How can we avoid relying too much on our intellectual powers while ignoring the Spirit, or expecting spiritual solutions while ignoring our own power to reason things out for ourselves?
You are probably familiar with the great insight the Lord gave Oliver Cowdery when Oliver failed in his attempt to translate the Book of Mormon.
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought.” (D&C 9:7–9.)
According to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, this means that we must “do everything in our power to accomplish the goal that we seek. We use the agency with which we have been endowed. We use every faculty and capacity and ability that we possess to bring about the eventuality that may be involved. … There’s a fine balance between agency and inspiration.” (“Agency or Inspiration—Which?”, Address given at BYU on February 27, 1973).
President Marion G. Romney described how he has found this balance:
“When confronted with a problem I prayerfully weigh in my mind alternative solutions and come to a conclusion as to which of them is best. Then in prayer I submit to the Lord my problem, tell him I desire to make the right choice, what is, in my judgment, the right course. Then I ask him if I have made the right decision to give me the burning in my bosom that He promised Oliver Cowdery. …
“When we learn to distinguish between the inspiration that comes from the Spirit of the Lord and that which comes from our own uninspired hopes and desires, we need make no mistakes.” (New Era, October 1975, p. 35.)
How do we determine when enough homework has been done and, consequently, we have a right to a spiritual confirmation? How can we become a master at knowing when we have received a spiritual witness? I will try to define the elusive balance of the intellectual approach versus the spiritual approach by giving examples of two extremes.
On one side of the spectrum is the person who sees very little need to call upon the Lord. This person may be a scholar. He wants to be independent and free in his thinking and not tied to absolute truths. He may spend his life trying to solve intellectual puzzles. He does not take seriously the counsel of general or local authorities.
The other end of the spectrum is just as dangerous and probably a greater threat to most of us. A person on this end of the spectrum thinks like this: “I know the Church is true, and I have received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I am a worthy member of the Church and, therefore, have access to the Spirit.” When faced with a problem he will pray for an answer; then he takes as inspiration the first thought that comes into his mind. Many times an idea or solution that comes without appropriate reasoning is nothing better than a hunch. There are times of instant inspiration, but they are rare and usually involve an emergency. Some very bad decisions have been made by people who “feel really good” about something they have failed to reason out or even use common sense.
With those two extremes in mind, I would now like to give some examples which might help us attain that elusive balance between the spiritual and intellectual faculties. About seven years ago I was working as the new managing director of the Welfare Services Department of the Church. We were at a critical stage in the history of welfare. It was time to go through an agonizing reappraisal of the program in light of current world conditions. I was greatly worried and concerned.
After praying for a solution, I had a terrific thought. I decided I would ask to meet with some of the General Authorities. When I met with them, I poured out my concerns and added my feeling that we were at a stage where further revelation on the subject was necessary. Then I sat back with my note pad and waited for their inspired answers.
None of them just gave me the answers. Instead, each gave me the same counsel: “Brother Pace, you are absolutely right, we do need revelation. Now, go get it!” I had to study and research and meditate to formulate some recommendations that I could then take back to the Brethren.
Although study and thought are essential in discerning the Lord’s will for us, there is an avenue to truth greater than intellect and more certain than the five senses. The most glorious of all avenues to truth is direct revelation from heaven.
A saving testimony of the Book of Mormon will never come from a spectacular historical or archaeological find. If the Lord meant for our testimonies to be based on physical, historical evidence other than scripture, he would send Moroni with the golden plates.
While on my mission the question I dreaded most was “Where are the golden plates today?” I didn’t enjoy the looks we got when we answered, “The angel took them back.” I didn’t comprehend then what I know now. Even if experts were able to hold and weigh and test the plates, their opinions would still vary. Even if my companion and I had been able to take Moroni with us from door to door, our converts would not have increased. Without a confirmation of the Spirit, people would not believe Moroni; any more than they would believe us.
Do you remember what the Lord told Joseph regarding Martin Harris’s desire to see the plates? “Behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you should show them all these things which I have committed unto you” (D&C 5:7).
There is no other way to gain a testimony but through the promise of Moroni. You can rely on nothing else. Spiritual manifestations are generally reserved for the spiritually mature, not so much as a trial of faith as to assure that sacred manifestations are not mocked.
Conversion comes not by physical manifestations from heaven. Laman and Lemuel observed many miraculous manifestations, such as that recorded in 1 Nephi 3:30–31 [1 Ne. 3:30–31]: “And after the angel had spoken unto us, he departed.
“And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?”
Nephi couldn’t believe it and said, “and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt?” (1 Ne. 4:3). Here we have an example of knowledge being of no eternal value because the Spirit was absent.
Nephi defined Laman’s and Lemuel’s problem in 1 Nephi 17:45 [1 Ne. 17:45]. “Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling.”
If we do not learn to recognize the witness of the Spirit, Satan can thoroughly confuse us with his own demonstrations. How, then, can we acquire the ability to recognize a witness of the Spirit?
First, eliminate the guilt you feel when you have fallen short of your spiritual expectations. Have you ever been certain you have received a spiritual witness only to have subsequent events prove you were in error? Have you ever dismissed what you later found out was a genuine spiritual witness? We have more patience with our failures in learning to ski than we do in learning how to recognize the Spirit. When we fall going down the slope, we get up, laugh at ourselves, and try again. When we have a failure in recognizing the Spirit we feel great guilt and are reluctant to go forward. It’s natural to have spiritual setbacks. It’s okay. It’s all right. Stay with it.
We all know it takes years of practice to become a professional athlete. However, we expect to be overnight successes in spiritual things.
Joseph Smith said, “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation until you become perfect in Christ Jesus” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 151).
Please note he said, “you may grow into the principle of revelation.” To become proficient in basketball one practices shooting countless shots. By repeating successful approaches and changing failures, the player gets the uncanny ability of knowing as soon as the ball leaves his hands whether the shot will be good or not.
In spiritual matters we need to learn exactly when we have had a witness of the Spirit and when we have had a counterfeit thrown at us by Satan or by our own ambition and desire. How many of you young men have told your girlfriend, “I have received a spiritual witness that you are to be my wife”? In some cases I would suggest the witness is more a desire than a spiritual manifestation. If you receive that witness, put it to the test. Ask her to marry you, if she says yes, you were right; if she says no, you were wrong. But keep your witness to yourself. She is perfectly capable of receiving her own revelation.
What does a spiritual confirmation feel like? It’s the feeling you have when you read the Book of Mormon or when you talk of heavenly things with your parents or a valued friend. Learn to recognize it and follow that feeling.
If it were possible, I would lay down a formula for instant and certain success. Because the variables change each day, consistent success is very difficult to obtain. We may be in tune more on one day than another. We may be more emotionally vulnerable one day than another. However, with all the variables there is one constant. The Spirit witnesses only the truth.
If your success ratio for recognizing the Spirit is low, ask yourself these questions:
1. How well am I living the commandments?
2. Am I studying the scriptures in order that I might be more attuned to spiritual things?
3. Am I praying with real intent?
4. Have I done my homework and gone to the Lord with a well-thought-out solution?
5. Have I learned to recognize a stupor of thought?
6. Can I honestly say “thy will be done,” and I am willing to take “no” for an answer?
Don’t fail to invest adequate time learning things of the Spirit. I’m not speaking of religion classes, although I heartily endorse them. I’m speaking of learning how to recognize and obtain revelation. It’s a lifetime course, but you don’t have to wait until graduation to receive benefits. The rewards are immediate as you begin to achieve that elusive balance between intellectual pursuits and the promptings of the Spirit.