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Elder Shirley D. Christensen

Building the Brightest Future

My dear young friends and students, Sister Christensen and I are delighted to have this opportunity to be with you today. What a marvelous sight you are. To look out over this audience and be in your presence is humbling and exciting.

I’m even more awed as I contemplate your futures and what you will become as you use the experiences and training received here at the College and then go forth to serve. Many of you have come from other lands and cultures—60 countries I believe I heard—and from every state in the Union. That’s a compliment to you. I’m confident that the education, the training that you receive here will be the means of establishing social stability wherever you live or will live. That is so vital in today’s world.

Contemplating that, I am reminded of a conversation I had just about a year ago with a wonderful and observant Seventy in Central America. We were together on assignment in Honduras. As we walked to the restaurant of the hotel that morning for breakfast before beginning our day, we observed a brief television report having to do with something that had happened here in the United States. I don’t remember the details of the report, only that it dealt with an impropriety on the part of a civic or business leader. Although the details of the report are forgotten, I will never forget the essence of the conversation with my companion at breakfast that day. My wonderful companion was born in Central America and had lived and served and worked in several of the surrounding countries. As a faithful member of the Church, he understood well the role of this country in international affairs. He told me that, for as long as he could remember, our political and business leaders had been models to him and to the world. Then, in an obvious reference to the TV report that we had just observed, he said that in many ways that long-held respect of our country was no longer present. The honesty and integrity that had been the hallmark of our nation for centuries had now diminished in his eyes and in those of so many abroad who had previously looked to us as leaders and examples.

I mention that incident not to be judgmental in any way, for there is so much good that is done by so many in our society. I mention it only in the context of your futures, and what you will do for those societies in which you will live, and how you will be able to maintain the social and moral equilibrium so important to any society. The very norms that have qualified you to be students here at this institution of higher learning are precisely the attributes that you will need to be successful and to establish societies that are worthy of emulation where you live. Your example will be the most powerful influence you will exert, and will exemplify not only your feelings, but also the doctrines of the Church. You are the ones who have and will carry this message and this example to the world.

I have prayed and pondered much about this message, and as I have done so, I’ve been impressed to share with you a message related to remarks made by my famous uncle in a recent funeral service. When I say “famous uncle” I am admittedly personal and prejudiced. I would be surprised if any of you here had ever even heard of my uncle. As the world measures fame, his name is hardly more than a blip on the radar screen of life. Although he has been eminently successful in his profession, his renown comes not from his notoriety by worldly standards, but by his goodness, and the influence within his own immediate and extended family. I’ve always considered him a remarkable example, and one worthy of emulation in matters relating to family and the gospel.

In remarks at that funeral service, he referred to what he called an essay that he had recently written, in which he had endeavored to critically evaluate himself. When he mentioned the title of his essay, he immediately captured my attention. The title was, “After Much Searching, I Have Finally Discovered Myself. Now I’ve Decided that I Need to Keep on Searching.”

I’ve never read the essay. I have no idea what it said, and he didn’t elaborate. I can only guess at its contents. Based on the smile, and the chuckle that accompanied the remark, I suspect that it is both humorous and introspective. However, my impression then and now is that it introduces a timely endeavor that each of us will find beneficial if we were to carefully examine our lives. This essay brings to mind several questions that are worthy of our consideration which I would like to discuss with you today.

First, do you see yourself today as someone very special and of unequaled value in the sight of your Father in Heaven and your family? Do you have the willingness and the vision to see beyond the challenges of today? Will you accomplish in the future all that you envision for yourself today? Twenty years from now, will you be able to look back on your professional and spiritual lives and determine that you did everything possible to accomplish your goals? And finally, have you concluded that your future is bright, and are you willing to put forth the effort today to help you achieve your potential?

President James E. Faust once posed this question to the members of the Church. He asked: “Who do you think you are?” President Faust said, “Regardless of who we think we are today, we may become much more than we may envision today. However, we must be certain that we have our focus on that part of us that is truly worthwhile and enduring, and not on what others see in our exterior.”

He then cited the study of a prominent social worker, Dr. Fred Riley, who had treated many well-known athletes, who identified themselves only as athletes and not as sons and daughters of God. At the conclusion of the study, Dr. Riley asked the question, “What happens when they can’t play basketball” anymore? What will their identity be then? (“Who Do You Think You Are?” Ensign, Mar. 2001, p. 2).

President Faust observed: “Their self-worth is related to their physical skills rather than their character. Many who [have achieved] world-class recognition may not like themselves. Some of the rich and famous, even though they have great talent and ability, are insecure and succumb to drugs, alcohol, or immorality. …Their lives [have] become shattered. Instead of being happy with who they are, they become dissatisfied and discontent. They measure their self-worth solely in terms of their talent and accomplishments instead of who they really are inside. It is not always true,” said President Faust, “that the more you achieve, the happier you will be, or that you will like yourself more” (Ibid).

President Faust asked the question again. “So, who do you think you are?” Then he said, “Who you think you are and who you really are can be two different versions of yourself. From an eternal perspective, these two versions need to come together. God knows you and what you can become because He has known you from the beginning when you were His spirit sons and daughters. What you become will depend in large measure on how you follow righteous principles and do good works,” said President Faust.

Alma to his son Helaman gave this sound advice, which is timely in any age. Said Alma, “Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day.

“…Now, my son, see that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God, and live” (Alma 37:37, 47).

I would like to share with you some ideas and brief stories that I hope will enlighten you and cause that in the future you need not look back with remorse regarding decisions that you may have made previously in your lives. I will always remember as a member of a bishopric, sitting with a young man from our ward on the bleachers of a softball field at the end of a ward softball game. He had refused to serve a mission and had chosen instead to go into the military. He had recently returned from the military, discharged early because of some lingering health issues. He was discouraged that his life had taken this course, and he was struggling to find direction for his future.

On that particular day, he was faced with an even more imminent and pressing decision. His parents and younger siblings were leaving the next week for a family reunion. His parents, particularly his mother had been pleading with him to accompany them to this family reunion, rather than spending time with his buddies from the service. It was obvious from our conversation that he was leaning heavily to spending the time with his buddies rather than his family.

We spoke of his having been away from his family for some time in the military, and how his family would cherish this time with him at this reunion. As a result of his being with his family, I told him that he likely would have a new perspective on members of his family, and his parents, and siblings, things that you perhaps have not previously appreciated. The alternative, of course, was to go with his buddies and possibly suffer the consequences of what at least had the potential to be an unworthy setting for a priesthood leader and a wonderful son of God. He informed me that he didn’t want to go to the reunion. He said that was no place for someone of his age and experience.

Just a week later, I received an urgent call from a bishop, asking for my help in locating his family who were then returning from the reunion. Their son was in the hospital as a result of an auto accident, probably paralyzed from the waist down. One of his intoxicated buddies had crashed their car into a tree or pole. As often happens, his so-called friend walked away unscathed, but my young friend spent the rest of his life incapacitated, and a good portion of his life in hospitals dealing with the results of that unfortunate accident—all the result of a decision that could have had a more positive outcome if he had looked to God in that critical moment, and had been willing to seek divine parental guidance in his life. I don’t know how many times he thought back to our conversation on the bleachers of that softball field that day, but I have agonized many times over the destructive and enduring unfortunate decision.

You’ll remember that Laman and Lemuel, like my young friend, sometimes wanted to be the contrarians. They often struggled with the invitation and counsel of their father Lehi and their younger brother Nephi. Nephi was deeply grieved as he observed the disputations and dissensions of his brothers. He knew in his heart the consequences of not following the counsel of the Lord given through their father, and the heartache and suffering that it would eventually bring. He recorded, “Now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also, because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men.

“And it came to pass that… I spake unto my brethren, desiring to know of them the cause of their disputations. 

“And they said: Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father has spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive-tree, and also concerning the Gentiles.

“And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?

“And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.

“Behold, I said unto them: How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts?

“Do ye not remember the things which the Lord has said, if ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you” (1 Nephi 15:4-11).

I suspect that my young friend was much like Laman and Lemuel. He was a member of a wonderful family, with righteous and exemplary parents. He had been taught for over twenty years the power of prayer and the influence of the Spirit of God. In one moment of decision, in which he should have remembered and practiced the example that he had observed in his family, he either forgot or ignored the teaching that certainly would have shielded him from a life of physical and emotional suffering.

President Faust taught that changing bad behavior was a way in which we could truly come to know ourselves, thus finding greater contentment and achievement in our lives. There is nothing so rewarding or enduring than to be truly happy, to find joy in all that we do each day, to be able to face each day with anticipation and the certainty that each daily experience will add to our joy and success. We must want to be happy, and diligent in identifying those accomplishments which will move us toward our ultimate goal. It would be a beneficial exercise for each of us to frequently review our objectives, and then note them in our journals, or post them in a conspicuous location for frequent reference.

Your futures are bright. They are as bright as you are willing to make them. In large measure, your mortal and eternal nature will depend on the extent to which you diligently and pleadingly look to God. Your futures are totally dependent on the choices and decisions that you make each day. We can make correct choices if our lives and our minds are centered, as Nephi and his successor prophets have taught, on keeping the commandments of God, regardless of the temptations or barriers that may be thrown up in our way.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 255-56).

Two weeks after arriving in Argentina to begin my service as a mission president, I received a call on a Sunday afternoon from a sister missionary informing me that her companion had fainted during church services that day. Her companion had arrived in the mission just four months previous. There had been no indication of any underlying health issue. Little did any of us know that this was the first indication of an enduring affliction that would haunt her for years. The sister was taken to a local hospital and evaluated. Her problem was serious enough that doctors could not identify or treat it. I immediately brought her nearer the mission home where we could more closely observe her condition. After more tests and days of observation, it became apparent that her condition was serious, that she would need to return home to be more properly evaluated and treated.

It has now been more than ten years since her illness began. She has had occasional moments of improvement in her health followed by relapse and continued serious impairment. Sister Christensen and I visited her recently. When I think about the challenges that can come in our lives, and the manner in which we face them, I always remember the wonderful example of this sister missionary. There she was, only four months into her mission. She was just beginning to feel comfortable with the language. She had a heartfelt love for the people. She was in the service of the Lord, doing precisely what she had promised Him she would do. Then she was struck with this terrible ailment that would not only end the missionary service she loved so dearly, but would lead to more than ten years of almost continuous pain, weakness, and inability to function.

Thankfully, after all these years, the diagnosis has been made and treatment commenced that we hope will eventually bring about relief and permanent healing. It would be so easy for anyone who had experienced such an ordeal to be bitter and ask, “Why did this happen to me? Why was I denied the blessing of continuing and finishing my mission? Why the years of pain and suffering when such a simple cure was so readily available?”

I would like to share with you a portion of a testimony and letter that we received from her the same day that we returned from our visit. She said, “I had a good testimony of the Church before I left on my mission, and though I had questions, I never doubted that what my parents taught me was true. But serving a mission, hearing myself bear testimony to others, and experiencing the Spirit so strongly and so often greatly increased my love for the gospel and dedication to it. I know the scriptures I read were written and experienced by real people, who have faced many of the same sorts of challenges I face today, and I am more grateful than I can express for the opportunity of having scriptures and being able to read and enjoy them. I know the scriptures are true, and I love them with all my heart. I often turn to them, including times of trial, knowing that even if the words on the page cannot necessarily solve my problems, I am creating the opportunity for the Spirit to touch my heart and at least provide comfort, if not personal inspiration. I dearly love the scriptures, general conference, and all the writings and talks given by the prophets. I know Jesus Christ is my Savior. I am deeply touched by the fact [that] His life and sacrifice make prayer possible for me. I don’t know how I would survive without prayer in good and bad times. Prayer is a great comfort and motivator for me.”

I am always deeply affected by her example. There is never any bitterness expressed, only gratitude for lessons learned and choice experiences remembered.

Near the end of His earthly ministry, the Savior gave this timely counsel to His chief apostle, The Lord said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

From this encounter, we learn several valuable lessons. Satan will always be present, endeavoring to tempt, weaken, deceive, and, if possible, to destroy. The sifting is constant and can be intense, if we allow him to intervene. He understands the Lord’s plan of happiness, and he knows that if we win, he loses. His determination from the beginning has been to destroy us and destroy the Father’s plan. His intent in the preexistence was to deny you your agency, and to bind you down to eternal suffering. It was his intent then, and his diabolical pleasure continues today, to ensure that you will find no joy in this life if his sifting can distract and destroy.

Thanks be to God for the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ who atoned for our sins and assured us that through faith, repentance, enduring to the end, and the ordinances of the gospel that Satan could not destroy us.

Last month, a new stake presidency was sustained in our stake. As often happens with new and overwhelming calls to serve, our new president expressed some feelings of inadequacy in his calling. He told of an experience several years before, when he and his wife had determined that they would construct a swimming pool in their back yard. It was determined that excavating machinery would not be able to enter to do the excavation. The only way to excavate was with shovel and wheelbarrow. So they began the task. He said after a day of toiling and trying to do this excavation, he looked at his wife and said, “This job is overwhelming. There is no way that we can possibly complete this excavation.”

He said, “She looked at me and simply said, ‘Yes, we can—one shovel and one wheelbarrow at a time.’” So it is with each of us. We achieve our goals and objectives, no matter how difficult it seems, one day, one task at a time, never giving up.

As the children of Israel were poised on the east bank of the Jordan River, prepared to cross into Canaan, the Lord gave counsel to Joshua that was timely then and is timely today. In fact, for emphasis, the Lord repeated the instructions three times in similar words. Said the Lord to Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.

“Be strong and of good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land…

“Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant has commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.

“This book of the law, the commandments, shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then shalt thou make thy way prosperous, and then shalt thou have good success.

“Have not I commanded thee?” said Jehovah. “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee, whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:5-9).

I hope we have understood the significance of Jehovah’s instructions to Joshua and to us. We must be strong and of good courage. We must never be discouraged or relent. We will be able to achieve whatever the Lord calls us and instructs us to do—one day, one step, one shovel or wheelbarrowfull at a time. We must be strong and very courageous in observing the law given to us. Let not the law nor the commandments of the Lord depart from us. Do not stray from the commandments of the Lord, neither to the right or to the left. Meditate on them, ponder on them, think on them. Practice them day and night, and observe to do all that we discover therein.

Lastly, we have the enduring promises of the Lord that if we will be strong and of good courage, we need not ever be dismayed—for He will be with us wherever we are and in all that we do. The Savior assured us that His love and concern for us is constant. His plan and desire for us is that our joy will be eternal. God will not deceive us. He cannot deceive us. His love and desire for us are no less today than they were for Peter. Every being is a creation of our eternal God and is valuable in His sight. When we keep His commandments and draw near to Him, we are assured that the purpose of His plan on our behalf will be achieved. We will be happy in mortality and enjoy the blessings of eternal joy and happiness.

The final lesson in the Savior’s remarks to Peter is that when we understand and are converted, we have an obligation to reach out and to strengthen others.

In our dispensation, the Lord has reminded us of the imperative of watchful care over our fellow beings. His invitation is always present, to reach out and lift the load of those whose ability to meet the challenges of life exceeds their ability to cope. Said the Lord to Frederick G. Williams and to us: “Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees. And if thou art faithful unto the end, thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father” (D&C 81:5-6).

We need look no further than President Thomas Monson for examples of service to others. His stories and examples of service are legend. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested a way in which we can each measure our success. Asked Emerson:

What is success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.

(Quoted by President Faust in (“Who Do You Think You Are?” Ensign, Mar. 2001).

May the Lord ever be with us as we seek to find and establish the best in ourselves. May we ever be open to the Spirit of the Lord, as He who loves us most and knows us best seeks to make us equal to the potential that He placed in us when we left His presence. I bear witness that He lives and is ever present, and hears our prayers when we pray in faith. I bear that witness in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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