In such a discussion we must start by defining “grace.” As Elder Bednar tells us, in the Bible Dictionary it gives this definition: “The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ . . . This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.” The dictionary also makes it clear that this grace is only available to us because of the atoning sacrifice of our Lord and Savior.
So the phrase,“living by grace,” is a little more clear. If we exercise our agency to choose to do this thing, then we live by receiving help and strength through the Atonement to do things that we could never do on our own. Just what are the spiritual mechanics of such a relationship? How do we put it in place?
First, we must arrange our real priorities. These are not priorities you give lip service to. These are the priorities that you actually live.
- Jesus Christ—we must have a “living” relationship with Him. “For this is Life Eternal, to know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” First great commandment: “To love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, might, mind, and strength.” This relationship comes before everything, even the preservation of our life, as Joseph Smith demonstrated. We will learn more about how we implement this intimate and unique relationship in our further discussion.
- Our own health and well-being—we often fall into the trap of putting our own health and emotional needs last. This is a grave error. In order to have a relationship with God, we must have a self to give him. That self respects who he or she is. They pay attention to basic physical needs—food, sleep, exercise, staying on top of health problems and allowing for them. Not running faster than they have strength. We try to get our emotional needs met for love and acceptance through relationships and this is very important, but sometimes elusive or not possible. Some of these needs can be met by developing our talents, finding out who we are . We should be doing this anyway. How do we do the latter? Patriarchal blessings and temple attendance are chances for us to get direct revelation about our lives. Our lives and our missions on earth matter. Notice that this priority does not distinguish between the married and the unmarried. It stands alone. It talks about who we are. It is this self that will have the primary realtionship with the Savior, not as a spouse or parent, but as an individual son or daughter or son of God.
- Husband or Wife—This sacred relationship takes precedence over everything but our self care and our relationship with God. It comes before friends, callings, or career. It must be weeded by repentance, watered with long-suffering, patience, and tenderness, and fed by reflecting upon and helping our spouse meet his or her divine potential. This relationship requires our own prior individual commitment to Christ. When our spouse is likewise committed we meet at the feet of the Savior. He blesses our union.
- Children—The fruit of our union are real people with separate identities, missions, and problems of their own. They must work out their own salvation. One day they will become independent of us. If we are wise, we will pray, not that they be spared trials, but that their trials may result in their exaltation. In their youngest years, they take much physical, emotional, and mental attention. However, the wise parent will see that by putting the first three relationships in their proper order will give children a correct role model, and teach them to do the same. We cannot micromanage our children’s lives. We must teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves. This is hard when they stumble or sin. We must pray for help from our own primary caregiver—Jesus Christ—for direction on how to show love for the sinner but not the sin.
- Church callings— No matter how important our church callings, we must make certain, at the risk of our salvation and eternal life, that the first three priorities ARE priorities in every sense. My husband didn’t do too well on this one when he was bishop the first time. He is the first to admit this. He didn’t understand the atonement, and so he thought he had to solve everyone’s problems himself. Aftr many years, he had the opportunity of serving again, and he made sure that I and our children followed immediately after his own individual commitment to the Savior. He was a far better bishop, teaching his ward members about how they could use the atonement to solve their own problems. He was inspired by his own relationship with the Savior to counsel others in a way that would “teach them to fish for themselves,” not advise them in such a way that would “give them fish” or become dependent upon him.
- Career—all woman are advised by the brethren to have the training necessary to provide for their family should that need arise. But a career should never come before a family for men or women. In some cases, a career may actually be part of our mission in life, in which case we must make certain to keep our priorities straight or we will not have the resources to perform as the Lord would want us to. Prayer and counsel from our leaders will help us to balance career, church callings, and family. We may have to think outside the box. But there are numerous ways of approaching this challenge creatively.
- Friends—We all need friends. And friends need us. There is a season for all things. Sometimes friends may require assistance that puts all other things aside for a short season. But if we are living according to the truths of the atonement, we must remember the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves. I owe my return to mental health to a very special friend who is the busiest woman I know, but is an example of keeping priorities in place. This wonderful woman, who lives by the spirit, made time to walk with me for an hour every Tuesday morning. She watched me descend into blackness and made me promise that I would just make one more trip to the doctor (who had told me there was nothing he could do to help me. Zina and some other women fasted for me that day. When I went to the doctor, he had just received samples of a new medication that balanced my nervous system’s chemicals properly, giving me a chance for a normal life for the first time in 25 years. Zina was the angel in my life that Heavenly Father used to answer my prayers.
This regime may seem burdensome, but I promise that if we live our lives in that order, it won’t be burdensome. It will lay the groundwork for our living by grace.
In this matter, the Lord has given us a metaphor rich with layers of meaning in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Before I made that supreme leap of faith five years ago, and ventured to trust the Lord, and to put all things in his hands, that scripture scared me a little. Looking at the Savior’s life, I didn’t see how he could possibly say “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I knew how much He suffered: more than any person who had ever lived or would live on this world or any other world. How could I be yoked with the only man who could endure such suffering and not suffer along with him? What I didn’t realize, was that the atonement had made it possible for us to be yoked with the victorious and glorified Christ, who had already carried our burdens in Gethsemane. He had power and understnding I couldn’t even dream of.
A talk by Elder Holland in spring conference, 2006, changed my life in a way that was so deep, so profound, that I will never be the same person again. He started it this way: “I speak to those who are facing personal trials and family struggles, those who endure conflicts fought in the lonely foxholes of the heart, those trying to hold back floodwaters of despair that sometimes wash over us like a tsunami of the soul. I wish to speak particularly to you who feel your lives are broken, seemingly beyond repair.”
I happened to be in the conference center the day that speech was given, hanging on to life by my fingernails. My emotional pain was so deep and my despair so long-lived with no end in sight, that I just did not feel I could go on one more hour. This is not an exaggeration. The only end I could see to the pain that had rendered me virtually helpless and made me a terrible burden to my family, was death. Self-administered death. Suicide. I had fought suicide every day for the past eleven years.
So, Elder Holland’s words certainly hit my Spirit, which sat up and took notice. What help was this apostle going to offer that I hadn’t availed myself of before? He started by giving the above scripture. To review, the Savior invites in Matthew: Come unto me ye all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you; and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Then Elder Holland said these illuminating words that sailed right into my soul, moving me to tears and warming my heart: “It seems clear that the essence of our duty and the fundamental requirement of our mortal life is captured in these brief phrases from any number of scenes in the Savior’s mortal ministry. He is saying to us, “Trust me, learn of me, do what I do. Then, when you walk where I am going,” He says, “we can talk about where you are going, and the problems you face and the troubles you have. If you will follow me, I will lead you out of darkness,” He promises. “I will give you answers to your prayers. I will give you rest to your souls.” Those were words of life to me, water to the woman dying of thirst. When you are yoked with a person, you are in a most intimate position. One of the parties must be submissive to the other. The Savior is begging here that we be submissive to Him for he is “meek and lowly in heart.” In other words, He has already submitted himself to the Father, so our first requirement is:
Trust Him (for He represents the Father). This, as I stated before was a leap of faith for me. I had never trusted anyone in my life, except for one person who had betrayed me. If I trusted Christ, He would have the power to cause the trials of Job to fall upon me. He could make my husband be sick die. He could take my children from me. Every expectation I had was negative, but I took Elder Holland at his word, and exercising a particle of faith(Alma 32), I put all my fears on the altar. I said, “Do what you will with me. I trust that thou wilt give me strength to endure whatever chastening thou seest fit to inflict upon me. To my surprise, instead of chastening, the burdens and fears I had carried so long and that were crippling me completely, flew off my shoulders. I felt them go—dispersed into the universe. In less than a week, I received those medications which freed me from my 25 year afflictions of both PTSD and Bi-Polar disorder.
Learn of me. I had learned in a very dramatic way that the Savior was kind. That he wanted the very best for me in an eternal sense. I knew I had to solidify that yoke, firm up that partnership, so we could work together and not pull in different directions through misunderstanding. So I set to work trying to understand as best I could the Atonement. My best helps were the great atonement sermons in the Book of Mormon: Jacob, King Benjamin, Abinadi, Amulek, and Alma. I studied these with minute care. Then I began on conference talks. Then, after learning, I was impelled to do.
Do what I do. What does the Savior do? He heals. My patriarchal blessing talks much about what I promised my Heavenly Father I would do “because of my personality.” What contribution could I, G.G. Vandagriff, do because of my personality and the trials I had overcome? I sought the answer in the temple, a week after my healing. The immediate answer was WRITE.
Write to witness of the power of love. Particularly the love of God. Although I have written a stack of books in the five years since my healing with another one coming out later this month, they were nearly all conceived during my illness. They have poured out of me, and I have at least eight more inside, lined up and ready to be written. This is my labor of love for the Lord. To show how love can give men and women new hearts. To show how love can heal. But you are probably not writers. You all have unique missions. Pertaining to this call to “do what Christ does, Elder Holland says this:
Following these most basic teachings, a splendor of connections to Christ opens up to us in multitudinous ways: prayer and fasting and meditation upon His purposes, savoring the scriptures, giving service to others, “succor[ing] the weak, lift[ing] up the hands which hang down, .
. . strengthen[ing] the feeble knees.”10 Above all else, loving with “the pure love of Christ,” that gift that “never faileth,” that gift that “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, [and] endureth all things.”11 Soon, with that kind of love, we realize our days hold scores of thoroughfares leading to the Master and that every time we reach out, however feebly, for Him, we discover He has been anxiously trying to reach us. So we step, we strive, we seek, and we never yield.12
I will lead you out of darkness, I will bring rest to your souls. I give you my witness, that if you put your head in that yoke, your deliverance is assured. Christ does not dwell in darkness. He will lead you into the light. And once you have perceived that light, He cannot bless you enough. Your worries simply disappear, even the worst of them, because you are yoked to the Master of the Unvierse, who has all control of all things. The rest to your soul is something I am unable to describe, except that I perpetually feel that I am in a state of grace. Whenever a burden is to be born, my Savior is bearing it as well, with a strength greater than mine. Whenever trouble looms, I have learned not to let it worry me. Honestly. I know I am yoked with Christ and that we will continue on going, whithersoever he desires so I can learn and accomplish what I need to do in this life to prepare me for the next.
Finally, I would like you to make a banner, a sign, a counted cross stitch of Elder Holland’s strongest most resonant promise if we heed this counsel:
When He [Christ] says to the poor in spirit [those of us crushed by burdens], “Come unto me,” He means He knows the way out and He knows the way up. He knows it because He has walked it. He knows the way because He is the way.
I bear testimony that miracles such as those in my life happen far more frequently than we realize. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” If He could mend my life and resurrect actual dead cells in my brain so that I could write of His love, He can do anything. My life today abounds with miracles, coming thick and fast. At last I know what it means to “Live by Grace.” I owe everything, literally every good thing in my life, to the grace and goodness of my Lord Jesus Christ through the power of His atonement.