The Gift of Knowing

by Elder F. Burton Howard

of the First Quorum of the Seventy

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    Taken from an address delivered to the student body of Brigham Young University on October 31, 1982.

    Imagine, with me, that you are a college student. It is 8:30 in the morning. You got up late because you went to bed late. You have an assignment due in your 9:00 class. You have not finished it. You are not presentable, and you haven’t had breakfast. You know that you might possibly make it to class on time if you hurry and remain hungry.

    It also occurs to you that if you stayed home and worked on the assignment all day, you could type it up in finished form. You could then put yesterday’s date on it and hand it in tomorrow. You could tell the professor that it was done on time but that you had a 100-degree fever or the 24-hour flu and couldn’t get out of bed. Part of that might be true.

    What do you do? You know you should tell the truth. You know that you should be in class. You know about integrity. These absolute values are known and, if you were asked questions regarding them in the abstract, you would clearly know what the answers should be. However, in the context of the end justifying the means, it might also seem important that you get your assignment in, that you not fail the class, that you keep faith with your parents who are paying your tuition, and that you stay on track in your major subject so as to be able to graduate. And so, what might in isolation turn out to be simple becomes a complex problem of daily living for you. It is easy to rationalize and say, “It is too late to get to class now. It would do no good to hurry. Everyone calls in sick once in a while. The professor will never know.”

    Every day choices come into our lives which constantly require us to apply what we know. Knowing what to do in the face of competing, conflicting choices is difficult.

    Let me give you another example. Imagine with me that you have been looking for a job for months. You are behind on your car payments, and unless you get something soon the finance company will repossess your automobile. It is early on a rainy November morning. You are on your way to the most promising job interview you have ever had. Once again you are late. The gas gauge indicates that you will have just enough fuel to get there, if you are lucky. You slow down for a stop light and see an acquaintance standing in the rain at the bus stop. You know that if you give your friend a ride you will be even later. You know that unless you exceed the speed limit you won’t arrive at the appointed hour. You know that if you get another moving violation you will lose your license.

    A decision must be made. What do you do? If it could be broken down, all of us would know what should be done on any individual item. You should not speed, you should stop for gas, you should give your friend a helping hand and, of course, the job is important to your financial well-being and happiness. It merits almost any honorable effort to obtain it. But out of all of this, 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 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 irretrievable. Going or not going to class, 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—all of these may eternally affect the course of your existence. What then to do? How do we find the right course? And having found it, how do we maintain it?

    It is relatively easy to stay on the strait and narrow path as long as traffic is light and the road is marked. All we have to do is hold the course. But at frequent moments along the way we meet others living their lives and exercising their free agency. Without wanting it to be so, we find their demands and expectations influencing our behavior and coloring our choices. The testing time comes when friends say, “Come on. Don’t be a spoilsport,” or “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. There are many unmarked junctions in mortality, and we often arrive at them in the dark without signposts or road maps to help us select the way. The problem of applying what we know to the choices which confront us every day 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.

    All of us want to live a good life; all of us want to be honest and virtuous and to do good to others. But believing in being honest is one thing. It is still another to be honest when the forces of daily life make it appear advantageous to be otherwise. Professing concern for others is one thing, but choosing to serve others at an interchange when our own convenience and benefit are prominently present is the real test of our commitment to the second great commandment.

    To see our way clearly through the conflicts of everyday living so as to find the course which will ultimately prove to be the best course is hard. In much of life the rules have not been revealed, the way is not lighted, and there is no precedent. Each of us must find and walk his or her own path to perfection. While the scriptures provide much help and we can profit from the experiences of others, the fact remains that life is full of lonely moments when we alone 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 measure of discretion and control over our own lives. In areas where we are not commanded, we are to be agents unto ourselves.

    Doctrine and Covenants 98 tells us why this is so. Simply stated, we are on probation. There the Lord says:

    “And I give 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; D&C 14–15).

    Mortal probation requires that God’s children make conscious choices. We must recognize that 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 the latest novel? Do we go into debt or do without? Each of these choices, when made, excludes others. Were it otherwise, there could be no real probation. The designer of the plan of salvation made it that way. The free choices we make show where our hearts are and who and what we really are.

    Often we are required to choose between two good things. This is one of the paradoxes of modern Mormonism. 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 should he spend visiting? We get close to the Lord by studying the scriptures and pondering them. We get closer still by studying harder and pondering more. 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.

    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 adjusted to avoid jeopardizing our salvation?

    It is impossible to provide detailed instructions for each person and circumstance because the balance varies according to the specific needs and abilities of each member of the Church. But somewhere short of total commitment to each of the great causes of family, church, employment, and self there is a balance between them all that is desirable—and not only desirable, but obviously necessary 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 Heavenly Father. Let us rather look at what he would have us do with the time we have been given.

    There are certain areas of responsibility that we must enter. 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 may not necessarily be at the expense of another. The Lord did not intend that we be at ease in Zion (see 2 Ne. 28:24). He intended that all things be done “in wisdom and order” (Mosiah 4:27).

    A balance must be struck. Proper balance usually does not mean that we go down one road as far as we can go to the exclusion of all other roads. Rather it is to go down as many roads as necessary, and not more, not further than we must, in order not to impede our progress on other paths which our Heavenly Father also expects us to walk. If this is so, then it becomes urgently important, as Elder Richard L. Evans used to say, 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 struck becomes what we are.

    Thomas Griffith, a contributing editor for Time magazine, once summarized the problem this way. He said that as a young man “I thought myself happy at the time, my head full of every popular song that came along, the future before me. I could be an artist, a great novelist, an architect, a senator, a singer: having no demonstrable capacity for any of these pursuits made them all appear equally possible for me. All that mattered, I felt, was my inclination; I saw life as a set of free choices. Only later did it occur to me that every road taken was another untaken, every choice a narrowing. A sadder maturity convinces me that, as in a chess game, every move helps commit one to the next, and each person’s situation at a given moment is the sum of the moves he has made before” (Thomas Griffith, The Waist-high Culture, Harper and Brothers, 1959, p. 17).

    Now you have the problem. What is the answer? Can we as Latter-day Saints find balance in our lives? As a humble servant of the Lord, I testify that we can. Let me tell you why.

    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 that this occasion was the greatest teaching moment in the recorded history of the world. The Nephites had only recently experienced the destruction of their cities, the death of 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. 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. What they had seen and heard was noised abroad among the people before it was yet dark. Many people labored all the night that they might bring others to be on the morrow in 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 on the face of the earth 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 and homes; the reuniting of loved ones; the healing of the sick and the wounded, their leaders, their enemies—what was it they asked for? The scripture says simply: “They desired that the Holy Ghost should be given unto 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 the 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 making right choices which would lead them to happiness and eternal life. They knew this elusive gift was the Holy Ghost.

    The Nephites, after one day with the Savior, understood perhaps better than we the terms of their probation. They comprehended the necessity of divine intervention in their lives so as to assist them in finding their way home.

    Much mention is made of the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Church. Each of us who has been baptized has this gift. Collectively, and individually if we are worthy, it sets us apart and makes us different from all other people on the face of the earth. That statement may sound arrogant or presumptuous to some. I intend no offense. But either the gift means something or it does not. And if it does, we might best discover what it means lest we find ourselves grouped with the man which had received one talent, and being afraid to use it went and hid it in the earth (see Matt. 25:14–30).

    It is difficult for me to illustrate this principle, not because I do not know the Holy Ghost but because most of my encounters with him are too personal to recount here. Nevertheless, let me try to show you how the Holy Ghost has operated in my life, how he may operate in yours, and how we are unlike other men as a result.

    A good number of years ago I found myself on a bus. The bus was loaded with young men from all over the country. We were arriving at Castle Air Force Base in California to attend summer camp. We were cadets aspiring to be commissioned second lieutenants in the United States Air Force. As the bus entered the field, we got off and were met by a regular Air Force captain who assembled us in companies on the parade ground. Suitcases, duffel bags, and civilian clothes were everywhere. We were given directions to the barracks and the commissary. We were told to report in dress uniforms at 2:00 that afternoon on the parade grounds. I was assigned to lead the first company away.

    It was an interesting summer. We spent much time in the classroom, some on the firing line, and some in the air. Each week there was a rotation of assignments; we all drew our fair share of disagreeable duty, and each week cadet officers were appointed to participate in special leadership training programs and to direct the lives of the rest of us.

    As the summer wore on, I became aware that I had not received a leadership assignment. As camp drew to an end and the last duty rosters were posted, I noticed that I had been overlooked as a cadet commander. Knowing that my success or failure in the Air Force depended in part on how well I performed in this capacity, I asked for and received an appointment with the officer in charge of the camp.

    At the proper hour, I presented myself at his office. I saluted. When asked what I wanted to discuss, I told him that I had noticed a mistake in the duty roster, and that I had not been given the rotating assignment of cadet commander. Without even looking from his desk the captain told me that he knew that, that he had already decided that I had no future in the Air Force. As I started to protest, he said, “You remember the day that you got off the bus? I asked you to march the men to the barracks. As I watched you, I knew that you did not have what it takes to be an officer in the Air Force. The duty roster stands. You are dismissed.”

    A flood of thoughts came to my mind. Years of preparation were suddenly of no avail. The course of my life hung in the balance. I turned to leave. There was a silent prayer in my heart. More of a question than a prayer, really. Did I come this far to fail? I thought. I found myself immobilized in front of the captain’s desk. I struggled for words. My career was important to me. To my surprise, I clicked my heels together, saluted smartly, and without having taken thought of what I should say, I said, “Begging the captain’s pardon, sir, but I was under the impression that we were going to be graded by what we learned while we were here, not by what we knew when we came.”

    Now you don’t talk that way to regular Air Force officers. There was no precedent for what I did or said. At the time, I didn’t know from what source came the courage for the words. But I do know that I was at a crossroads. My future activities and associates would be different, depending upon what happened at that moment. My temptations and trials would be different, depending upon what happened at that moment. I would be an enlisted man or an officer, depending on what happened at that moment. The course of my life hung in the balance, as it so often does on little things.

    The captain got up from his desk; he nearly bit his cigar in two. He obviously was unaccustomed to that kind of insubordination. He walked around to where I stood. He looked at my shoes, he looked at my uniform, he looked at my double chin as I held myself at strict military attention. For at least five minutes, although it seemed much longer, he circled me time after time. I stood there not knowing what else to do. Finally he said, “I might have been wrong about you. Maybe you do have what it takes to be an officer in this man’s Air Force. We’ll change the duty roster; you can command your company during the last week’s activities. We’ll see what you can do.”

    Do I believe that the Holy Ghost prompted me in what I said and did that day? Yes, I do. Could not someone else, a non-Latter-day Saint perhaps, have said the same thing, or something better, so as to achieve the same result? I don’t know. What I do know is that for me, in that moment, in that place, what I said and did was right.

    I know that one of our greatest blessings as Latter-day Saints is that we need never look back. We need never ask what might have been. Should I have dropped out of school or struggled to get my degree? Should I have married Sally instead of the girl I did marry? What if I had taken that job in the East instead of teaching school?

    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 is done was best. We can be certain, although there may have been trials or we may be having difficulties, that we are where the Lord would have us be. We will know that, although the grass may seem greener elsewhere, our decision to enter the pasture we are in was prompted and purposeful and preparatory.

    Knowing these things, and knowing that for the most part we have done what the Lord wanted done, 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.

    As I have better understood my relationship with the Holy Ghost, I have come to know what it is to unexpectedly change airplanes in a distant city only to find after arriving home that a scheduled flight has been indefinitely delayed. I have come to know what it is to begin a missionary interview with the question, never asked before or since, “Elder, who have you been fighting with?” and to hear the astonished reply, “President, how did you know?” I have also come to know what it is to pay a surprise visit to a distant city only to hear someone say, “I have been praying for days that you would come.”

    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 shalt 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 you 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 was given to the Prophet Joseph at Salem, Massachusetts, that “for the main” (or for the most part), the place he should tarry would be signalized 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. 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 unspeakable gift. May we so live as to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us make wise decisions.

    Photo by Anselm Spring

    Photo by Kathryn Snyder

    Photo by Vahan Hindoian