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Millions of Mormons tuned in Sunday to a short but impassioned sermon about Jesus Christ by the man they revere as a "prophet, seer and revelator" and an equally strong plea by an LDS apostle to stick with the faith despite doubts and questions.
"Without [Christ's] atoning sacrifice, all would be lost," 89-year-old church President Thomas S. Monson said in the opening speech on the final day of the 186th Semiannual General Conference. "It is not enough, however, merely to believe in him and his mission. We need to work and learn, search and pray, repent and improve. We need to know God's laws and live them. Only by doing so will we obtain true happiness."
The 15.6 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is "blessed to have the truth," the frail leader told thousands gathered in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and millions more watching around the world. "We have a mandate to share the truth. Let us live the truth, that we might merit all that the father has for us."
Monson, who the church has said is "feeling the effects of advancing age," was helped to the podium by an aide, who sat behind him during the five-minute address and then assisted the LDS leader back to his seat.
Monson, who attended every session of the fall conference, also talked for about four minutes to the all-male priesthood Saturday night.
On Sunday, he was followed by Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and next in line for the faith's presidency. Nelson, 92, spoke about the purpose of life as finding joy even amid sorrow.
"Life is filled with detours and dead ends, trials and challenges of every kind. Each of us has likely had times when distress, anguish and despair almost consumed us. Yet we are here to have joy?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes! The answer is a resounding yes! But how is that possible?"
It doesn't seem possible "to feel joy when your child suffers with an incurable illness, or when you lose your job, or when your spouse betrays you," Nelson acknowledged. "Yet that is precisely the joy the savior offers. ... Joy is powerful, and focusing on joy brings God's power into our lives."
This joy comes as a "gift to the faithful," he said. "The unrighteous may experience any number of emotions and sensations, but they will never experience joy."
Apostle M. Russell Ballard followed up on that theme, saying that those who stray from Mormonism will not find a better home.
"For some, Christ's invitation to believe and remain continues to be hard or difficult to accept. Some disciples struggle to understand a specific church policy or teaching," said Ballard, possibly alluding to those who have resigned or been troubled by the church's November 2015 policy labeling same-sex LDS couples as "apostates" and denying their children baptism until they are 18.
"Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present," Ballard said, hinting at the church's own "Gospel Topics" online essays, which explain some of the faith's theological and historical controversies.
"Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much," he said. "Finally, some have become 'weary in well-doing.' "
Ballard addressed such members directly, asking: "If you choose to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, where will you go? What will you do?"
The decision to walk away from fellow Mormons and "the Lord's chosen leaders," he said, "will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now."
Ballard, who turns 88 on Saturday, urged these members to take the long view.
"There may be some doctrine, some policy, some bit of history that puts you at odds with your faith, and you may feel that the only way to resolve that inner turmoil right now is to 'walk no more' with the Saints," he said. "But if you are given the time and live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold."
Ronald A. Rasband, one of the newest apostles, also offered ways to resist loss of faith.
"Never forget, question or ignore personal, sacred spiritual experiences," he 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."
Rasband further urged questioners to "remain faithful and steadfast, even if storms of doubt invade your lives through the actions of others. Seek that which will edify and fortify you spiritually."
Linda S. Reeves, second counselor in the general presidency of the women's Relief Society, explored the essence of repentance.
She recounted several stories, including one about a man who had committed "moral transgressions" and wanted to repent but worried that telling his wife and ecclesiastical leaders might inflict pain and shame on his family.
But there is no other way, Reeves said. "The truth is ... that the unselfish and Christlike thing to do is to confess and repent. This is Heavenly Father's great plan of redemption."
When he did, the consequences were real.
"He had been certain that his wife and children would be devastated and they were; and that there would be [church] disciplinary action and a release from his calling and there was. He was certain that his wife would be brokenhearted, hurt, and angry and she was," Reeves reported. "And he was convinced she would leave, taking the children with her but she didn't."
Instead, the man's wife "embraced him and ... over time, she was able to fully forgive him," Reeves said. "Twenty-five years later, this couple and their two children are strong and faithful."
Dale G. Renlund, the most junior apostle, also discussed repentance.
"Changing our behavior and returning to the 'right road' are part of repentance, but only part," he said. "Real repentance also includes a turning of our heart and will to God and a renunciation of sin."
The morning session closed with a speech about gratitude by Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the governing First Presidency.
"You and I are witnesses that whenever we have kept our covenants with God, especially when it was hard, he has heard our prayers of thanks for what he has already done for us and has answered our prayer for strength to endure faithfully," Eyring said. "More than once he has made us cheerful as well as strong."