It has been more than two decades since I was first influenced by the words of Steven A. Cramer (pen name for Gerald Curtis). He has now written nine books, including my favorite: In The Arms of His Love. Last week I read Cramer’s most recent, Reaching Higher: 25 Ways to Feel Better About Yourself.
I had an interesting experience: the first part I read with my head, making comments to myself like “nice idea” or “what a great analogy.” But I was feeling quite unmoved, just skimming along on the surface. I questioned the subtitle a bit: I couldn’t say that what I was reading was really making me feel better about myself. I put the book aside.
Then I had an experience that opened old wounds and left me in emotional pain. My personal need to feel better about myself, spiritually and emotionally, was brought to the foreground in a major way. I picked up Reaching Higher again and read the rest with my heart, searching for solace, reaching for understanding, ready and willing to pay the price to make the Savior’s promises (in the many scriptures Cramer quoted) real in my own life.
I had an entirely different experience. I started to recognize the depth of the concepts the author offered, and I felt the solid value of the book’s invitation to respond to the theme question of each chapter. It came to me clearly that only through my application and practice of the ideas presented (most specifically those that pointed a clear path to solid change and repentance) was I going to feel better about myself.
Consequently, I believe that what you will find in this book depends on the depth of your need and whether you want to read it with your head or with your heart. I could recommend many other books more entertaining, more diverting, and more fun to read if you want to stay in your head. If you want a book to help you to search your heart, this may be it.
Each of Cramer’s twenty-five chapters begins with a question taken directly from scripture – questions such as, “What lack I yet?” Cramer explains in the introduction why he is using questions as his format: “the definition of a question is an expression of inquiry that invites or call for a response.” He says, “Most of the questions considered in this work were asked by the Lord challenging our response to grow more toward His image and likeness. [Such as “Wilt thou be made whole?”] But some of them were addressed to Him, inviting His response to us. [Such as “Lord, is it I?” and “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?”] Both can be equally instructive.”
In the chapter based on the question “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?,” Cramer changed my thinking about the “Lord standing at the door knocking” concept. I’ve always focused on fact that He won’t crash down the door. That He honors our agency and patiently waits for us to respond.
Cramer focuses on the fact that the Lord doesn’t wait in heaven for us to knock on His door. That “because of His great love for us, He comes down here, banging on the door to our heart, imploring, as it were, ‘Let me in. I want to love you. I want to heal you of your hurts and wounds. I want to help you be happy. I want to help you feel clean and stand confident before our Father. Please let me into your heart.”
Cramer assures us that feeling alone or distanced from God does not mean He is actually gone or uncaring. In the chapter “If God be for us, who can be against us?” he says, “Satan tries to make us feel that we are alone in our battles with temptation, adversity, and other discouragements, but the Lord has said, ‘Be not afraid of [such circumstances]; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord’ (Jeremiah 1:8), and ‘your God is he that goeth with, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you’ (Deuteronomy 20:4).” Cramer’s constant use of scripture lends power and authority to every concept.
The Analogy of the Egg
Here’s an example of Cramer’s apt and deep analogies. He first quotes C.S. Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”1
Then he says, “It is this lifelong process of being hatched, or transformed from the fallen natural-man state into the image and likeness of Christ that confronts each of us with the daily choice of becoming whole – or only going partway. How often we come to God seeking only the release of our pain, praying only about symptoms rather than about becoming whole – seeking only relief rather than expansion and growth … When we only pray about symptoms, it is like we are trying to remain eggs. Better eggs, yes, but not transformed eggs.”
He continues: “I found that there is a life-transforming and liberating difference between being willing to let go of a particular sin (merely an outward change of behavior) and surrendering all the accompanying burdens to the Savior’s Atonement. My conclusion from working with people in addiction and spiritual agony is that true healing can only occur when there is total surrender of all the burdens that are creating barriers between the Lord and us – burdens like self-pity, guilt, worthlessness, and inferiority, every burden of self-punishment that keeps us from becoming whole.”
I was led to ponder those concepts – and how those things Cramer catalogs as self-punishment are unnecessary burdens that keep us trapped in our egg-like shells, keep us from transforming, keep us from the wholeness that that Lord offers.
Mission to Mars Analogy
In the chapter that starts with the scripture “How could you have forgotten your God in the very day that he had delivered you?” (Helaman 7:20), I found another analogy I love:
Many who read this book were alive when the first men landed on the moon. It is possible that many of us may live to see the day when mankind will explore Mars. As we consider that possibility, it would be difficult to imagine astronauts landing on Mars and then forgetting to report to NASA, who sent them there. Likewise, we cannot imagine that they would while away their time in idle pursuits not related to their mission. The creator of Mars, and all of the universe, has sent us to this planet on a mission of far greater importance, and yet many of us become so preoccupied with our daily affairs that we do while away our time frivolously, forgetting the God who sent us here.
“If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us” (Judges 6:13)
I am going to close with a powerful message from chapter 15. I wonder if there is a God-fearing grown person living on this earth who has not been brought by difficult circumstances to ask the question that is this chapter’s theme: “If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us?” Nothing taxes our faith more than having one difficulty after another befall us when we are trying our very best to serve the Lord.
Here is what the author says about this dilemma:
It helps to know that adversity is not something that happens to you. It is something that happens for you. We fought a premortal war for the privilege of coming here to learn from adversity and opposition. Whatever the source of our difficulties, when we are unhappy or suffering from unwanted, even undeserved or unjust circumstances, the path to freedom, peace, and victory over those circumstances lies not in demanding to know why, but in turning to the Lord’s promises of the good He can and will bring out of those situations – if we will allow it.
Lehi said that the Lord is so determined to help us learn the lessons we need here that He “shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2). This principle was confirmed when the Lord promised, “All things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good” (D&C 98:3) . Such promises have been repeated so many times that one could actually debate whether it is even possible for something “bad” to happen to us. For example, Brigham Young taught, “Every trial and experience you have passed through is necessary for your salvation.”
I continue to need that kind of assurance.
All through the book I found myself asking, “How can the answers to these twenty-five questions help me feel better about myself?” Reaching Higher is certainly not a traditional self-help book. In fact, its power lies in the fact that it repeatedly points us away from the myths of self-sufficiency to the only One who is sufficient. Cramer’s twenty-five questions are not the kind that are likely to lead a sincere person to feel self-assured and comfortable. He offers no flattering words, no “all is well in Zion,” no “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy.
The questions at the first of each chapter can be hard, because they invite us to come to the Lord and be shown our weakness, reminiscent of Ether 12:27. But they offer the additional invitation to humble ourselves, and come unto Him. He alone can make weak things strong.
Cramer invites us to a “feeling better about ourselves” that has nothing to do with high ego or super self-confidence. The kind of “feeling better” he talks about is based on a broken heart and contrite spirit, a humility that recognizes our dependence on the Atonement and the One who loved us enough to bring it about.