At 11 a.m. on Thursday morning, thousands of women gathered in the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU to hear Professors Barbara Morgan Gardner and Brad Wilcox speak on the subject “Lest Thou Forget: Staying Converted to the Gospel,” a reference, perhaps, to Elder Rasband’s General Conference address in October 2016. The first breakout session of the day, participants were chatty and excited to be at what President Worthen called “EFY for Relief Society” during the keynote opening session of the day.
Gardner was the first to speak to the crowd, immediately capturing listeners’ attention by sharing personal experiences she’s had with her students at BYU. As a professor, Gardner said she will often “talk to people who stay in the church and people who leave the church,” with her focus on “why people are staying.” After meeting a number of students and learning they’ve had struggles with missions, church doctrine, and same-sex attraction, Gardner will bluntly ask them, “Well then, why are you staying? Why are you still active? Why are you here?”
The responses are unique to their specific situations, of course, but they all have a common thread:
“‘Because even in the moment, I felt God’s love,’” said one.
“‘Because I’ve experienced so much, and I know the atonement is real, and I couldn’t imagine leaving it over something so insignificant,’” said another.
And perhaps most strikingly, “‘Jesus is my Savior. I’ll stay for him.’”
Gardner, bringing the focus back to conversion, announced her conclusion: “Why they stay, or why they leave, is not based on circumstance. It’s based on character. It’s based on the individual. It’s based on the price they’ve paid to come to know and come to understand and come to be obedient to the teachings and the life of Jesus Christ.”
Turning to the scriptures, Gardner used Lehi’s dream to prove that when it comes to the gospel, there are those who fall away, those who cling and let go, and finally, those who fall at the feet of the Savior. But the people who “know Christ will never fall away. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. They are desperate for him,” she declared.
Conversion comes down to whether or not one is “willing to pay the price,” she said finally. But lest anyone be discouraged, she challenged the audience to do everything possible to remain true. “The Lord always reaches out. Always,” she said. “He has yet to fail me.”
Wilcox took a different tactic on conversion by focusing on grace. “In Hebrew, the word translated as grace means good will, or favor. Given with compassion,” he said. “But grace is much more than a description of God’s attributes. Grace is how He engages with us in developing those attributes. So, grace is the strength He gives us to make us strong. Grace is the divine assistance He gives us to make us divine.”
We are often amazed, said Wilcox, at the grace that God continually proffers us, emphasizing that the prefix “pro” makes all the difference in meaning. If something is only offered, then it can be rejected, he said. Energetically pretending to hand his talk to a friend on the stand, Wilcox said that when proffering something, it is almost impossible to reject it—only, he admitted, he really did need the pages back for the rest of his speech. And yet, despite being proffered the atonement, he continued, many reject it. Christ “must stand a little amazed himself at how few there are in this world who receive the gift that he so generously gives.”
Grace, said Wilcox, is not something that happens instantaneously. “We want it to be Harry Potter style. . . . Poof! You’re spiritual. Poof! You’re patient. Poof! You’re charitable," he quipped.
Instead, Wilcox affirmed that conversion is practice. It is a process of becoming, and it is always available to those who seek it. If it is sometimes hard to see, then “Open your eyes,” Wilcox testified, "and you will see Christ shaping you, changing you, perfecting you.”