by Truman G. Madsen
As I approached the place with Elder Hugh B. Brown, I asked, "What are the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" Elder Brown thought a moment and answered in one word, "Posterity."
Then I almost burst out, "Why, then was Abraham commanded to go to Mount Moriah and offer his only hope of posterity?" It was clear that this man, nearly ninety, had already thought and prayed deeply over that question. He finally said, "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham."
You remember how the record speaks of the incredible promise that Abraham, after years of barrenness - which in some ways was the greatest of curses to the Israelites - would sire a son who would in turn sire sons and become the father of nations. This came about after Abraham had left a culture where human sacrifice was performed. Abraham was then commanded to take this miracle son up to the mount.
Scholars are widely split over this account. At one extreme they say this is an allegory. They say we have here a description of the internal struggle that Abraham went through in trying to leave behind his boyhood training in human sacrifice. But God would not actually require such a thing. One man put it to me this way, "That is a terrible way to test a man. A loving God would not do it."
My testimony is that in modern times, we have been taught that this story does not simply lie in our collective remote past but in our own individual futures.
As modern revelation states, we must be "chastened and tried, even as Abraham" (D&C 101:4). Do you remember how after that more than 900-mile march from Kirtland to Missouri, which we call Zion's Camp - a march that from all mortal appearances achieved nothing, someone came to Brigham Young and asked, "What did you get out of that fiasco?" He replied, "Everything we went for - experience."
He could say that, because only hours before, he had been with the Prophet Joseph in a meeting where the Prophet had declared in substance,
"Brethren, some of you are angry with me because you did not fight in Missouri. But let me tell you, God did not want you to fight. He wanted to develop a core of men 'who had offered their lives and who made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.' Now God has found his leaders, and those of you who are called to positions who have not made that sacrifice will be required to make it hereafter" (DHC, II, p. 182).There is the recorded testimony of Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor, who described the Kirtland Temple experience - an outpouring of the Spirit, so rich that some of those who were there thought the Millennium was being ushered in, for they were so filled with the spirit of blessing and love.
In that setting, the prophet arose and said,
"Brethren, this is the Lord that is with us, but trials lie ahead. Brethren [he was speaking to the Twelve], God will feel after you, and he will wrench your very heartstrings. If you cannot stand it, you will not be fit for the kingdom of God."All too prophetic was that statement. Half of the original Council of Twelve later, as the Prophet put it, "lifted up the heel" against him and against Christ. Four others were at least temporarily disaffected. Only two, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimiball, did not buckle under the pressure, and they were severely tried.
Let us look at the implications for us. We live in a time when many are saying we need commitment, total commitment, a "risk-everything" kind of commitment. But on the question, "To what does one commit?" often vagaries are all that are offered.
Someone asked me once, "What is the definition of a fanatic?" I answered in Santayana's phrase, "A fanatic is a person who doubles his speed when he has lost his direction."
But what about a person who doubles and quadruples his effort when he has found his direction? That is commitment.
We have been told that we are of Abraham. We are his children. And those of us who have joined the Church by conversion are just as much Abraham's seed as those who are born into the covenant (See D&C 84:33-34).
But those who are Abraham's descendants must also bear the responsibility of Abraham (See D&C 132:30-32).
We live in a time when it's very popular to speak about rights, but it is rare to hear any mention of duty and responsibility. There never was a right, I submit, that did not have a corresponding duty. There never was a duty that did not also eventually entail a right.
We talk often as if the priesthood is solely a privilege. But it is also a burden, and many who have lived long in this Church know there are times when the priesthood is much duty and very little right.
You see, it is not just a matter of following the request to give a spectacular amount. What if you are called to give less than you are able to give? What if your calling is to not be called? What if you are told only to wait for a decision and be patient?
Someone was complaining about how difficult it was to follow a certain leader. In answer to this complaint, J. Golden Kimball, says the legend, replied, “Well some of them are sent to lead us and some of them are sent to try us.”
After the laughter and delight of that statement passes, the truth of it becomes apparent. All of us are sent to lead and to try each other. And the priesthood is given to try us to the core because of what it demands of us.
May I speak for a moment, about some modern examples? You are aware that the Donner party who, in the terror of their traumatic journey west, lapsed into cannibalism. Not so with these Latter-day Saints. Some of them froze or starved to death. Some of them died in each other’s arms. Some died with their hands frozen to the crossbar, but always with their faces west.
Then there were the three young men – Brother Huntington, Brother Grant, Brother Kimball – all only eighteen years of age, who went with the relief party the second thousand miles to help with the Martin Handcart Company.
On this trip they faced a stream that was swollen with ice and snow. Have you ever walked, even to the knee level, through such water? The pioneers almost hopelessly stood back, unable to go through in their weakened and emaciated condition.
Those three boys disregarded their own lives and carried every one of the company across and then crossed back, sometimes in water up to their waists. When Brother Brigham heard this, he wept and then rose in the majesty of his spirit and said, “God will exalt those three young men in the celestial kingdom of God.”
What about Brother Helaman Pratt, who had been in four states – driven from all of them – and who now had a toehold with an adobe house in the valley. Brigham Young called him in and said, “Brother Pratt, we are calling you to colonize in Mexico. You will be released when you die. God bless you.”
Brother Pratt went. He was released when he died. One of the great things that came out of that Nazareth was a man named Henry Eyring.
There are sacrifices. But the prophets again and again insist that we ought to use a different word. How can it be called a sacrifice to yield up a handful of dust when what is promised is a whole earth?
But we think we know better than God. We think that what we want for us is greater than what he wants for us. Then we simply violate the first commandment, which is to love God first and above all.
When we are ready, he seeks from us the one thing we want, most of all, not to give up. Many of us will say we don't have that kind of faith. But I submit to you that you cannot have that kind of faith until you pass that kind of test.
Now we are back to the wise statement of Elder Hugh B. Brown: “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.”
What did he learn? He learned that he did love God unconditionally, that God could now bless him unconditionally.
John Taylor said the Prophet taught that if God could have found a deeper way to test Abraham he would have used that (See JD 24:264).
As Paul looked back and wondered how Abraham's willingness could be accounted for such righteousness, he saw that Abraham believed Jehovah could raise his son from the dead if necessary in order to fulfill the promise, which that unthinkable scene of sacrifice would have contradicted. And that is what God did ultimately with his own Son. (See Hebrews 11:19)
Brothers and sisters, all about us there are quibblings, demeanings, oppositions, negations, shrinkings. But I, as one who has feet of clay that go all the way to my waist, bear my testimony that God's love for us cries out for us to prove our love for him.
He cannot bless us until we have been proved, cannot even pull out of us the giant spirit in us unless we let him.
If we come offering what we think he wants, without having testimony that we are doing what he really does want, we are not yet prepared.
I bear testimony that joy can attend us even in the midst of such sacrifice. It comes when we know that we are acting under the will of Christ.
There is also the testimony that he delights, he rejoices, with a power that is born out of his own descent into pain when we thus respond.
May God help us to respond and become sons of Abraham.
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