Friday, March 12, 2010

Character and Promises

There aren’t many transcendent things that we take seriously these days. And many of the things we do think are important occupy only a small part of our lives. Most of what we do revolves around employment, entertainment and the constant juggling of immediate priorities. Sadly none of these commitments necessarily leads us to the building of character - a concern that used to preoccupy the greatest individuals of history.

It isn’t really obvious how transcendence and the building of character are related. The key to understanding how they are linked lies in the way that we keep promises. Bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll try to explain.

I first became aware of the empowering nature of promises from Stephen R. Covey, many years ago. He mentioned that one could gain self-confidence by making a promise to oneself and then keeping it. He recommended starting with small promises in order to be successful, then moving on to greater ones. I have thought about this often and, with varying degrees of success, have practiced the principle. I can speak from experience that Mr. Covey’s principle is a correct one.

I have also learned that it is a sad commentary on our society that this very important principle has been nearly forgotten. This is not just a new management gimmick (Covey never suggests that it is). It has been at the very core of our moral development for millennia. Sadly, we are more likely to regard the keeping of promises today if it leads to professional success rather than to moral excellence. When this happens we trivialize a transcendent process.

For example, it might be argued that we really do keep promises. We just don’t call them by that name. If my wife asks me to pick up a gallon of milk at the store, and I agree to do it, I have essentially made a promise. Our lives are filled with these kinds of agreements. How then can I say that we don’t make promises?

This is where a little bit of historic perspective is helpful. In the past, not all promises were the same. Simple neighborly promises - social courtesies - have certainly been part of our lives for a long time, just like they are today. If a lot was at stake, our ancestors learned to formalize promises into legally binding agreements - or contracts. We do the same today. But this was only a part of the promises our ancestors lived by.

The Old Testament and other early Near Eastern documents contain many examples of promises made to God. Many of these promises were binding. - meaning that consequences were specified if they were not kept. Oaths tended to be binding agreements spoken in a public place where God’s help was requisitioned after a petitioner kept a promise. A vow tended to be a promise made by a petitioner if God provided certain blessings.

Other promises included covenants which were formal and legally binding agreements between two parties, and could be religious or civic in nature. A pledge was another kind of formal promise between individuals. We have an analogous example in wedding rings. They are promissory in nature and much more formal than a promise to buy milk. All of these ancient promises to God were similarly binding.

The importance of these different kinds of promises is lost on most of us today. Sadly, this misunderstanding even affects the way we understand sacred texts. Written religious truths that have universal application are not understood as possible individual pledges to God. But they can be, and should be.

Take for example John 8:31-32: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This is an important conditional statement as it is written. But it has the potential of transforming one’s search for the truth if it were to be made a binding agreement between God and a sincere seeker of wisdom.

Another example, that is significant to my family, is Ether 12:27 (in The Book of Mormon). It was the favorite scripture of my grandmother - a Danish immigrant who in mid-life became paralyzed when a physician inadvertently cut her sciatic nerve:

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

The truths expressed in these verses are certainly truths for all people. But part of the reason that they are universal truths is because they have individual meaning in a broad number of circumstances. It is possible for someone to enter into one of these promises with God in a formal and individual way. The scriptures are full of these kinds of promises just waiting for those who wish to sanctify their lives.

Those that have formally joined a religion may not have realized that their initiation also involved a promise to God. This was a lot clearer historically before infant baptism became established - when promises to God were more important than institutionalized forms of worship. It isn’t clear in the Gospels that the Last Supper (when the sacrament was first offered) had anything at all to do with baptismal covenants. But the early Christians understood that it did.

Justin Martyr (in The First Apology of Justin, Chapter XLV, Administration of the Sacraments) wrote:

“But we … in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person … salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.”

In The Book of Mormon this relationship between the sacrament and baptism is even more clearly expressed (in 3 Nephi 18:3-5) where it is recorded how Jesus established the sacrament among the Nephites:

“And when the disciples had come with bread and wine, he took of the bread and brake and blessed it; and he gave unto the disciples and commanded that they should eat… [and said] there shall one be ordained among you, and to him will I give power that he shall break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church, unto all those who shall believe and be baptized in my name.”

Today we live in a time of great equalizing influences. This is a great boon to many people. Unfortunately, many of these same influences have become morally equalizing as well - diluting any lingering sense of divine involvement in our lives. In fact this equalizing epidemic has sapped many of us of any desire for personal excellence - of the desire to develop personal character. The corollary is that for those having little interest in developing character, the keeping of promises is of hardly any interest. And when we stop making and keeping promises, we cut ourselves off from most of what can be transcendent in our lives.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a great strength available to anyone who is willing to make and keep promises. Social promises are nice and usually easy to keep. They are a good place to start. Personal promises are more difficult – but also more rewarding. They are also much less common. This is the place where character is discovered and built.

But it is when personal promises become promises to God that the truly transforming – and transcendent - miracle occurs. This is the point of the Greek metanoia - the turning of our minds away from the world, towards God. It is the place of repentance.

True repentance is a promise kept. It is a promise kept to oneself and to God and is both the refining fire and the proof of real character. Those that remain true to these promises are the strongest individuals among us. Our fathers and mothers knew this. It was part of their understanding of character. We would be wise to follow their example.

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