Careful accounting reveals the liabilities, assets, and mercies of mortality.
In 1988 I was visiting with my brothers and sisters when the conversation drifted to our father, who had passed away many years earlier. We shared memories of Dad: his ways of doing things, his favorite sayings, our fishing trips (where all he did was bait hooks). Soon, my youngest sister started to cry. She reminded us that she was only 6 when Dad passed away. Though she was happy to hear our memories of Dad, she was saddened because she had very few memories of her own.
That experience bothered me. Being the oldest child in the family, I had many memories of my father and could not imagine life without them. It bothered me further when I realized that my wife and most of my siblings’ spouses would never meet my dad and that my children and their cousins would never know their grandfather. So I enlisted my wife’s help, and we set about compiling a book about my father. We contacted extended family, found former friends, and called work associates and Church leaders who had interacted with Dad. We asked them to write down memories of him. We made copies of pictures, news articles, and documents that showed his special achievements. After months of effort, we printed copies for family members as our Christmas gift.
Although of great value to our family, this book conveys only a glimpse into who my father really is. To fully understand my father, one would need a much more complete book. There is such a book; the scriptures call it the book of life.
The Bible Dictionary describes it as “the sum total of one’s thoughts and actions—the record of his life” (s.v. “book of life”). I have often desired to read from my father’s book of life. As I contemplated what I could learn from reading this, I began to wonder what was being recorded in my own book.
As an accounting professor, the idea of keeping books is nothing new to me. One of the many responsibilities of an accountant is to record the financial activities of organizations. These books are then used by interested parties to analyze each organization’s performance.
In thinking about my book of life, I wondered if I could apply to it some of the principles accountants use to keep the books of enterprises. For example, one principle is that each organization keeps its own set of books. If you want to see what Bank of America is doing, you will not find what you’re looking for in the books of Johnson & Johnson. Every enterprise keeps its own books, and each enterprise is evaluated according to what that enterprise has done given its size, location, market, and so forth.
So it is with a book of life. Mine will be very different from those of others. My book will even be different from those of my brother, of my father, or of my son. The point is that each of us has a unique book of life; we need not compare ourselves with others.
I have always found the parable of the talents to be interesting. In Matt. 25 the parable begins with a lord giving goods to his servants. “And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey” (v. 15).
The lord did not give each servant the same amount; he gave to each according to the servant’s individual abilities. The first servant worked to increase his five talents to 10, the second servant increased his two talents to four, and the third servant buried his one talent in order to preserve what he had. The lord’s response to the first and second servants is interesting.
In verse 21 the lord tells the first servant the following: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
The second servant started with fewer talents and ended up with only four. But note that the response to the second servant is identical to—not proportional to or in any way less than—that received by the first servant (see verse 23). It was not a matter of comparing the servants; each was evaluated for what he did with what he was given. So it is with each of us. It is not a matter of comparison with others; it is a matter of what we do with what we have been given.
Early on in my life I had a taste of this type of judgment. I came to earth with a body that has a few odd parts. But the competitive spirit I came with far exceeds my physical capabilities. For instance, in the eighth grade I took a PE course, and I vowed to get an A. Unfortunately, pull-ups were a problem for me, rope climbing was not good, and several other class requirements presented me with major challenges. At the end of the term I received a C for my achievement in the course. I was devastated and just a bit concerned about what my father would say.
When I got home, Dad looked at the grade and said, “Great! Straight A! I am proud of you.”
You see, the school reported two grades for every class: one for achievement (the C I had received) and one for effort. Dad looked only at the grade for effort. As long as my effort was A level, my level of achievement was not a concern to him. Likewise, as long as we do the best we can with what we are given in this life, our efforts will be accepted by our Heavenly Father. We need not compare ourselves with others.
One of the first things students learn in Accounting 200 is that everything is in balance: all transactions have a debit and an equally sized credit—no exceptions.
What about balance in our book of life? At the very basic level, we all know that if we do what is right, we will be blessed. And, conversely, we know that if we do not do what is right, we will not be blessed. In the book of life, things must balance—debits equal credits.
The way God gives us blessings is an example of this concept. D&C 130:20–21 states:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
Obedience brings blessings. Another example of the principle of balance is found in 3 Ne. 14:7–8:
Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.
At times we may feel that doing what is right does not result in blessings or that our prayers are not being answered or that a particular challenge is just too much. We question the existence of balance as it applies to our life.
I have a nephew who worked on a road-paving crew to earn money for his mission. One day a car crossed the median of the divided highway and all lanes of traffic and pinned my nephew against a concrete barrier. He had been looking the other way and never even saw the car. Although my nephew felt blessed to have escaped death, the lower part of his left leg was crushed. After months of trying to save the leg, the doctors amputated it.
One might ask, “Why? This is a good young man working to fund a mission so that he can serve the Lord, and he suddenly finds himself in bed for six months trying to heal his leg—only to have it amputated. Why? Where is the balance?”
We are not alone in these feelings. Sections 121 and 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants were given to the Prophet Joseph Smith while he was in Liberty Jail. In section 121 the Lord responds to the Prophet’s pleas that the He remember the Saints in their suffering:
My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes. [vs. 7–8]
As if to emphasize His point, in section 122 the Lord tells the Prophet Joseph that even if he was “called to pass through tribulation,” “accused with all manner of false accusations,” torn from family and friends, “cast into the pit,” sentenced to death, and, above all, chased after by the very depths of hell, he would gain experience and it would be for his good (D&C 122:5–7). Debits equal credits. Although we may not see it, and we experience much pain and suffering in the process, everything in our book of life is in balance when considered in the eternal sense.
The books of every enterprise have three basic reports. The statement of cash flow describes the liquidity of an enterprise. Any enterprise must have enough cash to make needed payments, or it will fail. The second report is the income statement. An income statement describes how an enterprise has done financially over a period of time. The third report is the balance sheet. This statement conveys a financial picture of the enterprise at any point in time and holds the cumulative result of operations over the life of the enterprise. As I think about my book of life, I can clearly see three similar reports.
I have been asked at times to comfort someone in pain or anguish or to give a priesthood blessing. To respond to requests like these we need a reservoir of righteousness—a reserve of spiritual cash if you will. When these requests come, it is past time to prepare; you either have the spiritual cash on hand or you don’t. There is not a more terrible feeling than to be asked to exercise spirituality when you have not built a reserve. What you have done in the past or what you may do in the future does not really help when you need the Spirit now.
The way to build your spiritual reservoir has been clearly outlined: be faithful in your daily prayers and scripture study and keep the commandments and you will keep your spiritual cash reserve full. How is your spiritual cash flow?
A Spiritual Income Statement
All enterprises periodically give an accounting of how they have done over given periods of time. All revenues, or inflows, are reported along with all expenses, or outflows. Netting revenues and the expenses results in a net income figure. When revenues exceed expenses, there is a net gain; when revenues are less than expenses, there is a net loss.
How is your spiritual income statement? In our personal prayers at the end of each day we can give an accounting of our daily activities. Are the spiritual revenues greater than the spiritual expenses that day? Regular interviews with parents or a bishop allow us to give an accounting of our activities over a given period. Temple recommend interviews and tithing settlements are additional occasions through which we can review our spiritual income statements.
Almost all businesses go through cycles of good years and not-so-good years. Some companies begin with a splash, doing extremely well for a few years and then, because of economy changes or market challenges, seem to fade away. Some companies struggle to get going and finally have a major breakthrough. Often these companies are satisfied with their newfound net income and simply ride that success for as long as it will go. The best companies work continually to deal with challenges and show steady positive net income year after year.
People act in a similar fashion. Some individuals enter a ward with a splash of activity and participation when life is going well, only to withdraw when challenges come. Some individuals engage in one activity or position and ride that for the rest of their lives. I have met less-active members who will spend hours talking about their missionary service as if it justifies their current lack of involvement. Remember, net income is measured for each period of time, and a positive net income one year does not automatically result in a positive net income during any other year. How is your spiritual net income?
An Eternal Balance Sheet
The third report found in all organizations is the balance sheet. The balance sheet shows the financial state of an enterprise at any point in time. It shows the enterprise’s assets—the things an enterprise uses for its operations—such as cash, inventory, buildings, and land. On the other side, the balance sheet shows the liabilities—what the enterprise owes to others—such as accounts payable, loans payable, and notes payable. The balance sheet also shows the equity—the total amount invested into and earnings retained in the enterprise by the owners.
As I think of the balance sheet of my life, I doubt that the assets listed include cash, land, buildings, or other temporal items. The assets in this type of balance sheet can be found in D&C 4:5–6: faith, hope, charity, love, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, humility, and diligence. The Preach My Gospel manual describes these as Christlike attributes (assets) and adds obedience to the list.
Think about someone outside of your family who has been a major influence for good in your life. What is it about this person that you remember? I think of an old Scout leader of mine named Charlie Murray. Brother Murray spent hours with us at camps and working on service projects. He was fun and would tell us what he really thought about what we were doing in our lives. How he survived winter camp with our troop’s 20-plus Scouts is still a marvel to me.
Now consider the person you have identified. Let me suggest that what makes this person special is his or her faith or hope or charity, or the balance of any of the assets in the person’s balance sheet of life. What makes this person special is not the amount of money, the size of the home, or the amount of any other worldly asset.
I return to the question of why good people face difficult, sometimes painful, challenges. When all is going well in life, I find it difficult to develop tolerance, patience, or humility. Many, if not most, of the assets in our eternal balance sheet increase only when we are working through challenges. When we are faced with what seem to be unfair burdens or when our lives seem unduly difficult, perhaps we should ask, “How can I respond to this so that I build faith, hope, and charity?” instead of asking, “Why me?” or, “Why did this happen?” I do not minimize the challenges we face and the pain we feel as we undergo trials, but our attitude and perspective can affect how well we deal with the struggles of life.
On the other side of the balance sheet of life are liabilities and the owner’s equity. We all have a good idea of what the liabilities are in our books. Every time we fail to keep a commandment, we increase our liability balance.
The owner’s equity section of any balance sheet starts with the contributions of the enterprise’s owner. Consider that everything we have, including life itself, is from the Creator. Further, the blessings we receive come from obedience to His commandments and adherence to covenants. In essence, whatever equity we started with and any increase that has occurred in it are from our Lord, who is the owner of this section of our balance sheet of life. Even more wondrous is that, through the Atonement, Christ has already paid for our liabilities (sins). Mosiah 26:30 states, “As often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.”
How is the balance sheet in your book of life? How are the balances in your asset accounts of faith, hope, charity, love, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, humility, diligence, and obedience? How is your liability balance, and have you made use of His offer to take all liabilities from you?
Your Book of Life
At some point we will go before our Father in Heaven to give an accounting of our activities during life. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin stated it this way:
Each of you has an eternal calling from which no Church officer has authority to release you. This is a calling given you by our Heavenly Father Himself. In this eternal calling, as with all other callings, you have a stewardship, and “it is required of the Lord, at the hand of every steward, to render an account of his stewardship, both in time and in eternity” (D&C 72:3). This most important stewardship is the glorious responsibility your Father in Heaven has given you to watch over and care for your own soul.
At some future day, you and I will each hear the voice of the Lord calling us forward to render an account of our mortal stewardship.[Joseph B. Wirthlin, “True to the Truth,” Ensign, May 1997, p. 16]
Keeping a written history of our life on earth is a very important responsibility. Such histories bind generations of families together. I certainly encourage all to write personal histories. At the same time, it is important to recognize that we are each, day by day, moment by moment, writing our book of life. Although not written on paper, entries in this book are just as real and have an eternal impact.
I was born with a number of physical challenges, the most serious being a deformity of the heart. At age 9 I had open-heart surgery, which at the time was in an early experimental stage. I was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the surgery. Obviously, I survived, and I have had no heart problems since.
There are two truths I knew then and still know today. The first is that the Lord knew me individually and was watching over me. I knew He loved me, and because of that everything would be okay—regardless of what I had to go through. That knowledge has been a tremendous blessing as I have faced the various challenges in my life.
The second truth was that I had been given many blessings and my life has a purpose. I also knew that with these blessings came tremendous responsibility to do all I could to be worthy of that which I had been given.
The same is true for each of you. The Lord knows you individually and is watching over you. He loves you and wants only the best for you. He is there for you through the challenges of life as you seek Him in prayer. Each of us has a responsibility to live so that our book of life records actions that will permit us to return to live with Him forever.
Kevin Stocks is a professor in the BYU School of Accountancy. This text is adapted from a devotional address he gave on March 4, 2008, in the Marriott Center.
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