For my talk today, I was given the choice of either missionary work or conversion as my topic. I was already being asked to talk about missionary work as a high council companion speaker, so I decided that I should probably speak on conversion to get more practice. So, a quick definition of conversion, or at least how I will be using it today. In the church, we usually use the word conversion to describe the process of someone joining the church. I am going to use it to mean change. I think that it is a more accurate use of the word. Conversion is the change that accompanies knowledge of the gospel. It is linked to testimony, repentance, and enduring to the end. Conversion is the process of accepting the Savoir and His Atonement, then working to become like Him. I think that in some ways this is a kind of natural process. We seem to emulate the behavior of the people that we look up to. But more than that, conversion is necessary. One of the most difficult sounding commandments is when Jesus said “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I have heard that the word “perfect” in this verse translates more directly to “sound, whole, or complete”. We are not commanded to be flawless while here on this earth, but we are commanded to put away all our sins because they limit us and keep us from being whole.
Conversion stories are usually about the beginning of a conversion process, when a person first commits to changing because they realize that it is necessary. There are many conversion stories throughout the scriptures. I discovered an interesting pattern in the Book of Mormon while thinking about this topic. I call this pattern the “Three Generations of Conversion”.
It begins in the book of Mosiah with Alma, referred to later as Alma the Elder. We start with Alma being a young priest in king Noah’s court, this being the wicked king Noah who caused his people to commit sin while using their taxes to support his own idolatry and all that. I imagine Alma thinking “When I decided to be a priest, I didn’t picture it exactly like this.” When the prophet Abinadi come around, preaching that the wickedness of their society would lead to their destruction, Alma agrees. He is converted to the truth and tries to convince the king not to kill Abinadi. As a result, Alma is chased out of the city. He teaches the true gospel and baptizes people. Alma and these converts end up fleeing for their lives a few more times. They eventually reach safety and he becomes the high priest of the church.
Second generation: Alma Junior, more often known as Alma the Younger. This is your classic story to use when talking about conversion because it goes from one extreme to the other. He and his friends are a bunch of rebels who spend their time trying to destroy the faith of the church members and lead them away from the truth. Despite this, his father still prays for him and trusts in the Lord. One day, Alma Jr. and his friends see an angel, who tells them to stop seeking to destroy the church. He falls to the ground and is unable to move or speak for a few days. In that time, he realizes all of his sins and remembers what his father taught him about the Atonement. He finds hope in this and is converted. Of course, his father is overjoyed. Alma the younger and his friends then devote themselves to building up the church and “zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church”. He eventually becomes both a religious and political leader, and a missionary in many places. He wants to “spread the gospel with angelic zeal."
Third generation: Corianton, who is the youngest son of Alma Jr. He goes with his dad, brother, and a few others on a mission to teach the Zoramites while in his youth. While there, he boasts in his own strength and wisdom. In what is probably the second greatest lecture of the Book of Mormon, his father summarizes “thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron, among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel…Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.” After being lectured and taught by his father, Corianton is more fully converted and changes his ways. We find out a few chapters later in Alma 49:30 that he has begun to follow the family tradition and declare the word of God to the people: “Yea, and there was continual peace among them [the Nephites] , and exceedingly great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, which was declared unto them by Helaman, and Shiblon, and Corianton, and Ammon and his brethren, yea, and by all those who had been ordained by the holy order of God, being baptized unto repentance, and sent forth to preach among the people.” (Alma 49:30)
What I like about these three connecting stories is that they are all conversion stories and yet they are so different. Alma Senior seems to me like an average guy doing his job in a wicked society. When Abinadi knocks on the door with truth, he listens. Alma Junior grows up being taught the gospel and he rejects it completely. Eventually, circumstances come that leave him with no choice but to reach out and grab hold of those teachings. He is completely humbled. Corianton seems to be trying to do good. After all, he answered the call to be a missionary. Like all of us, he makes mistakes. To me, he begins as an imperfect person who does not yet understand the gravity of his sins as much as he should. He ends having made some progress. Not as remarkable a turn-around as his father, but enough to be inspiring. I identify with Corianton the most. No visits from angels or prophets, just mistakes and repentance.
There is something beautiful about the idea of being able to change. We talk about change in the Church and call it repentance. In 2007 Elder Russell M Nelson talked in General Conference about the connection between conversion and repentance. He said:
“The doctrine of repentance is much broader than a dictionary’s definition. When Jesus said “repent,” His disciples recorded that command in the Greek language with the verb metanoeo. This powerful word has great significance. In this word, the prefix meta means “change.” The suffix relates to four important Greek terms: nous, meaning “the mind”; gnosis, meaning “knowledge”; pneuma, meaning “spirit”; and pnoe, meaning “breath.” Thus, when Jesus said “repent,” He asked us to change—to change our mind, knowledge, and spirit—even our breath. A prophet explained that such a change in one’s breath is to breathe with grateful acknowledgment of Him who grants each breath… To repent fully is to convert completely to the Lord Jesus Christ and His holy work… A repentant soul is a converted soul, and a converted soul is a repentant soul.”
So how do we change? There is no point in talking about conversion without talking about HOW to change. Last week I got a letter from a friend who is currently serving a mission in Portugal. She wrote about working hard to learn to love others and the Lord more than we love ourselves. She said:
“That, I think is the constant struggle we face as missionaries. How do we put off the natural man who focuses all our attention inward, and instead become a Saint? The answer is simple: through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It is only through His Atonement that this kind of change is possible. The hard part is accepting that this kind of change is a process- it won’t happen overnight, or even in the course of our missions. It is something we will continue to struggle and work towards the rest of our lives. But, the miracle of the Atonement is that it IS possible. We are promised that [it is possible] if we try each day to be a little better than the day before and if we repent and apply the Atonement every time we mess up.”
The miracle of the Atonement is that Christ knows perfectly the obstacles we each face. He is there to help us every step of the way. Because He suffered for our sins we are able to repent, and this repentance is inseparable from conversion.
I think that an important thing to discuss when talking about conversion, or change, is what we are changing into. For a while, I have had a bit of an issue with the difference between childish and child-like. We discussed this difference in my English class once. Apparently, the term “child-like” has a positive connotation and is often used in connection with innocence and such. “Childish” had a negative connotation and is used to describe immaturity. A few years ago I felt both terms fit me and I didn’t see any reason to change that. Then I found a verse in 1 Corinthians that made me question that. Paul writes that “when I became a man, I put away childish things,” and I thought “Nope, not gonna happen.” Since then, I have accepted the fact that change can be good, particularly if it is of the self-betterment variety.
Paul says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:11–12)
The Lord knows each of us perfectly. The idea that eventually we can have knowledge as perfect as God’s knowledge of us is a beautiful thought. Not only do I look forward to that day, I also try to work towards it. But for now, I still prefer scriptures about being child-like. Mosiah 3:19 says:
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”
I think this scripture is interesting because I don’t know any children who completely fit that category. I guess that makes sense. It is about being a child without the childish, immature parts. We are commanded to be as pure and innocent as a child. We should probably be basing our actual behavior on our Savior, not just on any random little kid.
One analogy about conversion that I like has to do with light. Elder David A. Bednar used this comparison to illustrate different aspects of revelation. When we turn on a light in a dark room, there is an instant flood of light that makes the darkness disappear. On the other hand, when we watch the sun rise, we see the light gradually replace the darkness. The morning fades in slowly, without an exact border between night and day. The important thing to remember is, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. “(D&C 50:24) Conversion can’t be just turning on one light. It has to be a process. More light has to be added or we will lose it.
To me, conversion is a lot like growing up. Physically and emotionally, growing up seems to be a gradual process. There are some moments that stand out, when you realize that you are indeed getting older. Like the moment you realize that you are taller than your mom or when you suddenly become nervous around a special someone. I think that for most of us, conversion or growing in the gospel is the same way. Of all the prayers that I have ever said, there are really only a few that stand out vividly in my memory. The same goes for attending church meetings or studying the scriptures. Sometimes inspiration comes in amazing flashes that we will never forget. I think that this is in part due to all of the other, less memorable things we do. I wish I could say that every time I pray I have a deep and meaningful communication with my Heavenly Father, but in reality it is often incoherent nonsense in the morning and mind-wandering at night. Scripture reading often turns into skimming. I feel bad that not every day is progress. But I don’t give up. Life is a constant struggle because, like Christ’s Apostles falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. I personally don’t give up because I have a firm belief that I am a child of God. He doesn’t give up on me, so I can’t quit. I am still in the conversion process. I am still changing to become more of the person that my Heavenly Father wants me to be. Sometimes it feels terribly slow, but I know that it is worthwhile.
I think that it is generally expected that someone who is giving a farewell talk will explain why they are going on a mission. The topic of conversion ties in well with that. I am going on a mission because of my still-continuing conversion that I think truly began about two years ago. I had many spiritual experiences before that, but this was when my actual commitment to change began. I went to youth conference for a few days during that summer. If I remember correctly, there were quite a few very powerful speakers who were doing workshops and speaking that year. One that really touched me was a seminary teacher who talked about one of his students. A number of years ago, he had a student in his class named Kent Williams who was seen by everyone around as a pretty perfect guy. He was always hardworking, polite, very faithful, focused on going on a mission, involved in every activity, friends with everyone around him. Apparently the dashboard of his car was covered in notecards with scriptures written on them so that every time he was stopped at a red light, he could memorize them. He did this so that he could be as prepared as humanly possible to teach the gospel that he loved while on his mission. In his own words, he was waging an all-out war against Satan. Kent placed all his confidence in the Lord and knew that with God’s help and guidance, he could convert thousands. He died in a freak accident that seemed to rob him of his chance to do that.
That story was the spark of my conversion. The man who told this story, Kent’s seminary teacher, challenged us in a way to look at our own lives. What kind of dedication do we have? How would we be remembered if we were called back to our Heavenly Father today? It isn’t something you think about much when you are that age. All your life seems to be planning for the distant future because you expect to make it there. Or, you live in the moment focused mainly on yourself. Everyone walked out of that room with a different sort of feeling than when we had walked in. In less than an hour, it felt like we had been introduced to a wonderful person and gotten to know them as a potential friend, just to have them disappear.
When I got home a few days later, I knelt down by my bed and dedicated my life to serving God. This young man who had lived and died before I had even been born had changed my life. I wrote in my journal that day that it was time for me to join Kent’s war, the all-out war against Satan. Did it really seem fair that he only had 19 years of life? No. But as Job says “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I don’t spend much time trying to determine what is fair, because I know I don’t see things as clearly as our Heavenly Father does. All I know is that Kent Williams is almost my missionary. People who are converted by being introduced to the church through the missionaries always seem to remember those particular missionaries with a grateful heart and think of them as “their missionaries”. No one changed my life by knocking on my door, but that story did. I like to think that every time that story is told, someone other young person is inspired to reexamine their life. I like to think that this leads to many other conversions like mine. Faith is a powerful thing, but it is also at times very delicate. I feel that many kids that age are, as far as testimonies go, just learning how to stand on their own. For me, this wasn’t a full conversion, but it was what I needed at that time. I needed to be dedicated to something with my whole heart. I had enough faith at that time to stay on the right track. I knew that faith was an important aspect of who I was. Before that spark of conversion, I was walking blindly on my own. Suddenly it was like I could see the path in front of me for just a second. That was enough to give me the confidence to run.
In my mind, that is the way I live life: flat-out running in the dark. I run in the darkness because I know the Lord needs me somewhere and I don’t want to be late. Sometimes I think He moves obstacles out of my way. Sometimes I get the feeling I am supposed to turn a certain way, and I have faith that He is guiding me if I am willing to listen. I still have times when I feel like I have run straight into a wall. Sometimes that just makes me think I am meant to fly over it. Maybe at that time I am just doing things the hard way. God knows all of our potential, and I think that one of the greatest blessings He has given us is the opportunity to learn for ourselves that we are stronger than we think we are. People often seem to become heroic or full of Christ-like charity when they have no other choice. God pushes us beyond what we think is our limit to give us a glimpse of our true potential.
So why am I going on a mission? I wish I could answer that question in a very basic way when people ask. I want to just say “Because it feels right for me.” By that, I mean that since my life is still dedicated to the Lord, my success is based on following His guidance. After a lot of time praying and fasting to know if I should serve a mission, I have received an answer. I am going because the Lord wants me to go. I am going because I want to serve the Lord. I love to serve people because they are His children. I have hope in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and so I have hope in myself that I can change. We are all expected to change, to align our will with God’s will. This isn’t any easy thing to do, but nothing meaningful is ever easy. I just know that it is possible. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.