Ten Ideas to Increase Your Spirituality

Elder-Joe-J_-ChristensenToward Greater Spirituality: Ten Important Steps

By Elder Joe J. Christensen
then President of the Missionary Training Center
Ensign – June, 1983




Not long ago, a young missionary stopped by my wife’s office at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, to make a special personal request. Since he knew that we were personally acquainted with his parents, he wondered if Sister Christensen would call his father and find out when his mother was going to have her surgery. He explained, “When my youngest sister was born, my mother almost died. All of us, including my five-year-old sister, fasted for her and she got well. Since that time, I worry when I think of operations. They make me nervous. I need to know when the surgery is going to be scheduled so that I can begin my fast.”

My wife willingly dialed his father’s telephone number and asked the elder if he would like to speak personally to him. He felt he should not because he knew it was against the policies and he thought it would make him homesick. When his father answered and learned that the call was from the Missionary Training Center, his first question was, “Is anything wrong?”

“No,” he was told, “not at all, but your son needs to know when the surgery on his mother is going to be so he can begin his fast.”

“Oh,” he said, “he’s going to be disappointed, because he can’t fast before the surgery; she already had it—yesterday. It lasted for five hours and she is doing very, very well. We are so thrilled.”

The elder’s face brightened as he realized what was being communicated on the telephone.

“Tell my father I love him and send him a hug and a kiss. Tell him to give my mother a hug and a kiss from me and to all the family.”

After the telephone call ended and the details about the surgery were explained, this great young elder said, “Oh, I’m so thankful; I will fast anyway for gratitude!”

My wife, Barbara, wrote in her journal, “We shook hands and he left my office, and I sat down and cried!”

It would be very helpful to know what series of teachings, events, and circumstances have combined over the past nineteen years to produce a son with that kind of sweet spirit, dedication, humility, and appreciation.

In the process of growing up, he has come to know for himself that there is much more to fasting than merely getting hungry. I feel confident that these spiritual qualities, combined with his other talents, will help him to be a very successful missionary. He has already cultivated spirituality to the point that he is at home with daily personal revelation.

In our present Church calling at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, my wife and I meet thousands of the finest people in the world. The missionaries come from a wide variety of circumstances, including the most spiritual and stable as well as the most challenging. A good share of the missionaries have already cultivated a high degree of testimony and spirituality, while others are struggling to obtain it.

With spirituality, we are successful, and without it we are not. It is that simple! Spirituality is the sine qua non (the “without which, not”), It is not only the thoroughly genuine desire to live in harmony with the will of God at all times, as guided by the Spirit, but also the ability to surrender totally and willingly to this guidance—and thus to do that which the Spirit whispers. To be truly spiritual is to walk with God. It is the key to true happiness and success in our lives in all kinds of circumstances.

Some time ago on Mother’s Day I had the difficult responsibility of informing a young missionary that his father had been killed in a tragic accident that morning. He was shocked, his chin quivered, and tears welled up in his eyes. Then I observed some of the miracle that comes from personal testimony and the cultivation of spirituality. He slowly lifted his head and an expression of quiet resolve came over him. He agreed to call his mother, but there was never even a hint that he would leave his mission. He said he knew that he was where his father and his Father in Heaven wanted him to be and he was going to stay. He exhibited an attitude of peace and courage I’ve seldom seen. He is an example of a strong, committed, well-prepared young man that any father would be proud to have as a son.

Fortunately, into his life along the way had come personal revelation that the gospel is true, that Jesus is the Christ, that there literally is a resurrection. All of these truths helped strengthen him in this time of crisis.

When spirituality and testimony have become part of an individual’s experience, that person becomes more independent, self-disciplined, confident, and happy, and at peace with whatever circumstances he may face.

Certainly the miraculous missionary effort of the Church would not operate with the success it does were it not for the abundance of spirituality and personal revelation our missionaries enjoy. Without the promptings of the Spirit, few would ever choose, at their own expense, to leave the comfort and security of their homes, families, and often sweethearts, for the months a mission requires. This testimony and personal assurance of the truthfulness of the gospel is the “rock” upon which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands so firmly.

What a blessing it would be if all of us would receive more spiritual strength and personal revelation than we do. President Brigham Young said, “There is no doubt, if a person lives according to the revelations given to God’s people, he may have the Spirit of the Lord to signify to him his will, and to guide and to direct him in the discharge of his duties, in his temporal as well as his spiritual exercises. I am satisfied, however, that in this respect, we live far beneath our privileges.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. and arr. by John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, p. 32; emphasis added.)

Years ago I struggled to determine the kinds of very practical things I could do to increase in spirituality and thus not live beneath the privileges that come with the Gift of the Holy Ghost. I even produced a personal homemade checklist of ten questions and then tried to measure from one month to another how well I was doing on each one.

Of course, I still have much progress to make, but I know that I enjoy the influence of the Spirit more fully now than I did before I applied these practical suggestions. I hope that you also will find it helpful to ask yourself these questions:

1. Do I read the scriptures daily?

We are commanded to “feast upon the words of Christ” and not just nibble (2 Ne. 32:3). Remember President Spencer W. Kimball’s statement: “I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, that I am far, far away. If I immerse myself in the scriptures the distance narrows and the spirituality returns” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 135).

How many times did President Ezra Taft Benson urge us to read from the Book of Mormon daily? There is no other book that provides us with so much opportunity to “feast on the words of Christ.” It really is another testament of Jesus Christ. Within its pages are 3,925 references to the Savior. On average, every 1.7 verses make reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is referred to by 101 different titles: Lord, Savior, Redeemer, the Only Begotten Son, the Good Shepherd, and so on.

If you were to start on January 1st reading just two pages a day, by the time you came to September 22nd, you would have read the entire book. Are you reading from the scriptures every day? If not, now, this very day, is a good time to repent.

2. Do I really pray and not just say prayers?

Am I really communicating and not just repeating trite expressions? (see Alma 34:17–27; Matt. 6:7). Some people really learn how to pray, and it is a goal that we all should strive for.

One young elder came to the Missionary Training Center in Provo. He was a very bright student. He was always at the top of his class in every subject while in high school. He was called on a mission where he needed to learn Spanish. He was assigned to his district of seven or eight missionaries and for the first time found that he was not at the top of his class in the area of pronunciation because he could not trill an r. He couldn’t pronounce words like ferrocarril. His tongue didn’t work that way. He struggled. He worked and he prayed. Then after seven weeks there he wrote a letter home to his parents, and the entire first page was filled with pure rs. He had finally succeeded. He told me that if he hadn’t learned another thing during his entire two-year mission than to learn how to really pray, his mission would have been worth it.

President Brigham Young said, “It matters not whether you or I feel like praying. … If we do not feel like it, we should pray till we do” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 44).

3. Is my fasting meaningful?

Do I do more than just get hungry? (see D&C 59:13–23). Sometimes that is all we do because our level of spirituality hasn’t matured. When one of our sons was about seven years old, he asked, “Why do they call it fast Sunday when it goes so slow?”

Meaningful fasting is one sure method of cultivating spirituality in our lives. Here is a practical suggestion: Make the first Sunday of next month a very meaningful day of fasting. Choose something very specific—maybe one of your personal challenges or a condition with someone in your family or someone else. Focus, fast, and pray. It seems that every time the scriptures refer to fasting, prayer is also mentioned. They go together.

4. Do I go to bed early and get up early?

Some of you may wonder what this has to do with spirituality. Remember the scripture “Cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated” (D&C 88:124).

Barbara, my wife, and I had the choice experience of being asked to be chauffeur for President and Sister Marion G. Romney and drove them from Provo to their home in Salt Lake City. Along the way, President Romney shared some of his personal experiences from when he was first called to serve as a General Authority in 1941. He had been serving as a stake president at the time and had gone to general conference. To his amazement, he was sustained as a new General Authority—an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve—without his prior knowledge; no one had talked to him about the calling before the session started. He was shocked and very nervous. He felt that he needed some advice, so he went to Elder Harold B. Lee, a relatively new member of the Quorum of the Twelve and a former contemporary as a stake president. Elder Romney asked him for advice about how to be successful as a General Authority.

Elder Lee spoke about the necessity of receiving personal revelation in order to be effective and said: “If you are to be successful as a General Authority, you will need to be inspired. You will need to receive revelation. I will give you one piece of advice: Go to bed early and get up early. If you do, your body and mind will become rested, and then in the quiet of those early-morning hours, you will receive more flashes of insight and inspiration than at any other time of the day.”

President Romney said: “From that day on, I put that counsel into practice, and I know it works. Whenever I have a serious problem, or some assignment of a creative nature with which I hope to receive the influence of the Spirit, I always receive more assistance in the early-morning hours than at any other time of the day. Following that counsel has helped me a great deal through the years.”

In my own life, I also know that is true.

5. Am I essentially a happy person?

I want to ask you to do something right now—smile. Force it if you have to. Some people smile very naturally. Some may be happy but haven’t told their faces about it yet.

Your level of spirituality is also directly related to how well you fill the Lord’s commandments to “Be of good cheer” and “Lift up your heart and rejoice” (D&C 31:3). How many times in the scriptures did the Lord command us to be of good cheer? He didn’t say, “Be of good cheer if everything is going well, if you have enough money to pay all your bills, if your biorhythms are up,” or whatever. No. For us to be of good cheer is a commandment and not merely a suggestion.

Here is a practical suggestion that has helped me in the past. Take a sheet of paper and write on it a list of the blessings you consider to be important in whatever order they come to your mind. Then place them in order of priority. What is your most precious blessing? Probably somewhere near the top of your list will be the big “Four Fs”—your faith, family, freedom, and friends.

Note how many blessings you have at the top of the list for which you would hope to have the courage to give up your mortal lives to protect. Then note how far down the list you go before you come to any blessing that you can buy for money. The most precious blessings are without price; they are priceless.

On those days when you don’t feel like smiling, take out your list, read it, and then you can smile very naturally.

6. Do I work hard?

Thrust in your sickle with all your heart, might, mind, and strength (see D&C 4:2; D&C 31:5).

I have asked mission presidents in many parts of the world this question: “How many missionaries do you have in your mission who are really spiritual and also lazy?” There isn’t one in all the world. Laziness and spirituality don’t go together. The most spiritual people I know are also some of the hardest-working people I have ever met.

So if you want to increase your level of spirituality, work hard. Magnify your callings within the Church. Really work!

7. Am I more concerned about how than where I serve?

Some people get caught up with concern about position or status—something like the person who prayed, “Father, I want to serve; use me … in an executive position.” Don’t be like the young, handsome, enthusiastic elder who asked me on the first day he arrived at the MTC in Provo, “President, do you know what my major goal is in my mission?” Of course I didn’t know. He said, “My main goal is to become assistant to the president of my mission!”

How much better it would have been for him to have said something like this: “President, the main goal I have on my mission is to be a worthy representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to serve Him with all my heart, might, mind, and strength. I would be happy to serve in whatever part of the mission and in whatever assignment I am given. I just want to serve.”

Remember that even the Savior performed the humblest acts of service. If there ever comes a time when we get concerned about where we are serving or why someone else is called to do this or that, rather than us, think of the Savior in that Upper Room when He, as the greatest of all, the Creator of worlds without number, our Savior and Redeemer, took the basin, water, and towel and knelt before His disciples, performing that humble act of service by washing His disciples’ feet. After overcoming Peter’s reluctance and finishing the process, He asked them:

“Know ye what I have done to you?

“Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.

“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.

“For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.

“If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:12–17).

8. Do I love everyone—even enemies—and keep romantic feelings in their proper perspective?

People who love people have an easier time being spiritual. In that Upper Room, the Lord issued a new commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35).

Love is a difficult word to understand in the English language. For example, I could say to someone that “I love you.” I used exactly those same words this morning speaking to my wife, Barbara, and I meant something very different. We need to know who is speaking to whom in what context. The Greeks don’t have the same problem because they have three different words for love. The first is eros, or romantic love. The English word erotic comes from that Greek root. The second is philia, or brotherly love. The U.S. “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia, gets its name from that Greek root. The third is agape, or Godlike love, the kind of love that enables our Father in Heaven and the Lord to love us even though we are not perfect. I understand that each time in the Greek text of the New Testament when the Lord commands us to love our enemies, it is agape that is used.

Here is a very important point for all of us to remember. If we want to cultivate spirituality, we should love everyone at the levels of agape or philia, but when it comes to eros, or romantic love, we are not commanded to love everyone. In fact, the full expression of romantic physical affection is intended by the Lord for two people inside the bonds of marriage. If we follow that counsel, our spirituality will increase. If we don’t, we will lose the Spirit almost immediately.

It is interesting to note that at the age that the natural attraction toward members of the opposite sex is as high as it likely will ever be, what does the Lord do? He calls young men on missions and expects them to go two years with no more physical contact with a member of the opposite sex than shaking hands briefly. The miracle is that almost all of the missionaries rise to that challenge brilliantly. For the few who do not, it is a personal disaster. When an elder who has followed this guideline returns home and finds someone he can convince to become his eternal companion, he brings to her, his future wife, the great gift of a husband and future father of her children who has learned self-control. He is one who is not driven by every feeling that comes into his system. He is in control. The Church’s marriages are stronger because of so many who have learned this self-control.

9. Do I strive for oneness with others as well as within myself, between my ideal and actual self?

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commanded us to become perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. In the Book of Mormon the resurrected Lord asked the rhetorical question, “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and then he answered his own question, “Even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).

In the Upper Room, just before the Lord left to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, He lifted up His eyes to heaven and in the presence of His Apostles offered what has come to be called the intercessory prayer. The prayer is found in John, chapter 17. President David O. McKay said that there is no more important chapter in the Bible. In that unique setting, the Lord prayed over and over that His disciples would become one as He and His Father were one (see John 17:11, 21–22).

How are they one? They know perfectly what the ideal person ought to be, and that is exactly what they are. There is a perfect oneness or congruity between their ideal and actual lives. They are one. That is not always the case with us. We often do not actually measure up to what we know we ideally ought to be. Sometimes we are not “one” as we are commanded to become. In order to become one, we need to engage in the process of the “at-one-ment,” or making the Atonement of Jesus Christ operative in our lives. We can grow toward that perfect oneness by applying those basic principles of faith in Christ unto repentance. Thus we can change, and our actual lives will come closer each day to becoming one with our ideal selves. If we are moving in that positive direction, the Spirit will be with us, but if we are going in the other direction, it will not. As the Lord said, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27).

10. Do I share my testimony with others?

The Lord is pleased with us when we “open our mouths” and share with others the conviction we have of the truths of the restored gospel (see D&C 33:7–10; D&C 60:2). Among the most important functions of the Holy Ghost are to testify of the Father and the Son and to be a guide to truth. When we are bearing testimony of truth, the power of the Holy Ghost confirms that truth within our hearts. Even if others don’t choose to accept our testimonies of the truth, we are nevertheless helped spiritually. That is one of the reasons missionaries grow so much spiritually while they are on their missions. We are commanded to open our mouths and share our testimonies with others.

I find it helpful to ask myself these ten questions regularly. They remind me of some very practical steps I can take to increase my level of spirituality and thus come a little nearer to living up to my privileges as one who has received the Gift of the Holy Ghost. I encourage you to do the same and thus to enrich your life. Spirituality is indeed the key to successful, happy living.