Elder Christofferson: The Power of Covenants

Divine covenants make strong Christians.

–Elder D. Todd Christofferson, 4 April 2009

One of the recurring themes of this conference–not just Elder Christofferson’s talk, but Elder Oaks, Elder Bednar, and others–was the importance of temple worship. Elder Christofferson begins with a story, of a woman in Chincha, Peru, beset with tragedy–the lost of a home and material possessions in an unusually powerful earthquake–yet firm in faith, composure, perspective, and even a kind of self-mastery ( the absence of which would probably render me hysterically dysfunctional). “I have prayed and I am at peace….We have each other, we have our children, we are sealed in the temple, we have this marvelous Church, and we have the Lord.” Elder Christofferson moves from this salient example into generalizations about the kinds of trials we, as LDS, will likely face in life: personal tragedy and temptation, moral relativism and militant atheism. Importantly, though, the opening story furnishes an example not so much of the hardships that threaten us, but of the “profound power” and “spiritual strength” that so many of the saints experience throughout the world.

The nature of this moral and spiritual power is not clear. But its source is God, and we access it not just through faith, commitment to doctrinal principles, accepting Jesus as our personal Savior, paying tithing, or attending Church but through the covenants we make and keep with Him–covenants we enact and embrace in the waters of baptism and in the temple. They are administered by the priesthood–indeed, they are the very purpose of priesthood. The making and keeping of covenants open conduits through which God’s power gains direct access to us, sanctifying, sustaining, and exalting us, a real, deeply-felt, meaningful power in the face of equally real, and sometimes overwhelming or devastating, power.

This power of God is made manifest through the Holy Ghost/Spirit which we elect to receive through covenant, and which transforms us–as individuals and as a community–into something sacred, literally walling us off from the destructive influence of the world, consecrating and sanctifying us as a people. And as the Holy Spirit is a sanctifying agent, entering our lives and our selves and rendering us sacred, so we, under its divine influence, become agents in the creation of sacred space, ourselves manifesting to others the power of God, His love, and conferring upon them a source of strength. Our bodies filled with the sanctifying influence of God’s Spirit, we become the Body of Christ, members of a sacred community, “powerful instruments for good” in God’s hands.

On the surface, the talk feels a bit old hat, and a lesson on facing adversity would hardly be complete without a token reference to the persecutions of Paul. Yet bringing the story of Paul into his sermon augments the immediacy by closing a textual gap: placing the image of an ancient Apostle not confounded before his worldly enemies alongside an image of a confidant woman whose strength, sense of purpose, and human dignity cannot be vanquished by even the most violent, devastating calamities.

He closes with an unusually focused, almost technical testimony, and his departure here from the standard talking points (Thomas S. Monson is a living prophet, First Vision, etc.) empowers his specific claim: “I testify that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is found the priesthood authority to administer the ordinances by which we can enter into binding covenants with our Heavenly Father in the name of His Son.”

About a year ago, I accepted a calling to serve as an ordinance worker in the Detroit temple. Once a week, I make a 45-minute drive and spend the evening immersed in the sacred space reserved for binding, divine covenants and vicarious service. Mormon intellectuals are often fond of describing how their testimonies are complex and nuanced, how belief in this or that doctrinal proposition or organizational principle are complicated by their heroically complicated worldview (“well, what does it really mean to say he is a prophet?”; “what are we really talking about when we say ‘historicity’ of the Book of Mormon?”; “how can a ‘church’ be true?”). And, of late, various corners of the naccle abound with heated discussion about what kind of Mormon, what kind of belief, what kind of public declarations of faith, what kind of commitment are the right kinds (or the wrong kinds).

I’ll try to steer clear of such trainwreckery here; and while it’s not especially common to close a blog post with a testimony, given the genre mix of this particular little essay, I leave you the following–and note that the region of my faith perhaps least determined by my intellectual life, most mysterious, even a bit mystical, is also the most unambiguous:

Whatever the precise nature of the power that flows from the temple into my life and the life of my family, it is real. If nothing else I can describe it as what is manifestly absent in the times when I am unable to attend. I’m certain of it. The sealing power found in the temple, at the hands of quiet, mild-mannered old men not otherwise encumbered with administrative duties, is real, perhaps the most real power any of us will encounter in mortality. And I genuinely believe, however else one might define his position, office, power, or authority, that President Monson is the only person living with the keys to unlocking that power in the lives of people throughout an otherwise uncertain world.

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Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Wonderful.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    When I heard this sermon it reminded me of his speech from last October, especially this part:

    If we would establish Zion in our homes, branches, wards, and stakes, we must rise to this standard. It will be necessary (1) to become unified in one heart and one mind; (2) to become, individually and collectively, a holy people; and (3) to care for the poor and needy with such effectiveness that we eliminate poverty among us. We cannot wait until Zion comes for these things to happen—Zion will come only as they happen.

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    Awesome, Brad.

    I thanks you kindly and at this moment I also love you as a brother. ~

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Brad, my mannish love for you extends deeper all the time. I do agree that the making of covenants is the key to the Priesthood. There’s a miraculous element to Priesthood power, sure, but the contractual binding is what really matters IMO.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    4. Steve — I would be careful with the use of “contractual” binding, as it suggests that we mortals have the capacity to have a meeting of the minds with the Lord God Almighty.

    While I revere the notion of making covenantal commitments to God, it is always with the understanding that His thoughts are not my thoughts, and His ways are not my ways, and that while I may understand generally what I am offering when making a covenant, it is through a dark glass only by which I can anticipate what He offers in return (other than His perfect love and His promise of eternal life).

  6. “They are administered by the priesthood–indeed, they are the very purpose of priesthood.”

    I really like that.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Antonio, I’m not speaking out of bounds here. It’s fairly scriptural to say that there are mutual promises connected with the keeping of priesthood covenants. Your parenthetical delineates the most important of these on God’s side, in fact. No need to completely know the mind of God for those promises to be effective.

  8. Kristine says:

    Steve, I don’t think it’s “out of bounds” to speak of contracts, but I think Nate Oman is persuasive on the different nature of covenants and contracts.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Kristine, you don’t have to be Nate Oman to know the difference between a covenant and a contract. But in my view most of the priesthood covenants we undertake are in the context of greater mutual promises, so I tend to view them as elements of a contractual framework, albeit a loose one.

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve:

    There is something lofty about the word “covenant” in a religious context that suggests something deeper than the word “contract”, the latter of which has too many commercial implications for my comfort level..

    With respect to the mutuality of promises between God and man, we come to the table as beggers, and, in a legal sense, have little to offer by way of consideration. God makes a broad and gracious promise to offer all that He has to the “overcomers”, and, in reliance upon those promises, and, hopefully, being motivated by love and a desire to be in His presence, we seek to overcome through faith and obedience. There is no question that there is a covenantal nature to all of this. However, to use the word “contract” in the traditional sense of offer/acceptance/consideration , seems too casual to these eyes. I certainly would be cautious in representing to my nonmember friends that I am in a contractual relationship with the almighty.

    Some of my sensitivity about this topic comes from serving a mission during a time when Grant Von Harrison’s “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven” was the talk of the mission. As a result of this book, more than a few missionaries mistakenly believed that they could, in effect, manipulate God by offering to make some random sacrifice in exchange for God granting them a multitude of baptisms. This attempt to dictate to God what He was going to do for us was, of course, a horrible failure on every imaginable level.

    I know that God has promised us everything, and asks in return the full measure of our devotion. While our duty to God may be decipherable, the timing and manner of God’s fulfillment of his promises to us lies in the discretion of a Being whose thoughts and vision dwarf even the most eloquent ruminations that we may offer about His character. I take comfort in the promise that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” That is His general covenant to those who seek to be His people, and is enough for me.

  11. Kristine says:

    Steve, I’m definitely no Nate Oman, but I disagree with you about the mutuality of the promises. I think that understanding the nature of our relationship with God as contractual is reductive and, as Antonio rightly points out, potentially dangerous. (Von Harrison’s book, imo, takes the notion of a contract with God and extends it into something that is outright blasphemy)

  12. This is a wonderful post! And follows another wonderful post by Steve Evans “Gaining a Testimony of the Prophet” (yesterday). I’m moved within my soul–I feel joy. Even KB testified.

    I’ve been in the nacle for nearly two years visiting many blogs hoping for this kind of day. This appropriate display of testimony in the nacle, following general conference is …ing.

    I feel the potential of the Bloggernacle to further the message of the restoration is immense, but largely unrealized to date.

    As this post points out it will be accomplished through the power of our covenants with Heavenly Father. Because of covenants we’re given testimonies, then comes conversion–if we’re faithful.

    With a testimony we can “know and declare”, with conversion we’re required to “do and to become”.

  13. I concur with Kristine and Antonio, I think. Biblically, God’s covenants are unilateral; that he offers them at all is a purely gracious act. He selected Abraham, he selected Israel, he selected us, not vice versa. This is why only his burning torch passes through the skins in Genesis 15, while Abraham instead of following, sleeps. Further, he preserves the covenant even when we (inevitably) fail, as he does with the Children of Israel, and with the atonement. Indeed, what we offer God in the covenant is not for his benefit, but for ours.

  14. Wonderful, Brad. I’m going to the temple today because of this post.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    I’m not trying to go all GVH on y’all, trust me. But this might be a bit of a threadjack, so I’ll let it go. Suffice it to say that I think it is possible to speak of making agreements with God without necessarily getting into blasphemy or GVH territory.

  16. nasamomdele says:

    Well done Brad.

    I feel very stupid in that I am surprised that there is a temple in Detroit. Never crossed my mind that there would be. I will go flog myself.

    Matt B, Antonio, Kristine,

    Though it may be inapropriate to prolong the threadjack, I think it can be argued that ‘contract’ and ‘covenant’ can both be used as appropriate descriptions of our priesthood agreements with God.

    They are as much for our benefit as they are for His (His work and His glory). I don’t think one could rightly argue that God has no obligation to us, no matter that His obligation to us is based on His goodness rather than a percieved ‘legal binding’ that some might unwisely profess.

    Again, well done, Brad.

  17. I really liked this imagery and message:

    The making and keeping of covenants open conduits through which God’s power gains direct access to us, sanctifying, sustaining, and exalting us, a real, deeply-felt, meaningful power in the face of equally real, and sometimes overwhelming or devastating, power.

    I worry though that being so immersed in the gospel routine can tend to lead to taking things for granted and that I often fail to access this power that is so readily available…

  18. #15 Steve

    I agree. When I’m seeking a blessing I usually find it necessary to repent of something or another, thus fulfilling my covenants. Isn’t that making an agreement? I think so. Quid pro quo of the spiritual kind.

    In my approach to the Lord I try living up to all my priesthood covenants and those covenants I’ve made one-on-one with the Lord–private personal covenants.

    I think we need to be careful with private personal covenants, being wise in what we’re asking, and making sure we’re not being manipulative (see Genesis 18:23-33).

  19. I love this, Brad. I particularly appreciate your words about how the Holy Spirit’s presence within us creates sacred space, which in turn becomes a source of strength for others. Your post is a catalyst for that very dynamic. Thank you.

  20. Very, very glad to have you as a brother in the gospel, Brad.

  21. Antonio Parr says:

    18. Jared: My problem with the notion of reaching an “agreement” (or “deal”) with God is that it presupposes that we can discern His vision of the “agreement”. Since His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways not our ways, it is nearly impossible to know what the Lord has in mind when it comes to how and when He will bless us.

    To be sure, we all repent more earnestly during those times when we are most acutely aware of our dependency upon God. I am no exception. But in terms of “deals”, the Master taught us to pray “Thy will be done”, which means that, with the exception of those revealing moments when our prayers are guided by the Holy Ghost, the only “entitlement” that we have is complete and total trust in a God who loves and is dedicated to leading us to a path that brings us eternal life.

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