What It Means to Know Christ

“What It Means to Know Christ,” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 42

Special Issue: The Lord in the Four Gospels

What It Means to Know Christ

When I was 19, I was captivated with the Book of Mormon. I tucked a copy in my back pocket and read it every time I got a chance.

Even to approach the topic of what it means to know Christ is awesome. In fact, it would be out of the question if I didn’t know that he lives, that he is a God of infinite power, and that he can change our lives in a marvelous way.

The Church with all of its programs has marvelous ways of reaching out positively to influence us for good. I’m deeply appreciative of the preparatory experiences and training that were mine and that eventually enabled me to know that a purpose of the Church, one purpose of all its ordinances and principles, is to enable you and me to be introduced to and relate in a profound way to Jesus Christ.

Although active in the Church, I didn’t reach for the things of the Spirit with any kind of personal intensity while I was growing up. Nevertheless, I acquired the feeling that the Church must be true; and oh, how I hoped it was true; but I didn’t really know in the way I wanted to know that it was true.

When I was 19, I was captivated with the desire to read the Book of Mormon and obtain a sure witness of its truthfulness. That summer I tucked a copy in my back pocket and, while waiting between irrigation changes and every other time I got a chance, I would read intently. My prayers changed in intensity, and I found myself pleading daily, sometimes within the day that I might receive a revealed testimony of that book.

After only a few weeks of intense reading I found myself in a whole new world. I started getting very excited about the things of the spirit; feelings started coming in my heart that caused me to feel there was a great reason for being—that there was a work to prepare to do.

I remember one particularly choice day when the quiet assurance of the truths I had been reading pulsated through my body. I was sitting on a small bridge that spanned an irrigation ditch, dangling my gum boots in the water to keep them cool. As I glanced upward I felt inwardly the spirit of the words I had been reading. The Spirit was witnessing to me that what the prophets had written—what I was reading—was true; I felt deeply that Nephi had really seen and conversed with the Lord, that he had tasted divine goodness and love and I knew that his life had changed under the Savior’s influence. The real joy, however, was to feel burning throughout my body the assurance that I too could know the Lord, that I too could understand the great gospel truths, that I could be spiritually strengthened by the Savior’s power as Nephi had been.

What an electrifying thought! To realize that we can receive the marvelous assurance from the Spirit that others have known and to know the Master! But, of course, more soul-transforming is the realization that you and I can know him in a personal, powerful way.

Some months later I was in the mission home, where we were privileged to listen to many choice servants of the Lord. One in particular spoke directly of his understanding of and feeling for the Lord. He made the Atonement come alive for me. That day I again felt the Spirit go into my heart like fire, testifying to me that I too could know the Lord. I renewed my quest to achieve that coveted relationship.

One spring day during the first year of my marriage, I came in from the fields to listen to a radio broadcast of a Saturday morning session of general conference. Our front room was tiny and I had to squeeze by the ironing board to sit down and listen with my wife. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., was speaking. As he bore testimony of the Savior, again I felt the powerful assurance that President Clark knew in such a total and personal way who the Savior was.

These experiences are signposts, in a way, of something else very important that I was learning—the great concept that the priesthood, the ordinances, and the gospel principles would be much more meaningful to me as I was able to see how they were exhibited, embodied, and symbolized in a living person, our living Redeemer.

I believe we can say that one of the most important purposes of the priesthood, the gospel, and the Church is to introduce you and me to the Savior. To have a mighty faith in Christ, we must know who he is and develop a relationship with him. If we can focus our church activity, our scripture study, and our prayers through the desire to know and relate with him in a meaningful way, then we are in a better position to receive daily guidance from the Lord.

As a church and as a people, one of our missions is to be a light to the world. What specifically does that mean? The Savior himself gave the meaning: “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up. …” (3 Ne. 18:24.) What a beautiful challenge to make sure that reflections coming from our youth program, our fine welfare program, our temple work, and our missionary efforts are focused on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If we meet that challenge then we can actually gear our programs to produce men and women in his image.

Is this not what Paul meant when he declared, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified”? (1 Cor. 2:2.) Joseph Smith’s testimony of the centrality of Christ has always touched me, especially in that magnificent testimony when he said, “And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!

“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God. …” (D&C 76:22–23.)

I thrill in the Savior-centered witness of the prophets; I hear in their witness a challenge to each of us to come to know him so well that in our teaching, administrating, and living the gospel others will desire to commit themselves wholeheartedly because of the distinct and powerful message of Christ that they see and hear through us.

Brigham Young expressed a beautiful invitation to know the Savior in the following words:

“… the greatest and most important of all requirements of our Father in Heaven and of his Son Jesus Christ. … is to believe in Jesus Christ, confess him, seek him, cling to him, make friends with him. Take a course to open a communication with your Elder Brother or file-leader—our Savior.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 339.)

The Church then, is a divine institution to point us to him; it really can help us develop a close personal relationship with the Savior. It is not enough to have a testimony of his existence. We need to know him. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3.)

I’d like to share with you six points that I believe are crucial in coming to know the Savior.

First: To know the Lord is to know that he is literally the Son of God. Many individuals have been unwilling to accept the truth that Jesus Christ is as the scriptures say: the only begotten Son of God in the flesh.

“… We must come down to the simple fact that God Almighty was the Father of His Son, Jesus Christ. Mary, the virgin girl, who had never known mortal man, was his mother. God by her begot His Son, Jesus Christ, and He was born into the world with power and intelligence like that of His Father.” (Joseph F. Smith, Messages of the First Presidency, vol. 4, pp. 29–30.) God, the Eternal Father, is literally the father of Jesus Christ.

While serving as an institute director on a college campus, I had an interesting experience that illustrates how important it is to accept Christ as the literal Son of God. I know there are many wonderful leaders in the Christian world who accept the Savior as the Son of God and who genuinely abide by the truths they have, but I also know there are some who would deny that he is the literal Son of God.

A nationally prominent minister was invited as the guest lecturer for a Religious Emphasis Week on campus. His lectures were excellent; he evidenced a knowledge of the scriptures and seemed to appreciate the Savior. Following his last sermon, those interested in participating in an “I disagree” session—where opportunity would be given to voice opposition to the week-long emphasis—gathered in large numbers. Several local ministers and I, along with the invited guest, composed a panel to defend Christianity.

As I walked down the stairs and saw those who represented the dissident group and heard the loud talk filtering through a cloud of tobacco smoke, I thought: “George, you’re going to have an exciting time tonight!” Shortly after the session commenced, I became aware that the members of the panel were not really interested in defending Christianity, but rather in displaying their training in biblical criticism and in emphasizing the “social gospel.” In fact, many on the panel were about as critical of Christianity, and particularly of the idea that Jesus was the literal Son of God, as any of those who were attacking it. I sat there, somewhat fearful, operating, I suppose, on the maxim: “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”

Finally, though, because things deteriorated so badly, I arose to my feet, took a microphone in each hand, and for 10 or 15 minutes shared with the audience my feelings about the Lord. I said that there are absolute truths; it is important for men and women to be morally clean. It is important to recognize that there is a God to whom we are responsible. I bore testimony to them that I knew that Jesus Christ lived, that he is the literal Son of God, that he is coming again, and that we would have to give to him an accounting of our lives.

It was a beautiful experience. Never before in my life had I felt a greater outpouring of the Lord’s spirit. It was quite a group to be bearing such a strong testimony to. I told them of the apostasy, that the Christianity they had been speaking of is not the Christianity Christ placed on the earth. The Spirit was so strong and the words came so boldly that I could almost smell an “Abinadi” kind of smoke coming up through the floor. I concluded by bearing my testimony that God does live and that Jesus is the Christ, the literal Son of God.

When I concluded there was a burst of overwhelming applause. I could hardly believe it! For two hours this group of people had ruthlessly criticized Christianity; now, by their applause, they seemed to say, “Thank God, somebody knows that he does live!”

Just a few minutes after I bore my testimony, emphasizing the divine nature of the Savior, a student asked our invited guest: “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is divine?”

A hush came over the entire group. This distinguished person, after a few moments of reflection, looked up with a half-smile on his face and said, “I would rather not believe that Jesus Christ is divine, for if I did, that would give him a head start over me!” He continued: “Who knows but that in the next 20 years another man will come along who will live a better life than Christ did, and I will revere him as my redeemer.”

No wonder the resurrected Christ declared to Joseph that the churches of the world “draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (JS—H 1:19.)

Second: To know the Lord is to know that we can pray through him and converse in prayer as one converses with another. In preparation for a special speaking engagement, I prayed to know what it meant to really know the Lord. The idea that came to my mind had a profound impact on me. It was a question: Who do you really know in earth life?

As I thought about that idea, I decided that I knew my father quite well. So I then began thinking about the experiences that enabled me to really know my father. As I reflected, I remembered how as a young boy growing up on the farm, I spent many, many hours in conversation with my father. Even though many of the things I wanted to talk about were childish and trivial, Dad always listened carefully and encouraged me to talk to him. As the years slipped by, our conversations became deeper and more meaningful. A great joy of each day was talking to him, and I never looked forward to the end of a conversation. In fact, I would go out of my way for the privilege of talking to him for even a few minutes.

Following an institute convention in Provo, I drove to Idaho and spent two days visiting my parents. Just before leaving I walked out to the stockyard with my father and there expressed to him some concerns I had. He then shared a beautiful spiritual experience with me that greatly comforted me. After embracing my father I got in the car and headed for Colorado. As I drove away, I was impressed that, at least for our relationship, the reason Dad could share that choice, sacred experience with me was because we had, over the years, laid a foundation by many long hours of deeply intimate conversation.

Just a week later, while driving alone to a distant city in Wyoming, I lifted my voice in prayer to my Heavenly Father. Not many minutes slipped by when, under the influence of the Spirit, I walked, as it were, back through many beautiful experiences I had had with my earthly father. I felt of his love. His presence seemed close and real. I wept for joy as I realized how precious our relationship was.

The next morning while I was preparing for breakfast in the home of some good Saints, the phone rang. I was told that during the night my father had passed away. As I reflected on the experience of the night before, I realized that many choice experiences and conversations had developed a great bond of love between my father and myself. Thinking about this, I could see that the same principle was true relative to building a relationship with the Lord—the more we pray through him in prayer, the more we bring him and gospel principles into our lives, the closer is our relationship with him. I seemed to sense that the relationship we have with our earthly father is a symbol of the kind of relationship we also may have with the Lord.

Third: To know the Lord is to know in a personal way that he suffered for us. Have you ever wondered why the prophets speak so often of a broken heart and a contrite spirit? Nephi testified that the Savior’s sacrifice was to answer the ends of the law (satisfy justice) only for those “who have a broken heart and contrite spirit. …” (2 Ne. 2:7.) How does one become “broken-hearted” for his sins? Could it be by becoming aware of what the Savior did to free each of us from those sins?

When we say the first principle is “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” surely one of the facets that requires mighty faith is his atoning sacrifice. (See D&C 76:41.) The true significance of our Church membership comes in large measure as we, through the power of the Spirit, become aware of what happened in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, as we feel the Savior’s agony and sorrow as he suffered for us. Would not this experience cause us to be brokenhearted over our own inadequacies and sins and to sense in an overwhelming way his great love for us?

Christ’s atonement is the central event in the history of our mortal world. Nothing else creates the possibility for us to repent of our sins, to acquire the power of godliness and to give ourselves totally to the building of Zion like comprehending the majesty of that great event.

During one period of my life I fasted, prayed, and studied a great deal to try to appreciate and understand the Atonement and what is meant by having a broken heart and a contrite spirit. More and more I saw and felt the personal implications of that great event. Alma and the people of his time all attest to a personal relationship with the Savior. I felt this relationship in Melvin J. Ballard’s experience in the dreams of the night (Bryant S. Hinckley, Melvin J. Ballard, … Crusader for Righteousness, Bookcraft, 1966, p. 66), in Orson F. Whitney’s vision of the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane (Bryant S. Hinckley, The Faith of Our Pioneer Fathers, Deseret Book Company, 1965, pp. 212–13) and then in President Harold B. Lee’s declaration that:

“It was a week following the conference when I was preparing myself for a radio talk on the life of the Savior, when I read again the story of the life, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of the Master, there came to me as I read that, a reality of that story. More than just what was on the written page. For in truth, I found myself viewing the scenes with a certainty as though I had been there in person. I know that these things come by the revelations of the living God.” (Harold B. Lee, “Divine Revelation,” Speeches of the Year, BYU, Oct. 15, 1952, p. 10.)

Picture in your mind, then, the following kind of imaginary experiences. As you really search the scriptures and study with all your heart, you discover that there may well be a possibility that you are not as sinless as you would like to be or should be. You realize that perhaps the reason you aren’t receiving more revelation and happiness in your life or fulfilling your stewardship as you should is because you don’t enjoy sufficient power from the Holy Ghost.

So, like Enos, you hunger and thirst as you never have before for a complete remission of your sins. Oh, it’s true you’ve been baptized, but you are mindful that having hands on your head and the word of promise spoken over you may not be the same thing as being baptized of the Spirit. Consistently you go to the Lord in humble prayer and plead with him that you may receive a remission of your sins.

Let me share with you a way to imagine the Atonement that might make it more real for you. Suppose that you were to review your life with the Savior, the occasions where you broke the commandments. How would you feel? Just the idea would bother me greatly, because I feel so ashamed of my sins. Imagine how that guilt would be quickened by the presence of the Savior, how painful it would be to know that the Lord has really seen all of your weaknesses and your willful disobedience. What a heartbreaking experience! Particularly when you realize that there is no way for you to make amends for your sins.

Then, perhaps, your mind goes back to the account of the Lord in Gethsemane, of how he was so burdened with sorrow and the agony of suffering that drops of blood came from his pores. You realize that part of his suffering was to pay for your sins.

When I contemplate this, after repentance, something happens. I feel a new kind of joy and peace. I feel clean, changed. I find myself with a whole new nature. (See Alma 36:20–21.) I realize that this change is a result of his magnificent love and willingness to assume the pain and suffering caused by my disobedience. (See Mosiah 5:2.) And, oh, how I rejoice for that tremendous blessing!

Fourth: To know the Lord is to know that we can become like him. This is probably the most fundamental message of the gospel—that Jesus Christ’s mission can place men and women in a position where they can be born again and become his sons and daughters.

The more I study the gospel, the more I become convinced that the process of being born again is a process of receiving Christ’s divine nature into our being. (See 2 Pet. 1:4.) It is a process of having his qualities and characteristics infused into us through the medium of the Holy Ghost, so that gradually, as the Holy Ghost becomes more and more intense in our lives, we become more and more like Christ. We are remade in his image; we have his countenance engraven upon our being. (See Alma 5:14.) We have a new heart, a new capacity to love, a new kindness and patience, a new sense of the worth of everybody we come in contact with.

We must realize that, in spite of our weaknesses, our idiosyncrasies, and perhaps even our unfortunate backgrounds, a message of the gospel is that you and I can become changed—totally and completely changed! It is frightening that a large number of people are convinced that human nature can be changed only by humanistic devices—if it can be changed at all. The power to become like Christ is available by gaining a living, dynamic faith in him. To know the Lord, then, is to know that we can become like him.

Fifth: To know the Lord is to know that through him all of life’s problems can be solved. In his powerful testimony, Nephi says: “… I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)

To live the gospel in our generation is a great challenge. We are living at a time when human learning has so totally saturated our lives that many refuse to believe that through the gospel it is possible to do the otherwise impossible. The Lord is going to ask us to do things that are impossible to do—except through him! And yet, simply put, that is the purpose of our experience here on earth—to see if, when the Lord asks us to do seemingly impossible things, we will put our trust in him so totally that we will do what he requires of us. By the time we accomplish such things through him, we know who he is and that he is a God of great power. We learn that whether by very ordinary ways or by miracles the Lord will help us achieve his work if we trust him. We have all had answers to our prayers. We have our own testimonies of his goodness to us in our daily lives. I needn’t tell you mine. You can think of your own.

Sixth: To know the Lord is to know that he loves us as a loving father. The greatest reality of my life is to know that Jesus Christ loves us as a loving father; and that he is anxious to relate to us accordingly. Throughout the scriptures he talks about his relationship with us in a warm, personal way. On the Mount of Olives, he said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, … how often would I have gathered thy children … as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37.) I believe he is saying he would like to put his arms around all of us and comfort and strengthen us. He would like to reach into our hearts, pull out the anxiety, sorrow, and concern, and instill in our hearts great peace, joy, and a realization that we are infinitely precious in his eyes.

I appreciate having had this kind of relationship with my earthly father; many times, as a young boy, he would pick me up in his arms and give me a squeeze. As the years went by, I found it greatly comforting and strengthening that whenever I came home after being gone for a while, we threw our arms around each other and embraced. Although many times we couldn’t say anything, there was in that experience a cementing of our love for each other.

I have discovered in my relationship with my wife and my children that there isn’t anything much more important than regularly, each day, to put my arms around them and let them know how precious they are to me.

One morning before Sunday School, there had been a little explosion of personalities among our children, and we were waiting in the car for our 14-year-old daughter. When I asked, “Where is she?” the other children said, “Oh, we had a little tiff, and her feelings were hurt. She’s in the house.”

We were all ready to go but I got out of the car and walked into the house. My daughter, being very sensitive, was pretty hurt. The most meaningful thing I could do for her was to put my arms around her and just hold her tight and let her know how much I appreciated her and assure her that all would be well.

A father’s love is a vital force. President Harold B. Lee said, “If a father’s love for his sons is strong, and from their infancy he has taken them into his arms and let them feel the warmth of his affection, I believe that such comradeship will ripen with maturity and keep them near when a crisis in a boy’s life requires the steadying hand of a father who understands.” (Church News, July 17, 1971, p. 2.)

The other day a young lady came into my office. She was well-dressed, neat, and clean, but she lacked self-esteem. It was easy to tell she was very lonely and unhappy. As she walked into my office, she noticed the large pictures of my children on my office walls and asked, “Brother Pace, are these your children?”

“Yes, they are,” I said.

“Do you love them?”

“Oh, my goodness, I guess I do.”

And then she said in effect, “Brother Pace, do your children know that you love them?”

“Yes, I believe they do. I put my arms around them every day and tell them how precious they are to me.”

And then she said in effect, “Brother Pace, do you know what it would mean to me if someone were to put his arms around me and tell me he really loved me? Do you know what that would mean?” It was heart-breaking to see an individual suffering so much from a lack of expressed love.

I sat her down and said, “Young lady, I want you to know that the Savior loves you with an infinite love. Do you know how I know that? Because of what he has said about all of us, what he’s done for us—and because I feel such a profound love for you and I know that love comes from him!”

One of the greatest gifts of the Spirit short of eternal life is charity, the pure love of Christ. To know the Lord is to know he loves us all with an infinite love. To taste of that love is to love others even as he loves them. Brigham Young on one occasion said, “The least, the most inferior person now upon the earth … is worth worlds.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, p. 124.)

As I see it, to know the Lord, is to sense the preciousness of our lives and the lives of everyone else—and to do all in our power to bring individuals to the Father through his beloved Son.

I’m grateful for the restored Church, for its divine principles and ordinances, and for the power that is available to overcome the fallen nature of man and to become like the Savior. I’m grateful for the prophets, past and present, who have so eloquently and powerfully testified of Christ that we might come to know what is meant by the Savior’s declaration, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3.)

The connecting link between us and our Heavenly Father is Jesus Christ. The Father will seal us to be his if we will come to know the Lord and give our lives to him.

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38–39.)

Photography by Eldon Linschoten