Almost and Altogether Converted unto Christ
In Acts chapter 26, we read that, after Paul had borne testimony of his vision of Jesus, he asked, "King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am..."
Just as King Agrippa, by stopping short of altogether accepting the testimony of Jesus, missed out on the blessings he could have received, we, as Christians may miss out on blessings if we stop at "almost" in our gospel learning, activity and conversion.
In 2 Nephi chapter 28, verses 21 and 24, we read:
And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well--and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!
I love the clarity of verse 21 where it says that if we become complacent in our gospel living, "the devil cheateth [our] souls". What blessings are we cheating ourselves out of -- what blessings are we "almost" receiving because we stop at "almost"?
Do we "almost" hold family home evenings that are "almost" meaningful "almost" all the time? Do we "almost" read our scriptures daily, or "almost" ponder what we read? Do we "almost" pray every day, or "almost" listen for answers to our prayers? Do we "almost" pay our tithing? Do we "almost" visit our ministering families or "almost" take the time to tailor our message and service to their individual needs?
If so, like King Agrippa, we need to go a step further and altogether embrace the instruction the Lord has given us so that we can fully receive the blessings.
Let me share a few examples from the scriptures of people who stopped at "almost".
The Book of Ether tells about how the Lord led the Jaredites away from the Tower of Babel and was going to lead them to a promised land. In chapter 2, we read that:
...the Lord did bring Jared and his brethren forth even to that great sea which divideth the lands. And as they came to the sea they pitched their tents; and they called the name of the place Moriancumer; and they dwelt in tents ... upon the seashore for the space of four years. And it came to pass at the end of four years that the Lord came again unto the brother of Jared, and stood in a cloud and talked with him. And for the space of three hours did the Lord talk with the brother of Jared, and chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.
The Jaredites had been given some great promises. And they started on their journey. But along the way, they must have come to a fairly nice place, and they became complacent. They spent 4 years "at ease in Zion", almost, but not altogether following the Lord to the promised land. Until they altogether finished the journey, they could never receive the greatest blessings that awaited them.
Next, in Revelation 3:15-17, the Lord said to the Laodicieans:
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
These people weren't chastised for doing anything particularly wicked, like the people of several other cities were in the book of Revelation. Perhaps they had been righteous and had been blessed for their righteousness. But they had stopped at "almost" instead of continuing to progress.
Getting from "almost" to "altogether" isn't a one time event. It's a lifelong process. How many times have we heard the apostles or prophets speak of how they were reading the scriptures or attending the temple and they learned something new? As many times as they've done those things, and as close to the spirit as they are, you might wonder what they still have to learn. If even they are not yet "altogether" complete in their understanding of the gospel, then however much we may know, we're surely still only "almost", and need to keep learning and changing.
Most of the time, learning something new isn't a matter of discovering a big gospel principle that we'd never imagined before, but of deepening our understanding and appreciation of something we already know.
When Elder Robbins of the Seventy visited our stake when our current stake presidency was called, he shared with us several experiences he had had in the church and as a parent, and the gospel lessons they had taught him. The most powerful and memorable impression that I came away from that meeting with was that, as we seek throughout our lives to live not "almost", but "altogether" as the Lord wants us to, our understanding of the gospel continues to be refined in ways that were completely invisible to us before.
The core principles of the gospel are not difficult to grasp. But when we first learn them, our understanding is like like large, rough stones. If we put them in a bucket, we can pretty well fill the bucket up without much trouble. Likewise, it's not difficult to learn the foundational principles that form the great bulk of the gospel.
But that doesn't mean we're done.
The next things we learn are like adding smaller pebbles to the bucket, filling up the spaces around and between the main principles. Once there's no more room for pebbles, we may feel that we have a pretty good understanding of the gospel. And if we don't look closer, we may live our whole gospel lives at the pebble level.
But if we do look closer, we see that there's still plenty of room between the pebbles for even smaller rocks, and then sand, and after that, water. We're not discovering new big principles -- instead, we're refining our understanding of what we've already learned.
And so we keep on adding more and more to our gospel bucket. Like the apostles and prophets, in this life, we will never grow beyond the need to continue refining our knowledge and perfecting our discipleship.
Doctrine and Covenants section 131 verse 7 says, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;" Similarly, as we grow spiritually, we will come to see knowledge and behavior that once felt smooth to us -- that once felt pretty close to perfect -- as course and rough, because now we see with purer eyes.
Have you ever heard someone share a scripture that had deep meaning for them and thought, "yeah, that's pretty basic. But I guess if it's new to you, it might be exciting"? If so, that may be a good indication that you haven't yet seen that gospel principle at the "sand" or "water" level of clarity. When we fully understand the truths that God gives us, then we value even the simple principles more, because even the simplest principles bring powerful blessings into our lives.
With all the depth of understanding that's available to us in the gospel, it's fortunate that the gospel is not like nuclear physics, where to be of much use, you have to know all the detailed stuff. With the gospel, you can start with nothing more than your conscience -- the Light of Christ -- and if you follow it, you're doing exactly what our Father in Heaven desires. Next, you learn about and gain a testimony of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. As you follow those principles, even in your first, rough efforts, you're following the path that leads to eternal life. As time goes by, your understanding deepens, and all the way along, as you embrace the light and truth that you've been given, though you aren't yet perfect, you can still be "altogether" on the path that God wants you to follow.
What are some of the reasons why we stop at "almost", that we get set in our ways and stop progressing in the gospel?
Sometimes, it's because we just don't realize that there's anything more available. If we've never seen the destination, not only do we not know how to get there, but we don't even know there's a there to get to. However, if we "altogether" live the principles that we have been given, we will have the spirit with us, and it will show us the next level. If we're just "almost", we're like those spoken of at the end of 2 Nephi 28:30, which says:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
We can never stop and be satisfied with "almost" understanding the gospel.
Another reason why we sometimes hold back is that we don't want to give up genuinely good things in our lives to make room for best things of the gospel. The difference between "almost" and "altogether" is often a question of priorities. In the October 2007 General Conference, Dallin H. Oaks gave a powerful talk on priorities, discussing things that are "good", "better" and "best". He said:
Most of us have more things expected of us than we can possibly do. As breadwinners, as parents, as Church workers and members, we face many choices on what we will do with our time and other resources.
We should begin by recognizing the reality that just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.
So we can be doing good things, and still not be "altogether" on the right path if we're allowing them to crowd out the best things. Part of the refinement that we're going through in life comes through becoming more sensitive to the difference between what is good and what is best, and by focusing our time and attention on what is best.
Sometimes this requires sacrifice. On the other hand, "altogether" isn't always more than "almost". Elder Oaks said:
The instruction to magnify our callings is not a command to embellish and complicate them. To innovate does not necessarily mean to expand; very often it means to simplify.
In his talk, Elder Oaks gave several examples of how the "best" or "altogether" things are often not things to be done in addition to everything else, but a refinement of the "good" or "almost" things. He said:
It is good to belong to our Father in Heaven's true Church and to keep all of His commandments and fulfill all of our duties. But if this is to qualify as "best," it should be done with love and without arrogance. We should, as we sing in a great hymn, "crown [our] good with brotherhood," showing love and concern for all whom our lives affect.
To our hundreds of thousands of home teachers and visiting teachers, I suggest that it is good to visit our assigned families; it is better to have a brief visit in which we teach doctrine and principle; and it is best of all to make a difference in the lives of some of those we visit. That same challenge applies to the many meetings we hold--good to hold a meeting, better to teach a principle, but best to actually improve lives as a result of the meeting.
As we continue our life-long progress in the gospel, much of what we learn is simply how to do what we do better.
And Elder Oaks had more good news for those who are afraid that the "best" things may be too difficult, expensive, or time consuming for us. He said:
A friend took his young family on a series of summer vacation trips, including visits to memorable historic sites. At the end of the summer he asked his teenage son which of these good summer activities he enjoyed most. The father learned from the reply, ... "The thing I liked best this summer," the boy replied, "was the night you and I laid on the lawn and looked at the stars and talked." Super family activities may be good for children, but they are not always better than one-on-one time with a loving parent.
In the family, what gets us beyond "almost" and helps us progress is often simply whatever brings us "all together".
One more reason why we may hold back at "almost" instead of "altogether" committing to our Heavenly Father is the fear that we simply aren't good enough.
The bad news is that it's true. None of us is good enough to obey all the commandments perfectly.
The good news is that God prepared a plan to make it possible for us to succeed despite our weaknesses. We may not have the power, but through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we can be empowered to do more than we could ever hope to do on our own. If we stop at "almost" because of fear of our own inadequacy, it's because we have failed to understand the power that's available to each and every one of us through the atonement.
I'd like to finish by mentioning a few tools that we can use to help us to continue a life of gospel growth, to focus on what's best, and to move from almost to altogether in our gospel commitment.
The first is scheduling.
Most of us have fairly well established routines that our lives follow. There may be some variety, but we tend to make room for the same things every week or every month. If there's a "best" thing that we need to incorporate into our lives, one obstacle we'll need to overcome is the fact that there's no room for it in our current schedule.
If we simply decide we should do it, but don't reserve a specific time to get it done -- if we don't consciously displace something less important to make room -- then the message we're sending ourselves is that it's not important enough to disrupt our regular routine for. This makes it much more difficult to muster the willpower to do it. If, on the other hand, we explicitly reserve a time for it, it's much easier at that time to simply do it.
One example that's helped me in the past has been setting up a regular schedule for ministering visits, like the second Sunday of every month. There will be months when the schedule needs to be changed, and of course, ministering isn't fully accomplished with a single monthly visit. But agreeing on a specific day goes a long way toward ensuring that regular visits get made, which goes a long way toward ensuring that the goals of ministering are accomplished.
Scheduling enthrones important things as a part of the regular rhythm of your life.
The second tool is habits.
We often think of habits as bad things, but they can also be good. A good habit is simply a good thing that you've made a part of you. Things that are hard without habits, because they require the constant exercise of willpower, become the new path of least resistance once we've carefully cultivated them as a part of who we are.
Like a child learning to walk, as we develop the habit, it gets easier, so then we can move on to learning new things, and our lives can keep improving.
The first tool, scheduling, can help us develop new good habits.
Of course, once we've established a habit, we shouldn't stop at "almost" and never improve in that area again. A person who has learned to walk can still improve that skill by learning to dance or develop an athletic ability. That's the refinement of the larger principle that brings even greater blessings.
Finally, the most important tool in our life-long gospel growth, is carefully inviting the spirit of God into our lives by keeping the commandments, honoring the covenants we've made, and earnestly seeking it. Through the spirit, the atonement becomes active in our lives, empowering us to grow far beyond anything we could ever hope to accomplish on our own.
The power of the atonement can change your life. It can change your nature. Even if your entire life has been plagued by some weakness or another, you are not doomed to be an "almost" kind of person. Jesus Christ has the power to perfect you. We just need to keep trying to be "altogether" his disciples, and he will give us the help that we need.