Not long ago, I asked several members of my family to identify some of the best sermons found in the scriptures—sermons that contained important doctrines, principles, and teachings. Our discussions generated a list that, while not comprehensive, has served as my recent focus for studying the scriptures. One of these great discourses was Jacob’s speech to the Nephites recorded in 2 Nephi 6–10. Among the passages that impressed me as I studied Jacob’s words was his rebuke of those who were learned, rich, and proud. He made the comment: “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Ne. 9:28).
For years I have had this verse marked in my scriptures. At times I have wondered what this meant for me personally. Was learning bad? Was it wrong to pursue an advanced education? What did Jacob mean when he said “their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not”? Certainly, we get a major clue from the next verse, which reads, “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:29).
As I was growing up in southern California, my father always encouraged me to do well in school and get the best education I could. He was a good example to me, too, as I frequently found him reading a good book in the evening and expanding his mind on various subjects. Prior to our annual vacations, he would read up on places of interest. He would then educate us about them en route, as well as taking us to these places. Once, on a trip to the eastern United States, I thought he must have been an authority on the Revolutionary War. On another trip, we stopped at a glass factory. I thought he must have invented glass. Not until I was much older did I learn that he had never graduated from high school, as his father needed his help on the family farm that last year and beyond, which prevented him from completing the 12th grade.
Not long after I completed my mission, my father suddenly passed away. Remembering his admonition to get a good education, I continued to pursue my college education. My family and my wife’s family wondered if I would ever finish, for after graduating with a bachelor’s degree and getting married, I proceeded to earn a master’s degree, then a Ph.D. in immunology, followed by additional post-doctoral training. During these years, I frequently read and pondered Jacob’s words: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:29). Was I hearkening to the Lord’s counsels? I at least hoped I was. I am grateful for the support of a wife who kindly helped me keep gospel goals in perspective.
Along my path I have met some who seemed to be following Jacob’s teachings on this point and others who were not. One principle the learned sometimes struggle with is the Word of Wisdom. A former bishop recently shared with me part of a conversation he had years ago with a successful physician. This man had been moderately active in the Church but attended his meetings only rarely after he began his medical practice. When the bishop invited him for an interview, the doctor told him, “Bishop, I can never be successful in my career and live the Word of Wisdom. I need to drink socially in order to climb the ladder of success.” As a consequence, none of his family is now active in the gospel. Is this success?
In certain professional circles I have seen how this commandment can be a stumbling block for some, but it has never really been a challenge for me and I have felt blessed in this regard.
Another common aspect of higher learning that has caused some to stumble is the theory of evolution. Some have felt they could not reconcile geological or biological evidence with the little we know about the Creation from the scriptures and the teachings of our modern prophets. I recall having had some of these questions in my early 20s. However, I distinctly recall an experience in a biochemistry class during my first year of graduate school. During a weekday lecture about the enzymatic steps involved in glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to lactic acid), an overwhelming sense of peace came upon me with an impression from the Spirit that someday I would understand how our world came to be. The beauty and perfection of how living things operate left me little doubt of the divine origin of life. Everything I learned that semester strengthened my testimony of how beautiful (and complex) life is and how divine the Creation had to be. I have been satisfied since then that the dozens of questions I continue to have will someday be answered when I pass from this life and no longer “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Until then, I am content to walk by faith so that the plethora of interesting and fascinating data does not cause me to doubt my faith or think I am “learned” and “wise” and need not “hearken unto the counsels of God.”
Are there other pursuits or talents that could be applied to Jacob’s statement “When they are learned they think they are wise. … But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:28–29)? What about a musical or athletic talent? What about a hobby, a business pursuit, or some other interest? While all these things can be good, if we carry them to an extreme, to the exclusion of the things of God, we can get our lives out of balance and even lose the guidance of the Lord’s Spirit.
This is probably one reason Jesus taught, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). What happens to us when we spend the majority of our time and energy playing or listening to music, practicing or playing a sport, gardening, or working too many hours at our jobs, and thus neglect the things of God? We may find we have crowded our lives with too many good things and not left sufficient time for weightier matters: personal and family prayer morning and night, daily personal and family scripture study, weekly family home evening, regular church attendance, Christian service to others, and regular temple worship. Without realizing it, we move farther and farther from the Lord and become unbalanced in our lives. If we are not careful, we can fall into a situation similar to that of the Nephites in Helaman’s or Mormon’s time when “they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and … the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them” (Hel. 4:24; see also Morm. 2:26).
I am grateful for my father’s encouragement to get a good education; it has permitted me to pursue a satisfying career and also to serve others. The more I have learned about science, the more I have realized how little I know and how much there is to learn about how the immune system and other systems of the body operate and how glorious indeed God’s creations are. I am also grateful for the Lord’s teachings through the scriptures, His living prophets and apostles, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. And I am thankful for how living the gospel brings balance, joy, and fulfillment to our lives. Not only is it good to be learned if we hearken to the counsels of God; it is good to be accomplished in anything worthwhile—provided we hearken first to the counsels of God.