That You May Know How to Act (When You Don't Know What to Do)
Brothers and sisters, I am excited and happy to be with you this morning in the opening devotional of the semester. I hope that you each took the opportunity last week to listen to President Nelson as he spoke. Sister Kusch and I express our love to you and for you; we are grateful you are here and pray for your success and happiness.
To begin, I would like to show a short video inviting everyone to devotional.
We want you to enjoy coming to devotional each week, ride a scooter if you need to! Don’t bring them on Temple Square. We almost got arrested when we were filming this video, so we just want you to be careful. We do want you to come to devotional each week and to help others by inviting your friends to attend devotional with you. I testify that as you do, you will be blessed in your studies and all areas of your life to become a capable and trusted disciple of Jesus Christ.
Now brothers and sisters, as we attend devotional each week here in the Assembly Hall, we will gather in an historic place; this is a place where prophets have stood to teach Latter-day Saints the pure and simple doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ, encouraging, edifying, and inspiring them. For me, it is always a weighty responsibility to address students, faculty, staff, and others in attendance at a devotional. I know many of you come with questions, concerns, worries and a great desire to feel the Spirit. I promise you that if you will attend devotional each week, with a desire to feel Heavenly Father’s guidance in your life, you will realize that blessing; and you will recognize and feel His love for you as one of His sons or daughters. It is my hope and desire that the Holy Ghost will attend us this morning, that you will feel his personal ministry and presence, learning something and feeling something that will be uplifting and edifying.
At the end of 2006, in response to some gentle promptings when presented with the opportunity, I began doctoral studies in instructional design at Idaho State University. I would study part-time and sandwich this into my full-time teaching duties at BYU-Idaho, my responsibility as a young single adult stake president, and my most important responsibilities as a husband, father, and grandfather. Coursework was to begin in January, right after the New Year.
A classic assessment technique in education is to give what is known as a pre-test to students; this helps a teacher know what the students know about a given subject or topic as a semester or program begins, and we were given a date and time to gather for our pre-test. There were more than 20 of us in the cohort – all of them peers of mine – and we gathered at the designated time and place. One of our professors from the program handed out the exam which was several pages long – about 70 questions as I recall – and we were told we could begin.
I need to pause for a second and explain that before I began a teaching career at BYU-Idaho, I had spent a little more than two decades in Silicon Valley, working in the high-tech industry. My life had been about computers and electronics, about printers, and disk drives, computer monitors, and computer mice, and about how these products were manufactured in very sophisticated facilities around the world. I had never studied educational theory – and frankly, I had never felt the need to. Now, back to that pre-test.
I began reading the questions – a combination of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. I read page one. I read page two. I read page three and kept reading until I got to the final question. And, then I started over again, reading the questions a little faster this time. When I finished reading them a second time, I began to panic – just a little – because I realized that I did not know the answer to any question on the entire test. I didn’t even see a name, a term, a theory, or anything else that I even remotely recognized. I did not know a thing about anything on the test.
I was just about to start reading the questions for the third time and thought, “There is no amount of reading, re-reading, or guessing at answers that would make any sense. Any more effort would just be a waste of my time.” So, I did the only thing I could think of in that moment: I took the blank test, wrote my name on it, and handed it to the professor and said, “I don’t know anything about any of this stuff. It’s pointless for me to even try to answer anything. I’m going home.” And then I walked right out of the room.
Now, this entire process took just a little more than five minutes. When I walked out of the room after handing the test back to the stunned professor, all of my peers looked at me in disbelief, thinking that I had answered every question – they were in shock and awe! Little did they know at the time what the real story was. The next day I sheepishly explained to many of them the reality that I was completely lacking in any relevant knowledge and in the moment did not know what else to do. But, I was determined that nothing like this would ever happen again.
You may not have had an experience exactly like mine, and I do not recommend the practice I just described if you are in an exam and you don’t know the answers, but every one of us will face situations where we just simply don’t know what to do. I’m not talking about routine and simple things like the choice of ice cream, tie, or dress, or which pictures from the weekend you should post on Instagram, or whether you should pick a Lime or a Bird scooter. I’m talking about the significant situations we find ourselves in throughout life. I know you are making weighty decisions now. And I know you want to make correct decisions that are in harmony and alignment with what Heavenly Father wants for you. Making weighty decisions and aligning our wills and actions with God’s are opportunities for growth that will last for all of mortality.
You and I need to know what to do when we don’t know what to do, and my desire this morning is to assure you that in such moments we are in good company; and, while we are given the opportunity to exercise our moral agency, in those moments God does not leave us alone, or helpless, or without resources. It would not surprise me if today some of you are here trying to figure out, or are worried about, a specific situation or a problem, and you don’t yet know what to do. So, I want to share with you five principles and prophetic counsel that will give us clear and absolute direction to know what to do when we don’t know what to do.
Principle #1: It all starts with you
The Lord instructed Oliver Cowdery in a revelation to Joseph Smith: “You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right (see D&C 9:8). The Savior asked, “For which of you intending to build a tower sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it (see Luke 14:28)?”
Making important decisions requires diligent effort on our part. There will be times when you won’t have long to determine what to do when you don’t know what to do. But if you will start with a little study, a little reflection on what the issue or issues are that you are confronting, you will be well on your way to knowing what you should do.
Principle #2: Learn from the experiences of those who have gone before
As a teenager, Joseph Smith found himself in the midst of a war of words and opinions about religion. He desperately wanted to know the truth, but he also wanted to know what to do and how he could know. In his own words he said, “For how to act I did not know.”
Nephi and his brothers returned to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates in Laban’s possession. They drew lots. Laman failed. They offered gold, silver, and precious things. Another failure. The third time Nephi went with faith, led by the Spirit but having no idea what he was going to do.
As the high priest of the church in Zarahemla, it appears Alma did not know what to do with members of the church who had been flattered into wickedness by a rising generation of unbelievers. He tried to hand off the responsibility to his leader, king Mosiah. But wisely, Mosiah reminded Alma it was his responsibility to determine what to do, when Alma was faced with something he had never done before.
You might say, “But that was Joseph Smith – the prophet of the Restoration!” Or, “Nephi – millions of people were known by his name!” Or, “Alma – he was Abinadi’s only convert, but look at what he accomplished!” All true. But in the moment, Joseph Smith was simply a young man who had questions about God and truth. Nephi was a young man who was trying to fulfill a task given him by his prophet-father. And Alma was a priesthood leader grappling with a challenge he never faced before. In those moments, these three were very much like us. And there are lessons for us to learn and apply as we search these accounts and seek to identify patterns and principles that we can follow.
Principle #3: Anchor your faith and works on scriptural absolutes
In James (see James 1:5-6), Joseph learned that if he asked God, with unwavering faith, God would liberally, or generously, give him wisdom. The scripture doesn’t say, “God will pick and choose a few to give wisdom to, and you might or might not be one of them.” It says He gives to all men, and it says wisdom sincerely sought shall be given.
Nephi assured his unbelieving brothers that if they held fast to the word of God (see 1 Nephi 15:24), and followed it, the temptations of the world and Satan’s fiery darts could have no power over them. If that is true – and I testify it is – AND if we really believe this and want to apply this in our lives, seeking the promised blessings, shouldn’t this scripture alone be enough to motivate every one of us to greatly improve our study of the scriptures and the words of living prophets?
After his powerful sermon on the doctrine of Christ, Nephi seems to discern that people might wonder what to do after following Christ’s example by coming into the waters of baptism (see 2 Nephi 32:1). He reminds them that they will have received the gift of the Holy Ghost and then teaches them to “feast upon the words of Christ, for behold the words of Christ will tell you all things which ye should do (see 2 Nephi 32:3).
In these examples God promises wisdom will be given when we ask for it and exercise our faith. That means praying with faith and hope and real intent. Holding fast to the word of God and applying it in our lives gives us real and certain power to resist temptation and protection against anything Satan might put in our way to distract or destroy us. Finally, we are given the sure promise that feasting on, seeking, and searching the words of Christ will tell us all things that we should do.
Pray with great faith. Read the scriptures and the words of living prophets and hold on to them for dear life. You might be tempted to say, “That’s too simple, and I have heard all of this before!” Simple? Yes. You’ve heard it before? Yes, and will probably hear this again and again throughout your lives. Joseph Smith learned the principle of repetition in 1823 when he first became acquainted with the Angel Moroni (see JSH 1:46). Elder David A. Bednar has taught that repetition is a pattern and principle for receiving and recognizing revelation (see BYU-I Devotional, 26 January 2016). I am hopeful this morning that hearing these scriptural absolutes again may have prompted the Holy Ghost to teach you something very personal about what you can do when you don’t know what to do.
Principle #4: Do your part and trust in God’s sure promises
President Russell M. Nelson has taught: “Nothing opens the heavens quite like the combination of increased purity, exact obedience, earnest seeking, daily feasting on the words of Christ in the Book of Mormon, and regular time committed to temple and family history work.
To be sure, there may be times when you feel as though the heavens are closed. But I promise that as you continue to be obedient, expressing gratitude for every blessing the Lord gives you, and as you patiently honor the Lord’s timetable, you will be given the knowledge and understanding you seek.”
Knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do is really a matter of receiving personalized, customized revelation. President Nelson has shared the necessary elements: personal purity, exact obedience, prayer, daily feasting on the words of Christ in the Book of Mormon, temple and family history work, continued diligence, patience, and gratitude when the answers come. He has also said, “I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation…Choose to do the spiritual work required to enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost and hear the voice of the Spirit more frequently and more clearly.”
This admonition from President Nelson is an invitation for each of us to take time to reflect on our daily efforts to apply these things in our lives. And it’s an invitation that you and I should take very seriously.
We might ask ourselves:
What am I doing, saying, watching, or listening to that might offend the Spirit?
Am I truly honest in my dealings with others, in every regard? Do I somehow justify cheating just a little?
Am I obedient, without rebellion, because I want the blessings that come from sincere obedience?
What would Heavenly Father have me learn about diligence and patience?
We live in a world where we have come to expect instant answers. We have instant messaging. We have Instagram and lots of other “instas.” Learning to trust God and understanding that many times there may not be “insta-answers” is vital in our journey through life.
I believe trusting God with patience comes as we understand our true identity and nature as His children. Perhaps the most important and fundamental knowledge we can acquire and retain in this life is a sure knowledge we are begotten sons and daughters of loving Heavenly Parents; and that God will magnify us as we diligently seek to align our will with His. He will give us the capacity to build our own “ships of curious workmanship.” I would also add that when we don’t know what to do, it does not mean we are left to our own devices to figure things out. Nephi was not left without guidance to build the ship. He was taught “from time to time” according to his needs. God will teach us what to do and how to do it when we are doing what we should do, when we are being what we should be, and when we make obedience our highest priority. Which brings me to the final principle.
Principle #5: Putting God first is always the right thing to do
I have previously shared an experience Sister Kusch and I had early in our marriage that was foundational for us.
We were living in Southern California, had bought our first home and had three very small children. This was the actual house we were living in. I was serving as a counselor in our ward bishopric. I was 26 years old.
On a Tuesday morning before leaving for work, the phone rang. It was the stake executive secretary inviting us to meet with the stake president that evening. We loved our stake president, R. Don Smith. He was an excellent leader with a testimony that burned bright.
As we sat in President Smith’s den, following a brief interview, he extended a call to me to serve as the bishop of our ward. In that moment, we did not know what to do. My first response was, “President, do you have any idea how old I am?” He didn’t. “Don’t you think I am too young for this?” “How old are you?” “Twenty-six.” “No, I don’t.” After it was obvious that my age wasn’t going to be an issue, we got down to the real reason that we did not know what to do.
“President, we have sold our home, and bought a new one about 50 miles from here in a place where we feel more comfortable raising our young family. We are about a month away from closing on both transactions and moving.” That did not seem to faze him much either.
He listened patiently as we explained to him our situation and then he showed us a letter with three signatures on it: Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney, The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And he made us a promise that if we would stay and serve, the Lord would bless us, in His own time, to remedy the concerns we had about where to raise our family. We looked at the letter, then we looked at each other, and in that moment we knew what to do. We knew that we would stay and serve.
In miraculous ways we were able to cancel both transactions, and on a Sunday in April 1978, I was sustained as the bishop of the ward where I grew up. I am confident that there were widowed sisters in the sacrament meeting on the day I was sustained as bishop that were in the sacrament meeting on the day I was blessed as a baby. I did not serve for long, but it was a sacred time for us and our family, and I refer to this experience as some of my fondest childhood memories.
Now, let me take you back to the experience I shared as I began my remarks this morning. I recovered from that disastrous pre-test. I was magnified in my effort. I was blessed with capacity to accomplish more in limited time than I ever thought possible. I was helped along the way by people who came forward for unknown reasons, other than they felt impressed to do so. I was the third person in my cohort to finish and defend my dissertation.
I learned what to do in a moment when I did not know what to do as I relied on the principles I have mentioned today.
I testify that God has not placed us on this earth to be left alone. He knows there will be times – many times – when we won’t know what to do. But, we need not find ourselves in a situation not knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do. Scriptures, prophets, temples, and the Holy Ghost are sacred tools and resources that will always help us know.
I so testify in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.