My opening statement here is to my Latter-day Saint brothers and sisters: congratulations, because you are probably being exalted.
Protestants who are bored and incurious have a habit of turning their attention to Latter-day Saints and Catholics and firing off an interesting accusation: We (Latter-day Saints and Catholics) are tired and miserable because we’re trying to “earn salvation.” Whereas Protestants spend all their time rejoicing because salvation is a one-time event, and once it happens, it never needs to be questioned or “earned” in any way. When protestants “get saved,” they understand their salvation to be fully assured.
In fairness to Protestants, I’ll concede that many Latter-day Saints are, in fact, weary and prone to anxiety about their eternal destinies, as well as those of their loved ones. We believe that it is possible to fall from the path that leads to exaltation, so we do not believe that eternal life is assured or guaranteed. People abandon faith and covenant relationships they once had, or at least professed. The downward spiral of Alma 12:11 is all too observable, even among people who once held great spiritual privileges:
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
Likewise, Protestants are frequently confronted with faith-loss narratives, hence the rise of the “ex-vangelical” movement. The most common response is to claim that these individuals were “never really saved” or they would not have abandoned their faith. That may be true, Or it may be that our Latter-day Saint view is more correct: the roots of Christian conversion are sometimes just too shallow to weather the storms and floods of persecution and accusation. Your soul has acquired a taste for the joy of repentance.
Your soul has acquired a taste for the joy of repentance.
In 1990, BYU religion professor Stephen Robinson wrote a book, Believing Christ, that was designed to strengthen weary church members by clarifying and reaffirming the covenant promises of the Savior. More recently, there is Alonzo Gaskill’s book Odds Are You Are Going to Be Exalted, echoing Robinson’s discussion of works and grace. A talk on grace by Brad Wilcox and a conference talk by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf have had a powerful effect of infusing hope and confidence into people’s understanding of their covenant relationship to God. And I would suggest a lesser-known resource, Virginia Pearce’s conference talk “Keep Walking, and Give Time a Chance.” Addressed to the young women of the Church, this masterful talk is one that I have long considered one of the most deeply encouraging conference messages in recent decades.
In the spirit of those resources, I reiterate my own view to my fellow church members: congratulations, because you are probably being exalted. Rather than think of exaltation as an event long in the future that may or may not happen depending on some weighing of good or bad things we do, we should think of it as a process that is underway in the present day.
Let’s talk about how.
First, let’s return to our discussion of protestant notions of salvation because we need to draw a contrast. Generally speaking, Protestants view salvation as being saved from hell, from the eternal wrath of God. This view is definitely a viable interpretation of scripture, but we Latter-day Saints view it as incomplete. Our understanding is that salvation is from death and the effects of sin, but then there is a long process of development of the soul toward eternal life, which we understand to be participation in the life that God lives. As Elder Dale Renlund explained,
…God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient “pets” who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business.
God established a plan whereby we can become heirs in His kingdom, a covenant path that leads us to become like Him, have the kind of life He has, and live forever as families in His presence.
Understanding this process of exaltation in developmental terms changes everything. Rather than worry over exaltation as a gift that might or might not be given to us, we find ourselves asking fundamentally different questions, ones that I now pose to you, the reader.
Do you wish you were less prone to sin? Congratulations, because the fact that you see with clarity the reality of sin is a major developmental factor in your favor. Are you able to see how sin has impacted you and how it impacts other people? The way it removes the light from people’s countenances? The shallow and empty emotional baseline it creates in people’s lives? Can you contrast that with, as the scriptures tell us, the “blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God?” Can you perceive the differences between people who allow God to order their desires versus people who have made a false god out of their desires? The ability to discern these basic contrasts, and let them shape your perspective, is a major milestone in the process of exaltation. You are likely further along than you realize, even if you are not yet a sinless soul.
Do you regularly have an experience where you watch general conference and you feel challenged? Do you welcome that? Do you relish the feeling that comes when the men and women who lead the Church offer an insight that causes a shift in your thinking and that elevates your view of a gospel concept? Do you sometimes ponder a talk for days, noting the flow of ideas and understanding that comes to you? Those feelings of shifts and changes and rising to new levels of understanding are a major part of what we call repentance, expressed in biblical Hebrew as “teshuvah,” or turning. Repentance and conversion are the ongoing turning and shifting and realigning of our thoughts and desires to align with God’s view of reality. If you enjoy those ways that your soul responds to general conference, then congratulations. Your soul has acquired a taste for the joy of repentance, which is a major element in the process of exaltation.
Are you troubled by things you see in the world? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the depravity and injustice and cruelty and dishonesty that are increasingly normal in so many societies? By contrast, do you feel the joy of the saints as you participate in your ward? Do you sometimes get glimpses of Zion in service projects and in temple worship? Do you love the temple? Do you love the order and cooperation that prevail in that environment? Do you see in the temple a different form of society, a celestial sociality, and feel in your soul the night and day contrast between that temple society and the chaos and cruelty that prevail in the outside world where people refuse to allow God to order their hearts and minds? If you see this contrast with increasing clarity, you are moving in the direction of God’s understanding of reality. The word for that process is the biblical Greek word metanoia, which means the orienting of the soul in the direction of exaltation.
Do you grieve over how power is wielded in the world? Do you see world leaders engaging in domineering behaviors and leaving trails of destruction in their wake? Do you mourn that? Do you then see the humble, simple, loving influence of President Russell M. Nelson and grasp the magnitude of the contrast between his nature versus the evil of so many of our world leaders? Do you notice how the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles treat their wives? Do you see the humble sacrifices of good church leaders as they exercise servant leadership in their communities? Do you see these things and realize how the gospel upends our notions of power and influence? How it makes men and women into profoundly good people, even in their human weakness? The loving influence of good church leaders gives us a glimpse of the heart of Christ. If you treasure that glimpse, then congratulations. You are likely to appreciate the order, and the nature of influence, that prevails in exalted celestial society. Spiritual development is a movement from hope and desire to intent.
Spiritual development is a movement from hope and desire to intent.
In the meantime, do you still love them and yearn for their well-being? Have you learned to respect their level of receptivity to gospel realities? Have you learned to honor their agency? Have you learned to celebrate their embrace of goodness in whatever form they are able to receive it? And when tensions arise over how to best respond to difficult behaviors and where to draw lines of respecting versus condoning, do you find yourself relating to the God who is revealed to us in the scriptures? Do you have a deepening understanding of how God and His servants also face difficult and even impossible choices toward their loved ones? Do you see that in your challenges, you are in the very best of company? Do you sense the love and fellowship of great exalted souls who have likewise done their best to navigate these situations? Congratulations, because relationship adversity is developing within you some deep reservoirs of exalted wisdom that can be acquired in no other way.
Are there souls who you find difficult to love? If so, is there in your heart a desire or a hope that you can, over time, develop the same transcendent and principled love that God has for His children? Spiritual development is a movement from hope and desire to intent, then to experimenting upon principles, then tasting the fruits and internalizing their impact on our souls. Wherever you are in this exalting process, keep going. Allow time and God’s influence to help you move through each barrier to the exercise of grace and charity. Breakthroughs will happen.
There is no need to fixate on some big sensational experience for an assurance of exaltation. There is only a gradual turning, a letting go and surrender of all our perceptions of reality so that they can die and be reborn in our souls as God’s perfect understanding of reality. Walking through life with the living and revealed Christ, getting back up when we fall down, and allowing God’s influence to gradually shape and order our souls over a lifetime, is the straight and narrow covenant path to eternal life. In the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie,
We don’t need to get a complex or get a feeling that you have to be perfect to be saved. You don’t … The straight and narrow path leads from the gate of repentance and baptism, a very great distance, to a reward that’s called eternal life. If you’re on that path and pressing forward, and you die, you’ll never get off the path … Now is the time and the day of your salvation, so if you’re working zealously in this life—though you haven’t fully overcome the world and you haven’t done all you hoped you might do—you’re still going to be saved. You don’t have to do what Jacob said, “Go beyond the mark.” You don’t have to live a life that’s truer than true. You don’t have to have an excessive zeal that becomes fanatical and becomes unbalancing. What you have to do is stay in the mainstream of the Church and live as upright and decent people live in the Church— keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving in the organizations of the Church, loving the Lord, staying on the straight and narrow path. If you’re on that path when death comes—because this is the time and the day appointed, this the probationary estate—you’ll never fall off from it, and, for all practical purposes, your calling and election is made sure.
For Latter-day Saints who have internalized these realities, there are still endless mountains of adversity that push us out of our comfort zone and into our growth zone. But there is no cause for us to rejoice any less than our Christian friends in other denominations who trust in “assured salvation” because we know where our path is leading, and therefore our destination is no less assured.