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A New Understanding of God
After years of avoiding this indifferent or disgusted God I had imagined, and hiding in the den of addiction, I finally reached a point where, as Alma described, I too was racked with the torment of a damned soul. And like Alma, though I was afraid to face God, I finally accepted the truth that I had to turn to Him and seek the Savior’s direct intervention in my behalf if I was to ever find relief:
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. (Alma 36:17-19, emphasis added)
Like Alma, I had finally become desperate enough to reach out to the Lord. Even though I was not sure what would happen to me, I knew that anything He might do could not possibly be worse than the slow soul-rot of my addiction. I had to have help! My own strength was failing me miserably. Somehow I, too, came to understand that Jesus was the only One who could save me.
Trembling, but resolute, I confessed to Him my utter helplessness and my total dependence on Him. To my great astonishment and relief, He did not reject me as I feared. Instead, He welcomed me with open arms. The lies I had believed immediately began to fall away and I saw Him with new eyes. He was indeed a God of love and tenderness!
As I studied the scriptures with this new heart, softened toward God, I began to realize the phrase “the wrath of God” can be viewed differently than I had ever seen it before. I think of that phrase now, not as a description of His feelings toward us, but as the inevitable consequences of disobeying the eternal principles God Himself lives and is trying to teach us through the commandments He gives us:
Therefore, they have drunk out of the cup of the wrath of God, which justice could no more deny unto them than it could deny that Adam should fall because of his partaking of the forbidden fruit; therefore, mercy could have claim on them no more forever. (Mosiah 3:26, emphasis added)
I was amazed at this new perspective! My heart was even more tender toward God when I realized that He had no choice but to allow Adam to experience the Fall as a consequence of his eating the forbidden fruit! I had always thought of God as “all-powerful,” and I still believe He most certainly does have all the power it is possible for any being to retain in righteousness. Today, though, I believe that because of His strict obedience to eternal laws, including the interplay of agency, justice, and mercy, there are some things God cannot do. He cannot save us in our sins. He cannot bless us for keeping commandments we have not kept. These are just other ways of saying He cannot “lie” or pretend that something is true that isn’t, for He is a God of truth in all things. In a similar way, He cannot keep us from the consequences of our sins if we refuse to repent (Helaman 3:29, D&C 19:16-17).
Today I realize my old images of God were not consistent with the teachings of the Book of Mormon. God is not indifferent to my life. He is very much involved in all our lives, but He must respect the same eternal principles He requires us to respect. God is bound by eternal laws, laws which God Himself must obey or He would cease to be God (2 Nephi 2:13). Justice demands payment for laws that are broken. Jesus was willing to suffer for us, so we ourselves would not have to suffer the penalty required by justice. But that substitution of His suffering for ours is only possible if we turn to Him and consciously and deliberately accept His gift. If we refuse to do so, God cannot interfere with the eternal law of justice, which demands the automatic implementation of the penalty. Our repentance, coupled with Jesus’ willingness to meet the demands of justice is the only way mercy can satisfy justice without robbing or negating it (Alma 42:14-26).
Thus, since God is the embodiment of these principles, He becomes a representation of them, and the punishment exacted by these laws is expressed as the “wrath of God.” This expression does not mean that He is personally angry with us or that He personally has to execute the punishments. His reaction is rather one of sorrow at our disobedience-not because He needs our obedience, but because of the sorrow and suffering we bring upon ourselves when we disobey. Like any loving parent, He suffers with us:
And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? (Moses 7:28-29)
And God explained to Enoch:
Unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;…and among all the workmanship of mine hands there has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren…Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? (Moses 7:33, 36-37; emphasis added)
Notice the heavens weep when we sin because sinning causes us to suffer.
And as Enoch began to share God’s perspective, he too, wept:
And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook…And as Enoch saw [those who would be destroyed in the flood], he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted; but the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look…And behold, Enoch saw the day of the coming of the Son of Man, even in the flesh; and his soul rejoiced. (Moses 7:41, 44, 47)
All sorrows can be erased in the Atonement of our Beloved Savior, if we will but repent. It all depends on our willingness to come to Him. This new perspective not only colors the way I hear the scriptures, it also colors my prayers, and opens to my understanding a new relationship with my Savior. Like Alma, I no longer fear Him but instead rejoice in His reality in my life. I never knew it was possible to love anyone the way I love Jesus and the way I now understand He loves me and has always loved me. With Alma, I no longer fear the coming of the Lord, but rejoice in it and long for that great day to come. Alma testified:
And now we only wait to hear the joyful news declared unto us by the mouth of angels, of his coming; for the time cometh, we know not how soon. Would to God that it might be in my day; but let it be sooner or later, in it I will rejoice. (Alma 13:25)
What an amazing change of heart Alma had experienced! He had come to know and trust the goodness of God, which enabled him to repent and be reborn. I am humbled to be able to add my testimony to his that such changes are possible. A life out of tune can be put right again. A soul tortured with guilt can once more know peace. The Savior only waits for our decision to come unto Him.
Finding Healing in Understanding God as Joseph Smith Knew Him
And so it was that, just as the old Twelve Step adage said, I had to “fire” my old beliefs about God and “hire” some new ones. To put it more literally, I had to finally make the effort to come to know the Lord as He is revealed in the fullness of the restored gospel. I had to admit that all my church activity and “busyness” in the service of others over my lifetime had not amounted to coming to know Him (Matthew 7:23).
As I studied more deeply and sincerely, I was led to the Lectures on Faith. There I “joined” the School of the Prophets, as the Prophet Joseph revealed several things about the true character of God.
First, that He was God before the world was created, and the same God that He was after it was created.
Secondly, that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness, and that He was so from everlasting, and will be to everlasting.
Thirdly, that He changes not, neither is there variableness with Him; but that He is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that His course is one eternal round, without variation.
Fourthly, that He is a God of truth and cannot lie.
Fifthly, that He is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears God and works righteousness is accepted of Him.
Sixthly, that He is love. (Lectures on Faith, 35)
Prayerfully, I sought to understand how knowing these characteristics of God could help me in overcoming my addiction. Let me share some insights I feel He gave me:
1. God was God before the world was made, and he is the same God today.
He knows what is going on. You might say, He has been around the proverbial “block” a few times. He totally understands not only the way the worlds work, but also the way people work. In other words, he knows the principles of happiness just as well as the principles of astronomy and physics. When God gives us a commandment, He isn’t doing it arbitrarily. He’s actually trying to share with us what works to bring lasting satisfaction and joy in life. After all, He’s the expert. He’s seen it before. He has lived it Himself. I began to realize that if I would trust these true principles, I could be led by a perfected human who has experienced a thousand times more than I will ever be required to endure in mortality.
2. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness.
This means He wants to help me. He is not sitting on the judgment throne waiting for a chance to condemn me, as I had previously thought. Instead, He wants to do all that He can to redeem me from the suffering I have thus far brought upon myself.
As I accepted these truths, I began to realize I can trust that if I go to Him, I will find help, not criticism or condemnation. The Prophet Joseph wrote:
Unless He was merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness, such is the weakness of human nature, and so great the frailties and imperfections of men, that unless they believed that these excellencies existed in the divine character, the faith necessary to salvation could not exist; for doubt would take the place of faith, and those who know their weakness and liability to sin would be in constant doubt of salvation if it were not for the idea which they have of the excellency of the character of God, that He is slow to anger and long-suffering, and of a forgiving disposition, and does forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. An idea of these facts does away with doubt, and makes faith exceedingly strong. (Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, 35-36, emphasis added)
If you weren’t really impressed by that paragraph, you might want to read it again. Read it as if Joseph were talking, one-on-one and heart-to-heart with us addicts. He is saying that we need to know God is loving so we can trust Him and take our addictive behaviors to Him. From my own experiences I can testify that the Lord does welcome us home and does not condemn us.
3. The nature of God does not change.
This means I can always trust Him. He is not going to be good to me one day and cruel the next. We need to be told this because we don’t see that same steadiness in the people around us. None of us in mortality is perfectly consistent, but as hard as it may be to imagine, God is. Sometimes we excuse ourselves when we are irritable or uncooperative by saying we are “having a bad day.” God never has “bad days.”
4. God cannot lie.
All the promises God has made to me will be fulfilled. I can count on Him. I may have been let down and disappointed by others in my life, but God will not let me down. It may take time for us to fully believe this, but we need to give Him the chance to prove it to us.
5. He is no respecter of persons.
If He has helped any other person recover from addiction or any other challenge, He will also help me. God’s promises don’t just apply to others; they apply to all of us, without exception!
6. God is love.
The characteristic of love so permeates the nature of God that it can be said of Him that He is love. Every action He takes toward us is based in love. I can trust that whatever His response to my petitions to Him, it will be loving and benevolent.
When I started to gain a more accurate understanding of the true nature of the Savior as “the Eternal God” (title page of the Book of Mormon), I started to let go of my fear of Him. I started to gain hope and confidence that motivated me to come to Him for help. As I came to Him, I found that He reciprocated! I felt Him draw near to me, as he has promised:
Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (D&C 88:63)
What joy I experienced when I found that promise applied to me-to sinful, slothful, weak, backsliding, unhappy me! What a miracle! What a revelation!
As I approached the Lord and felt Him welcome me, I began to feel I knew Him, not just as a concept or a historical figure, but as a person, as a man-the most glorious and exalted man I have ever known in this life. I began to get a sense of His personality, His goodness, His kindness and patience. As I reflected on this “new-found” relationship, I began to realize that it was really one of the longest standing relationships I have. Suddenly the gospel teaching that Jesus was my older brother since I first came into being as a spirit child of our Heavenly Father was more than just a pretty story to me. I knew it was true! He has known me and been my example, my teacher and my friend for eons. The recovery of this “memory,” of this sure witness, has been the central meaning of the word “recovery” for me as I’ve continued to work my program. I find myself continuing to recover from my addiction in direct proportion to how much of my former relationship with the Lord I allow myself to believe and receive. In the course of this recovery process I have come to know that He still loves me, despite my sins. I know that although He abhors my sins, He still loves and accepts me.
As this very personal testimony of Christ’s love for me began to enlighten my mind and heart, I saw that none of the angry, impatient sentiments I had felt toward myself all these years had come from Him. They were a fabrication, woven of my own shame and the lies I had believed about how God felt about me, lies whispered to me by the enemy of my soul.
The third segment of this chapter will be posted next week.
Clean Hands, Pure Heart by Philip A. Harrison, and its companion LDS 12 Step book, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage by Colleen C. Harrison, are available at most LDS bookstores and can be ordered online at www.rosehavenpublishing.com.