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Small and Simple Gospel Habits

Matthew A. Smith
March 28, 2023 11:15 AM

"Just as brushing once a week for 14 minutes won't prevent tooth decay and cavities, practicing gospel habits once a week won’t prevent spiritual decay. There are small and simple gospel habits that, if practiced regularly, will help us stay on the covenant path."
Good morning, brothers and sisters. I have had the privilege of working in the registrar’s office during my employment at Ensign College. I have probably, at one time or another, seen each of your names in association with your program of study. By the raise of hands, how many of you are in your first year of college? How many are in your second year? How many of you have already earned one degree? How many of you are working on your second bachelor’s degree? How many of you are international students? How many of you are converts to the Church? How many of you are in the first semester of your program? How many of you will be completing your program this semester? 

Last April, I was in your shoes. I was finishing up a three-year doctorate degree in education. During those three years, I did almost everything they told me not to do at the beginning of the program. I changed careers, my wife, Brooke, and I had our fifth child in May of 2020, we moved across state lines, and renovated a house. We had help from our family for some of these things, but we also relied heavily upon the Lord. He helped see us through getting that degree, and He will do the same for you. What I am speaking about today comes from my personal experience as a non-traditional college student. But it applies to all who experience any level of stress in their lives. 

But, first, another question. By the raise of hands, how many of you brushed your teeth this morning? That’s not meant to embarrass you. I just really want to know. When I was teaching, I would use an object lesson of a toothbrush and toothpaste to emphasize the importance of good habits. I would ask how many of my students had brushed their teeth that morning. I would then proceed to, in a somewhat mischievous way, ask the question, “what would happen if, instead of brushing twice a day for two minutes at a time, I brush once a week for 14 minutes, and I use a week’s worth of toothpaste? “ 

I’m sure you can imagine what happened. I would actually pull out the toothbrush and toothpaste and start layering on the toothpaste on my toothbrush. At this point, my students were a little freaked out because that is a lot of toothpaste, but also interested to see what I would do with the toothbrush. Then, I would ask them if this is going to work. Will it have the same benefit if I brush for 14 minutes once a week as if I brushed twice daily for two minutes? Of course, we all know the answer is no. But, because I liked the dramatic effect it had on my students, I would put the toothbrush and toothpaste in my mouth and start brushing. As you can imagine, this provoked various reactions from my students, most manifesting a lot of surprise, mixed with either shock or disgust, or both. And it was pretty messy. I tried not to get any on my suit, but only with limited success.

Just as brushing once a week for 14 minutes won't prevent tooth decay and cavities, practicing gospel habits once a week won’t prevent spiritual decay. There are small and simple gospel habits that, if practiced regularly, will help us stay on the covenant path. In the October 2021 General Conference, Elder Michael A. Dunn of the seventy spoke about the principle referred to as "the aggregation of marginal gains." [i] He highlighted the British cycling team and the emphasis their coaches used for getting one percent better in everything related to cycling. This process helped them become a winning cycling team by aggregating these small improvements over time.

This principle is repeated throughout the scriptures. In the book of Helaman, chapter 15, Samuel the Lamanite referred to it as walking circumspectly before God. Nephi, Isaiah, and the Lord referred to it as learning line upon line, precept upon precept. Alma referred to it as exercising a particle of faith and “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise” (Alma 37:6). The Savior referred to it as having faith as a grain of mustard seed. Eternal progression is an eternal principle. And I believe that this process is fueled in no small part by how we approach the small and simple habits of the gospel.

So, with that as a backdrop, I’d like to discuss three small and simple habits of the gospel that can produce small improvements day by day and large improvements over time. These three habits can help contribute to improving one percent every day. They are simple, but they are powerful and allow us to gain access to the power of Jesus Christ.

Now, it is crucial at the outset to understand that eternal progression involves failure. It involves making mistakes. If Heavenly Father expected us to be perfect, then He wouldn’t have provided a Savior. Repentance is how we improve in the Savior’s way. Repentance is born of faith in Christ – starting with the belief that God is our loving Heavenly Father, that He provided His son as a Savior, and that They want us to return to live with Them. As Elder Lynn G Robbins of the seventy said, “Repentance is God’s ever-accessible gift that allows and enables us to go from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm. Repentance isn’t His backup plan in the event we might fail. Repentance is His plan, knowing that we will.” "President Nelson has taught that “Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” [ii]

The first habit that I would like to talk about is doing family history. I think that sometimes when we think of family history, we only think of our ancestors and their stories. And, as important as their stories and lives were, the stories and lives of our immediate family members are also crucial to our family history. A report from the Washington Post in 2013 cited a study by psychologists from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, that found several benefits teens experienced from knowing more about their family history. The psychologists measured teens’ knowledge of their family history on a “Do You Know” scale. This scale was made up of 20 questions that the researchers used to measure each study participant’s knowledge of their family history. I am going to read a few of these questions right now. Please answer yes or no to yourself as I read each of these questions:

· Do you know how your parents met?

· Do you know where some of your grandparents met?

· Do you know what went on when you were being born?

· Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?

· Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?

· Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?

· Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

According to the study’s co-author, the last question was meant to show that our family stories might not always be true or as accurate as we sometimes might think. The Washington Post article mentioned that “[The researchers] found that greater knowledge of family history — and higher scores on the Do You Know scale — were associated with a host of positive outcomes for the teens, including better measures of self-esteem, a stronger belief in their capacity to control the future, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, more resilience in the event of hardship, better academic performance and better relationships with their parents.” [iii]

Learning our family history is an act of faith that will require diligence and persistence over our lifetimes. But the benefits are worth it, both to ourselves and to our families – both living and dead. Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the blessings of doing family history in the April 2018 General Conference.

I know the power and influence that family history has on the heart and mind. I also know of the blessings that come into our lives as we make family history a habit.

The second habit I would like to discuss is regularly attending the temple. This is a companion habit to family history. In an October 2021 General Conference talk, President Nelson said, “The temple lies at the center of strengthening our faith and spiritual fortitude because the Savior and His doctrine are the very heart of the temple. Everything taught in the temple, through instruction and through the Spirit, increases our understanding of Jesus Christ. His essential ordinances bind us to Him through sacred priesthood covenants. Then, as we keep our covenants, He endows us with His healing, strengthening power. And oh, how we will need His power in the days ahead.” [iv]

Several years ago, I was invited in a stake conference to prayerfully consider how often I personally should go to the temple. I would extend this invitation to each of you. Prayerfully counsel with the Lord about how often you should attend the temple. Then, make it a habit. Making attending the temple is a habit will impact you eternally. If you are not yet worthy to go to the temple, then take the steps necessary to get worthy.

President Nelson also said, “to each of you who has made temple covenants, I plead with you to seek—prayerfully and consistently—to understand temple covenants and ordinances. Spiritual doors will open. You will learn how to part the veil between heaven and earth, how to ask for God’s angels to attend you, and how better to receive direction from heaven. Your diligent efforts to do so will reinforce and strengthen your spiritual foundation.” [v]

The third, and final, habit that I would like to talk about is daily scripture study. Many prophets have promised incredible blessings for individuals and families who have daily scripture study. President Monson said, “I implore each of us to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day. As we do so, we will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit, to resist temptation, to overcome doubt and fear, and to receive heaven’s help in our lives” (“The Power of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2017).

After inviting members of the Church throughout the world to finish the Book of Mormon by the end of 2005, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program [of reading the Book of Mormon every day], regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God” (“A Testimony Vibrant and True,” Ensign or Liahona, Aug. 2005, 6).

You'll also recall from Lehi's vision of the Tree of Life that the iron rod was symbolic of the word of God. Lehi also saw many groups of people in his vision. The group who made it to the tree and remained were those who "came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree" (1 Nephi 8:30). Continually holding fast to the iron rod implies a consistent effort to study and hold fast to the scripture and words of the prophets. There is a safety and a peace that comes from consistent, daily scripture study.

President M. Russell Ballard shared a story in a 1996 BYU devotional that illustrates the importance of this daily habit of scripture study.

There is a very real power in choosing to spend time with the Lord in His word every day. This power is renewing, healing, and fortifying. Daily scripture study, when combined with prayer, is like the brushing and flossing of the gospel. Just as brushing once a week is not sufficient, studying the scriptures once a week is also not sufficient if we want to survive spiritually as we get closer and closer to the Second Coming of the Savior.

Now, you might think of these three habits and say that you just don’t have time with homework, finals, family, work, and all the other obligations that you have in life. In the April 2014 General Conference, Sister Linda S. Reeves said that these and other gospel habits “are the very practices that help take away stress, give direction to our lives, and add protection to our homes. Then, if pornography or other challenges do strike our families, we can petition the Lord for help and expect great guidance from the Spirit, knowing that we have done what our Father has asked us to do.” [vi]

Speaking of the habit of daily scripture study, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve said, “Don’t yield to Satan’s lie that you don’t have time to study the scriptures. Choose to take time to study them. Feasting on the word of God each day is more important than sleep, school, work, television shows, video games, or social media. You may need to reorganize your priorities to provide time for the study of the word of God. If so, do it!” [vii]

I invite us all to make these three habits of family history, regular temple attendance, and daily scripture study a higher priority. I know the blessings of these habits and the power they invite into our lives. As a final invitation, I would like to share with you a challenge that President Nelson’s wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, shared with young adults in a 2016 worldwide devotional. Sister Nelson said, “Would you be willing to try an experiment for 30 days? Daily kneel and thank your Heavenly Father for the scriptures. Tell Him the one question you most need to have answered that day. Plead to have the Holy Ghost with you as you read. Then open your scriptures anywhere and read until you find the answer. Try it for 30 days and see what happens.” [viii]

I would like to invite you to try Sister Nelson’s challenge for the next 30 days. I have tried it myself and know that the Lord is aware of us individually and wants to help us through our trials. I know that Jesus Christ lives and is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. I know that these and other gospel habits will draw His power into our lives. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[i] Dunn, Michael A. 2021. "One Percent Better." October 3, 2021. .

[ii] Nelson, Russell M. 2019. "We Can Do Better and Be Better." April 9, 2019. .

[iii] Chandler, Michael Alison. 2013. "Study: Teen’s knowledge of family history a sign of social-emotional health - The Washington Post." Washingtonpost. December 10, 2013. .

[iv] Nelson, Russell M. 2021. "The Temple and Your Spiritual Foundation." Churchofjesuschrist. October 6, 2021. .

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Reeves, Linda S. 2014. "Protection from Pornography - a Christ-Focused Home." Churchofjesuschrist. April 6, 2014. .

[vii] Scott, Richard G. 2014. "Make the Exercise of Faith Your First Priority." Churchofjesuschrist. October 6, 2014. .

[viii] Nelson, Wendy Watson. 2016. "Becoming the Person You Were Born to Be." Churchofjesuschrist. January 10, 2016. .

About the Speaker

Matthew A. Smith

Matt Smith currently serves at Ensign College as the Title IX coordinator and student success advisor. Matt served a mission in Long Beach, California. He attended LDS Business College earning an accounting certificate. Brother Smith obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from Weber State University and Masters and Doctorate degrees in education from Northern Arizona University. Brother Smith served as a full-time seminary and institute teacher in Arizona for a number of years before joining Ensign College as an associate registrar and instructional designer. Brother Smith and his wife Brooke were married in the Bountiful Utah Temple. They are the parents of five “wonderful” children.
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