personification of righteousness, and, since the life of Jesus is much easier to understand, if we examine how He lived, then it becomes easier for us to see what "righteousness" means.
Before doing this, however, let's examine first why it's important for us to become righteous. It's an accepted fact that God is a righteous being, and the reason He lives in a world we refer to as heaven is because He is qualified to be there. If He were not righteous, He would not be God and couldn't reside in such a glorious place.
If we put this concept into earthly terms, perhaps it might be easier to understand. Since God lives in a heavenly mansion, we'll say that such a building costs five million dollars. How can He afford to live in such a house? Because He makes enough money to pay the cost of living there. If we want to live in the same neighborhood with God, we must also be able to afford to buy and maintain a multi-million dollar home. If we only earn ten thousand dollars a year, no matter how much we would like to own such an expensive house, it would be completely out of our price range.
If we think of righteousness as money, then the more righteous a person is, the richer he is, spiritually speaking, and the more he can afford the glories of heaven.
In this world, money is what we use to get the things we want. Our whole life revolves around the use of it and is what helps us to progress in this material environment. However, in the spirit world, the medium of exchange is not money, but righteousness. The more righteous a person is, the richer they are in spirituality. That means, in the next realm, they are the ones who will have more power, more prestige, more advantages, and more privileges than those with less spirituality. They are the ones that others will look up to and admire and seek to become like.
Jesus has achieved the ultimate in righteousness, therefore, He has all power and all prestige. He is the ultimate person we look to and admire and whom we seek to become like. Therefore, the most important thing we can accumulate in this life that will benefit us in the next is righteousness.
It was Jesus who told us to lay up treasures in heaven. He clearly stated He wasn't talking about earthly treasure (Matthew 6:19,20). He also told us not to set our hearts on the things of this world. Why? The Apostle James explains that this life is like a vapor (James 4:14); it comes and is gone almost instantly. To put this in perspective, let's do a little math. The Bible tells us that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years" (2 Peter 3:8 ). Put another way, when twenty-four hours has passed for God, a thousand years has passed for us. Except in very few cases, man's lifespan on this earth is less than a hundred years. As far as God is concerned, that equals approximately two hours of His time. Two hours! That's all the time we spend on this earth in God's reckoning!
To illustrate this point, suppose that a person lives and works at home on the family farm all of their life until they're sixty years old, and then, at that point in time, they have the option of buying and operating a farm of their own. Of course, they will have to purchase their farm from the money they've been able to accumulate over the years of working. What if, after someone has lived for twenty years on the family farm, they are then allowed two hours away from home to find a way to increase their wealth, but then, after that short period of time, they must come back and continue working in the fields for another forty years in order to accumulate the money needed to purchase their own farm?
That two hours out of sixty years is what our earth life is all about. We lived in heaven as spirit beings long before we came to this material world, and we called that place "home" because we were born there as children to our Father in heaven. After our earthly life is through, we will once again go back to a spirit world existence and remain there until the resurrection. During all this time, we will be away from our home environment - the spirit world - to live on this earth for only two hours!
If this earthly existence is so short, why is it so important?
Let's go back to our illustration of someone living at home for sixty years. When we lived in the spirit world before coming to this physical existence, we were already in the process of trying to become as righteous as our Father. We were making progress towards that goal, but it takes considerable time and effort. This earth life gives us an opportunity to make much more rapid progress toward the goal we are striving for.
If we think of "righteousness" in terms of it being like "money" perhaps we can better understand what it is we are trying to accomplish during this earth life. In the illustration of the sixty year life, I said that for the first twenty years a person worked at home to earn their money. Certainly, by then they would have accumulated some, but it's doubtful they would have enough to afford the expense of buying and operating a farm of their own. Then one day they are allowed to go to a gambling house for just two hours. In that short period of time they can either win big, or they can lose big. However, if they are instructed on how to play the games of skill wisely, and they follow those instructions, their chances of winning are greatly increased. But regardless of how well they play, after those two hours are over, they must return back to their job at home and, for the next forty years, try to earn the rest of the money they need to buy their own farm.
This is what we are going through as we labor to accumulate righteousness in our lives. Before we came into this mortal life we were striving to progress in righteousness. After we leave this physical world at death we continue to progress toward that goal. Yet this brief period of time between these two spirit worlds provide us with a greater opportunity to advance more quickly in spiritually.
However, life here on earth is a gamble. We can either gain much in the way of righteousness, or we can lose much of what we had already achieved before coming here. But our Father in heaven has instructed us how to play the game wisely. He has given us dos and don'ts, He's warned us about the pitfalls, and He's explained everything we need to know to win, and win big. Those instructions we call commandments. When we don't follow those commandments we find ourselves doing things that causes us to lose some of our righteousness, and that's what sin is; it's the opposite of that which is righteous. When that happens we regress instead of progress towards becoming more like God.
Let's use a different example to illustrate the purpose of earth life. In the Life Insurance industry there is something called the "Million Dollar Club." Those who belong to this prestigious order are people who have achieved the distinction of selling one million dollars worth of Life Insurance. Not only do they receive honor, recognition and prestige, but, because they work on a commission basis (the more they sell, the more money they make), they also earn a large yearly salary. Often there are bonuses that are added, as well as various types of incentive awards they have earned. These people can afford luxurious cars, magnificent homes, expensive clothing, and enjoy exotic vacations.
In addition to all of these material rewards, they are looked up to as leaders and examples to be followed. Their advice is often sought by those in authority over them as well as those inferior to them. They are the ones who are considered for advancement into management positions, which, of course, gives them added power, honor and wealth. All of these benefits are a direct result of not only the time and effort they put into their work, but also because of the skills they have developed, the habits they have acquired and the determination they've used to achieve the goal of selling one million dollars worth of Life Insurance.
Let's take the case of a young person who is just starting out with an insurance company. They have the same opportunity to enter this elite group of salesmen as anyone else, however, they lack the skills to immediately sell one million dollars worth of insurance. They have the potential, but they lack the ability. Such skill comes only with practice and perseverance. More than that, they must build their own network of clients who renew their policies with them every year. It is a long, hard task to become a million dollar salesman.
Most salesmen don't make it, not because they can't, but because they don't want to put forth the sacrifice and the effort and the time that such a goal requires. Most people quickly become content to sell far less. They reach a plateau in their development and never go any higher.
Some develop bad work habits, some don't develop the knowledge and skill needed to improve, while others don't properly service their clients and lose them as customers. These are the people who never become top managers. These are people who can't afford the extras of life let alone the luxuries. These are the people who are only looked up to by the most inexperienced, and then, not for very long.
Perhaps at some point, such a person may become motivated to increase their earnings, however, they are faced with several problems. First are their bad habits. As they try to sell more they find themselves slipping back into the very behavior that kept them from advancing the first time. Secondly they are older and not as apt to learn new skills as quickly as they once could. Thirdly, if they have let their clientele slip away from them, they may have earned the reputation of not being dependable. So despite their new found motivation, they must overcome all these obstacles before their sales can increase.
These same principles apply to how we gain righteousness. Righteousness comes from doing righteous things. The more we do, the more we become; it's a direct result of our efforts. Each of us has the potential to increase in righteousness, but it takes time, effort and sacrifice.
Those who attain the skills necessary to achieve the distinction of being "righteous", especially in the world of spirituality, are the ones who belong to an elite club. They are the ones who are the leaders. They are the ones who have the power and privilege to do things that less righteous people are not able or allowed to do. They are the ones who are capable of receiving the luxury of living where God lives.
Although we all have the potential to become like Christ, many times we settle for far less. We reach a plateau in our progression and stop going any further because we don't work at developing the skills necessary to improve. Worse yet, we fall into bad habits and let things slide so that when we want to improve, these things become obstacles to our efforts.
Like the Life Insurance industry, God has not left us to do all this work on our own. He has his training seminars - we call it church. He has given us His instruction manual - we call it the scriptures. He has a supervisor to watch over us, to guide us, and instruct us - we call Him the Holy Ghost. Yet, none of these aids will be of any benefit to us if we don't use them in our life.
Becoming righteous is the goal of our entire existence. Taking advantage of the opportunities of this earthly life to achieve this goal is the reason for our being here. If that is the case, then it becomes extremely important to understand what being "righteous" means.
When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the law He answered: Love God and love your fellow man. He further explained that all the other commandments were based on this principle (Matthew 22:36-40). All the principles of righteousness are built on one word - LOVE. It was Jesus who said, "If you love me keep my commandments" (John 14:15,21,23,24). That's how we show God we love him. After all, how can we love someone and not do what they ask?
Furthermore, the Lord commands that we should not only love Him but we are to love our brother as well (1 John 4:21). The apostle Paul taught that faith is an important part of salvation but that charity - i.e.,love - is even greater (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love is the foundation upon which all the other principles of righteousness are built. Without love, faith in God is meaningless. Without love, a professed belief in Jesus is a lie. Without love we can't even begin to become like our Father in heaven.
Unfortunately, the word "love" is often misused to mean things that don't represent righteousness. The word "love", as used in the scriptures, implies that we care more for someone else than we do for ourselves. Certainly we should care about ourselves, but Love means that we care even more about others.
Parents are a good example of this type of love. Often they put their children's welfare ahead of their own and sacrifice their time, energy and money in order to ensure that their children's needs are met. They go without things for themselves so as to provide some of the things their children want, and most parents strive to make life better for their children than it was for them. That's what it means to care more about someone else than caring about ourselves.
This is the kind of love Jesus has for us. He cared more about our well being than His own, that He deliberately sacrificed even His very life to save us. It's this kind of selfless caring about others that exemplifies the type of love that Christ taught. This is what it means to be "Christ-like." It's this type of love that helps us to become righteous just like Christ.
The Apostle Paul counseled, "husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25). Imagine if we followed that advise in the way we treated everyone? Would we steal from someone if we cared more about them than we did ourselves? Would we covet what they have? Would we lie to them? Would we deceive them? Would we remain angry with them? Would we use profanity against them? Would we injure them? Would we have to be asked to care for the sick, the needy, and the widowless? Would we have to be continually admonished to show patience, fairness, and kindness to others? Would there be a need for us to be told to be thankful, appreciative, and generous?
Other words which describes this type of love are "selflessness", "compassion", and "service". The opposite of these is selfishness. Hence, whenever we do something that is for a selfish reason, we diminish our own righteousness. Conversely, whenever we do things for the benefit of others we increase our righteousness. The more people we serve, and the more frequently we do it, the more we become like Christ.
If we had this type of love for others would we not gladly do our home teaching? Would we not strive to be the best Sunday School teachers we could? Would we not consider it a privilege to pay tithing? And would we not eagerly attend all the meetings we could so we could learn to serve others more effectively?
When we develop this kind of love, all the other principles of righteousness begin to automatically increase in our life. They are the by-products of true, selfless love. And conversely, if we do not have real love in our hearts for others, keeping all the other commandments does nothing to help us to become righteous; we're just going through the motions without developing the attributes of Godliness.
When we give love away it is added unto us. When we divide our love to others, it multiplies itself back to us. Therefore, if we want to be rich in righteousness, if we want to be numbered among the great beings of power, authority, and privilege in the spirit world, if we want to inherit all that Christ has, then we must learn to become more concerned about others than we are about ourselves. Jesus said, "But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. For whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matthew 23:11,12).
If a person wants to become physically strong, they work out with weights. Yet, weights don't give us muscles; they are only a tool to help us develop what we already have. If we want to be spiritually strong we must love one another, yet love is only a tool. When we use it properly, it helps us develop all the other attributes of righteousness needed to become like God. We therefore need to constantly exercise our love. The more we exercise, the stronger we become spiritually.
If a person wants to become physically healthy, they must eat nutritious food. However, there are certain foods that will drain us of health. Therefore, in order to remain healthy, we must not only eat nutritious foods, but also avoid eating that which isn't good for us. Love makes us spiritually healthy. Hate, anger, impatience, stealing and a host of other selfish acts makes us spiritually sick. Therefore we must learn to avoid that which ruins our spiritual health and fill our life with that which helps us to become spiritually strong.
If a person wants to grow a garden, they must plant seeds, but it takes much more than that to have a successful garden. They must also water, weed, prune, protect, and harvest. In short, they must constantly work at taking care of the garden if they want to have the benefits of it's produce. Love is like a seed. If we want to enjoy the fruits of righteousness we must acquire the skills needed to make it grow in our lives.
When we exercise our love, we develop righteousness. When we increase our love for others, we automatically decrease doing unrighteous deeds. When, through love, we reach out to care and serve others, we learn the skills needed to advance ourselves toward the goal of becoming Christ-like.
This is the purpose and meaning of life. It's not about the gaining of material wealth or efforts to establish peace on earth. It's not even entirely about finding the right church, or getting the priesthood or being sealed in the temple. Those are only technicalities and are minor in comparison to our main goal of becoming righteous.
The pain, sorrow, and inequities of life are deliberately allowed to exist as tools to help us grow more spiritual. It takes much more effort to be loving towards someone who is not as loving in return. It takes much more effort to care about others when we are beset with our own problems. It takes much more effort to avoid being selfish when everything in this world seems to cater to our desires. Yet, it is by struggling against these adversities that we grow in righteousness, and it is by giving in to these same obstacles that we lose the righteousness we once had.
The meaning of life can be summed up in these few words: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). "And now abideth faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13).