Journey toward Righteousness
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“Journey toward Righteousness,” Ensign, Jan. 1980, 53

Journey toward Righteousness

First I thought it was a checklist of activities. Then I thought it meant only eliminating sin. Then I made my great discovery …

I was eighteen—and enrolled in a Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University—when I realized I did not know whether the gospel was true. The realization itself was a shock, since I had collected an array of hundred-percent awards, been extremely active in every kind of church activity, and always assumed that the Church was true. But assumption is not knowledge.

So, obedient and believing, I applied the instructions in Alma 32 and Moroni 10:4–5 [Moro. 10:4–5], and I received from God the verification I sought.

This personal witness of the Book of Mormon and the gospel was a turning point in my life—I think I recognized that even then—but it was a long time before I understood why. However, it was enough to spark in me a desire to be a “righteous person,” and I set off at fullsteam toward that somewhat hazy goal.

My purpose here is simply to share my experiences and insights in trying to live the gospel. Anyone’s spiritual development is, of course, a very personal thing. No one else will have had my exact experiences or emotions. But it seems to me that certain principles or concepts are universal and that my experiences might be helpful to some.

Phase one: The question

The witness I had received from the Lord through the Holy Ghost was enough to make me desire righteousness, although I was not really sure what it was or how to achieve it. I had asked the right question—what is righteousness?—but I then set off toward the answer with some wrong assumptions. I had not understood the ramifications of the witness I had received—primarily, that this witness was a powerful proof of the existence of a personal God who cares about me. This simple but essential fact somehow escaped me. I still viewed prayer as a means of getting blessings, not as a means of communion with God. I have since learned that praying to communicate with the Lord’s spirit is a far truer purpose than praying to obtain blessings—that the communion is what works on us to make us better, not the blessing.

Phase two: Is righteousness simply fulfilling all Church duties?

My first attempt at righteousness was the natural result of my understanding and readiness at that time. Simply stated, I thought that righteousness was no more nor less than doing everything and anything asked of me by leaders of the Church. I guess I thought righteousness was somehow a system, a set of rules. So I made this my goal and began. I filled a mission, married in the temple, was almost immediately ordained a high priest and called as a counselor in a bishopric, and subsequently held many other callings equally demanding and rewarding. I tried to regularly attend the temple, learn and do genealogy, hold family home evenings, pay tithes and offerings, give to the ward budget and building fund, and in short, do whatever my bishop asked.

I could not deny that the rewards from these activities were great. But I also could not claim that I became wonderfully righteous as a result. Somehow, I was still troubled by feelings of guilt and unworthiness. I was doing enough that I knew that no matter how often I home taught or worked on service projects or held high positions, I was still retaining the little character faults and other evils in my soul. Church activities alone didn’t seem to be eradicating my sins. In fact, these were often hidden from public view—no doubt I appeared to be a righteous person—but I knew those sins were there, and I didn’t feel righteous.

My first reaction when I realized all my efforts weren’t getting rid of my sins was to redouble my efforts. I decided that I still didn’t feel righteous because I wasn’t trying hard enough to do all that I was asked. So, I found myself increasingly concerned with obtaining some measure or recognition of success in the Church. Actually, I suppose I was aspiring to Church position; I thought that the higher the position, the more I was being blessed by the Lord, and thus the closer I was coming to my goal of righteousness. Like many of us, I was mistakenly assuming that a call to high position was equivalent to the Lord’s stamp of approval. I am not very happy to admit that it took me several years to get rid of this misconception.

Another result of my “activity” goal was that I found myself feeling frustrated and guilty at times because I could not understand all the instructions I was receiving from Church leaders. Sometimes I heard, “Do this; it is most important.” Other times it seemed that something else had priority. When I felt torn between two “goods,” my goal to simply do whatever I was asked didn’t help me make those hard decisions. Frustration and guilt set in when I found I simply didn’t have time to meet every church and family responsibility in a satisfactory way every time.

The eventual outcome of these experiences was not negative, even though the immediate result was considerable pain and disillusionment as I faced myself, my sins, and my goals more squarely. But my pride was battered, since I found that the goal I had set for myself didn’t make me righteous, and I found myself questioning the value of my whole life—of everything I had tried to achieve. In time, though, I realized some important things. First, I realized that although my goal—righteousness—was still there, I had been mistaken in the means of achieving it. I had sought for external evidence rather than internal assurances from my Heavenly Father. I also saw that fulfilling the expectations of other people was not only not fully possible, but did not make me feel totally righteous. So I regrouped and began again.

Phase three: Is righteousness simply eliminating sin?

I smile a little now when I remember my second attempt. I had discovered that righteousness had something to do with getting rid of all those sins I was treasuring, and so I decided to simply stop sinning. Now, getting rid of one’s sins is no laughing matter, but the methods I used now seem almost embarrassing. I was, however, sincere.

In order to get rid of my sins, I found that I first had to discover what they were. I began by comparing myself with others. It didn’t take too long before I’d side-tracked myself into thinking that maybe I wasn’t so bad, after all. In fact, I really began to enjoy this step. And while I concentrated on other people’s faults, my guilt and frustrations really seemed to ebb. So it didn’t work. For awhile I had been able to pretend that I didn’t really need to change, but I couldn’t keep that illusion forever. My conscience wouldn’t let me smother my own sins completely.

I was a little more wary when I tried a second time to identify my sins. For a time I merely reflected on what sin was and what it wasn’t. I was looking for an intellectual solution to my sins. This step had two results: first, I found I was actually just postponing any real action; but second, I found that I really was able to become more objective about who I was and what I needed to change.

This objectivity was a significant discovery. I could see that I had been trying to rationalize my sins away, thinking that many warnings in the scriptures and by modern-day prophets simply didn’t apply to me. In this frame of mind, I had effectively put myself above most everyone else. But as soon as I was able to honestly acknowledge my sins, I was less fearful—even almost eager—to get rid of them. My sins had become more clear to me for what they were, and I was better able to face the unpleasant facts about myself.

I promptly designed a program to get rid of my sins. My program was just to tell myself I would not sin—I would not think impure thoughts; I would never lie; I would not procrastinate; I would not lose my temper. It took several failures, trying again and again, to discover two more important things: first, when I tried to avoid sin, and was successful, I would consistently receive a confirming, warm feeling from the Holy Ghost. Second, I discovered that some of the things I told myself over and over not to think about actually came to mind more often as a result. For instance, if I went out and worked hard in the garden to keep from losing my temper with my son, I eventually found myself wondering why I was working so hard in the garden. The answer, of course, brought back my angry feelings. So I learned that some habits or thought patterns were so ingrained that I couldn’t get rid of them just by mental gymnastics.

Another aspect of this sin-eradication campaign was my attempt at sin classification. When I couldn’t change some things just by telling myself to, I decided that maybe I wasn’t being scientific enough about the whole process. Maybe my sins were still too abstract, not clearly enough defined. So I tried categorizing and labeling them—sure that then they’d be more accessible. I had an impressive list: I learned that I had random, unplanned sins (small lies, a little stray gossip, pride, or covetousness); I had selective sins (irresponsibility or rationalization); and I had creative sins (premeditated, fully-aware wrong-doing). But even science couldn’t help me. No matter what I called them, my sins were still my sins—and they were still there.

A big part of my problem at this point, I can now see, was that I saw my sins as a kind of contest—them against me. I thought I had to struggle, to fight against them, that righteousness was a matter of willpower. That perspective just perpetuated the situation. In fact, my problem in this stage was exactly a matter of perspective. I was trying to not do things instead of trying to do things. Instead of defining my sins, I should have been defining those attributes I wanted to have.

The outcome of this attempt at righteousness, then, was that most of my sins were still with me, and one or two were worse than when I had started. I was discouraged. I had seen myself clearly; I had faced my sins. But I hadn’t been able to get rid of them. I was left with a view of myself as essentially a failure.

Phase four: Accepting the status quo

My next reaction was as ineffective as the others. I lost hope. I decided that I needed to accept reality—accept the fact that I could not change—and then just try to be as honorable a person as I could under the circumstances. I thought that if I were really lucky, I could be a terrestrial person and I would have to content myself with that. My misconception here was that I had assumed that I could not change enough to be a celestial person. The real problem was that I had not learned how to change at all.

This was probably the most unhappy time of my life. The habits of Church activity were so ingrained in me that I did not withdraw from participation. Instead, I found that fulfilling church assignments in a mediocre way is remarkably easy. I did my home teaching, for example, quite regularly, but usually at the end of the month and in a perfunctory manner. My mind wandered regularly during worship services. I was still going through all the right motions outside, but inside I was feeling sorry for myself, sure that God could not and did not love me, and despairing of any kind of reward after mortality.

My situation was probably not unique. Most of us go through these feelings in some degree at some time in our lives. We shy away from the disapproval that will come if we withdraw totally from Church activity, yet we find ways to resist full and honest commitment. We become an in-between person. For example, we may teach Sunday School—but never really come to grips with the lesson. We may accept some welfare assignments because we can’t find a good excuse not to. We may find some fault with speakers, leaders, or those who appear to be a bit hypocritical. Our prayers may be stilted and routine. We may see the Church as something that’s trying to control us—a large, complex institution dispensing pressure and guilt-causing messages. And we pull away from others and keep most of our guilt and frustration to ourselves.

I can’t recall telling anyone that I felt this way. Nor do I remember how long I wandered in and out of this emotional abyss. I do know that my life had little direction. I remember mentioning to my wife that I was not too hopeful that the Lord loved me or that I could become a celestial person. She listened as best she could, but I’m sure my pessimism distressed her considerably.

Phase five: Discovery

But I couldn’t tolerate this melancholy and loneliness indefinitely; I had always been a happy person. My loneliness had made me realize that I and no one else was responsible for improving my spiritual life I finally realized, too, that I could not let external goals or external reasons—Church positions, others’ expectations, a battle of wills—dictate what I did, but that I had sufficient reasons deep inside myself. I had my own sense of integrity, my own desires to do what was right. When I discovered that I alone controlled the reasons I did things, I experienced a great sense of freedom and joy.

To this point I had accepted a standard of personal success from my parents and my schoolmates and my society and had spent a lifetime trying to live up to those criteria. When I realized that self-esteem was more important to me than others’ opinions, I was suddenly free to make a whole new set of choices. As long as my self-esteem had been dependent on others’ opinions, I had not been free to decide for myself what I should and should not do. I had not been free to choose—or even understand—righteousness, because I had already decided that righteousness was a complicated set of external criteria that I had to meet.

But true freedom of choice, I discovered, came only when I could see myself as a unique child of God, responsible to promote my own eternal welfare. I discovered, too, that this kind of concern for self is not selfishness. We are only selfish when we neglect to give equal concern to others.

Thus, it seemed to me that the reasons I did or said things were of primary importance. For instance, I had been taught and still strongly believe that unselfish service to others is part of righteousness, but service for the wrong reason, I now know, may be very unrighteous. A Pharisee giving a large donation to win public approval is not righteous. But I was unaware that there may be more than one reason for the things we do or say. A compassionate act may be motivated both by selflessness and by a desire for the satisfaction or happiness that comes through giving. This does not mean that the giver is selfish. Wanting to do something righteous because it makes you feel good is not a bad reason.

Phase six: The principles of true righteousness

Armed with these experiences and insights—the memory of my desolation and the feeling that I could change—I considered what was best for me; I pondered again what was righteousness. Probably because for a time I had felt no direction, the recollection of the Lord’s message to me as a student in a BYU Book of Mormon class came back with great force. I had learned then that the Book of Mormon was divine, but far more significant to me now was the simple realization that God was there. I had asked and he had revealed his existence to me.

And why was this discovery so important? Because knowing God is the basis of righteousness (see John 17:3). The Savior said that his mission was to testify of the Father and reveal him to us. The mission of the Holy Ghost is to testify of both the Father and the Son. God reveals himself to us because he loves us, but also so we can become like him.

I had not realized that my nature was of the same stuff as his nature and that I thus had the power within me to refine myself (see D&C 58:28). The Savior said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). And he also said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33). I learned that I have to work until I create those righteous conditions within.

And it seemed to me that the most exquisite, joyful thing I found as I approached the Lord was the peace of mind, the overwhelming love that comes from communion with him. Before, desire for this communion had seldom been a reason for anything I had done. But now, at last, I had found an unfailing gauge for righteousness.

About this time I came across a quotation that seemed to clarify this idea in an important way:

“Other men are great artists or poets, or generals, or statesmen, whereas Jesus is a great man. His greatness lies in the realm of personality, in the kingdom of character. … We do not say, Behold the poet, the orator, the philosopher, the general, the statesman, the sovereign. We say, Behold the man.” (Charles Jefferson, The Character of Jesus, pp. 341–42.)

My worth and my progress, then, would not be measured by how famous, wealthy, powerful, or even well-liked I could become, nor by many other unsatisfactory standards, regardless of how popular or accepted they might be. My worth would be determined by how often the Holy Ghost revealed to me that I had succeeded in becoming more like the Father. True righteousness, I had discovered, was learning about and becoming like God.

The more I worked with this idea—thought about it, applied it, found confirmation for it in the scriptures—the better I understood it and the more delightful it became to me. After identifying, through study, some of the characteristics of our Heavenly Father, then I found three steps in trying to adopt those characteristics, in trying to become more like the Lord.

First, I found I needed to exercise, without any external pressure, my agency to choose to do or think what Heavenly Father would want me to do or think. This was a conscious choice, an effort—but one I wanted to make, not a struggle or a fight. Next, I had to follow that choice with action. And the third part of each little cycle toward righteousness was the delicious communion with the Holy Ghost, a witness that my choice was good, evidence that I was making progress, and reconfirmation that my Heavenly Father loves me.

Let me give an example. My first attempt at becoming like Heavenly Father was to try to control my moods. I had noticed that occasionally I came home from work tired and unhappy. When I brought those feelings into the home, I was not being a good husband and father. I decided that I would be growing more like the Lord if I could come home daily to my wife and children cheerful and pleasant. I freely chose—and wanted—to try to do that. I acted on that choice and discovered, through experimentation, that I could change my mood. One little device I used to help me was to pick a building five minutes away from my home. On my way home from work, that building was a signal for me to turn my thoughts to my family and how anxious I was to see them. I consciously remembered fun times playing with my children or being with my wife. Or I would review in my mind the rewarding things about being a husband and a father. These things worked for me. I can now come home cheerful most of the time. And I have felt the approval of the Lord for my effort, a tremendous motivation in itself for making and acting on other decisions to be more like God.

As my desires to be more like God grew, these three steps toward righteousness worked a radical change in my perspective toward my church responsibilities, my family, and myself. Instead of doing my home teaching just to get it done, I now find myself wanting to go because I know it will help me create a godlike characteristic. The motivation is strong—I grow, and the people I teach also benefit. Instead of thinking that fulfilling all church responsibilities equals righteousness, I realize that Church programs are simply one of the best places to practice desired character traits—one trait obviously being learning to love and serve others. Instead of attending sacrament meeting out of habit or from fear of disapproval, I can go knowing that there I can develop my ability to communicate with the Lord’s spirit.

The family is probably the most important setting for helping us create godlike personalities. I have sensed an attitude change here, too, from a tendency to see children as objects of loving obligation to an awareness that a family is the finest source of growth and joy I can possibly have and the finest place to help others discover joy and identity. I feel a need to savor each moment of teaching, laughing, loving, working, and growing together.

My perspective has also changed about my sins and my struggle with them. I have experienced just enough of this process toward righteousness to know that my sins disappear as I replace them with a trait like my Heavenly Father’s. The energy I once gave to contain anger, say, can now be directed into choosing to be gentle, and then following through with that choice. The anger simply goes away because there is no time for it. I am more concerned with teaching and loving.

Those who know me best—myself, especially—could not stretch their imaginations enough to say that I have achieved any remarkable state of righteousness. I feel frustration when I discover a choice that would bring joy but I cannot fully act on it. I’m sure others have made that same discovery. But I have experienced the joy and strength that comes with the blessing of at last having the right goal.

At the final day, I suspect God will ask me two questions. The first, “What have you done?” will be the more easily answered. To the second, “Whom have you become?” I earnestly hope I can reply, “Like thee.”

Illustrated by Parry Merkley

Photography by Gerald Bybee