Four Steps to Learning


Russell M. Nelson

We all understand the importance of education. Perhaps we should consider how to learn. May I suggest four steps to facilitate the learning process.

1. The first is to have a great desire to know the truth. As a teacher of surgery for many years, I have observed the differences of individuals to learn. Before every operation there is a set period of time for scrubbing hands clean. Some trainees have either been silent or have passed this time with trivial conversations that had no substance. Those with desire filled that time with questions. I observed that students with great desire know what they don’t know and seek to fill those voids.

2. The second step would be to study with an inquiring mind. Again, I take this pattern from the scriptures. You remember that when the brother of Jared was preparing to cross the ocean, he realized there was no provision for light in the ships. So he asked the Lord, “Shall we cross this great water in darkness?”

The Lord gave an interesting reply: “What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? … Ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you. … Ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea” (Ether 2:22–24). The Lord could have told the brother of Jared what to do, but he was left to study this out in his own mind. As a result, he selected sixteen stones and then asked the Lord to touch them that they might provide the light for their travel.

That same concept was again stressed in latter-day revelation, when the Lord told his servant, “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.” (D&C 9:7–8.)

Many of the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants were given to the prophets only after concentrated study on their part and after asking thoughtful, specific questions of the Lord. That’s the way it was with the Word of Wisdom and the revelation on the priesthood given to President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. Similarly, you will best learn with the spirit of inquiry.

3. The third step is to apply or practice your learning in your daily lives. Those who have learned another language know how important that is. Even with great desire and study, mastery of a language comes only as it is applied to the daily situations of life.

4. The fourth and very important step in the learning process is to pray for help. As a surgeon, I did not hesitate to communicate with the Lord in great detail, about any surgery I was about to perform. In my prayers I would even include any new technical procedures I might be using. Often just the process of going over it in my mind while engaged in prayer allowed divine direction for me to see a better way.

Now may I offer important words of warning: Learning, if misused, can destroy your goals. Let us consider some safeguards to protect you from such an undesirable end.

Your faith must also be nourished. Enrich that faith with private scriptural study and with exposure to other fine books, art, and music. Nourish the gifts of the Spirit on the same daily basis that you feed your physical body.

Choose good role models. Before you endorse all the teachings of any teacher, ask yourself if his or her faith is strong enough to be worthy of following. If it isn’t, be very discriminating in what you learn from such an individual. Remember that the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are the standards by which you should measure all doctrine.

Avoid poisons of faith such as sin, pornography, or barely abiding the letter of the law instead of embracing the ennobling spirit of the law. Remember, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6.)

Many challenges will be put in your way. For example, you will hear allegations that the Church is “anti-intellectual.” But you are the greatest evidence proving that statement is wrong. Individually, you have been encouraged to learn and to seek knowledge from any dependable source. In the Church, we embrace all truth, whether it comes from the scientific laboratory or from the revealed word of the Lord. We accept all truth as being part of the gospel. One truth does not contradict another.

Through generations of time, some of the greatest “intellectuals” have been those with the strongest faith. Socrates felt that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had unwavering faith in God, freedom, and immortality. So deeply did he believe in the doctrine of immortality of the soul that although he might have prolonged his earthly life by choosing exile, he submitted with complete serenity to the death sentence of the Athenian court.

The great French chemist Louis Pasteur [1822–1895] said:

“The Greeks have given us one of the most beautiful words in our language, the word enthusiasm, which means ‘a God within.’ Happy is he who bears a God within!” [See Rene J. Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), page 392.]

Consider the Council of the Twelve. Seven of them have earned college degrees, while others have been awarded honorary degrees. Of course, their educational attainments have not qualified them for their spiritual callings. However, their scholarly pursuits indicate how supportive they are of the divine decrees to gain knowledge.

Fortify yourselves against attacks on the leaders of the Church. They have never purported to be perfect or even close to it. In fact, the Lord described them as “the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised.” But, the Lord continued, they will “thrash the nations by the power of my Spirit.” (D&C 35:13.)

Under brutal attack by his critics, Joseph Smith said, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught. Must I, then, be thrown away as a thing of naught?” (Teachings, page 368.)

As you edify yourselves with education for the eternities, search the scriptures. Liken them unto you. Learn the law in the kingdom of your own activity. Use the standard works as literal standards of eternal excellence against which you measure every thought and deed.

[illustration] Illustrated by Don Weller

Prior to his call to be a member of the Council of the Twelve in April 1984, Elder Russell M. Nelson was an internationally renowned heart surgeon and medical researcher. He had served as general president of the Sunday School, a stake president, and a regional representative. This article is based on a fireside talk at Brigham Young University.