I love the insightful statement by Elder Boyd K. Packer: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel” (Little Children by Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, November 1986, p.17).
We all know the doctrines that are essential to successful family life. Yet we aren’t doing very well at applying those doctrines within our families. Research in the field of Family Life shows that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have distinctive beliefs about family, but our practices mirror those of the surrounding culture.
For example, we have been taught to be peacemakers, yet how many of us frequently find fault with our spouses?
Jesus was a perfect example of compassion, yet how often does our compassion fail with our children?
The scriptures make it clear that we are to be forgiving, yet how often do we harbor grievances towards family members and accost them with those grievances?
What’s wrong? Why isn’t doctrine changing us?
Elder Packer said that the doctrine must be understood to be transformative. And understanding doesn’t happen all at once. It take persistence.
If ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, ye shall have eternal life, 2 Ne. 31:20
Change is not an immediate one-step process.
Let’s imagine that you attend a Sunday School class that inspires you with the teaching of pure doctrine. You leave class wanting to be a better saint. What happens next?
1. Our first reaction to learning new doctrines is approval. We nod in appreciation and agreement. But then we don’t necessarily reflect upon how to apply that doctrine to our discipleship or take action based on what we learned. So, most doctrines never make it into our family life practices. They sit on the shelf of our minds like so many lovely gift books that never get read.
2. Life rattles us. Maybe we hurt one of our children with our impatience. When we settle down, we are pained by our hypocrisy. We know better. We know we should be better but we keep doing things the old way. So we feel guilt. We don’t know how to apply the doctrine—or we don’t know how to interrupt our fallenness with his holiness. We are stuck and sad in our habits of thinking and acting.
3. We resolve to do better. We experiment. Often we may feel awkward and inept. For example, we make a sincere attempt to notice all that is best about our spouse. Maybe we make an effort to compliment our spouse. But then the next day our spouse does something that irritates us and instead of continuing to show appreciation, we are back to finding fault. We hit a snag and our glowing doctrinal resolve falls apart. At this point, we are likely to give up and return to our old habits.
But there is an alternative.
When our first attempts are not fully successful or when we fall into old habits, we try again. We may ask ourselves, “Have I figured out the best way for me to do this?” If we are attempting to see our spouse through the lens of charity—the love of Christ—we might start our day earnestly praying for help in doing so. Perhaps if we find ourselves focusing on a fault, we stop and decide to remember several of the best qualities of our sweetheart. Or maybe as you ponder the doctrine, you will come up with an application idea that will work best for you.
As we find ways that work for us, we learn how to support a habit. The new practice becomes natural. We maintain the practice. This is authentic living.
Then a new challenge arises as God teaches us new doctrine and issues us new challenges.
Another example of using the change process: We decide to never make pronouncements to our children when we are irritated. Maybe we learn to say, “I need to think about that.” We settle our spirits so that the doctrine of compassion can find its way into our minds, hearts, and mouths.
We will not succeed at turning doctrine into discipleship unless we are persistent—unless we understand the doctrine with our whole beings. We must also call on God for mercy in changing not only our minds but also our hearts and our practices.
Family life is the laboratory for discipleship. It, more than any other place, provides us practice in turning doctrine into discipleship. If we are humble enough to recognize our need for repentance and heavenly help and if we are determined, we will be changed. But discipleship does not come lightly.
Doctrine changes us when it is understood and applied. It does not change us when we work half-heartedly at discipleship.
As soon as we have mastered one piece of music, God will celebrate with us. Then He will offer another to learn. Growth continues and is presided over by one who knows perfectly how to turn the ordinary laborers of the earth into heavenly disciples. He loves us and never tires of helping us.
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:4-8)
Recommendations: For help applying gospel principles and covenants to the challenges of marriage, I recommend my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage. In the area of parenting, I recommend my short discussion, Bringing Up Your Children in Light and Truth.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her wise editing of this article.