While living in California for a couple of years, I missed a particular family get-together that has been repeatedly retold ever since. The story goes that my niece, a toddler at the time, was just catching on to the concept of Christmas and what it meant to be given a gift. One of the gifts that she received was unforgettable – a pair of socks. She was so excited! Because of her reaction, someone in the family decided to hand her another gift. The socks were rewrapped and presented to her again. To her delight she received “another” pair. I’m not sure exactly how long Christmas kept improving like this until she realized that she was continually reopening the same gift.
Boyd K. Packer once said, “Things that don’t change remain the same.” It’s a nice piece of common sense, don’t you think? With the scarcity of common sense sometimes, it is helpful to have the obvious pointed out so plainly. I often wonder why some circumstances in my life don’t seem to change as fast as I would like. Then I look to see if I have done anything to merit a different outcome. “Hmm. I guess not,” is my usual observation.
My wife and I have been discussing some of our observations about change this week on our early morning walks. I won’t steal too much of her thunder, but she had a great analogy for life’s lessons. We all seem to learn the same lessons, but we often learn them in a different order. Sometimes we don’t learn from them when the opportunity is given to us. Consequently, we keep opening the same present expecting a different result. I’m not sure about you, but I often find the wrapping paper looks a little different, but the bow that wraps up the gift seems to be the same each time.
Whether or not change is desirable seems to have everything to do with choices. If I have control over my choices, and the resulting change, I feel better about things. When I feel like the change is out of my control, and that it limits my choices, I feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel trapped, frozen, or confined. I feel like I am being acted upon because I am not able to control my circumstances. It is interesting to note that agency is the freedom to choose within a given set of conditions. I don’t always get to choose the conditions, which leaves me with the feeling of not having control. This doesn’t mean I have lost my agency, or my ability to choose.
Liz and I recently talked with some good friends about the types of change we have felt and experienced this year. Some changes are a gradual deluge of blessings or trials. Some are more abruptly taken or given. Occasionally a change may appear to take everything you have learned and turn it upside down, as though it no longer is true, only to find out that you just had to shake out the parts that weren’t true to make room for things that are truer. Each type of change has its place in the lessons we get to unwrap. That said, it is still easier to make sense of a difficult lesson after you have gone through it and completed it than it is to get your bearings when you are right in the middle.
One beautiful example of change is the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. The caterpillar has its own type of beauty, while the butterfly has an aesthetic quality that seems to be more widely recognized. Seldom, however, have I heard anyone say, “Hey, look at that! Have you ever seen such a stunning cocoon?” Yet it is inside the veil-thin walls of a cocoon that the beautiful transformation takes place. The separation is just enough for the caterpillar to become something new and amazing, no matter how confining it appears. Having experienced mild forms of claustrophobia before, I wonder what the caterpillar feels like during the process.
Another type of change is related to temperance, or the ability to endure lessened conditions. In the case of tempered steel, a piece of steel is gradually heated to a very hot temperature. At the appropriate time and condition, the steel is then plunged into cold water, which causes a reaction in the metal. The immediate change in circumstances may seem a shock to the system, but it makes the steel much, much stronger. There are times when I have had a gradual increase in blessings, only to have them taken away in an instant. Conversely, I have also had trials that increased gradually to where it seemed I could bear no more, and then there was instantaneous relief. I remember those sudden changes acutely, with both sorrow and happiness.
Whether a slow process of being confined with in a veil or cocoon, or the abrupt process of tempering, change becomes more manageable and endurable when I can count on someone to help me through the process who knows exactly what I am feeling. In many cases, the only one who understands completely is God.
C. S. Lewis compared this transformation process to God helping us with a slight remodeling job. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right, and stopping the leaks in the roof, and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably, and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of– throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
It is often difficult to tell at the onset whether God is giving us a trial or a blessing. There have been many times that I have received a blessing only to discover that it was a test to see if I would do what I said I would do in a circumstance where I had less need. I have also found a number of trials to be great blessings after the fact because of the way they made me stronger, more capable, and more able to receive greater blessings. The more I experience change, the more inclined I am to hold out on passing judgment, and simply acknowledge that Father knows a better way.
The Lord taught Joseph Smith an important principle about accountability. He said, “He that receiveth of God, let him account it of God; and let him rejoice that he is accounted of God worthy to receive.” (Doctrine & Covenants 50:34) Each phrase in this sentence is worth looking at carefully. The Lord doesn’t specify whether it is blessings or trials that we receive at His hand, just that we should acknowledge Him if He is the giver. This also implies that accountability is not just responsibility, but acknowledging duty and devotion to the giver. Lastly, the fact that we have received a trial or blessing from God implies that He feels we are ready for it. Receiving an opportunity or a lesson from God is different than taking it. Perhaps there are trials that may be self-induced, but all blessings come from God and we should rejoice that He stays involved in our personal lives.
If I can get past my initial assessment of whether an experience, opportunity, or lesson is a blessing or a trial, and merely recognize when it is of God, then my perception of the experience undergoes a change. It may not be easy, but my attitude will likely be different and the change begins to affect me internally and not just externally. This requires me to change my mind about changing my heart, a softening that helps me to yield because I know God is always right.
Many years ago when I was a teenager, I read in Matthew 3 where there is a description of John the Baptist. I looked at a footnote to John’s name and saw the following, “The Greek word denotes ‘a change of heart or mind,’ i.e. ‘a conversion.’ ” Since I share his name, I was excited that my name had that kind of meaning. It gave me the desire to be converted to a greater degree. I was inspired to actively seek a change of heart and mind rather than fear it. This simple verse had a great impact on me for many years. It was only recently that I read that same passage again and made a startling discovery. I realized that I had read the wrong footnote. The note that I had attached myself to referred to the word, “repent,” that appears in the adjacent verse. I had been mistaken about the reference perhaps, but I hadn’t been wrong about the meaning.
This epiphany (or rather, apostrophe, if you will) didn’t shatter me because I had been wrong about reality. Whether or not the verse pointed to the footnote that meant so much to me was irrelevant. The important truth, in this case, was that I saw something that inspired me, enough that I wanted to change for the better. I made a choice. The truth was, I had read something full of meaning and I internalized it. It was powerful enough that it caused me to make changes on my own. I had followed a partial idea that led me to a much better place. Occasionally when I experience a change, and the world as I know it seems to turn upside down, I find that I am just shaking off the things that may not be true. Then when everything turns right-side-up again, I have a more accurate picture that leads me to an even better place. So much of my ability to do this depends on faith and intent.
Alma the younger spoke of his father, Alma, and the change that he underwent as he listened to the prophet Abinadi. He said, “And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.” (Alma 5:12) Changes were occurring all around Alma the elder. He was being taught that many of his choices had been wrong. Even though he was a priest called to lead the people to do good, he was leading them astray. Alma began to internalize what he heard into something that he could feel. Instead of hardening his heart and resisting change, he softened his heart and acted upon what he knew to be true. Because of his faith, he wrought a mighty change.
The beauty of this example is that Alma was in control of whether he was acting or being acted upon. Rather than choosing to be angry at the implications on his character, he chose the path of greater freedom. He chose not to resist the changes the Lord wanted to make in his life. Alma also records what the Lord did for others. “Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.” (Alma 5:7) This suggests that a hardened heart is sleepy and not very cognizant. Choosing to resist God lulls us further to sleep to where we have a diminished sense of reality. On the other hand, obeying God gives us increased understanding, ability, and awareness. When we are presented with an opportunity for positive change, it always leads to a better place.
As a creature of habit and weakness looking for stability and security, change does not come easy for me. A willingness to be obedient doesn’t necessarily make obedience less painful. Instead, that willingness may provide an opportunity to get to a better place with less lingering in sorrow or sleepy resistance. The difficulty of the change does not dissipate or disappear, but the opportunity to change increases my opportunity to find greater happiness sooner. If I wish to be like God, I have to be willing to change. I need to depend upon Him and rely upon His understanding to get me through the transformation. I have to trust that I will be safe within the veil of my understanding. The cocoon is there to protect me as much as provide a reason to have faith. As I am tempered, my desire may grow stronger, but so does my ability to make correct choices. Through practice, I become more and more comfortable with change, even when it is difficult. Through obedience I become more like God.
There is a small irony with change. God is constant and does not vary. “I am the Lord, I change not….” (Malachi 3:6) And yet He asks us to do something that He does not do. Why? God only asks us to change so we can become more like Him. He wants us to eliminate our imperfections and our sins. He wants us to change our hearts to match His. When we have done that, we will no longer be required to change. Until then, He will continue to provide us with opportunities to change for the better. If we see them for what they are, and we internalize these changes in our hearts, He will provide more opportunities. If not, we may find that we keep getting the same opportunity again and again. The wrapping may be different, but the bow that ties it all together is usually the same.
Change is rarely easy, but it is the path back to Father. Placing my faith in Him allows me to internalize the changes occurring around me and soften my heart. As my heart becomes more flexible, I become more like Him. I become more eligible to access His power that makes all things seem possible. All I have to do is turn to Him. Difficult challenges become more manageable and endurable when I can count on someone to help me through the process who knows exactly what I am feeling. In most cases, the only one who fits that description is the One who provided the opportunity for me to change in the first place. Receiving positive change is receiving God. Placing my faith in Him as I open my heart to change makes all the difference in the outcome.