Editor’s note: In a Relief Society lesson several weeks ago, our instructor shared some beautiful insights her brother shared in a talk given years ago. I asked if he would be willing to share his talk here. On this general conference weekend, I’m grateful to Stephen R. Thomas for letting me post his testimony of the power of grace and the Atonement. I echo his testimony about the power and importance of leaning into grace and finding rest as we seek guidance from divinely-called prophets.
~by Stephen R. Thomas
We are all preparing to listen to general conference [this weekend] to hear what our prophet and apostles and other leaders have to say to us. While many of us will receive their messages with joy and enjoyment, others of us may find ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, inwardly resisting some aspects of what is said. I have experienced hearing the words of our leaders in both states of mind, and I believe that the difference lies in…the degree of our understanding of the Savior’s atoning role in our salvation.
Let me begin by describing a little of my own history with hearing our prophet and other leaders at conference. As a child, I enjoyed conference quite a bit because it meant that we could go to church in the family room dressed in our pajamas while eating fresh-baked muffins. Always the musician, I also thought I did a pretty good job of conducting the Tabernacle Choir from the sofa. As I got older, though, and listened more carefully, I noticed that there were a lot of instructions in the talks, and I tried to understand what I was supposed to do to follow them. Eventually, I started to feel like maybe there were a few too many good ideas to incorporate in my life all at once, but also felt like I needed to do it anyway. I did my best, but eventually I started to feel discouraged by listening to conference. By the time I was a teen, it seemed that I could never keep up with what I perceived was being asked, and it felt like one big guilt trip. I still dutifully did what I could, but felt burdened until enough time had gone by that I more or less fell back into my usual routine and forgot about it until the next conference.
This pattern continued for a long time. I still remember the shock I felt one day when, in anticipating the next conference, one of my friends said that for him conference was just like Christmas. I stared at him in disbelief, and thought something must be wrong with me. I had a testimony, but I felt completely unable to live up to what I thought the messages were telling me, and so I felt more dread than joyous anticipation of conference.
Later on, however, I realized that there was a very important ingredient missing in my gospel understanding. I was always drawn to the Savior’s words 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.” I loved these words, and longed to feel what the Savior described, yet I felt far too often that doing everything right in the church was more of a burden than a blessing, and I felt in fact heavy laden by the things I perceived I was to do in order to “come unto Him.” I asked myself: If this is what it means to come to Him, how could his yoke be called “easy” or “light?” The lists of all I felt I had to do were endless, and that I could endlessly be doing them all better: home teaching, service projects, callings, fulfilling my role as a husband, father and breadwinner, paying tithing and offerings, attending all kinds of church meetings, keeping all of the rules of thoughts and behavior that we as church members do as we strive to observe the 13th article of faith and other commandments, staying fit and healthy, loving my enemies, being kind and patient, seeking that which is praiseworthy, and on and on. It seemed that conference just added more things to the list or pointed out the ways in which my attempts to keep up with everything I was already trying to do were inadequate.
So what did the Savior mean by “coming to Him” in order to find rest? I thought, wow, I could use some rest! And yet I couldn’t imagine that he meant “Come unto me and don’t bother with the commandments. In fact, take a few days off from your duties.” There had to be something more to what this scripture meant.
Through much time spent in soul searching and prayer, I eventually understood what was missing: even though I believed in the gospel and had a testimony, I really had not fully understood what was needed. I had not experienced what the scriptures called conversion or being born again. (Mosiah 27:25-26). I was still laboring under the assumption that my spiritual success was all up to me and that I had to save myself primarily through my own efforts. I saw Jesus Christ as a somewhat distant figure who we were supposed to imitate strictly on our own power. I had not yet understood that the way to accomplish the way back home to our Father in Heaven was not through mere outward compliance, which would always be inadequate, but through a complete inner change of heart. This is described in Mosiah 5:2 as those listening to King Benjamin exclaimed that they were converted “because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”
I did not understand that it was hopeless to attempt to live the gospel without this change that could only be wrought through the Spirit and that neither I nor anyone could ever do enough or be enough on my own to succeed. No wonder I felt burdened by the messages I perceived in conference! I was trying to do what they asked without the complete transformation brought about by the Atonement and without the aid of grace, the very real and enabling power of Christ that comes to those who receive him. What I learned was that the source of power to do his will was missing, because I was trying to create it on my own instead of turning fully to Him.
To use an analogy, I realized that the way I had long managed my spiritual life was essentially the equivalent to pushing a car through the desert, hoping to make it to my destination through sheer determination and muscle. This kind of work is slow and discouraging. With this approach, you notice the heat, the thirst, the dust, the scorpions, and the pebbles in your shoes, as well as the long-term futility of your efforts. You keep slogging along while thinking, “I’ll never get there!”
On the other hand, receiving the Savior completely into our hearts and understanding through the Spirit his role in our salvation is like putting gas in the engine of our spiritual car…suddenly the car seems to go on its own, and our position changes from the one pushing to the one steering. Our effort is transformed into making choices at the wheel to stay on the right road, which means listening to him and his servants. But the car flies along compared to our first approach and we start suddenly to see that the scenery in our journey is beautiful and we feel closer and closer to our ultimate destination.
Still, even once I understood what was missing, I found that I didn’t know how, in practical terms, to let the Savior into my heart and to access His grace. I was so used to feeling responsible and burdened, I didn’t know how to let go and let Him change me. I didn’t trust that if I stopped pushing, and got in the car, He could and would make it go. While the process for me has been long and gradual and has taken a number of challenging turns, I realized that he meant what he said when he said in 3 Ne. 9:19-20: “And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…”
My self-sustained efforts to comply outwardly (and at times with a doubtful heart) with what I imagined the church to require were like those burnt offerings. They were unworthy of what the Lord has said he requires, which is the inward sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit. Only when we give him that can he give us what we need to come to Him: the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost which truly converts us. To do this, I have found that sincere prayer and long, frequent contemplation of gospel principles as given in the scriptures helps me to develop a true, inward humility, and allows my heart to become broken and my spirit contrite. As I have done so, I have felt the remarkable power of the Spirit burning within me, cleansing, and changing me and, most importantly, changing my desires, which in turn change my actions. The Spirit helps me move forward toward the final step of completely turning my will over to Him and letting him direct all my actions.
This transformation—which I would call true conversion—can happen to each of us as we seek to have the Spirit become fully present to guide and comfort us. I believe that the remarkable, transforming presence of the Holy Ghost is one of the most powerful ways in which God shows us his love, as it is in fact His actual presence in our physical and spiritual being. What better love can he show than by being with each of us at our very center? Once we feel and understand what it is telling us, it becomes a homing device, directing us in the path that leads to him. It is no accident that being fully present to one another is likewise how we best show love to our fellow beings. Our Heavenly Father does the same for us through sending us the Holy Ghost so we know He is there. And the Holy Ghost can only be with us as we let the Atonement clear the channels through which we feel it. As we feel its presence more fully, our hearts change, which leads our desires and actions to change and our lives naturally come into alignment with our Father’s will.
When we are converted in this way, or are in the process of understanding what true conversion means, we are prepared to hear the messages of conference in the spirit with which they are intended: We will understand the messages as evidence of our Father’s love for us as he desires above all for our success as the object of his work and glory in returning to Him. We will receive the messages not as bricks of burden put in the payload of our out-of-gas spiritual vehicles, but as spiritual fuel to speed us in our journey safely and joyously home to Him.