“Nearer to Thee”: Promises and Challenges of Christian Love


[Jacob] dreamed, and beheld a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and beheld the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac . . . I am with thee . . . and will keep thee.

The beloved hymn “Nearer My God to Thee,” shared by many Christian denominations, was written by Sarah F. Adams in 1841 to represent this account of Jacob’s ladder (a staircase) with angels continually moving up and down it. The song’s lyrics still bring life-changing eternal messages to Christians throughout the world.

Trials and Songs

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

E’en though it be a cross

That raiseth me.

Still all my song shall be

Nearer, my God, to thee,

This first verse refers to the cross—symbol of Christ’s agony for us—but the cross raises us. Because He endured the cross, we will be raised to continue our upward journey, nearer to God. In His great love and concern for us, God stands at the top of the staircase watching—to offer assistance, strength, and enabling power.

We are raised to sing—likely a song of his grace and redemption. Acknowledging that some of us are “musically challenged” and might need support, Jeffrey R. Holland advised: “Surely it follows that in singing the anthems of eternity, we should stand as close as humanly possible to the Savior and Redeemer of the world—who has absolutely perfect pitch.” 1 The angel who might lead the choir knows those with the greatest need to be close to Him.

The website “christianity.com” suggests that the angels descending and ascending represent God’s “intimate relationship with . . . mankind, and most importantly, that he is the one who initiates that connection, conversation, and relationship.”

The article continues, “God’s love spills over into every book of the Bible, yet some verses specifically state God Is Love. Just so we have no doubts about it!” (emphasis in original) 2

1 John 4:7 is recalled:

7. Let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.

8. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

By His love God raises us upward, nearer to Him.

Stones and Dreams

Though like the wanderer,

The sun gone down,

Darkness be over me,

My rest a stone,

Yet in my dreams I’d be

Nearer, my God, to thee,

As Jacob experienced his vision of the ladder/staircase, he was literally lying on stones in night’s darkness. We all encounter hard stones and dark nights; mortal life has plenty of both. Drawing nearer to God requires us to pass through these challenges.

International Christian leader Dieter F. Uchtdorf assured us, “When we feel insignificant, cast off, and forgotten . . . we may be assured that God has not forgotten us—in fact, that He offers to all His children something unimaginable”— eternal life with him. But Brother Uchtdorf reminded us, “Our hearts should not strive for personal power, wealth, approval, or position.” God teaches us to lay aside worldly desires and seek for heavenly blessings. “Our failures do not have to define us. They can refine us.” 3 Like Jacob, we need to get up off the stones and turn toward the light.

Some Christian leaders have commented on problems of living as Christians (7-day or otherwise). On a Christian questions website, one admitted, “Anyone who tells you that committing your life to Christ makes your life easier is not telling the truth. Fulfilling, yes. More joyful, absolutely. But easier? No. In some ways, life [is] more difficult” (emphasis in original).

One challenge concerns today’s world conditions

The struggle against sin is more pronounced . . . Laziness, gluttony, swearing, anger, envy, self-centeredness, materialism, covetousness, intimacy issues—the temptations seem never-ending. The world, the flesh, and the devil don’t go away because we have . . . a relationship with Christ.

Another difficulty he mentioned is that Christianity gives us a worldview including values different from those prevalent in today’s societies. “We are immersed in a world system that trumpets its ideals and slanders anyone who demurs.” But as we commit ourselves to God’s values “our eyes are opened to the truth, and we can perceive the lies of the world. Fighting against those lies can be difficult.” 4

International Christian leader Henry B. Eyring agreed: “We see evidence of [these lies] happening among nations and cities, in neighborhoods, in electronic media, and all across the world.” 5

Other Christian leaders perceive a problem as Christianity teaches us to soften our hearts. 6 In our ambitious and competitive scientific, technological, research-based cultures, heads receive more emphasis than hearts. Christianity helps us come nearer to God by reasoning ways to approach challenges and devoting our hearts to choosing our goals and seeking the strength, courage, and devotion to reach them.

As the hymn verse says, dreams of persons like Jacob can be visions bringing us nearer to our God.

Steps in Mercy

There let the way appear,

Steps unto heav’n;

All that thou sendest me,

In mercy giv’n;

Angels to beckon me

Nearer, my God, to thee,

In basic scriptural strategy, steps of the staircase compare the everyday to the sublime. They can help us understand spiritual matters by giving us pictures to carry in our minds; a huge staircase full of active angels is hard to forget. And when we pick them apart for deeper meanings, we keep finding more and more “steps unto heaven”—nearer to God.

Henry B. Eyring, a world acclaimed writer, speaker, and religious leader, explained that as we obey God’s commandments and keep our promises to Him, “we can feel the love of the Father and the Son for each other and for us. We can feel Their closeness in our mortal lives, just as we will when we are blessed to be with Them forever.” 7

Being close to us, they guide and support us on those vital steps nearer to Them. God does not not look outward from the top of the ladder. He watches, He knows what happens, and He stands very near us.

God gives us what we need “in mercy.” “Compassion.com” explains that compassion understands and empathizes; mercy completes compassion with action that includes “healing, comfort, the alleviation of suffering and caring about those in distress.” 8 Another Christian-focused website, “Pray,” assures that God's mercy is given to all who accept Christ. “Many see [Christ] as the face of mercy.” 9

Our infinitely compassionate God is infinitely merciful. Everyone needs mercy. Dallin H. Oaks, a former justice turned full-time worldwide Christian leader, affirmed that God’s mercy is the “only source of the ultimate and eternal joy, which restores every loss, dries every tear, and erases every pain. Eternal joy transcends all suffering.” 10

Do those angels really “beckon”? They may not wave their fingers, but they are aware of us from the ladder/staircase. As 7-day (and other sorts of) Christians, we have different ideas of what angels look like; some of our greatest works of art portray them in different though profound ways. But large numbers of Christians have sensed angels, feeling their influence, especially as worshipers are drawn nearer to God.

“In times of special need, He sent angels, divine messengers, to bless His children, reassure them that heaven was always very close and that His help was always very near,” as Jeffrey R. Holland has taught.

He explained that usually we don’t see them, but sometimes they are visible.

But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private . . . Most often [their purpose] is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times (emphasis in original). 11

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

Trials and songs, stones and dreams, steps in mercy. This well-loved hymn sings to an infinite number of Christians in an infinite number of ways. Each of us sings, dreams, and steps forward in our own ways, in our own times, and in our own places. But we can be united in our music, in our love for God, and in our gratitude for blessings that draw us nearer to Him and to his beloved holy Son Jesus Christ.

5/24/2023 3:57:32 PM
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  • Brad Wilcox
    About Brad Wilcox
    Brad Wilcox has lived in Ethiopia, Chile, New Zealand, and Spain; he and his family now make their home amid the Rocky Mountains in the United States. Brad taught sixth grade before obtaining his PhD in education. His contributions as an author and teacher have been honored by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and his work has appeared in Guideposts magazine and Reader's Digest. He once served as a member of the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America and has addressed thousands of youth and adults across the globe. He and his wife Debi have four children and nine grandchildren.