“What I’ve Learned about Grace Since Coming Down from the Sycomore Tree,” Ensign, Apr. 1989, 13
At a certain point in my life, I realized that, like Zacchaeus of Jericho, I needed to come down from the sycomore tree,1 where I was merely watching Jesus pass on the road, and let him come into my house. That was when I began to understand the meaning and power of grace.
About ten years ago, I realized that I needed to learn something. My spiritual life wasn’t very satisfying; I wasn’t very happy, and I didn’t know why.
I knew a good deal about the “laws of happiness,” and I was trying—earnestly—to apply them. After all, wasn’t that the way to happiness and, ultimately, exaltation? Obey the law, get the blessing. Simple, straightforward justice.
Of course, I knew that I hadn’t obeyed the law perfectly. But I had somehow got the understanding that if I set goals for myself, continually strove for perfection, and maintained a positive attitude, I could finally purify myself. I had mistakenly believed what I had heard somewhere—that what the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. After I had achieved this self-perfection, the atonement of Christ would then compensate for all my past shortcomings—or so I thought.
But I began to feel that this “obey the law, get the blessing” approach was rather crass; that it was almost on the level of “put in the coin, get the purchase”; that there must be more to a spiritual life than that. Furthermore, I began to realize that this method was demanding more coins than I had in my spiritual pockets. I could usually (though not always) find the attend-your-meetings coin and the Word of Wisdom and tithing coins, but I was frequently unable to find all the different denominations of love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself coins. I became anxious and discouraged about never having enough coins.
I also realized that there was something cold about my spiritual life. I knew Latter-day Saints, some of them fellow ward members, in whom peace and love seemed to flow like a spring of water. I heard others speak of the Lord as if he were an intimate, cherished friend. But I was not one of them. What was missing?
I came to find out. I am sorry to say that I did not at first find it in the scriptures, because, as I came to understand, I was not reading the scriptures—particularly the Book of Mormon—as they had been written, but was imposing on them certain incorrect preconceptions. (Of course, after I had learned what to look for, I found it there in abundance.)
One of my first and most important clues came from a non-Latter-day Saint, C. S. Lewis: “If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.” (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 168.) I saw that I needed ploughing and re-sowing, and it was quite clear to me who was the Ploughman and the Sower.
What I needed is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus. (See Luke 19:2–10.) Zacchaeus was a publican, a Jew working as a tax collector for the Romans. He was despised by his people because he served the conquering empire. He was also rich, possibly because the system allowed him to overcharge for taxes so that he would have additional income for himself. He could, in fact, charge as much as he could get away with.
One day Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to his town, and he joined the throng that lined the roadway to see Jesus pass. Zacchaeus was short and couldn’t see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycomore tree that grew beside the road. As Jesus passed under the tree, he looked up, saw Zacchaeus, and said to him, “Make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house.” (Luke 19:5.)
Zacchaeus did come down to receive the visit of Jesus, and before that life-changing visit was over he said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”
Seeing Zacchaeus’ remarkable change of heart, Jesus said, “This day is salvation come to this house. …
“For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:8–10.)
What happened to Zacchaeus during that short time to change his heart so dramatically? I believe it was what happens in all our associations with other people: those with whom we “rub shoulders” influence us. Something of them, whether good or evil, tends to “rub off” onto us. We tend to become more like the people with whom we associate, especially those with whom we associate intimately.
When Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his house and his life, he opened himself to an influence that would make of him a different man. As President Ezra Taft Benson said, “When you choose to follow Christ, you choose to be changed.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 5.)
We may not be privileged, as were Zacchaeus and his contemporaries, to walk and sit and talk with the Master in the flesh, but He nevertheless offers us a companionship as intimate as we could wish for. He said to John the Revelator, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20.)
For us, this companionship begins through the Holy Spirit, when we yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,” as King Benjamin urged us to do. (Mosiah 3:19.) But though that companionship through the Spirit may sound indirect, it is actually quite direct and intimate, for as Paul said, when we receive the Spirit, we have the very “mind of Christ.” (See 1 Cor. 2:10–16.)
The most important thing I have begun to learn is that if I will only pause to listen for it, I can hear the knock on the door of my heart. Then, as I permit myself to receive the Spirit, I change. I find that I am far less likely to speak impatiently to those I love, to refuse the request of the stranger in need, or to entertain unworthy desires.
It is easier for me to receive the Spirit when I am doing things that the scriptures and the prophets have always urged us to do: praying sincerely, meditating, searching the scriptures, gathering together with others of the Master’s disciples to do his work. I have learned to feel the power of the Lord directly, and I have found him indirectly in all the uncountable helps that he has given me, whether it be the understanding bishop, the attentive home teacher or friend, or the Church manual or magazine. He is not hard to find when we truly want to find him.
Now, note that he did not say to John that he would come in only to the righteous man, or the perfect man, or the man who had “earned” his companionship. He said “any man” who would open to him. It is true that the scriptures speak of a companionship with the Father and the Son that is granted to those who have become wholly pure (sanctified is the scriptural word; see Hel. 3:35, D&C 88:67–68), but one of the things I have come to know for myself since coming down from the sycomore tree is that the Lord offers us an earlier companionship while we are yet impure. That earlier relationship is, in fact, the only thing that can make us pure.
We cannot claim to have earned this early companionship of the Lord’s Spirit, because the very fact that we are sinful causes us to need it. So it must be received as a gift—that is, given by grace.
Grace is no longer a doctrinal abstraction to me. The word calls to my mind all the helps that I have found on my way to trying to know and serve the Master, and all the moments of peace and joy—usually gentle, but sometimes almost unbearably intense—when I have known that his Spirit is with me.
In those moments when I have accepted His proffered companionship, I have come to understand something else that is enormously comforting. I feel myself to be somewhat like a man who has been sick with a deadly disease. But the Physician can come to such a man and assure him that, if he will remain under the Physician’s care, he will be cured. (See Matt. 9:10–13.) The treatment may be painful at times, and it will require the patient to go and do many things—which the Physician himself, through His grace, will help and empower the patient to do. (See Philip. 4:13 and Alma 26:12.) The time may be far hence when the patient finally will be pronounced whole and fit to come into the Physician’s own home and dwell with him. But if the patient continues to submit to those ministrations, that time will come. I have come to feel the truth of what a former bishop of mine liked to say: that the Church is not a country club for Saints, but a hospital for sinners.
I am not speaking of indulgence for willful sin. I am speaking, rather, of what happens when, say, I find myself becoming irritated or angry and brooding on spiteful things that I might say or do. If I choose to continue brooding on those things and even to speak or do them, then I have sinned willfully, and I feel that precious Presence begin to depart.
But if I stop and acknowledge my wrong, requesting the Master’s help to be freed of that sinful disposition, then something quite different happens. The Physician returns to continue the treatment, assuring me that I do not have to wait until I am whole to receive his love and care. (If we had to wait until we were sinless to receive his companionship, we would be lonely indeed.) Thus, though I am still imperfect, there is no enmity between God and me; I am not “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19.)
Countless experiences of this sort have given me a better understanding of the doctrine of justification, particularly as the Apostle Paul taught it. We must be made clean (sanctified), and we must also be declared not guilty of sin (one of the scriptural meanings of justification) in order to return to our Father in glory. The problem is that we have all been guilty. How can we who have been guilty be declared innocent? Only by allowing the innocence of Christ to be put in the place of our guilt; by taking upon us the name of Christ, as we witness in baptism and the sacrament, so that when the Father looks upon us it is, in one sense, as if he looks upon the Son.
And how do we truly take that name upon us? By yielding ourselves to Christ in faith—in such confidence that we accept and act with whole hearts upon any commandment, call to service, sacrifice, or chastisement that he lays upon us. That is what I do when I turn to him with my anger or whatever else is unworthy and say, “Please give me a new heart; help me overcome the world.”
One important illustration of this sort of yielding and its results in my life began soon after I was married. I said to my wife, “I think I could handle any calling in the branch except Young Men president or Scoutmaster. I just can’t see myself as either one.”
It’s not hard to guess what happened. A few weeks later, I was called to be the branch Young Men president, and a year after that, the Scoutmaster. Those callings were as difficult for me as I had expected, but I accepted them and served in them. I did this because—though I could not have explained it just this way at the time—I trusted the Physician, who was prescribing treatment for me through his mortal assistants. As it has turned out, most of my service in the Church since then has been in the Young Men program, Aaronic Priesthood, and Scouting. I am a better man for it—better prepared to serve a certain group of our Heavenly Father’s children.
Another example: Early in our marriage, my wife and I learned that some friends had requested Church welfare assistance. I thought smugly that people who obeyed the commandments would not need to do that—I certainly wouldn’t.
The Master recognized the deficiency in my heart. To help cure it, he allowed me to find it necessary, in the next twelve years, to request assistance several times. I am now a good deal slower to judge those in difficult financial circumstances and a good deal quicker to reach into my pocket for the stranger on the street.
The main point here is that, even though my heart was seriously flawed, the Physician did not refuse to associate with me. Rather, he took me in, in spite of my flaws, in order to heal me. He was willing to do this because I sought his ministrations and was willing to accept any treatment procedure that he determined to employ with me.
In scriptural language, God has in these instances justified me, through my faith, treating me as being worthy to receive his grace, even though I am imperfect.
I once believed that justification could come only at the end of a life of good works and self-perfection, after I had earned it (with a little help from the Savior to make up for my deficiencies). But as I have come down from the sycomore and allowed the Master to visit with me, through the ministrations of his Spirit, it has dawned on me what an incredible gift that is. I don’t deserve it. (See 2 Ne. 2:5, 8.) Yet he has helped me, by his grace, precisely because I so desperately need and want his help to change, and because he loves me.
When God gives me something that I don’t deserve, he treats me as if I am “not guilty.” That is, he justifies me now, in my imperfection, during the process that will help make me fit for his presence. The process can then go on—it doesn’t bog down in the demands of the law, because Jesus has satisfied those demands. I am granted that justification by accepting, through faith in Jesus Christ, the grace that God offers me.
I believe I am beginning to understand, as result of my own experience, two statements of Paul that once troubled me endlessly. One is from Romans: “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (2 Ne. 4:5.) The other is from Ephesians: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
“Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (2 Ne. 2:8–9.)
To me, these verses do not mean that God will indulgently overlook willful wickedness. Rather, I think they mean that, as I place myself with a broken heart in the Lord’s hands, allowing him to work on me and transform me into the kind of person who will serve him continually, God helps and blesses me now, in my imperfection, far beyond my deserving, so that I can move toward perfection.
I believe that I am also beginning to understand some words of Lehi that once troubled me:
“By the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off [because we all disobey the law]. …
“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. …
“And they that believe in him shall be saved.” (2 Ne. 2:5–6, 9; italics added.)
I recognize that the language the scriptures use to discuss these doctrines is easily misunderstood. Some readers have concluded that good works have nothing to do with salvation. But the scriptures make it clear that our Heavenly Father cannot look upon sin with any degree of allowance. He will bestow his greatest gifts only upon those who he knows will use them in harmony with his will.
On the other hand, some readers, in focusing on the need for good works, have overlooked the centrality of Christ’s grace to our salvation and exaltation. For example, when I read in the scriptures that we will be judged for our works (see 1 Ne. 15:32; Rom. 2:5–8), I remember that it is only by his grace that I am enabled to do good works. Without the Savior’s atonement, I could not even repent. I could not “come unto [Christ] and bring forth works of righteousness.” (See Alma 5:33–36.)
The Savior paid an incomprehensible price to be able to bestow his gifts of grace. He told us something about that when he broke the loaves and fishes to feed five thousand men and their families and then explained, “I am that bread of life” (see John 6:5–48): he himself was willing to be broken and torn, physically and spiritually, to save us.
When he had fed the multitude and there were baskets of bread and fish to spare, he also told us something about the abundance of the grace that he is able to offer us. He will share that grace with each of us if only we will come down from the sycomore where we have been watching him pass by and invite him in to visit and to sup with us.