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Devotionals

Elder Robert S. Wood

Establish Outside Standards by Which to Measure Ourselves

I am delighted to be with you today. In my morning walks I periodically walk by the business college. I have always admired the building, and I’m grateful someone invited me in.
 
I began my professional career in a business school, interestingly enough. While working on my dissertation at Harvard I was hired by the faculty at Bentley College, which is the college of business in New England, as well known there as the LDS Business College is well known here. So I feel as though I am back, and I really love to be with you. One thing I have missed over the years is being in the class room, with young people. So thank you for having me here.
 
Now when I was in high school, we had to read a play. I don’t know if they do this anymore or not, but it is an interesting play by Thornton Wilder called “Our Town.” It is interesting in that there is an individual called the stage manager who always stands there on the stage. He talks with the audience periodically; he kind of sets the scene, stops the movement of the drama, and comments on it.
 
At one point the stage manager stops the action, points to this man and his wife and two children who are sitting around a breakfast table, and says, “There they are!” The husband (who is an attorney) and his wife and two children have had 30,000 meals together around that breakfast table. The stage manager asks the question, “How do such things begin?” pointing out the important realization that everything has a beginning.
 
Mark Twain said “The beginning of all things is frail and weak. Therefore, always keep your eye on the beginning.” Or putting it in the words of Samuel Coleridge, an English writer, “So often do the spirits of great events stride on before the events, And in to-day already walks to-morrow.” You, in a particular way, are at the beginning. Therefore the choices you make, and who you define yourself to be, and the kinds of things you will be doing are critically important.
 
There is a principle in military strategy that the initial conditions of a battle are generally decisive to the outcome of the battle. That is why the Lord has counseled us to be prepared in all things, in heaven and in earth, under the earth and all that has happened and is happening, and will happen. In effect, we should prepare ourselves and then establish a foundation of our beginnings on which we shall build. Hence the great council of Alma to his son, “…learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God (Alma 37:35).
 
Now, if you are going to lay the foundation for anything, it’s important to have an external standard by which you can evaluate what you are doing. People who look simply within for their standard of behavior are building themselves on a very weak reed. All standards have to be external in order to truly be a standard. Therefore, self esteem, self worth, and dignity itself really depend not simply on saying “I know who I am and I am who I am, and that’s good.” The fact is we need to establish something outside of ourselves by which we can measure who we are. The reason is we don’t entirely understand who we are yet.
 
There was an entomologist, (that’s a bug expert), who once decided he was going to study human behavior. That was a fatal mistake on his part, because he didn’t have a clue about human behavior—he understood bugs. Now, if you study bugs, how do you go about it? You look at what bugs do, and then you conclude that whatever those bugs do, that must be natural, and therefore that’s the norm. And so you define bug behavior in terms of bug behavior, and you evaluate it in what they statistically seem to be doing.
Now that’s all fine and dandy as long as you apply it to bugs, but the bug expert then decided to apply it to people. He became very famous at studying people and human behavior, particularly human sexual behavior. He concluded that whatever people did in great abundance was natural, and therefore that was the norm by which you could evaluate human behavior.
 
That is a very sophisticated version of “Everybody’s doing it.” In doing that, he broke with great tradition, both of the ancient philosophers and of the prophets, who said you cannot evaluate what is natural or the norm by simply looking at what is happening. You have to define it in terms of, “What will become? What is the potential?”
 
A great example of that is Aristotle who believed you cannot be happy unless, in scriptural terms, you fill the measure of your creation. To determine the measure of what your creation is, you have to look at what you are potentially capable of becoming.
 
Aristotle also gave a very interesting analogy. He asked, what is the nature of an acorn? The nature of an acorn is to become a mighty oak. And therefore, he said, if you take an acorn and put it into good soil and you nourish it and give it plenty of water, and sunshine, it will grow into a mighty oak, and you will say, “That is a very happy oak; there is an acorn that became what it was supposed to become.”
 
But if you put it in bad soil, don’t give it nourishment or water, or put it under a cliff so it bends, you will come across that oak in the forest and say, “That is a most unhappy oak.”
 
And so it is with people, said Aristotle. In effect, that’s what Moroni also said, “In the gift of his Son hath God prepared a more excellent way” (Ether 12:11). Moroni took up that same theme, as you recall, in his concluding epistle when he taught that if you want to know what to do, what is appropriate behavior, the Spirit of God is given to every man that they may know the difference between right and wrong, true and false, and that which invites to come unto Christ and to become like Him. It is the formula both for happiness, and for defining what a true human being really is.
 
We are invited early on in life to emulate the example of Him who is our Savior. You recall the conversation that took place between the Savior and Thomas. I really love Thomas. He gets something of a bad rap as you know, “Doubting Thomas.” If I read the scriptures, he doubted no more than anybody else; he just kept opening his mouth. He just couldn’t restrain himself. If you recall, the Lord told his apostles he would go before them to prepare a way and to get things ready for them. Thomas said: “Go away? Where are you going? We don’t know where you’re going. Where are you going?” And Christ then answered: “I am the way, the truth, and the life…(John 14:6)” and hence defined that great external standard by which we can measure our behavior.
 
When I was a young university professor, I was befriended by a very distinguished professor of constitutional law by the name of Alpheus Mason. He had much experience in many distinguished universities; some of the leading jurists of our day were his students. I asked him after all the years of teaching what conclusion he had reached, and he gave me this single sentence, “Character is more important then intellect.” That was his judgment after dealing with thousands upon thousands of students.
 
Now what is this trait which Alpheus Mason called “character”? The word “character” comes from the Greek word “charassein”, and means “to engrave or to imprint upon”. So apparently a person of character is one who has had imprinted upon him great qualities and standards of excellence.
 
Do you remember that other famous professor, Professor Dumbledore from “Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets”? Dumbledore says to Harry, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
 
A principle-based life, in every dimension, is the key to becoming a successful human being. In effect, what we truly need is a life of integrity. I have always liked the definition given for “integrity” by Professor Steven Carter, a professor of law at Yale law school. He wrote a book called “Integrity”, and he defined it very neatly. He said a person has integrity only if they satisfy three criteria. 1. They will sincerely pursue the truth. 2. They will follow that truth. 3. They will stand as witnesses of the truth in all times and in all places and in all circumstances. When I read that I was reminded immediately of Alma, and the waters of Mormon when he invited those who were entering in the waters of baptism to partake of the life which flowed from that commitment, and to stand as witnesses in all times and in all places (Mosiah 18:8-9).
 
Now let’s look at four things we need to pay attention to if we’re going to live by Christ-like standards: first, our understanding; second, our emotion; third, our desires or aspirations; and fourth, our behavior. Those are four dimensions of humanity. If we get these straight, everything else will go very well.
 
First of all is our understanding, our thoughts. Getting understanding is always a critical function of life. The earlier we achieve that in life, the easier it becomes. Some people go through life just not getting it, which means they don’t really see. A professor at Manchester college used to play a little parlor game with his friends. They would come in on a late afternoon and sit in his parlor. He would say, “Now I want you to look very, very carefully at everything in this room.” Then they went into another room, and he gave them a piece of paper and said, “Now write down everything you saw in that room.” Between them they collectively were able to see everything that was there, save one thing they always missed. They walked back into the parlor to compare their lists, and he would go to the curtain and draw them, and the room immediately became pitch black. The one thing they never saw was the light by which they were able to see everything else.
 
The crucial understanding we have to get straight is the light by which we actually perceive everything else. I used to do an exercise in teaching that I could do in this classroom if I could divide you into two groups. I walked down the middle of the room and showed students on the left side of the room a picture of a woman, and showed students on the right a picture of another woman. The picture on one side was of a woman with very small features and quite young. On the other side was a picture of a woman clearly older with heavy features. I had each side of the classroom study their picture for maybe a minute and a half. Then I flashed on the screen for everyone to see a single picture of a woman, but in fact it wasn’t a single woman--there were actually two women superimposed, one on the other.
 
I asked everybody what they saw and everyone agreed it was a woman. Then I asked if she was old or young, and one side answered “young” and the other answered “old.” Then I asked if they saw small features or large features, and one side said they saw “small” and the other side said “large”. Then with my finger I traced the two pictures so the students could see it was a composite picture of two pictures. About 30% of the class never were able to see the second picture. They had been so conditioned in a minute and a half that they failed to see the two pictures.
 
It is very important that the whole purpose of education is to help us see the big picture, to discern all that is there. That is why we read earlier the council of Paul: adapt yourself no longer to the pattern of this present world but let your minds be remade so that ye discern and that ye may know.
 
So the whole object of what you’re doing here is not simply to become better accountants, or better at computers, or better at sales, or whatever you might do. The key issue is to understand how sales and accounting fit into the broader view of life, so that they become an integral part of life. They do not become the driving or dominant force of life, but in fact are incorporated into a much broader vision. Our whole object is to understand that.
 
In D&C 43:34 the Lord said, “Hearken ye to these words. Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Treasure these things up in your hearts, and let the solemnities of eternity rest upon your minds.” Alma said that the word of God has a more powerful effect upon the mind then anything else (Alma 31:5)..
 
So we need to establish our minds, we need to get our understanding straight, our minds clear. Once we do that we then move on to our feelings. President David O. McKay said there is a music in the universe decreed by God, and if we attune our souls to the music of the universe, we will hear it. But if we let noise enter into our life, it will crowd out the music of the universe and we won’t be able to hear it. In other words, we will not be able to hear the whisperings of the Spirit.
 
Now understand this: Satan has determined that the best way to corrupt an individual and a society is not through understanding; he’ll get to that second. His first goal is to corrupt their feelings, then he can corrupt their understanding. Satan has never nor will he ever win an intellectual debate. He just doesn’t have the arguments, and I determined a long time ago, he is not that bright. If he were that bright he wouldn’t be Satan. But though not bright, he is smart, and he understands that if he can get to your feelings, he can corrupt your feelings. Just think about that.
 
Satan tries to corrupt your feelings through what I call “poetry”. I don’t mean the poetry in words. I mean the whole world of imagination, of music, of art, of drama, what we see in the movies and television. If you can put rhythm to a message, no matter how bad the message, if the rhythm is good and has a consistent beat, you can shake the very soul. So take charge of your feelings and understand that Satan wants to take charge of them for you.
 
Third are our aspirations or goals. “Life is the leaf of paper white whereon each one of us may write his word or two, and then comes night” (James Russell Lowell). Be the best you can be. I have often said that we are all children of Abraham. The Lord has indicated that all the blessings of the gospel would come through the children of Abraham, and indeed the Savior of all mankind would be born through that line. The children would be scattered through all nations, races, kindred, and tongues, but they would again hear the voice of the gospel. So have high aspirations and never settle for less. Become the best.
 
Now, that finally leads to behavior. Once you have a proper understanding, once you make sure that your feelings are being sanctified, that they are being made holy, then behavior seems to fall into line very quickly. Lowell Thomas, the famous world traveler and commentator, once remarked that many people want to bag an elephant in this life, but they never do what is necessary to achieve this goal. They do not go where the elephants are, they are armed only with squirrel guns, and they aim at something which is not an elephant, and then they bemoan the fact that they never got their elephant. The problem of life is that even if we have high aspirations, we neither plan nor act in such a way as to achieve those goals. And we never seem to see the connection between the beginning and the end. The biggest problem at that point is doing that which is consistent with whom you know you are and where you are going.
 
Now if I could end it there, that could be designated as “self improvement”. You know, there are a lot of books on self improvement. You might even write one some day. When you go to a bookstore to the self improvement section, you will notice there are shelves beyond shelves of self improvement books. If they work, you would only need one. Now the fact of the matter is that all of them are good—they all have good things to learn. But I am more persuaded that none of them will ultimately work unless we are built upon the firm foundation, which is Jesus Christ.
 
So I end where I began: We need the grace of God in order to become who we truly are. One aspect of the fall of man is mortality itself, with all of the great opportunities and dangers of mortality. What we really need is the act of grace in our lives. We need to call up on it.
 
You may have read some of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” In one of those tales is a character by the name Eustace. He is turned into a dragon because of irresponsibility, childishness, and selfishness. Only through the intervention of Aslan is he transformed not simply back into his human—and fallen—self, but into a human that has undergone a “mighty change of heart.” After understanding the depth of his own sins and having undergone deep sorrow, he is bidden by Aslan to undress and bathe himself in a well of water. After some perplexity as what undressing might mean for a dragon, he concludes that it is to scrape off his scales. This he does and steps into the water.
 
Upon emerging from the well, he sees his reflection and sees that another set of scales has appeared. Once again he scrapes off the scales only to have another set appear. Finally, Aslan says he will undress Eustace. Looking with apprehension at the claws of the lion, Eustace finally submits. And indeed, the claws dug very deep, and the pain was very real, and the sting of the water was intense when Aslan hurled Eustace into the water. But he emerged no longer as a dragon, but as a real man—man restored, man sanctified, man redeemed.
 
As Aslan in the myth of Narnia, so it is in life: Christ is the author and finisher of our salvation, our sure foundation.
 
“And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:12).
 
My good friends, I leave you with this council: Rely only on Him who can make you perfect. When He, Christ, comes we shall know Him for we will be like Him.

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