Nothing in Between: Putting the Savior First in Your Life
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you this morning. I am honored to have my wife, Vicki, present. She is an inspiration to me, and I love her very much. As with me, I hope you will also marry above yourselves.
I’ve enjoyed teaching at the college. After teaching at other institutes of religion, most recently and for quite a few years at the University of Utah, I was convinced that coming here would not be as rewarding. I was wrong. In recalling my many years of teaching, I treasure this at or near the top. Teaching about our faith and the doctrines is heaven on earth. When I add to that those of you who come to class having prepared by reading and writing, it’s a privilege. I hope you never slack in taking advantage of your schooling and by getting the most from your religion classes. We have here a faculty of six full-time and sixteen part-time instructors who have vast experience in life, teaching, business, and in the Church. They can and will assist in helping to prepare you to enter your careers, raise families, and serve in the Church. All in all, the religion faculty has a spiritual maturity, united with secular experience that will be very beneficial to you. Both should help you have a wonderful experience in supplementing your education with the scriptures.
A few years ago I was acquainted with a man in California who had served as a stake president and was, at the time I knew him, serving as a regional representative of the Twelve. With his experience in the Church and as a well-respected judge, I asked if he would speak at a devotional somewhat like this one today. He accepted the invitation and in his message said something to the students at the institute of religion that I have not forgotten. He said in effect, “I would strongly suggest that while you are in college that you make certain that you take religion classes along with your other studies. Your mind is now the most active and fertile it will ever be in your life. You spend many hours reading, thinking, analyzing, processing, and stretching your minds. You will learn and feel more how the scriptures relate to your secular life – as well as watch your testimony grow, more now than at any other time in your life. This is so because your mind at this stage is more active than it will probably be the rest of your life. That is partially why you make such great spiritual and scriptural strides while in the mission field.” (A personal recollection by Allan Gunnerson of the remarks of J. Clifford Wallace at a forum at the San Diego Institute of Religion)
I feel that President Spencer W. Kimball put it well when he said, “The secular without the foundation of the spiritual is but like the foam upon the milk, the fleeting shadow. Do not be deceived! One need not choose between the two ... for there is opportunity to get both simultaneously….” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball , 390.)
This morning I would like to talk to you about what should be at the center of your life. I’ve entitled the talk, “Nothing in Between.” I earnestly seek the direction of the Spirit and hope that you will now take a few minutes in your day to think about your relationship with the Savior, for Nephi has said, “the words of Christ will tell you all things that you should do” (2 Nephi 32:3). What a powerful thought about what our focus in life should always be.
This year we celebrate the 400 th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. You may or may not know the significance of that volume, to not only the world, but to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who were pioneers in its development so we could read and study its beautiful phrases and words, especially as it tells the story of the Savior’s life. I can’t help but think of the great forerunners of the restoration who brought it to us. Men like St. Jerome, who in 382 A.D. was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to translate the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts into what would become the Latin Vulgate. Even though his translation would be used exclusively by the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, he would begin a movement that would bring the words of the Bible to you and me. I’ve sat alone in the stone-walled room next to the cave beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where he lived and produced his manuscript. He wanted to be as close as possible to where Jesus had been born. Like with Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who wrote the book, “Jesus the Christ,” in a room near the eastern entrance of the Salt Lake Temple, both wanted to be close to or in a holy place where they could feel the Spirit as they brought to us their important contributions.
In 1382 A.D., John Wycliffe and some of his followers took the words of St. Jerome and put together the first hand-written English copy of the Bible. What an accomplishment for the masses of people who spoke English. They would now be able to at least begin hearing the inspiring words in their language.
Then a printer named Johann Gutenberg, would in 1455 A.D., develop movable type and begin printing St Jerome’s vulgate.
Approximately one hundred years later, in 1526 A.D., an Englishman named William Tyndale would be driven by the Spirit to go back through the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and translate the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament again into English. He would play a major role in the beautiful phrases we read in the Bible today. Even though he would be martyred, others would follow and would begin developing Bibles using his work as their base. Some of those Bibles are still used today. As with St. Jerome’s room next to the birthplace of Jesus, I had the privilege many years ago to travel and sit at locations in England where William Tyndale had been educated and where he had preached prior to working on his translation in Belgium and Germany. Sister Gunnerson and I are planning to visit England again this spring and travel not only to the sites where the Bible was developed but review the history and significance of that land as part of the restoration.
As the climate changed in England for reading and studying the word of God, King James of England called for a conference of scholars in 1604 AD. They looked at earlier texts and with what I believe was inspiration from the Spirit, gave to the world the book that you and I study here at the college and which the Prophet Joseph Smith studied and began correcting shortly after finishing the Book of Mormon. As a boy, he had read the book by candle and fire light. His reading instilled in him the beautiful and timely words, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” (James 1:5-6) What beautiful and poetic words. Joseph wouldn’t finish his corrections before his martyrdom, but the King James Bible would stand as a testament to his faith and to ours. It gives to us the life and teachings of our Savior and teaches us, along with other scripture, to come to Him. For doesn’t God speak to us through its pages? Doesn’t the sublime love of Jesus Christ for you and me live as we read? To me, it does. It, along with the Book of Mormon and other scripture, has become like manna to my soul – especially as I, like you, have faced the trials and challenges of everyday living.
When I was fifteen years old, my father taught me something that I’ll never forget. Dad and Mom had raised me and my seven brothers and sisters to love the scriptures and to come to know the Savior. As with many active LDS families, Dad spent a lot of time at his office and in doing church work – in fact, he had been in a bishopric since I was five. Mom was what I considered to be the best mother and homemaker ever. She loved us and we knew it. That’s probably why in high school I remember wanting to go home after school to see her – and maybe get a piece of hot homemade bread that I always looked forward to, especially on cold wintry days. We were taught the principle of work and respect for the Savior, the scriptures, and the leaders of the Church.
And this is where my story begins. It had been a typical Sunday at church. We didn’t have a three-hour block like today. Priesthood meeting was in the morning, followed by Sunday School, and then we’d go home and come back in the late afternoon or early evening for Sacrament Meeting. Church seemed all day. On this particular Sunday, I had gone to Priesthood Meeting and was in the foyer about to go into Sunday School when I was approached by a member of the bishopric. His personality had always been a little prickly and brash, but something had happened, and for some reason he approached me and accused me of something I had not done. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about, when immediately he said that I should be ashamed of myself. I couldn’t remember ever feeling that hurt by something a church leader had said. At first I tried to brush it off and not worry, but then my pride got in the way, and I decided that I’d leave church, walk home, and maybe not come back again. Knowing that my mother and father would not feel very good about that decision, I nevertheless had been hurt.
After the walk home, I went to my upstairs bedroom, took out my school books and began to study – not seriously, however – I was still upset. It seemed but a few minutes when I heard the front door open. The person who entered seemed to pause at the bottom of the stairs and didn’t say a word. My heart jumped, thinking, “Oh no, someone’s home. Why are they here? Maybe they know I’ve left church.” Then I heard my father’s voice. “Oh, oh,” I thought. “Allan … are you up there?” he said. At first I didn’t want to answer, but the pressure of not recognizing him since he was not only my father but also the bishop of the ward, wouldn’t do. So in a whisper just so he could barely hear, I said, “Uh…, yes Dad, I’m here.” “Can I come up and talk to you, son?” He always called me son. “Uh, oh sure,” I said. I remember hearing every step up the staircase, him coming into the room, looking around, and then looking as if right through me – or at least I thought so. “Can I sit down?” he asked. Sitting down meant knee to knee – almost touching – and eye to eye. “I was told that you left church today,” he said. “What’s wrong? Is there some kind of a problem? I don’t remember you ever leaving church without the rest of the family and especially not until the meetings were over.” I remember my hands getting a little sweaty and my head looking downward as I responded, “Uh, Dad, Brother _______ got after me for doing something that I hadn’t done. I decided to come home.”
I remember his pause and the serious nature of his eyes as he looked at me – it was one of those defining moments. I knew I had to say something back and that it had to be good, but I can’t remember what I said. I do remember him getting up, going over to my desk, finding a piece of paper and a pencil, and coming back and sitting down. He again paused and then looked away before looking down at the paper and drawing the stick figure of a man. “This is Jesus,” he said. Moving his pencil to the opposite side of the paper he drew another stick figure of a person and said quietly, “This is you.” He then drew another stick figure of a man in the middle of the paper and said, “Who do you think this is?” I said I didn’t know. He then said, “This is my counselor, Brother _______.” He then drew a line from the head of the figure representing me to the head of his counselor in the middle of the paper and then another line from the head of his counselor to the head of the figure representing Jesus. Do you get the picture? He then said, “Son, what’s the problem here?” I said I didn’t know. “Can the figure that’s representing you see Jesus?” “Uh, I guess not,” I said. “You can’t see Jesus,” he said, “Because Brother _______ is in the way!” And then I remember him looking lovingly at me and saying pointedly, but with kindness, “ Son, please don’t ever let anyone or anything stand between you and Jesus! Do you understand what I’m saying?” “I think so,” I said. He put down the paper and again looked at me lovingly and said, “How about going back to church with me. I’ve got to get to an interview. Okay?” “Okay,” I said. I went back with him that day and have never left since. (A personal recollection of an experience of Allan Gunnerson with his father, Harold O. Gunnerson, emphasis added.)
What happened? What had happened that would bring someone between me and the Savior? I was young and maybe now it seems silly, but it was real then. By the way, ten years later that counselor who offended me was called to be the bishop of the ward. At that time I was in college, and Sister Gunnerson and I were married and living in the ward. After he had been called as the bishop, he came to our home and asked if I would serve as one of his counselors. Needless to say, he became a very good friend. When we left the ward and moved out of the state, I would always try to visit him when returning to Utah. Isn’t life full of irony?
I knew after that experience, and later, that I would have distractions in the development of my relationship with the Savior. School, work, family, activities, and so forth, would all come along as life proceeded. But I know now that too many of us, if not careful, can get easily distracted from what is most important. Someone offends us. We start running around with the wrong friends. We may feel alone. We may feel we are not as good as others who seem to have everything going right. All of these and others are ploys of Satan that can drive us away from the Savior. Sometimes those ploys are subtle and sometimes direct. Isaiah expressed it well when, in speaking of those in the latter days, he said, “And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.” (Isaiah 8:15) Our falling away from the Savior is usually not immediate but gradual. In all that we do, we must never lose our focus of Him by embracing less important things such as our studies, career, or anything else.
Peter Kreeft, a Christian writer, once remarked, “When Christianity was proclaimed throughout the world, the proclamation… was not ‘Love your enemies!’ but ‘Christ is risen!’ This was not a new ideal but a new event, that [the Savior] died, and rose for our salvation. Christianity is first of all not ideal but real, an event, news, the gospel, the ‘good news.’ The essence of Christianity is not Christianity; the essence of Christianity is Christ.” (Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, p. 83, emphasis added.)
If we are not careful, sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees, which means that we get so caught up in small detail, as I once did, that we can fail to understand the bigger and more important picture.
A few years ago a minister of another church was invited to participate in a symposium at BYU. He had accepted the assignment to compare the Sermon on the Mount with the Sermon at the Temple in 3 rd Nephi. He discovered several interesting differences and gave an excellent analysis. He felt the Savior’s teachings in 3 rd Nephi were more precise, stronger, bolder, and offered more information. He found Jesus to be more commanding in 3 rd Nephi and indicated that He seemed to speak as if he were a god. It was interesting that he could love the New Testament account but also see the strength of Jesus in 3 rd Nephi. However, his tone changed, and he began to discredit the Book of Mormon by saying that new religions always have a desire for answers and knowledge. He preferred writings that were less clear and less dramatic. Brother Robert Matthews, a former professor at BYU and the one who told the story, concluded, “Because he approached the study of scripture intellectually, and not by the Spirit, he found the details but missed the message.” (See Robert J. Matthews. Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 9-30, This is My Gospel, Book of Mormon Symposium, 1993, p. 34-35.)
The study of the great books of scripture, including the King James Bible, is clear. They are, through the Spirit, to bring us to Christ. As he so lovingly said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
You’re familiar with the story in I Nephi about Lehi’s dream wherein he journeyed along a path to a beautiful tree and partook of a fruit that represented the pure love of God. Nephi was so taken by his father’s experience that he himself desired it and was permitted to view the same. In the dream Nephi described different symbols and their meanings. We learn of a dark and dreary waste (I Nephi 8:7); a large and spacious field (8:9, 20); a tree (8:10); the fruit of the tree (8:11-12); a river of water (8:13); a rod of iron (8:19); a mist of darkness (8:23) and a great and spacious building (8:26). For a long time I’ve thought about the beginning of the dream wherein is mentioned “a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before [Lehi]”. Who was he? Could he have been the Savior, an angel, a prophet? Who? All we know is that he stood face to face with Lehi, and Lehi followed him, eventually receiving the love of God. Maybe, just maybe, the man in the white robe assumed the role of someone in my life many years ago who instead of standing before me, sat knee to knee, eye to eye, and heart to heart so as to make certain that I understood what was most important. Then in Lehi’s dream, he does the same thing with Sariah, Sam, and Nephi. You see, the man in the white robe with Lehi, Lehi with his family, my dad with me, and I hope you with your children – all help in the understanding of what is most important. You may recall that the dream came about because of Lehi’s deep concern for Laman and Lemuel. They were in a wilderness devoid of the Spirit and without a clear relationship with the Savior – and he worried. Laman and Lemuel, with all their training in a good home, had allowed something or someone to come between them and the Savior.
Nephi had been concerned that he himself would drift into a wilderness, so he tells us he went through a step-by-step process of desire, prayer, inspiration, and a humble attitude. (I Nephi 2:16) What was the difference between him and his two brothers? What gave him a desire? Was it his parents’ example, a father’s counsel, a prophet’s teachings, a friend? We don’t know. What we do know is that he, like his father, didn’t allow anything or anyone to come between him and the Savior (2 Nephi 25:23-26). The scriptures are replete with stories about common people, like you and me, who had to make decisions about whether they would allow someone or something to get between them and the Savior. Choices are sometimes difficult. It takes our best effort to withstand Satan’s influence. If you’re spiritually strong, Satan will not come at you directly. He may instead attack strengths and maybe wedge in from the side or the back. The Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants said, “Behold, I will go before you and be your rearward… and you shall not be confounded.” (Doctrine & Covenants 49:27) That’s why the Brethren speak over and over again about simple things like prayer, scripture study, church attendance, Sabbath day observance, wholesome family relations, good friends, etc.
President Henry B. Eyring counseled, “There are two views of the gospel – both true. They make a terrific difference…. One view is that the gospel is all truth. It is. The gospel is truth…. The other view is that the gospel is the principles, commandments, and ordinances which, if kept, conformed with, and accepted, will lead to eternal life. That is also true. When I choose which of these views I will let dominate… I take a great step. If I take the view that the gospel is all truth, rather than that it is the ordinances and principles and commandments which, if kept, conformed with, and accepted, lead to eternal life, I have already nearly taken myself out of the contest to … withstand the sea of filth. Why? Because [one] needs to have his eyes focused on light, and that means not truth in some abstract sense but the joy of keeping the commandments and conforming with the principles and accepting the ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If I decide I will not make that my primary vision of the gospel, I am already out of the contest to… see good and to want and desire it in the midst of filth.” (See Henry B. Eyring, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear, CES Symposium, 1984.)
As important as ethics and values are in directing your life, I firmly believe that if you have as your foundation, the Savior and His doctrines, you will find the capacity and power to withstand Satan in times you least expect.
The focus needs to be on our Savior and not on other less important truths. Nothing should ever come between you and Him. There is no greater power than to allow Him to occupy the center of your heart. Other things may occasionally need to receive your attention, but as a student in one of my classes said the other day, “Make the Savior the center of your life all the time.” Read of Him, study Him, think about Him – and most of all, love Him. When you center your life on Jesus, you will then have the foundation and power by which you can overcome any obstacle or difficulty. You will, in reality, find yourself, and with that finding, become as strong as a two-edged sword in blessing not only yourself, but all with whom you come in contact. You will then be a real disciple and representative of Him. Your testimony will come from the depths of your soul, and that testimony will influence where it goes. You will become an image of Him to bless and bless and bless again.
I bear you my testimony that this of which I have spoken to you is true. May you choose to never allow anything or anyone to divert you from having the Savior at the center of your heart.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.