The following is the continued excerpt from my upcoming book, The Hero Doctrine. In this chapter we trace the arc of our souls along the same path (albeit a cosmic version) as the hero Luke Skywalker.
The Road of Trials
The mentor is especially important given the next stage of the Arc. After we open our eyes to the reality of the world, we face tests, trials, challenges, and temptations. With our new perspective, we are now susceptible to so much, and as a result we’re going to have to confront danger—spiritual and temporal—just about everywhere. The mentor helps us understand the purpose of this stage—to be shaped and carved by the winds of adversity—and gives us the perspective needed to complete it successfully. In meeting these trials head on, we begin the transformational process of this life.
Luke faced many a peril in his quest to save the princess. Threatened by death at every turn, Luke learned the dangers of the world firsthand, but also how to react to them. And from the adversity provided by the stormtroopers and Darth Vader, and the guidance given by Obi-Wan in learning the Force, he eventually learned to fight on his own, even to become a leader of other heroic warriors.
But though he mastered the physical side of the training quickly enough, the real trials to come were mental, even spiritual. Against the warnings of his second mentor, Yoda, Luke succumbed to Darth Vader’s manipulation of his emotions, leading him into a dangerous trap that could have easily ended up toppling the Rebellion’s forces. But however much his mistake set the Alliance back, this experience, too, became a lesson for him, and he learned from it.
But he had yet to face his greatest challenge: confronting Darth Vader, who he came to learn was his morally fallen father, and finally the Emperor himself. This was not a test of skill with the lightsaber, but a spiritual battle, a trial of temptations. The evil Emperor, in his satanic role, sought to corrupt Luke’s soul and bring him over to the Dark Side. After feeling the press of evil within him, Luke fought hard and won out, remembering the hero his father once was, and wanting to be just as good. In making that choice, Luke took the final step in his journey and became a full-fledged hero.
The hero-in-training must always face temptations, a more realistic confrontation with evil than a mere test of swordplay. Like Luke, if in the midst of our temptations we remember our Father and our potential to become like Him, the strength of those temptations will lose their sting. Elder Neal A. Maxwell asked rhetorically, “Will we… remember our true identity as we move through daily life? How much sin occurs because people momentarily forget who they really are?”
Many of the temptations we receive are directly related to our physical bodies. Getting a body grants us capabilities we would not have as spirits, furthering our potential to be like our Father in heaven. But at the same time, the natural man, the inherent impulses in our bodies, can make it a struggle to retain control over those new aspects of ourselves, the pleasures of the flesh and other earthly appetites that we don’t immediately have a great deal of command over. When we let them, our bodies may sometimes take control and make decisions in place of our mind, our spirit. This can lead down a dangerous road, especially with Lucifer’s temptations enhancing our already pleasure-prone inclinations.
But what joy bodies can bring us, too! When we bridle our passions and use them in a controlled manner, they can lead to so many wonderful things. Having a body is an essential advancement towards becoming like God, for we know from the First Vision and other modern-day revelation that God Himself is as tangible as we are, possessing a body of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22), and that only with the body and spirit combined can we attain “a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33). We were created directly in His own likeness, in His image, and in the image of His Only Begotten. In other words, at maturity we look generally like what He looks like: a fully-grown, adult human being, with even more potential as stewards over our bodies with the commandment to take care of what we’ve been given.
We hear continuously from the pulpit about many other godly attributes that we can apply to our everyday lives, those aspects of Christ that He exemplified in His earthly mission—and the reason we hear them constantly is because we really need to practice them, and do so in actively, not passively. Instead of going about our day simply to get through with it, we need to actually make a daily concentrated effort to foster those traits in ourselves, in how we act and in how we think. Traits like faith, hope, charity, virtue, knowledge, humility, diligence, obedience, and patience all demand devotion and dedication as surely as trees need water and light. And fortunately in this life we are continuously given opportunities to practice them and in so doing let them grow up into a tree of life, whose fruit is sweeter to the taste than any other work in this world (see Alma 32).
Learning to recognize these teachable moments is paramount to our becoming like Christ. It is what makes our ordinary, mundane lives, training grounds for higher living. Brigham Young said that “the gospel…causes men and women to reveal that which would have slept in their dispositions until they dropped into their graves. The plan by which the Lord leads this people…brings out every trait of disposition lurking in their [beings]…Every fault that a person has will be made manifest, that it may be corrected.”
Take the attribute of patience, for example. It can be applied throughout our day with other people and even inanimate objects. You’re at a stoplight. You’re in a hurry to get somewhere and waiting for the light to change. It’s not turning green and your blood pressure is rising. Stress is increasing. You become irritable and more liable to curse at that filthy, dumb, stupid bleepity bleep bleep red light. Why won’t it change? It isn’t helping anyone, and it’s actually preventing people who really need to go somewhere from getting there. It’s really an inconsiderate thing. It has no regard for those in a hurry. Okay, fine, there it goes. Finally. Now you can go. Now you can move forward. However, now you’re in a horrible mood, liable to be angry to others, and grumpily aware that you could have done better. Whereas if you showed some patience, and accepted that there are some things you cannot change, you could have felt peace and calm. Exercising patience in these kinds of situations trains you for dealing with other potentially frustrating events. God Himself has to exercise such patience every day with His children. Think of the patience He’s had to develop!
Now think of the consequences Luke brings about by not heeding Yoda at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Instead of calming himself and exercising patience, Luke acts rashly and falls right into Darth Vader’s trap. This sets the Rebel Alliance back significantly and necessitates some improvisation to try to recover what was lost, wasting time they could have spent fighting the Empire. Similarly, when we act without patience, we are more likely to fall into Satan’s traps and lose spiritual ground, needlessly wasting limited time on reparative repentance.
That is just one example. We have endless opportunities in our normal lives to exercise all other traits of godhood, to cultivate godliness in ourselves. In their masterful theodicy The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens write, “The particular potency of the challenges we face—our bodily weakness, the instincts and passions that consume us, the press of evil all around us—make a life of virtuous aspiration very like a race through quicksand. However, it is just these conditions of mortality…that are especially conducive to growth and progress.” All the same lectures and sermons we hear from the pulpit, repeating the same prescription of prayer and scripture reading and everything else leaders talk about—all of that is preached for a reason! It is a reminder that it is the ordinary things that will make us extraordinary. It is love and long-suffering for our fellow man—and all that emanates therefrom—that will make us closer to God. And each and every Christlike attribute we are asked to take on is something we can practice every day on our own metaphysical moisture farms as we endure to the end with patience and long-suffering.
Death and Rebirth – Transformation
But the point of developing these attributes isn’t simply to get us to that end of the exam—this journey is all about what we transform into along the way. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said, “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
And what does Heavenly Father want us to become? Christ asked the Nephites this very question, and answered it not only for that ancient people, but for all: “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). Even as Christ. And so we see the importance of these transformative attributes, for when cultivated within one’s soul and when granted an added measure of them from the Savior Himself through the Atonement, they are the very things which turn us gradually into those beings that are like Christ. Through sincere repentance, supplication for grace, and a willingness to change, our souls are reshaped, reformed, and we gradually take on the Savior’s countenance. That, my friends, is the purpose of the exam!
Our paradigm shift from pre-earth life to this world calls to mind the Campbellian notion of “The Belly of the Whale,” an image representative of a womb-like state in which the hero undergoes a kind of death and rebirthing process. It is here that the hero takes on a new, fresh identity with a greater understanding of his potential, and then through the aforementioned trials and temptations that he achieves it.
Luke didn’t pass through his adventures just to see them done; he went about doing good—rescuing Leia, blowing up the Death Star, fighting off the evil Empire—for a reason. And while his works were good, even great, in defeating his enemies and bringing the galaxy closer to freedom, Luke himself became himself something great, someone who fulfilled his potential. He became like his father, Anakin: a hero, a legend, and an inspiration to so many. He even saved his father’s soul, wrenching it from the Emperor’s grasp and returning it to the side of good. From farm boy to hero and even to savior: that is the transformation process of the Hero’s Cycle, and is the essence of the Hero Doctrine.
As we strive toward Christlike behavior, we cast off the natural man and integrate the roots of our divine heritage into our whole soul. We begin to be concerned for the welfare of others, both spiritually and temporally. We begin to see the world and God and our neighbor with a spiritual lens, with an eternal perspective. And we begin to feel love and become a source of love in a way that is not possible without Christ’s influence.
But that is not the end. Being Christlike is only the first half of our transformation. The second half is becoming like Heavenly Father.