Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gathering the Elect of God--George's Post

1.    Gathering the Elect of God

Since the earliest days in Mormon Church history, Mormon missionaries have understood they were called to gather the elect of God.  The following revelation was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in September of 1830, first speaking of the special calling given to the latter-day missionaries—to declare the gospel with joy--and then speaking to their charge to assist with the gathering of the elect.  “Verily, I say unto you that ye are chosen out of the world to declare my gospel with the sound of rejoicing, as with the voice of a trump….  And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts.”  D&C 29: 4; 7.  But what are we to understand by the phrase “the elect of God.” 
Not surprisingly, the phrase has been used in several different ways in the scriptures.  First, as noted above, the “elect of God” denotes those who hear and accept the gospel’s message.  Saints show their “election” by not hardening their hearts, and by being open to the gospel’s message.  In this sense, “election” is not a gift or privilege bestowed upon one, separate and apart from one’s behavior—but instead is something evidenced by one’s acceptance of the gospel.  The same theme is reprised in the Gospel of John.  “Elect” status is defined in terms of “hearing” the word of God and “following” after the Savior.  “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine….  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:  And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”  John 10: 14; 27-28.  The Apostle Paul speaks to the characteristics that are to be possessed by the “elect of God.”  They are to be “holy and beloved” and to possess the “bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.  And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.”  Col. 3: 12-15.  As so used, it not clear whether these behaviors are merely “characteristics” of the elect or whether these characteristics actually define what it means to be “elect.”  If one is “elect”—however that might be separately defined, one acts in a certain way; or, if one acts in a certain way, one by definition is “elect.”
On occasion, the “elect of God” is also used to refer to those whom God himself as foreordained as “His” servants, an action taken by God before the foundations of the world, marking those entitled to special blessings in this life, but presumably blessings that will only flow to them if they are obedient while on the earth.  In this sense, it is impossible to separate righteousness from “election,” because it is only possible to identify the “elect” through their acts of faithfulness.  Speaking of the saints in Ephesus, who were faithful in Christ Jesus, the Apostle Paul said: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.  In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.”  Eph. 1: 4-7.  This passage, together with other similar verses, has given rise to the doctrine “predestination”—the notion that some have been selected by God, for reasons not clearly seen, as His people—“His elect”—a determination made “before the foundation of the world.”  Those who are elect were “predestinated” to be so, and their election is evidenced or proven through their faithfulness.  In this sense, the focus is on the action taken by the Lord—who makes the “election” in the first instance.  He chooses His servants and they in turn hear His voice and follow His will.  When speaking of his closest disciples, the Savior said:  “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.  Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain….”  John 15: 15-16.  It is the Lord that “calls” and “ordains;” not men that earn a reward or become entitled to that privilege because of what they have done in this life.  One looks in vain in the Old and New Testament for an explanation as to why the Lord calls or ordains “some” but not others.  When speaking with non-believing Jews, Jesus said:  “Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.  But ye believe not, because ye at not of my sheep, as I said unto you.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  John 10: 25-26.  The passage begs the threshold question—how is that some are the Lord’s sheep and others are not?  What is it that predisposes some of God’s children to listen and others not. 
Sometimes the phase “elect of God” is used to refer to the House of Israel, as a tribe upon which special blessings have been bestowed as being the literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To Abraham, the Lord pronounced the following blessing:  “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  Gen. 12: 3[1]   “For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed three, though thou has not known me.  I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou has not known me….” Isa. 45: 4-5.  These scriptures seem to consider the House of Israel to be the “elect” of God, whether they follow Him and whether they are aware of the blessings that have been specially called down upon their heads.    Here the term “election” seems, at least in part, to be at odds with the term as used by the Savior in the New Testament.  There “election,” though perhaps not defined by one’s behavior, is at least evidenced by one’s willingness to accept the message.  Pointing to one’s lineage is not sufficient.[2]
Working within the doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy makes it difficult to make sense of the doctrines of “election” or “predestination.”  If God is fair and not a respecter of person, and if all men and women are His offspring, how can one account for the idea that any portion of God’s children should be singled out, before they have even lived, for special treatment—as the “elect of God” or as people deserving of special treatment as the choice descendants of Father Abraham or as ones entitled to the blessing bequeathed upon the House of Israel.  Indeed, in a broader sense, how is it possible to account for the different, and seemingly inequitable, circumstances in which men and women are born?  On what possible basis can those differences be reconciled with a loving Heaven Father, who cares equally for all His children and who is fair in His treatment of them.  Having no prior history upon which to make judgements, all of God’s children should start life equally, no one entitled to privileges or advantages over others.  Even if the circumstances of their births were not identical, at least they should be similar enough as to give all the same or a reasonably fair chance to enjoy the blessings of a rich and comfortable life, and to be exposed to the greater light and knowledge represented by the “fulness of the gospel.”    But as we all know, such equality in opportunities does not exist, nor has it existed since the earliest times—instead there are enormous differences—some come into this life with great privileges, others are disadvantaged—whether such differences are measured in terms of access to gospel truths, talents and skills, the comforts of life, health, position, status, righteous parents, a health environment--indeed, the list is virtually endless. 
Perhaps, one might seek to justify the differences in view of God’s omniscience—since all things are present to God even before they have occurred—he may be said to know, even before this world was created, how men and women, once given a chance to come to earth, will meet life’s challenges—whether they will be obedient or defiant, compliant or rebellious, virtuous or degenerate.   Perhaps, in view of this foreknowledge, the “election of God” is nothing more than God’s prophetic statements about how men will respond to life’s challenges when they are actually met.  The “elect” are those that God knows will be obedient and faithful; the “non-elect” are all others.  Apart the risk of creating “self-fulfilling” prophecies, one wonders what sense it makes for God to makes such authoritative statements as to how men will behave before their have actually had the opportunity to choose for themselves.  Should we not be left to make our own decisions, without living upon the cloud or penumbra of prophetic statements, shading our behavior and limiting our options?  The doctrine of “election” and “predestination “ flies squarely in the face of the belief that God is just and is not a respecter of person.  Those doctrines seem fundamentally unfair.
Mormon doctrine introduces novel concepts that create an intellectual framework that makes sense of the concept of “election,” and at the same time of the potential inequalities in the circumstances in which men and women come into this life.  Birth does not represent the beginning of our existence.  Instead, Mormons believe that all are the spiritual children of our Heavenly Father and had a premortal existence that stretched through endless eons of time before this world was created as place to which such spirit children could be sent.  During that pre-existence, we grew, worked, made choices, developed and progressed.  And just as in this life, some made better choices than others, progressing further than their fellow spirits, the same was true for the pre-existence.  In light of this, it does not make sense that all of God’s spirit children would come to earth with exactly the same set of circumstances and the same set of skills, talents, and aptitudes.[3]  Indeed to reset the bar, having everyone start at the same place, disregarding the differences that resulted from our prior behavior, would appear to be blatantly unfair.[4]   Abraham, the great patriarch, was given a vision of our premortal life, and said:  “Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said:  These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me:  Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.”  Abr: 3: 22-23.  Indeed, Mormons believe that Christ himself was one of those spirits, chosen to take upon himself the sins of the world, and to act as the Savior, precisely because of his diligence and nobleness in the premortal life.  “And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him:  We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth 0whereon these may dwell;  And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.  And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.”  Abr. 3: 24-26. 
While Mormons believe that many were foreordained to special callings in this life, whether or not they realize the blessings to which they may have claim depends ultimately upon their worthiness in this life.  They are promised certain blessings, but those blessings are contingent upon their being faithful in this life.  That concept is not foreign to Mormons—it is implicit in the wide-known scripture that many are called but few are chosen,[5] in the blessings pronounced in patriarchal blessings, and in the covenants made in temples.
Let me not be misunderstood.  Even though Mormons believe there are linkages between the premortal life, and our circumstances in this world, no one presumes to know precisely how those linkages work—how the traits and attributes developed in the preexistence translate into specific circumstances here on earth.  For example, it is possible that the many of the most valiant in the pre-existence were asked to come into life in trying circumstances, rather than in circumstances of comfort.  No doubt in time the Lord will see fit to reveal to us how these connections work.  Yet absent the belief in a pre-existence, the inequities and differences, so obviously apparent here on earth, are both inexplicable and unfair. 
“And now, it came to pass that after Abinadi had spoken these words he stretched forth his hand and said: The time shall come when all shall see the salvation of the Lord; when every nation, kindred, tongue, and people shall see eye to eye and shall confess before God that his judgments are just.”  Mosiah 16: 1.[6]  Perhaps at first blush, such a pronouncement appears to be innocuous—little more than a foregone conclusion assuming that God is just—hence His judgment must be just.  But upon reflection it is amazing to think that all, whatever their circumstances—easy or difficult, comfortable or trying—will on the Day of Judgment acknowledge God’s judgments to be “just.”  When thinking of this, one must remember that we think of justice in at least two very distinctive ways: first, have I been treated justly or fairly given what I have done; and second, when I compare myself with others, have I been treated justly or fairly, in that I have not been treated unfairly in a comparative sense.  Somehow the Lord’s judgment will be so comprehensive that none of us--however stacked the deck may have been against us—will have cause to complain to the Lord.  We will not fling at the Lord’s feet a brief complaining of comparative fairness.[7]  Instead, we will be prepared to confess that we were treated fairly, they were treated fairly, and in each case, such fairness took into account all of the different circumstances that each of us faced when coming into this life.  I doubt it is possible to underestimate the enormity of such confessions—today, with our limited world view, virtually everyone finds himself/herself with grounds to complain—life is or appears to be fundamentally unfair, especially when we compare our treatment to that of those not so very dissimilar from ourselves.
Over time there has been a shift in our interpretation of where the elect are to “gather.”  For many years, the “gathering” of the elect was understood to be a physical gathering--whether in Jackson County, Missouri or later to the barren valleys of the intermountain west—Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Nevada--where the  majority of the saints lived[8]Hence, the great migrations of the early Mormons from Western Europe and the islands of the seas to Salt Lake City.  In recent time, Mormon Church leaders have urged members to remain in the countries where they joined the church, to build up the stakes of Zion throughout the world.  Zion is now understood to be where the “pure in heart”[9] reside—a symbolic place rather than a literal destination.
The other day I asked Carole if she thought we could see the “elect of God” in the Mormon Church—be it in the congregations in the United States or those in Malawi.  For this purpose I was thinking of the “elect” in the sense of those who possess the characteristics that the Apostle Paul associated with the “elect:”  they have “bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”[10]   Before sharing some of the thoughts we discussed in response to that question, it is important to bear in mind that none of us can judge how another has done with the light and truth given to him/her.   Certainly it will be against that standard that each of us will ultimately be tested.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”[11]  Remembering also that it is only through the Savior, who has descended below all things, that righteous judgment will come.  Nonetheless it is still fair to ask if we see in the lives of Mormons the “fruits of the spirit.”  That question is not about how particular individuals will fare at the time of judgment, but whether we see in the Mormon Church conduct befitting the saints of God.

[1] See also Abr. 2: 9-12.

[2] See, for example, Matt. 3: 9-10.    “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.  And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”  This scripture on its face seems to refute the notion of “election” being a hereditary blessing.
[3] See, for example, D&C 130: 18-19.  “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.  And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”  It is hard not to believe that the same principle applied, at least in some form, as to the experiences we had in the pre-existence.
[4] We are, for example, told that one-third of the host of heaven did not keep their first estate, siding instead with Lucifer and opposing the plan proposed by God the Father, and supported by Christ as our elder brother.   Their choices limited and defined their future opportunities for growth.
[5] D&C 121: 34-36.  “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen.  And why are they not chosen?  Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson.  That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.”
[6] See also Mosiah 29: 12.  “Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.”  Isa: 11:3.  “And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.”
[7]  The parable of the laborers in the vineyard squarely raises the question of “relative fairness.”  Whether rightfully or wrongfully men are prone to compare their treatment by the master against the treatment that He will accord others.  See Matt.: 20: 1-16.
[8] “And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy.”  D&C 45: 71  See also D&C  101: 70: “Which saith, or teacheth, to purchase all the lands with money, which can be purchased for money, in the region round about the land which I have appointed to be the land of Zion, for the beginning of the gathering of my saints.” 
[9] “Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—The Pure in Heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn.”  D&C 97: 21.
[10] See Col. 3: 12-15.
[11] Matt. 7: 1-2.