Lee Tom Perry
Professor of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at BYU
Bio not available.
I want to devote my instruction today to the Prophet Joseph Smith's Epistle to the Church, March 20, 1839--particularly a few verses extracted from it that eventually became part of Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Much, but not all, of what I discuss today will focus on answering a question that seems central to verses 34-46 of Section 121: what are the principles of righteousness for controlling and handling the rights of the priesthood and the powers of heaven?
This is not the first time I have tried to answer this question. I wrote a book that was published in 2004, Righteous Influence, that focused primarily on it. The subtitle of Righteous Influence was "What every leader should know about drawing on the powers of heaven." Apparently, there is more to know than I included in the book because the Lord has continued to bless me with insights about the Prophet's Epistle and Section 121.
Think for a moment about my experience in terms of the scriptures and other inspired writings of prophets, seers, and revelators. I have read Section 121 thousands of times and I continue to receive new insights. I'm not making this up or embellishing here and I have convincing evidence. I have completely worn out only these few pages in one set of scriptures and I'm well on my way to wearing out the same pages in another set.
I believe I will have accomplished my purpose for speaking today if I can both expand and clarify our understanding of verses 34-45 of Section 121. While these verses have often been used to instruct how we lead the Lord's way-and they certainly work with that purpose in mind-I want to shift perspective only slightly by viewing them as instruction about how to follow God's lead.
The Prophet's Epistle to the Church
I want to use The Prophet's Epistle to the Church as my starting point to provide context for the canonized verses of Section 121. The Prophet's Epistle has an interesting history. It was written near the end of Joseph Smith's 128-day incarceration in Liberty Jail. It was written over a five-day period-March 20-25th, which were his and his companions' 111th to 115th days in Liberty Jail-in response to letters Joseph received on March 19.
Two men served as scribes for the Epistle, Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae. The verses from Section 121 that are my focus today were written in the hand of Alexander McRae. Alexander McRae had an interesting physical characteristic-he was 6' 6" tall. Those of you who have been to the Church's visitors center in Liberty, Missouri, know the ceilings of the jail are only 6' 2" high. We understand better the unique suffering of Alexander McRae when we realize that for over four months he could not have known the feeling of straightening his tall frame. Of course, he probably didn't notice given all the other trials he and his fellow inmates had to endure.
The Church Historian's Office still has possession of the original March 20, 1839 letter, and the text of the letter was first published in 1840 in the Times and Seasons in two installments.
There have been numerous answered and unanswered questions about the Epistle over the years-too many to address, and if we were to address them they would distract us from our primary purpose. I, however, do want to share one conclusion from what is now a 10-year study of the history of the Epistle. Every shred of evidence suggests that Orson Pratt, under the direction of President Brigham Young, attempted to be as true as possible to the original text of the Epistle when he took passages from it to create Sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Now, in the interest of time, let's turn to today's central question.
The Principles of Righteousness
What are the principles of righteousness for controlling and handling the rights of the priesthood and the powers of heaven? This question arises in my mind from reading verse 36, and it seems extremely central and important to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the priesthood.
We, first, learn in verse 37 about what nullifies the rights of the priesthood. We could call verse 37 the principle of unrighteous actions. Reference is made to three unrighteous actions: 1) covering our sins; 2) gratifying our pride, our vain ambitions; and 3) exercising unrighteous control or dominion or compulsion on others. A man may be called to a priesthood office or calling, but the heavenly power associated with that office or calling is withdrawn immediately, if he performs any one of these three unrighteous actions. It's described as being as dramatic as turning off a power switch.
Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants instructs further about what happens. This is the revelation about the lost 116 pages of the original Book of Mormon manuscript. First of all, Section 3 is compelling evidence that Joseph Smith was not "covering his sins." Quite the contrary, he was uncovering them by sharing this revelation, initially, with his family and friends, but also by including it in the Book of Commandments and later the Doctrine and Covenants.
What were the actions for which Joseph Smith was censured by the Lord? That is, how did he violate the principle of unrighteous actions? In verses 4-7 we read:
"For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. "Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember also the promises which were made to you, if you did not transgress them. "And behold, how often you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. "For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God. Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words-"
As verse 4 clearly states, Joseph's unrighteous action was one all too common among men and women-we gratify our pride and pursue our own vain ambitions. Within this broader unrighteous action, Joseph's transgression was more specific-he "feared man more than God." Again, any one of the three unrighteous actions disconnects one from priesthood power. With that said, I see no evidence from the episode of the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript of Joseph exercising unrighteous dominion, but these verses in Section 3 are a wonderful example of righteous, in this case godly, reproof (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:43).
By combining instruction from Sections 3 and 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants we gain a clearer picture of the principle of unrighteous actions or the "off" switch to a heavenly power source. But what is the "on" switch? What does a priesthood holder need to do to establish or re-establish his connection to heavenly power? What are the corresponding principles of righteousness? What I have learned from my continued study of Section 121 is the answer is far clearer than I thought, even long after the publication of my book, Righteous Influence. It's important for me to set the record straight.
I believe I correctly identified two of the three principles of righteousness from verse 45-charity and virtue. What I missed, however, was the connection between verses 44 and 45 (I had previously connected verse 44 with verse 43). I had assumed the other principle of righteousness was faith. Linking verses 44 and 45, however, suggests that it is faithfulness. I now believe the intended meaning of verse 44 is: "That he [the individual whom the Spirit has moved you to reprove] may know that thy faithfulness [not to him, but to God] is stronger than the cords of death." A priesthood holder demonstrates his faithfulness to God by being compliant with His instructions, unless he is moved to do otherwise by the Spirit. He follows God's lead.
On the surface, the distinction between faith and faithfulness seems trivial. Aren't having faith and faithfulness essentially the same thing? Not exactly.
Having faith in Jesus Christ is believing in Him and His redemptive power. We approach the Lord, as the father of the epileptic child, pleading, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (see Mark 9:24). On the other hand, our faithfulness to God is measured by our sole devotion to Him. It is our adherence to the first and great commandment (see Matthew 22:38). In the divine accolade to the two servants who increased their talents in the Parable of the Talents, we learn we are considered "good and faithful" when we are faithful over the few things we are charged to do, and this is how we act in accordance to God's will, and ultimately earn an eternal reward. Understanding the principle of stewardship, the "good and faithful" servants acted on behalf of their master. Likely, they imagined what he would do if he were present and did it.
The belief that builds from faith in Jesus Christ and the devotion to God that stems from our faithfulness to Him are both essential to following God's lead. Together they form a virtuous cycle-faith leads to greater faithfulness and greater faithfulness leads to greater faith. When we view mortal life as a faith-testing and faith-building experience, it becomes profoundly clear how faith and faithfulness keep us close to God as they start, support, and sustain us along the pathway to eternal life.
Faith and Faithfulness to God
While the principles of faith in Jesus Christ and faithfulness to God are inseparable, the imagery of Lehi's dream helps me distinguish between them. In his dream, Lehi saw an iron rod that extended from the river bank, and then led to the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:19). He saw three different groups of people moving toward the tree of life.
The first group started along the path to the tree of life, but they did not hold to the iron rod, and when they came to a mist of darkness they wandered off and became lost. The second group clung to the iron rod and pressed forward through the mist of darkness until they came and partook of the fruit of the tree. But they were ashamed when the people who filled the great and spacious building on the other side of the river mocked and pointed their fingers at them. Fearing men and women more than loving God, they, too, fell away and became lost. Finally, the third group found its way to the tree of life by faithfully holding to the iron rod, and they fell down and partook of the fruit (see verses 21-30). They were so overwhelmed from tasting of the love of God that they completely lost their fear of men and women.
The members of all three groups had sufficient faith to enter by the gate on the "strait and narrow path," but only those who pressed "forward with a steadfastness in Christ" received eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:18-20). Lehi's dream teaches us something all of us know about our faith in Jesus Christ-it ebbs and flows, there are high tides and low tides. We should not be embarrassed by this, since it is a critical design feature of God's eternal plan. Why is faithfulness to God an essential companion to faith in Jesus Christ? It gets us through the clouds of darkness.
The prophet Abraham is the father of the faithful. What does this mean? It means that the covenant made between God and Abraham is extended to all who are faithful, whether they are among Abraham's literal seed or adopted into the house of Israel. Being a "good and faithful" servant is the principal criterion for receiving the blessings promised to Abraham.
In the history of the world, there is no better example than Abraham of someone who was led through difficult, even impossible challenges by his faith in God. In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews we read about Abraham's faith:
"By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: "For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. . . . "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, "Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: "Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead . . ." (Hebrews 11:8-10; 17-19).
How did Abraham do it? There is only one answer to this question that makes any sense-Abraham faithfully followed God's lead each step of the way.
Abraham is not only an extraordinary example of faith and faithfulness; he was also clearly on Joseph Smith's mind when he wrote the Prophet's Epistle to the Church. Sandwiched between the passages extracted for Section 121, Joseph wrote:
"And now, beloved brethren, we say unto you, that inasmuch as God hath said that He would have a tried people [. . .] it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham, and that the ancients will not have whereof to boast over us in the day of judgment, as being called to pass through heavier afflictions; that we may hold an even weight in the balance with them; but now, after having suffered so great sacrifice and having passed through so great a season of sorrow, we trust that a ram may be caught in the thicket speedily, to relieve the sons and daughters of Abraham from their great anxiety, and to light up the lamp of salvation upon their countenances, that they may hold on now, after having gone so far unto everlasting life."
In this passage, Joseph likens the trial of the Latter-day Saints' faith to the trials of Abraham, and by implication he implores them to be faithful, like Abraham, to the covenants they had made. In effect, he was reminding them of the promise found in 1 Corinthians 10:13-" . . . but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." The Abrahamic covenant is a covenant of faithfulness between God and man-there is no question that God will be faithful to us if we are faithful to Him.
How does a priesthood holder show his faithfulness to God? He follows God's instructions with exactness, unless the Spirit moves him to do otherwise. In Section 121, God's instructions are simple and straightforward:
"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
"By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile-
"Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem thee to be his enemy . . ." (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-43).
These instructions are unmistakably connected to the words of Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthian Church. Paul wrote:
"But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses,
"In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings;
"By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned" (2 Corinthians 6:4-6).
In my mind's eye, I imagine Joseph Smith, along with his companions in Liberty Jail, reading from 2 Corinthians in what Elder Neal A. Maxwell called their temple-prison, and receiving peace and deeper resolve to be faithful to the end; to remain virtuous in their thoughts, and have charity fill their souls for all men, even the prison guards they could hear just above them, who were near-perfect in their execution of unrighteous dominion. It's an inspiring image, even if one pauses for only a moment to dwell on it.
Following God's Lead
I have heard it said many times that the instruction given in verses 41-43 of Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants teaches us how to lead as Jesus did. It is a recipe for leading the Lord's way. Leading in the Lord's way is not leading in the traditional sense. After Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, He taught them:
"If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.
"For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him" (John 13:14-16).
Jesus set an example for His disciples by humbly washing their feet, but this act and everything else He has done on our behalf is, first and foremost, an expression of His faithfulness to His Father. As Jesus taught many times, He is the perfect expression of God, the Father, and He always does "those things that please him" (see John 8:29; John 5:19; Doctrine & Covenants 50:43). Since the beginning of time, the Savior has represented the will of the Father and ascribed all glory to Him (see Moses 4:2). This is why the Son could represent the Father in saving all mankind. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ . . ." (see 2 Corinthians 5:18). We often think of Jesus Christ as the perfect exemplar. Paul explained why it was necessary, as part of God's eternal plan, for Jesus to be the perfect exemplar. We become reconciled to God by Him.
What does it mean to be reconciled to God? First, we must recognize that reconciliation to God is not something we accomplish on our own. Nephi understood and taught his people they must believe in Christ to be reconciled to God, ". . . for it is by [His] grace that we are saved, after all that we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). Second, we must understand what reconciliation means, if we are to do all that we can do to be reconciled to God.
I can trace my first exposure to the word reconcile and my knowledge of the reconciliation process to a summer when I was a teenager working for the retail chain that employed my father as its chief financial officer. While I eventually moved to the Accounts Payable Department where I had a different boss, the first summer I worked directly for my father. My job was simple. I was given a desk with a four-function calculator, which as hard as it is to believe 45 years later, took up most of the space on the desk. I was given stacks of hand-written spreadsheets and asked to add the rows and columns in order to reconcile them. For example, there was an annual sales spreadsheet that had the monthly sales totals broken out by department. I was expected to add the columns to arrive at monthly sales totals, and also add the rows, which gave me year-to-date sales figures by department. The column totals and the row totals were not reconciled until they produced the same grand total in the bottom right-hand corner of the spreadsheet. Until I arrived at the same grand total I knew I had made a mistake and there was more work to do.
The greatest challenge I experienced reconciling a spreadsheet's row and column totals was finding my mistakes. I never knew whether my mistake was in the row or column totals, and sometimes it was both. Reconciliation would have been much easier if I knew the grand total was perfect and correct.
Our loving Father in Heaven, in His infinite wisdom created a perfect plan by which we could be reconciled to Him. First, He brought His perfect Son into the world. Jesus was without sin-He was a perfect and correct example of righteousness, and, therefore, we could be reconciled to God by being reconciled to Him. Then, through God, the Father's infinite grace, He allowed His Son, the only perfect man, to atone for the sins of His other children. Because Jesus Christ is faithful to God's perfect plan, everything we cannot do on our own, He, in His pre-ordained role as our Savior and Redeemer, does for us.
We know because Christ is the perfect and correct example of righteousness that leading His way is leading God's way. If we truly desire to lead as Jesus led, we will follow God's lead. The instruction given in verses 41-43 of Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants can be understood at two levels-it reveals both how God leads, and, in turn, how Jesus Christ follows God's lead.
Why is it even important to make the distinction between how God leads and how Jesus Christ follows God's lead? First, I believe there is widespread confusion about what it means to lead, both in and out of the Church. Jerry Harvey, not a member of the Church, but a deeply religious man who is also a well-known organizational scientist, once told me: "You don't know anything about a leader until you know something about his prayer life." In prayer, a leader communes with God, in the name of Jesus Christ, to determine His holy mind and will. When leaders pray to God, especially on bended knee with head bowed, they acknowledge to Him their desire to follow His lead. They approach God, recognizing their inadequacies as well as their need for divine intervention. Even Jesus Christ, who was perfect and correct, still prayed to His Father. Always and perfectly He followed God's lead.
Second, I don't believe it's enough for Church leaders to know how to lead God's way-they must also strive to learn why God leads the way He does. Your president, President Clark, when he was a professor at the Harvard Business School, made the distinction between know-how and know-why as he wrote about manufacturing and research and development processes. Generally, know-why indicates a deeper understanding than know-how. Often, we know how to operate something without having even the most basic knowledge of why it works.
Why do I believe a Church leader needs to know why, in addition to knowing how, to lead God's way? This answer can also be found in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In addition to being taught how to lead in God's way in verses 41-43, Joseph Smith was also taught the principle of unrighteous actions and the principles of righteousness. By taking an additional step back, focusing on verses 26-33 of Section 121, it also becomes clear that these principles are linked to the ultimate context for all know-why questions, knowledge about God's eternal plan of salvation. Verse 26, for example, speaks of knowledge "that has not been revealed since the world was until now." In verse 32, we learn more about this knowledge-it ". . . was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God . . . [and] reserved unto the finishing and the end . . . when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest."
It is possible for leaders to learn about why God leads the way He does by following His lead-not mindlessly, but inquisitively. A leader who follows God's lead and considers His ways will receive inspiration about His mind and will. We do not earn these insights, like students who are particularly attentive in class. Rather, as with all inspiration, insights into why God leads as He does are gifts from Him. These gifts are given gradually, not all at once. If they were given all at once, they would overwhelm us and we would not appreciate their full value, much like a child who has too much Christmas.
Ultimately, a deeper understanding of God's leadership will help us better follow His lead. It's easy to forget in this confusing world in which we live, with so many side streets and blind alleys, that the most direct way to eternal life is following God's lead. Jesus Christ was the correct and perfect exemplar of this surprisingly simple truth, which even less surprisingly also provides the surest way to be reconciled to God. Following God's lead is also the most direct way to help others receive eternal life and the surest way to receive the powers of heaven to serve others.
As Church leaders follow God's lead and learn more about His mind and will, they become more like Him. In effect, the virtuous cycle of faith in Jesus Christ and faithfulness to God expands, and the promised blessings of the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood are fulfilled. What are these blessings? Again, they are the blessings of eternal life. In the words of the Son of God: "And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father's kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him" (see Doctrine and Covenants 84:38).
I invite all of you to be faithful to God and follow His lead. I promise you this is the most direct way to eternal life, and bear testimony that it is God's plan for each of us to return to Him and live with Him eternally. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Following God's Lead
Audio of Lee Tom Perry's BYU-Idaho devotional address