Learn Wisdom in Thy Youth


This article is taken from a speech delivered at BYU on January 9, 1968, and recently printed in “Learning for the Eternities,” comp. George J. Romney, Deseret Book Company, 1977.

It was the Psalmist who said:

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

With this thought in mind, the Psalmist pleaded:

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Ps. 90:10, 12. Italics added.)

Sooner or later, in this life or the next, every person will learn the significance of applying his heart “unto wisdom.” Some learn it too late. Others learn it before it is everlastingly too late, but only after bitter experience that leaves long-lasting scars. A fortunate few are wise enough to learn wisdom in their youth. It is my prayer and hope and desire that each of us may find ourselves in this last group.

As an example of learning wisdom too late, I call attention to the statement of Samuel the Lamanite prophet to those Nephites in the land of Zarahemla who “did still remain in wickedness.” Pleading with them to forsake their inordinate love of riches and general indifference to the word of the Lord, he foretold the calamities which would befall their continued wickedness.

“And behold [said he], the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; …

“And in the days of your poverty ye shall cry unto the Lord; and in vain shall ye cry, for your desolation is already come upon you, and your destruction is made sure; and then shall ye weep and howl … and say:

“O that I had repented, … O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; …

“Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are circled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.

“But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Hel. 13:31–33, 37–38. Italics added.)

It later became Mormon’s sad responsibility to record the literal fulfillment of this prediction. (See Morm. 1:16–19.)

These people experienced the tragic consequences of failing to apply their “hearts unto wisdom” until it was too late to obtain the blessings of repentance in this life.

In another example of learning wisdom too late, Shakespeare has Cardinal Wolsey, after falling from eminence and power, say:

Cromwell, I charge thee,
fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels;
how can man, then,
The image of his Maker,
hope to win by’t?

Then comes Shakespeare’s comment on wisdom:

Love thyself last: …
Corruption wins not more
than honesty. …
… be just and fear not.
Let all the ends thou aim’st
at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s: then,
if thou fall’st, O
Cromwell!
Thou fall’st a blessed
martyr. …
… O Cromwell,
Cromwell!
Had I but serv’d my God
with half the zeal
I serv’d my King, he would
not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

(King Henry VIII, act III, scene 2.)

The Savior portrays the prodigal son as applying wisdom before it is everlastingly too late, but only after suffering irreparable loss. “When he came to himself” and returned home, the prodigal received a royal welcome, but he did not regain his inheritance.

An Australian author emphasizes this point in this rather unique and picturesque language:

“A young man has reached an absolute poise of incentive. [That is, he is at the crossroads, with power to make his decisions.] He tosses a shekel. ‘Heads—I go, and see life; tails—I stay at home. Heads it is.’ The alternative is accepted; whereupon destiny puts in her poke, bringing such vicissitudes as are inevitable on the initial option. In due time, another alternative presents itself, and the poise of incentive recurs. [He has foolishly squandered his substance and must make another decision. He can either eke out an existence as a swineherd or he can return home and start over. So he] … spits on a chip, and tosses it. ‘Wet—I crawl back home; dry—I see it out. Wet it is.’ So he goes to meet the ring, and the robe, and the fatted calf. His latter alternative has taken him home; and a felicitous option on ‘his father’s’ part has given him a welcome. But the … farm is gone. The ‘father’ himself cannot undo the effect of his son’s refusal to learn wisdom in time to preserve his inheritance.” (Collins, Such Is Life, pp. 85–88.)

Now I know that sometimes this prodigal son story is used to point up the forgiving nature of the father and the jealous and unforgiving nature of the faithful son. But, the lesson of the prodigal’s irretrievable loss should not be overlooked.

Since, however, we are all prodigals to some extent, it is indeed fortunate for us that there are some examples which assure us that we can avoid the tragedy of those who learn wisdom too late.

We have one such example in Saul of Tarsus—who later became Paul the apostle. We have another in Alma the younger. Although in their young manhood these two men forsook the paths of wisdom, they later repented and came all the way back. In order to do so, however, it was necessary for them to suffer that “godly sorrow” which “worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10) and thereafter diligently apply their “hearts unto wisdom.” We learn from their own writings that they never forgot their follies and therefore must have regretted them all their lives. They did, however, obtain forgiveness and find peace within themselves and with their Maker. Our knowledge that they did so should strengthen our faith and give us hope and courage that even though we have strayed, in some degree, from the paths of wisdom, we likewise can, if we will, come all the way back. The forgiveness and peace that they obtained we can also obtain. In order to do so, however, we must repent as sincerely, learn wisdom, and “apply our hearts unto” it as diligently as did they.

In Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, he indicated that his experience in coming back was meant to be a pattern for us.

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord [he said], for … he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry;

“Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, … but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.

“And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant. …

“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”

And then this important thought:

“Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (1 Tim. 1:12–16. Italics added.)

Perhaps no one, however—not even Paul—has ever been better qualified than was Alma to appreciate the imperative need to learn wisdom. Having failed to learn it in his early youth, he was brought to an understanding of it through a most dramatic and painful experience—an experience which not only worked in him a miraculous transformation, but made of him a most persuasive advocate for learning wisdom in one’s youth.

Although wellborn and well-taught, Alma was, in his early manhood, an unbeliever. The record describes him as “a very wicked and an idolatrous man.” Being “a man of many words” (Mosiah 27:8), he, through flattery, encouraged much iniquity among the people.

In his first reference to Alma, Mormon said that “while he [and the Sons of Mosiah were] going about to destroy the church of God, [an] angel of the Lord appeared unto them [descending] as it were in a cloud.” The angel “spake … with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake.” Among other things, he said to Alma, “Go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more … even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off.” (See Mosiah 27:10–11, 16.)

“When I heard [this, Alma later said,] I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.

“But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

“Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

“Yea, and I had … led [many of his children] away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

“Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.” (Alma 36:11–15.)

[And this reminds me of the statement in the Doctrine and Covenants that says, “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God.” (D&C 121:45.)

“And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

“And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

“Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.” (Alma 36:16–18.)

“And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more.”

He doesn’t say he couldn’t remember his sins; he said, “I could remember my pains no more.” I don’t know whether or not you can get your memory of your sins wiped out by repentance. I’ve never forgotten anything that I can remember! But he was not pained by his memories, he said.

“And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

“And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

“Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” (Alma 36:19–21.)

Someday we will all understand that, for we will stand before our Maker and we will either have the pain because of the memory of our unrepented sins or we will have the joy of knowing that our sins are washed away.

“Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

“But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.” (Alma 36:22–23.)

Such was the dramatic experience that brought Alma to his senses and induced him to apply his heart unto wisdom. This transformation marked the beginning of a phenomenal career.

Soon thereafter his father conferred upon him the office of high priest, which made him the presiding officer of the church. Almost immediately after his conversion, King Mosiah appointed him state historian. During the rest of his life—a period of about 20 years—in church, historical, judicial, governmental, military, missionary, gospel teaching, and prophetic service, he learned about every fundamental thing a human being can learn in this life.

In intellect, experience, faith, service, and wisdom, Alma has few peers in sacred history.

One measure of the stature of this man Alma is the fact that 120 pages—almost one-fourth of the 491 pages of the Nephite record, which covers a time period of 1,000 years—is devoted to the 20 years during which he was the dominant figure in the Nephite nation. His prowess as a historian is further witnessed by the fact that 116 pages of the 120 pages of Mormon’s abridgement are taken from the record that Alma himself kept.

A year after his appointment as historian, when under the reign of King Mosiah the form of government was changed, Alma, by the voice of the people, “was appointed to be the first chief judge.” (Mosiah 29:42.) In this capacity he was both chief justice and administrative head of state. As chief justice, the record says “he did judge righteous judgments.” (Mosiah 29:43.)

As head of state, he was also commander in chief. Unlike ordinary commanders in chief, however, he himself led his armies in the field.

After several successful military campaigns and a succeeding period of peace and prosperity, a moral decline set in among church members. Alma became so concerned that he did a most unusual thing; he resigned his positions as chief justice, head of state, and commander in chief.

“And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people [and] preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no [other] way that he might reclaim them.” (Alma 4:19.)

For the remainder of his life—about 10 years—Alma carried on a missionary and gospel teaching campaign seldom, if ever, excelled. As a matter of fact, he and those who were with him, began at the time of their conversion “to teach the people, … traveling round about through all the land, publishing to all the people the things which they had heard and seen, and preaching the word of God in much tribulation, being greatly persecuted by those who were unbelievers.” (Mosiah 27:32.)

Space does not permit us here to follow Alma through his missionary travels nor to consider the numerous profound gospel doctrines he expounded with such consummate skill, wisdom, and inspiration. He himself was a great prophet and received many revelations.

As to his own knowledge of the things he taught, he said:

“Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things … are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?

“Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.” (Alma 5:45–46.)

While the Prophet Joseph Smith was languishing in Liberty jail, he wrote:

“The things of God are of deep import, and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts, 3:295.)

As I review Alma’s life, it seems to me that he fully qualifies—under this statement—to lead souls unto salvation. He rose from the darkest abyss to contemplate the broad expanse of eternity and he communed with God.

I have given you this review of Alma’s life in order to qualify Alma as a witness of the message that I want to give you. His life experiences, as we have seen, ranged from the sorrow of the damned to the joy of the redeemed. From his experiences he learned much. Being a historian, he learned from history; being chief high priest, he learned from church discipline; being head of state, he learned statecraft; being chief justice, he learned the law; being commander in chief, he learned the lessons of war; being a righteous man, he became acquainted with God.

Being a father, his greatest concern was for the welfare of his children. In the last year of his mortality, with their eternal welfare in mind, “he caused that his sons should be gathered together, that he might give unto them every one his charge, separately, concerning the things pertaining unto righteousness.” (Alma 35:16.)

In the wisdom borne out of his great experiences—temporal and spiritual—he taught them many things. The heart of them all, however, the thing which in his wise judgment would be of most worth to them, he expressed in his charge, “Learn wisdom in thy youth.” Here are his words as they fell from his own lips:

“And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day. …

“And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God has delivered me from prison, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me.

“And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; … and …

“… ye ought to know as I do know [this he said to his sons, and I say it unto you marvelous young folks in the morning of your lives], that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; … (Alma 36:3, 27, 28, 30.)

“O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.

“Yea, and cry unto God for all thy support; yea, let all thy doings be unto the Lord, and whithersoever thou goest let it be in the Lord; yea, let thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord; yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever.

“Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day.” (Alma 37:35–37. Italics added.)

Now, my young brothers and sisters, I bear you my witness that I know the truth of these things. Alma knew from his own experience, which included revelation from heaven, that they are true. My knowledge has come in like manner. I know they are true. My prayer is that each of you, by applying your hearts unto wisdom in your youth, may have like knowledge. This you can have, for it is within your reach. By doing the things Alma counseled his sons to do, the Lord will support you in all your trials and tribulations and lift you up at the last day, and you will have the blessings—the rewards the Lord has promised to those who do the works of righteousness—” even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23.) That it may be so, I humbly pray.

[illustration] Illustrated by Paul Mann