A talk by Pete Codella for high council speaking Sunday on July 13, 2014 (learn more here). Many ideas and segments of this talk come from the resources noted below.
[Story] It was November. I was 7. We were moving from Smithfield, Utah to Spring, Texas. I knew I had to get home so we could make the drive to the airport and catch our flight. To get home quickly, my friend suggested that I follow him on a shortcut on the frozen creek. I heard a voice tell me to stay on the sidewalk, but taking a shortcut was appealing, and after all, I didn’t want my friend to take the shortcut alone. So I followed him. About halfway home, I fell through the ice, soaking my clothes and backpack in very cold water, and bruising my pride. Luckily it wasn’t deep. With my friend’s help I crawled out, then hurried home to get dried off and ready for our trip. I had received an impression and guidance from the Holy Ghost, but I ignored it.
This is one of my first recollections of receiving promptings from the Spirit. That spiritual confirmation, repeated over and over in many dozens of different experiences, is the cement that solidifies my personal conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Conversion Is Change
To convert is to change in form, character or function. Becoming converted means changing. Think of a convertible. It changes in form. Think of the conversion of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Its form is changed remarkably.
Conversion isn’t a magic trick. It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s not ephemeral—or at least we hope it’s not. It’s a lengthy process that’s proven through the fruits of conversion, including:
- Church activity
- Worshiping on Sunday and in temples
- Daily scripture study
- Personal and family prayer
- Making and keeping sacred covenants, and
- Magnifying one’s calling.
True conversion yields the fruit of enduring happiness that can be enjoyed even when the world is in turmoil and most are anything but happy.
And for those of you wondering if you’re really converted, or how truly converted you are, identifying these fruits of conversion in your life provide proof of your personal conversion.
Conversion is not the turning over of a new leaf, but the receiving of a new life; not just a new start, but a new heart.
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). “Be converted,” in the original Greek of the New Testament, means to “turn around.”
It’s the word used when Jesus turned around in the crowd. It’s used 39 times in the New Testament. In 18 of those instances it’s used in the sense of turning from sin to God. It signifies a turning away from something and turning to something.
For instance Paul, writing to the saints in Thessalonica, said: “how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Conversion in the New Testament means turning away from those things that are inconsistent with a relationship with God, and turning to God, giving Him His rightful place in our lives. Conversion, turning, or changing our ways, is what we have to do in the process of becoming a Christian.
Conversion Is a Process
There’s conversion that signifies a change of heart and prompts one to be baptized, and there’s complete, lifetime conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is more than a brief, one-time occurrence. The scriptures teach us that the Lord “will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:12), “here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10).
This applies to receiving knowledge and truth, and it applies to the ongoing process of conversion.
Becoming converted requires continued faith, repentance and obedience, and conversion grows stronger the more we exercise our conversion muscles.
The Prophet Alma asked: “Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14).
This “mighty change in your hearts” is what conversion is all about. President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “People are converted by their hearts being penetrated by the Spirit of the Lord when they humbly hearken to the testimonies of the Lord’s servants.”
[Story] I had pneumonia when I was 12. My parents were away at a ward activity and I was feeling incoherent, so I asked my younger sister to call the bishop’s office and ask for them to come home. (This was before we had personal mobile phones.) They arrived with the bishop about a half-hour later, took my temperature, gave me a priesthood blessing and put me to bed. The next morning, I felt fine. We went to the doctor and he confirmed I had pneumonia and was surprised I was feeling better in such a short time.
Again, at a young age I had received a confirmation of spiritual things, this time of the priesthood power to heal—as I had been taught by the Lord’s servants. The spirit confirmed to me, in my mind and heart, that my health was the result of faith and the priesthood blessing by my father and bishop. This experience has also contributed to my conversion.
“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; …I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Remember Alma’s description of what faith that leads to conversion feels like: “It beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
This is how the gospel is written in our hearts and we become converted. We receive the word of the Lord from His prophets, past and present. It tastes more and more delicious, and our conversion is more and more certain and sure.
Pray for Pure Love
Prayer is a key part of conversion. We can pray to understand the scriptures, but our prayers shouldn’t be limited to that. In the Book of Mormon, Amulek tells us we should pray about everything.
He says, “Pour out your souls [to God] in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness” (Alma 34:26). Heavenly Father wants us to pray about our hopes and fears, friends and family, school and work, and the needs of those around us. Most of all, we should pray to be filled with the love of Christ. This love is given to those who ask for it with all of their heart (see Moroni 7:47–48).
Tasting this love is a major part of conversion because once we have felt the Savior’s love, our love for Him and Heavenly Father will grow and we’ll want to do what They ask. We should seek for the pure love of Christ through fasting and prayer.
Practice the Gospel
After Amulek talked about prayer, he spoke about another important element of conversion: serving others. Otherwise, he said, “your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing” (Alma 34:28).
In other words, to be converted, we must not only open our hearts to a knowledge of the gospel and the love of God, but we should practice the gospel law. We should look outward and care about others. We can be compassionate and friendly, we can share and help others in a hundred small ways. As we do so, the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a larger part of who we are and who we are becoming.
In New Testament times when people worshiped the Lord and sought His blessings, they often brought a gift. For example, when they went to the temple, they brought an animal sacrifice to place on the altar.
After His atonement and resurrection, the Savior said He would no longer accept burnt offerings of animals. The gift or sacrifice He now accepts is “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.”
As we kneel and gather at the alters of modern day temples, that’s the gift we offer the Lord—a broken, or repentant, heart and a contrite, or obedient, spirit. In reality, it is the gift of ourselves—what we are and what we are becoming.
A Gift to the Savior
As we develop and strengthen faith, and continually repent, we should ask ourselves: Is there something in my life that is impure or unworthy? When we get rid of it, that is a gift to the Savior.
Is there a good habit or quality that’s lacking? When we adopt it and make it a part of our character, we are giving a gift to the Lord.
Sometimes this is difficult, but would gifts of repentance and obedience be worthy gifts to the Savior if they cost us nothing or very little? We shouldn’t be afraid of the effort required to gain the blessings of conversion, and we don’t have to do it alone.
Jesus Christ will help us make our lives a worthy gift. His grace will make us clean, even holy, saintly (as in ‘Latter-day Saints’). His grace is sufficient for all who humble themselves before Him (Ether 12:27). Eventually, we will become like Him, and “perfect in Christ.”
With conversion, we wear a protective armor, “the whole armour of God,” and the words of Christ, which come by the Holy Spirit, will tell us all things we should do.
Our testimony of and conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ come from our desire, submissiveness to God, study, prayer, service, repentance, and obedience, coupled with weekly worship and activity in the Church.
When we become converted, the gospel won’t be a small influence in our life; it will be what we are. We should plead with Heavenly Father to write the gospel in our mind so we may have understanding, and in our heart so we grow to love to do His will. If we’re diligent and patient, we’ll receive these blessings, for God “is gracious and merciful, … and of great kindness.”
“Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (D&C 88:63).
Sometimes, in our path to conversion, we have to wait patiently upon the Lord.
[Story] After we had been married for about 10 years, my wife, Vickey, and I prayed daily and fasted often for a resolution to a family challenge. This went on for eight long months. Then finally, on a fast Sunday, nearly at the same time, we turned to each other to share the answer we had each received. The answers were identical. It was a revelation for our family. The timing was long-waited for. The message was clear. We had waited, perhaps not so patiently, but finally knew the direction we should go. And looking back, everything worked out just fine.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us to be patient, especially through experiences we consider to be challenging instead of fun or rewarding. But those challenges, and that opposition in life, is what helps us grow and develop, and become who and what we’re intended to be.
“And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (Abraham 3:25-26).
We can think about conversion this way: Our happiness, now and forever, is conditioned upon the degree of our conversion and the amount of transformation it brings into our life.
Sometimes the word converted is used to describe when a sincere individual decides to be baptized. However, like I mentioned before, conversion means far more than that, for the new convert as well as the long-term member. President Marion Romney explained conversion this way:
“Converted means to turn from one belief or course of action to another. Conversion is a spiritual and moral change. Converted implies not merely mental acceptance of Jesus and his teachings but also a motivating faith in Him and His gospel. A faith which works a transformation, an actual change in one’s understanding of life’s meaning and in his allegiance to God in interest, in thought, and in conduct. In one who is really wholly converted, desire for things contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ has actually died. And substituted therefore is a love of God, with a fixed and controlling determination to keep his commandments.”
To be converted, we must apply President Marion Romney’s philosophy: “a love of God, with a fixed and controlling determination to keep his commandments.”
When it comes to the gospel, how do we know when we’re converted? And is being converted enough to make us successful? Do we go through a period of concerted effort, buy our ticket and jump on the gospel train, then just sit back for the ride and coast along anticipating we’ll reach heaven as our final destination? We all know that’s not really how it works. Faith without works isn’t enough to help us reach our ultimate goal.
President Romney goes on to describe the steps of conversion:
“Membership in the Church and conversion are not necessarily synonymous. Being converted and having a testimony are not necessarily the same thing either. A testimony comes when the Holy Ghost gives the earnest seeker a witness of the truth. A moving testimony vitalizes faith. That is, it induces repentance and obedience to the commandments. Conversion is the fruit or the reward for repentance and obedience.”
True conversion is the fruit of faith, repentance, and consistent obedience. Faith comes by hearing the word of God, and then responding to it. We receive from the Holy Ghost a confirming witness of things we accept on faith by willingly doing them. We are led to repent of errors resulting from wrong things done or right things not done. As a consequence, our capacity to consistently obey is strengthened.
This cycle of faith, repentance, and consistent obedience leads to greater conversion with all of its attendant blessings. True conversion strengthens our capacity to do what we know we should do, when we should do it, regardless of the circumstances.
When Have You Arrived?
Again, let’s consider what we are becoming.
With so many events in life, we have a tendency to feel we have finally arrived: receiving a driver’s license, graduating from college, getting married, landing the perfect job, having kids who serve missions and get sealed in the temple, etc.
It’s easiest for us to apply a personal filter to life that corresponds to chapters in a book. With each new event a new chapter starts, then ends with the next significant milestone.
There are also conversion milestones in a gospel centered life: developing faith, repenting, getting baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, receiving the priesthood, and—through the power of the priesthood—being sealed in the temple for time and eternity, which provides eternal promises to men, women and families as they work to fulfill their obligations to God, to each other, and to their family.
As far as feeling like you’ve arrived, again, it’s more of a process than a one-time event. For example, in soccer, you don’t one day show up at the national team’s World Cup tryouts and get a position on the team without first spending a lifetime of working at, developing and honing soccer knowledge, skills and abilities. To be successful at anything requires a great deal of focused time, energy and effort. Some believe it takes the dedication of at least 10,000 hours to be successful.
I think it takes a great deal of passion, patience and persistence. It also helps to have some raw talent or a good aptitude.
In 3rd Nephi, the Savior said: “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).
Becoming converted is a process that encompasses a number of mini-conversions. Think of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the faith and persistence he had to go to the Sacred Grove to ask Heavenly Father which church he should join. Do you think he expected to receive the answer he received, and in the way he received it?
I suspect the overpowering dark feeling he experienced, then the vision of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were not at all what he was anticipating. But after that experience, Joseph knew a few things: He knew that God and Jesus Christ were real, that they cared about him personally, and about the entire human family, that they intended to restore the gospel in its fullness upon the earth and, if he chose to, that Joseph would play a key role in that restoration.
I can’t imagine how overcome he must have felt; how completely inadequate on one hand, and how excited on the other. I believe I was part of the heavenly host that witnessed this event and sang in celebration.
Joseph’s first vision experience was one more step in his path: a course of action that began as a young child, being raised by faithful Christian parents, learning to develop faith in his earthly and heavenly parents through experiences like his leg bone operation, and then all the documented experiences of the restoration, from the Book of Mormon to receiving priesthood keys, calling Twelve Apostles and restoring the blessings of the temple.
I don’t think any of us would or could doubt that Joseph Smith, the prophet of the restoration, was truly converted. He became all that our Heavenly Father wished, expected and intended for him to be. His final act on this earth was a final confirmation of his conversion as he gave up his life for the cause he dedicated his life to: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The experiences of the Prophet Joseph, and his reaction to circumstances, are proof of his complete conversion. He put off the natural man and became a saint through the atonement of Christ. He was submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, and willing to submit to all things, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
What are we becoming? Who do we admire, respect and look up to? There’s a good chance that our attention and focus, over time, will result in our being like those we most admire and respect.
The Lord has promised us that the prophet and president of the Church will never lead us astray. If there’s one human being we can put our focus and attention on, and ultimately find ourselves back in the loving arms of the Savior and our Father and Mother in Heaven, it is the prophet.
The Gospel Gives Us Wings
[Story] In 1993 I had the privilege of performing and traveling with the Young Ambassadors as part of the first BYU group to travel to Russia after the fall of the iron curtain. Our 90-minute musical theater performance was designed to help Russian audiences feel the spirit. It ended with several gospel-centered songs. We had the experience of staying with host families a couple times during our Russia leg of the trip and after one of those stays, the next morning on the bus, a member of the group read a hand-written note to us. It thanked us for our beautiful performance, told us her heart was very touched and said in simple English: “You give me wings!” I don’t know what happened with that Russian family, but I know that in May of 1993 they experienced the manifestation of the Spirit and the seed of faith, and perhaps conversion, was planted. The gospel of Jesus Christ does, indeed, give us wings.
From Maya Angelou
Perhaps some of you have heard of Maya Angelou who passed away just a couple months ago. She was an author, poet, professor, dancer, actress and singer. She had a rough childhood and because of some traumatic experiences wouldn’t speak to anyone except her brother for many years. Slowly, she learned to speak in public again by reading and studying poetry. But she was angry, and had lost her belief in God.
Here she recounts her conversion experience:
“One of my earliest memories of my grandmother, who was called “Mamma,” is a glimpse of a tall, cinnamon-colored woman with a deep, soft voice, standing thousands of feet up in the air with nothing visible beneath her.
“That incredible vision was the result of what my imagination would do each time Mamma drew herself up to her full six-feet, clasp her hands behind her back, look up into the distant sky and say, ‘I will step out on the word of God!’
“I could see her flung into space, moons at her feet, stars at her head, comets swirling around her. I grew up knowing that the word of God had power.
“In my 20s, in San Francisco, I became a sophisticate and an acting agnostic. One day my teacher, Frederick Wilkerson, asked me to read to him. I was 24; very erudite; very worldly. He asked that I read a section which ended with these words: “God loves me.” I read the piece. I closed the book. The teacher said, “Read it again, Maya.” “God loves me.” He said, “Again.” “God loves me.” “Again, Maya.” “God loves me.” “Again, Maya.”
“After about the seventh repetition, I began to sense there might be truth in the statement, and there was a possibility that God really did love me…me…Maya Angelou.
“I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me then I could do wonderful things. I could try great things. That knowledge humbles me. Melts my bones. Makes my teeth rock. And it liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I am a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.”
You can locate these talks by searching on lds.org.
When Thou Art Converted, D. Todd Christofferson (April 2004)
Full Conversion Brings Happiness, Richard G. Scott (April 2002)
Conversion and Commitment, Elder Lawrence (May 1996)