The Gift of Knowing


F. Burton Howard
Adapted from a talk given at a Brigham Young University fireside.

After graduating from law school, I was fortunate to get a position as a clerk at the Utah Supreme Court. I learned how the court works and I came to know the judges personally. I clearly remember listening to the persuasive arguments of lawyers for opposing parties and being influenced first by one side and then by the other. 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 a court. My friend, the chief justice, was weary. In a few months he would be old enough to retire and leave all the court 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 said, “Oh, Judge, 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 and said, “Burt. Any fool can do what’s right. It’s knowing what’s right that’s hard.”

My friend had just shared 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 intelligent lawyers. The more difficult thing for him was to determine which of two sides represented was correct.

Difficult to Choose

Is this not true in our lives as well? It is difficult to choose or know what to do at each of the countless crossroads we face every day of our lives. This is especially true when the choices presented appear to be equally good.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that you have been looking for a job for months. You borrowed money to buy a car, and unless you get a job soon the finance company will repossess the car. 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 fuel gauge shows that you will have just enough fuel to get there, if you’re lucky.

You slow down for a traffic light and see a friend 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 drive faster than you should, you won’t arrive at the appointed time—but if you get another traffic violation for speeding, you will lose your driving 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 break the law of the land and speed; you should stop for fuel; you should help your friend; and the job is so important to your financial well-being and happiness that you should make 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 cause of our existence. How, then, do we find the right course? And having found it, how do we maintain it?

The Challenge of Gospel Living

It is relatively easy to stay on the strait and narrow path while there is not much traffic, and while 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, 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 many of our daily choices are new ones; there are no precedents. 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 amount of 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 unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake 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.)

Knowing What’s Right Is Hard

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—that I refer to. This is the area 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 a novel? Do we leave our 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, volume II, edited by Saxe Cummins and Robert N. Linscott, New York: Random House, 1947, page 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.

A Desirable Balance

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 what 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 many 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 slow 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 created becomes what we are.

“Ye Must Always Pray”

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 scriptures say 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 strait and narrow path (which is to enter the Church by baptism and receive a remission of sins and this 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 valuable 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.

Where the Lord Would Have Us

Much mention is made of the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Church. Each of us who has been baptized has the gift. Collectively and individually, if we are worthy, it sets us apart and makes us different from all other people on earth.

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 be trials or difficulties, that we are where the Lord would have us.

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.

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 shall 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 said, “The importance of receiving the Holy Ghost is beyond expression.” (General Conference, April 1974.) 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 incredible 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.

[illustration] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

[illustration] Illustrated by Ted Henninger