The Lord has called us to work with Him in producing His masterpieces—the people around us.
Artwork by Sir Edward John Poynter
One of the great teachers at BYU, Brother Hugh Nibley, used to say our lives are like going to a Broadway play. Arriving late, we miss the opening, and, leaving early, we miss the ending. To complicate matters, instead of being spectators when we arrive at the play, someone pushes us onstage and we hear a voice saying, “Do something intelligent.” Brother Nibley’s point was that in order to “do something intelligent” with our lives onstage, we need to know the beginning and the ending of the play—and we get that information only through revelation.
In the Beginning
In the spirit of Brother Nibley’s parable, let us sketch out, based on the scriptures, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the play in order to help us “do something intelligent.”
In the beginning the crown of Heavenly Father’s creative work was the creation of the man and the woman: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). This statement teaches us of our divine origins and that from the beginning “the measure of [our] creation” is to be like God (D&C 88:19).
Biblical scholars explain that the two Hebrew terms behind the words image and likeness are references to being created in the form of God as well as to having His divine attributes.1 President Dieter F. Uchtdorf summarized what we have learned from modern revelation when he taught: “We are created in the image of our heavenly parents; we are God’s spirit children.”2 Whereas in ancient Near Eastern temples it was common to have the image of the god in that god’s temple, in the Garden of Eden the image of God is found in the man and the woman. The biblical story further explains Adam and Eve’s purpose. As bearers of the divine image, Adam and Eve were to be representatives of God in His creation—to “multiply, and replenish the earth”—and they were to care for the earth and the creatures therein (see Gen. 1:28).
The effects of the Fall made it possible for Adam and Eve to experience mortality with agency—through which they could be tested and tried in order to become like their Creator. Armed with the knowledge of right and wrong, Adam and Eve were able to exercise faith and obedience in discerning between good and evil and in choosing the good. According to Mosiah 3:19, we too must discern and choose either “the natural man,” which “is an enemy to God,” or yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” to become “a saint through the atonement of Christ.”
In the summer of 1968 I was sitting with my Grandmother Payne at the Manti Pageant. I was 14, and it was the day that she would ruin my life. We had arrived early, so we had time to visit.
Grandma Payne was always interested in our lives, and she asked me, “David Rolph, what are you planning to do with your life?”
Being a child of the ’60s, I thought long and hard before revealing my well-thought-out plans to a grown-up—a member of the Establishment. But I took the risk, and I carefully began to explain how I planned to leave our warlike, corrupt, and materialistic society and retire to the woods to study the outdoors and to learn to play the guitar and to write poetry. I concluded my short sermon, declaring somewhat innocently, “I am going to be the natural man.”
She smiled at me, almost incredulously, and said, “Boy, are you in trouble! Don’t you know that the Book of Mormon teaches that the natural man is an enemy to God?”
That day changed my life. I always read this passage with a smile—and I learned that it is risky to tell your plans to an adult.
Throughout history the Lord has commanded His children to be like Him. In the Old Testament He commanded, “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). In the meridian of time, Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, came to earth to live among us to show us the way and to accomplish the Atonement and make it possible for us to return to our Heavenly Father. Jesus repeated the commandment to be like God, in whose image and likeness we were created: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48; see also 3 Ne. 12:48).
In the final scene of our play, the Savior returns in His glory to judge us, to see if we have “filled the measure of [our] creation” (D&C 88:19). Elder Dallin H. Oaks (BS ’54) has taught: “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.”3
Let us now turn to another scripture. In Moses 1, God dramatically introduced Himself to Moses by showing him the splendor and glory of His creations. And then He said, “And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:6). Here the Lord teaches Moses (and us) that he is His son and reminds him of his divine potential, being created in the similitude of the Son. He later reveals to Moses the ultimate purpose of creation: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
These passages remind us that creation as described in the Bible is not just an event but is a process that continues to this day. This was eloquently stated in a BYU devotional years ago by one of my good friends, Professor George S. Tate (BA ’69, MA ’70):
Wasn’t the Creation completed a very long time ago? Yes, in a sense it was. . . . But in another sense, creation is ongoing, since its aim has not been fulfilled. If it is God’s “work and [his] glory” to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (see Moses 1:39), creation is not complete until we have fulfilled the measure of our creation.4
The Lord uses covenant in the process of the spiritual creation of His children. Adam and Eve were required to be born again through water, the Spirit, and blood (see Moses 6:58–60). Ancient Israel is described as “the work of mine hands” created at Mount Sinai (Isa. 29:23; see also Isa. 43:21) and, throughout its history, as being shaped and formed as the clay in the hand of the potter (see Isa. 45:9; Jer. 18:1–10). And Jesus taught that we must be born again “of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5). Our lives, then, are about creation. They are about what it is we are becoming.
The Master and His Apprentices
Several years ago I began a discussion with the Lord that has proven to be a pivotal point in my life. One day, in a moment of serious self-reflection—which we commonly call a midlife crisis—I sat down to determine if I had done anything significant with my life. I asked myself and the Lord this simple question: “What is my masterpiece? What is the culmination of all of my years of training and hard work?” As a young person I longed to be an artist or a musician, but after years of study and practice, I concluded that my talents lay elsewhere. But still I continue to think of producing in my life a “masterpiece.”
The Lord responded to my question with three thoughts.
First, He said to me that my task was to fulfill the measure of my creation—to be in the image and likeness of God, to be holy and perfect like Him. I walked over and looked into my spiritual mirror, and the result was not encouraging.
He then told me that my greatest work was to be my family: my wife, Jo Ann, and my children.
And then the Lord said to me, “But you are not a master, so why do you think you can produce a masterpiece? You are just an apprentice in my workshop.”
Having always been a lover of great art (my son and I have walked every hall of the Louvre—it took us three days), I am familiar with the roles of the apprentices who worked in the shops of the master artists and craftsmen, especially during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci served as an apprentice in the studio of Verrocchio, Michelangelo in the studio of Ghirlandaio, and Raphael in the studio of Perugino. The apprentices sought engagement in the workshops to do three things.
First, they came to get to know the master, his values, and his personality and to see up close how he produced his masterpieces.
Second, they came to learn from the master by doing. They began by doing the mundane jobs: sweeping the shop and preparing the pigments and the panels. As they progressed in skill, they were given more responsible tasks: painting backgrounds or minor figures, thus participating in the creation of great masterpieces.
Third, the apprentices came because they aspired to become like their masters. They hoped that by knowing the master and working by his side, they could one day become masters themselves.5
Remember the Lord’s conversation with Moses: “And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:6). In Heavenly Father’s workshop, we, like Moses, are both God’s masterpieces in process—“in the similitude of mine Only Begotten”—as well as His children, His sons and daughters, whom He has engaged in His workshop as apprentices, saying, “I have a work for you.”
Receiving God’s Image and Likeness
I believe the metaphor of the master and his apprentices can help us better understand how we can become God’s masterpieces—His children in the “image and likeness of God.”6 Just like an apprentice in a workshop, our first step is to get to know the Master. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God”7 and to have “a correct idea of his . . . perfections, and attributes.”8 We can come to know the Lord by studying the scriptures, through prayer, and by associating with others who know Him.
In order to help us to know the Master, Heavenly Father sent His Only Begotten Son to earth to reveal to us the Father: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). Thus Jesus Christ came to earth as Heavenly Father’s masterpiece, in His image as well as in the image of a man, and through His Atonement Jesus Christ became the Master of the workshop. The Savior’s life teaches us that His primary attribute is love. He loves His Father and He loves us, and He expects us, as His creations and as His apprentices, to love one another: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
Through reading the accounts of the life of the Savior, we can learn what He is like, what He values, and how He treated others. The Apostle Peter gave us an example of the power of knowing the Savior. Recall with me the account in Matthew when the Savior, who was walking upon the stormy sea, invited Peter to walk on the water with Him. When Peter left the boat and began to go to Jesus, the text records:
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? [Matt. 14:30–31]
Later, after the death and resurrection of the Savior, Peter became the head of the Church. Fearless in the face of persecution, Peter was teaching at the temple with John when a lame beggar asked for alms. Peter, following the example of the Savior, stretched out his hand and said:
Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.
And he took him [following the example of the Savior on the Sea of Galilee] by the right hand, and lifted him up. [Acts 3:6–7]
The Master has given us a breathtaking responsibility in the workshop—the power to work as cocreators with God.
The second step is learning in the workshop by doing. Latter-day Saints are familiar with the gospel of doing: we do good works, we do our home teaching and visiting teaching, and we even call temple worship “temple work.” The scriptures are replete with commandments of doing or not doing. The Savior simply said, “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). By imitating the life of Jesus we learn obedience, compassion, love, and how to treat our fellows: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).
As we become skilled apprentices, we come to realize that the Master has given us a breathtaking responsibility in the workshop. In the beginning Adam and Eve were commanded to “multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28), and they were given the gift of procreation—to create the bodies for the spirit children of our heavenly parents, in the image of God. This sacred gift of procreation is one of the greatest gifts imaginable and gives us the power to work as cocreators with God.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (BS ’65, MA ’66) described this role as follows:
You will never be more like God at any other time in this life than when you are expressing that particular power. Of all the titles he has chosen for himself, Father is the one he declares, and Creation is his watchword—especially human creation, creation in his image.9
Genesis 5:3 records, “And Adam . . . begat a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Heavenly Father has given us the privilege of creating these children in our image as well. When Jo Ann and I first held our babies, we would greet each new spirit with wonder, and then we would begin to note the distribution of the genes from our families. The results of raising children in our image and likeness can be both spectacular and comical.
One morning, a few days after I had finished a grueling two years working on my dissertation, we were lying on our bed when our darling two-and-a-half-year-old son raced into the room and began jumping on the bed, gleefully shouting, “I am sure glad that darned dissertation is done!” But he didn’t say “darned”!
Helping to create Heavenly Father’s children in His image and likeness is not confined to parenthood. Throughout our lives we become cocreators with the Master in our relationships with all of those around us: our families, friends, mission companions, roommates, colleagues, teachers, and students, as well as those we visit teach and home teach.
Let me share with you several important things I have learned in the workshop as we have worked as cocreators with the Master. In our modern culture, especially in the media, there is overwhelming attention and concern given to image, which is almost always a reference to outward appearances. A powerful story in the scriptures addresses this issue. When the prophet Samuel was sent to find the Lord’s anointed among the sons of Jesse in Bethlehem, he examined the seven eldest sons of Jesse, expecting to find among them the next king of Israel. He was disappointed to find that none of them was the one the Lord had chosen, and he finally had Jesse send for his youngest son, David. The Lord then taught us a lesson that should pierce our souls: “For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). The Lord wants us to learn to see ourselves and others—including friends, associates, and spouses—as He sees us: not looking on outward appearances but looking on the heart.
Another thing I have learned in the workshop is that being created in the image and likeness of God does not mean that we are all the same. As spirit children of Heavenly Father, we come to earth with our individuality. Heavenly Father tells us that He has blessed us with different spiritual gifts:
For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. [D&C 46:11–12]
President James E. Faust taught:
We do not lose our identity in becoming members of this church. . . . We say to all who have joined the Church, keep all that is noble, good, and uplifting in your culture and personal identity.10
As we look through the scriptures, we see the way the Lord has made use of many different individuals: in the Old Testament there was a Moses and an Aaron, a Ruth and an Esther; in the New Testament a Peter and a Paul, a Mary and a Martha; and in our day a Joseph Smith and a Brigham Young, a Gordon B. Hinckley and a Thomas S. Monson.
In the workshop we come to appreciate that the Lord’s masterpieces are created through a great price. Abraham demonstrated the ultimate faith in God when he took his son Isaac to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. The Lord exclaimed, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). On that day Abraham showed us the image of God the Father when he, like his Heavenly Father, demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, and Isaac showed us the image of God the Son as he willingly submitted to the will of his father.
We are surrounded by many who have taught us by example the principles of faith, obedience, and sacrifice. In the Lectures on Faith we are taught, “The faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.”11
My grandfather J. Leo Seely received a mission call in 1914 to serve the Lord in Ireland. He left his wife and little children for two years. The depth of his sacrifice has become clear to us as we have read their letters. Upon his return he grabbed my grandmother in an embrace, and his little daughter Ina, who hadn’t seen her father for years, raced out to chastise this unfamiliar man, shouting, “You naughty man, leave my mother alone!”
Because of the power of this man’s example and that of my noble grandmother, my father served a mission, and then more than 50 of his grandchildren and now his great-grandchildren have gone forth to serve the Lord in missions all over the world. Great-great-grandfather William Bramall crossed the plains seven times and served five missions to England. And Great-Grandmother Sumsion began a tradition of sister missionary service followed by her daughter, her granddaughters, and now her great-granddaughters. As we watch our children, friends, and families open mission calls, we see the image of God in a person who is willing to follow in the footsteps of the Savior to sacrifice for the salvation of His children. They have the faith and the courage to go wherever the Lord calls them.
Esau is another unheralded example of one who showed us how to shape our lives in the image of God. When his brother, Jacob, tricked him out of the birthright, Esau was enraged to the point of seeking to kill his brother. After many years of avoiding each other, there was a dramatic moment when Jacob encountered his brother. Jacob, fearing for his life, prepared gifts for Esau. When the moment of the encounter came and Jacob met his brother, Esau unexpectedly forgave him. Looking into Esau’s forgiving face, Jacob exclaimed, “For therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).
The image of God is forgiveness. As Brother Nibley always used to remind us, “The two things you can do in life are to repent and forgive.”12
The third step of our apprenticeship is the most important and perhaps the most difficult. Ultimately we are commanded to “be holy” and to “be perfect” like the Master. As we live the gospel and fill our lives with knowing and doing, something miraculous happens to us: we begin to become like the Savior and like our Father in Heaven. But we cannot complete the process of becoming like God on our own. Only the Master can make a masterpiece, and only He can make us in His own image.
Let me tell you about something I love. There is a fragment of a Dead Sea scroll from Cave 4 at Qumran that I had the privilege to work on several years ago. It is a piece of a hymn called Barkhi Nafshi—“Bless, O My Soul.” One cold winter day I was in the workroom at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem examining this fragment. It had not yet been mounted in a protective frame, and a gust of wind came through the window and blew the fragile fragment onto the floor. Horrified, I quickly got a large piece of paper and knelt down to scoop it up. As I stood to put it back onto the table, I was overcome with emotion—holding in my hands this precious piece of the past, a piece of leather that contained the hymn of praise from a Jewish author two thousand years ago. In this fragment of text the ancient hymnist expressed the mystery of acquiring the attributes of God: “Bless, O my soul, the Lord. . . . He has been gracious to the needy, and he has opened their eyes to see his ways, and their ears to hear his teaching. And he has circumcised the foreskins of their heart” (4Q434 1.i.1–4).13 Paraphrasing from Deuteronomy (10:16–17; 30:6), another sacred text that I love, the ancient author of this poem acknowledges that it is only God who can, through His grace, open our eyes and ears and change our hearts.
We can help the Master by reaching out to those around us.
This doctrine is taught throughout the scriptures. The Lord says in Ezekiel, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (36:26). And Paul describes the death of “our old man” and the birth of the new that we experience at baptism (Rom. 6:6; see verses 1–6).
Occasionally things go wrong in the workshop, and we, as the Master’s masterpieces in progress, become distorted or deformed. Sometimes the problem is sin—giving in to the enticings of the natural man. Sometimes it is discouragement, disappointment, sickness, or death. The Master of the workshop came to earth and, as explained by Alma, experienced mortal “infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). He has the power to cleanse us, to heal us, and to restore us to His image and likeness, for the Atonement “bring[s] about the bowels of mercy” that “can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety” (Alma 34:15–16).
I testify that the power of the Atonement is real and that His “grace is sufficient for all” (Ether 12:27). As we call upon our Father in Heaven in repentance, we can find forgiveness through the power of the Savior’s Atonement. Through the Holy Ghost He can send encouragement and comfort. We as apprentices in the workshop should remember that, as my daughter says, “often the Holy Ghost needs helpers.” We can help the Master by reaching out to those around us, offering forgiveness, encouragement, and comfort.
At this very moment in our lives we are in the process of creation—of choosing between the natural man and becoming, through the grace of our Savior, individuals in the image and likeness of God. As apprentices in His workshop, the Lord has called us to work with Him in producing His masterpieces—His children in His own image. We do so as families, as mothers and fathers, as sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters in the gospel, as missionaries, as teachers and students, and through service to our fellow man. There is great joy in the workshop as we see the miraculous growth and the changes of heart that occur through the power of the Atonement. The eternal and enduring masterpieces that we produce in our lives are not works of art or music or scholarly books or articles—they are the people around us. As we help the Master with His masterpieces, we are engaged in His work and His glory: “the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
I find joy in being an apprentice in the Savior’s workshop, and I aspire to be like Him. As we work in the Lord’s kingdom, serving His children, we can become like Him.
I love the Lord Jesus Christ. I testify that He lives and He loves us, and I pray “that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moro. 7:48).
- See W. Randall Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism, vol. 15 of Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, ed. Baruch Halpern, Manfred H. E. Weippert, Theo P. J. van den Hout, and Irene J. Winter (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003), pp. 5–6, and John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 212.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Love of God,” Ensign, November 2009, p. 22.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign,
- George S. Tate, “Obedience, Creation, and Freedom,” BYU devotional address, July 25, 1995.
- These ideas have been elegantly explored by Arthur R. Bassett in “Knowing, Doing, and Being: Vital Dimensions in the Mormon Religious Experience,” Sunstone, December 1979, pp. 64–67; May 1985, pp. 59–63; June 1999, pp. 70–77.
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. 2nd ed. revised, B. H. Roberts. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), 6:305.
- Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 38 (3:4); emphasis in original.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” BYU devotional address, Jan. 12, 1988; emphasis in original.
- James E. Faust, “Heirs to the Kingdom of God,” Ensign, May 1995, p. 62.
- Lectures on Faith (1985), p. 69 (6:7).
- See Hugh Nibley, transcript (at 24:50) from the film The Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley (1985), https://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/multimedia.php?id=5.
- Moshe Weinfeld and David Seely, “Barkhi Nafshi,” in Qumran Cave 4.XX: Poetical and Liturgical Texts, Part 2, vol. 29 of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, ed. Esther Chazon et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 271.