Humanities & Philosophy Faculty
Brian L. Merrill earned his associate in English at Ricks College and his bachelor’s from BYU in Ancient Greek, Latin, English, and Philosophy. He went on to study at Oxford University and then received a master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Brother Merrill began teaching at BYU-Idaho in 1988 in the English department and for the past 21 years has taught humanities and philosophy.
Brother Merrill served in the Ecuador Quito Mission, as an elder’s quorum president, and in student ward bishoprics. He’s currently serving as a bishop for the second time, now in his home ward. His favorite calling was nursery leader.
Brian met his wife, Barbara, at Ricks college in a home evening group. They have been married for 36 years. They have two children, both BYU-Idaho graduates, and two grandsons.
Please respond to the question below on the devotional discussion board:
Elder Neal A. Maxwell has stated: “As you submit your wills to God, you are giving Him the only thing you can actually give Him that is really yours to give. Don’t wait too long to find the altar or to begin to place the gift of your wills upon it!” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2004, 46.)
Please ponder the following questions and share your thoughts on any of them:
What does it mean to give one’s will to God?
What does God give us in return?
What experiences have you had as you have striven to give your will to God?
When I was a little boy, growing up on the family farm, I wanted to be a cowboy in the worst way. I loved to watch The Lone Ranger and his faithful friend Tonto on our little black-and-white TV. In the evenings, after chores and dinner, my father and I would lie on the living room floor and listen to old western music on the phonograph. On my fourth birthday I got a shiny pair of pistols in leatherette holsters. I thought I was in cowboy heaven, even in red puppy slippers.
In my youth, I planned in more or less rapid succession to be a police officer, a spy, a scientist, an astronaut, a crop duster, and an airline pilot.
In the meantime, my Father in Heaven blessed me with good and wise parents who tried to teach me to work hard on the farm, to keep covenants, and to be kind to my sisters. He put teachers and family members in my way, who taught me, by word and action, about my Savior and His love for me.
Years later, I went off to college, planning to be a great scholar. I had a decades-long plan to scale the ivory tower, with no thought of bringing a family up with me.
In the meantime, God put in my way a handful of truly great teachers who taught me to love not having knowledge but knowledge itself. More importantly, Father in Heaven introduced me to a certain brilliant and beautiful young woman named Barbara Gale, and He gave me a vision of the joyful life we might have together. That was one of His most precious works in my life.
Then, still scaling that ivory tower, my sweetheart and I went to Oxford University. I planned to become the Mormon C. S. Lewis.
In the meantime, the Spirit prompted Sister Merrill to glance at a copy of the Church News left open on a friend’s side table, and her eye fell upon a notice about a faculty opening at Ricks College, and we came.
You will note, as I have, that almost all of the best things in my life have come in the meantime, while I was busy with other things. While I was planning my future, doing my thing, living my life in my way, my Father in Heaven had other plans, was doing His thing, gently leading me toward His life in His way. Our Father in Heaven works for us in the meantime, usually quietly, behind the scenes. While we are doing our thing, He is doing His, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life” of his children.  But this presents a problem. While God’s will is working in one direction, often our will is working in another direction, thinking and planning in our way, doing our thing. Under those conditions, the Lord declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  But shouldn’t our thoughts and our ways align with the thoughts and ways of the all-knowing, all-loving Father of our spirits?
You might be tempted to say, “Well, as long as my will, my plans, and my acts are not inconsistent with God’s will—in other words, as long as I’m not willfully sinning or openly rebelling—then I can quietly go about my business, doing my thing, without disturbing God’s plans.” But the problem is that God’s plan involves making something of you, something glorious and divine, indeed something like Him, and that eventually requires not only your full cooperation but also your full participation. You will have to make God’s ways your ways, and God’s thoughts your thoughts. This requires “a mighty change of heart.”  And that will not just happen to you in the meantime, while you’re busy doing something else. It will require your earnest engagement.
This mighty change may, and typically does, happen gradually, as you sincerely practice doing God’s will. You may, for example, have a glimpse of God’s thoughts as you “feast upon the words of Christ.”  That is the spirit of revelation. You may feel a flush of godly joy when you love and serve someone in God’s way.
As you practice doing God’s will, God continues to give you “further light and knowledge” concerning his will. The Lord declares: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line . . . and blessed are those who . . . lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more.”  Those glimpses of the divine will can quickly fade if we insist on doing our will. We must always be ready to receive another line and another precept, more knowledge and more promptings, and to act on them. As you open your heart and mind to the promptings of the Spirit and act on those promptings, gradually, your way of thinking will become God’s way of thinking, and your plan will be God’s plan; you will be doing God’s work and living the life God desires to give you.
Occasionally, the conversion of our will happens quickly and dramatically, as it did among the people of King Benjamin, who all cried with one voice, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent . . . has wrought a mighty change in us . . . . And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will . . . all the remainder of our days.” 
Perhaps you have had moments like this, as you listened to modern-day prophets, when the Spirit filled your soul with light and joy and effected a mighty change in your heart. I have had such moments. But you and I must, nevertheless, like King Benjamin’s people, continue on the covenant path day to day, adjusting our will to God’s, moment by moment.
The greatest obstacle to giving our will to God is pride. President Ezra Taft Benson taught:
“Pride is characterized by ‘What do I want out of life?’ rather than by ‘What would God have me do with my life?’ It is self-will as opposed to God’s will.” . . . The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. . . . Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.” 
Sometimes pride, in ourselves and others, is obvious and repulsive. But more often, pride is subtle and seductive. It takes the form of “self-realization” programs and tells you to “make something of yourself.” It declares, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  The most subtle form of pride goes unnoticed, it is so natural to us.
To illustrate this kind of subtle pride, I would like to borrow a trope from LDS philosopher Adam Miller.  We, all of us, says Miller, tell ourselves a story about ourselves. Our little projects and grand designs, our successes and failures are all parts of that story. Your story is your way of thinking, planning your future, doing your thing, living your life. It is the full internal manifestation of what we call “the will.” This is the story that you want your life to tell—or what you think your life will tell. Pride is to love our story more than the life God wants to give us.
When I was a little boy, I imagined how impressive I looked in my cowboy hat and boots and shiny toy pistols, and how I might ride my horse around the countryside and everyone would wonder, “Who is that mysterious cowboy; he looks like the Lone Ranger.” That was my story, and I was proud because I was succeeding in my story; I had got those fine shiny pistols in their leatherette holsters. Alas, “when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” 
When I became a man, I thought, “What a fine fellow I’ll be, so good and wise and educated that everyone will wonder, ‘Who is that good and wise and learned man; he’s just like C. S. Lewis.’” That was my story, and I was proud because I was succeeding in my story; I had got that education and those fine degrees. And still “I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” 
The Pharisees also told a story to themselves. In their story, the law played a central role. And they felt good about their story because they were the heroes of their story. In their story obedience to the law was the ultimate good, and they were very obedient. But when the law plays the central role in a story, it becomes an idol, written on tables of stone. In that role, it displaces the living God. The living law, in contrast, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God . . . [on] fleshy tables of the heart,”  points toward the giver of life, Jesus Christ. The Pharisees, their minds fixed on the law, were oblivious to the living water right before them. They loved their story more than they loved the life that Christ suffered and died to give them.
Some members of the Church, like the Pharisees, give the law a central role in their story. When they do, one of two things happens. On the one hand, like the Pharisees, they may love their story, because they feel justified by the law and see themselves among the “ninety and nine . . . [who] need no repentance.”  On the other hand, the law may play the role of an accuser: “You can never measure up! You’re worthless!” it says. When the law plays the role of an accuser, some members become disaffected from the Church and from the living God, because they cannot bear the accusations. “The veil is upon their heart,” and upon it is projected their story, so that they cannot “steadfastly look to the end of that” law, which is Jesus Christ.  They hold fast to the iron rod but stand fixated upon it, instead of following it to its end—the fount of living waters and the tree of life.  The problem isn’t the law, or the Church, or God; the problem is their story.
You might be thinking that what you need to do, then, is to tell yourself a better story in which God plays a starring role, so that, with enough faith and prayers and obedience, God will make your story work out. But, says Miller, “faith isn’t about getting God to play a more and more central part in your story. Faith is about sacrificing your story on his altar. . . . Jesus is not asking you to tell a better story or live your story more successfully, he is asking you to lose that story. . . . ‘He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.’  Life is full of stories, but life is not a story. God doesn’t love your story, he loves you.”  Nor does God want to give you another story; he wants to give you life. Preferring your story to the life he wants to give you is idolatry.
When we are seduced by our story and mistake it for “the way, the truth, and the life,” we measure our life against it and inevitably find our life wanting. We feel overwhelmed, because our story is invariably a terrible taskmaster. We are constantly feeling guilty, ashamed, and worthless, because the protagonist of our story is inevitably better than we are. When the weight of our story becomes unbearable, it never occurs to us to give up our story, because, after all, we suppose, our story is who we are.
The burden of our story is heavy—like the burden of the Pharisees, whose story was weighted with 10,000 commandments, plus commentary. But Christ invites us, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Christ asks us to lay down the burden of our story, with its concatenation of sins and miseries, and to take up His yoke.
And what is Christ’s yoke? We remind ourselves of it each time we sincerely partake of the sacrament. Having offered upon His altar “a broken heart and a contrite spirit,”  we covenant to take His name upon us and “always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given [us].”  When you come unto Christ, lay your story upon His altar, and take up His yoke, you say with Him, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” 
We are naturally reluctant to sacrifice our story and to give our will to God. There are all kinds of reasons for that reluctance. Perhaps we are too comfortable with our story, however impoverished or excruciating it is. Perhaps we proudly insist upon being the author of our life, “the master of [our] fate, . . . the captain of [our] soul,”  even while it is embarrassingly obvious that we are not and never can be. Perhaps we are afraid of what God may do with us. Or perhaps we are afraid that if we give up our story, we will lose ourselves.
But you are not your story. You are far grander and far more interesting than any story. God’s work in your life is infinitely more glorious than the story that you’d like your life to tell. Only infantile folly or gross pride could possibly cause us to love our story more than the unfathomably rich and joyful life that God wills for us.
What is this life our Father in Heaven wills for us?
President Ezra Taft Benson gives us some idea of that life: “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.” 
Candace Rasmussen offered an insightful analogy on the discussion board. She suggests that we are like Jared and his people, whom the Lord had led into the wilderness: “And the Lord would not suffer that they should stop . . . in the wilderness, but he would that they should come forth even unto the land of promise.”  Candace draws the analogy: “Sometimes we are willing to ‘stop’ and become comfortable in the life we think we should have, but He wants more for us and can see in us the truth of our divinity and who we are to become. We need to trust Him.”
I am deeply grateful that I did not “stop” in the wilderness of my own childish plans, that I did not become that cowboy or even that great scholar. The life God has given me in this “land of promise” has been far richer and more joyful than the story I imagined for myself.
The life our Father in Heaven offers us is not without struggle or sorrow. But I promise you that if you will trust in Him and submit your will to His, He will sanctify those struggles for your good and turn those sorrows into joy. He promises to those who do His will “even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”  When we submit our will to God, when we write upon our hearts the higher law to come unto Christ and to follow Him, life becomes simpler, more peaceful, more balanced, more beautiful, and more holy.
If you are holding back a part of yourself, not fully committed to doing the will of your Father in Heaven, now is the time to lay your will upon the altar and yield to the “enticings of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the Spirit is nudging you to put down your cell phone, or go to the temple, or call your mother, or take better care of your body, as Sister Huber enjoined us in last week’s devotional, or stop that pornography habit today and go get help from your bishop. Whatever the Spirit is prompting you to do, do it now. “[Become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [you].”  “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”  Your story cannot help you with these things; only the real, living power of Christ’s Atonement can.
Right now you know that you are the beloved son or daughter of Heavenly Parents, with a divine nature and destiny. That is not a story. That is real. Right now you know the covenant path that you must take. The Spirit will light your steps along that path, one step at a time. That is not a story. That is real.
Our Savior Jesus Christ has shown us the way; He is the way. He declared, “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.”  Let us declare with Him, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”  Let us sing with the psalmist: “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.”  Let us put aside the chains of our story, and our pride, and our will, and take up the life that our Father in Heaven so freely offers.
Christmas is near, a time to celebrate God’s inestimable gift to us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  You might ask, like the Little Drummer Boy, what can I give? What, indeed, can you give to Him who has given you all things? Only your will and, with it, your story. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said: “As you submit your wills to God, you are giving Him the only thing you can actually give Him that is really yours to give. Don’t wait too long to find the altar or to begin to place the gift of your wills upon it!” 
My friends, I challenge you, I plead with you, don’t wait too long. Do it now, today. Do that one thing, now, that the Spirit is prompting you to do, and then do the next, and the next. Line upon line, and precept upon precept, give your will to God, and He will give it back to you, story-free, redeemed, perfected, sanctified, and glorified. Then you will feel to sing the song of redeeming love, having experienced that mighty change of heart, having received His image in your countenance, having become even as He is. 
Of this I testify, in the name of our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, amen.
 Moses 1:39.
 Isaiah 55:8.
 See Mosiah 5:2; Alma 5:14.
 2 Nephi 32:3.
 2 Nephi 28:30.
 Mosiah 5:2, 5.
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 229, 232.
 William Ernest Henley, “Invictus.”
 See Adam S. Miller, “Sin,” Letters to a Young Mormon, Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
 1 Corinthians 13:11.
 2 Corinthians 3:3.
 Luke 15:7.
 2 Corinthians 3:13, 15.
 See 1 Nephi 11:25.
 Matthew 10:39.
 Adam S. Miller, “Sin,” Letters to a Young Mormon, Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
 Matthew 11:28–30.
 3 Nephi 9:20.
 Moroni 4:3.
 Luke 22:42.
 William Ernest Henley, “Invictus.”
 Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 4.
 Ether 2:7.
 Doctrine and Covenants 59:23.
 Mosiah 3:19.
 Proverbs 3:5–6.
 3 Nephi 27:27.
 Moses 4:2.
 Psalm 40:8.
 John 3:16.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Ensign, May 2004, 46.
 See Alma 5:14, 19, 26.