As Latter-day Saints, we value the opportunity to hear from prophets and apostles. Twice a year, a weekend is devoted to hearing their words. Here is our personal Fall 2023 General Conference recap. Below are themes that stood out to several of our editors and contributors from the conference.
On His Terms
On Sunday morning, President Emily Belle Freeman gave a talk that was substantive, challenging, and powerful. She spoke to an issue that has been a cause of stumbling for numerous Latter-day Saints over the years, as well as broader Christianity: what exactly is the nature of our relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ? When we use the word “relationship” in this context, what exactly does that mean?
Recently this question was brought to light as a ChatGPT user asked the AI software to write a Christian worship song that could be either about a boyfriend or about Jesus. The result sounded like much of the most popular Christian music throughout the world.
All of our relationships are beset by expectations, including our relationship with Christ. And if we’re not careful, we’ll project our current mortal, culturally-shaped relationship experiences and expectations onto that relationship. President Freeman’s talk included a powerful challenge to a very common relationship assumption that we tend to import into our discipleship:
“When I returned home from Israel, I listened more closely to the conversations around me regarding covenants. I noticed people asking,
“Why should I walk a covenant path?
“Do I need to enter a house for making covenants?
“Why do I wear the holy garment?
“Should I invest in a covenant relationship with the Lord?
“The answer to these good and important questions is simple: it depends on what degree of relationship you want to experience with Jesus Christ.”
President Freeman was addressing a relationship assumption common in consumerist Western society: the customer is always right. Real Christian discipleship cannot take shape on those terms, our terms. The choice to follow Christ is not like the choice of a boyfriend or a political candidate. Our relationship with Christ should feel profoundly different, and the elements of the covenant path that she articulated in her talk are things that contribute to this important sense of difference. When Christ spoke of lawbreakers that He does not know, He emphasized the reality that adherence to law is an essential part of knowing Him to any meaningful degree.
President Freeman’s personal convictions were evident in her talk, and it was clear that for her, as with so many of us, the covenant relationship with Christ is challenging, transcendent, and also the most deeply joyful relationship we know. And on a personal level, watching that talk with daughters who are in the young women’s program was an absolute treasure.
A Bit of Paradise
My conference weekend began with a visit to Paradise.
Jacob Hess, who is well-known and beloved here at Public Square, invited us into a sacred space as he and his family laid to rest their precious Emma Ann. They provided a powerful witness of the blessings of eternal families. Their example illustrated the noble humility that Elder Bednar paid tribute to in the opening address of the General Conference: “Your strong faith in Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and your unpretentious, consecrated lives, inspire me to be a better man and disciple.”
On that sweet note, for me, the conference was brimming with invitations to either stay on the covenant path or return home to it. Throughout the weekend, I heard powerful reminders of the far-reaching consequences of our choices throughout mortality and eternity; a realization that could be overwhelming if not for the companionship and saving grace of our Savior, His Atonement, and the restored gospel. Which I also heard.
Sitting in front of a cozy fire, safe inside my daughter’s home, wrapped in blankets, and surrounded by family, made for a memorable moment listening to the prophet’s words. As he spoke, a literal storm raged outside—rain pouring, winds howling, and thunder threatening. Yet, inside, we were secure, warm, and huddled together, riveted to the unexpected (but hoped-for) words of our prophet as he delivered specific instructions and counsel. The moment underscored Elder Renlund’s earlier words: “Only with a robust spiritual foundation can we handle the metaphorical rain, wind, and floods that confront us in our lives.” The profound truth President Nelson shared about mortality being a Master class was a reminder that our mortal journey is such a crucial stage in our eternal progression. The prophet’s reminder reinforced this when he said, “Your choices today will determine three things: where you will live throughout eternity, the kind of body with which you will be resurrected, and those with whom you will live forever. So, think celestial.”
President Oaks also taught this principle that embedded within the gospel plan is the assurance of a loving Heavenly Father who watches over us with boundless love and care. God respects our agency and will extend His hand to bless us and offer every advantage and opportunity that our desires and choices allow. Everything I heard this weekend reinforced the truth that it’s not just about weathering the storms of mortality, like those the Hess family and others we love are experiencing but preparing for an eternal future.
A strong spiritual foundation is not just comforting during life’s storms; it’s the key to navigating the path to our celestial home.
Four lessons for Families from Conference
Family gospel living is hard, and the Lord sees our efforts. Elder Bednar began the conference by “expressing [his] love, admiration, and gratitude for the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all around the world.” While ordinary Latter-day Saints may not get much recognition for their everyday service, our families and our congregations will be blessed because of this service. Elder Jan W. Newman reiterated this point, saying, “My dear friends in Christ, you are doing much better than you think. Just keep working at it. Your children are watching, listening, and learning. As you teach them, you will come to know their true nature as beloved sons and daughters of God.”
Our choice to stray from the covenant path will have effects that ripple for generations. Elder Carlos A. Godoy warned that those who choose to casually fall away from activity in the church or take a “lukewarm” approach to the gospel are putting their eternal families at risk. However, he said, “Anything can be mended through Jesus Christ.” He invited members to “think ahead” and evaluate where it is their current choices will lead, and “if necessary, be valiant enough to reshape your path for the sake of your posterity.”
While our families aren’t perfect, we can perfect our love for them and others. Sister Tamara W. Runia emphasized having an eternal perspective—one of hope, love, and joy—noting that families are a “God-given laboratory where we’re figuring things out.” There are times where we feel promoted to correct, but our primary focus should be helping our family members feel our love and the Savior’s love when they are struggling. “Because of Christ,” she taught, “It all works out.”
Finally, if your family is still struggling with gospel living, take heart. President Russell M. Nelson shared the story of how as a young medical resident, he originally did not choose to pay tithing on his $15 monthly stipend until his wife corrected him. If such an extraordinary prophet and father of ten once struggled with a basic commandment, surely there is hope for us to repent as well.
Finding Unity in the Faith
Steven J. Moody
I have found myself troubled in recent years about the division and polarization in so much of our public discourse, especially as I ponder what to teach my children as they encounter it more and more. I found in this conference a renewed clarity of the importance of covenants in developing a deeper knowledge of self that, in turn, unlocks a powerful potential for developing a more unified and loving society. Many addresses reminded unequivocally that the way to eternal happiness is through our covenants. Covenants bind us to Christ, both in word when we enter into them, and in deed as we renew and adhere to them. Bishop Waddell especially placed this idea in a contemporary context, teaching that when social influencers or fads are the most frequent place we look to for knowing what we should do, we risk losing Christ as the primary influence in our lives.
While staying true to our covenants seems primarily a matter of personal growth, I was deeply impressed during several addresses with the potential for building social unity by placing our covenants in a central position in our lives. As President Nelson has taught repeatedly in recent years, keeping Christ as the focus of our lives helps us better understand and embrace our primary identity as Children of God and of the Covenant. It seems this is the only identity able to truly unify our human family for it gathers us together as members of the same eternal family engaged in a shared eternal purpose. It is in and through our covenants that we develop and maintain this understanding of ourselves and how we belong while simultaneously developing the kind of Christlike love for those around that is truly transformative. So this conference I am reminded to renew my commitment to the covenant path and teach my children to keep Christ at the center of their lives so that they may contribute to building a stronger and eternally enduring unity.
Repentance and Spiritual Power
I was impressed by President Henry B. Eyring’s talk on repentance and following the Holy Ghost. Framed as “a brief letter to my descendants,” President Eyring gave a variety of practical suggestions on how we could better invite the influence of the Holy Ghost into our lives. But what impressed me most was the sincere witness that radiated from his words and countenance as he talked about the Holy Ghost. It seems evident that President Eyring has spent a great deal of his life trying to live what he preached. He has been shaped by these efforts, but I also get the sense that he feels like he has more to learn.
A few highlights from the talk: President Eyring emphasized that we must repent to have the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. And it will be necessary for us to have this influence: both he and Elder Stevenson quoted President Nelson: “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” When we seek the Holy Ghost, we must do it for the right reasons. Selfish motivations will not invite the Holy Ghost. “The key for me and you is to want what the Savior wants.” Finally, when we do receive the influence of the Holy Ghost, it confirms that we are being transformed to become more like Christ: “If you have felt the influence of the Holy Ghost today, you may take it as a sweet evidence that the atonement is working in your life.” By both precept and example, this was a great talk on how to invite the Holy Ghost into our lives.
The Big Picture
I loved Sister Runia’s talk during the Saturday night session. She talked about “seeing the big picture,” which, of course, we can’t see, even though we try to have an eternal perspective. Watching so many people lose their faith in the midst of increasing chaos in the world is truly difficult and disheartening. Sometimes I’ve wondered if there would actually be a core community of saints able to live by celestial covenants that would be large enough to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord. That we have so many missionaries going out right now should answer my question, but I still struggle because of loved ones turning away. I gained hope from Sister Runia’s statement that “It’s the Savior’s work to bring our loved ones back. It’s His work and His timing.”
Treasure Them While You Have Them
A number of years ago, my brother pulled me to the side and encouraged me to do what I could to live closer to my parents. He spoke soberly. I worried something was wrong with their health. He responded to the question he sensed: “Mom and Dad are well. I simply feel that we should treasure them while we have them.”
His words came to my mind during this last conference. Elder Holland’s absence was palpable. President Nelson’s health was on everyone’s mind. President Oaks was his spry self–but still clocks in at 91. Both Presidents Ballard and Eyring specifically evoked the short time they have left–and seemed to leave final messages to their descendants. President Ballard directly addressed that his eyes have gotten old, and he has a hard time seeing the teleprompters. His talk was all the more meaningful for it. President Ballard’s address focused on Joseph Smith and his part in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ—meaningful, especially because of his connection to the Smith family. President Eyring’s address was nothing short of a love letter to his progeny, encouraging them to stay on the path of happiness. President Nelson encouraged us to “think Celestial.”
I once studied final conference addresses by church leaders–the last talk they gave before they died. Normally, I love doctrinally complex sermons, but there is holiness to these that is in so many ways more transcendent: a focus on simple truths, intergenerational love, and those things that matter most. There’s a somberness to such messages that comes from knowing what is coming, but a peace that comes from knowing that the victory of time, age, and death will be short-lived. That study left me feeling still and at peace. It gave me feelings that typically only come at the temple: a sense of the thinness of the veil.
I’m still not over Elder Maxwell, President Faust, or President Hinckley. Treasure them while you have them, indeed.
I thought of the final messages given by the prophet Lehi, King Benjamin, Father Adam before he died, and all the great patriarchs, calling together family and loved ones to hear testimony and final blessing. I am not foretelling any church leader’s impending passing–that timing is left to God alone. Rather, I felt that some leaders had deliberately prepared messages packed with all the love, consecration, and pure testimony of a final message. Those feelings of somberness, love, and gratitude permeated my experience with this conference.
The victory of time, aging, and death truly may be inevitable–but in our theology, it will be short-lived. The hope of a literal resurrection is a source of hope for many Christians: a victory over death itself; a time to come in which we will be reunited with prophets and patriarchs, loved ones and progenitors. We should savor every minute we have with those we love now and treasure it all the more for knowing that our time together in mortality is finite; but all the while, looking forward in anticipation to the day of the resurrection to come.
How to Find Peace
As I listened to the remarks from Sister Wright, Elder Choi, and Elder Bednar, I was struck by their testimonies of how coming unto Christ brings peace. When Sister Wright faced the devastating news of cancer, in an instant, the Holy Ghost reassured her that because of the gospel, no matter if she lived or died, everything would be okay. Her family was prepared by living the gospel. Like her, I realized that daily actions like prayer, scripture study, and home evening truly matter in building spiritual strength for hard times. Elder Choi’s promise that “our challenges and problems will be easier to bear” when we keep the commandments resonated with me. I, too, can receive strength from covenants and obedience. Elder Bednar’s words that “your personal anguish will be relieved” through patience and faithfulness touched my heart. As I strive to come unto Christ, I know He can ease my anxieties and sorrows. Though our trials may vary, the peace found in the Savior is universal. His grace is sufficient for all. As I yield my heart to God and wait patiently on Him, I will find the peace that only Christ can give. His power calms life’s storms. His love heals every wound. His light illuminates any darkness. Coming unto Him brings an inner stillness amid outer turmoil. I am deeply grateful for the chance to renew my covenants and feel His peace.