Join me on a walk in a lovely garden, the Garden of Eden to be precise. You remember the story: God creates a beautiful garden and places Adam in the garden. He gives Adam a commandment. Genesis 2:15-17 describes that commandment:
15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Commandment given, God creates Eve, and the first couple go merrily on their way, enjoying their innocence and the beauties around them. Satan tempts Eve, who eats of the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. And thus the plan of salvation is born. Adam and Eve become mortal, subject to both physical and spiritual death. They know good from evil and can now experience both sorrow and joy. For the first time, they have agency, because they have both opposition and knowledge. They bear children, and God provides a Savior so that Adam and Eve and their posterity can have the opportunity to once again live with God.
I find it interesting that God uses a commandment that is essentially physical (a commandment about what to eat) to introduce His plan of salvation for the entire universe. Not only is the first commandment a physical commandment, but the consequences involve a mix of the physical and spiritual. I have thought about this a great deal. We tend to consider the spiritual as more Godlike than the physical, as if our bodies hold us back and limit us in some way, but I doubt that the Lord sees it that way at all.
One of my favorite scriptures illuminates for me how God feels about the relationship of our physical bodies and our spirits. In Doctrine & Covenants 88:15, we read “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” To me, that means that our eternal soul requires both the spirit and the body, that both components are critical. Additional scriptures bear that out. Daniel refuses to eat the king’s rich food, and he is blessed with great wisdom. The Savior fasts for a long period to prepare Himself to begin His ministry, and so forth.
Back to Adam and Eve. Do you remember the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit? Adam and Eve became mortal, of course, and they had to leave the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:17, God says something curious to Adam. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” For thy sake! As if the thorns and weeds were a blessing! But they were, just as Eve’s pain and sorrow in childbearing were a blessing. Somehow, those physical challenges were critical for Adam and Eve and for us in our quest to become like God. They help us to grow and learn, and they help us to understand God and what it means to be godlike.
Think about it from an exercise perspective. Unless I literally rip my muscles, I will not grow stronger. And in order to build that muscle, I have to push against something. I have to have opposition. God created the physical and spiritual experiences to run in tandem.
How Does That Apply to Me?
My patriarchal blessing includes a phrase that I return to again and again. In my blessing, God counsels me that as I keep my body in good condition, I will be more responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. That promise is not unique to me. Think of the Word of Wisdom, our famous code of health. We are commanded regarding what to eat and what not to eat, and then God spells out the promises. We will receive health, we will run and not be weary…and in verse 19, we learn that we will “find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” I think God cares a great deal about what we do with our bodies, as well as with our spirits. He even refers to our bodies as temples, and if you have ever had the chance to visit one of our LDS temples, you know how beautiful they are and what care is taken to keep them beautiful and pure.
In his October 2014 General Conference talk, Elder Jörg Klebingat outlines six tools to help us reach the point where we can approach the throne of God with confidence. I find it instructive that the first two suggestions he gives us are rather bold directives to take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being and to take responsibility for our own physical well-being. “Stop justifying and stop making excuses,” he says, reminding us that Heavenly Father knows each of our circumstances perfectly.
Elder Klebingat continues, “Feeding the spirit while neglecting the body, which is a temple, usually leads to spiritual dissonance and lowered self-esteem.” I think we can safely say that the reverse is true, as well. If we focus on our physical health and neglect our spirits, we will also suffer. But if we feed and exercise both body and spirit, then our potential is great.
What Have I Learned about Spiritual Things from Physical Experiences?
I learn that I can endure and that if I push myself, I can grow stronger. I have started to run more over the last couple of years. I am not a great runner, but I find that I quite enjoy it. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to take those first steps or to keep going after a few tough miles on not quite enough sleep. When the wind chill is -15, I struggle to put on my shoes and open my front door. But I can tell you that the exhilaration I feel after running a 10K in that kind of cold is amazing! I feel like superwoman. So then, when faced with something in life that is pushes me to my limits, I tell myself, “If I can run 6 miles in sub zero weather, I can absolutely meet this challenge I am facing now.”
I learn that opposition is necessary. I want nicely sculpted arms, and I want to be strong enough so that I do not need to call my husband every time I need to move something heavy. But I will never build that muscle definition unless I push heavy weight. The same thing is true in my spiritual life. Brad and I have been through some years in our marriage that took us near to the breaking point. We dealt with some heavy opposition, and because of that, we grew closer together. We learned a great deal about God and about faith. I have had experiences that brought me to my knees again and again, and I would not trade them for anything. The apostle Paul learned a similar lesson. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he tells about a thorn in the flesh that he had to endure and what he learned from that:
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
I learn that I need to exercise every day. Intense, but sporadic, exercise does little to increase my strength or endurance. By the same token, we need to read scriptures every day, pray every day, go to church every week, and so forth. Elder Klebingat says that we need to “apply the atonement of Christ daily.”
I learn that I have to take care of myself with nutrition and rest. The scriptures remind us not to run faster than we have strength. In both physical and spiritual pursuits, we need to pace ourselves. A couple of years ago, I made the astonishing discovery that I like to run, so I fairly quickly built up to five mile runs. Predictably, I developed tendonitis, and I had to pull way back for a time. I learned that I need to build up my mileage slowly and let my body adjust. By the same token, if we try to live all of the commandments perfectly all at once, go to the temple three times a week, make fresh bread for everyone in the ward and read scriptures for hours each day, we will quickly burn out.
I learn that I have to obey certain laws to get certain results. If I eat more calories than I burn, I will gain fat. If I eat too much sugar, I will feel sluggish. On the other hand, if I eat healthy foods and get adequate rest, I will have energy and think more clearly. Likewise, in D&C 130: 20-21, we learn that when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
But, Wow, It’s Hard!
The reality is, we are going to fall a lot. We’re going to fall out of the habit of reading scriptures, or we are going to eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in one sitting. We are going to deal with addictions or struggle with our callings. We are going to have crises of faith and physical ailments that stop us in our tracks. Heavenly Father knows that. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said the following in the October 2014 General Conference:
“I am under no illusion that this can be achieved by our own efforts alone without [the Savior’s] very substantial and constant help. ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ And we do not need to achieve some minimum level of capacity or goodness before God will help—divine aid can be ours every hour of every day, no matter where we are in the path of obedience. But I know that beyond desiring His help, we must exert ourselves, repent, and choose God for Him to be able to act in our lives consistent with justice and moral agency. My plea is simply to take responsibility and go to work so that there is something for God to help us with.”
That is our challenge, to go to work so that God has something to work with. Take the next step. That may involve reading a verse of scripture a day or walking around the block, or it may involve getting the help you need to overcome an addiction. Do something, take a step down the road to a healthy soul.