by Terryl Givens
The four sections 6-9 of the Doctrine and Covenants are thematically united by a common refrain: we receive what we desire. However, the complication comes as we learn—as did John the Beloved, Peter the apostle, Joseph the prophet and Oliver the would-be translator—that our true desires are powerful forces seldom fully known even to ourselves.
A distinctive hallmark of the Restoration is the principle of corporate salvation. LDS theology translates the metaphor of a “Father in Heaven” into literal, familial structures that are the enduring elements of a master plan to weld the entire human family into one great sociality. With virtually no Christian precedent, Latter-day Saints geographically gathered to unite their resources and energies into a literal Zion, turning the exhortation to “be one” into a concrete instance of an interdependent body of Christ. And by virtue of a baptismal covenant, enunciated in Mosiah, that emphasizes the tri-partite injunction to share burdens, mourn in solidarity, and provide mutual comfort, the Saints enact a salvation that is absolutely dependent on communal commitments. Together with the prophecy in Obadiah that multiple “saviors [we prefer ‘Healers’] on mount Zion” would arise in the latter days, we begin to more fully comprehend that we are invited—even commissioned—to be coparticipants in, rather than merely passive spectators or privileged beneficiaries of, Christ’s atoning work. A missionary force without parallel, and an astonishingly ambitious program to universalize access to salvation through world-wide family history and temple work, are but two characteristic forms by which the Saints enact that co-participation.
In the opening days of the Restoration, in order to launch off this the culminating dispensation, the Lord summoned to the task all those willing to commit fully to assist in bringing about His purposes. Section 4 represented the great summons to the work. There, the Lord detailed numerous “qualifications” to succeed in the work: faith, hope, charity, love, virtue, knowledge, and a half dozen others. But it should be noted that only one qualification was a precondition for membership in the cause: “If ye have desires to serve God, ye are called to the work” (4:3).
The principle of desire becomes theologically foundational in the Restoration. Following Augustine and the Reformers, God’s pre-selection of a select few determined the ranks of the saved. Other believers sought to earn salvation through righteous works, and for yet others, correct belief or properly administered sacraments were the key prerequisites. For the Latter-day Saints, grace, obedience, ordinances—all have a place in the covenant path. However, an 1832 revelation reduces the day of judgment to a principle so simple it strains belief: all shall inherit a condition of celestial glory, the “olive leaf” revelation declares, except those who “were not willing to receive that which they might have received” (88:32). The connection may be implicit but it seems logically inescapable: If our place in the eternal family depends on our willingness to receive the gift of eternal life, then the key would seem to be in ensuring that that is what we most ardently desire. For the only compelling reason to refuse a gift would be the fact that the gift does not comport with our desire. And by the same token, our greatest joy ensues when our deepest desire finds its fulfillment in a corresponding gift. That is precisely what the Lord said to his apostles, as recounted in section 7. Responding to the differing requests of Peter and John, the Healer said “ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired” (v. 8).
Our challenge, then, is to allow the Lord and his gospel to shape our desires, so that we will learn to love and yearn for those things most conducive to our thriving and eventual fulness of joy. So the promise the Lord extends to Oliver Cowdery in section 6 is a double-edged sword: “even as you desire of me so it shall be unto you” (v. 8). As King Midas and countless millions have learned to their disappointment, we are often the worst judges of wherein our best path to happiness lies, or what ends are to be most fruitfully pursued and happily enjoyed. Even good desires are not always the best, to return to the lessons of section 7. “This was a good desire,” the Lord says of Peter’s wish to join the Christ speedily, “but my beloved has desired that he might do more” he says, referring to a more selfless desire to continue an indefinite ministry (v. 5).
From the apostle’s differing desires of two millennia ago, we segue to those of Oliver Cowdery. “Oliver…desired to be endowed with the gift of translation” the heading to chapter 8 reads. And accordingly, Oliver receives as a “gift” precisely what he desired, the ability to translate “the engravings of old records, which are ancient” (v 1). We all remember how the experiment ends: Oliver expects too easy a process, does not “study it out in [his] mind,” and fails the test (9:8). Except that may be the wrong lesson to take away. Verse 1 gives us a different moral: “because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write again for my servant Joseph Smith,” he loses the opportunity. Two principles seem more significant that the particulars of how one should approach the process of translating ancient records. First, he gave up too soon. Upon his initial failure, we read, he “did commence again to write,” i.e., record Joseph’s dictation. We have no details, but can infer plausibly what happened. Oliver later recorded how day after day the translation poured forth “uninterrupted from [Joseph’s] mouth” (JS-H note). He made it look effortless, and when Oliver set himself to the task, his mind clouded and the words failed. In frustration and disappointment, he decided that his desires had been too ambitious, optimistic, grandiose. And so he sadly took up his quill again, believing his proper role to be no more than helpmeet to a greater prophetic talent.
Second, the Lord clearly validated Cowdery’s desire to translate. He would have patiently endured Oliver’s faltering efforts, had he persisted. Just days earlier, speaking to Oliver and Joseph jointly, he had lavished tenderness and patience on the young men burdened with laying the foundations of the Restoration. “Fear not to do good, my sons”; “fear not, little flock”; “doubt not, fear not,” he said, assurances that, better remembered, might have strengthened Oliver to persevere in his desires. “I do not condemn you,” the Lord comforted them. And in the face of Oliver’s subsequent failure, he counseled “be patient” (9:3). With whom else than himself?, we must infer.
We know something of our Healer’s heart, of Christ’s desires, for he told us. “I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am” (John 17:24). Few of us can imagine a God, or even a Jesus, who has truly set his heart upon us, and desires our companionship in the eternities to come. A rabbinic story speaks to such insecurities:
A king went into his garden to speak to his gardener, but the gardener hid himself from him. Then said the king, ‘Why hidest thou from me? See I am even as thou.’—So too shall God walk with the righteous in the earthly Paradise after the resurrection; and they shall see Him and quake before Him. Then shall He say unto them, ‘Fear not; for lo! I am even as ye.’” (Siphra on Leviticus 26.21).
Our task is to trust that it will be so. And to school ourselves to desire such a day with all our hearts. And believe that we shall receive, precisely that which we “are willing to receive.”
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Terryl Givens did his graduate work in intellectual history (Cornell) and comparative literature (UNC Chapel Hill). He is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature at the University of Richmond, where he held an endowed chair. Givens’s work has been called “provocative reading” by The New York Times and includes some twenty titles, including a two-volume history of Latter-day Saint theology: Wrestling the Angel, and Feeding the Flock, a study of the Pearl of Great Price and several studies of the Book of Mormon. He is the co-author with Fiona of The God Who Weeps, The Christ Who Heals, The Crucible of Doubt, and most recently, All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between. Professor Givens has also been a commentator on CNN, NPR, and in the PBS/Frontline documentary, The Mormons. As of June 2019 he is the Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow at the BYU Maxwell Institute in Provo. His biography of Gene England, Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism, will be released this summer.