The Transformative Power of Covenants
Ellie L. Young
Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Special Education
June 11, 2019
Nephi wrote in the first verse of the Book of Mormon, “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…” This passage tells me something quite endearing about Nephi, he recognized that his parents contributed to who he is. I wonder if Nephi is teaching us that we are deeply influenced by our relationships. While I am NOT Nephi, I do want to acknowledge that me being here today, is a result of goodly, loving parents and a supportive clan. That means the world to me. Wyoming is my ancestral home, I grew up and graduated from high school in Cody. My parents and grandparents grew up in Starr Valley.
When I meet someone from Wyoming, I immediately think of them as a kindred spirit or a long-lost friend. I often find myself trying to convince the school psychology students that I teach to work in Wyoming. School psychologists work one-on-one with struggling students, consulting frequently with teachers and parents, and they helped implement a variety of academic and behavioral supports for students.
Because of the way education is funded in Wyoming, school psychologists tend to have smaller caseloads and generous resources to meet the needs of the children they serve. The quality of life in Wyoming includes clean air, amazing mountains, great skiing, no traffic except when the fourth of July takes over Main Street, and tourists have to wait until the parade ends.
Wyoming has wide open spaces and no state income tax, sincere salt-of-the-earth people, and a beautiful temple in the corner of star valley. When we travel to Wyoming and cross the state line, my soul seems a bit more at ease and whispers “you are home, these are your people and all is right in the world.” Just as I feel at home and connected to Wyoming and its people, gospel covenants connect us to each other and especially to the Savior.
President Russell M. Nelson shared this idea about covenants in an October 2011 02:23
General Conference address he said, “When we realized that we are children of the Covenant we know who we are and what God is expects of us. His law is written in our hearts. He is our God and we are his people. Being on the Covenant path can create a sense of belonging and connectedness and especially a connection to the Savior. Covenants bind us to Christ and because we are bound to him, we can become like him. Being bound to Christ means that we know him, we feel his comforting love. We feel his guiding hand in our lives and because we feel his amazingly generous and compassionate love. We have a desire to love as he does.”
When I have really felt God's love, I find that I am more inclined to focus on building up those around me. Being less judgmental seems a bit easier and being generous rather than stingy seems like the right thing to do. Part of being bound to Christ is explained by Adam Miller in his book “Grace is Not God's Back-Up Plan”. Miller wrote, “only a willingness to trust God's promise can make you Abraham's seed.” Miller's emphasis on trusting God as part of covenant keeping seems pretty important.
How can we trust God if we don't know him? We certainly can know God in an academic way, but that feels rather one dimensional…one dimensional and not very compelling to me. The Savior wants something much more fulfilling for us, he wants us to share our hearts, all of our hearts, even the unbelieving, unknowing, selfish, worried or whining parts of our hearts.
When I really understand God's love, I understand that he will accept my whining, doubting heart and he will help me to come to become increasingly more understanding of his ways. He will help me to become more compassionate and charitable over time through covenant building. And through building a covenant, steadfast relationship with his Savior, we change. Psychological research is replete with conclusions that one of the key factors that creates change in therapy is the positive, warm, trusting relationship between the therapist and the client. This trust is not a one-and-done event, many therapists maintain that for change and healing to occur in counseling, that trust deepens over time so that the tender, scary, and painful pieces of what brings us to counseling can gently be uncovered and explored so that healing can begin and long lasting change happens.
This safe, trusting relationship that facilitates meaningful growth and counseling is exactly what the Savior offers us in a covenant relationship. He promises that he will take the scary, painful, and tender parts of our stories and that he will help us make sense of what is happening and then he will help us find new ways to move through what is difficult similar to the work of an effective psychologist. And, because Christ is the expert counselor, he is always understanding, accepting, and willing to listen to our stories again and again.
Sister Bonnie Parkin, former General Relief Society President said, “Covenants, or binding promises, between us and Heavenly Father, are essential for our eternal progression. Step by step he tutors us to become like him by enlisting us in his work.”
Sister Parkin emphasized that how covenants transform us: “Christ gently tutors us to love as he does.”
During Christ's earthly ministry, he repeatedly doubt to those who were suffering, those who were different, and those who are on the margins. Our covenant-keeping task seems to be the same to love as Christ loved, and for me that starts with suspending judgment. As a missionary in Louisiana, I have learned a very valuable lesson about learning to love in a godly way.
I am deeply grateful to have served with a mission president, companions, members, and those who are learning the gospel. They taught me lessons that enriched my life far beyond the time I spent as a full-time missionary. As most of us do, I had a missionary companion who I thought was difficult. Her idea is about keeping the apartment clean were quite different than mine. She preferred not to run the air conditioner during the summer months because our house was poorly insulated and she thought the air conditioning would quickly go through the walls. Running the air conditioner in Louisiana, in the summer, seemed reasonable to me.
This companion was easygoing while I was a stickler for following the rules. I struggled to see her strengths and was often critical of her in my mind which I am sure leaked into my actions. Her view of mission rules was much more flexible than mine and the members loved her and she easily connected with those who were learning about the gospel. In contrast, I was worried about keeping the rules. I was irritated that my experiences weren't what I was expecting or what's often portrayed as the best two years or 18 months of your life. During my scheduled interview with my mission president, I shared my frustration about my companion and my lack of understanding of how to fix the problem. His incredibly wise response was to try to see her as God saw her. As I slowly implemented his admonition, her cleanliness didn't seem to bother me as much. I began to appreciate her easygoing nature and flexibility with some mission rules, as a person, focus, strength.
Reflecting on this experience now helps me to see that God cares how well we love. The rules are important and they have their place, but certainly there are times when we need to consider if we are prioritizing rules over people.
In the book of Mosiah, we learn again that covenants, specifically our baptismal covenants, our covenants that teaches how to care for each other in Mosiah we read, “Yea and are willing to mourn with those that mourn, yea and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. To stand as witnesses of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in even until death. That he may be redeemed of God and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life.”
Until my mother passed away about three years ago, I didn't realize what it meant to mourn with those that mourn. When my mother passed, our family felt an outpouring of love from neighbors, family, and friends. I'm not sure that those who mourn with us understood how their kindnesses comforted us so deeply. My mother passed away on a Monday evening after spending the weekend in the very small hospital and Afton, Wyoming. She was thrilled to be discharged from the hospital and returned to their cabin. That Monday afternoon, my husband Frank and I had spent the weekend helping my father and visiting my mother but we left for Utah that afternoon.
After my month after getting my mother settled 12:19 at home, that evening the Relief Society President visited my parents. When my mother apparently suffered another stroke the Relief Society President stayed with my father until the ambulance arrived. She contacted the Bishop, who met my father at the hospital. My mother couldn't be revived in the emergency room and passed away there.
My parent’s Bishop stayed at the hospital with my father for at least three hours, until almost midnight, until Frank and I could return to Star Valley. The bishop stayed with my father so he wouldn't have to go home to an empty house by himself at midnight. Then, in the following days, the Bishop helped us to plan a funeral. The Relief Society planned a lovely lunch for our family after their funeral and they cheerfully served us the traditional ham and funeral potatoes.
There were other ways that people mourned with us. A day or two after my mother's passing, someone brought a generous tray of deli meats, cheeses, and spreads that we picked at. Daily, someone else bought the really thick, tasty kind of bacon and farm-fresh eggs. Friends and 13:29 family came from long distances for the funeral. When it wasn't easy or convenient, others sent lovely flowers and plants, and thanks to Frank's green thumb they are still alive and remind me of the generosity of dear friends.
In my conversations with these sweet people, their access service didn't seem to be any great sacrifice, their generous and gracious acts helped us to feel the Savior’s love. We had a sense that we were not alone. At a time of deep sadness, their efforts to keep their covenants to comfort us in Christ-like ways still means so much to me. Maybe the essence of being a covenant-keeping saint is nothing big or grandiose, rather it's the small, simple act of showing up with love and empathy.
Baptismal covenants, as taught in the Book of Mormon are essentially asking us to show up for each other, to be aware of each other's needs and to take care of each other as we can. Just as our baptismal covenants guide us in building relationships, temple covenants also focus on relationships.
James E. Talmage taught, “the ordinances of the endowment, embodies certain obligations on the part of the individual such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity. To be charitable, benevolent, tolerant, and pure. To devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth.”
Talmage teaches that “covenants ask us to maintain devotion to the cause of truth and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be ready to receive her King, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Temple covenants ask us to build the kingdom of God, which is sharing the joy and peace of the Savior’s love. From this perspective, we can't be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure in a vacuum. Relationships are where we practice being benevolent, tolerant, and pure. There are no qualifiers on the charge to whom we need to devote both talent and material means. Our covenants mean that we treat the homeless person with dignity, or let someone go ahead of us in traffic.
The parable of the Good Samaritan also teaches us that we can be charitable and benevolent to those that are different and unknown. The Good Samaritan taught us to have healthy boundaries. He did what he could to take care of the beaten traveler for two days then he trusted that others could continue to take part in caring for the traveler. We can be benevolent and have healthy boundaries. Making and keeping temple and baptismal covenants is something to be practiced, and practicing means that we are expected to make mistakes.
We don't practice something that we know perfectly.
I recently listened to a podcast where the speaker noted that her GPS doesn't reprimand her or yell at her when she makes a wrong turn, rather the GPS simply states recalculating route even after she makes several wrong turns. Similar, when we make a wrong turn on the covenant path, Christ helps us to recalculate so that we can arrive at our destination.
Some may approach covenant keeping with a sense of urgency and fear but I suggest that this may not always service well. What if we could actually embrace our practicing of keeping covenants as an actual journey? Allowing for a sense of enjoyment with time and energy devoted to stopping and smelling the roses. It seems probable that a sense of urgency and fear may distract us, and possibly blind us, from effectively building a steadfast covenant relationships. That sense of urgency and fear may make it difficult to see and meet the needs of those that we can care for, and those that we need to uplift and comfort.
Sister Rosemary Wixom, a former Primary General President, taught in to be in a BYU devotional, “A covenant is personal. It is so personal that it is given to us individually, and often our very own name is said in conjunction with the ordinance that accompanies the covenant. By living our covenants with the Lord's help, He sculpts us into a masterpiece.”
Sister Wixom seems to be teaching us two very key ideas: covenants are individual; and covenants transform us to become more Christ-like. The outward appearance of covenant making, and covenant renewing, looks the same for each of us. If we were observing each other taking the sacrament, it would look basically the same. Similarly, making temple covenants looks the same for each of us. But, because our covenants are relational and reflect our individual relationship with the Savior how I want the Covenant path is distinct to me and how you want the Covenant path is distinct to you.
I love that we learn in the temple that living things are created to fulfill the measure of their creation. God created me to fulfill the measure of my creation, not the measure of your creation or anyone else's creation.
I am deeply grateful for the personal revelation that I have received that has guided me in my career and my end in my efforts to be a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, teacher, professor, and psychologist.
My covenant path led me to pursue education and a career where I serve Heavenly Father’s children. I earned my degree in psychology from BYU after just a few months after the birth of our daughter Erin, a few weeks after graduation, we moved to Kansas where Frank worked to fulfill his career goals. Five years later, Frank was transferred to Missouri. In Kansas and Missouri, I worked a series of full-time and part-time positions as a school psychologist. After working about 10 years, Frank and I carefully prayed and decided then I would apply to doctoral programs in school psychology and we would figure out our next steps.
After I had offers from graduate programs, after being accepted into the doctoral program in school psychology at the University of South Florida, we sold most of our belongings and headed to Tampa with our three children. As I worked to complete school, the Lord has kept his covenant to comfort those who needed comforting. The sisters in the Tampa ward helped to care for our children. Another let me use their laser printer to print the final copy of my dissertation. Others fed and entertained us, keeping their covenants to care for others. Frank was blessed to find meaningful work that later opened important doors for him at Utah Valley University.
I learned that God cares deeply about thesis and dissertation data. As part of my covenant path, that experience taught me again that God won't fell us. He would open doors for us, and he definitely comforted me. When the task seems so difficult, and never-ending, your covenant path should look different and will look different from mine. And, even though our covenant paths are different, there is much that is the same. Mostly, that the Savior is very aware of our needs. As we stumble and walk our different covenant paths, he really is okay with whatever progress we are making and he is there to hold our hands, and our hearts, when it gets scary and dicey and we have no clue about what to do next.
The second idea that sister what some teaches us is that keeping covenants is transformative. It is easy to think of covenants as a transaction. I keep this commandment and I get this blessing. I suspect there is much more to covenant keeping than creating a balance sheet of what laws I have kept and what blessing God owes me. Maybe the blessing we receive for being obedient is understanding and knowing God more fully and feeling his love more deeply. Maybe the transformation is learning to come from a place of abundance and grace in all of our relationships. If covenants are transformative, then maybe our baptismal covenants could mean something different to me today than they meant when I was 8 years old and the covenants that I made.
In the temple means something much more than when I was preparing for a mission and getting married. I was baptized and confirmed a member of the church as an 8-year-old child and I have to admit that even though I was well prepared by my parents, I understood the covenants, and concrete ways I had to be obedient. To have the Holy Ghost with me, I had to remember Jesus to keep the word of wisdom, continue going to church, and say my prayers.
We can't remember the sacrament, all that meaningful as a child. Shortly after our daughter was born and I was holding her during the sacrament, I was trying to think of sacrament kinds-of-thoughts and I realized that the atonement wasn't just for me, but that Christ's love extended to my beautiful daughter and that she too would be blessed eternally by his love. I realized that my motherly instinct to love and protect this child was not just about me and this child, but that Christ loved her even more than I ever could. I deeply felt his love for her.
Similarly, when I went to the temple for the first time before my mission, the covenants were meaningful but I was only 21 and my life experience was quite limited. Now as a middle-aged woman, I have wept with gratitude at the veil. I have been struck by how the temple gives me an eternal perspective when the daily troubles of the world seem so complicated. A dear friend shared with me that each week, when we take the sacrament, we truly are making and renewing our baptismal covenants. Again, because we are new and different people each week, when we take the bread and water. Maybe when we take the sacrament each week, or attend the temple, we could ask ourselves, “How have my efforts to keep my covenants transformed me? How have they helped me to know and learn and love God in new and different ways? How have my covenants help me to love others abundantly? How we walk the covenant path, the relationship building.
Comforting and strengthening is not a path that is easily evaluated by a checklist. Considering our progress on this path is a qualitative open-ended descriptive consideration of how well I am loving others, and how I am building a trusting, joyful relationship with God. No matter where we are in the covenant path regardless of our pace progress, God loves us and he is not willing for any of us to perish.
In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
As we journey on the covenant path, the Lord's long-suffering is evidence of his patience and desire to walk the paths with us. We are bound to him, and he is bound to us.
To close, I want to share a very short poem that summarizes for me what it means to live a covenant life so that we can become like our Heavenly parents and the Savior.
Rachel Von Stingglich in the book “Mother's Milk” wrote this about Heavenly Mother, and I suspect that this characterization of Heavenly Mother could be about each of us. This is the poem “Perfection” is not her goa,l love is. This poem reminds me that the purpose of the Covenant path or perfection is about loving others, loving the Savior, and loving our Heavenly parents deeply. This love transforms us continually as we seek it as we trust so we feel it and as we strive to share it.
My hope is that each of us have felt God's love today, and if not, that you will and that each of us will be transformed by our covenants to love each other in the way that our Heavenly parents and the Savior loved us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1. 1 Nephi 1:1.
2. Russell M. Nelson, “Covenants,” Ensign, November 2011.
3. Adam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (self-published, CreateSpace, 2015), 48.
4. Bonnie D. Parkin, “With Holiness of Heart,” Ensign, November 2002.
5. See Matilda Dudley Busby, “Thirteenth Ward Relief Society Covenant,” in Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, eds., At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 29–31.
6. James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912), 100.
7. Talmage, House of the Lord, 100.
8. See Luke 10:30–37.
9. Rosemary M. Wixom, “The Covenant Path,” BYU devotional address, 11 March 2013.
10. Rachel Hunt Steenblik, Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother (Salt Lake City: By Common Consent Press, 2017), 75.