*First off, this blog post is written from the perspective of an active young LDS woman. That doesn't mean I have everything put together or figured out (who does), but it does mean that I'm striving to do good and be good and live to be worthy of having the Holy Ghost influence my life. That being said, I know there are people who are not LDS who read my blog, and what I will say below might sound strange to you as I talk about one of the important ways I receive direction and guidance in my life. I think that search for direction and purpose is something we all seek--whether Mormon, Baptist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, or atheist. We all have different ways of seeking and we call it different names. Some people call it "following an inner light," or "trusting their instincts." For me, I really do believe that God cares about our lives, and He will give us guidance through feelings and impressions; that He will speak to our minds and our hearts by the power of the Holy Ghost. Although my experiences may be different from yours, I still hope my words and experiences give you something to think about.
** I talk a lot about feelings in this blog post. I know there are some people who avoid talking about emotions because they can be frustrating and illogical. Emotions are part of being human. And, like it or not, they influence our personal lives and the world we live in. Until we are able to accept that emotions are an important part of our minds and hearts (even if we can't understand them all of the time), then we are at risk of being driven by our emotions instead of being more in control of them. I believe that being self-aware and reflecting on our hearts is crucial to emotional, mental, and social health. Knowing ourselves is key to having a happy, healthy life. And part of knowing ourselves includes knowing our heart.
I've been thinking a lot about hearts these past six months. Specifically about the desires of our hearts. There are a lot of reasons for this. One reason is because I've been making some major life decisions these past months (grad school, anyone?). But another reason is because I think there is a lot to be said about those innermost desires . . . and I think they matter more than we realize. They drive us more than we realize.
We are told in the scriptures that we will be judged according to our works and the desires of our hearts (see D&C 137:9). This is both comforting and terrifying. Comforting, because (at least for me) it reassures me that the Lord does know the desires of my heart and knows that I am striving. Terrifying, because, well, the desires of my heart aren't always as pure as they should be, and my desires shape my works . . . which also aren't always as pure or dedicated as I know they can be.
But ultimately, it makes me thoughtful. It makes me think about my desires. It makes me think about agency, choice, and the consequences of those desires. Because in the end, I really do believe that we get what we want. For better or for worse. And for that reason, as President Joseph F. Smith said, the "education of our desires is one of far-reaching importance to our happiness in this life."
"Desires of our hearts." It sounds almost trite or wishful. Like wanting a pony for Christmas. But there is so much more than that. Desires are not just wishful thoughts or flippant wants. Desires are those innermost feelings that represent our strongest motivations. Desires drive us. They guide our actions. They shape our character. We are a compilation of our desires and the consequences of those desires. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, "Our desires clearly control the tilt of our souls."
We see from the scriptures how much God really does care about the desires of our heart--how important they really are. Here are some examples:
-- In the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we see Nephi desiring to see the vision his father saw. As he ponders, the Spirit comes to him and asks Nephi one question:
"What desirest thou?"
Nephi answers, "I desire to behold the things which my father saw."
He wants to know for himself. He wants that knowledge. He wants that experience.
And he is granted the desire of his heart. And then some. (see 1 Nephi 11)
-- In the Book of Enos, we see Enos "wrestling" before God with the desires of his heart, which he describes as his "soul hunger[ing]" after truth, comfort, forgiveness and peace . . . not only for himself and his people, but for his enemies as well. And he receives his witness in a powerful way. (see Enos 1)
-- The Brother of Jared in prayer reminds the Lord that although we "are unworthy before [God] [. . .] nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires." The Brother of Jared asks the Lord for light. And learns that whatever the Lord touches, shines. (see Ether 3)
-- Most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants come from someone asking a question--they desired more understanding, more direction, more knowledge, more assurance--and God gave it to them.
-- Rebekah wanted to know why she was having complications with her pregnancy. So she asked the Lord, and He gave her understanding and peace, which she was then able to use to influence future generations (Genesis 25:22-23).
-- In a dream, the Lord asked Solomon what he desired from him. Solomon could have asked for anything, but he wanted an "understanding heart." And Solomon used that wisdom to help build the kingdom--not only his kingdom, but the kingdom of God (see 1 Kings 3).
-- Abraham desired to become a "greater follower of righteousness" and to receive knowledge about God and God's promises and covenants (see Abraham 1:2). So he left his home and all he knew, trusting that the Lord would fulfill His promises. The Lord would test Abraham time and time again, but ultimately--the Lord showed Abraham that He does keep His promises, even though the road is never easy.
-- The Savior, in His intercessory prayer, desired that we might be unified and come to know God. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice in order for us to become "at one" with God. But still, it is our choice if we decide to apply His Atonement in our lives.
I could go on. The scriptures are full of examples of the power of the desires of our hearts. How they compel us to pray. How they lead us to action.
Alma 29:4--"For I know that God granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction."
Alma 41:3-5--"And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their words; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good. And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. [. . .] The one raised to happiness, according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires for evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh."
2 Nephi 2:27-28--"Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments, and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit."
Helaman 14:31--"God hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you."
Whether or not we like it, there is power in those deep, innermost desires of our hearts. And God will honor those desires. He will not force us. He will never force us to come home to Him. If we do not want it--if we are not "willing to receive" all that He has, then He will not force us (see D&C 88:32). God must value agency very, very highly if He will "force no man to heaven." It is sobering. But also . . . there is no other way that we can learn to be like Him if we didn't choose it ourselves. We have to want it. With all of the bruises, frustrations, and heartache that mortality entails. We have to choose His way, and choose to become His disciples, even though the road is never easy. We have to want it. We have to want to choose His way. "We cannot become like Jesus unless we first desire to like Him." As William Law wrote, "If you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."
That is a sobering thought.
We have to be completely honest with ourselves. Because even though I think that most of us are striving, we also have conflicting desires. We want to devote more time to working out, but we also want to sleep in. We want to eat healthier, but we also really want to buy that new flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. We want to devote more time to worship (whether through scripture study, prayer, meditation, or temple worship), but we also want to spend more time with friends, or relax by watching a show, or do a million other things that demand our time. How do we lay hold upon every good thing? And how do we figure out which desires are driving us?
I'll admit, I don't have all of the answers. It is still something that I am trying to figure out. But I think that we first have to realize that desires are driving us, and we have to be honest with ourselves. And part of that honesty starts with honest prayer. Elder F. Enzio Busche talks about how prayer and analyzing the desires of our hearts go hand-in-hand:
"The Spirit of Christ teaches that we must pray, that we must ask for the things that we seek . . . But before we can do this with focus, we have to become aware of a multitude of defined or undefined, conscious or subconscious desires. We have to learn to bring them to our awareness, to analyze them, to categorize them, and to bring them in to order according to priorities. When we do not do this, we will be condemned to remain, in our prayers, on a superficial level, or even on the level of formality, where there are no answers or there are only imagined answers. But there are always hundreds of different desires fighting for supremacy within us. The act of categorizing them is a very painful, but needful act to become, in the eyes of God, a mature person and to be taken seriously."
Prayer is a way that our will and desires come into correspondence with God's desires. But before that correspondence can happen, we have to be willing to analyze ourselves and analyze our hearts. Not only can this help us know what to pray for, but it will help us be more confident in ourselves and in God. Being honest with ourselves helps us to focus our efforts to become "more fit for the kingdom."
Certainly, it is important to be aware of the times that our intentions aren't pure. We shouldn't seek to gratify our pride or vain ambitions or surround ourselves with yes-men (or yes-women, for that matter) who say that anything goes, just because we want it. We should be constantly checking ourselves and trying to seek God's will. But at the same time, we need to be agents of choice. We have to act for ourselves and do "many things" of our own free will. There is a difference between seeking the will of the Lord and waiting for Him to tell us what kind of toothpaste to buy. God doesn't want us to be "compelled in all things." (see D&C 58:26-27). For how would we grow?
If we are to become like our Heavenly Parents, then we have to grow up. We must decide to be an agent of choice instead of passively being acted upon. And we must educate and reform those desires if we don't like what we are becoming. As we start to define and refine the desires of our hearts (and as we ourselves are refined through divine tutoring), God will trust us to make our own decisions. Even big decisions, like who to marry or what to major in or where to go to graduate school. I believe that God can use our desires to guide us. What we want really does matter. And it matters to Him.
One of the most important decisions I have made was where to attend graduate school. I put a lot of time, thought, work, and prayer into this decision. And I'm not even just talking about the ultimate decision to go to Oxford. The process itself started over a year-and-a-half ago as I looked at programs, prepared letters of intent, writing samples, and visited schools. And during that process, before I had even submitted my applications, I had impressions that I was going to be in either Washington, D.C. or England the next year. Just feelings. But those feelings reflected desires of my heart and compelled me to action. And as I thought, pondered and prayed throughout the process, both still felt right to me.
And so, of course, when I got the acceptance letters back, I had offers from schools in D.C. and from Oxford. I narrowed my choice to my top two options: Georgetown and Oxford. I know, I know--everyone says that Oxford was the obvious choice. But believe me when I say that this was a tough decision for me and I was looking at the choice from all sides. And as I "studied it out in my mind," sought advice from friends and mentors, and asked God in prayer for direction, I ultimately felt that the decision was up to me. That both of these options were good . . . I just had to choose.
When talking with one of my mentors, I had a conversation which was extremely enlightening. While talking to this mentor, I laid all my cards on the table. I had already gone through the process of thinking things out, and I wanted him to know what all the factors were. This wasn't just a case of, "Oh, help me I don't know what to do, tell me what to do," but, "Look. I know that this is a big decision. I've thought about it a lot. And honestly, the scales are preetttty even. I'm not looking for you to tell me where to go or what to do. But I do want advice. I do want your opinion. And I will take it into consideration. So. Here are all the things I have considered. Is there anything else that I should consider?"
I honestly thought he was going to say that the scales were tipped in Georgetown's favor. But instead he said,
"Look, Megan. You have two great options here. And I don't think you can mess this choice up. It might seem trite, but ultimately it comes down to the heart wants what the heart wants. So. What do you want?"
The heart wants what the heart wants.
What do you want?
"Oxford," I immediately said. "I want Oxford."
Then what more do you want from Me?
What more do you want God to do when He allows you to make the choice of your heart?
Making decisions between two good options can be agonizing. But instead of agonizing about making a wrong decision, maybe we should take a moment to just "glory in the mystery" of life. That there are so many swinging doors. That God opens windows as doors close. That there are so many more good possibilities in life than bad ones. That we can make any decision the "best" decision. That we can seek and strive and accomplish and breathe and laugh and love and live. "Glory in the mystery." And then take a deep breath, come to the edge of opportunity, leap . . . and find that we have wings.
Having that freedom is exhilarating and humbling. True freedom. A choice between two good options.
And then choosing what you want.
Too often I think that we believe that if we desire something, it must not be what God wants. Or if we want something, God will take it away because we want it. I don't think that God is like that. Certainly there is sacrifice. And certainly there are times when we want something so much it hurts--and we pray and pray for this desire and we don't get it. Maybe we don't get it at that moment, or maybe we don't get it at all. And it's not a bad desire at all--it's something good, like starting a family, or getting an education, or serving a mission, or desiring health for a sick or injured loved one. And it's hard--it's really hard when those righteous desires of our hearts are delayed or denied . . . or distorted. Because we don't live in a vacuum. We associate with other imperfect humans with desires and motives who are also using their agency--we experiment on each other, and there are often disastrous results.
So what does it mean when we don't get the desires of our hearts? I don't have a good answer for that question. It's a hard one. And one that I am still thinking about as it has confronted me in my own life and will continue to confront me throughout my life. But I do believe that God is aware of those desires. And He will grant them. In His own way. And in His own time. There is more to the economy of heaven than I can even begin to understand. And I believe God can give us all the peace we desire as we go through the trials and joys of life.
Still, it is a gift to know the desires of your heart. It can be torture at times when we know exactly what we want and it seems like there is no possible way to achieve it. But it is a gift to know what we want. Because as we are aware of those desires, we can choose to act instead of being acted upon. We can take the Holy Ghost as our guide as we educate our desires and as we desire to trust in God. "Choosing to trust in God takes faith. The best guide of all as we seek to choose faith in every footstep is the whisperings of the Holy Spirit." But if our desire is to have the Holy Ghost with us, our choices and actions will allow us to find God's will--not only for us, but we will desire to have His will be our will, and we will seek ways to do good and be good and to bless His children.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, even as you desire of me so it shall be unto you; and if you desire, you shall be the means of doing much good in this generation." (D&C 6:8)
I know that this is a huge topic. There are so many things I can't touch on right now, and so many questions I still have about desires. But I believe that desires matter more than we realize. And I believe we have a responsibility to be accountable for our desires and for their consequences. I also believe that one of the most important principles of the message of the Restoration is that we are not slaves of circumstance, but we are agents for ourselves. We are free to choose--with all of the terrifyingly glorious responsibility that comes with that knowledge and power.
And I think--and believe--that God is the "giver of good gifts." And sometimes the thing holding us back from our happiness is not God, but rather our own fear.
He wants to give us everything He has.
But we have to choose it.
We have to want it.
What do you want?
For Further Reading (if Megan's "Discourse on Desires" wasn't enough and you want more):
"Live Right Now" by Gerrit W. Gong
"Unleashing the Dormant Spirit" by F. Enzio Busche (If you are going to read any of these talks, READ THIS ONE.)
"Free to Choose" by Neal A. Maxwell (Another one of my favorites.)
"The Education of Our Desires" by Neal A. Maxwell
"According to the Desires of [Our] Hearts" by Neal A. Maxwell (Can you tell I love Elder Maxwell?)
"The Desires of Our Hearts" by Dallin H. Oaks
"Resolutions and Desires" by Rachael Givens Johnson (This one is by one of my good friends. She makes some excellent points about how important it is to honestly analyze those conflicting desires of our hearts.)