Monday, September 1, 2008

“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior."

(Guest Post by: Nathan Rees, of Dallas, TX)

After a recent conversation with Hans and Jeremy I have been contemplating the above quote by Elder Packer. (Elder Boyd K. Packer, “Do Not Fear,” Liahona and Ensign, May 2004, 79) When examining this statement, the patent lawyer in me cannot ignore the extra limitation in that quote that I believe makes all the difference in the world, the word understood. To prepare for writing this entry I began to review various doctrines of the church that I have studied over the past few years. I found that there are many doctrines of which I have a thorough knowledge, but there are less that I can honestly say that I understand in a true sense. This has happened for many reasons, usually attributable to my own attitude at the outset of my studies.

President Benson stated that “the Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. . . . The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment.” See also, Mosiah 5:2. These words, like the first quote, seem very intuitive. Because it is so intuitive, I believe that we fail to give this phenomenon its proper heed. In other words, I believe we often have a tendency to underestimate the power of a true understanding of doctrine. Most likely we can all look at ourselves and agree that random things simply will not change our attitudes or behaviors. I imagine that this is human nature. If we recognize this fact, we will be able to better appreciate the type of impact for good that our own personal studies can potentially have, and hopefully we will be able to better focus ourselves when we take time to study a gospel concept (or even when we are taking the time to listen to a talk or lesson prepared for us).

These thoughts bring home to me a renewed importance of attempting to learn principles, not just with our minds, but with our spirits. It also raises questions in my mind regarding the more general population of the Church. I have recently started going to Sunday school again after a year of teaching gospel essentials as a ward missionary. I have found a startling contrast in the attitudes and thirst of new converts to gain a true understanding of gospel teachings, as opposed to the more general population of the church who seem to treat church talks and lessons as nothing more than an extremely boring social encounter.

Why (assuming I am correct in my perceptions) do many people fail to apply themselves sufficiently in order to truly understand the truths that are taught at our meetings. Especially in light of the fact that they are already putting out the effort to show up and sit through the meetings. Are we not supposed to be continuing to search for further light and knowledge? For that matter, why does it seem that the general population of the church are merely content with the light they currently have. Personally, complacency in any aspect of life, especially in the gospel, has never gotten me very far. This also raises the question of what can we do (if anything) as teachers, spouses, parents, etc., to get the people that we are attempting to teach in a mindset that helps them to understand doctrine to an extent that they are motivated to change their attitude and behavior in order to apply the teachings of the gospel. For me, I am sure that recognizing the problem will be a good first step…what now?


Jeremy said...

This topic has been periodically on my mind since I returned from my mission in 1998. Upon attending a fairly affluent ward in Utah County, I encountered several "stalwart" members that really didn't know much about the Gospel, and were content therewith. That completely baffled me as my mission permanently infected me with the gospel study bug.

I believe that our entire system of ethics in the Church - what we do and what we do not do - is entirely built upon the true doctrines of salvation. The pattern is set forth in scripture, as God always gave commandments AFTER he made known the plan of redemption. (See Alma 12:32)

Because the result of understanding true doctrine is a change in one's behavior and attitudes, it is no wonder why the Church stresses so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.

Elder Maxwell taught a similar doctrine: "Doctrines believed and practiced do change and improve us, while ensuring our vital access to the spirit. Both outcomes are crucial." (Maxwell, One More Strain of Praise, p.x.)

It would be amazing to see the change in spirituality for Wards and Stakes if a deeper study of the Gospel were instituted.

Hans said...

I see two factors for this problem:

1) As we get older, the more responsibilities we have that take away our free time. Compared to the time on your mission and after marriage, when one finishes school or has kids, all that time is gone to really study. It seems like the only people that can go into great depth of the Gospel are those who teach it. Some of the best materials for us to study come from Nibley, Madsen, and others that are professional scholars. Rarely do you see something published by a patent or immigration attorney. We all remain amateurs because we don't have the time to study. For the average member, finding time to go to the temple alone is difficult with balancing a family life with kids. Rarely does that person have time to consider things like Asherah or the 40 Day Literature. I wish I still had that time...

2) There is limited access for deeper materials for non-English speaking members of the church around the world. Even there, I would say that only member in the US and Canada have access to such printed materials. I remember being in Bulgaria on the mission and wishing that members there could at least have the missionary library translated for them. They didn't even get the D&C and PGP until 2004 so I they won't get those basic materials for years. There are so many smart members who want to learn more but just don't have the means. These people, while wanting to obtain further truth and light, don't have any references or commentaries to assist them in this journey.

I see these as major factors and something that, one way or another, we are all affected by.

Nate said...

Hans: I would have hid behind the time excuse had it not been for my own personal studying expiriences.

In law school, I decided that I would take time every night to read scriptures and study the gospel. This meant leaving school at midnight, going home and reading, just to wake up early to get back to school work. I couldn't allow this studying to take other time because I was really busy and had set most of my remaining time aside for family/church calling priorities.

Months went by and I found myself less tired (despite the lack of sleep) more focused, etc.

The saying 'seek ye first the kindom of heaven, then all things shall be added unto you' really began to ring true. Everything else in my life came into order. I found myself having more time, being more successful in my school and career directions, and being a better husband and father.

The change was remarkable. I would have to conclude that the time excuse is simply excuse. And if someone is struggling with that thought, I would challenge them to test Lord and his promises and see what happens.

Hans said...

I think you're right and I know that you and Jeremy (seminary) sacrificed a lot during school to study despite lack of time. I think that is the challenge that members are up against at this time and it is up to them to make the effort. I can certainly emphathize with those who have a hard time.

Jeremy said...

Is setting aside time for spiritual learning really a sacrifice, though? When I left my mission, my mission president told me that I should prioritize my life around the things that matter most. In particular, he indicated that many members of the Church feel that they don't have enough time for spiritual things on a daily basis because of all the other things going on. However, if spiritual growth is something important to you, you can always find the necessary time.

A perfect example is of someone who wants to increase their health. They make some minor (in some cases major) changes in their life and suddenly find the time to exercise and eat right. Sure, it takes a little planning, but these types of changes can come about with the proper desire.

I don't count finding time to study the Gospel as a sacrifice by any means since the rewards certainly make up for it. I have learned that I can manage my time around work, family, personal time, etc., by just prioritizing what is most important to me. Clearly, I don't have the time I used to have before I had children, but there is always time when you are willing to look for it.

Hans said...

I agree with you both on that point, but I think that this is going to be your number one excuse and in some points in may be valid and at others it may not. It may be like the "try your best" argument. Of course you could always do better, but at what point can you legitimately not do any better. I think that same goes for balancing your life. We should strive to make this a priority with rare exception, but you will find that most people just don't have the time.

I guess because I am typing this out it means that I do have the time.

JLJ said...

Does the "general population of the church," exclude present company? Assuming that we (or you all) are not "merely content with the light" we currently have. After all, posting to this blog would show that we all care so much more than the general population of the church. Ok, that was rude. But I see a huge problem in making a judgement like that about the 'general population of the church.' Is the general population of the church studying the same materials, with the same intensity that you are? Probably not. But I would hesitate to assume that means that there is complacency.

Yes, every member should be prioritizing his/her life to ensure adequate time for sincere personal worship, which leads to understanding, and further light and knowledge. But this doesn't mean that reading Millet, Nibley (or other deeper materials) are the only or the best means to achieve that. Those materials are not for everyone and it would be a tragedy to rank member's "complacency level" based on whether or not those materials are referenced or studied.

It is entirely possible for a member who uses only the scriptures and personal prayer in their studies/worship to have equal amounts of light and knowledge as someone who, for instance, spends hours each day delving into the writings of Hugh Nibley. Light and knowledge is given not earned or achieved.

Jeremy said...

The point of the post was to emphasize an "understanding" of true doctrine. Elder Packer emphsized that it is the understanding of the doctrine that produces the desired results; i.e., a change in our attitude and behavior. Whether one gets there by studying the scriptures or surfing the net for uplifiting information, it is the end result that matters.

Think about it. The closer you come to truly understanding the Atonement, the more you begin to love your neighbor, or show compassion to others, or serve your fellow being...simply because that is what the Atonement was all about...LOVE! Once we begin to understand the plain and precious truths of the Gospel, our lives will inevitably change for the better.

It is those people who are active in the Church but not active in the Gospel that run the risk of being left behind. It is no secret that 1/2 the general population of the Church will not be ready at Christ's Second Coming (the Parable of the 10 Virgins is clear on this point). I believe that those in this Church that are not continuously progressing spiritually are continuously moving backwards. There is no neutral point.

Hans said...

Just for the record, I consider myself in the group reference here as complacent. I could do more.

I also don't have the same mental intensity that I once did. I have a hard time focusing on something for too long, even Wii games. I start to phase out when I read long posts or comments, including my own. Perhaps it is because my life for hours every day consists of five line emails. Not sure, but I wish I was less complacent.

I don't belive that any commentary or FARMS book can take the place of the standard works and prayer. I think another one to add to that is materials from General Authorities. My hope is that more matierals become available to members everywhere so that they can expand their knowledge, especially with items like the Missionary Library. These are books by GA's that we can use to help us understand the teachings of the scriptures. I personally don't advocate members spending time on Nibley or even Millet unless they are looking to study from a different perspective or from a scholarly standpoint. I can't speak for Nate when posting whether this is what he meant or if he inferred that we should just spend more time studying period or asking deeper questions. But I do advocate reading materials from GA's and church publications because they clarify our understanding of the doctrines. Many members don't have these materials in their native tongue (the Liahona only four times a year).

JLJ, while I agree with you that light and knowledge is given and not earned, I believe in a slight variation: that by study and by faith, we can obtain further light and knowledge. Similar to the faith vs. works debate, we must do the studying before the enlightenment comes. JS read James 1:5, then prayed. He put in the effort but was then blessed with the special knowledge. Perhaps we mean the same thing and are just speaking past each other.

Nate said...

I used the term "general population" simply for lack of a better term. There are many who seem content. That said, we can't ever really know what efforts people are making. But if home teaching #'s are an indicator...hmmm.

I like to delve into topics by reading Nibley, etc. But I have consistently found that I always get more out of consistent study of the BOM. So JLJ, not only do I agree with your statement that it is "entirely possible for a member who uses only the scriptures and personal prayer in their studies/worship to have equal amounts of light and knowledge as someone who, for instance, spends hours each day delving into the writings of Hugh Nibley." I believe that this is probably the case.

Joseph Smith statement is probably still correct: "A man can become closer to God by following the precepts of this book more than any other book on the face of the earth."

Talmage's words come to mind from the preface to Jesus the Christ, "The Spirit of sacredness inherent in the subject has been a constant companion if the writer throughout his pleasing labor, and he reverently invokes the same as a minister to the readers of the volume." I imagine that Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, etc., all hoped for the same. This, I believe, is needed for a true understanding of doctrine.

My main point was to indicate a flaw that I often find in myself, but can also see in others, to get a discussion on why it happens...and how do we overcome the phenomenon.

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