“A Robe, a Ring, and a Fatted Calf,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 68
One day after I gave a talk at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, several missionaries came up to visit briefly with me and to discuss my message. I talked with many of them, and the minutes stretched into nearly an hour. During that time I noticed one young elder hanging around the outer rim of the circle as the other missionaries came and went.
Finally the traffic thinned out, and he stepped forward. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I’m sorry I don’t. Tell me your name.” He replied, “My name is Elder__________.” His eyes searched mine for recognition, but found none.
Summoning his courage for the ultimate revelation, he said, “Hinckley Hall—a faithful friend is a strong defense.” Then I knew who he was. That little coded phrase may not ring any bells for you, but it meant something to him, and he knew it meant something to me.
On 7 September 1982 I addressed the students of Brigham Young University in the only angry, public spanking I have ever given them. The title of my remarks for that back-to-school message was “A Faithful Friend Is a Strong Defense.” I spoke of an offense, a felony—falsifying government documents—which had been committed in a campus dormitory the April before and which had been widely covered by the press. Five months had passed, but I was still hurting.
I spoke of that incident publicly—without mentioning the names of the participants—because I care about matters of morality and honor and personal virtue. So I said my piece, and for all intents and purposes forgot about it.
But, as you might guess, it was not easy for the students involved. Not only were there the burdens of university and Church actions, but the civil law made an indelible stroke across the record of some of these young lives. There were tears and courts and sentences and probations. Legally it had been about as much of a nightmare as a college freshman could imagine. Obviously it was more of a nightmare than they could have foreseen, because the sorrow and remorse over their “prank” was deep and rending.
I recall that very unsavory experience now simply to put a happy ending on one young man’s very difficult experience. His father wrote me later and said how much courage it had taken for him to talk with me at the MTC, but he said his son wanted me to know of his effort to make things right. It had not been easy for him to get a mission call. Not only were there all the court-imposed sanctions and Church restrictions, but there was the terrible personal burden of guilt. Still, he wanted to serve a mission both because it was the right thing to do and because it was a way for him to say to the Church, the government, the university, and all who cared about him, “I’m back. I made a serious mistake, but I’m back. I am making up lost ground. I’ve still got a chance.”
As you know, there are other painful stories about transgressions and heartache among the members of the Church. My prayer is to help someone, anyone, to have a similarly happy ending to his or her story. In short, I wish to speak of the redeeming love of Christ and why his gospel is indeed the “good news.” Because of him we can rise above past problems, blot them out, and watch them die—if we are willing to have it so.
I am not sure what your most painful memories might be. I’m certain we could all list many problems. Some may be sins that God himself has declared most serious. Others may be less serious disappointments—poor job performance, a difficult relationship with your family, or personal pain with a friend. Whatever the list, it’s bound to be long when we add up all the dumb things we’ve done. And my greatest fear is that you will not believe in other chances, that you will not believe in any future at all.
In what may well be literature’s most extreme and chilling observation of such debilitating, unassuaged guilt, we watch Macbeth descend through a horrible series of bloody deeds by which his very soul is increasingly “tortured by an agony which [knows no] … repose.” (A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1967, p. 276.) Shapes of terror appear before his eyes and the sounds of hell clamor in his ears. His guilty heart and tormented conscience rend his days and terrify his nights.
His wife suffers too. Tortured by the memory of her own part in Macbeth’s murders, she is eventually reduced to walking in her sleep, unconsciously confessing her crime and rubbing her hands as if trying to clean them. Macbeth finally calls in a doctor. The question he asks the physician regarding his wife’s state of mind is clearly a commentary on his own:
“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?”
The doctor shakes his head over such diseases of the soul and says:
“Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
But the anguish continues unabated until Macbeth says on the day he will die:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The murders Macbeth commits are certainly more serious sins than the kind of transgression most of us commit, but I believe the despair of his final hopelessness can be applied at least in part to our own circumstances. Unless we believe in repentance and restoration, unless we believe there can be a way back from our mistakes—whether those sins be sexual or social or civil or academic, whether they be great or small—unless we believe we can start over on solid ground with our past put behind us and genuine hope for the future—in short, if we cannot believe in the compassion of Christ and his redemptive love, then I think we, in our own way, are as hopeless as Macbeth and our view of life just as depressing. We do become shadows, feeble players on a perverse stage, in a tale told by an idiot. And unfortunately, in such a burdened state, we are the idiots.
As he began to write of what he would call the “miracle of forgiveness,” President Spencer W. Kimball said:
“I had made up my mind that I would never write a book … [but] when I come in contact almost daily with broken homes, delinquent children, corrupt governments, and apostate groups, and realize that all these problems are the result of sin, I want to shout with Alma: ‘O … that I might go forth … with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people.’ (Alma 29:1.)
“Hence this book indicates the seriousness of breaking God’s commandments; shows that sin can bring only sorrow, remorse, disappointment, and anguish; and warns that the small indiscretions evolve into larger ones and finally into major transgressions which bring heavy penalties.
“[But] having come to recognize their deep sin, many have tended to surrender hope, not having a clear knowledge of the scriptures and of the redeeming power of Christ.
“[So I also] write to make the joyous affirmation that man can be literally transformed by his own repentance and by God’s gift of forgiveness.
“It is my humble hope that … [those] who are suffering the baleful effects of sin may be helped to find the way from darkness to light, from suffering to peace, from misery to hope, and from spiritual death to eternal life.” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. x–xii; italics added.)
Although we cannot minimize the seriousness of some mistakes, we can be washed and pronounced clean from all but unpardonable sin if we will but honor the Lamb of God. From relatively innocent mistakes or disadvantages in life to the most serious of spiritual sins, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a way back. We must believe in movement “from darkness to light, from suffering to peace, from misery to hope.”
What if Alma had not come back? He had made serious mistakes, more serious perhaps than we know. He is described as “a very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 27:8), one who sought to “destroy the church” and who delighted in “rebelling against God.” (Mosiah 27:8–11.) He was, in short, “the very vilest of sinners.” (Mosiah 28:4.) The strongest denunciation came from his own lips when he said to his son Helaman, “I had rebelled against my God. … I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; … so great had been my iniquities that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.” (Alma 36:13–14.) That is a frightening description of a man’s standing before God.
Yet he came back—not without anguish and suffering and fear, not without “wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death.” (Mosiah 27:28.) But he paid the full price and came back on the strength of Christ’s love. And every life thereafter, both in the Book of Mormon itself and in our generation, has been enriched because of the life Alma then lived.
What if he had not had the courage to make amends, however severe, and had remained at the far end of a road he should never have taken? What if, having found himself in such a mess, he had despairingly thrown his hands in the air and said, “Out, brief candle. I am a poor player upon a stage. My life is a tale told by an idiot. It has been full of sound and fury, and now it signifies nothing”?
Or what if a mistake or two had so crippled Peter that he had not come back, stronger than ever, after the crucifixion and resurrection of the Master? A few years ago Elder Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of Peter’s struggle. After recounting the events of Jesus’ ordeal in facing accusations, mock trials, and imprisonment, and Peter’s remorseful acquiescence to it, he said:
“As I have read this account my heart goes out to Peter. So many of us are so much like him. We pledge our loyalty; we affirm our determination to be of good courage; we declare, sometimes even publicly, that come what may we will do the right thing, that we will stand for the right cause, that we will be true to ourselves and to others.
“Then the pressures begin to build. Sometimes these are social pressures. Sometimes they are personal appetites. Sometimes they are false ambitions. There is a weakening of the will. There is a softening of discipline. There is capitulation. And then there is remorse, self-accusation, and bitter tears of regret.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 65.)
Well, if Peter’s story were to have ended there, with him cursing and swearing and saying, “I know not the man” (Matt. 26:74), surely his would be among the most pathetic in all scripture.
But Peter came back.
He squared his shoulders and stiffened his resolve and made up for lost ground. He gave stirring leadership to a frightened little band of Church members. He preached such a moving sermon on the day of Pentecost that three thousand in the audience applied for baptism. Days later five thousand heard him and were baptized. With John, he healed the lame man at the gate of the temple. Faith in Peter’s faith brought the sick into the streets on their beds of affliction “that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.” (Acts 5:15.) He fearlessly spoke for his brethren when they were arraigned before the Sanhedrin and when they were cast into prison. He entertained angels and received the vision that led to carrying the gospel to the Gentiles. He became in every sense the rock Christ promised he would be. Of such a life Elder Hinckley said:
“I pray that you may draw comfort and resolution from the example of Peter who, though he had walked daily with Jesus, in an hour of extremity denied both the Lord and the testimony which he carried in his own heart. But he rose above this, and became a mighty defender and a powerful advocate. So too, there is a way for you to turn about, and … [build] the kingdom of God.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 67.)
Of course one of the added tragedies in transgression is that even if we make the effort to change, to try again, to come back, others often insist upon leaving the old labels with us.
I grew up in the same town as a boy who had no father and few of the other blessings of life. The young men in our community found it easy to tease and taunt and bully him. And in the process of it all he made some mistakes (though I cannot believe his mistakes were more serious than those of his Latter-day Saint friends who made life so miserable for him). He began to drink and smoke, and gospel principles which had never meant much to him now meant even less. He had been cast in a role by friends who should have known better, and he began to play the part perfectly. Soon he drank even more, went to school even less, and went to Church not at all. Then one day he was gone. Some said they thought he had joined the army.
Fifteen or sixteen years later he came home—at least he tried to come home. He had found the significance of the gospel in his life. He had married a wonderful girl and they had a beautiful family. But he discovered something upon his return. He had changed, but some of his old friends had not—and they were unwilling to let him escape his past.
This was hard for him and hard for his family. They bought a little home and started a small business, but they struggled both personally and professionally and finally moved away. For reasons that don’t need to be detailed here, the story goes on to a very unhappy ending. He died a few years ago at the age of forty-four. That’s too young to die these days, and it’s certainly too young to die away from home.
When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other.
The Prophet Joseph Smith shows us a better example. In the early years of the Church, he had no more faithful aide than William Wines Phelps. Brother Phelps, a former newspaper editor, had joined the Church in Kirtland and was of such assistance to those early leaders that they sent him as one of the first Latter-day Saints to the new Jerusalem—Jackson County, Missouri. There he was called by the Lord to the stake presidency of that center stake of Zion.
But then troubles developed—ecclesiastical aberrations to begin with, but later financial improprieties. Things became so serious that the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that if Phelps did not repent, he would be “removed out of [his] place. … ” (History of the Church, 2:511.) He did not repent and was excommunicated on 10 March 1838.
The Prophet Joseph and others immediately tried to love Phelps back into the fold, but he would have nothing of it. Then in the fall of that violent year, W. W. Phelps, along with others, signed a deadly damaging affidavit against the Prophet and other leaders of the Church. The result was quite simply that Joseph Smith was sentenced to be publicly executed on the town square in Far West, Missouri, Friday morning, 2 November 1838. Through the monumental courage of General Alexander Doniphan, the Prophet was miraculously spared the execution Phelps and others had precipitated, but he was not spared five months of imprisonment—November through April—in several Missouri prisons, the most noted of which was the pit ironically known as Liberty Jail.
I do not need to recount for you the suffering of the Saints during that period. The anguish of those not captive was in many ways more severe than those imprisoned. The persecution intensified until the Saints sought yet again to find another refuge from the storm. With Joseph in chains, praying for their safety and giving some direction by letter, they made their way toward Commerce, Illinois, a malaria swamp on the Mississippi River, where they would try once more to build the city of Zion. And so much of this travail, this torment and heartache, was due to men of their own brotherhood, men like W. W. Phelps.
But we’re speaking today of happy endings. Two very difficult years later, with great anguish and remorse of conscience, Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.
“Brother Joseph: … I am as the prodigal son.
“I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed. … [I] ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten me to death, yet I will die with them, for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me, yea, it is bigger and better than all Babylon.
“I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. … I have done wrong and I am sorry. … I ask forgiveness. … I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet.” (History of the Church, 4:141–42.)
In an instant the Prophet wrote back. I know of no private document or personal response in the life of Joseph Smith—or anyone else, for that matter—which so powerfully demonstrates the magnificence of his soul. There is a lesson here for every one of us who claims to be a disciple of Christ.
“Dear Brother Phelps:
“You may in some measure realize what my feelings … were, when we read your letter.
“We have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us.
“However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord and having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God’s dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
“‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.’
“Yours as ever, Joseph Smith, Jun.” (History of the Church, 4:162–64.)
It only adds to the poignance of this particular prodigal’s return that exactly four years later W. W. Phelps was selected to preach Joseph Smith’s funeral sermon in that terribly tense and emotional circumstance. Furthermore he memorialized the martyred prophet with his hymn of adoration, “Praise to the Man.”
Having been the foolish swimmer pulled back to safety by the very man he had sought to destroy, Phelps must have had unique appreciation for the stature of the Prophet when he penned:
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
(Hymns, no. 147)
Perhaps the most encouraging and compassionate parable in all of holy writ is the story of the prodigal son. Listen to Mary Lyman Henrie’s poetic expression of it, entitled “To Any Who Have Watched for a Son’s Returning.”
He watched his son gather all the goods
that were his lot,
anxious to be gone from tending flocks,
the dullness of the fields.
He stood by the olive tree gate long
after the caravan disappeared
where the road climbs the hills
on the far side of the valley,
Through changing seasons he spent the light
in a great chair, facing the far country,
and that speck of road on the horizon.
Mocking friends: “He will not come.”
Whispering servants: “The old man has lost his senses.”
A chiding son: “You should not have let him go.”
A grieving wife: “You need rest and sleep.”
She covered his drooping shoulders,
his callused knees,
when east winds blew chill,
until that day …
A form familiar, even at infinity,
in shreds, alone, stumbling over pebbles.
“When he was a great way off,
His father saw him,
and had compassion, and ran,
and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
(Ensign, March 1983, p. 63.)
God bless us to help each other come back home, where we will, in the presence of our Father, find waiting a robe, a ring, and a fatted calf.