RS/MP Lesson 2: “Our Heavenly Family” (Part 1)
Posted by Robert C. on January 9, 2010
(This is the first of 3 parts for Lesson #2 from the Gospel Principles manual on “Our Heavenly Family.” These notes are primarily aimed at supplementing study for MP/RS lessons. You can find Part 2 here.)
Preliminaries. I am a young father—not that I am particularly young (got married relatively late), but my oldest child is only 4 years old. The newness of the tremendous responsibility of being a father has not warn off. I am intimidated by the responsibility, and pray that my efforts and desires will not be in vain. More than anything else right now, this desire to be a good father motivates everything I do, from my efforts at work to provide for my family, to my dedication to Church activity, to my efforts at this blog and elsewhere to understand this world that I have brought my kids (3 now!) into.
For these reasons, the metaphor of a family is particularly powerful to me at this stage of my life. Thinking about God as my Heavenly Father, having the same kinds of concerns, desires, worries, hopes, pleadings, etc. that I have with my kids, is poignant.
Now, on to the lesson material itself. I follow several scripturally-based tangents below, but I really only focus on reading three key scriptural passages, one for each section of the lesson. I choose the scriptures and tangents in order to lead up to a culminating point at the end of the lesson in Part 3.
Also, I recommend using these notes only as background study to help teachers come up with their own lesson plan, hopefully to help facilitate the free flow and promptings of the Spirit for each particular class. (Besides, I probably have more than enough material here for, say, a 90+ minute lesson!)
PART 1. We Are Children of Our Heavenly Father
Question (straight from the manual): What do scriptures and latter-day prophets teach us about our relationship to God?
Key scripture: Hebrews 12:5-11. I think the best scripture cited in the lesson on this topic (see the “Additional Scriptures” section in the manual) is Hebrews 12:9. However, I think it is worth studying this verse in its larger context, starting with verses 5-6:
And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
Question: What does “chastening” and “scourgeth” mean here?
I find the word “scourgeth” here quite striking. The Greek term here is mastigoo which is the same word used to describe the “flogging” (NRSV, NET, etc.) of Christ in John 19:1 (the NET note for this verse has a rather graphic description of the Roman practice of mastigoo). This serves as a reminder to me that the scriptures were written in a different time and place, when corporal punishment of children was probably the norm. I’ve struggled with this issue myself, as our first child is particularly stubborn. Spanking is a hot-button topic, so I don’t really recommend bringing this topic up in class, but thinking about my own struggles regarding this question of knowing the appropriate ways, degrees and manner to punish a child has important implications for how I think about our Heavenly Father’s similar predicament with us. (Note: the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child” is Biblical, Prov 23:13 being one of the starker formulations. I think we misinterpret the spirit of this verse if, say, we simply use it as a justification for spanking, or something, but this point is already too tangential.)
Moving on to verses 7-8:
If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
Question: Why does the word “if” show up in these verses?
Actually, the “if” in verse 7 does not show up in modern translations (“endure” is translated as a present imperative—see here). But the conditional in verse 8 cannot be so easily dismissed (see alternate modern translations here). Note also how strong the language is here, esp. in the KJV! (If “illegitimate sons” is a common translation if you do not feel comfortable using the term “bastards” in class.)
Elder Nelson on conditional love. I think this verse raises a very important theological point: typically, we think of our Heavenly Father as our father, who is loves us and is related to us as our father unconditionally. However, this scripture suggests something different. Elder Nelson taught something similar in a 2003 Ensign article titled “Divine Love.” Elder Nelson claims (controversially—this article was heatedly discussed at the time, in the Bloggernacle and elsewhere!):
While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.
Elder Nelson goes on to cite several scriptural examples of conditional love, not unlike this passage in Hebrews that we are reading.
Nephi and covenantal love. Lest Elder Nelson’s point be taken to an extreme position, beyond what I believe he intended, it might be useful to review Nephi’s teaching on the matter in 1 Nephi 17:34-38. Nephi asks the question in verse 34,
Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous?
Question: What do you think Nephi answered?
The answer is “nay” (v. 35), which is perhaps surprising in light of Elder Nelson’s teaching on the matter. But Nephi goes on to explain himself, and he actually uses the term “love” in a conditional way—similar to Elder Nelson—in verse 40:
And he loveth those who will have him to be their God.
I understand this use of the term “love” to be covenantal. A great article explaining this use of the term (along with the term “hate” as it is used in Helaman 15:4, “the Lamanites hath he [God] hated because their deeds have been evil continually”) is David Bokovoy’s article “Love vs. Hate” (Insights v 22 n 2).
Back to Hebrews. Let’s now finish the Hebrews 12:5-11 passage by looking at verses 9-11:
Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.
I think this is a gloriously inspiring passage pertaining to adversity and patience.
In the next part of the lesson we will continue by seeing how the conditional aspect of God’s love for us, as covenantal children, can be seen in the (so-called) pre-mortal plan.