Elder Tad R. Callister: Are we just changing our behavior when we should be changing our nature?

As this new year begins we might ask, “Are we changing our behavior or our nature?”

As a mission president, I met several times with a missionary who was struggling with obedience. One day in frustration he blurted out: “What is it you want me to do?”

I replied: “You have missed the point. It is not what I want you to do that matters; it should be what do you want to do.”

There was a moment of silence and then he made this insightful observation: “You are not just asking me to change my behavior; you are asking me to change my nature.” How right he was. 

Elder Tad R. Callister
Elder Tad R. Callister Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

If missionaries only change their behavior while in the mission field, then when they return home they will be the same person they were before they left, subject to the same problems that previously plagued them. But if they change their nature they will go home a new man or woman, with the power and discipline to conquer their old Goliaths. If they only get up at 6:30 a.m. because their companion does, they have merely changed their behavior. If they get up whether or not their companion does, they have changed their nature. Only the latter results in permanent change.

And so it is in life. If we speak good words but entertain bad thoughts, we have only changed our behavior. But if we change our thoughts we have also changed our nature. If we read the scriptures or pray or attend church or are obedient with a murmur, we have only changed our behavior. We are like Laman and Lemuel who had sporadic moments of righteousness, but who could never sustain an enduring lifestyle of righteousness. But if we are obedient with a smile we are like Nephi; we are on course to changing our nature and thus a sustained lifestyle of righteousness.

King Benjamin taught that we transform our natures as we become “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). That is the key — to cheerfully submit our will to God’s will, however difficult or inconvenient it may be.

A change in nature comes when we are obedient, not because we have to, but because we want to.

One missionary shared with me that he slept in one morning.  His companion said to him, “It’s time to get out of bed.”

This missionary responded, “I don’t want to.”

His companion replied, “It’s not about what you want, it’s about what the Lord wants.”

The missionary said, “I got out of bed.  I have never forgotten that — a mission is about what the Lord wants, not what I want.”

Similarly, life is about what the Lord wants, not what we want, but fortunately what He wants is always what will bring us the greatest happiness in life. There are no exceptions to this consequence. We can learn that lesson the hard way or the easy way.

A change in nature comes when we are obedient, not because we have to, but because we want to — when there is an overarching, burning desire to do the Lord’s will because we love Him.

One missionary told of her gradual change in nature. At first, she was obedient because she was fearful not to be; then she was obedient because she wanted the blessings; and finally, she said, she was obedient because she loved the Lord.

In the end, submission of our will is the greatest gift we can give the Lord in small repayment for all He has done for us. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed: “The submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. The many other things we ‘give’ are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us.” Submitting our will is at the heart of changing our nature.

As we strive to submit our will to God’s — to think and live more like Him — we are transformed from the carnal man to the spiritual man. And in that process, a refining and purification takes place that gives us the eternal perspective and spiritual stamina we need to make positive, lasting changes in our lives. Then, at year’s end, we have not only made behavioral changes but character changes, and we become, as Peter said, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) — in fulfillment of our paramount goal in life.

— Elder Tad R. Callister is an emeritus General Authority Seventy and former Sunday School general president.