Monday, July 30, 2012

On covenant making

Early in my patriarchal blessing, mention is made of the many covenants I had made prior to my blessing. When I received this blessing at age 18 (as a BYU freshman), I was taken aback by the words as I heard them the first time.

My instant thought (which caused me to stop listening for a moment) was, “I have?”

Over the years I’ve had the chance to study my blessing repeatedly. And I have pondered on that particular sentence. As I have considered it, I realized that the Lord (through the patriarch) must have had a broader definition of covenants than I did.

We teach our children that a covenant is an agreement we make with God, and that it is often accompanied by an ordinance. For instance, when we are baptized, we make promises associated with obedience, taking the Lord’s name upon us, caring for one another, and so on. But in a broader context, we may make many covenants with the Lord.

I remember my brother mentioned to me several years ago something he learned in LDS leader training at the Philmont scout ranch. He was taught (by whom I can no longer remember) that one of the values of the scouting program in the lives of young men is that it can teach them about covenant making and keeping, as they work through requirements for a particular rank or merit badge. They agree to do something and then must follow through with the doing. We can learn a similar pattern in our temple worship where covenant making precedes learning new knowledge.

I wrote recently about the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s and their covenant to bury the weapons of their rebellion. Actually their covenant was to repent of their murderous ways, and the token of that covenant was the burying of the weapons. By burying the weapons, they placed a fence between themselves and the covenant they desired to keep.

Someone learning about the church may covenant to keep the Word of Wisdom before he is actually baptized. A young person (or an older person!) may make a personal covenant with the Lord to avoid certain kinds of movies or websites. A person may make a covenant with the Lord to study the Book of Mormon in hopes of gaining a testimony of that scripture and the truth it contains. We may make covenants as we strive to overcome the natural man, as we study the scriptures and the spirit whispers ways in which we can draw nearer to God, as we listen to prophetic counsel in General Conference and redirect our lives.

I remember as bishop when a member of my ward came to me. It was clear he had something on his mind, and I was a little nervous, since he was acting as if he were about to confess serious sin. He did want to confess and to commit to do better. But his “sin” was not grave; it did not threaten his membership status in any way. But he felt a conversation with his bishop would help him to make a real commitment to change. He did not make a covenant with me, his bishop, but he did tell me of his commitment to the Lord to behave differently.

One of my commenters on my post about the Anti-Nephi-Lehis pointed out that many members make individual covenants that others may never know anything about, and I believe this is true. I believe that when we honor our baptismal covenant by mourning with those that mourn, sharing one another’s burdens and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, we can help one another to honor covenants each has made, even personal covenants along a personal path to our Father in Heaven.


  1. Interesting thoughts. Thank you. Your last paragraph reminds me of the Sally DeFord song, "Make Us One":

    "Make us one, that our burdens may be light/Make us one as we seek eternal life/Unite our hands to serve thy children well/
    Unite us in obedience to thy will./
    Make us one/Teach us, Lord, to be of one faith, of one heart/One in thee."

    One of my sons was just ordained a deacon, so I've been thinking a lot about the priesthood. Do you think the patriarch could also have been referring to the oath and covenant of the priesthood? If you were eighteen and at BYU, he would probably assume that you were an elder and had been ordained as a deacon, teacher, and priest.

    The "Guide to the Scriptures" (whatever that is) on the church website says, "The Aaronic Priesthood is received by covenant alone." ("Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood.")

  2. Amy, thanks for your comment! And I'm sure he was thinking about the oath and covenant of the priesthood (though I was not yet an elder). But I was startled at the word "many."

    Since then, I've also considered that I'd taken sacrament nearly 50 times a year for ten years -- those were covenants renewed, at least.

    But I know in my case, the Lord and His patriarch also knew that I had made private covenants with the Lord along the way. It was one of several ways I believe the Lord made my blessing identifiable to me.

  3. I wonder somewhat about our ability to make covenants with the Lord that fall outside what we would consider the "enumerated" list, such as baptism, priesthood, in the temple and so forth. Meaning, normally a covenant is a two way street. We promise to obey a particular law or commandment and the Lord promises something in return. If I say " I will never watch an R rated movie again," what does the Lord promise in return? If I heard a still small voice whisper something to my heart, or a big booming voice proclaiming a great promise, then I would understand that I had bound myself, and the Lord had bound himself, to a covenant. But I've never had that happen. I guess what I'm getting at is: Do we recognize as covenants promises made to God that are not expressly recognized by the church? I thought the purpose of the church was to officiate and recognize, in an orderly and official capacity, all covenants and ordinances?

  4. Out of Chapter 15 Gospel Principles Manual - "Within the gospel, a covenant means a sacred agreement or mutual promise between God and a person or group of people. In making a covenant, God promises a blessing for obedience to particular commandments. He sets the terms of His covenants and He reveals these terms to his prophets...." I think we can promise the Lord many things, make commitments to abstain from certain behaviors, and so forth, but I think making a covenant is something pretty "official" and, as the manual states, is something revealed to God's prophets.

  5. It's an interesting dilemma, Anonymous, and I appreciate your sharing the quotation from the Gospel Principles manual.

    I don't know how to explain the convenant made by the Anti-Nephi-Lehis in that context, though. It certainly was a covenant connected with their repentance (and I think most of mine are, too). The Doctrine & Covenants (and King Benjamin, too) promise blessings for obedience to laws of God, though I suppose one could argue that baptism is an all-encompassing ordinances that covers all such promises.

    I have no doubt that the ordinances we receive do signify covenants, and there's plenty of scriptural evidence of that, as well as your quotation.

    That said, the "two-way-street" of covenants is interesting. In the case of the oath and covenant of the priesthood, for instance, it seems the Lord makes an oath, and the recipient of the blessings makes the covenant. Using that as an example, it seems a person can make other covenants with the Lord that may not be specifically linked to ordinances.

  6. Last bit on covenants. When you have a minute, read the newest Church Handbook 2, Section 2.1.3. I think we can make promises, but in church vernacular, "covenant" is a pretty unique thing. It seems that we believe every ordinance necessary for salvation is accompanied by a covenant. Still not sure if there are "covenants" above and beyond those enumerated by church authorities. Nonetheless, I believe Heavenly Father respects committments in the same vein He respects covenants. I guess in the most broadest of senses, we we commit to live some specific principle or commandment, we're living the law of the gospel which is a covenant. Interesting thoughts!

  7. Anonymous, I appreciate your comment. The key paragraph from the CHI is this one, I think:

    "All the ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are accompanied by covenants with God. A covenant is a sacred and enduring promise between God and His children. God gives the conditions for the covenant, and His children agree to comply with those conditions. God promises blessings that are conditional on the person faithfully fulfilling the covenant."

    What that tells me is that all ordinances necessary for salvation are accompanied by covenants. But it does not necessarily preclude covenants outside those associated with saving ordinances.

    The Anti-Lehi-Nephis clearly made a covenant outside the saving ordinances when they buried their weapons of war.

    Similarly, the Nephites made covenants to protect their land when Captain Moroni presented his Title of Liberty (see Alma 46:20-21: "Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them.

    21 And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.")

    Given that, as my patriarch said to me in the spirit of revelation, it is possible for us to make many covenants (else how could he say that I had made many covenants with the Lord?). Those certainly include the ordinance-connected covenants, but also personalized individual covenants that we may make ourselves, without expectation that others will make the same ones, and certainly not in conflict with the ordinance-based covenants that the Lord requires.