One of the most common images in Western and Eastern religions alike is of God as a parent and of human beings as God’s children. Billions pray to God as their parent, invoke the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people to promote peace, and reach out to the weary and troubled out of deep conviction that each of God’s children has great worth.
But people of different faiths understand the parent-child relationship between God and humans in significantly different ways. Some understand the phrase “child of God” as an honorary title reserved only for those who believe in God and accept His guidance as they might accept a father’s. Many see parent-child descriptions of God’s relationship to humanity as metaphors to express His love for His creations and their dependence on His sustenance and protection.
Latter-day Saints see all people as children of God in a full and complete sense; they consider every person divine in origin, nature, and potential. Each has an eternal core and is “a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.”1 Each possesses seeds of divinity and must choose whether to live in harmony or tension with that divinity. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all people may “progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny.”2 Just as a child can develop the attributes of his or her parents over time, the divine nature that humans inherit can be developed to become like their Heavenly Father's.
The desire to nurture the divinity in His children is one of God’s attributes that most inspires, motivates, and humbles members of the Church. God’s loving parentage and guidance can help each willing, obedient child of God receive of His fulness and of His glory. This knowledge transforms the way Latter-day Saints see their fellow human beings. The teaching that men and women have the potential to be exalted to a state of godliness clearly expands beyond what is understood by most contemporary Christian churches and expresses for the Latter-day Saints a yearning rooted in the Bible to live as God lives, to love as He loves, and to prepare for all that our loving Father in Heaven wishes for His children.
What does the Bible say about humans’ divine potential?
Several biblical passages intimate that humans can become like God. The likeness of humans to God is emphasized in the first chapter of Genesis: “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”3 After Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God said they had “become as one of us,”4 suggesting that a process of approaching godliness was already underway. Later in the Old Testament, a passage in the book of Psalms declares, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.”5
New Testament passages also point to this doctrine. When Jesus was accused of blasphemy on the grounds that “thou, being a man, makest thyself God,” He responded, echoing Psalms, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?”6 In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded His disciples to become “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”7 In turn, the Apostle Peter referred to the Savior’s “exceeding great and precious promises” that we might become “partakers of the divine nature.”8 The Apostle Paul taught that we are “the offspring of God” and emphasized that as such “we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”9 The book of Revelation contains a promise from Jesus Christ that “to him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”10
These passages can be interpreted in different ways. Yet by viewing them through the clarifying lens of revelations received by Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints see these scriptures as straightforward expressions of humanity’s divine nature and potential. Many other Christians read the same passages far more metaphorically because they experience the Bible through the lens of doctrinal interpretations that developed over time after the period described in the New Testament.
How have ideas about divinity shifted over Christian history?
Latter-day Saint beliefs would have sounded more familiar to the earliest generations of Christians than they do to many modern Christians. Many church fathers (influential theologians and teachers in early Christianity) spoke approvingly of the idea that humans can become divine. One modern scholar refers to the “ubiquity of the doctrine of deification”—the teaching that humans could become God—in the first centuries after Christ’s death.11 The church father Irenaeus, who died about A.D. 202, asserted that Jesus Christ “did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be what He is Himself.”12 Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 150–215) wrote that “the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.”13 Basil the Great (A.D. 330–379) also celebrated this prospect—not just “being made like to God,” but “highest of all, the being made God.”14
What exactly the early church fathers meant when they spoke of becoming God is open to interpretation,15 but it is clear that references to deification became more contested in the late Roman period and were infrequent by the medieval era. The first known objection by a church father to teaching deification came in the fifth century.16 By the sixth century, teachings on “becoming God” appear more limited in scope, as in the definition provided by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. A.D. 500): “Deification … is the attaining of likeness to God and union with him so far as is possible.”17
Why did these beliefs fade from prominence? Changing perspectives on the creation of the world may have contributed to the gradual shift toward more limited views of human potential. The earliest Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Creation assumed that God had organized the world out of preexisting materials, emphasizing the goodness of God in shaping such a life-sustaining order.18 But the incursion of new philosophical ideas in the second century led to the development of a doctrine that God created the universe ex nihilo—“out of nothing.” This ultimately became the dominant teaching about the Creation within the Christian world.19 In order to emphasize God’s power, many theologians reasoned that nothing could have existed for as long as He had. It became important in Christian circles to assert that God had originally been completely alone.
Creation ex nihilo widened the perceived gulf between God and humans. It became less common to teach either that human souls had existed before the world or that they could inherit and develop the attributes of God in their entirety in the future.20 Gradually, as the depravity of humankind and the immense distance between Creator and creature were increasingly emphasized, the concept of deification faded from Western Christianity,21 though it remains a central tenet of Eastern Orthodoxy, one of the three major branches of Christianity.22
How were ideas about deification introduced to Latter-day Saints?
The earliest Latter-day Saints came from a society dominated by English-speaking Protestants, most of whom accepted both ex nihilo creation and the Westminster Confession’s definition of God as a being “without body, parts, or passions.”23 They likely knew little or nothing about the diversity of Christian beliefs in the first centuries after Jesus Christ’s ministry or about early Christian writings on deification. But revelations received by Joseph Smith diverged from the prevailing ideas of the time and taught doctrine that, for some, reopened debates on the nature of God, creation, and humankind.
Early revelations to Joseph Smith taught that humans are created in the image of God and that God cares intimately for His children. In the Book of Mormon, a prophet “saw the finger of the Lord” and was astonished to learn that human physical forms were truly made in the image of God.24 In another early revelation, Enoch (who “walked with God” in the Bible25) witnessed God weeping over His creations. When Enoch asked, “How is it thou canst weep?” he learned that God’s compassion toward human suffering is integral to His love.26 Joseph Smith also learned that God desires that His children receive the same kind of exalted existence of which He partakes. As God declared, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”27
In 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon experienced a vision of the afterlife. In the vision, they learned that the just and unjust alike would receive immortality through a universal resurrection, but only those “who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” would receive the fulness of God’s glory and be “gods, even the sons of God.”28 Another revelation soon confirmed that “the saints shall be filled with his glory, and receive their inheritance and be made equal with him.”29 Latter-day Saints use the term exaltation to describe the glorious reward of receiving one’s full inheritance as a child of Heavenly Father, which is available through the Atonement of Christ, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.30
This striking view of each human’s potential future was accompanied by revealed teachings on humanity’s past. As Joseph Smith continued to receive revelations, he learned that the light or intelligence at the core of each human soul “was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” God is the Father of each human spirit, and because only “spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy,” He presented a plan for human beings to receive physical bodies and progress through their mortal experience toward a fulness of joy. Earthly birth, then, is not the beginning of an individual’s life: “Man was also in the beginning with God.”31 Likewise, Joseph Smith taught that the material world has eternal roots, fully repudiating the concept of creation ex nihilo. “Earth, water &c—all these had their existence in an elementary State from Eternity,” he said in an 1839 sermon.32 God organized the universe out of existing elements.
Joseph Smith continued to receive revelation on the themes of divine nature and exaltation during the last two years of his life. In a revelation recorded in July 1843 that linked exaltation with eternal marriage, the Lord declared that those who keep covenants, including the covenant of eternal marriage, will inherit “all heights and depths.” “Then,” says the revelation, “shall they be gods, because they have no end.” They will receive “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”33
The following April, feeling he was “never in any nearer relationship to God than at the present time,”34 Joseph Smith spoke about the nature of God and the future of humankind to the Saints, who had gathered for a general Church conference. He used the occasion in part to reflect upon the death of a Church member named King Follett, who had died unexpectedly a month earlier. When he rose to speak, the wind was blowing, so Joseph asked his listeners to give him their “profound attention” and to “pray that the L[ord] may strengthen my lungs” and stay the winds until his message had been delivered.35
“What kind of a being is God?” he asked. Human beings needed to know, he argued, because “if men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.”36 In that phrase, the Prophet collapsed the gulf that centuries of confusion had created between God and humanity. Human nature was at its core divine. God “was once as one of us” and “all the spirits that God ever sent into the world” were likewise “susceptible of enlargement.” Joseph Smith preached that long before the world was formed, God found “himself in the midst” of these beings and “saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself”37 and be “exalted” with Him.38
Joseph told the assembled Saints, “You have got to learn how to be a god yourself.”39 In order to do that, the Saints needed to learn godliness, or to be more like God. The process would be ongoing and would require patience, faith, continuing repentance, obedience to the commandments of the gospel, and reliance on Christ. Like ascending a ladder, individuals needed to learn the “first prin[ciples] of the Gospel” and continue beyond the limits of mortal knowledge until they could “learn the last prin[ciples] of the Gospel” when the time came.40 “It is not all to be comprehended in this world,” Joseph said.41 “It will take a long time after the grave to understand the whole.”42
That was the last time the Prophet spoke in a general conference. Three months later, a mob stormed Carthage Jail and martyred him and his brother Hyrum.
What has been taught in the Church about divine nature since Joseph Smith?
Since that sermon, known as the King Follett discourse, the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness has been taught within the Church. Lorenzo Snow, the Church’s fifth President, coined a well-known couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”43 Little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught. When asked about this topic, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a reporter in 1997, “That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” When asked about the belief in humans’ divine potential, President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.”44
Eliza R. Snow, a Church leader and poet, rejoiced over the doctrine that we are, in a full and absolute sense, children of God. “I had learned to call thee Father, / Thru thy Spirit from on high,” she wrote, “But, until the key of knowledge / Was restored, I knew not why.” Latter-day Saints have also been moved by the knowledge that their divine parentage includes a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. Expressing that truth, Eliza R. Snow asked, “In the heav’ns are parents single?” and answered with a resounding no: “Truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there.”45 That knowledge plays an important role in Latter-day Saint belief. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”46
Humankind’s divine nature and potential for exaltation have been repeatedly taught in general conference addresses, Church magazines, and other Church materials. “Divine nature” is one of eight core values in the Church’s Young Women program. Teaching on human beings’ divine parentage, nature, and potential features prominently in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Divine nature and exaltation are essential and beloved teachings in the Church.
Does belief in exaltation make Latter-day Saints polytheists?
For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God’s children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the “fulness of joy” He desires for us.
Latter-day Saints also believe strongly in the fundamental unity of the divine. They believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost, though distinct beings, are unified in purpose and doctrine.47 It is in this light that Latter-day Saints understand Jesus’s prayer for His disciples through the ages: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”48
If humans live out of harmony with God’s goodness, they cannot grow into God’s glory. Joseph Smith taught that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only [except] upon the principles of righteousness.” When humans abandon God’s selfless purposes and standards, “the heavens withdraw themselves [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved.”49 Pride is incompatible with progress; disunity is impossible between exalted beings.
How do Latter-day Saints envision exaltation?
Since human conceptions of reality are necessarily limited in mortality, religions struggle to adequately articulate their visions of eternal glory. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”50 These limitations make it easy for images of salvation to become cartoonish when represented in popular culture. For example, scriptural expressions of the deep peace and overwhelming joy of salvation are often reproduced in the well-known image of humans sitting on their own clouds and playing harps after death. Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets.
A cloud and harp are hardly a satisfying image for eternal joy, although most Christians would agree that inspired music can be a tiny foretaste of the joy of eternal salvation. Likewise, while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.
Latter-day Saints tend to imagine exaltation through the lens of the sacred in mortal experience. They see the seeds of godhood in the joy of bearing and nurturing children and the intense love they feel for those children, in the impulse to reach out in compassionate service to others, in the moments they are caught off guard by the beauty and order of the universe, in the grounding feeling of making and keeping divine covenants. Church members imagine exaltation less through images of what they will get and more through the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated. As the scriptures teach, “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”51
How important are teachings about exaltation to Latter-day Saint beliefs overall?
The teaching that human beings have a divine nature and future shapes the way Latter-day Saints view fundamental doctrine. Perhaps most significantly, belief in divine nature helps us more deeply appreciate the Atonement of Jesus Christ. While many Christian theologians have expressed the magnitude of the Savior’s Atonement by emphasizing human depravity, Latter-day Saints understand the magnitude of the Atonement of Christ in terms of the vast human potential it makes possible. Christ’s Atonement not only provides forgiveness from sin and victory over death, it also redeems imperfect relationships, heals the spiritual wounds that stifle growth, and strengthens and enables individuals to develop the attributes of Christ.52 Latter-day Saints believe that it is only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ that we can have a sure hope of eternal glory and that the power of His Atonement is fully accessed only by faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end in following the instruction and example of Christ.53 Thus, those who become like God and enter into a fulness of His glory are described as people who have been “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.”54
An awareness of humans’ divine potential also influences Latter-day Saints’ understanding of gospel principles such as the importance of divine commandments, the role of temples, and the sanctity of individual moral agency. Belief that human beings are actually God’s children also changes Latter-day Saints’ behavior and attitudes. For example, even in societies where casual and premarital sex are considered acceptable, Latter-day Saints retain a deep reverence for the God-given procreative and bonding powers of human sexual intimacy and remain committed to a higher standard in the use of those sacred powers. Studies suggest that Latter-day Saints place an exceptionally high priority on marriage and parenthood,55 a consequence in part of a strong belief in heavenly parents and a commitment to strive for that divinity.
All human beings are children of loving heavenly parents and possess seeds of divinity within them. In His infinite love, God invites His children to cultivate their eternal potential by the grace of God, through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.56 The doctrine of humans’ eternal potential to become like their Heavenly Father is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ and inspires love, hope, and gratitude in the hearts of faithful Latter-day Saints.
- “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129.
- “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” 129.
- Genesis 1:26–27.
- Genesis 2:17; 3:22.
- Psalm 82:6.
- John 10:33–34.
- Matthew 5:48. The word perfect in Matthew 5:48 can also be translated whole or complete, implying a distant objective and ongoing, concerted effort (see Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 86).
- 2 Peter 1:4.
- Acts 17:29; Romans 8:16–17.
- Revelation 3:21.
- Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (2004), 6.
- Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Father Down to A.D. 325 (1977), 1:526.
- Clement, “Exhortation to the Heathen,” in Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:174.
- Saint Basil the Great, “On the Spirit,” in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd series (1994), 8:16.
- There are likely important differences as well as similarities between the thinking of the church fathers and Latter-day Saint teachings. For a discussion of similarities and differences between exaltation as understood by Latter-day Saints and modern Eastern Orthodox understanding of statements by church fathers on deification, see Jordan Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization,” Occasional Papers Series, no. 3 (2002), available at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.
- See Vladimir Kharlamov, “Rhetorical Application of Theosis in Greek Patristic Theology,” in Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (2008), 115.
- Quoted in Russell, Doctrine of Deification, 1; italics added.
- As the second-century church father Justin Martyr said, “We have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter” (The First Apology of Justin, in Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:165; see also Frances Young, “‘Creatio Ex Nihilo’: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44, no. 1 : 139–51; Markus Bockmuehl, “Creation Ex Nihilo in Palestinian Judaism and Early Christianity,” Scottish Journal of Theology 66, no. 3 : 253–70).
- For information on the second-century context that gave birth to creation ex nihilo, see Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought (2004).
- See Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (2010).
- A minor resurgence of the doctrine of deification within Western Christianity occurred at the hands of a group of 17th-century English clergymen-scholars, called the Cambridge Platonists. (See Benjamin Whichcote, “The Manifestation of Christ and the Deification of Man,” in C. A. Patrides, ed., The Cambridge Platonists , 70.)
- In “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology,” Andrew Louth describes Eastern Orthodoxy as focused on a “greater arch, leading from creation to deification” and feels that Catholic and Protestant theologies have focused on a partial “lesser arch, from Fall to redemption” to the exclusion of that whole (in Christensen and Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature, 35).
- Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 2 (1646). The Westminster Confession was drawn up by the Westminster Assembly of 1646 as a standard for the doctrine, worship, and government of the Church of England. Its contents have guided the worship of a number of Protestant churches since the time of its writing.
- Ether 3:6; see also Doctrine and Covenants 130:22; Moses 6:8–9. On Joseph Smith’s teachings on the embodiment of God, see David L. Paulsen, “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives,” BYU Studies 35, no. 4 (1995–96): 13–39, available at byustudies.byu.edu.
- Genesis 5:22.
- See Moses 7:31–37. On the profundity of this image, see Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (2012).
- Moses 1:39.
- Doctrine and Covenants 76:53, 58.
- Doctrine and Covenants 88:107.
- See Dallin H. Oaks, “No Other Gods,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013; Russell M. Nelson, “Salvation and Exaltation,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2008; see also Articles of Faith 1:3.
- Doctrine and Covenants 93:29, 33.
- Joseph Smith, remarks, delivered before Aug. 8, 1839, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (1980), 9; also available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:19–20.
- Wilford Woodruff journal, Apr. 6, 1844, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by William Clayton, available at josephsmithpapers.org. While the King Follett discourse represents Joseph Smith’s most detailed known discussion of divine nature and exaltation, it is important to note that because of the wind on the day the sermon was delivered and the limitations of transcription techniques, we are left without certainty about Joseph Smith’s exact or complete wording during the sermon. The partial accounts of four witnesses and an early published account give us a record, if only an imperfect one, of what Joseph Smith taught on the occasion, and what he taught gives us insight into the meaning of numerous passages of scripture. But the surviving sermon text is not canonized and should not be treated as a doctrinal standard in and of itself. For the accounts of Willard Richards, William Clayton, Thomas Bullock, Wilford Woodruff, and the August 15, 1844, Times and Seasons, see “Accounts of the ‘King Follett Sermon’” on the Joseph Smith Papers website.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by Willard Richards, available at josephsmithpapers.org, spelling modernized.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by William Clayton, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by Wilford Woodruff, available at josephsmithpapers.org, spelling modernized.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by William Clayton, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by Thomas Bullock, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by William Clayton, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Discourse, Apr. 7, 1844, as reported by Wilford Woodruff, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
- Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (1884), 46. The couplet, which has never been canonized, has been formulated in slightly different ways. For others, see The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 1–9.
- Don Lattin, “Musings of the Main Mormon,” San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 13, 1997; see also David Van Biema, “Kingdom Come,” Time, Aug. 4, 1997, 56.
- First published as a poem, this later became a popular hymn. (Eliza R. Snow, “My Father in Heaven,” Times and Seasons, Nov. 15, 1845, 1039; “O My Father,”Hymns, no. 292; see also Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1 [1996–97]: 84–126, available at byustudies.byu.edu.) For Latter-day Saint thought on Mother in Heaven, see David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 70–97, available at byustudies.byu.edu.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995, 84.
- See Doctrine and Covenants 130:22.
- John 17:21.
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37.
- 1 Corinthians 2:9.
- Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
- See Alma 7:11–12.
- See 2 Nephi 31:20; Articles of Faith 1:4.
- Doctrine and Covenants 76:69.
- See “Mormons in America—Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society,” Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, Jan. 12, 2012, available at pewforum.org.
- Moroni 10:32–33; Bible Dictionary, “Grace.”
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.
Originally published February 2014.
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' "The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (NAS, Mark 12:28-31)
In Jesus' teachings, our relationship with our fellow men, women and children is inseparable from our relationship with God. Love of God and love of our neighbors are two aspects of the same calling:
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV, John 13:34-35)
Who Is My Neighbor?We commonly think of neighbors as the people who live near us, but Jesus meant it to include all mankind - even our enemies! Jesus told His famous parable of the Good Samaritan to make it clear that "love your neighbor" means to love all persons, everywhere - not just our friends, allies, countrymen, etc.:
One day an expert on Moses' laws came to test Jesus' orthodoxy by asking him this question: "Teacher, what does a man need to do to live forever in heaven?" Jesus replied, "What does Moses' law say about it?" "It says," he replied, "that you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself." "Right!" Jesus told him. "Do this and you shall live!" The man wanted to justify (his lack of love for some kinds of people), so he asked, "Which neighbors?" Jesus replied with an illustration: "A Jew going on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes and money, and beat him up and left him lying half dead beside the road. "By chance a Jewish priest came along; and when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Jewish Temple-assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but then went on. "But a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw him, he felt deep pity. Kneeling beside him the Samaritan soothed his wounds with medicine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his donkey and walked along beside him till they came to an inn, where he nursed him through the night. The next day he handed the innkeeper two twenty-dollar bills and told him to take care of the man. 'If his bill runs higher than that,' he said, 'I'll pay the difference the next time I am here.' "Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the bandits' victim?" The man replied, "The one who showed him some pity." Then Jesus said, "Yes, now go and do the same." (TLB, Luke 10:25-37)
The Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for hundreds of years. The Jews of Jesus' society considered the Samaritans to be ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, religious heretics (Mays, p. 1029). Yet, the Samaritan took pity on the poor man who had been robbed and beaten. He gave freely of both his time and his money to help this Jewish man who was not only a stranger, but also an enemy from a foreign country. In His parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges us to "Go and do the same."
To reinforce that "love your neighbor" applies to everyone, Jesus extended the rule of love to even our enemies!
"There is a saying, 'Love your friends and hate your enemies.' But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true sons of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust too. If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even scoundrels do that much. If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the heathen do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (TLB, Matthew 5:43-48)
Like the unselfish Samaritan man of Jesus' parable, we are called to extend our love and concern to all persons everywhere, as our neighbors. We should not exclude anyone or any group because of social status, a supposed character fault, religious difference, racial difference, ethnic difference, citizenship difference, etc.
Related verses: Matthew 22:34-39, Luke 6:27-38
Forgive OthersJesus calls us to remember that we are all God's children. Just as He loves all His people and is willing to forgive their sins, we must be willing to forgive others who have done wrong to us:
For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (TNIV, Matthew 6:14-15)
Anger can consume us with hatred and block out the love of God. Whether between parent and child, spouses, friends, or nations, expressions of anger divide us and drive us toward open hostility. More often than not, our angry feelings are based on a misinterpretation of what someone said or did. A grudge clouds our judgment and may lead us to an act of revenge that can never be undone.
The Old Testament law specified equal revenge for equal wrong: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20.) But this rule was too harsh for the new age of the kingdom of God. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the right thing to do is to take no revenge at all.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' "But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. (NAS, Matthew 5:38-39)
The need to forgive is not some ideal that we cannot hope to attain. Forgiveness is necessary to free us from the dark cloud of anger and resentment that can literally destroy our own lives. We cannot afford to wait for the other person to repent and apologize. Unless we let go of our anger and the desire to punish or get even, the love of God cannot enter our lives.
Related verses: Matthew 6:12, Matthew 5:21-24, Matthew 5:38-48, Matthew 18:21-35, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4
Help the Needy
"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. "And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' "Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' "And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' "Then they themselves also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' "Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (NAS, Matthew 25:31-46)
Jesus could hardly have made things plainer than in His Parable of the Sheep and Goats, above. We are not meant to live hard-hearted or self-centered lives. We are called to put our faith into practice and truly love our neighbors, especially those less fortunate.
God has given each of us unique talents and gifts to use in His service. His work for us on earth is to use our gifts and talents in the service of others! Each of us has something to offer to someone in need. We can give our money and our time to charity, be a friend to someone who is sick or lonely, do volunteer work, or be a peacemaker. We may give unselfishly of our time to our spouse, children or parents. We may choose a service-oriented occupation, or we may just do our everyday jobs with integrity and respect for others.
It would seem that the more we give to others, the poorer we become, but just the opposite is true! Service to others brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives in a way that wealth, power, possessions and self-centered pursuits can never match. As Jesus said,
For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give- large or small- will be used to measure what is given back to you." (TLB, Luke 6:38)
Does this mean we can't satisfy Jesus' command unless we have abundant wealth to give, or extraordinary talents to serve other? No! It is not how much we give, but the spirit in which we give that counts with God. Each of us is called to give generously of what wealth and talents we have been given - whether it is a little or a lot. Jesus compared a poor widow, who gave only a little, to the wealthy men who gave much more. The wealthy men had only given a token amount from their great wealth. In God's eyes, the widow gave much more because she gave from the heart:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything- all she had to live on." (NIV, Mark 12:41-44)
Each of us has something to give. Some have wealth, some have talents, and some have time. Whatever gifts we have been given - large or small - we should share generously. When we do, we make the world better for someone else and find true meaning and satisfaction in our own lives.
Related verses: Matthew 6:1-4, Mark 9:35, Mark 10:17-27, Mark 12:41-44, Luke 6:30, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 12:33-34, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 19:1-9, Luke 21:1-4.
Follow the Golden Rule
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV, Matthew 7:12)
The Golden Rule, spoken by Jesus, is possibly the best-known quote from the Bible, and sums up Jesus' ethical teachings in one short sentence. If we wish to be loved, we must give love. If we wish to be respected, we must respect all persons - even those we dislike. If we wish to be forgiven, we must also forgive. If we wish others to speak kindly of us, we must speak kindly of them and avoid gossip. If we want strong marriages, we must be loyal and faithful to our spouses. If we wish to be fulfilled in our lives, we must share generously with others. If we wish to reap the rewards of our Heavenly Father's love, we must truly love all His people.
If we do not wish to be judged harshly, then we must not judge others harshly. Often we are tempted to call someone else a "sinner" or to think of ourselves as holier. However, we are called to correct the faults within ourselves, not to criticize or condemn others:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (NIV, Matthew 7:1-5)
Jesus' comical story tells of a man trying to remove a speck of sawdust (a minor fault) from his friend's eye while he is blinded by a huge plank (a major fault) in his own eye. Jesus says that as long as we have our own faults and sinfulness (which we always will), we do not have the right to criticize others.
The golden rule - treat others as you would want to be treated - is the standard Jesus set for dealing with other people.
Related verses: Matthew 5:22-28, Matthew 12:34-37, Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 9:35-37, Luke 6:27-36, Luke 6:37-38, Luke 12:57-59, John 8:3-11
ConclusionIn His sermons and parables, Jesus seeks to shock us out of our selfishness and worldliness and create in us a true passion for the welfare of our fellow men, women and children around the world. Universal love is at the very heart of Jesus' teachings; it is God's earthly work for us.
What matters to God is our love for Him and our love for each other. Wealth, power and status count for nothing in the kingdom of God. When we truly love our neighbors, we do our part to make the world a better place, and we find our own fulfillment in life.