I Have a Question

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    Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

    As a teacher in the Church, how can I help my students apply the principles of the lessons in their lives?

    Kathryn M. Kleekamp, institute instructor, Bedford, Massachusetts. The emphasis in gospel instruction is clear: In every lesson we teach, we are to communicate truth—gospel principles, doctrine, and history—and our witness of Jesus Christ. Our presentation of these truths and testimony are geared toward a change in behavior, an attempt to inspire students to alter their lives for the better. That is one of the reasons the Church manuals and courses of study are written as they are. If students are to benefit from these lessons, therefore, they must be able to feel their testimonies being strengthened by the witness of gospel truths, or see how to implement in their own lives the principles being taught.

    The ideal class would be one in which these aims are accomplished: Under the inspiration of the Spirit of the Lord, the teacher (1) presents truths, and (2) gives the members of the class an opportunity to discuss ways to make the principles part of their lives.

    Most of us sincerely want to live the principles of the gospel. But sometimes we lack the understanding, motivation, or discipline to actually implement them in our lives. Unless we discuss matters realistically in our gospel classes—beyond statements of ideal behavior—we as teachers aren’t being as effective as we could be.

    A method that has worked for me as a teacher is to present the lesson material as outlined in the lesson manual, then make time for class discussions based on the following three topics:

    1. The obstacles that may prevent us from implementing the gospel principle being discussed.

    2. Ways to overcome the obstacles.

    3. The benefits of incorporating the principle in our lives.

    Let’s suppose, for example, that the lesson is about keeping a journal. After presenting the basic points of the lesson, you could then ask the class to consider some obstacles: “Why is it difficult for some to keep a journal?” Or “What are the obstacles that prevent us from writing regularly?” These questions allow the class members an opportunity to identify with the topic of the lesson and, in a comfortable atmosphere, discuss possible obstacles, such as “It’s difficult to find the time.”

    If an issue more sensitive than writing in a journal is being considered, you should present the obstacles in a way that the students don’t have to expose themselves. For example, you could think through the issue beforehand and state reasonable obstacles. If you know your students well, you will be able to pinpoint the real obstacles they may be experiencing in their lives rather than using trite or contrived excuses. You could talk to various individuals before the class, and then in class state the obstacles they mention in a general way without labeling the sources. A third method is to use role-play or dramatization, allowing class members to act out life’s situations.

    Discussing obstacles is an important step. If you concentrate only on the idealistic approach, you run the risk of turning off those who feel alienated, inadequate, or alone in their struggles. But by openly recognizing impediments, class members come to realize that others, too, are experiencing struggles and challenges similar to their own.

    On the other hand, it would be unwise to dwell on obstacles too long or to get bogged down in discussions of mediocre behavior. Move the discussion quickly to ways to deal with these obstacles productively. This allows an opportunity for those who have had success to share their insights and experiences. For example: “Although I don’t have much time to write, I consistently try to record just one significant event of my day.”

    Anticipating the various obstacles that members may have with the principle, you could come to class prepared to share examples of others who have been successful. For example, in the case of journal writing, you could share the words of President Spencer W. Kimball: “There have been times when I have been so tired at the end of a day that the effort could hardly be managed, but I am so grateful that I have not let slip away from me and my posterity those things which needed to be recorded.” (Ensign, Oct. 1980, p. 72.)

    The third step is to consider the benefits of obeying the principle. This allows the discussion to end on a positive, encouraging, spiritual note. Here you and other class members can point out through testimony, personal experience, counsel of our leaders, or the teachings of the Savior the value of implementing the gospel principle in our lives.

    This simple three-part plan—a discussion of obstacles, of how to deal with them, and of the benefits of obedience—is one that can be adapted to almost any principle of the gospel. It helps capture student interest, provides for discussion, and allows time for the expression of feelings and concerns. However, it can lose its effectiveness if used too often. And it may not be effective at all for some lessons.

    Whatever approach you use, try to help your students see the relevance of gospel principles in their lives. The classroom should be a forum of sincere communication, a source of trust, support, and encouragement, in which the sharing of important information is coupled with efforts for improvement in people’s lives.

    Jesus once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24.) Can you give me some background on this statement?

    John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. Over the years, biblical commentators have taken three approaches in exploring the meaning of this scripture. The first of these has found wide acceptance among Christians because of the beauty of its teachings. It holds that in ancient times there was a small gate cut inside the larger gate of the city through which one might enter after nightfall, when the city was closed. Although this small gate—termed the “eye of the needle”—could readily admit a man, a camel could enter only by first being relieved of its burden and then by walking through on its knees. The imagery here is that of the sinner casting away his faults (or the rich man his worldly possessions) and kneeling in prayer.

    Unfortunately, there are problems with this beautiful explanation. One is that the camel’s anatomy does not permit it to crawl on its knees. More serious, however, is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the use of such small inset gates in the time of Christ. One may see them today in Jerusalem and Damascus, where the local tour guides will call them by the term “eye of the needle,” but there are no such gates dating prior to the twelfth century A.D. Moreover, the guides have taken the term “eye of the needle” from modern commentators of the Matthew passage and not from an authentic ancient tradition.

    A second possibility is that Jesus actually used the word “rope,” the Greek form of which (kamilos) is similar to the word used for “camel” in Matthew 19:24 (kamelos) [Matt. 19:24]. The rope, after all, is just a larger version of string or thread, which one would expect to use with a needle.

    A third possibility is that Jesus really meant to say “camel” and that his speech was deliberate hyperbole—exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis—common in that part of the world. Dummelow, for example, cites the Greek saying, “It is easier to hide five elephants under one’s arm,” and the Latin, “More easily would a locust bring forth an elephant.” Alongside these, he notes the tradition in which one rabbi said to another, “Perhaps thou art one of those of Pombeditha, who can make an elephant pass through a needle’s eye.” The parallel with Jesus’ statement is remarkable, suggesting a lingering use in Judaism of this particular kind of hyperbole. (J. R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, New York: MacMillan, 1973, pp. 689–90.)

    Evidence suggesting that hyperbole may have been intended when Jesus spoke of the camel and the needle’s eye comes from the fact that his hearers understood the impossibility of the statement and “were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” To this, Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:25–26; italics added.)

    Jesus’ use of hyperbole is found in another of his sayings: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24.) Obviously, those to whom he addressed these words did not really swallow camels!

    The prophet Joseph Smith knew that the Savior’s words about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel were not to be taken literally. In his translation (JST, Matt. 23:21), he deleted reference to swallowing the camel and wrote, “Ye blind guides, who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law.” The real intent of Jesus’ hyperbolic teaching is to be found in this translation, though the wording is not literal.

    Hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, found in the Old as well as the New Testament, remains even today a part of everyday speech in the Middle East. It is a linguistic and cultural trait common to that area. Its usage in the Bible does not diminish the importance or the truthfulness of that sacred volume. Rather, it places it geographically and adds to its authenticity.

    All three possible explanations of Matthew 19:24—the gate, the rope, and the Jewish figure of speech—have been mentioned by prominent Latter-day Saint leaders. (See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973, pp. 485–6; Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:556.)

    In any event, the idea is clear—riches can become a serious stumbling block to a person seeking eternal life.