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Looking Backward and Looking Forward

Audio: Looking Backward and Looking Forward
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President Gilbert; members of the faculty, administration, and staff of BYU-Idaho; graduates; brothers and sisters; and friends, Kathy and I are very grateful to be here tonight to celebrate this marvelous occasion. Graduations are significant since they represent so much accomplishment and so many transitions.

Let's take a few moments to offer deserved commendation to the faculty and administration of BYU-Idaho. They are charged with the noble responsibility of educating and helping prepare generations of young adults for the opportunities and challenges of life. They bear their charge beautifully. Please join me in an expression of appreciation for those who make BYU-Idaho so productive and valuable. Thank you, dear friends.             

We remember the key role of parents in making a BYU-Idaho education possible for their children. In most cases, you parents have borne the financial burden of tuition, living expenses, books, and travel between home and school. Many of you sacrificed some personal enjoyment or luxury to support your student. Thank you, parents.             

Let's honor as well the spouses and children of today's graduates. Thank you for supporting and helping these graduating students reach this day.       
Finally, and importantly, let's recognize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church members who selflessly sustain its inspired objectives. BYU-Idaho and its sister organizations in Provo, Laie, and Salt Lake City exist because of the contributions of individual tithe payers all over the world, literally from Albania to Zimbabwe.            

It's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this point a little longer. The cost in dollars and cents of operating BYU-Idaho dwarfs what students and parents pay in tuition and associated expenses. The Church's expensive financial sponsorship of BYU-Idaho is absolutely intentional. It is an investment in the rising generation that is intended to be realized across decades and generations.

Now, a few thoughts about the substance of this graduation.             

We call the first month of the year January after the Roman god Janus. In ancient Rome, Janus was said to be the god of beginnings and endings, of transitions, time, doorways, and passages. Romans believed Janus looked to the future and to the past, so he was usually depicted as having two opposite faces.[1] Graduations invite us to reflect both back on where we have been and forward toward where we are going. We do well to take time now and then to look backward and to look forward. Then, having taken stock, we are better prepared to move on to productive, satisfying, and useful next steps.        

Let's look back together--there is so much of good to look back on and remember. There are the noble examples of forebears, in the generation immediately past or in earlier ones. We collectively enjoy the benefits of the exertion and faith of past generations. In 1676, Isaac Newton observed, "If I have seen further [than others] it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."[2] We all stand on the shoulders of those who faced down the challenges and overcame the problems of their lives. They bequeathed to us all we enjoy-- cities with electricity and peace with prosperity. With only a few troubling present exceptions around the world, we each live in a "good land." Consider what Moses taught the children of Israel in the wilderness:             

"For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills;" 

"A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey;"         

"A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass."

"When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee."

"Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day."[3]          

Speaking of not forgetting, when we look back we should remember that our blessings of freedom in this "good land" were purchased by the blood and sacrifice of ancestors. They lived and died to bequeath to us the right to exercise our moral agency without unreasonable restraint by government action. Their social and civic legacy is fragile. Our precious freedoms are in peril, but few even notice. Freedoms can be stripped from us by force, although that is not common in the Western world today. It is more common that we negligently surrender them through apathy and self-absorption. We fail to remember the price paid to secure these rights and the immeasurable value of our national and individual birthrights. When we look back, we should recognize that our freedom came at a very high cost in human life, suffering, and treasure.             

Most important for us to remember when we look back is the fact of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the latter days. God has set up a kingdom "which shall never be destroyed." We know that it shall overtake and eventually "consume all [other] kingdoms" and that "it shall stand for ever."[4] Our sweetest blessings and happinesses are made possible by the Savior, who is "King of kings, and Lord of lords,"[5] and His Church. Whether we look back or forward, we should always remember Him. After all, we promised to remember Him when we were baptized, and we promise anew each week. Helaman taught his sons Nephi and Lehi to "remember," repeating that word 13 times in seven verses.[6] Really remembering Him in all we do is the key to mortal success.

As we look back, we should take time to "count [our] many blessings; name them one by one," and remember the abundant mercies and generosity of God. "What the Lord has done" will indeed "surprise" us if we account honestly for all that we enjoy.[7]             

The phrase "looking back" is sometimes paired with the sorry decision made by Lot's wife to look back on Sodom. Her looking back must have been influenced by some sort of yearning for the unrighteous culture that ultimately caused the "cities, and all the plain" to be destroyed. The Genesis account reminds us that our looking back should be motivated by righteous purposes only. Looking back to remember or long for past romantic connections, questionable conduct, or inappropriate indulgences would never be appropriate but is akin to Lot's wife's action.[8]             

Graduations also invite us to look forward. Looking into the future is not easy for those not ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators; nevertheless, there are principles that extend our long-distance vision. One such principle is the law of the harvest. Paul explained the law of the harvest as follows: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."[9] To a much greater extent than we realize and remember, our lives are the product of our daily decisions. Faithfulness with the little daily acts of faith yields a harvest of peace and protection emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Such faithfulness becomes a protective shield against the "fiery darts" of the adversary.[10] Little daily acts of genuine faith are like bricks that, layer upon layer, build mansions of happiness and security for life.

Your study and accomplishment at BYU-Idaho are a form of looking forward. One obvious benefit of a college education is that it prepares students to earn a future living. Your future career will be greatly enhanced by what you have learned here. Your learning literally opens doors of opportunity that will not swing open for those whose more limited preparation shrinks their horizons.             

More important, your college education will bless you in nonfinancial ways as well. It will enhance your capacity to be successful marriage partners and, later, to be loving, effective parents and grandparents. Your homes will be enriched by the training you have been given here. The most important application of your learning will be in your homes.

Your capacity to serve in the Church and in the community also has been expanded. You leave here more useful than you were when you entered. As college graduates, you join a worldwide minority who have been trained in a superior institution of higher learning. Your diploma will certify that you are an educated man or woman. One of the principal advantages of being such is that you are prepared to be self-reliant. Self-reliance is a key virtue for disciples of Jesus Christ to seek to develop in this life. A Church handbook teaches:             

"Self-reliance is the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family. As members become self-reliant, they are also better able to serve and care for others.             
"Church members are responsible for their own spiritual and temporal well-being. Blessed with the gift of agency, they have the privilege and duty to set their own course, solve their own problems, and strive to become self-reliant. Members do this under the inspiration of the Lord and with the labor of their own hands."[11]

There is inevitably an element of the unknown as we consider the future. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes observed that "time and chance happeneth to them all,"[12] including each of us. We don't know how long we will live, how the decisions of others will affect us, or what the influences of politics and economies will be. However, as we "press forward,"[13] we don't need to see the end from the beginning. God does, and that is sufficient for us.

Thus, when we look forward, we should not expect to see everything that is ahead. When interviewed about the process of writing fiction, the novelist E. L. Doctorow, who wrote Ragtime, said, "It's like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."[14]

The beloved hymn "Lead, Kindly Light" teaches a similar comforting thought about trusting God as we "press forward":

"Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom;"
"Lead thou me on!"
"The night is dark, and I am far from home;"
"Lead thou me on!"
"Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see"
"The distant scene--one step enough for me."[15]

Paul noted that "for now we see through a glass, darkly."[16] Still, we do look through that glass to see all that we can. We shine the headlights into the fog or the "encircling gloom." We hold up the "kindly Light." The Lord once condemned those who did not see the "distant scene," saying, "Their hearts have waxed hard, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes cannot see afar off."[17]             
So we are expected to look forward and backward and to do our best both to remember and to anticipate. The scriptural record is rich with sacred history and with prophetic prediction, and there is much to remember about the past and the future.             

Some things about the future are absolutes. Here's one: "The eternal purposes of the Lord shall roll on, until all his promises shall be fulfilled."[18]

Here's a second: "Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land."[19] That promise is still in place. Its tried and tested formula for success should not be underestimated. Keeping the commandments is powerful medicine. It prevents or greatly reduces injury to heart, mind, and emotion. By inviting the blessings of the Savior's Atonement, obedience helps heal individual broken hearts, wounded spirits, and the souls of entire nations.

Wherever you go from here, to a greater degree than you can now imagine, your faithful adherence to the commandments of God will bless and prosper you in your "good land."[20] It will bless your marriages and families. It will bless your careers and your homes. It will bring joy to your days and peace to your hearts. So go forward to your tomorrows with faith, remembering or looking back to the past and anticipating or looking forward to the future as best you can. You have more control over your tomorrows than you realize, based on your faithful adherence to the commandments. And then, having done whatever is in your power, be calm and trust in God. Things will work out for your good.[21] Remember this counsel from the author Victor Hugo: "[Have] courage for the great sorrows of life, and patience for the small ones. And . . . when you have [finished] your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake."[22]

I bear testimony of the loving Heavenly Father of us all, of His Beloved Son, and of the Restoration of the gospel in the latter days. May God bless and keep you all. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (2003), "Janus."

[2] In a letter to Robert Hooke, Feb. 5, 1676 (Old Style calendar) (Feb. 15, 1676 [New Style calendar]); spelling modernized

[3] Deuteronomy 8:7-11

[4] Daniel 2:44

[5] 1 Timothy 6:15

[6] Helaman 5:5-12

[7] "Count Your Blessings," Hymns, no. 241

[8] Genesis 19:25-26

[9] Galatians 6:7

[10] Ephesians 6:16; 1 Nephi 15:24; Doctrine and Covenants 3:8; 27:17

[11] Handbook 2: Administering the Church [2010], 6.1.1

[12] Ecclesiastes 9:11

[13] 2 Nephi 31:20

[14] In an interview with George Plimpton, "The Art of Fiction No. 94," The Paris Review, issue 101 (winter 1986)

[15] Hymns, no. 97

[16] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[17] Moses 6:27

[18] Mormon 8:22

[19] 2 Nephi 1:20

[20] Deuteronomy 8:7; 2 Nephi 1:20

[21] Doctrine and Covenants 90:24

[22] In The Letters of Victor Hugo: From Exile, and After the Fall of the Empire, ed. Paul Meurice (1898), 23