This is the talk I gave in church today.
I’ve been asked to speak about discipleship.
As I pondered over what discipleship is, the story of Jesus and the rich young man kept coming back to me. He asked Jesus “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. …
“All these things have I kept from my youth up” (Matt. 19:16–17, 20). See, he was already being righteous.
And then came Jesus’ response: “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, … and come, … and follow me” (Mark 10:21).
So often we get caught up in the to do lists, the “righteousness checklists,” and we forget that true discipleship is NOT actually about whether you got 100% home or visiting teaching, or how many times you went to the temple last year, or even whether you went at all; but it IS about whether you “are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” (Mosiah 18) In short, discipleship is about following Christ’s example of loving one another.
How do we learn how to follow Christ?
Teachers know that the one of the most effective ways to teach something is not to tell the students about it, but to model it—that is, to do the thing that they want to students to do. Jesus, the Master Teacher, did the same. He taught us what we should do by showing us how we should be. And what did Jesus do? He mourned with those that mourned, comforted those that stood in need of comfort, and in all times and in all things and in all places He stood for Love—because, as John tells us, God is Love (1 John 4:8).
The scriptures tell us not only what Christ did, but also what He said. Nephi said that “the words of Christ will tell you all things which ye should do.” (2Nephi 32:3) A primary song explains “If I had been a little child when Jesus lived on earth, I would have liked to walk with Him and listen to His words. But as I search the scriptures I can hear his words of peace, and if I listen with my heart I hear the Savior’s voice.” (If I Listen With My Heart) The Savior’s words are in the scriptures, and we can find them not only in the new testament, but also by looking for messages that are repeated by multiple prophets across the ages.
Another way to learn to follow Christ is through personal revelation. This is the way that I think is the most important, although it is not always the easiest to access, which is why we have the scriptures to fall back on. Church leaders and teachers, both ancient and modern, are good people trying to teach us good things, but ultimately they cannot know the ins and outs of our individual situations, so the best they can ever do is provide guidelines. When it comes down to specifics of exactly what to do and exactly how to live, we have to make those choices ourselves.
Elder Ronald E Poelman of the 70 spoke about this in his conference talk The Church and the Gospel (from which I now quote extensively):
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a divine and perfect plan. It is composed of eternal, unchanging principles and laws which are universally applicable to every individual regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The principles of the gospel never change.Elder Poelman goes on to talk about Leviticus, which teaches such principles as revelation and caring for the poor, but also lays out policies such as that an employer must pay each of his workers at the end of every day (which obviously is something that has changed with time). Then he continues:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a divine institution administered by the priesthood of God. The Church has authority to teach correctly the principles and doctrines of the gospel and to administer its essential ordinances.
The gospel is the substance of the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation. The Church is the delivery system that provides the means and resources to implement this plan in each individual's life.
Procedures, programs and policies are developed within the Church to help us realize gospel blessings according to our individual capacity and circumstances. Under divine direction, these policies, programs, and procedures do change from time to time as necessary to fulfill gospel purposes. Underlying every aspect of Church administration and activity are the revealed eternal principles [of the gospel] as contained in the scriptures.
As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs [to tell us what to do]. Our lives become gospel centered.
Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. Occasionally, such traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. Under such circumstances those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. In fact, the eternal principles of the gospel and the divinely inspired Church do accommodate a broad spectrum of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity.
It is important therefore to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging [and] universally applicable, and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.
The source of this perspective is found in the scriptures…[as the gospel] is taught by various messengers at different times and places. In the scriptures we discover that varying institutional forms, procedures, regulations and ceremonies are utilized, all divinely designed to implement eternal principles. The practices and procedures change; the principles do not.
Through scripture study we may learn eternal principles and how to distinguish them from and relate them to institutional resources. As we liken the scriptures unto ourselves we can better utilize the institutional resources of the modern restored Church to learn, live and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Every church member has not only the opportunity, right, and privilege to receive a personal witness regarding gospel principles and Church practices, but has the need and obligation to obtain such assurance by exercising his free agency, thereby fulfilling one purpose of his mortal probation.
It all comes back to personal revelation. We need personal revelation to assist us in separating gospel from tradition, and in receiving individualized direction for our lives. Doctrine & Covenants 58:27 repeats Elder Poelman’s conclusion, saying that “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” The church is here to administer the gospel on the earth, but the core of the gospel—true discipleship—is something that must be found, understood, and lived individually; not by being caught up in checklists, but by seeking understanding and truth, heeding the spirit, and showing love.
Finally, when we know what we should be doing, we have to do it! In his talk The Pathway of Discipleship Neal A Maxwell said “The divine attributes of love, mercy, patience, meekness, purity, and others are attributes we have been directed to develop in each of us—and they cannot be developed in the abstract. These require the clinical experiences.” We cannot develop them unless we practice them. In another talk on discipleship, Neal A Maxwell also said that “the more we become like Jesus, the more we come to know Him." (Becoming a Disciple) And so it is cyclical: as we follow Jesus, we come to know Him, and as we come to know Him, we are better able to follow Him.