The following is the text from an address given by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a broadcast to the 220 stakes in the Utah Salt Lake Area on September 11, 2016.
My brothers and sisters, it is a pleasure to meet with you here in the Conference Center and by satellite broadcast throughout the Utah Salt Lake City multistake conference area. I thank Sister Oscarson, Bishop Waddell, and Elder Hallstrom for their important messages this morning.
Because I am unable to personally meet with all of you in your 220 stakes and one district where you are gathered in your many chapels, and unlike the Apostle Paul, who kept in touch with the ancient Saints through letters or epistles that he sent to different branches communicating his love, direction, and teachings, I will verbally give to you my own epistle today to express my love, gratitude, and teachings.
To the Saints in Corinth, Paul wrote, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God.”
I have also been called to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and as a special witness of the Lord, I testify, as Paul did in his letters, that Jesus Christ gave Himself for us and that the Father raised Him from the dead. I further testify that Christ restored His Church through the Prophet Joseph Smith in these last days and that the fulness of the gospel and the blessings associated with eternal covenants are available to all who will believe and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
In greeting you, I will paraphrase Paul’s words: “Unto the church of God [in the Utah Salt Lake City Area], to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, … grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul often praised the Saints for their example, as he did in his letter to the Romans: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” The same can be said today about you Saints in this area—I thank you for your faith, dedication, and devotion, all of which are well known throughout the entire Church.
It could easily be said that during the early years of Church history, the Utah Latter-day Saints were the very heart of the Restoration, pumping out the life’s blood of gospel truth that flowed throughout the entire world—giving members everywhere important spiritual oxygen and essential nutrients.
The heart of the Church in Utah continues to beat steadily, an indication of the spiritual health and well-being of dedicated members who have become devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a consequence of your faithfulness and your heartfelt dedication, the Lord has blessed you greatly—and through you, the world around you. In terms of tithes and offerings, missionary service, temple work, good deeds, and leadership, the Utah Salt Lake Area provides the Church a generous resource to build the kingdom of God and to establish Zion throughout the world.
We see this faithfulness in your lives of dedication to becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. Additionally, your devotion to the Lord is revealed in the religious landscape of the Utah Salt Lake City Area, with:
- Five missions.
- Five temples.
- Vibrant institutes of religion associated with the great colleges and universities in the area.
- Numerous ward, stake, and seminary buildings from Wendover in the west, Draper in the south, to Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the east, and to Kaysville in the north.
The Lord has blessed you with unprecedented prosperity when compared to all those who have lived on the earth. Your access to medical, dental, clean water, education, transportation, and sanitation services is unparalleled in world history. You have also been blessed with recreational and entertainment options, and you are surrounded by a beautiful, rich, and diverse natural world. Your productive farms, ranches, and orchards dot the land, and small and large businesses provide employment—paying mortgages, medical expenses, and educational expenses of employees. Sports and the arts flourish in your communities, drawing attention to Utah from around the world.
In the Book of Mormon, Isaiah’s prophecies are being fulfilled in our very own time—the Saints are prospering in the land, and the land is blossoming as a rose.
Your contributions are meaningful and important both in the Church and in the world at large.
Now, my brothers and sisters, to keep our gospel hearts healthy, we need regular checkups. As I have conferred with your leaders and prayed for heaven’s help, I have some recommendations for you that will keep you spiritually healthy and strong.
Paul warned the Saints in his own day of the spiritual dangers they faced. To the Galatians he wrote:
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
“Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
I raise my voice as Paul did, that there are those “that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” I would be shirking my duty if I did not raise my voice to warn you of the challenges we face today.
My brothers and sisters, never forget that there are two powers in the universe; one invites us to choose the right and experience eternal joy and happiness, and the other invites us to choose the opposite, bringing sadness and regret. Our doctrine teaches us that life is a test—a time to see which invitation we will accept.
I remind you of Jesus’s prophecy regarding the last days in which we now live: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” We are saddened when we witness some of the “very elect” deceived as Jesus warned.
Recently I visited a small grove of sequoia trees planted many years ago on the BYU campus. A friend of mine explained to me that sequoias are the world’s largest trees and that they can grow to between 164 and 279 feet tall in the wild. They can live to more than a thousand years.
Another interesting fact about the sequoias is that their unique and resilient bark protects the trees from forest fires and also repels bugs and fungi that can damage and kill a tree.
One of the trees died and the dead tree needed to be cut down, leaving only a stump to remind anyone passing by that a tall, majestic tree once stood there.
The campus arborist wanted to know what killed the tree, as the sequoia certainly did not die of old age. After an examination, he determined that the tree’s feeding roots had died from a lack of water.
How was that possible since the tree had flourished there for more than five decades?
The arborist discovered that the aquifer that nourished the little grove had shifted as an unintended consequence of the construction of a new building, just east of the grove.
To me this is a perfect analogy of what happens when stalwart Church members, the “very elect,” those who for all appearances seem to stand tall and erect in the faith, die spiritually.
Like the dead sequoia, these Church members once received their spiritual nourishment from the well of living water offered by Jesus Christ. But for one reason or another, they have shifted away from the source of spiritual nourishment, and without that nourishment their spirit was dulled, and they eventually died spiritually.
Now I ask you, brothers and sisters, how can we ensure that our spiritual feeding roots are always connected to the well of living water?
The Lord outlined simple, personal habits that keep us rooted, grounded, and connected to Him. Such habits, when done with full purpose of heart, real intent, and without hypocrisy and deception, allow us to be unwavering disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
These essential habits include the things that seem to easily slip away in the rush of our very busy lives, even when we are engaged in good things like pursuing an education, working to support a family, and involving ourselves in community and Church service.
They include sincere daily prayer, faithful fasting, regular study and pondering of the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, making the Sabbath day a delight, partaking of the sacrament with humility and always remembering the Savior, worshipping in the temple as often as possible, and, finally, reaching out to the poor and lonely—both those close by and those across the world.
When someone stops doing these simple but essential things, they cut themselves off from the well of living water and allow Satan to muddy their thinking with his deceptively polluted water that clogs arteries of faithfulness and drains the spirit with counterfeit nutrition. Sin and guilt cloud the mind—leading many to deny past inspiration and revelation and causing a “de-conversion” from the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One thing that is constantly on my mind is knowing that individuals who don’t stay focused on the simple doctrine and gospel of Christ will eventually listen to false teachers and self-declared prophets and adopt worldly philosophies. These alternative voices include:
- The allure of prideful wealth.
- Allowing wants to overrule needs, thus increasing personal debt.
- Recreation and entertainment that can take away from the wholesome goodness of the gospel.
- Not properly observing the Sabbath day.
- Viewing podcasts and internet sites that raise questions and doubt without being intellectually honest enough to adequately and honestly present the Lord’s perspective.
Help others find answers to questions
Let me make sure that you are hearing my verbal epistle and that you understand this important point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking questions or investigating our history, doctrine, and practices. The Restoration began when Joseph Smith sought an answer to a sincere question.
You parents; auxiliary leaders; Church teachers, including seminary and institute; bishops; and stake presidents: when someone comes to you with a question or a concern, please do not simply brush the question off. Do not tell him or her to not worry about the question. Please do not doubt the person’s dedication to the Lord or His work. Instead, help the person find answers to their questions.
I am concerned when I hear of sincere people asking honest questions about our history, doctrine, or practice, and then being treated as though they were faithless. This is not the Lord’s way. As Peter said, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man [or woman] that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”
We need to do better in responding to honest questions. Although we may not be able to answer every question about the cosmos—or about our history, practices, or doctrine—we can provide many answers to those who are sincere. When we don’t know the answer, we can search to find answers together—a shared search that may bring us closer to each other and closer to God. Of course, we may not always find satisfying answers to our questions. At such times, it’s good to remember that there is still a place in religion for faith. Sometimes we can learn and study and know; sometimes we have to believe and trust and hope.
Help those with questions to realize that the Lord does not require His Saints to have advanced degrees in history and doctrine. Therefore, we should not expect that parents, leaders, and teachers will have all the answers to every question. Even among the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, there are those who have very different backgrounds and training that allow a sharing of a wide range of experience to our discussion and deliberations.
When I have a question that I cannot answer, I often turn to those who can help me. The Church is blessed with trained scholars and those who have devoted a lifetime of study, who have come to know our history and the scriptures. These thoughtful men and women provide context and background so we can better understand our sacred past and our current practices. Blessed by this information they provide, I am better equipped to seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost.
The Church is dedicated to transparency and has published precious resources to provide new insights and offer even more context to the story of the Restoration through the Joseph Smith Papers website and the Gospel Topics essays on ChurchofJesusChrist.org. It is a remarkable time to study Church history and doctrine, with abundant resources and experts providing helpful background and understanding of our past. Always pray and follow the prompting of the Holy Ghost, who reveals spiritual truths.
Turn to prophets and apostles
Another concern I have is you live so close to the Church headquarters that some of you may become casual in listening to and following the counsel of the Lord’s servants. One example comes to mind. President Gordon B. Hinckley in the October 2002 general conference taught: “The First Presidency and the Twelve, after most prayerful and careful consideration, have reached the decision that the present program of missionary farewells should be modified.
“The departing missionary will be given opportunity to speak in a sacrament meeting for 15 to 20 minutes. But parents and siblings will not be invited to do so. … The meeting will be entirely in the hands of the bishop and will not be arranged by the family. …
He continued: “We hope also that holding elaborate open houses after the sacrament meeting at which the missionary speaks will not prevail. Members of the family may wish to get together. We have no objections to this. However, we ask that there be no public reception to which large numbers are invited.
“Missionary service is such a wonderful experience that it brings with it its own generous reward. And when a missionary returns to his family and his ward, he may again be given opportunity to speak in a sacrament meeting.”
As Apostles today, one of our assignments is to watch and to warn, to encourage members to stay close to the Lord, and to follow the counsel of the leaders of the Church.
Live within means
I also am concerned that some members in the Utah areas live beyond their means as they attempt to keep up with their neighbors. We make a very serious mistake when we compare our lives with those who have much wealth, forgetting that most of us have already prospered in the land. Please be content and enjoy the blessings you have already received instead of becoming a slave to unwise use of consumer debt. Never, ever fail to pay your tithing and make generous offerings to help the poor.
Enjoy each other’s company
Now, some of you may be overprogrammed with lots of activities, including good ones. Please be careful not to overprogram your children. Turn off social media and other outside distractions from time to time to sit and talk and enjoy each other’s company. As I taught last general conference, regularly hold a family council (see “Family Councils”).
Remember, the Lord counseled us to find time to “be still, and know that I am God.”
Now, someone has found one more way to keep family members occupied and away from what matters most—it is something called Pokémon Go. I don’t understand this one, so don’t ask me about it. I just know it is one more thing that prompts young people to look down at their smartphones rather than looking up to see the beautiful creations of God’s wonderful world or even someone they may want to meet, date, and marry, with whom they could have a real-world relationship that results in eternal blessings.
Love thy neighbor
A word about our friends, neighbors, and associates at school and work who are not members of the Church. Our history is full of stories where we were in the minority and suffered various forms of discrimination and persecution. We finally came to these valleys to build a covenant community of caring where we could live in peace.
The Lord reminded the ancient Israelites after they had settled in their promised land, “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is an important reminder to modern Israel that we should treat one another with respect and kindness and especially those living among us who are not members of the Church, because we were once strangers too.
The Book of Mormon reminds us, “Now there was a strict law among the people of the church, that there should not any man [or woman], belonging to the church, arise and persecute those that did not belong to the church.”
Although we take seriously the great commission and charge from the Lord: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” we honor and respect everyone's agency to think and believe—or not believe—as they choose.
If a neighbor, work colleague, or schoolmate is not interested in investigating the gospel, we must always continue to extend the hand of friendship. Our love for them should not be conditional; it should be sincere and without strings attached.
Our children learn best by the example of parents and leaders. Let us be careful regarding what we say about others and how we treat our fellowmen. And remember, we have every right to disagree but we must not become disagreeable.
Jesus taught, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” If we are His disciples, we must practice Christian civility and kindness to all we meet, including those who have chosen to disassociate themselves from the Church.
Let us join hands with all people of goodwill in every good cause and include them in our circles of friends and associates. Let us truly welcome them into our chapels and ward activities.
Now a warning particularly applicable today because of the unprecedented access to educational opportunities, especially here in Utah. It comes from the Book of Mormon: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men [and I add women]! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”
Those who have the gift of knowledge or who have had the opportunity to obtain an education should never look down on any of God’s children with disdain because an individual lacks the gift or the opportunity of education. Too often, Facebook and blog posts mock and ridicule humble members who are doing their best in teaching and speaking at church. Often, like the widow’s mite, these members are giving all they have, and we should rejoice that God’s grace is sufficient to work through the “weak things of the earth.” In His eyes, are we not all “weak”?
My apostolic epistle to you concludes as I testify that if you will carefully consider our combined counsel today, you will find your spiritual feeder roots connected to the “well of water springing up into everlasting life.” You will not die spiritually like the beautiful sequoia tree, but rather I testify that you will have more peace, joy, and happiness in your lives by accepting Jesus Christ and the servants He has called and by following His gospel plan. Unless the people of America turn their hearts back to God and His teachings and plan, we will surely face the consequences revealed in the scriptures.
My beloved brothers and sisters, we are charged to prepare the Church for those days that will surely come if the people in the world continue to ignore and disregard God our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The scriptures are clear on the consequences of turning away from God.
We love you. It is my privilege to invite our Heavenly Father to bless you. May you have peace. May you have joy in your hearts. May you have the courage to repent if you need to. If there is something going on in your lives that is not good, may the Lord bless you with the courage to repent and change beginning today. May the Lord give you the strength to turn your hearts to Him, to love Him, and to serve Him, so you may safely continue through mortality, preparing for that day to be held in the arms of our Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son.
As a special witness of Christ, I testify to you that I know that Jesus is the Christ. He is the Son of God. These things that we have said to you today are true, and I hope you will receive my epistle in the spirit in which I have spoken. I testify this is the Church of Jesus Christ.
May God bless you, my beloved brothers and sisters, as we do all we can to prepare for that day when the Savior and Redeemer of the world will come once again as our Lord and King. This is my humble prayer, testimony, and blessing, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.