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5 Myths We Tell Ourselves About Teaching by the Spirit

Statements about teaching by the Spirit have been made by various people. These illustrate that there are a number of misconceptions or misunderstandings about how the Spirit actually functions in teaching and learning settings. Some of these statements have elements of truth in them. Some can even be completely true at times, but if they are viewed as fixed rules or principles, they can be misleading.

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If we are teaching by the Spirit, even small children will sit quietly.

I was present in the in-service training meeting where a stake Primary president made this statement. It was a sweet promise made with sincere conviction. And I am sure that it is true in many cases. I have seen it happen myself. The problem is in stating it in such a sweeping, general way. My immediate reaction when I heard her statement was: If you happen to be in a ward where you have the last meeting in the block schedule and Primary goes until 4 in the afternoon, do restless, noisy, perhaps even unruly children prove that the teacher is out of tune with the Spirit? Or what about a troublemaker in a seminary or Sunday School class? Are they proof that the teacher is not fulfilling his or her calling? And I decided I would be particularly discouraged if I believed that if my own children didn’t always sit quietly when I was trying to teach them, then I had failed in having the Spirit.

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I think a good test for deciding whether I’m teaching by the Spirit is if my students like me and the class.

There is no question that a powerful teaching moment may settle down even the unruly and nonattentive. It is also true that faithful and obedient learners will enjoy any experience where the teaching is being done with the influence of the Spirit. But if these statements are viewed as general principles about teaching by the Spirit, then what do we do with such situations as the following?

1. When Joseph taught his brothers what he had received in a dream, they plotted to kill him. They cast him into a pit, then sold him as a slave into Egypt (see Genesis 37:18–28).

2. After Jesus taught the people in His hometown of Nazareth, some of them were so incensed at what He said, they took Him to the outskirts of the city and tried to throw Him off a cliff (see Luke 4:16–29).

3. I don’t find many examples of Laman and Lemuel sitting quietly while being taught by either Lehi or Nephi.

4. Samuel the Lamanite’s “class” ending up shooting at him with arrows and flinging rocks at him with their slings (see Helaman 16:2).

5. Abinadi’s “students” burned him at the stake (see Mosiah 17).

The scriptures are full of such examples.

I don’t think it is right to use humor in our lessons because it is light-minded and actually offends the Spirit.

We are warned by the Lord to treat sacred things with reverence and care. They are not to be treated lightly. His counsel is very direct and oft repeated in that regard. “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit” (D&C 63:64). In another place we are warned against “idle thoughts,” “excess of laughter,” “light speeches” and “light-mindedness” (D&C 88:69, 121). Oliver Cowdery was told to “perform with soberness the work which I have commanded you” (D&C 6:35). We are counseled to be sober in many other places in the scriptures as well (see, for example, Mosiah 4:15; Alma 37:47; D&C 43:35). When speaking of the Sabbath day, the Lord used the phrase, “not with much laughter” (D&C 59:15).

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But the Lord also said that we are to have “cheerful hearts and countenances” (D&C 59:15), and “Let thy heart be of good cheer before my face” (D&C 112:4). In fact, the phrase good cheer is found 14 times in the standard works. To the pioneers about to cross the plains, the Lord said this: “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving” (D&C 136:28).

We must always take care that we do not cross the line between having good, clean fun and being overly merry to the point of becoming irreverent. Sometimes jokes are shared that treat lightly sacred things or make fun of individuals or groups of people. I’ve seen this happen even in formal Church teaching settings such as sacrament meetings, firesides, and classrooms. I believe such things do offend the Spirit and cause it to withdraw to some degree. 

On the other hand, there is surely what we might call a wholesome and healthy humor. Life itself provides more than its share of humorous, amusing situations. We can make wry observations that provoke laughter without demeaning others or treating sacred things lightly. One of the things that people loved most about President Gordon B. Hinckley was his very quick and dry wit and his delightful sense of humor. But it never crossed that line described above.

I didn’t have time to prepare a lesson; I guess I’ll have to teach by the Spirit today.

Unquestionably, there will be times when we have been asked to teach but then have circumstances unexpectedly come up that encroach on our preparation time. (The same situation may arise in family teaching settings as well.) In those circumstances, teachers or parents or priesthood leaders have the right to call on the Spirit to help them teach with power and effectiveness. But to extend that into a practice wherein one never prepares beforehand takes a true principle too far.

One of the principles that governs the giving and receiving of personal revelation is what I call “spiritual self-reliance.” Note carefully the Lord’s strong language about this very concept:

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; . . . men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will. . . . They are agents unto themselves. . . . But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned. (D&C 58:26–29)

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Elder Neal A. Maxwell said this about deliberately not preparing to teach:

Teaching does not remove responsibility from the teacher for prayerful and pondering preparation. Teaching by the Spirit is not the equivalent of going on “automatic pilot.” We still need a carefully worked out flight plan. Studying out something in our own minds involves the Spirit in our preparations as well as in our presentations. We must not err, like Oliver Cowdery, by taking no thought except to ask God for His Spirit (see D&C 9:7).

I’m not interested in all these teaching methods; I just want to teach by the Spirit.

This is a little more complicated question. When it comes to teaching methodology and teaching skills and abilities, there are cautions as well as encouragements. If the above statement reflects an attitude similar to that of the teacher and missionary who wanted the Spirit to do it all for them, then it is not a wise statement. In other words, the teacher here might be saying, “If I’m teaching by the Spirit, then I don’t have to worry about how I teach. That will take care of itself.” I think we have shown that such an attitude is not pleasing to the Lord.

On the other hand, that statement may reflect a desire to trust in the Spirit more than in the methodologies and wisdom of men. The Lord’s warning in section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants is sobering. If we preach in any way other than by the Spirit of truth, it is not of God. 

So where is the balance? Is it possible that an individual’s readi­ness to learn can be lessened by a dull, boring, monotonous, or lifeless presentation? If a teacher uses a variety of effective methods that engage the learners and help draw them into the learning experience, couldn’t this actually enhance the opportunity for the Spirit to function? That certainly makes it clear that seeking to improve our ability to teach the gospel more skillfully is not displeasing to the Lord.

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We have attempted to answer the questions, and we have attempted to respond to the various statements we often hear. In the end, this is all that matters:

“That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23).


In Tune: The Role of the Spirit in Teaching and LearningIn The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are all teachers. Not only has the Lord commanded us to teach, but He has taught us what we are to teach and how we are to do it: diligently and by the power of the Spirit. But how do we know if we're doing it right? What signs can we watch for that the Spirit is actually present in a teaching setting?

In this insightful companion volume to Hearing the Voice of the Lord, bestselling author Gerald N. Lund brings his decades of experience working in the Church Educational System to the topic of teaching and learning by the Spirit. Read more about common misconceptions, important questions we should ask about our teaching, and the role of the Holy Ghost in the process in Gerald Lund's book, In Tune: The Role of the Spirit in Teaching and Learning, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.

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