To act, or to be acted upon


Elder Cook DevotionalDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

October 12, 2010
Elder David Cook
Educational Missionary

I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak to you today.  I have known for some time about the Devotional, but only knew recently that the timing would make this our last opportunity to address you.  

Our secret is out! We have been carrying in our hearts the knowledge that we would be leaving early.  And it has been a burden to us.  After a surprise telephone call from the Area President in the Europe Area, followed by a letter from the First Presidency confirming our call to serve as 1st counselor and assistant matron in the London Temple, we chose not to let it be known to students until today.  We have been walking round campus for six weeks or so pretending to be in control and doing our teaching and Skyping as if we were here until our normal release date of August 2011.  In reality we will probably be here less than two more weeks. We will go kicking and screaming at the appointed time to Honolulu airport, with a very reluctant heart to leave here and the wonderful experience we have had here. And yet we know we will love our new three-year assignment to work in the Temple were we were sealed together and where we have attended for the past 42 years. It is a beautiful temple in very large grounds - 32 acres, similar in design to the New Zealand Temple. It is 25 miles south of London itself. It was dedicated in 1958. Perhaps some of you will find your way to the London Temple while we are serving there. We hope so.

We will so miss our interaction with the most wonderful students in the world here at BYU-Hawaii.  We have loved every minute of being here.  We love you and express that love to you here and now in public.  

As I have reflected recently on the many times I have stood before varying numbers of students at different times of the day in four different classrooms, the image I will take away with me is encapsulated in this story from President James E. Faust.

"I recently recalled a historic meeting in Jerusalem about 17 years ago. It was regarding the lease for the land on which the Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was later built. Before this lease could be signed, President Ezra Taft Benson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, then president of Brigham Young University, agreed with the Israeli government on behalf of the Church and the university not to proselyte in Israel."  

"You might wonder why we agreed not to proselyte. We were required to do so in order to get the building permit to build that magnificent building which stands in the historic city of Jerusalem. To our knowledge, the Church and BYU have scrupulously and honorably kept that non-proselyting commitment. After the lease had been signed, one of our friends insightfully remarked, Oh, we know that you are not going to proselyte, but what are you going to do about the light that is in their eyes?' He was referring to our students who were studying in Israel" (Ensign, Nov. 2005, 20).

The image of the light in the eyes of the students on this campus is what I will take away with me. 

When our lovely young stake president in England set us apart, he said to both of us in the blessing that we would bless and influence the lives of many individual students. Sister Cook and I were chatting the other evening and counted that in my classes and Sister Cook's tutor groups on campus and Skype students around this part of the world, there are over 900 students who have been in our classes. Add to that the married students in the 9th ward and the figure increases to over a thousand students. We just hope that those referred to in the blessing by our stake president are among those in that number.   

In the recent general conference, Elder Nelson said the following:  "Missionaries serve to make life better for God's children." We hope we have made some of God's children happy in our one year here (We entered the Provo MTC one year ago next week). This scripture from the book of Jude has been our watchword since our stake president's blessing: "And of some have compassion, making a difference."

With the new calling we have changed our attitude. Our new attitude comes from the Old Testament prophet, Job, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." To which we have added the line from the hymn we sing so often: "I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord."  I think the most important line in that hymn is this: "I'll be what you want me to be."

I am grateful to my lovely wife for her testimony, comments and introduction. She is my Mahana, a true eight-cow wife, and a perfect missionary companion. She is everything to me. Different cultures place different values on their spouse. One of my students from the Big Island told me the following in his recent autobiography: "I was recently married in August 2008. She is from California. We met here at the Seasider Snack bar. She gave me an extra scoop of ice cream and won my heart." So cows to ice cream, the times are changing!

Three kinds of people exist in the world, a friend of mine used to say. Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who don't even know what is happening. We have all three kinds at this university. It is our hope that during your time here, you will develop the skills and the attitude to make things happen, especially when you return to the land of your origin. Someone else put the same idea this way. There are three kinds of people in this world, those who can count, and those who can't count. As you can see, we have all three kinds at this university too.

This scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants will start to establish the theme for my talk.  "There is a law, irrevocably [fixed, unalterable] decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated [declared, asserted] - and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated." (D&C 130:20,21)

Blessings are given to us by obedience to an associated law.  To illustrate this idea, I wish to use Newton's third Law of Motion, developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1686.  He was an Englishman.  Did you know we are from England also? Please turn to your neighbor and describe Newton's Third Law of Motion.  I can hear you all saying it, so here it is - 

"Third Law: The mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear. This means that whenever a first body exerts a force F on a second body, the second body exerts a force −F on the first body. F and −F are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. This law is sometimes referred to as the action-reaction law with F called the "action" and −F the "reaction".

The simple way to express this law is - For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I will demonstrate the law by use of this little gizmo called a Newton's cradle.  Some state the Newton's cradle was designed and created by Simon Prebble, a British actor in 1967.  Others give the credit to an unknown Canadian designer.  With apologies to my Canadian friends, I am going to go with the British actor.  

What will be the result of lifting and releasing one metal ball, allowing it to make impact on the remaining 4 balls?  How many will move? 1,2,3,4 or all of them?  Please state your answer to your neighbor. 

The answer is one. Did any of you "guess" right?  Remember Newton's law, for every action (one metal ball released) there is an equal and opposite reaction (one metal ball at the other end is activated).  Remember Heavenly Father's law, to obtain any blessing (one metal ball activated) we must obey the associated law or commandment (one metal ball released).  Thus - if we choose to pay tithing, we get the blessing that is only associated with paying tithing, and so on as we choose to live the Word of Wisdom, keeping the Sabbath Day holy and so on.  So when you express our gratitude in our testimonies for ALL the blessings you are receiving, that is because you are keeping the associated commandment or law.

I wonder how many said that the other 4 metal balls would be activated, with the release of the one metal ball.  There isn't a law that says if you put one unit of effort into something you will get 4 blessings back.  In the learning process I have come across an occasional student whose body language says I am willing to put in a tiny effort.  That tiny effort is my presence in your class, but don't expect anything more from me.  They appear quite surprised when they receive the grade on which their effort is predicated.  Learning works like this: if you put in preparation before class, effort, note taking and engagement during class, study and research and good writing in correct English for your assignments after class you will get the grade equal to it.

Newton's law is consistent. Now that you've seen the first demonstration, you will immediately know the answer to this question. If we lift and release two metal balls, how many will be activated at the other end? Exactly right - 2.  Applying the law to learning, the effort of a C going in, by way of preparation, engagement, and study will get a C out.  It's the law and the law is irrevocable.

How about 3 being released, when there are only 2 left? That is a little more challenging isn't it? Will the principle now break down?  Let's see.  The law would say 3 metal balls lifted and released would mean 3 would be activated.  And so it is!  So for 4.  The same must be true.  The law is consistent.  You could apply this to many situations in life.  How does it do it?  Enroll in Physics 101 and find out.

One final thought on Newton's cradle.  If I take no action and make no effort to lift any metal balls, nothing happens. There are no rewards or blessings for taking no action to learn or to keep the commandments.

The scriptures put it this way. "Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.  Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other." (2 Nephi 2:16)

This idea is expanded to all of our mortal life as follows - for there is a God and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon." (2 Nephi 2:14)

Always and forever we have choices, to use our agency one way or another.  

Elder Robert D. Hales in the recent general conference made this statement about agency. "We teach that agency is the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and "to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon. (2 Nephi 2:26) Agency is to act with accountability and responsibility for our actions." 

He describes how as a youth he was asked by his father to varnish a wooden floor.  He made a choice to start at the door and work his way into the room.  He literally painted himself into a corner. Then he explains the lesson. "Whenever we disobey, we spiritually paint ourselves into a corner and are captive to our choices. For example, when we hearken to the Word of Wisdom, we escape the captivity of poor health and addiction to substances that literally rob us of our ability to act for ourselves."

I know there are some students at BYU-Hawaii who have "made wrong choices", "made bad choices," or put more bluntly "have messed up" and even "disobeyed some commandments".  They have so expressed in an assignment to write an autobiography to introduce themselves to me.  An expression of gratitude for the atonement usually follows.  In a book called "Understanding the Power God Gives Us - What Agency Means," the author Joseph Fielding McConkie makes the following statement: "Experience suggests that most Latter-day Saints would, if asked, define agency as the right to choose, particularly to choose between good and evil.  At least two problems suggest themselves in such a definition.  First, it fails to recognize that agency is a sacred trust given to us by God to act righteously; second, it suggests that we have a right to do evil if we so choose.  The capacity to do evil and the right to do evil are very different things."

As we look at this teaching from Father Lehi in the Book of Mormon, some things become clear on our topic of correct use of agency. 

"And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given." (2 Nephi2:26)

Here we learn that through the atonement of Christ, we are free to act for ourselves. Lehi does not suggest, however, that the Atonement gives us any "right" to do evil. By implication, Lehi says, were it not for the effects of the Atonement, we would not have agency, or the power of self-action.  Thus, I suggest again we have no right to use our agency to choose or to do evil.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell is well known for this statement. "If you haven't chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will make no difference in the end what you have chosen instead."

President Joseph Fielding Smith taught about the rights we have to do or not do evil as follows: 'I have heard people say, and members of the Church too, 'I have a right to do as I please.' My answer is: No, you do not.  You haven't any right at all to do just as you please.  There is only one right that you have, and that is to do just what I read to you: keep the commandments of Jesus Christ" (Conference April 1967).

I would like to include a few more quotes as pieces of evidence on the topic of "to act or be acted upon" from the scriptures, the words of the living prophets and some personal thoughts.  They will appear in bullet point form, and in random order, but we will eventually reach a conclusion. 

Elder Hales in October General conference referring to those who followed Satan in the pre-existence said  "Because of the way they used their agency, they lost their agency." 

Could that apply to us? That the way we use our agency, may cause us to lose our agency

October General Conference President Boyd K. Packer

The old saying "The Lord is voting for me and Lucifer is voting against me and it is my vote that counts describes a doctrinal certainty that our agency is more powerful than the adversary and his will. Agency is precious, we can foolishly, blindly give it away, but it cannot be forcibly taken from us.

October general conference Elder David A. Bednar

"The ordinance of confirming a new member of the church and bestowing the gift of the Holy Ghost is both simple and profound" and this important phrase is uttered "Receive the Holy Ghost." Now the simplicity of this ordinance may cause us to overlook its significance. These four words, "Receive the Holy ghost" are not a passive pronouncement; rather they constitute a priesthood injunction. An authoritative admonition to act and not simply to be acted upon. The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and these four important words are spoken.  As we receive this ordinance each of us accepts a sacred ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work and to live that we indeed receive the Holy Ghost, and its attendant spiritual gifts."

Did you notice the action verbs involved in "receiving the Holy Ghost"? Desire, seek, work, live, receive.

October General conference President Thomas S. Monson was thinking about choices and consequences.  He mentioned the 3 R s - Right of choice, Responsibility of choice, Result of choice.

"No temptation, no pressure, no enticing can overcome us unless we allow such. If we make the wrong choice we have no one to blame but ourselves."

Joseph Fielding McConkie "God created us in his image and likeness and expects us to act like it."

Think about it, the more we become like God, the larger our agency grows until we are like Him in every way.  Then we receive eternal life.  

Mosiah 5:15 Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life.

The reverse is true too - The more we follow Satan by doing evil, & failing to repent, so our agency reduces until we completely lose our freedom to choose and we are in Satan's power.

Alma 34:35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you;

Alma 34:39 "for behold, he [the devil] rewardeth you no good thing."

So in good old Book of Mormon language, and thus we see, "to act" means to choose to keep the commandments of God and to benefit from the blessings of the atonement.  "To be acted upon" is to disregard God's laws & use your agency unwisely, reducing your freedom, because you have become subject to the devil.  Those are my conclusions.

But there is good news.  Many students on this campus have already chosen to "act," and thus contribute to the image I will take away with me of the light in your eyes.  Remember the statement earlier, 'Oh, we know that you are not going to proselyte, but what are you going to do about the light that is in their eyes?' 

The following are quotes from students in their autobiographies submitted to me earlier this semester, and used with their permission.  They clearly identify students who show a desire to use their agency wisely - to act in righteousness and not to be acted upon.

1. "in my life I hope to be a marine biologist, but more importantly I want to be a light wherever I go and in whatever I do.  I want to have enough strength to lend strength to others."

2. "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do" (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe). I have taken this quote to be my philosophy of life. The knowledge that we have in and of this life is simply not enough. We must therefore gain as much knowledge in this lifetime as we possibly can. There is so much more that can add to our knowledge and this is why I chose to further my education. Willing to do something is one thing but actually doing it is another. Willing without doing is like faith without works. It's dead. 

3. Never be satisfied! This quote not only directed my goals in softball, but also in my everyday life.

4. In High School I studied French for four years and I received my philosophy on life in part based upon a book called Candide (or as it is known in English, "Optimism"). The whole point of the book is simply the conclusion that  when man was put into the Garden of Eden, he was put there so that he should work, dress and cultivate it; this proves that man was not born for idleness" and that those who follow after leisure and pleasure will ultimately feel unfulfilled.  

5. My philosophy in life is that I must live in a way where my actions and choices do not displease Heavenly Father .I must also remember to repay every good thing that anyone does for me in any way that I possibly can. At the same time, I must do my best to go out of my way to help others even though they did not do anything for me. I intend to implement this philosophy, in my life, by serving a worthy full time mission.  John 8:29 "I do always those things that please him."  

6. After General Conference, one student said "For me, it is time to act on strengthening my faith to be a better person and sister in the church."

7. I needed comfort as I make the transition to college life away from home and living in a different environment.  It has been hard. Therefore, I decided to invite the Holy Ghost once more into my life, to help and guide me through my trial.  Therefore, from that moment on I have been trying to remember to ask each morning and throughout my day in a prayer of faith to have the Holy Ghost in my life.  Asking that he would be there to watch over me and give me strength.  When Elder Bednar spoke in conference on the Holy Ghost I knew that what I was trying to do was right.   I also received a better understanding of how I can bring the Holy Ghost into my life.  Elder Bednar mentioned that one needs to sincerely desire to have the Holy Ghost. I realized I need to increase my desire to have his companionship, I cannot just expect the Holy Ghost to be with me. I have to be willing to do my part, invite him, live a life worthy to have his companionship, and become more like Christ.  Secondly, Elder Bednar mentioned that one needs to faithfully live the commandments.  I had a realization that I need to actively live the commandments, actively apply the teaching of the Gospel into my life, I need to be proactive to remember the covenants that I have made with the Lord.  I need to be actively pondering my scriptures, trying each day to be a little better, and in doing the these things I know that I can have the Holy Ghost to help and comfort me. 

I think my student is demonstrating the essence of "to act and not be acted upon."   She is among many who desire to use their agency to choose only to do the will of God daily.  

A quote from Elder Neal A. Maxwell seems appropriate here: "I thank [Jesus] for his marvelous management of time, for never misusing a moment, including the moments of meditation. Even his seconds showed his stewardship" (Ensign,  May 1976, 27). 

And finally a word to those who wear a CTR ring as a reminder of the significance of making correct daily decisions.  CTR stands for Choose The Right.  Perhaps you could now add an additional thought to the letter R and the word Right.  Your agency does not give you the RIGHT to choose or to do evil.  (Perhaps an EIL class could help with understanding of the two uses of the word RIGHT as needed).

Sister Cook and I say Goodbye to you all, and wish you happy days, successful days and days of spiritual and temporal prosperity as you serve the Lord.

We testify that the only way to achieve these blessings is through the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom we testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.