Physics Faculty Member
Born in Driggs, Idaho to Elmo and Verna Tonks, William Brian Tonks grew up in Victor, Idaho.
He received an associate degree from Ricks College, and a bachelor's degree in Physics from BYU.
He served in the U.S. Naval Reserves for 5 years, and was on active duty in the U.S. Navy for 5 years.
Brian taught at the Naval Nuclear Power School and went from there to the University of Arizona to earn a PhD in Planetary Science, where he researched several aspects of the origin of the earth and moon.
He began teaching in the Physics Department at BYU-Idaho in 1993. He served as Physics Department Chair from 2002-2007.
Brother Tonks served in the Arkansas Little Rock Mission. He has also been, among other things, a Sunday School teacher, ward mission leader, military group leader, bishop's counselor, nursery leader with his wife, and most recently, bishop of the Rexburg YSA 19th ward.
Brian and his wife, Nancy, have been married for 35 years. Three of their four children have attended BYU-Idaho. They also have 10 grandchildren.
I express thanks to President Gilbert and his staff for this opportunity to speak and their kindness this day. I also thank the choir for inviting the Spirit into this devotional. Few things invite the Spirit more strongly than sacred music. I express appreciation for my sweet wife, Nancy, and her unfailing support. I deeply appreciate our sweet companionship over these past 35 years. I appreciate my family and colleagues for their support. I also express my appreciation to you for coming to this devotional. You are where the Lord wants you to be during this time, and I commend you for your devotion to Him.
You are a magnificent sight. As I've pondered and prayed about what I might share today, this question came to my mind: What insights can you uniquely contribute because of your experiences? By disposition and training, I am a scientist. From my earliest recollection, I've had deep interest in how the world works. For Christmas I'd ask for science toys. I had a chemistry set and a microscope and learned a lot about those subjects--without, thankfully, blowing up the house. I merely stained the old kitchen table. However, at age 12, three events would forever change my world. I was ordained a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood and committed that I would fulfill my priesthood responsibility. I found a home within the Church of Jesus Christ. I went to Scout camp for the first time and earned the astronomy merit badge. I fell in love with the night sky. Later that same summer, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed on the moon. These last two events kindled a love for astronomy that has never died. As a result, I trained to become an astronomer, beginning my college career here and serving a mission. I returned to Ricks, then on to BYU, where I finished my undergraduate degree. After serving in the U.S. Navy for five years, I attended graduate school at the University of Arizona, ultimately graduating with a doctorate degree in planetary science. While at Arizona, I became involved in nearly all facets of the scientific process--I performed original cutting-edge research on aspects of the earth's and moon's origin, wrote research grant proposals and original research papers, spoke at professional meetings, and even peer-reviewed the papers of others. After graduating, I began teaching at this institution and am now teaching my 24th year. Earlier this semester I was released from serving as the bishop of the Rexburg YSA 19th Ward, so I've had the opportunity to work with you and your peers closely, both professionally and ecclesiastically, and understand something of your worries and concerns. As a result, I've felt impressed to share with you insights that have come to me over the years about our eternal identity and destiny.
Do you ever get feeling down? Do you ever have self-doubt? Do you ever wonder if life is worthwhile or if you can measure up? If you have never felt this way, you are either very blessed or not being completely honest. It's normal to have these feelings. So what do you do about them? When I feel this way, I either go outside and sit under the starry canopy of the heavens or look at a picture of a galaxy. This may seem like a very unusual thing to do. Your astronomy professor will tell you that when you look at a galaxy like the one you see here,
you're looking at an enormous star system containing hundreds of billions of stars and planets. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is over 100,000 light-years across and contains an estimated 200-400 billion stars. Our galaxy is separated from its nearest large galactic neighbor, the great Andromeda Galaxy,
by 2½ million light-years! This means that the light we receive from the Andromeda Galaxy tonight left there about 2½ million years ago! However, even this enormous distance pales in comparison to the entire universe. Pictures taken with the Hubble Space Telescope
show galaxies that are over 13 billion light-years away. By counting the number of galaxies in this picture and knowing how large this patch of sky actually is, astronomers estimate that the universe must contain at least 125 billion galaxies! I read, a short time ago, that astronomers have greatly increased the number of galaxies in our universe to over 2 trillion!
How do you react to this incomprehensibly huge universe? Many feel very, very small and insignificant compared to the vastness of our universe. How about you? I share with you six points which, if understood, will help you both put your existence on this singular world into perspective and weather the trials and tribulations that will inevitably come in this life. They are, (1) God reveals our eternal identity and gives us strength to do His work, (2) Satan distorts our eternal identity, (3) God will help us overcome Satan's temptations, (4) God revealed our eternal destiny, (5) this Earth life has meaning and purpose, and (6) God sent His Son, our Savior, to give us the power we need to fulfill our eternal destiny. Let's briefly explore each of these essential points.
1. God reveals our eternal identity and gives us strength to do His work. Let's begin by turning to Moses 1. You can think of Moses 1 as the preface to the Creation story. Recall that God called Moses out of the burning bush to free the children of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Talk about an overwhelming calling! You may recall that Moses tried to squirm out of this calling--I am slow of speech, I am hated of my brethren, I am wanted for murder by the Egyptians (he had killed an Egyptian overlord), I don't even know God's name, the Israelites won't believe me, etc. God showed many miracles to convince Moses of His power. Moses finally agreed to go, but apparently he still harbored feelings of inadequacy when he received the revelation we know now as Moses 1. Moses received this revelation when he was "caught up into an exceedingly high mountain" (Moses 1:1), apparently after his call at the burning bush but sometime before he arrived in Egypt, because the revelation says, "For thou shalt deliver my people from bondage, even Israel my chosen" (Moses 1: 26). It seems clear to me that God gave Moses the revelation to reassure him that God could perform His work through Moses.
Moses 1 records two of the greatest revelations ever received by a mortal. Moses stands in God's presence and speaks with him "face to face" (Moses 1:31). God opens the first revelation with the following preface:
Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?
And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.
Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.
And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all.
And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Moses, my son, for thou art in the world, and now I show it unto thee.
And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered. (Moses 1:3-8)
Who would not have marveled and wondered? Who would not have had more questions? Did you notice that God called Moses "my son" three times? This is your eternal identity. You are a child of God, His son or daughter. He loves you. What does knowing that you are His son or His daughter mean to you? It means that you can be assured that God loves you and will help you do all things that He has asked you to do. Just as God showed Moses the glorious vision of the earth to instill the confidence Moses needed to complete His work, He will let you know through the Holy Ghost that you are His child. That knowledge will allow you to face whatever trials may come your way, to do whatever work He would have you do. There were many times in my undergraduate years and graduate school that I began to doubt if I had the ability to complete such a difficult degree. Yet I knew that I was on the path God had for me to walk, and knowing that, coupled with knowing that I am His son, gave me the courage and faith to move forward with confidence.
2. Satan distorts our eternal identity. Let's return to Moses 1. After Moses's first vision, Moses 1 records that God's presence withdrew from Moses. He was completely drained. He fell to the earth and had no strength for several hours. Eventually he regained his natural strength.
He said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.
But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:10-11)
After this glorious vision, who should appear on the scene but Satan, tempting Moses: "Moses, son of man, worship me" (Moses 1:12). Notice the difference between how God addressed Moses and how Satan addressed him. Satan cast doubt in Moses's mind about who he really was. He distorted Moses's eternal identity. Certainly Moses and all of us are sons and daughters of man. In this life we have mortal bodies begotten by earthly parents. Satan's attempt, however, was to dismiss our eternal identity and convince us that we are only human, complex biochemical machines that just happen to be complex enough to have this wonderful property called consciousness. If Moses were just a "son of man," then how could Moses do God's work? If you are just a son or daughter of man, what eternal meaning does this life really have?
Distorting our eternal identity is one of Satan's most powerful tactics. He uses it on everyone he can. For example, you'll recall when Satan tempted the Savior at the beginning of his ministry, he hissed, "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread" (Matthew 4:3). Satan distorted Christ's eternal identity and tried to cast doubt in Christ's mind about who He really was. Christ, of course, did not fall for the tactic.
In our day Satan continues to use this tactic with great success. Popular culture perpetuates Satan's lies; modern science completely ignores our eternal core. However, God declared (three times) that Moses was God's son. If you heed the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, you will feel the truth of the song "I Am a Child of God" (Hymns, no. 301). Please don't allow Satan to distort your eternal identity.
3. God will help us overcome Satan's temptations. What happens after Satan comes to Moses on the mount, I think, is highly instructive. After Satan commands Moses to worship him, Moses looks on Satan and realizes that he can do so with his natural eyes. Moses answers (paraphrasing slightly), "Look, dude, I am a son of God; why should I worship you? I can look at you with my natural eyes, but I have seen God. I could not have seen Him with my natural eyes. God is a God of glory, so why would I worship you?" It is a response that comes out of pure knowledge--Moses has seen God and has seen the contrast between God and Satan. In fact, the tone of Moses's response is almost cocky. Moses commands Satan to depart.
But does he? No! He rants, he raves, he throws a tizzy fit: "I am the Only Begotten, worship me" (Moses 1:19). The scripture now records, "And it came to pass that Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. Nevertheless, calling upon God, he received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory" (Moses 1:20). After throwing a final temper tantrum, Satan departs.
To me, this interchange teaches us that pure knowledge alone does not give us the power to resist Satan. Moses knew with perfect knowledge that he was a son of God. However, it was not until Moses called upon God that he received the strength he needed to overcome Satan's counterfeits.
How about you? Do you have doubts that you are God's son or daughter? If so, why? What counterfeits has Satan and his minions offered you? Do you specifically ask God for strength to overcome Satan's distortions? If not, please consider adding that request in your prayers. When those times come that you have doubts about who you really are, remember this interchange between Moses and Satan. Follow Moses's example: pray specifically to God for the power to withstand Satan.
4. God revealed our eternal destiny. After his confrontation with Satan, Moses's second vision unfolds. He is brought back into God's presence, face to face, according to Moses 1:31. Again he is shown a grand vision, such a vision that, as a scientist, I can only dream of.
And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God.
And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. (Moses 1:27-28)
Moses definitely has questions! "Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?" (Moses 1:30). We might ask the same question when we look at the objects in our universe through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope--stars, planets, clouds of gas and dust, and all those galaxies--galaxies almost innumerable.
God answers Moses,
For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.
And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth.
And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.
And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many.
But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them. (Moses 1:31-35)
Moses relents and asks a more limited question: "Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content" (Moses 1:36).
God's answer to Moses's humble inquiry provides us with one of the most profound statements in holy writ:
And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
For behold, this is my work and my glory--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:37-39)
In one simple, profound statement, God tells us the ultimate purpose for the entirety of the Creation. The earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the entire universe have but one purpose--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. This is God's mission statement, to help you and me become like He is--to have a glorified eternal body and to grow into the type of being He is. He does it because we are His spirit children, just as, hopefully, your parents have helped you become the person you have become so far. This is your eternal destiny!
5. This earth life has meaning and purpose. God showed Moses the earth and all the inhabitants of it. The prophet Abraham also had deep understanding of our eternal identity and destiny. He sums up the meaning and purpose of this earth in the following succinct statement. This is the theme scripture for the Issues of Science course I teach, How to Build a Habitable Planet.
And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)
Here we have the purpose of this life explained in three short statements. The Savior created this world out of preexisting materials to provide us with a probationary state, to see if we would exercise our agency by following the commandments of God. We needed to leave God's presence--we needed to go to boarding school, so to speak--to grow, progress, and demonstrate that we would be obedient without being in God's presence. Those of us who do so, what is meant by "they who keep their second estate," will be glorified throughout the eternities. Of course, other scriptures, especially Doctrine and Covenants 76, amplify what God means by this statement to Abraham. This life is critically important. Satan tempts us to forget our eternal identity and destiny in a lot of ways, but one thing he does effectively is distorting the purpose of this life. He teaches many effective lies, like "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" (2 Nephi 28:7), he who has the most toys wins, maximize pleasure, minimize pain, etc. However, if we clearly understand, and believe in, our eternal identity and destiny, it is easier to ignore Satan's lies.
6. God sent His Son, our Savior, to give us the power we need to fulfill our eternal destiny. God knew that we could not fulfill our eternal destiny alone. We would need to change and grow. We would make mistakes. We would not have the power on our own to fulfill our eternal destiny. Continuing from Abraham 3,
And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.
And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him. (Abraham 3:27-28)
Christ's Atonement provides the power to both cleanse us from our sins and shortcomings and enable us to do all things the Lord commands us. When I partake of the sacrament each Sunday, I am reminded that God sent His Only Begotten Son to suffer, bleed, and die to prepare the way for us to be able to repent. His atoning sacrifice is the key ingredient to allow us to fulfill our eternal destiny.
This is the Christmas season, the time of year we remember, with the rest of the Christian world, the birth of our Savior. As you celebrate this year, I hope that you will look at a picture of a galaxy, or bundle up and go outside on a clear December night and look up at the starry canopy above and allow the Spirit to whisper to you that you are a beloved son or daughter of Heavenly Parents who love you enough to create a world and a universe so you can grow to become like Them. They love you enough to have sent Their Firstborn to this world to atone for your sins.
Conclusion When I gaze at the starry heavens, the Spirit whispers to me, sometimes subtly, sometimes rather loudly, that I am, like Moses, a son of God, made in His image: my eternal identity. Likewise, when I look at a picture of a galaxy, knowing as I do that I am looking at the combined light of billions upon billions of stars, I know that He created it for you and for me. When I'm tempted or depression starts to set in, I'm reminded that Satan distorts our eternal identity and destiny. In these times, I seek the Lord and am reminded that He has power over Satan and will strengthen me when I seek Him. When I study this earth, marvel at its beauty, and remember what I've come to understand about its creation from the science that I have studied for years, I am reminded of what He revealed to Abraham about its purpose.
I know that He lives. Please never, ever forget that He loves you. I testify that He does. I know it because during my service as bishop, I felt His love for you in a deep and poignant way. I know that your eternal identity is a son or daughter of God. Likewise, I know that your eternal destiny is to return to His presence, cleansed through the blood of Jesus Christ, to become like He is. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Your Eternal Identity and Destiny
Audio of Brian Tonk's devotional address entitled "Your Eternal Identity and Destiny" given December 6, 2016