Sometimes, we face up against a commandment or two and consistently find ourselves falling short. We might fail time and again to hold back angry words; we might cede once more to destructive pleasures; we might, for the sixth time this week, forget to say a prayer before leaving for the day. In the context of our private struggles, we might feel that the commandments only serve to point out our failures or to block our access to the hope of God’s light. We might begin to see the lists of shalts and shalt nots as lists of reasons why we we’ll never be good enough. I’m convinced, though, that this is the wrong way to look at those commandments that we struggle to keep.
Early in the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Lehi instructs his sons to retrieve a copy of the scriptural record before their family flees Jerusalem and its imminent destruction. Unfortunately, every strategy that the brothers use to acquire those scriptures from their wicked and dangerous owner falls short, and they fail over and over to live up to the commandment. Perhaps, then, the commandment to get the records started to feel only like a reminder of their consistent failures.
However, one of those sons, named Nephi, expressed a unique and compelling faith in their potential to succeed. Throughout the ordeal and despite repeated failures, he was guided by the hope that “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7, emphasis added). For Nephi, then, the commandment wasn’t a way to rub in past failures—it was a way for the Lord to show him and his brothers what was possible.
With that in mind, I think that the Lord’s commandments are, in some way, aspirational, directing our focus to our potential for success. When the Lord tells us to love our neighbor, He does it to teach us that loving our neighbor is possible—even if it may seem difficult now. When He commands us to avoid addiction, it isn’t so that we can ostracize the addicted—it’s to show the addict that there is hope of freedom ahead. Because the Lord gives no commandment without first preparing the way, we can have total confidence that, when we keep trying, we will ultimately succeed. As the late Joseph B. Wirthlin taught, “You can be obedient. You can defeat Satan and overcome temptation…. The Lord does not expect anything of you that you cannot do.”
Truly, one of the functions of the commandments—even of the difficult ones—is to pull our gaze to a higher plane and to inspire us with our potential for success, potential that Almighty God sees in us. Even that encouraging news is enough to leave me feeling grateful, but the Lord, in His incomparable way, does far more than just promise success for our efforts to obey. He also promises to partner with us and to help us to succeed. That promise is recorded in the Book of Mormon: “[M]y grace is sufficient for all…that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).
Nephi knew the truth behind that promise, and he trusted that God would help Him to keep the difficult commandment that he had been given. In the end, Nephi did succeed in getting the sacred records from Laban. That success came because, as Bruce R. McConkie once taught, “Nephi made God his partner. If he failed to get the [records], it meant God had failed. And because God does not fail, it was incumbent upon Nephi to get the [records] or lay down his life in the attempt.” Nephi succeeded because he chose One who never fails to be his partner.
Thus, to those who despair because you feel that you are only falling short again and again despite your best efforts to improve—never give up! We wouldn’t have the commandments if God didn’t know already that we could learn to keep them. He has prepared a way for us to succeed—no matter how many times we may have failed before. He has also promised to help. Once we’ve made the Savior our partner and given our all to put our mistakes behind us, we will eventually rest in the peace of forgiveness, in the brilliant light of faith that comes from lasting obedience. Indeed, that commanding God who may have once seemed so stern and disappointed in days past won’t even bring up our old mistakes. He’ll just be happy to have us back. As the prophet Ezekiel so beautifully put it: “If the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live” (Ezekiel 33:15-16).