Brent L. Top
Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU
My brothers and sisters, I am honored to be with you today. I have a great love for this institution. I attended Ricks College when I was a young returned-missionary and two of my own children were students here. Our family has been blessed because of those
connections to BYU-Idaho. I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will attend my words today—that you will not only hear with your ears and understand with your heads, but most important, feel deep within your hearts the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost.
I am a huge sports fan and as a result, I am always attuned to inspiring sports movies and human interest stories about individual athletes and teams who have overcome great odds to become champions. Several years ago one such story grabbed my attention. It is the story of Jim Abbott who was born without the lower part of his left arm and hand. Despite this birth defect, he was not “handicapped.” He became a star athlete in high school, winning a full-ride scholarship to play baseball for the University of Michigan. His approach to baseball was quite different than most. He batted with one arm. He could not wear a baseball glove on the arm without a hard, so he would hold the glove against his body with his arm and throw the ball with his other arm and hand. In one motion, he would then slip his hand into the glove and be ready to field. He became an All-American baseball pitcher and won the prestigious Sullivan Award—given to the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete—the first time a baseball player had ever won the award. Drafted by the California Angels, Jim played 10 years in the major leagues. The highlight of his incredible and inspiring story came on September 4th 1993 in Yankee Stadium. As a New York Yankee, Jim pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.
Jim Abbott’s story became particularly personal to me five years ago when our grandson, Gavin, was born with a similar birth defect. Gavin doesn’t have the lower part of his left arm and instead of a hand he has what we lovingly refer to as his “nub.” Since Gavin’s birth I have been drawn to stories of remarkable men and women born with birth defects or who lost their arms through accidents or disease yet, who are able to do amazing things. Two in particular stand out. The first is Tony Melendez. Born without any arms, Tony is a gifted musician—an incredible vocalist and an amazing guitarist--playing the guitar with his feet with as much skill as anyone. Tony’s songs reflect his love for the Lord and his recognition that it through God’s grace that has been able to accomplish so many things. His CDs have won many awards, he has been named the performer of the year in Branson, MO, and performed for the Pope.
The second is Barb Guerra who lost both her arms when she was two years old in a freak electrical accident. Despite that, she is able to do all the things that we take for granted in our daily lives. She drives a car, puts on her makeup, cares for her children with her legs and feet instead of with arms and hands. Her remarkable abilities and her indomitable spirit have been chronicled on numerous newscasts and network shows. Videos of Barb Guerra’s amazing use of her legs and feet are ubiquitous on YouTube. (I guess you could call these videos of her “footage” [pun intended].) Today she is fitness trainer and has won awards in fitness and bodybuilding competitions. She too recognizes that God has a plan and purpose for her life and that His strength is greater than her own.
As inspiring and amazing as these three individuals are to me, I am most inspired by my grandson Gavin. Although his birth defect hasn’t slowed him down much and he certainly doesn’t consider himself handicapped, he does notice that he is different than others. He is at the age now where he is conscious of the stares and unkind comments about his nub. In decorating her home for Christmas a couple of years ago, our daughter put out the olive wood nativit set she had received from us as a Christmas gift when we lived in Israel several years ago. There were a few chips and dents and pieces broken off here and there. One day, three-year-old Gavin excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy, look! Jesus has a nub just like me!” Part of one of the carved wooden arms of the baby Jesus in the nativity set had been broken off. It was so small that none of us had even noticed it before. Yet Gavin noticed. He was thrilled that Jesus had a nub too. His mother explained to him that Jesus doesn’t really have a nub, but that He understands exactly what it is like for Gavin to have one. In that tender teaching moment, our daughter once again taught him about the resurrection and the perfect love of the Savior and how Christ’s Atonement ensures that someday Gavin will have a hand and arm like everyone else. I have thought a lot about that and today I want to share with you some of my thoughts about arms—our arms and Christ’s arms.
Spiritually speaking, each of us was born with a birth defect—without arms if you will. That defect is called mortality. We are all, as King Benjamin described us, “natural” or fallen men and women—“enemies to God.” Our mortal arms, no matter how strong, no matter how diligent or productive, can never save us in the Celestial Kingdom of God. It is only through the arms of Christ that we can be saved. His arms not only save us but also strengthen us. That is what we call grace. The LDS Bible Dictionary defines grace as the “enabling power of Christ.” Elder David A. Bednar taught: “The enabling power of the Atonement of Christ strengthens us to do things we could not do on our own.”1 Our Father in Heaven wants us to recognize that, spiritually speaking, we are like children born without arms—totally dependent upon the caring arms of another—the loving arms of Christ. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught: “The Lord God showeth our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.”2
One of my favorite scriptural accounts that illustrates this important principle is found in Matthew chapter 14. You remember the story. As the disciples watched the Savior walk on the Sea of Galilee toward their boat, they were fearful and thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus assured them it was Him and that they need not be afraid. To which, Peter declared: “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” “Come,” said Jesus, Matthew records: “And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on water, to go to Jesus.”3
The rest of the story is what I find most significant. It is the part of the story that I personally can relate to. I can’t relate to walking on water, but I can relate with what Peter next experienced.
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.
Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying; Of a truth thou art the Son of God.4
All of us have had, are having, or will yet have a Peter-like “sinking” experience in some way and will at some time (probably many times) cry out, “Lord, save me.” Even Peter’s strong fisherman arms were not strong enough to save himself. He needed the rescuing arms of Christ and so do we. Can you imagine Peter—his head bobbing beneath the surface of the lake, choking from the water that he is swallowing, and with panic-stricken, fearful cries for help—then saying as the Savior extends his arm: “No thank you. I will swim to shore. I sank myself, so I must save myself.” Of course not. How ridiculous! Yet, we sometimes do just that. Even though we may know in our heads that our mortal arms and hands are deficient—in fact, utterly incapable of rescuing or redeeming ourselves—we sometimes resist, even recoil from, the outstretched arms of the Savior. Sometimes we spiritually drown ourselves because we won’t allow His arms to cradle us. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland so eloquently stated:
May I be bold enough to suggest that it is impossible for anyone who really knows God to doubt his willingness to receive us with open arms in a divine embrace if we but come to Him.
I am convinced that none of us appreciate how deeply it wounds the loving heart of the Savior of the world when He finds that His people do not feel confident in His care or secure in His [arms].5
The scriptures contain many references to the arms of the Lord. They describe different ways whereby His arms bless our lives and strengthen our arms. Today I wish to focus on three: His arms of power, His arms of love, and His arms of mercy. These three, though certainly related to each other, are unique in what they do for us and to us.
Arms of Power
First, Christ’s arms of power. Moses declared: “The Lord is my strength . . ., and he is become my salvation: he is my God. . . . Thy right hand [or we could replace “hand” with “arm”], O Lord, is become glorious in power.”6 I am convinced that one of the reasons the scriptures are so full of examples and teachings of God’s majestic power is to drive the point home to each of us personally that “nothing is too hard for the Lord.”7 David knew that God was more powerful than Goliath.8 Elijah knew and demonstrated with consuming fire that Jehovah’s power is greater than Baal and all his priests.9 Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could testify that fiery furnaces can’t hold a candle, literally and symbolically, to the glory and power of the Son of Man.10 His arms of power created “worlds without number,”11 parted the Red Sea, stilled the storms, fed the multitude, healed the sick, and raised the dead. His arms of power are seen in nature, in His compassion to the downtrodden, His forgiveness to the repentant and in His vengeance upon the wicked. All around us—both temporally and spiritually—we see the fulfillment of the Lord’s words in section 1—“The Preface”—of the Doctrine and Covenants: “And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed.”12 When I understand and more fully accept that, as Nephi declared, “he is mightier than all the earth,13 I can trust more deeply in His arms of power, more fully allow myself to be upheld by those arms, and rely less on the arm of flesh—even my own puny arms. When we recognize the Lord’s arms of power and learn to lean on His “ample arm” we will trust more fully in His promises to us. His promises of power, protection, succor and strength are too numerous to cite here today. The scriptures are full of them. Let me share just a few of my favorites:
Isaiah 41:10: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee; be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand [or for our purposes today, we could say “arms”] of my righteousness.
John 14: 18, 27: “I will not leave thee comfortless: I will come to you . . . . Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. . . . Let not your heart be troubled.
Alma 36:3: “Whosoever shall put their trust in God [and I would add “his arms of power”] shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions.”
D&C 84: 88: “I will go before your face. I will be on your hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”
In addition to scriptural promises and promises given by modern-day prophets and apostles each of us is a beneficiary of personal promises of God’s power in our lives. Those promises come to us in the form of priesthood blessings from patriarchs, from fathers and bishops, home teachers and trusted friends. Because of the Lord’s arms of power, we can trust in those promises, and know that we are held ever tightly in God’s powerful arms, or as Amulek described them, the “arms of safety.”14 God’s promises of power and protection are sure—“take it to the bank” “rock solid.” President George Q. Cannon, who served as a counselor in the First Presidency to Presidents Taylor, Woodruff, and Snow, declared:
No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, He will never desert us. He never has, and He never will. He cannot do it. It is not His character [to do so]. He is an unchangeable being; the same yesterday, the same today, and He will be the same throughout the eternal ages to come. We have found that God. We have made Him our friend, by obeying His gospel; and He will stand by us. We may pass through the fiery furnace; we may pass through deep waters; but we will not be consumed nor overwhelmed. We shall emerge from all these trials and difficulties the better and purer for them, if we will only trust in our God and keep His commandments.15
Arms of Love
Second, the “arms of love.” Father Lehi, in his deathbed discourse to his family, testified: “the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.”16 That phrase—“encircled about eternally in the arms of his love”—is perhaps the most profound and yet deeply personal phrase in all of Holy Writ. I came to understand this passage more deeply from personal experience.
Almost exactly five years ago, I was a struggling new mission president trying to keep it together even as I felt like I was falling apart at the seams. I was overcome with the problems and pressures of presiding over a mission—tormented by my own feelings of inadequacy—overcome by how unprepared and unworthy I felt. I was in desperate need for strength and spirituality beyond my own. As we concluded an area mission presidents’ seminar, I was at an emotional and spiritual low points. For a few days we had been instructed by the visiting general authorities in all the things we needed to be doing to better train missionaries and to more effectively push the work of the Kingdom forward. It was both inspiring and intimidating—intimidating because I felt that, by comparison to the other mission presidents, I was not measuring up and I was fearful that I would never be able to measure up. I was afflicted with a bad case of the “gotta dos” and “oughta bes.”
At the conclusion of the seminar we attended a temple session in the Winter Quarters Temple. As we completed the endowment session and passed through the veil into the celestial room, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, greeted each mission president with a warm embrace and the words, “I love you.”
I’m not sure that President Uchtdorf even remembers doing this, but I will never forget it. It may not have been a big deal to him or the others, but it was a monumentally transforming moment for me. I felt the love of the Savior emanating from this special witness into my soul. It was as if I was being embraced by the Lord himself—I was truly “encircled” in the arms of the Master’s love. That hug and his words “I love you” and “You are doing a great job” strengthened and inspired and motivated me more than all the teaching and training done in the meetings. The Savior’s perfect and infinite “arms of love” give us the strength to endure heartaches and hardship, the power to resist temptation, and the courage to keep the commandments even as we are being mocked and scorned by those in the great and spacious building. From his own personal experiences, Paul clearly understood the strengthening power of the Lord’s “arms of love.” He testified:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.17
Arms of Mercy
Lastly, the “arms of mercy.”
Alma reminded his people and us today as well that Christ “sendeth an invitation unto all men for the arms of mercy are extended towards them.”18 Think of what that invitation really means. Think of what His arms of mercy can do for you. When you are embraced in His arms of mercy you will come to know the peace and joy of being clean—forgiven of your sins through His atoning mercy. You will see the world and all eternity with new eyes through the companionship of the Holy Ghost. You will feel more profoundly and love more deeply, because He will, as the prophet Ezekiel declared, “take away the stony heart out of your flesh” and give you a “new heart and a new spirit” that will “cause you to walk in [His] statutes . . . and do them.”19
I had an experience that helped me glimpse what it means to be “clasped in the arms of Jesus”—embraced in the arms of His mercy. I told you of my experience with Elder Uchtdorf in the Winter Quarters Temple. I was so personally moved and powerfully motivated by that experience, I determined to follow Elder Uchtdorf’s example and share that feeling with my missionaries. We took every group of departing missionaries, on their last day in the mission, to the Nauvoo Temple for an endowment session. As Elder Uchtdorf had done with me, I greeted each missionary as they came into the celestial room with a big hug and the words, “I love you.” I expressed my deep appreciation for their service and that they were now able to “return with honor.” I meant every word of it, but I must admit that it was easier to express those sentiments to some missionaries than others.
One elder in particular had given me more than his share of grief. In fact, most of the grays hairs I gained in the mission field came because of him. He seemed to be in trouble all of the time. On more than one occasion, I told him I was going to send him home. He would always promise me that he would try harder—which he did—for awhile—and the cycle would start all over again—disobedience, admonishment and correction, repentance, renewed determination, then slacking off (sounds like all of us, doesn’t it?). I just wanted him to be able to complete his mission honorably. He wasn’t an “all star” missionary, but he made it.
As he came through the veil of the temple into the celestial room, I greeted him with the customary hug and the almost obligatory “I love you.” Tears streamed down his face. His whole body shook with weeping. When he could speak, he whispered to me over and over again, “Thank you for extending me mercy.” It was a tender moment and I, too, shed many tears. My love for him at that moment was unbounded. Then it happened. I understood. Almost as if the veil parted, I sensed a coming day when I would embrace the Savior and with tears of gratitude and love likewise declare, “Thank you for extending me mercy.” How grateful I am for the Lord’s arms of mercy. I am grateful that He has rescued me, not only from physical death and from sins, but also from myself—my fears, my discouragement, my doubts, my feelings of inadequacy. Truly, his arms of mercy are arms of safety and security. Mormon reminds us that, had his people repented and faithfully followed the Savior, “they might have been clasped in the arms of Jesus.”20
My young friends (and all you others that are not so young), you are incredible people—incredible in your accomplishments, your talents, your desires for righteousness, and for who you were even before you came to this earth. Yet, despite all of this, remember you and I are weak—spiritually without arms. We understand and at times feel profoundly what Ammon declared: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore, I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God.”21 Ammon knew whose arms gave him the strength to perform mighty miracles and proclaim the gospel with the trump of an angel. Paraphrasing Ammon’s words: “Clasped in the arms of Jesus, I can do all things.”
May we exercise greater faith in the arms of the Lord—His arms of power, His arms of love, and His arms of mercy. May we allow Him to cradle and carry and comfort us in those arms. In turn, our arms—our determination and our devotion—will be strengthened. I bear testimony of the living reality of Jesus Christ and the truthfulness of His gospel. I am witness of the enabling power of the Lord’s grace that empowers us to do and to be better than we are. I have experienced that power. I have felt His arms around me. May you be “clasped in the arms of Jesus” I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
The Path of the Peacemaker
Audio of President Kim B. Clark's BYU-Idaho devotional address Winter 2009