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Sarah Sorenson

Eternally Learning

In the Doctrine and Covenants, we are given a commandment to learn, not only the “doctrine of the kingdom”(Doctrine and Covenants 88:77) but also “things both in heaven and in earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad, the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:79). For “the glory of God is intelligence” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36), and “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18-19). Can you see from these scriptures that learning is an eternal principle? That mandate covers a great breadth of knowledge, both spiritual and secular, and it will take most of us a lifetime to learn only a fraction of what we need to know for eternity. I believe that there are five principles that will help us to fulfill this commandment to learn: develop your talents, learn to love learning, persevere, seek out truth, and apply your knowledge.
Develop your talents. Matthew 25: 14-31 records the Parable of the Talents, in which the Lord likens the kingdom of heaven to a man who divides his goods among his servants for safekeeping while he travels into a far country. You are familiar with this story. He gives one servant five talents, another servant two talents, and a third servant one talent, each according to his abilities. When the man returns and asks for an accounting from his servants, the one who received five returns 10, the one who received two returns four, but the one who received one talent had done nothing. In the parable, a talent is a coin, but, since this is a parable, that coin can have several meanings. Let us think of these coins as another kind of talent: our natural abilities and our capacity to learn. We each have something we are good at, something we are naturally interested in, or some subject that is easy for us to learn. We also have been given a capacity for gaining knowledge; whether we think that capacity is large or small, we must recognize that it is there. This parable teaches us that though the Lord has blessed us with skills according to our abilities, He expects us to increase those abilities while we are here on earth.
This is my Uncle David. (Image appears on screen.) When he was born there were complications with his delivery and whether for that or some other reason David was born with a disability. Although he has always been physically active, his mental development was delayed. David never learned to talk. As a child, he communicated with gestures and mumbles. As he grew, people would come out to his home to test him for placement in school, but they all concluded that he was incapable of learning. The education system was different in those days. So, David was never given an opportunity to go to school until his late teens because those who tested him thought he was dumb. His family knew differently. They knew that when they spoke to him, David understood them. They knew that he had thoughts of his own. He had definite likes and dislikes. David loves animals. He especially likes horses. He likes tractors and he likes Christmas. Most of all, David loves his family. We might think that David is like the servant in the parable who was given only one talent. And we might be tempted to think that David would be justified in keeping his one talent and not returning to his Lord an increase. But we would be wrong. Around the time that David turned 20, he went to live in a group home. That was a difficult decision for my grandparents to make, but it was the right decision. Living in this group home has enabled him to learn some sign language and now he can communicate some basic needs and simple wants. When he goes for visits, he can use signs to tell my grandma when he is hungry, when he wants to go and see the horses, or when he wants to go home. Now he also has friends and he goes horseback riding, canoeing, to the movies, and on lots of tours and activities. David also likes to go to church. Each Sunday, he puts on a white shirt and tie and goes to sacrament meeting. David is a good example to me of someone who has increased his capacity to learn. If David, who was given limited abilities, can increase his talents, how much more is expected of us, when we have been give more?
Have you ever noticed that when you start developing one talent that you generate interest in other topics and want to learn new things? I think my mom is an amazing person. She is a talented seamstress, she makes delicious cookies, and she has a gift for loving 13-year-old girls. When I was a teenager, my mom had a group of friends that decided to take up some new hobbies. I really can’t remember which class came first, but in the course of one year they had formed a quilting club, a basket-weaving club, a weaving club, and a book club. They were all women of talent and ability, good homemakers, and good mothers. It seemed to me that when they started developing one talent their interests just kept growing, and their excitement for learning new things just took them in so many new directions.
Learn to love learning. When I was a Mia Maid, I had to make a doll to represent one of my role models and then share my thoughts about that person at New Beginnings. The doll I created was intended to represent my Grandma Sorenson. I gave her brown curly hair, clothed her in a cotton floral dress, and put a book in her hand. That book symbolized what I saw as her love for learning. My grandma doesn’t have a lot of degrees. In fact, although she finished high school early, she completed only one or two semesters of study at college. But she has an active and able mind. She had a few office jobs before she married my grandpa and raised 11 children. Even then, she used her office skills to help my grandpa with his furnace-cleaning business. For as long as I can remember, she has read and travelled widely, always learning about new people, places, and ideas. I kept that little doll on a shelf in my bedroom for many years where it could remind me of her example. She has inspired me to read, to travel, and to learn.
Learning opportunities aren’t isolated to classroom activities. And our need to learn doesn’t end with the conclusion of our formal education. No academic or vocational program can equip us with everything that we will need to know during our lifetime. Technologies, economies, and situations change. What our educational programs do equip us with is a foundation for continuous learning. At a BYU address in 2008, Elder David A. Bednar said:
“Academic assignments, test scores, and a cumulative GPA do not produce a final and polished product. Rather, students have only started to put in place a foundation of learning upon which they can build forever. Much of the data and knowledge obtained through a specific major or program of study may rapidly become outdated and obsolete. The particular topics investigated and learned are not nearly as important as what has been learned about learning. As we press forward in life—spiritually, interpersonally, and professionally—no book of answers is readily available with guidelines and solutions to the great challenges of life. All we have is our capacity to learn and our love of and for learning” (David A. Bednar, “Learning to Love Learning,” Ensign, February 2010).
I hope you won’t mind if I tell you a little bit about the course of my career. When I graduated with my B.A., I wanted to work in a public library and get some experience before I started working on my MLS. I thought that a public library would be the ideal place for me. I could spend my days helping people find good books to read and reading stories to children. Instead, I got a job as a reference assistant at the Church History Library. My library skills were good, but I didn’t know much about Church History outside of what is related in the Doctrine and Covenants and The Fullness of Times institute manual. I got to learn something new every time a patron asked me a question—and I loved it. I got to learn about Relief Society wheat, CTR rings, Primary bandelos, American history, early irrigation and water rights, missionary training, the making of pioneer furniture, the life of Joseph Smith, the crossing of the Plains, and all of the good things that Latter-day Saints around the world were doing. After a while, I felt pretty comfortable with the questions patrons would ask, but before I knew it I was faced with new learning opportunities. In the 10 years that I worked for the Church History Library, I had five different jobs. With each change I had to learn some new content and lots of new skills. When I was in college, I didn’t know that I would later need to know about strategic planning, gathering system requirements, conducting focus groups for market research, managing budgets, or even determining the approximate age of a man’s suit coat and buying international art. But my formal education did teach me how to approach learning. So, every time I was faced with a new opportunity, I read and read and read, I talked with people who knew more than I did, I took classes if I needed to, and then I applied what I was learning to the work that I was doing.
As we continue to learn and continue to love learning, we will also see opportunities come to us outside of our careers. At a CES Fireside in 2001, President Henry B. Eyring said:
“The Lord and His Church have always encouraged education to increase our ability to serve Him and our Heavenly Father’s children. For each of us, whatever our talents, He has service for us to give. And to do it well always involves learning, not once or for a limited time but continually” (Henry B. Eyring, “Education for Real Life,” Ensign, October 2002).
              He went on to share two learning opportunities in his life of which he felt that he did not take full advantage. He never learned to speak Spanish, although it was his father’s native language. And, though his father often tried to teach him, he never took the time to learn mathematics well. Later, when he was given assignments in the Presiding Bishopric and in the Quorum of Twelve, where those two skills would have been very useful, he regretted wasting those opportunities. He went on to say:
“Your life is carefully watched over, as was mine. The Lord knows both what He will need you to do and what you will need to know. He is kind and He is all-knowing. So you can with confidence expect that He has prepared opportunities for you to learn in preparation for the service you will give. You will not recognize those opportunities perfectly, as I did not. But when you put the spiritual things first in your life, you will be blessed to feel directed toward certain learning, and you will be motivated to work harder. You will recognize later that your power to serve was increased, and you will be grateful” (Henry B. Eyring, “Education for Real Life,” Ensign, October 2002).
              Students, you will always be given opportunities to learn on the job, in your families, and through your Church callings. So, form good habits now and get excited about learning new things. Approach every class with enthusiasm, work hard, and find opportunities to apply what you learn.
Persevere. Even if we love learning, we may occasionally be faced with challenges that we feel are too hard for us to overcome. You may find that a certain class—math, science, business, college writing—doesn’t play to your strengths. Don’t give up. In Ether 12:27, the Lord has promised us “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” President Eyring also said:
“Through prayer, fasting, and hard work, with a motive to serve Him, we can expect His grace to attend us. I can assure you from my own experience, that does not mean we will always be on the high end of the grading curve. It means that we will learn more rapidly and grow in skill beyond what we could do only with our unaided natural abilities” (Henry B. Eyring, “Education for Real Life,” Ensign, October 2002).
No one exemplifies perseverance for me more than President Heber J. Grant (1918-1945). He often told a story about his desire to play baseball. He joined a baseball club when he was nine. He didn’t run well. He didn’t throw well. He didn’t bat well. Consequently, he had to play with the boys two years younger than himself. As you can imagine, he was teased a great deal by the other boys on his team. He vowed to himself that he would play baseball for the team that would win the championship in the Utah Territory. So, he saved up a dollar and bought a baseball. He then spent hour upon hour practicing his throw. Eventually, he was able to move up a year and play with the boys one year younger than himself. He kept practicing and was able to join a better club. He went on to play with the team that won the championship in the Utah Territory (see President Heber J. Grant, “Work, and Keep Your Promises,” Improvement Era, Jan. 1900, 196–97). This improvement didn’t take place in one summer. It took patience and hard work over the course of several years. When he reached his goal, he gave up baseball and spent his time on other pursuits. However, he continued to show his stick-to-itiveness when he wanted to learn other things. As a young man, President Grant had horrible handwriting, but he worked hard at improving himself until he was known for his beautiful penmanship. In fact, he won a first place ribbon at the Utah State Fair, and he taught classes at the University of Deseret. He also decided that he wanted to learn how to sing all of the hymns. He didn’t have a very good singing voice, and I think he must have been tone deaf because he could not carry a melody. So, he enlisted the help of a personal secretary and practiced for days until he could sing one hymn perfectly, and then he would move on to another hymn until he had learned how to sing them all with the right melody (See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, p. 35). I think this statement summarizes President Grant’s attitude: “I know of no easy formula to success. Persist, persist, PERSIST; work, work, WORK—is what counts in the battle of life” (President Heber J. Grant, Northwestern Commerce, Oct. 1939, 4).
A few months ago my parents were preparing to move into a small apartment, and my mom needed to clean out the office files. So, on her next visit she brought with her a box of papers she had collected from mine and my siblings’ childhoods. As we went through those old papers, I read my report cards from elementary school, and I remembered something—math was not my best subject. I think that every report card from first through third grade had a comment about my math speed tests. I just couldn’t get through those timed tests. In fifth grade, about halfway through the year, all of the students in the grade were divided up into three different math classes. One for advanced students, one for average students, and one for students below grade level. By that time I had improved enough to be in the middle class, but my best friend was put into the advanced math class. I was devastated. I am not sure which bothered me more, being separated from my friend or not being good at something. Either way, I decided that I was going to catch up with those advanced students. Just before the end of the year, I was invited to join that advanced class. My original motivation may not have been for a noble cause, but I continued to work hard to get good grades in math. I loved algebra, I conquered geometry, I think I just endured trigonometry, and I succeeded in calculus. I really never had more than average ability, but I took copious amounts of notes, I read and reread the textbook, I worked hard on every assignment, and I said a lot of prayers. My hard work paid off, and I always got good grades. And really, now, all these years later, I had forgotten that when I started out, I wasn’t really very good at math.
The same persistence, hard work, and faith that help you through your difficult classes will help you overcome and endure other trials you will face in your life. Elder Robert D. Hales has said, “We learn to endure to the end by learning to finish our current responsibilities, and we simply continue doing it all of our lives. We cannot expect to learn endurance in our later years if we have developed the habit of quitting when things get difficult now” (Robert D. Hales, “Behold, We Count Them Happy Which Endure,” Ensign, May 1998). My sister teaches resource at an elementary school, so many of her students start out the year discouraged because their class work is too hard for them. She started telling them that it was okay if their homework was hard because they were capable of doing hard things. She made this sign to go on the wall of her classroom. (Image from classroom appears on screen. Sign reads: “I can do hard things”) Now her students know and even remind each other that they can do hard things. You can too. Learn perseverance now so that you can endure to the end in years to come.
Seek after truth. President Gordon B. Hinckley (1995-2008) has said: “Ours ought to be a ceaseless quest for truth. That truth must include spiritual and religious truth as well as secular. As we go forward with our lives and our search for truth, let us look for the good, the beautiful, the positive” (Elder Gordon B. Hinckley,“The Continuing Pursuit of Truth, Ensign, April 1986). It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to find the good, the beautiful, and the positive truths. Elder Richard G. Scott explains:
Increasingly more people are finding that making wise decisions is becoming more and more difficult because of the ultra-interconnected world in which we live. Constantly forced into our consciousness is an incessant barrage of counsel, advice, and promotions. It is done by a bewildering array of media, Internet, and other means. On a given subject we can receive multiple strongly delivered, carefully crafted messages with solutions. But often two of the solutions can be diametrically opposed. No wonder some are confused and are not sure how to make the right decisions” (Richard G. Scott, “Truth: The Foundation of Correct Decision,” Ensign, November 2007).
             With this barrage of media and information, how will we discern truth, both secular and spiritual? All truth can be discovered by patterns laid out for us in the scriptures.
The promise in Moroni 10 for gaining a testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon can be used as a pattern for gaining a testimony of, or learning of, all truth—spiritual and secular. “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things,” [and instead of the writings in the Book of Mormon, consider “these things” to be any principle of truth under your consideration.]
“. . . and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:3-5).
              Or in other words: read, ponder, pray, and receive a witness from the Holy Ghost. Or we might say, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Do you know what an amazing opportunity you have to be taught in an institution that encourages you to seek out truth by study and by faith?
A short while ago, I was in a meeting with President Richards and others to discuss some preservation options. At one point, the conversation turned to information literacy and the President asked me what our role was as a CES institution. I didn’t have a very good answer for him, but we had a brief discussion, and then he came up with a brilliant answer to his own question. He said, “We are distinctively placed to help students find and sift truth.” Your education here is going to arm you with the intellectual tools that you need to face all of the information that the world throws at you and pick out the things that are of the most worth, the things that are eternally true. You are only going to be able to do that by coupling study and faith.
Sister Chieko Okazaki, a former member of the General Relief Society Presidency, compared study and faith to two oars steering one boat. Have you ever been in a rowboat? I don’t have any experience with rowboats, but I do have some experience with canoes. For several summers, my family would periodically pack up our canoes and a picnic lunch and head up to a small lake in American Fork Canyon. We would strap on our life jackets, place the canoes on the water, grab the oars, and head out onto the lake. We usually went out in pairs because it was easier, but it took a lot of coordination to steer that canoe in the right direction, let alone a straight line. To go in a straight line, both of the oarsmen need to be using consistent strength and paddling in a rhythm. Now usually during the course of the day, a leisurely paddle around the lake would turn into a race or a water fight. And this is usually when I ran into trouble steering the canoe. (I’ll let you in on a little secret. Paddling a canoe is another one of those things that I am not very good at.) And if my mom was with me in the canoe, then we were really in trouble. We have to be the worst paddling team ever. So, if we were out there paddling around, my sisters, dad, or brother could steer their canoe over to us, splash us with water, and dart away. We would inevitably end up going in a circle before we got underway or, on a really good day, weaving a very circuitous path after them. Needless to say, I can relate to this example from Sister Okazaki:
“What happens if you try to paddle a boat using only one oar? You go around and around in circles. If you paddle hard, you go fast. If you paddle slowly, you turn gently. But you still just go around in circles. It’s the same with trying to make study replace faith or trying to exercise faith without study. We can often find ourselves going around in circles. I think that the Holy Ghost cannot give us some answers until we are actively seeking knowledge” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Rowing Your Boat, Ensign, November 1994).
So how do we ensure that we actively use both oars? First, priorities are important. Always put the things of the spirit first. If the Gospel, if Christ, is not central in your life, you will be in danger of letting your intellect overpower your spirit. As you read and study secular things, you should be reading and studying the scriptures and the words of modern-day prophets. This is another habit you can form now. If you take a religion class each semester, you will learn to make time for spiritual study. Second, you need to be obedient in order to receive a full measure of the spirit and be ready for inspiration and revelation. Live the gospel to the best of your ability. Keep all of the commandments. Repent when necessary. Third, you must work hard: read, ponder, test, try, whatever effort is necessary to diligently seek for truth.
Elder Merrill J. Bateman tells a story of how the principles for learning spiritual truth also apply to learning secular truth. Elder Bateman identifies the principles for learning spiritual truth as diligence and obedience.
“Because all truth comes through the light of Christ, seekers of secular truth must follow the Lord’s requirements for discovering gospel truths. Diligence or mental exertion is one of the requirements that must be followed by seekers of secular truth. Scientists study the problem, saturate their minds with it, puzzle over it, and dream about it. Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk spent years searching for a vaccine to immunize people from contracting poliomyelitis. A reporter wrote that once Sabin focused on a problem, he was tenacious and would not let go. He had a voracious appetite for work—for mental exertion. What about obedience? What is the level of obedience required for the discovery of secular truth? Again, the answer is that everyone must live according to the light they have. When one is seeking a witness of gospel truth and is being taught those truths, one must plant the seed of faith and live according to the higher truths. When one is seeking secular truth, the revealer is the light of the “spirit of man” (1 Cor. 2:11). Thus the scientist must be striving to live according to the light within him so that new light will cleave to the old” (Merrill J. Bateman, “Secular Learning in a Spiritual Environment,” BYU Studies 35:2, 43-55).
              Can you see from Elder Bateman’s example that obedience for each of us would include living the gospel fully and putting Christ at the center of our lives? And diligence is clearly to work hard, to be “tenacious” in studying out the problem before us. Only then will we receive a witness from the Holy Ghost confirming or revealing truth. When we learn in this way, we receive a stronger witness. President Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
“The Spirit of God speaking to the spirit of man has power to impart truth with greater effect and understanding than the truth can be imparted by personal contact even with heavenly beings. Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fiber and sinews of the body so that it cannot be forgotten” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954-56], 47-48).
              Imagine your potential for learning true principles of math, language, history, science, or whatever you may be studying, if you approach your classes as a search for truth for which you will need study and faith.
Apply your knowledge. After we gather knowledge and seek for truth, we must be able to apply what we have learned in order to truly solidify our knowledge. We know from the scriptures that action and knowledge are intrinsically connected. John 7:17 says, “If any man will do his will, he shall know the doctrine.” Just as faith and study are more powerful when applied together, so too is knowledge strengthened by application. I know that many of you have learned second languages. Is there a difference between knowing the words of a new language and speaking that language? Of course there is. Though you may learn vocabulary lists off by heart, the real knowledge comes when you actually put those vocabulary words together in a spoken sentence. I studied Spanish in high school and college. During my final semester of college, my last Spanish class and a class I needed to complete my minor were taught at the same time. I didn’t want to come back for another semester, so I talked with the teacher to see what options I had. I had been a good student up to that point. I was really good at learning vocabulary and conjugating verbs. I even did well with the in-class verbal exercises. So, the professor and I worked out a way for me to take Conversational Spanish as an independent study course. I was able to attend one class a week and the rest of the time I studied on my own. The only problem was that holding a conversation takes two people—I didn’t have a study partner. So, I hoped that memorization and recitation would be enough. This worked well enough for written assignments, but the final exam was purely verbal—a 20-minute conversation with the instructor. As it turned out, my study method was not as effective as I had hoped. Though I made it through the conversation, my sentence structures were awkward and my response times were slow. Because I did not apply my knowledge as I should have, it never truly took root, and in the intervening years I have forgotten most of what I thought I had learned.
In our formal education our opportunity to apply our knowledge is often in the form of a test. Outside of the classroom, look for other opportunities to apply what you are learning. Discuss what you are learning with family and friends. Teach someone else a skill or a subject that you would like to master. You will find that expressing complex ideas in simple terms, reviewing all of the steps in a process, or even answering someone’s questions will help you improve your own understanding. Or look for applications in other aspects of your life. Make connections between two subjects you are studying or between one subject and the gospel. I love the way that President Uchtdorf finds ways to apply what he knows about flying airplanes to all aspects of living the gospel and then shares those applications with us in General Conference. The more opportunities you find to apply what you are learning and make it relevant in your life, the more success you will find in your studies.
In all aspects of our lives “Our knowledge of truth is of little value unless we apply it in making correct decisions” (Richard G. Scott, “Truth: The Foundation of Correct Decisions, Ensign, November 2007). In simple terms, we may know that exercise and a healthy diet will help us to live better and feel stronger, but it will do us no good unless we actually do exercise and eat well. We may know that the Book of Mormon is true, but it will do us no good if we do not study it and live by its teachings. President Spencer W. Kimball [1973-1985] once said,
“Remember that it is not so much what we know that is important, as what we do and what we are. The Master’s plan is a program of doing, of living, not merely knowing. Knowledge itself is not the end. It is how we righteously live and apply that knowledge in our own lives and how we apply it to help others that describes our character” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Seek Learning, Even by Study and Also by Faith,” Ensign, September 1983).
Continually learning and gaining knowledge is important, but it is important because it prepares us to serve our Heavenly Father in this life and prepares us to continue learning in the eternities. If we do not righteously apply our knowledge in this life, it will be of no benefit to us.
I hope that we will each continue to work toward learning for eternity. Remember to develop your talents and increase your ability to learn. Learn to enjoy the process of learning and approach new opportunities with excitement. Work hard. Remember that you can do hard things. In all of your learning, secular and spiritual, seek out truth with study and with faith. The Holy Ghost is the most powerful teacher and as you do your part he will help you learn all truths. Don’t forget to use what you are learning to build your character and help you make righteous decisions. As you do these things you will be prepared for all that the Lord has in store for you (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:80).


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