The Gift of Knowing


F. Burton Howard
From a BYU 14-stake fireside address given 31 October 1982

The Gift of Knowing

Upon graduating from law school, I was fortunate to obtain a position as a clerk at the Utah Supreme Court. I became intimately acquainted with the workings of the court, and came to know the judges personally. I vividly remember listening to the persuasive arguments of lawyers for opposing parties and being swayed first by one and then by the other, as case after case was argued on appeal.

Some years later, after leaving the court, I happened to meet the chief justice, whom I knew well. Our conversation turned to the administrative challenges of running the court. My friend, the chief justice, was weary. In a few months he would be old enough to retire and leave all the contention and controversy to others. He indicated that he had given serious thought to doing just that.

“What would you think if I retired?” he asked.

Although I could understand why he might want to escape from the heavy responsibilities of the court, I blurted out my instinctive reaction to his question.

“Oh, Judge,” I said. “Please don’t do that. You will never know how comforting it is to have someone on the court who always tries to do what’s right.”

To my surprise, he became angry. He raised his voice, furrowed his brow, and said, “Heavens, Burt. Any fool can do what’s right. It’s knowing what’s right that’s hard.”

My friend had unerringly focused upon his greatest concern as a judge. He was saying that while not everyone applied the law to his own conduct, it was not hard to do so, once the law had been determined. What was much more difficult was to determine what the law should be, and to decide between competing, attractive, and well-reasoned alternatives presented by articulate and sophisticated legal advocates. The more difficult thing for him was to determine which of two compelling courses was correct.

Is this not true in our lives as well? While not implying that we always are able to do what we know, nevertheless, let me suggest that what is infinitely more difficult is to choose or know what to do at the countless crossroads we face every day of our lives. This is especially true when the choices presented appear to be equally persuasive or attractive.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that you have been looking for a job for months. You are behind on your car payments, and unless you get something soon the finance company will repossess your automobile. It is early on a rainy November morning, and you are on your way to the most promising job interview you have ever had. But you are late; and what’s more, the gas gauge indicates that you will have just enough fuel to get there, if you are lucky.

You slow down for a stoplight and see an acquaintance standing in the rain at the bus stop. You are well aware that if you give your friend a ride you will be even later. You know, too, that unless you exceed the speed limit you won’t arrive at the appointed hour but if you get another moving violation, you will lose your license.

Obviously, a decision must be made—but what do you do? If each circumstance were considered separately, each of us would probably know what to do. Of course you should not speed; you should stop for gas; you should give your friend a helping hand; and the job is so important to your financial well-being and happiness that it merits almost any honorable effort to obtain it. But what do you do? Either you stop, or you don’t. Either you speed, or you do not. Does it matter if you break the law? Does it matter if you get the job? Does it matter if you lose your license? Is it important if you fail to give your friend a ride? Are there hidden and unforeseen consequences of possibly running out of gas, or of driving too fast? Are there eternal consequences as well?

In such instances, knowing what to do can be most difficult. And the consequences of making wrong choices can be permanent and irreversible.

Getting too close to sin; stopping in the wrong place or failing to stop at all; obeying or disregarding moral laws or the laws of the land—any or all of these choices may eternally affect the course of our existence. How, then, do we find the right course? And having found it, how do we maintain it?

It is relatively easy to stay on the strait and narrow path while traffic is light and the road is marked. But frequently along the way we meet others exercising their own free agency; and, without wanting it to be so, we find their demands and expectations influencing our behavior and coloring our choices. The tests come when friends say, “Come on. Don’t be a spoilsport,” or “It’s okay, everybody does it,” or “No one will know.”

It is difficult to prepare in advance answers to all of life’s questions, and applying what we know to the choices confronting us is never easy. The challenges of gospel living come to us not in circumstances of our own choosing, but in situations which we do not fully control. This is because in much of daily life the way is not lighted, and there is no precedent. Each of us must find and walk his or her own path as we struggle to implement the principles of perfection. While the scriptures provide much help and we can profit from the experiences of others, the fact remains that life is filled with lonely moments in which we alone must decide what we will or will not do.

Of course, the Lord knows all of this, and I am very certain that he wants it to be this way. He tells us, for example, “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.” (D&C 58:26–28.)

In other words, it is intended that we have a significant measure of discretion and control over our own lives. In areas where we are not commanded, we are to be agents unto ourselves. This means that we are not going to be controlled or commanded from heaven in these areas, whether or not we want to be.

Simply stated, we are on probation. The Lord says:

“And I give you a commandment, that ye shall foresake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.

“For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith.

“… for I have decreed in my heart, saith the Lord, that I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant, even unto death, that you may be found worthy.

“For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me.” (D&C 98:11–12, 14–15.)

Mortal probation requires that God’s children make conscious choices. Were it otherwise, we could not determine who we really are and what we really want. It is of this area—where no specific counsel or commandments have been given, where it is not known what to do or how to do it, where free agency is in absolute sway—that I speak. This is the sphere of which my friend on the Supreme Court said, “It is knowing what’s right that’s hard.”

Throughout our lives we will be required to choose between duty, or obligation, and other more-or-less attractive alternatives. Should we watch television or go visiting teaching? Should we spend time with the family or with friends? Do we read the scriptures or the latest novel? Do we leave the children home or take them with us? Do we go into debt or do without? Each of these choices, when made, excludes others. Otherwise, there could be no real probation. The designer of the plan of salvation made it that way. By allowing us to discover where our hearts are as the result of the free choices we make, he helps us learn who and what we really are.

Often we are required to choose between two good things: This is one of the paradoxes of the gospel. For example: there is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent on a particular calling and the amount of good one can do. A bishop does much good by visiting a needy member. He does ten times as much good by visiting ten needy members. How much time, then, should he spend visiting? We get close to the Lord by studying and pondering the scriptures. We get closer still by studying harder and pondering more deeply. How much, then, should we study? A good father spends time with his family. A better father spends more time and has a regular weekly evening out with his wife as well.

But where is the line to be drawn? When is enough, enough—and more too much? How can we tell if we are active enough, serving others enough, loving enough, home enough—or whether the balance needs to be readjusted? Aristotle once said:

“It is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle. … Anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. (“Man and Man: The Social Philosophers,” The World’s Great Thinkers, vol. II, ed. Saxe Cummins and Robert N. Linscott, New York: Random House, 1947, p. 352a.)

Could a man be a better husband if he spent every evening at home with his wife? Could he be a better husband if he had no children, thereby having all of his spare time to dedicate to her? The answer is a resounding no! No one—husband, wife, children, or church—has claim on the full time of someone else. Children, given their parents’ full-time attention, would be overshadowed and become dependent. The Church, with full-time bishops, would have a paid ministry and become an end in itself rather than a divine organization designed to help perfect the individual children of God.

Proper balance varies according to the specific needs and abilities of each member of the Church. But somewhere short of committing all our time to each of the great causes of family, church, employment, and self, there is a desirable balance, an obviously necessary one because of time limitations imposed upon us by our Creator. Let us not make the mistake of criticizing the inheritance of time given us by our Father. Let us rather look at which he would have us do with the time we have been given.

There are certain responsibilities we must assume in life. They are not, and indeed must not be, mutually exclusive. Each requires time. It takes time to be a father, a Relief Society president, a salesman, a student. Service takes time. Inevitably, there are conflicts. But the secret of better performance in one area may not necessarily be at the expense of another. The Lord did not intend that we be at ease in Zion. (2 Ne. 28:24.) He intended that all things be done in “wisdom and order.” (Mosiah 4:27.)

Proper balance usually does not mean that we take one road to the exclusion of all other roads. Rather, it is to go down as many roads as necessary, and not more, not farther than we should, so that we do not impede our progress on other paths which our Father in Heaven also expects us to walk. If this is so, then it becomes urgently important, as Elder Richard L. Evans has said, that we be “where we ought to be, when we ought to be there,” and that we be “doing what we should do when it ought to be done.” For we will be judged by the choices we have made; and the balance we have struck becomes what we are.

Now, can we, as Latter-day Saints, expect to succeed as we make decisions or attempt to find balance in our lives? As a humble servant of the Lord, I testify that we can.

At the conclusion of the first day of the Savior’s ministry among the Nephites, he taught them to pray. “Ye must always pray unto the Father in my name,” he said,

“And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.” (3 Ne. 18:19–20.)

I have often thought of this occasion as perhaps the greatest teaching moment in the recorded history of the world. The Nephites had only recently experienced the destruction of their cities, the deaths of their loved ones, the separation of families, the loss of homes and worldly possessions. They had survived turmoil and horror. They had known three days of total, impenetrable darkness. Of all the peoples on earth, they had much to pray for.

Then they heard a voice from heaven and saw the Son of Man descend from the sky. They heard him speak to them, and every word must have been permanently engraved upon their hearts. Under these circumstances Jesus Christ promised them that whatever they should ask the Father which was right would be given unto them. They remembered that, after he departed from them and ascended into heaven. The scripture records that they dispersed; but what they had seen and heard was noised abroad among the people before it was yet dark. Many people labored all through the night, that they might bring others on the morrow to the place where Jesus should show himself.

And when the morrow came, the Twelve who had been chosen to lead the people caused them to kneel and pray as they had been taught the day before. Of one mind, they prayed to the Father in the name of Jesus. Remembering his promise, they asked for that which they most desired. And of all the things that they could have prayed for—the restoration of health in their homes, the reuniting of loved ones, the healing of the sick and wounded, their leaders, their enemies—what was it they asked for? The scripture says simply: “They desired that the Holy Ghost should be given to them.” (3 Ne. 19:9.)

The Nephites undoubtedly had in mind the teachings of Nephi himself when he explained the function and purpose of the Holy Ghost. He had asked:

“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this straight and narrow path (which is to enter the Church by baptism and receive a remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost), I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say, unto you, Nay …

“… ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”

And then he added, most significantly, I believe:

“For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Ne. 31:19–20; 2 Ne. 32:5; italics added.)

Is it any wonder, then, that the Nephites wanted, above everything else, the Holy Ghost? For without him and the ability to know all things whatsoever they should do, they had no hope of returning to their Heavenly Father; they had no hope of successfully making right choices which would lead them to happiness and eternal life. They knew this elusive gift was the Holy Ghost.

The Nephites, after one day with the Savior, understood—perhaps better than we do—the terms of their probation. They comprehended the necessity of divine intervention in their lives to assist them in finding their way home.

Much mention is made of the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Church. Each of us who has been baptized has this gift. Collectively and individually, if we are worthy, it sets us apart and makes us different from all other people on earth. That statement may sound arrogant or presumptuous to some. I intend no offense. But either the gift means something or it does not. And if it does, we might best discover what it means, lest we find ourselves grouped with the man who had received one talent, and being afraid to use it, went and hid it in the earth. (See Matt. 25.)

It is difficult for me to illustrate this principle—not because I do not know the Holy Ghost, but because most of my encounters with him are too personal to recount here. Nevertheless, let me try to show you how the Holy Ghost has operated in my life, how he may operate in yours, and how we are unlike other men as a result.

A good number of years ago I found myself on a bus loaded with young men from all over the country. We were arriving at Castle Air Force Base in California to attend summer camp. We were cadets aspiring to be commissioned second lieutenants in the United States Air Force. As the bus entered the field, we got off and were met by a regular Air Force captain who assembled us in companies on the parade ground. Suitcases, duffle bags, civilian clothes were everywhere. We were given directions to the barracks and the commissary and were told to report to the parade grounds in dress uniforms at two o’clock that afternoon. I was assigned to lead the first company to the barracks.

It was an interesting summer. We spent much time in the classroom, some on the firing line, and some in the air. Each week there was a rotation of assignments; we all drew our fair share of disagreeable duty, and each week cadet officers were appointed to participate in special leadership training programs and to direct the lives of the rest of us.

As the summer wore on, I never received a leadership assignment. Then camp drew to an end and the last duty rosters were posted; I had been entirely overlooked as a cadet commander. Knowing that my success or failure in the Air Force depended in part on how well I performed in this capacity, I asked for and received an appointment with the officer in charge of the camp.

At the proper hour, I presented myself at his office. I saluted. When asked what I wished to discuss, I told him that I had noticed a mistake in the duty roster, and that I had not been given the rotating assignment of cadet commander. Without even looking up from his desk, the captain told me that he was aware of the omission. He had already decided that I had no future in the Air Force! As I started to protest, he said, “You remember the day that you got off the bus? I asked you to march the men to the barracks. As I watched you, I knew that you did not have what it takes to be an officer in the Air Force. The duty roster stands. You are dismissed.”

A flood of thoughts came to my mind. Years of preparation were suddenly of no avail. The course of my life hung in the balance. In my heart was a silent prayer—more of a question than a prayer, really. “Did I come this far to fail?” I asked myself. I found myself immobilized in front of the captain’s desk. I struggled for words. My career was important to me. To my surprise, I clicked my heels together, saluted smartly, and without having taken thought of what I should say, I said, “Begging the captain’s pardon, sir, but I was under the impression that we were going to be graded by what we learned while we were here, not by what we knew when we came.”

Now, you don’t talk that way to regular Air Force officers. There was no precedent for what I did or said, and at the time I didn’t know the source of my courage. But I do know that I felt I was at a crossroads. My future activities and associates would be different, depending on what happened at that moment. My temptations and trials would be different, depending upon what happened at that moment. I would be an enlisted man or an officer, depending on what happened at that moment. My career hung in the balance, as our lives so often do when little things can make so much difference.

The captain got up from his desk; he nearly bit his cigar in two. Obviously unaccustomed to such insubordination, he walked around to where I stood. He looked at my shoes, at my uniform, at my double chin as I held myself at strict military attention. For at least five minutes, although it seemed much longer, he circled me time after time. I simply stood there, not knowing what else to do. Finally he said, “I might have been wrong about you. Maybe you do have what it takes to be an officer in this man’s Air Force. We’ll change the duty roster; you can command your company during the last week’s activities. We’ll see what you can do.”

Do I believe that the Holy Ghost prompted me in what I said and did that day? Yes, I do. Could not someone else, a non-Latter-day Saint perhaps, have said the same thing, or something better, to achieve the same result? I don’t know. What I do know is that for me, at that moment, in that place, what I said and did was right. Someone else may have been more articulate; someone else may not have gotten into the difficulty in the first place. Others may have turned on their heels and left in the face of the captain’s displeasure. The course of their lives would have been different had they done so.

I have never looked back on that incident, because I am certain that what happened was right. I have no regrets, or have I ever given more than passing thought to what might have become of me had I left the captain’s office and the Air Force at that moment.

I know that one of our greatest blessings as Latter-day Saints is that we need never look back. We need never ask what might have been. Should I have dropped out of school or struggled to get my degree? Should I have married Sally instead of the girl I did marry? What if I had taken that job in the East instead of teaching school?

If we have been worthy, and if we have followed the guidance of the Spirit as manifested in the feelings of our heart, then we can know beyond doubt that what has been done was best. We can be certain, although there may have been trials or we may be having difficulties, that we are where the Lord would have us. We will know that, although the grass may seem greener elsewhere, our decision to enter this pasture was prompted and purposeful and preparatory.

Knowing these things, and knowing that for the most part we have done the Lord’s will, can bring peace and joy beyond expression. No other people on earth can ever have this blessing, for it comes from having the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

As I have better understood my relationship with the Holy Ghost, I have come to know:

What it is to unexpectedly change airplanes in a distant city, only to find after arriving home that an originally scheduled flight has been indefinitely delayed.

What it is to begin a missionary interview with the question, never asked before or since, “Elder, who have you been fighting with?”—and to hear the astonished reply, “President, how did you know?”

What it is to pay a surprise visit to a distant city only to hear someone say, “I have been praying for days that you would come.”

Occasionally, I have had time to pray and ponder before acting on the promptings of the Comforter. More often, I have found myself as Nephi, “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” (1 Ne. 4:6.)

The Lord told Joseph and Oliver, “It shall be given thee in the very moment what thou shalt speak and write.” (D&C 24:6.)

To Thomas B. Marsh he said, “Go your way whithersoever I will, and it shall be given you by the Comforter what ye shall do and whither you shall go.” (D&C 31:11.)

What to say! What to write! Where to go! What to do! Such guidance, if given infrequently for only some of life’s decisions, would be priceless. But the broader promise given to the Prophet Joseph, at Salem, Massachusetts was that “for the main,” (or for the most part) the place he should tarry would be revealed to him by the peace and power of the Spirit. (See D&C 111:8.) And the Three Witnesses were told that the Holy Ghost would manifest “all things which are expedient unto the children of men.” (D&C 18:18.)

This is of monumental significance. It is then easier to understand why President Marion G. Romney in the April 1974 general conference said, “The importance of receiving the Holy Ghost is beyond expression.” (In Conference Report, April 1974, p. 134.) But “beyond expression” must not mean beyond reverent thankfulness or beyond understanding. The world may not comprehend that the Holy Ghost manifests the “truth of all things.” (Moro. 10:5.) We know that he does.

The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith:

“God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;

“Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory.” (D&C 121:26–27.)

The gift has been given; what we make of it is up to us. Unless we listen to counsel, we will receive none. Unless we pray, exercise faith, love, obey, and keep the tabernacles of our spirits clean, we can have no claim upon this unspeakable gift.

May we so live to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us make wise decisions, and to apply what we know to what we do.