How to Draw Closer to God

[The below is an approximation of a talk I gave in sacrament meeting today. It is only an approximation because I never wrote the text out but spoke from an outline. I was supposed to be the last speaker last week, but the second speaker took the whole time, so the bishop asked me to hold my talk for today, and he strategically scheduled me as the second speaker to assure I'd be able to get my 20 minutes in. I had some modules in reserve in case I needed to stretch, such as a section where I would have talked about LDS humanism and some insights on fasting and keeping the Sabbath holy I gleaned from Jana's Flunking Sainthood, but I didn't need those modules so they are not included below.]

Doctrinal Foundation

When the bishop asked me to speak on “How to Draw Closer to God,” my first thought was that maybe we should all get together and build a really, really high tower. But upon reflection, I realized that that did not work well for the good people of Babel when they tried it, and perhaps I needed to think a little less literally about the assignment.

As you no doubt know, the Prophet Joseph was killed on June 27, 1844. In the last months of his life, he taught two sermons widely acknowledged as the most important of his prophetic career: the King Follett Discourse on April 7th, and the Sermon in the Grove on June 16th, just ten days before his death. In those two sermons collectively, the Prophet articulated his Nauvoo doctrine that men (and in this talk, I’m using the masculine gender inclusively) have the potential to become gods. Brigham Young later would label this idea “eternal progression,” which remains the way we usually speak of it today. And although those two sermons remain the most authoritative articulation of the concept, today in speaking of it we are more likely to invoke the pithy little couplet coined by Lorenzo Snow, “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.”

(Many years ago, I was watching the original iteration of Battlestar Galactica, the one with Lorne Green, and there was an episode where a Council of the Twelve intoned something very like that couplet. Only much later did I learn that a producer and creator of the series was a Mormon who liked to slip Mormon ideas into the scripts of the series.)

When I was a young man, I didn’t know what to make of that idea. It seemed awfully presumptuous to me; we’re going to become gods? Really? And it also seemed foreign to Christian thought generally. To be honest about it, I’d say I was embarrassed to some extent by this idea.

I suppose for awhile I “put it on the shelf,” to use Camilla Kimball’s metaphor. But for me the shelf is a temporary expedient, not a permanent solution. Eventually, I want to comprehend what is on my shelf and bring it back down to the kitchen table. So at some point, as with any hard issue in the church, I resolved to go straight at it, turning neither to the left or the right. [I borrowed this language from Bushman, but didn't mention his name, as it would not have meant anything to the congregation.] So I rolled up my sleeves and went to this big building, with a lot of books in it, called the “library.” (This was before Al Gore invented the internet.) And you know what I found? This idea is not foreign to Christian thought, it is foun-da-tion-al to authentic Christian thought. It is all over the place in the writings of the early church fathers. So much so, in fact, that several of them coined their own pithy little couplets, that we might describe as positively Lorenzo Snow-ian. For example:

Irenaeus in the second century:

God became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.

Athanasius:

God became man so that men might become gods.

Gregory of Nazianzus:

Become gods for God’s sake, since God became man for our sake.

Basil the Great:

“Becoming a god” is the highest goal of all.

(That last one isn’t a couplet, but it is pithy, so I threw it in there.)

I learned that there was an entire theological vocabulary describing this concept, such as the Latin-derived terms deification and divinization and the Greek terms theosis, apotheosis and theopoiesis.

About 15 years ago some friends and I were touring a redwood forest in California when in the middle of the forest, in the middle of nowhere we encountered a Greek Orthodox bookstore. We were all bibliophiles, so of course we had to check it out. Inside, I was stunned to find three large shelves of books devoted to this concept, such as this one I picked up, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person, by Panayiotis Nellas. (Show book.)

Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that Mormon eternal progression and Greek Orthodox theosis are exactly the same thing. They are not. The biggest difference is different understandings of the nature of God. In Orthodox thought, God is ontologically other than man, in a completely different category. In LDS thought, God is not a philosophical abstraction, but rather our Father, and we are in some sense “of the same species.” And just as our children have the potential to grow and progress and learn and develop and mature and eventually become like us, so we too in a spiritual sense have the potential to grow and progress and develop and mature until we eventually become like our heavenly parents.

So in the long view, we draw closer to God by becoming like him.

The Sunday School Answers

But that process will take eons of time. We now are in a particular slice of that progression, in which a veil has been placed over our memory of our pre-earth life, and we can only sense the atonement of Jesus Christ, the plan of salvation and our divine potential indirectly, by faith, through a glass darkly. But in this mortal, in this corruption, on this earth, we are often overwhelmed by the mundane concerns of this world. Concerns about the job, a stack of bills to pay; a mountain of laundry awaiting us; the kids need to be fed, bathed and put to bed; what will we do when our parents are too old to live independently? And so forth. So in the short term, pressed by these mundane concerns, how do we draw closer to God in the here and now?

Well, I’ve taught a lot of Sunday School lessons over the years, and I’ve learned that there are certain questions that, if you ask them in class and write the suggested answers on the white board, you will get a very stereotyped set of answers. I call these the “Sunday School Answers.” They include such items as read the scriptures, pray, fast, attend your church meetings, do your home and visiting teaching, pay your tithing, keep the word of wisdom. If I’ve written a list like that on the white board once I’ve written it a hundred times.

And there’s a reason for that. There are a number of questions for which that’s a pretty good set of answers. And they’re a pretty good set of answers for this question as well. Unfortunately, as a list these items have become a cliche and lack the power to move us to action. We need to take each item individually and think about it more deeply.

Let’s take prayer as an example. In Primary and as investigators we learn a very simple four-step process for praying in public. And that’s all well and good. But what about our personal prayers? Are they pro forma, or are they powerful? I like to engage in what I call conversational prayer, in which I just speak with God as though he were sitting next to me and I were speaking with my Father. And I like to do this verbally. I often do this while driving in the car (and luckily I live in the age of bluetooth, so I have not yet been committed…).

I have a friend who read a book about Jewish liturgy, and he told me there was a section on the seven types of Jewish prayer. One was the prayer of complaint. That made an impression on me; when was the last time you complained to God in prayer? I’m not specifically advocating that; what I am advocating is that we share our deepest thoughts and feelings with God in our prayers, from our fondest hopes, dreams and desires to our darkest concerns, worries and fears, and yes, even our complaints, if you have them. Nothing should be off the table. Yes, one can say God already knows these things about us, but he has asked us to be proactive in bringing them to him, as we read in James 4:8: “Draw nigh [near or close] to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” If we take the initiative to draw close to God, he will respond and draw close to us.

Other Ideas

I have some additional ideas for how to draw closer to God beyond the Sunday School Answers:

1. Do something creative. Our God is a creator god, El qoneh eth-hashamayim w’eth ha’arets “God, creator of the heavens and of the earth,” and all that in them is. Creation is a divine activity. We all have God-given talents, and we should exercise and hone them, whether we create something beautiful or useful. Sing, draw, write, build, design, repair; do whatever brings you joy, from throwing a pot, to tying a quilt, to working on the car in the driveway on a Saturday afternoon.

2. Experience the natural world. God created this world, and it is glorious and beautiful. It is here for our experience, and we should take advantage of that and explore it. I know for many of you this only applies to the Wasatch mountains–and I was born in Utah, so I understand. But guess what? God also created the midwest. He created Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan–and even Illinois! The next time you have a three-day weekend, get off the couch and go somewhere to experience nature up close and personal.

3. Exercise. My father died of a heart attack the night before our wedding reception. He was 51 years old. I stand before you today at age 53. Nothing is a starker reminder of our own mortality than outliving a parent and being older than the age he achieved in this life. To me at this point, every day is a gift. And although from an eternal perspective it’s immaterial whether I die in 30 years or tomorrow, from my current mortal perspective I’d just as soon it be the 30 years. So I exercise daily and try to eat well. We came to this earth specifically to gain these bodies and learn to use them. They are miraculous, glorious and beautiful. We must take care of them.

4. Music. Few things can affect us spiritually in as powerful a way as can music. In the week leading up to Easter, I made it a point to listen to the St. Matthew’s and St. John’s Passions, both by Bach, and Messiah by Handel, in preparation for my celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. For me, the music that moves me the most spiritually is the sacred art music of the Baroque; for my daughter, it might be the harpist and singer Joanna Newsom; for my wife, it might be The Replacements or Wilco. Find whatever moves you spiritually and make it a part of your life.

5. The Temple. The graduate school of drawing closer to God is the temple, and we are fortunate to have one just down Euclid in Glenview. The temple represents ritualistically the atonement of Jesus Christ. We approach the temple separated from God, estranged. As we conclude the ceremony, we draw near to God, are reconciled, and become once again at one, or “atone.” We embrace, and then once again enter into his presence. The ceremonies of the temple are a way for us in the here and now of this mundane world to grasp, however briefly and ephemerally, the promise of eternal life together with God in the celestial glory.

In 2 Peter 1:4, we read of how we are given exceeding great and precious promises, whereby we might be partakers of the divine nature. That we might so partake, in this mortal realm and in the eternities beyond, is my hope and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Comments

  1. Great talk Kevin I would have enjoyed attending your ward to hear it! I would like to add mediation, sometimes the faithful recoil from or scoff at the idea imaging someone chanting in the lotus position (I don’t) but it can be introduced in the way that David O. Mckay used it and you almost touched on by description, meditative prayer. By practicing the discipline of slowing and silencing our minds as we listen we are in a much better position to hear and feel God – be still and know that I am God. We can also transcend the natural man by working to put aside our ego and immature emotions of jealousy, possessiveness, selfishness, immaturity, fear of loss of creditability, intellectualization, secretiveness & evasiveness, we can tame our fear and anger and we can turn away from the craving and lust for materialism that absorbs so much of our time and attention.

  2. Jacob H. says:

    Kevin, I respect you greatly and part of me wishes those answers worked for me. It seems like the main things that draw me closer to God are stuff like humanism and introspection. More of a divine “between-ness” of our human endeavors, a struggle between reality and our ideals.

    I would be surprised if you accept 2 Peter as being authored by the apostle Peter. Seeing how the issue was avoided, I wonder whether you don’t draw closer to God in similar ways? Id est, experiencing and observing small pieces of the tapestry of our human existence?

  3. I really like it, Kevin.

    Interestingly, I spoke today in Sacrament Meeting about “The Creation” – and I also focused on drawing closer to God by being a partner in the “divine creative process” that God is working within and among us.

    I also speak from an outline. I posted it on my personal blog, with a summary of my actual talk in one of the comments:

    http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-sacrament-meeting-talk-today-about.html

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Meditation is a good answer to add to the mix; it is simply something that didn’t occur to me as I was preparing the talk.

  5. We talked about this today too, and your supplemental list was also discussed. I shared a story I experienced with my friend, Alta, when she was 93 (3 years ago.) Alta fell and broke her hip and after surgery she was in a rehabilitative care facility. She wanted to return to her own home, where she lives alone, so she worked very hard at the exercises. One day while I was visiting her as she did them, she leaned in and said conspiratorially, “Some people don’t do them right.” She demonstrated at the large arc of rings that she was lifting from one side and moving to the other side. It was meant to stretch the range of motion in her shoulders, and properly done one reached first across the body, grasped the ring, and drew it all the way to the other side until all the rings were moved. Then one reached across the body with the other arm and drew them all back. Her contention was that some of the grey-haired residents were “cheating” and using both arms without extending the full range of motion, as if the intent were somehow to get the rings moved as quickly as possible. She always sat up very straight and moved them very consciously (sometimes she even stopped talking to me if she thought she was getting lax). She went home to her own home, where she continues to reside now, within 4 months. I think it’s very easy for us to go through our Sunday school answer obedience as if having done it will somehow be good enough. I can still see the concentration in Alta’s face as she exercised and it inspires me to exercise my prayer, my fasting, my service, my church attendance and callings.

    Another thing that I think draws us closer is slowing down and giving time to question, to bring things down from that shelf and work them over (thank you for the reference on that – I too use that idea and didn’t know I owed it to Sis. Kimball.) My ponder time is precious and I guard it ferociously. Well, at least adamantly.

  6. Great stuff, Kev.

  7. Wahoo! Midwest shoutout! (Said the Minnesota boy who lived in Chicago…)
    Excellent stuff.

  8. “who do we draw closer to God in the here and now?”

    I think you meant “how do we ….” ? (I would want someone to point it out, so I hope it’s ok that I did.)

    Your comment about complaining in prayer reminded me of this quote.

    “Heavenly Father does not want us to minimize our reactions to life. He asks that we accept what he gives us and then take to him our feelings and the truth about our lives, whatever it is. If we can go to him with absolute openness and say, “This is what is happening to me right now, and this is what I feel,” then he can use that openness as a conduit to teach us how to heal and how to forgive and repent and how to love.”

    (Thanks, Martha Beck.)

  9. Geoff - A says:

    I have recently seen some different spiritual methods such as spiritual trapise. The woman i saw do it went through a nymber of very deliberate moves in a trpise swing, and ended curled up in the fetal position and hanging by one arm. Her husband came and carried her away and cuddled her till she uncurled. touching. So all sorts of activities can become spiritual.

  10. I like Alma 37:36
    “Yea, and cry unto God for all thy support; yea, let all thy doings be unto the Lord, and whithersoever thou goest let it be in the Lord; yea, let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord; yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever.”
    If we could really practise that all the time, wouldn’t everything we do be a way of bringing us closer to God. I still have a long way to go, but I love the thought that it could be achievable…

  11. Love your “other ideas”. I may steal this talk.

  12. I engage in conversational prayer as well. I try to maintain as close to a true paternal relationship as possible with God. I scream, I storm, I rage, I curse, I cajole, I cry, and I plead–sometimes I even laugh.

    Meditation is extremely important. I have a very hard time quieting my brain, and schooling my feelings though because of the raging beast within me. I will admit that in recent years I have not tried as hard as I should for this all-important concept.

    I don’t happen to agree that exercise brings us closer to God, but I think pro or anti is simply a matter of perspective. Although it is nice to see some new answers. Under NYS law I am no longer allowed to shoot, but I always found target-shooting to be very peaceful and that peace helped bring me closer to God. Now I just bang on my bed or pillow with my drumsticks when it is all too much.

  13. A very good talk. I like that your other ideas start with creation and end with the temple. It is great that you taught the concept that we can become like God – many members would only focus on our relationship with God here and now. You did both and you took the topic more literally that those who built the tower of babel could have conceived of. Well done.

    Best sentence:

    So in the long view, we draw closer to God by becoming like him.

    So true

    BTW, I agree with each of your 5 other points – was teaching Section 138 – the spirit dead sure miss having their body! So yes, we draw closer to God by treating our bodies with respect.

    Now, I just have to go and do.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, michelle, I fixed it.

  15. And there’s a reason for that. There are a number of questions for which that’s a pretty good set of answers.

    It is too bad we do not acknowledge that more often.

  16. Loved this. Thanks. You not only discussed the concept of “Sunday School answers,” but your talk — as a whole — is a model for teaching these basic principles. You treated the topic individually and demonstrated how to think about it more deeply. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Really enjoyed this talk. Thanks Kevin.

  18. Interesting approach. Thanks!

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