Recently, some life experiences got me thinking about personal covenants we make with God–not covenants that are part of the standard ordinances of the Church like the sacrament, baptism, temple endowment, etc.–but other promises we personally make to God. Often when we face circumstances of severe trial or unusual distress, we reach out to God and ask for his special blessings and promise, if we can get those those, that we will do certain things for God in return. While these covenants differ from those made standard gospel ordinances, I have come to believe that they carry just as much power and potential for blessings from God, perhaps more so.
The scriptures have several examples of these non-standardized, personal covenants that individuals and groups of people have made with God. Hannah in the Old Testament and the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon are two examples that stand out to me. I can also recall stories from our living prophets and apostles and other prominent leaders where they discuss making personal covenants with God. Two of which I will share are are from Elder Neal A. Maxwell and President Abraham Lincoln.
Hannah Covenants to Give Her Son to Service of the Lord
In the book of 1 Samuel, we are given the story of Hannah, who desperately wants a son and vows, if she should receive one, to give him to the service of the Lord. Hannah received assurance from the prophet Eli, and no doubt from the Holy Spirit of God to her heart as well, that God had accepted her covenant. Hannah was blessed with a baby boy soon thereafter and after the baby was born and old enough to leave his mother’s arms, Hannah was faithful to her side of the covenant with God. This story is found in 1 Samuel Chapter 1:
1) Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah…
2) And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
5) … for he loved Hannah: but the Lord had shut up her womb.
10) And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.
11) And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.
17) …Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.
18) And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
19) …and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her.
20) Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord.
24) …And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the Lord in Shiloh: and the child was young.
26) …And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the Lord.
27) For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him:
28) Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.
The Anti-Nephi-Lehies Bury their Swords in Covenant with God
The story of the people of Ammon who took upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, has always fascinated me. These people were vile sinners and even murders, yet they were converted to the Lord and because of their wicked past, they felt a special need to make an extra, personal covenant with God. Because they felt so blessed by God, this group of people covenanted that they would not take up weapons of war again, even in self-defense, after God had cleansed them of their prior sins. The story is in the Book of Mormon, Alma chapter 24:
15) Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
16) And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.
17) And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.
18) And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands.
The prophets and leaders of the church took this covenant by the Anti-Nephi-Lehies very seriously. Both parties went to great lengths to keep that covenant, even at the risk of their own lives, yet they were miraculously blessed and delivered for being faithful to their personal covenant.
Neal A. Maxwell Dedicates His Life to the Lord in a Covenant Prayer
The following story is take from A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell by Bruce C. Hafen, chapter 13.
During the middle of the battle for Okinawa, Neal had the most transforming experience of all. He was part of a mortar squad that fired at Japanese positions hidden in the hills. His own mortar position created an obvious invitation for the enemy to locate and eliminate his firing capacity and him. They needed only to direct their own artillery and mortar fire at the place where Neal’s squad sent up its shells. By identifying his position and comparing where their shells hit, they could direct their fire closer and closer until they had done their deadly job.
One night in late May, the shrieking noise of artillery fire caught Neal’s attention with a frightening realization. Three shells in a row had exploded in a sequence that sent a dreadful message the enemy had completely triangulated his mortar position, and the next series of shots would hit home. Suddenly a shell exploded no more than five feet away from him. Terribly shaken, Neal jumped from his foxhole and moved down a little knoll seeking protection, and then, uncertain what to do, he crawled back to the foxhole. There he knelt, trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer he had ever uttered, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord’s service.
Neal later called this “one of those selfish, honest prayers” that many people offer in times of great stress. He didn’t feel entitled to anything in particular, and he knew many of his combat buddies prayed that night as fervently as he did. …After the prayer, Neal turned his attention again to watching the night sky, which was earlier ablaze with flashing, fiery noises. His body spontaneously tensed up as he waited, searching the darkness for sounds and clues. But no more shells came near him.
Later he wrote: After that triangulation occurred, the shelling stopped at the very time they were [about] to finish what they had been trying to do for days. I am sure the Lord answered my prayers. . . . The following night they began to pour [more] shells in [on our position], but almost all of them were duds either the ammunition had gotten wet or they were not exploding in the very thick, oozing mud. . . . I felt preserved, and unworthily so, but have tried to be somewhat faithful to that promise that was given at the time.
He would occasionally talk about those two nights in the years that followed, never offering more details about the experience but usually adding something like, “I foolishly thought at the time that I could pay the Lord back, and now, of course, I’m in greater debt to Him than ever.”
Abraham Lincoln’s Solemn Vow to God
My last example of a personal covenant with God is about Abraham Lincoln and is a story told by General Daniel Sickles, who fought for the Union army in the Battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War. General Sickles noticed that immediately preceding the battle at Gettysburg, when nerves of all commanding officers should have been on edge, there was a certain calm and assurance about Abraham Lincoln. After the victory, when Lincoln was asked how that could be, he replied:
“Well, I will tell you how it was. In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him that this war was His, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Then and there I made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him, and He did stand by our boys, and I will stand by Him. And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business in his own hands, and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” (Hill, Abraham Lincoln—Man of God, 339–40.)
Timothy Ballard, in his book, The Lincoln Hypothesis, goes into much more detail about Lincoln’s conversion to God and the covenants he made personally and on behalf of our country as it’s leaders. I highly recommend the book, and you can check out my blog post on The Lincoln Hypothesis which has many of my favorite quotes from the book.
Consulting with My Friends and Family about Personal Covenants
As I was contemplated this topic, my father happened to be at my house and so I asked him what he knew about personal non-standardized covenants. His initial reaction was that he hadn’t put a lot of thought into the subject. But upon thinking about it a little more, a few minutes later he said when he was in high school, he wanted to make the baseball team very badly. He remembers praying and asking God if he would allow them to make the baseball team that he would dedicate his life to serving the Lord. My dad did make the baseball team and that experience seemed to increase his faith in God. He has dedicated his life to serving the Lord and is in fact, now serving a full-time mission with my mom. He has written about their senior mission on my Mormon Mission Prep website if you want to check it out.
I also thought I should reach out to a friend I worked with when I worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the church office building in downtown Salt Lake City. This person had once told me about a personal covenant he had made with God when his family was going through a very difficult time. I don’t think I should share the details of that private, personal story with you, but it was a faith promoting experience to call him and hear the account again. This friend reiterated to me his conviction the covenants we make in the standard gospel ordinances are patterns the Lord is trying to teach us. He said that he feels that the Lord wants all of us to learn to make and keep our own personal covenants with God and that the greatest blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ come to us by doing so. I wholeheartedly agree.
The Book of Abraham teaches that God sent all people to Earth “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). I have often thought that another related purpose of this life is for God to see if we would do two things that we promise we’re going to do…if we will do the things that we covenant to do, whether it be a standard covenant through the traditional gospel ordinances, or a personal covenant we make with God.