Understanding Covenants

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This is a talk prepared for Sunday, February 17, 2019. Because of lack of time in the meeting, not all of the talk was delivered.

My name is Jeffrey Thayne. Most of you know my wife, Shelby, and many of you have had the good fortune of knowing the two forces of nature we call Forrest and Penny. We have lived in this ward for almost 3 years now, and we love being members of this community.

Today, I have been invited to talk on the subject of keeping our covenants with God. In my overly ambitious way, I’ve laid out six principles that inform how I understand covenants in my own life.

(1) Human beings thrive when placed in a context of moral duty

Modern individualism teaches us that we thrive when we are set free from the burdens of duty, obligation, or commitment. I believe the opposite is true. For example, I believe one of the great privileges of marriage and parenthood is that they place me in a position where I am no longer the center of my universe. In this way, marriage and parenthood changes the way we think, the very people we are.

When you are first learning to fly a kite, you might think that the only thing that is keeping a kite from soaring into the sky is the string that is holding it back. Yet if you cut the string, the kite will immediately plummet to the ground. Similarly, we might think that our commitments and responsibilities are keeping us from our true potential. But our moral development, our spiritual development, depend on responsibility and commitment. It is built into our very nature.

This is why I believe that human beings thrive best when they make and keep sacred covenants with God. These covenants place upon us duties and responsibilities beyond ourselves, and give us occasion to set aside our own self interests in pursuit of callings and responsibilities given to us from God.

(2) Our moral agency is connected to the covenants we make with God

Moral agency is more than merely choosing between two arbitrary options — it is choosing between options that have a moral valence, a right and wrong beyond our own making. And this is why covenants are the bread and butter of moral agency.

Let me use an example. It is no secret that Latter-day Saints do not drink coffee or alcohol. But it would be a mistake to think that this means drinking coffee is an inherently evil thing. This is important, because I have had friends ask questions like, “I know people who drink coffee and alcohol, and smoke, and yet they are wonderful human beings! I don’t understand why we focus on outward trivialities like diet and smoking habits, instead of on the heart.”

The truth is, many great and wonderful people haven’t made the same commitments to God that we have. For most people in the world, there is no inherent moral evil in drinking coffee, or even alcohol in moderation, any more than any other unhealthy habit. But because Latter-day Saints have made covenants with God that include keeping the Word of Wisdom, our choices on these matters have a moral valence for us that they don’t have for others.

Why is it, then, that we have made these commitments? Because as Latter-day Saints, we aspire to be more than good people. We aspire to be a covenant people. We aspire to be God’s people. And taking upon us the name of Christ means stepping into norms and commitments that differentiate us as members of the body of Christ. And we don’t have to see these commitments — even when they seem like “trivialities” — as stifling or burdensome.

Instead, we can see them as an expansion of our moral agency. Because we have made covenants with God, we can now demonstrate our loyalty to God in more ways than we could before. We can, in this sense, say that we now have even more moral agency than we did before, more occasions to choose between right and wrong, more opportunities to set aside our own interests and priorities and advance in our journey to becoming like Christ.

(3) Our covenants with God makes us, in a very real sense, the family of Christ

When talking with those who are unfamiliar with our faith, we sometimes compare covenants to a contract. This analogy highlights the two-way nature of the agreement. We pledge our fidelity to God, and He promises us blessings. But all metaphors have their limits, and the same is true of this one. Contracts document the legal entitlements of either party in an exchange of goods and services, in order to ensure legal remedy in the case of non-compliance.

In so many ways, covenants are not like this. Making and keeping covenants with God is much more like an adoption. In an adoption, parents undertake a commitment to care for, protect, teach, discipline, and love their children. If in a spoiled fit a child runs away from home, the parents do not void the contract and withdraw their care and support, as they might in a mere contractual agreement. If the child returns home, the parents will not act like total strangers, but will welcome and reconcile with them instead.

Sometimes when we mess up in our lives, we wonder if we have voided God’s promises to us, and feel unworthy of returning to the Church and participating in this community. But if we think of it like an adoption, we can see why it isn’t like that at all. Our bad actions may alienate us from our family, but they do not sever the bonds that make us family. The same is true for our relationship with God. When we find ourselves in need of repentance and forgiveness, He continually, ceaselessly strives to draw us back.

(4) Ministering is a matter of keeping our covenants

We sometimes think of covenants in terms of the “thou shalt nots” of the Word of Wisdom or the law of chastity. However, the recent focus on ministering is really all about keeping our covenants with God. When we took the sacrament 15 minutes ago, we pledged to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, which — I believe — means making ministerial service to others a centerpiece of our lives and priorities.

I’m convinced that the single best thing each one of us can do this week to keep our covenants with God is to identify someone in our ministerial stewardship that we do not know as well as we’d like, and to pick up the phone and call them. To ask them over for dinner. To invite them to a game night. To seek them out at Church and learn what makes them excited to get up in the morning, what they are passionate about, what they struggle with, and in every other way find a place for them in our lives and in our hearts.

(5) Our covenants do not guarantee us a life without difficulty

This is another way in which covenants are more like an adoption than a contract. Our pledge to bear one another’s burdens, to take upon us the name of Christ and remember Him, should not be made conditional on anticipated blessings. If, in our finite understanding (and sometimes in our misunderstanding), our lives do not unfold as we expect, this does not absolve us of our fidelity to God or negate the eternal covenants we have made.

We all face unexpected disappointments, where we find need for endless patience in the face of adversity we feel we don’t deserve. We will not always recognize the hand of God in our lives when we see it. In fact, sometimes the hand of God looks very much like the things we dread the most. I’m persuaded that every walk with Christ leads through Gethsemane, where we find ourselves asking, as Christ did, “If it be thy will, take this cup from me.”

If we are to become like Christ and like our Father in Heaven, we must take upon ourselves all the attributes of Christ, and this includes, to some degree, His suffering on behalf of those we love and cherish. We must learn to love as they do — to love and care so deeply, so immensely, that we weep with the heavens themselves when those we love suffer, and especially when they alienate themselves from God and cut themselves off from truest joys of discipleship. Our heritage is to become as acquainted with grief as they are, if we are to become joint-heirs with Christ in the kingdom of heaven.

(6) Our covenants point us to Christ

Our covenants with God do not save us. Merely living differently from the rest of the world does not qualify us for heaven. It is Christ who saves us from our sins and qualifies us for heaven. If our covenants do not put us in a saving relationship with Christ, where we learn to depend on Him for salvation, then they are empty and without effect in our lives.

King Benjamin taught, “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.” And it is through covenant that we take upon us Christ’s name. And it is by keeping our covenants that we become like Christ and take up the salvation He offers us.

To recap, then, I want to share my witness of these 6 principles:

  1. Like kites in the sky, we need an anchor, and covenants serve as that anchor.
  2. Our moral agency is extended and expanded by the covenants we make.
  3. Our covenants with God make us part of the family of Christ.
  4. Ministerial service is a matter of keeping covenants.
  5. Our covenant walk with Christ is not on the yellow brick road, but the path through Gethsemane.
  6. Our covenants point us to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, and the only name under which we can be saved.

I want to share my witness that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. It is through His grace that we are saved. I know this not because I have met Him, but because I have felt his sacrifice work miracles in my heart. It is only because of His ongoing grace that I am continually able to repent, to forgive, to shed the layers upon layers of sin that hold me back. I know that His grace is available for all of us, and that by taking the sacrament weekly, remembering Him, taking upon ourselves His name in word and deed, we can become transformed by that grace.

And I share that witness in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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