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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Mormons don't wait for the afterlife to experience joy and peace, no matter their challenges, senior LDS Church leaders said on the final day of the faith's international general conference.

In fact, they said, joy is a key principle for spiritual survival in the latter days.

"From the depths of my soul, and in all humility, I testify of the great gift which is our Father’s plan for us," Church President Thomas S. Monson said as he opened the conference on Sunday morning. "It is the one perfect path to peace and happiness both here and in the world to come."

He and other leaders sought Sunday to strengthen members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wherever they are in a conflicted world and in their lives. They expressed understanding for the struggles church members face and spoke plainly about the state of a world bedeviled by what one called "tragedies and travesties."

Still, said President Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week or even a bad year!"

That is possible, he said, because joy has less to do with one's circumstances and everything to do with one's focus.

"When the focus of our lives is on God’s plan of salvation and Jesus Christ and his gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening — or not happening — in our lives. Joy comes from and because of him. He is the source of all joy. We feel it at Christmastime when we sing, 'Joy to the world, the Lord is come.' And we can feel it all year round.

"For Latter-day Saints, Jesus Christ is joy!"

In his remarks on Saturday, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke on a similar theme.

"Even in our trials we can experience joy and peace," Elder Hales said.

Live the truth

President Monson described how Christ's followers can focus on Christ as he spoke to the millions of faithful watching Sunday's sessions by broadcast in more than 100 countries.

Followers need to do more than believe in Christ and his mission, he said. They also should work, learn, search, pray, repent, improve, keep the commandments and receive saving ordinances.

"We are blessed to have the truth," he said. "We have a mandate to share the truth. Let us live the truth, that we might merit all that the Father has for us."

Followers still may be pummeled by personal struggles or what President Nelson called "the rigorous challenge of living in these latter days."

He said focusing on joy brings God's power into one's life, as Christ focused on joy as he endured the cross. President Nelson provided examples of people who endured overwhelming, painful, scary unfair or simply impossible situations by looking ahead to joy.

He also cautioned against trying to find joy in worldly wisdom or things.

"If we look to the world and follow its formulas for happiness, we will never know joy," he said. He said sin interrupts joy. In the footnotes to his talk, he said the world teaches that one can sin one's way to joy.

"The promise is that at the end of every hedonistic rainbow is a pot of joy. Not true!" he wrote.

In the Sunday afternoon session, Elder Dale G. Renlund, of the Quorum of the Twelve, related a personal experience of how he and a friend ignited a firecracker at church. In confessing his mistake, the future apostle learned that true joy comes from sincere repentance.

"Instead of making excuses, let us choose repentance," he said. "The fact that we can repent is the good news of the gospel. Guilt can be swept away. We can be filled with joy, receive a remission of our sins, and have peace of conscience. ... I invite you to feel more joy in your life."

Remain on the path

Some may falter in their faith, said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Twelve, because accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging.

He pleaded with church members to encourage, accept, understand and love those struggling with their faith and never to neglect them.

He counseled those struggling to give equal time to the Lord by reading, pondering and applying the Book of Mormon.

"If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do? The decision to 'walk no more' with church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now."

He said leaders understand that there may be some doctrine, policy or bit of history that may put some at odds with their faith, but he said life has taught that such things tend to resolve themselves.

"So before you make that spiritually perilous choice to leave, I encourage you to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored church and Jesus Christ in the first place," Elder Ballard said. "Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer, and His restored gospel will lead us safely back to the presence of our Heavenly Parents if we remain on the gospel path and follow in his footsteps."

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve also spoke to those who may be experiencing a "crisis of faith." He exhorted members to not forget basic gospel truths, the faith and strength of ancestors, as well as when their testimony was strong. Record spiritual experiences so they may be read later and "bring to remembrance how good the Lord has been," he said.

"Never forget, question, or ignore personal, sacred spiritual experiences," Elder Rasband said. "The adversary's design is to distract us from spiritual witnesses while the Lord's desire is to enlighten and engage us in his work."

In an emotional plea, Elder Rasband promised members that if they live faithfully and keep covenants made, "your testimony will be protected, and it will grow."

"In the midst of life's greatest storms, do not forget your divine heritage as a son or daughter of God, or your eternal destiny, to one day return to live with him will surpass anything the world has to offer," he said. "I pray that you and I will never forget sacred eternal truths."

The preferred strategy of the adversary is to lead people away from God using stumbling blocks like the philosophies of men over the Savior's teachings, Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said on Saturday.

"If we are to be valiant in our testimony of Jesus, we must avoid the stumbling blocks that entrap and impede the progress of many otherwise honorable men and women," Elder Cook said. "Let us determine to always be in His service."

Coming to know Him

Coming to know and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is an crucial part of our mortal journey, said Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, in his Sunday afternoon address. The process includes four essential steps, he said.

"A grand objective of mortality is not merely learning about the Only Begotten of the Father but also striving to know Him," Elder Bednar said. "I witness and promise we can not only know about the Lord but also come to know him as we exercise faith in, follow, serve, and believe him."

Repentance and gratitude

Satan often stands in the way of joy, too, said Sister Linda S. Reeves, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency. She said he tries to convince God's children that it is selfish to confess their sins and possibly hurt others.

"The truth, however, is that the unselfish and Christlike thing to do is to confess and repent," she said. "This is Heavenly Father’s great plan of redemption."

President Henry B. Eyring said he receives visits and letters from Mormons in distress, some who feel all for them is lost. He counseled that each person can find joy in the Sabbath and that focusing on gratitude can make doubts fly and hearts begin to sing. Someone who is struggling might begin today with a prayer of thanks for all God has done and to know how best to serve him.

Christ's followers also can count their blessings — for their lives, their good circumstances, the sacrament, Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and his Atonement, forgiveness, the Holy Ghost and the cumulative effects of the service given by others around the world.

He said the times each will pass through will include hard trials, but God will ease those burdens.

"I have felt that transformation of growing gratitude for blessings and a love of God increasing across the church," he said. "It seems to accelerate among members of the church in times and places where there are trials of their faith, where they have to plead to God for help to even carry on."

President Monson, who turned 89 in August, now has spoken for 54 years of general conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since his calling as an apostle in in 1963.

As he closed his talk on Sunday he said, "I leave with you my love and my blessing."

In all, 37 church leaders spoke to a total of about 125,000 people in the Conference Center in six sessions spread across two weekends. Millions more joined the worldwide gathering through broadcasts in 94 languages.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com