Relief Society Lesson #38- Eternal Marriage
I am going to start with the note to the teacher, and flip around different parts of the lesson material in hopes of creating an easy-to-follow lesson:
For teachers: All members, whether married or single, need to understand the doctrine of eternal marriage. However, you should be sensitive to the feelings of adults who are not married. As needed, help class members or family members know that all Heavenly Father’s children who are faithful to their covenants in this life will have the opportunity to receive all the blessings of the gospel in the eternities, including the opportunity to have an eternal family.
Even in light of the above direction to be sensitive, this is a difficult topic to teach because of the variations in marital status: i.e. temple marriage, marriage, single, widowed, divorced, engaged. To top it off, the topic has been taught since we were in Young Women, which makes it a challenge to engage the interest of everyone. Lastly, I am intensely private about my own marriage. So I suggest considering Elder David A. Bednar’s 2009 conference talk, and to be mindful to not create an environment where people feel their marriages are on display. In light of all this, I am going to give it my best shot in an attempt to incorporate everyone in this lesson plan, in hope of allowing for practical and individual application of the principle of Eternal Marriage, regardless of marital status and for the sake of general discussion and interest.
For a short time when I was first at college, I worked at a Doctor’s office. The work was simple; after a patient had visited, I made calls to the patient’s insurance company to get approval for follow-up treatment. I often noted the marital or dependency status of the patients because insurance was often carried by the spouse or parent of the patient. On the occasion that surgery was required, I confirmed the patient’s next of kin/emergency contact as a matter of routine. In doing this, I was amazed to find married female patients who still noted their mother as emergency contact, rather than their husband. The husband was on the “person who will drop off and pick up after surgery” section, but they were not listed as the person to contact in case someone needed to make medical decisions on behalf of the patient if the patient was unable to make decisions of their own accord.
As a young single adult, this surprised me. Wasn’t I supposed to get married and have my husband as next of kin? There are dozens of reasons why these women may have chosen someone other than their husbands. But it was at that moment that I knew I wanted more for my future marriage. I not only wanted to be married in the temple, I wanted companionship in this life and the next. I wanted my future husband to be my in-case-of emergency contact. I could not imagine anything less.
But… this also made me realize that as a YSA living several states away from my mother, I didn’t really have a next-of-kin in my life. Well, no one within driving distance anyway. So… if I were to become ill or needed surgery, who would I list? My roommate? My YSA ward bishop? I settled on a former roommate who had married, was an excellent friend and lived in the same state. This beloved friend remained my “in case of emergency” until I married at the age of 30. Not only that, she proved to be an excellent companion as I negotiated dating, school, and life in general. I learned some precious words of wisdom in regard to her marriage. I could rely on her and trust her, and was blessed with the opportunity to be on the “emergency contact if we can’t find the parents” list for her children when they started school. Her friendship helped to prepare me for marriage.
In a talk by Marin K Jensen, he notes that the basis of eternal marriage is friendship. Eternal friendship. So- regardless of your marital status, I would present this lesson in terms of eternal friendship with whomever you list as your “in-case-of-emergency”. For some, it will be husbands. For others, it will be a parent, or sibling or friend. But this person is significant enough in your life that you list them as next of kin. If we apply the same principles of obtaining and building an eternal marriage with the people in our lives who we rely upon, then the concept of eternal marriage becomes IMMEDIATLY applicable to everyone. My goal in this is twofold; first so that this lesson can be immediately applied by everyone in the class regardless of marital status, and second so that those who were married in the temple can increase their bond with a sharpened eternal view.
The first time I recall being taught about Eternal Marriage was a special occasion, because as I was in a university ward and only the (in my mind at the time) old men in the bishopric were married. Hence, an older woman from another ward came and addressed us for the lesson. I don’t remember who she was or anything about the lesson other than the fact that she was married. I have no idea if she had children, was happy or otherwise, but her placement did have an effect on me because for a long time, I equalled getting married in the temple with an eternal marriage. In my naive mind, I only conceptualized that a temple wedding meant that you instantly had an eternal marriage. It took me some time to understand what was really being taught in Doctrine and Covenants 132: 19 (the Gospel Principles manual has shorted the scripture to this): The Lord promised, “If a man marry a wife by … the new and everlasting covenant … by him who is anointed, … and if [they] abide in [the Lord’s] covenant, … it … shall be of full force when they are out of the world”.
Think about this: if they abide in the Lord’s covenant. I later had an Institute teacher dissect this and clarify that even if we marry in the temple, it does not guarantee that we have an eternal marriage. Eternal marriage is an ongoing commitment, not only to your spouse, but to God. It takes action, dedication and a focus on development and improvement. It is not a “done deal” just because the ordinance was performed; it is an ongoing application of unity and dedication to each other in an effort to obtain eternal and ongoing enlightenment.
Many people in the world consider marriage to be only a social custom, a legal agreement between a man and a woman to live together. But to Latter-day Saints, marriage is much more. Our exaltation depends on marriage, along with other principles and ordinances, such as faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. We believe that marriage is the most sacred relationship that can exist between a man and a woman. This sacred relationship affects our happiness now and in the eternities.
This sacred relationship affects our happiness now and in the eternities. Think again of the person you have as your next-of-kin. This person has the authority to direct and influence medical personnel in regard to medical choices on your behalf. Imagine you have been in an accident and are unconscious for a period. Will they ensure you have a healing blessing knowing you would want one? Will they know to look after your dependent child in a manner that you want? Will they make the best choices on your behalf in regard to medication and treatment for your recovery? Will this friend know your desire in regard to contacting your employers or creditors? This is why the principle of Eternal Marriage is so important. When we develop friendships (with marriage as the most powerful mortal friendship obtainable) wherein we can trust each other to be of the same mind spiritually, temporally and morally, then we create an eternal bond that we are promised will bring us happiness now and in the eternities. If you are married, it is desirable that your husband is the person that you trust with all of these decisions. But if this is not the case, you have an important opportunity to communicate and grow together to build your marriage where you share an eternal view. As Joseph Smith said, “Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.”
What are the blessings of an eternal marriage in this life and in eternity?
I like this question because it includes “this life”. Keeping an eye on eternity can be very important stressful periods within a relationship because you have a common end result. The manual offers some ideas in regard to blessings in this life, and while I would read these out loud as suggestions, I would encourage sisters to privately consider at what blessings they have found within their marriages.
We can receive blessings in this life as a result of being married for eternity. Some of those blessings are as follows:
1. We know that our marriage can last forever. Death can part us from one another only temporarily. Nothing can part us forever except our own disobedience. This knowledge helps us work harder to have a happy, successful marriage.
2. We know that our family relationships can continue throughout eternity. This knowledge helps us be careful in teaching and training our children. It also helps us show them greater patience and love. As a result, we should have a happier home.
3. Because we have been married in God’s ordained way, we are entitled to an outpouring of the Spirit on our marriage as we remain worthy.
Some of the blessings we can enjoy for eternity are as follows:
1. We can live in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom of God.
2. We can be exalted as God is and receive a fulness of joy.
It is inevitable at this point that people point out that we can have eternal families and increase when we obtain the highest degree of the Celestial kingdom. While this is beautiful, it also can be painfully received by those who do not have children, those who are exhausted with raising children and those who cannot have children. Equally problematic is the assignment of family in the next life- the exhausted mother and the worthy but barren sister may be pained at this concept. So I would nod to those who feel compelled to mention it, but otherwise stay focused on eternal marriage. Brigham Young taught that celestial marriage “lays the foundation for … intelligent beings to be crowned with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. In fact, it is the thread which runs from the beginning to the end of the holy Gospel of Salvation” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 163).
This concept of marriage as a beginning of an eternal, romantic relationship is vital. Romance isn’t always defined in roses and chocolates. A heavily pregnant friend once told me that watching her husband do the dishes was the most romantic thing she thought he had ever done for her at that moment. Being in a partnership where we balance, serve and communicate together lays a foundation that we pass on to our children, and to those around us. It also brings peace into our homes, and allows for us to feel and recognise the spirit.
How can an eternal perspective influence the way we feel about marriage and families?
This question from the manual is great because it is inclusive of everyone as a daughter, sister, mother or wife, because its’ focus is families. I would open this question up clarifying that it is directed to all women as daughters, sisters, mothers and wives, remind us that everyone we know has the opportunity to be crowned in glory, i.e. What do you enjoy as a daughter that makes you crave an eternal relationship? (same for sister, wife, mother, grandmother- try to get a variety of answers to include everyone in consideration of eternal perspective.)
This leads nicely in the next section, which is aimed at youth, but I would open it up to everyone – because even those of us who have been sealed to our husbands need to continue to work and prepare to spend eternity with them.
What can we do to help youth prepare for eternal marriage?
President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “Marriage is perhaps the most vital of all the decisions and has the most far-reaching effects, for it has to do not only with immediate happiness, but also with eternal joys. It affects not only the two people involved, but also their families and particularly their children and their children’s children down through the many generations. In selecting a companion for life and for eternity, certainly the most careful planning and thinking and praying and fasting should be done to be sure that of all the decisions, this one must not be wrong” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball , 193).
The last section is heavily focused on being prepared for the temple and includes a sample list of temple recommend questions. While this is valuable information, I would only include it if there were a large number of unendowed sisters or if you felt inspired to particularly share and discuss the temple recommend interview questions. Otherwise, I would address this, which is incidentally the first paragraph of the lesson as laid out in the manual:
Marriage between a man and a woman is a vital part of God’s plan. The Lord has said, “Whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man” (D&C 49:15). Since the beginning, marriage has been a law of the gospel. Marriages are intended to last forever, not just for our mortal lives.
Adam and Eve were married by God before there was any death in the world. They had an eternal marriage. They taught the law of eternal marriage to their children and their children’s children. As the years passed, wickedness entered the hearts of the people and the authority to perform this sacred ordinance was taken from the earth. Through the Restoration of the gospel, eternal marriage has been restored to earth.
I think of this and see such contrasts- the beauty of marriage from the dawn of man, and the ugliness of wickedness that turns hearts away from benevolence, eternal commitment, Christ-centred marriage and love. That reminds me of a story that my beloved friend, “FP” shared with me of her childhood, prior to her teenage conversion (I am using it with her permission):
When I was a child living in Somosomo village (Fiji) with my cousin Waqa and my Grandad, we had no refrigeration of any sort in our home. When my grandad had some money, he would buy bread. For us it was like Christmas! He could not buy much but usually half a loaf or very rarely a whole loaf of bread. We had no way of storing it, we didn’t even have a box to put it in. Even now I see myself as a child sitting on the floor and wrapping the bread on a tablecloth that we put on the floor and sat around, because our table was the floor! After we ate some bread for breakfast, we would gather up the dishes to be washed and the cloth to be shaken outside. The bread would be neatly wrapped in the tablecloth and placed in a pandanus basket, which was tied to the end of a rope and strung up to the beam in the centre of the ceiling. The bread was safe and away from ants that would get into it had it been stored on the floor. On some days my cousin and I had not been quick enough to put the bread away. Instead of clearing up dishes and putting the bread away, we did other things like go swimming or play with other children. Eventually we would wrap the bread and pull it in the basket to the ceiling.
The next morning, Grandad would tell us to get the bread down. We would loosen the string and watch the pandanus basket come down from the ceiling with anticipation. The tablecloth is opened and laid out on the floor, hot water is poured for a tea, and then one of us prayed to bless the food. With a knife, Grandad would cut the bread. As he cut the bread, ants started crawling from the bread! I was horrified to see that my rare treat bread was covered in ants! They crawled up my fingers to my arms and from my toes to my legs. It was raining ants! And because there were so many of them, I could not even drink my tea because I was so busy and determined to kill every ant. But it seemed the more I tried to kill them the more they came. I hit my piece of bread on the ground in front of me to get the ants out of the bread. I thought that if I hit it enough and picked at it enough that they would all run out and I would have an ant-free slice of bread.
For me, the whole breakfast session was just trying to get the ants out and away from the piece of bread that I could eat, including times when I stood up and ran around to try to get the ants off of my body. But my cousin and Grandad would just eat and enjoy their bread. But their bread had ants too! I could not see how they could do it. I was sure they would die from it. My Grandad would always tell me, “Take your piece of bread and dip it in your tea!” And I would say, “But it’s still ants! It’s going to kill me!” And Grandad would say, “No, no—just dip it in your tea. The hot water of the tea will kill the ants but it will be alright for you. It’s good for you. Ants have special medicine. Trust me! See!” He would dip his bread in tea and eat it and say, “See? I am still alive.”
Then my Grandad taught me that I could spend the whole day picking at the bread and doing all sorts of things to get the ants out. But as you pick at the bread, every ant you get out, you get a piece of the bread out too. So by the end of the day, you are going to have no bread at all. You will still be hungry as there is no bread to eat, and you will be late for school. Grandad would say this to every morning when we had ant-laden bread for breakfast. I eventually learned that the ants would not hurt me, so I was able to dip my piece of bread in the tea and finally have breakfast.
Decades later, after I joined the church, married and moved to Australia, I had an epiphany about that experience. Grandad taught me that the ants are good for you. And I thought that in our lives, we will and must have ants. None of us is perfect. For example, if I were to focus on the imperfections (“ants”), that I see in my husband, then my time is wasted and the bread and joy of our marriage is ruined. The fact is that these ants are the stuff of life. They have special medicine that teaches us charity, patience, acceptance and love. If my role as a wife and daughter of God were spent constantly picking out the imperfections I think my husband has, then my life here on earth has been wasted and I have learned nothing. The same could be said of doing that to myself. There have been times when I become very insecure and upset because I think that that I am not pretty or rich or become unhappy with who I am. The more that I focus on my own ant-imperfections the less I like myself. My self-esteem falls and any eternal perspective is blurred and disappears.
Christ said to take everything that we feel bad about and give it to Him. He immerses it in His atonement and it cleanses us and everything around us. It becomes medicine for us and heals us. For me the tea that Grandad taught me to dip my bread in symbolises one of the powers of the Atonement. Whenever I see ant-like imperfections in my husband, others or myself all I have to do is take it to the Saviour, and He cleanses me, then I can move forward and be filled with the bread of life, because I am spiritually fed. When I choose to not pick at every little thing about someone else or even about myself, I don’t miss out on opportunities to learn and grow. My Grandad said that I was picking on so many ants that could miss out on school. We miss out on our lives, our marriages and our friendships when we become so busy picking that we destroy the treat of marriage and mortal life. It is Heavenly Father’s plan that we all have ants in our lives, but in cleansing our lives with the atonement, we become closer to the person that God would have us be. I did not choose to have ants in my bread but I can choose on how to deal with it. And when I apply the atonement in my life and in my marriage, I become a stronger person. (see Ether 12:27)
No marriage is easy or perfect, just as none of us are perfect- we all have ants! But we are equal partners and therefore, must both be engaged in perfecting our marriage. In being focused on applying the atonement in our lives, in our marriages and in our families, we progress, become stronger and can have stronger friendships and marriages.
We must seek earnestly to obey every covenant that we make in the temple. The Lord has said that if we are true and faithful, we will enter into our exaltation. We will become like our Heavenly Father. (See D&C 132:19–20.) Temple marriage is worth any sacrifice. It is a way of obtaining eternal blessings beyond measure.
I like the above last quote in the manual, and whilst it is focused on Eternal marriage, I would suggest that eternal friendships are also vitally important. We need the support and love of friends who encourage us to attending the temple, and to help us to draw closer to Christ. Righteous friends beget and share righteous blessings. In developing temple friendships and a relationship with Christ, we are better prepared for marriage.
How can we teach Eternal Marriage and be inclusive of those who are single, divorced or in an unhappy marriage? How can we maintain and protect our own marriage?