This young woman was now back to give birth to her second baby. As they talked together, my wife commented that it was a bit of a financial challenge to buy extra food items. The young woman replied, "We always fed our baby what the rest of us ate."
Shauna asked, "What do you mean?"
"Well, if we had chicken, the baby had chicken. If we had potatoes, the baby had potatoes. If we had beans, the baby had beans."
My wife asked, "You mean when the child was a little older?"
"No," she said, "when we brought the baby home."
Shauna asked delicately, "Is he, uh, still living? Is he all right now?"
The young mother answered, "Oh, yes, he gained twenty pounds in no time at all."
There's a lesson there. Some foods are not only inappropriate but dangerous for an infant to eat. So it is with our spiritual digestive system and our growth to spiritual maturity. Just as it would be unwise for a college student who had very little math in high school to jump into an integral calculus class, so too must we be careful about what we study, how we study, and when we study. There is, in a manner of speaking, a system of gospel prerequisites. Elder Boyd K. Packer explained: "Teaching prematurely or at the wrong time some things that are true can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning. . . .
"The scriptures teach emphatically that we must give milk before meat. The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be given only to those who are worthy.
"It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it."1
The Savior taught that gospel prerequisistes should be observed when teaching or learning sacred things (Matthew 7:6-7). After having spoken of the profound truths associated with his own suffering in Gethsemane and thus of our need to repent, the Lord warned: "And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish" (D&C 19:21-22). A person who knows very little about our doctrine, for example, will probably not understand or appreciate our teachings concerning temples, sealing powers, eternal life, or the potential godhood of man.
The Prophet Joseph Smith observed, "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it [will] be a hard matter to get right."2 When a proper foundation has been laid, the truth can then flow more freely. The apostle Peter is said to have explained to Clement of Rome: "The teaching of all doctrine has a certain order, and there are some things which must be delivered first, others in the second place, and others in the third, and so all in their order; and if these things be delivered in their order, they become plain; but if they be brought forward out of order, they will seem to be spoken against reason." 3
After I had been on my mission for about fifteen months, I was assigned to work in a beautiful section of Connecticut. My companion, a nice fellow to be sure, had one problem that affected the work somewhat—his mind was never with us. He always seemed to be off in another world. One day in early summer we arrived at the door of a small but lovely home. A woman who appeared to be about thirty-five years old opened her door and unlatched the screen door. "Yes? Is there something I can do for you?"
It was Elder Jackson's turn to be the spokesman. "We're missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called the Mormons. We have a message about Christ we would like to share with you."
She looked us over very carefully. "I don't think so. I have my own faith."
My companion, who probably wasn't paying attention to what she said, went silent. After waiting uncomfortably for at least ten or fifteen seconds, I blurted out, "And which church do you attend?"
She came right back: "I didn't say I attended a church—I said I had my own faith."
Somewhat surprised, I responded, "Could you tell us about your faith?"
"I don't think I want to," she said. "You would make fun of me."
I assured her we would not. "What is your faith?" I asked.
"Well," she timidly declared, "I believe the physical body is the temple of God and that people ought to take better care of their bodies. For example, I think it's wrong for people to smoke or drink." I commented that we felt her thinking was right on the mark.
She continued, "Well, there's more. I don't drink coffee or tea." Then she asked, "What do the Mormons believe?"
It was difficult for me not to speak out, but I felt I ought to allow Elder Jackson to engage what was obviously a great teaching moment. I could almost see the wheels in his mental machinery turning. He answered, "Well, we believe in baptism for the dead." The woman carefully pulled the screen door shut and latched it. Before closing the main door she said, with a pained look on her face, "That sounds sick."
I had some idea of what she was thinking and of how bizarre these Latter-day Saints appeared to be. Mostly I was stunned. Before we left the porch, I turned to Elder Jackson and asked in utter disbelief, "What were you doing?"
He seemed offended. "We do believe in baptism for the dead, don't we?"
"Yes, we do, Elder Jackson. So why didn't you tell her about polygamy?"
His response was even more stunning. "I thought about doing that next, but she closed the door."
"Elder," I said, "this lady lives the Word of Wisdom."
"I thought that was odd," he replied as we walked to the next door.
This woman had essentially answered the door with her tin cup and said, "I thirst." We had answered, "We can fix that," and proceeded to drag out the fire hose and drown her in the living waters. It wasn't that the woman was not bright enough to understand the concept of salvation for the dead. The problem was that we had not laid a proper doctrinal foundation, and reflecting Peter's words, our message seemed to be spoken against reason.
There is indeed a system of gospel prerequisites. Milk must come before meat. As we grow in holiness, it is vital that we grow steadily and surely, feeding regularly and consistently upon the fundamental and foundational doctrines of salvation. Too often members of the Church, supposing that they are deeper and stronger than they really are, make an effort to feast upon heavy meat—doctrinal matters that are clearly beyond the purview of what is taught by the Brethren today—well before they are ready to do so. A friend who served as a bishop indicated that after a member of his ward—a good man but one who had wrestled for years with the Word of Wisdom—had attended a series of discussions on unusually deep doctrines, he had said, "Bishop, I'm convinced that if I can simply make my calling and election sure, I can then get the strength to stop smoking!"
What's wrong with this picture? Only the order of things, that's all. My experience has been that people who want to spend their time studying materials beyond the standard works, who feel that the scriptures and the words of living prophets are too elementary for them, are usually spiritually unstable, and their influence for good is minimal. They generally do more to sow discord in a ward than they do to build unity and strengthen the Saints.
The prophets and apostles have a much clearer perspective on what should and should not be taught than most of us will ever have. By traveling throughout the earth and meeting regularly with the Saints, they sense the "bearing capacity" of the people, what we are and are not prepared to receive. We would do well to use the teachings of the general authorities as a gauge of the readiness of the people. As we read through the Book of Mormon, we come face to face with this principle: "It came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught" (Mosiah 18:18-19). The same book records: "Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma" (Mosiah 25:21). In our day the revelations declare, "And let them"—John Corrill and John Murdock—"journey from thence preaching the word by the way, saying none other things than that which the prophets and apostles have written, and that which is taught them by the Comforter through the prayer of faith" (D&C 52:9).
On the other hand, while we must see to it that our growth in understanding is steady and sustained, we must be stretching, expanding our views, and opening our minds to new truths and new applications. That is, we need to partake of milk before meat, but eventually we need meat. "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers," Paul wrote, "ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age"—or in other words are mature—"even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:12-14).
It is not uncommon to teach returned missionaries in a Book of Mormon class, perhaps two or three weeks into the semester, and hear one of the group respond to something I have taught with "Hey! Wait a minute. How can that be true? I've never heard that!" The implication is fascinating—if the student hasn't encountered this particular idea before, it can't be true.
We must be willing to think, to open ourselves to new insights, to broaden our scope, if we truly desire to make a difference in the kingdom of God in the years ahead. It is one thing to respond to a hard question by saying, "I don't know the answer to your question, but I know the gospel is true." That's a noble approach, I suppose. If we don't know, then we don't know. We ought not try to bluff our way through things. And it's good to know the work is true, despite what we don't know. But how much more powerful is an answer like this one: "That's a good question. Let me answer your question first, and then let me bear my testimony of the truths associated with this matter." The Lord and his Church desperately need members who are committed to the faith and have a testimony of the gospel. But of even greater worth are those who know the gospel is true and also know the gospel.
President Joseph F. Smith explained that "the voicing of one's testimony, however eloquently phrased or beautifully expressed, is no fit or acceptable substitute for the needed discourse of instruction and counsel expected in a general gathering of the people. The man who professes a testimony as herein described, and who assumes that his testimony embraces all the knowledge he needs, and who therefore lives in indolence and ignorance shall surely discover his error to his own cost and loss." And then comes this poignant message: "Of those who speak in his name, the Lord requires humility, not ignorance." 4
Elder B. H. Roberts said: "In no department is the frank and honest confession 'I don't know,' more imperative than in Theology; and when it is given as an actual confession of having reached the limits of our knowledge, it is worthy of all praise. But if it becomes tainted with the spirit of 'I don't care,' then I have no respect for it. . . . Achievement in divine things, progress in the knowledge of them, comes only with hard striving, earnest endeavor, determined seeking.
"Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things." Elder Roberts continued: "Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required; that by some means these elements act somewhat as Elijah's ravens and feed us without effort on our part. . . . Just now it is much in fashion to laud 'the simple faith'; which is content to believe without understanding, or even without much effort to understand. . . . I maintain that 'simple faith'—which is so often ignorant and simpering acquiescence, and not faith at all—but simple faith taken at its highest value, which is faith without understanding of the thing believed, is not equal to intelligent faith, the faith that is the gift of God, supplemented by earnest endeavor to find through prayerful thought and search a rational ground for faith—for acceptance of truth; and hence the duty of striving for a rational faith in which the intellect as well as the heart—the feeling—has a place and is a factor." 5
Because we do not dispense large portions of meat (or because my students are not receiving the same in class) does not mean that we should not personally be striving for deeper understanding; the gap between what we are learning and what we teach may well grow larger as the years go by. The portion of the word to be given to the Saints may not change appreciably, but we shouldn't always be teaching on the edge of our knowledge.
In recent years the Brethren have pleaded with the Saints to teach the gospel, to focus on doctrine, to emphasize substance, to stress the principles and precepts that lead to a change of heart and growth and salvation. The Lord instructed the early Saints to "teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel" (D&C 42:12). We have been told that "when ye are assembled together ye shall instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act and direct my church, how to act upon the points of my law and commandments, which I have given" (D&C 43:8). We are to "teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently," the Savior has implored, "and my grace shall attend you" (D&C 88:77-78). "True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior," Elder Boyd K. Packer declared. "The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior." 6
There is a discipline imposed on those called to lead or teach in the Church to use time wisely and to see that what is said and done in our meetings leads to enrichment, edification, and spiritual growth. Not many years ago, while serving in a stake presidency, I stole away from stake assignments to attend a Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class. The reading was Acts 19 and Paul's epistle to the Galatians. I was excited, because I knew something about those remarkable chapters of the New Testament and anticipated that we could indeed have a marvelous experience in class that day. But my hopes were soon dashed, for the instructor opened the class by saying, "Now, before we get to our topic, let me tell you about a recent trip my wife and I took to Hawaii." For the next forty minutes the teacher spoke of swimming and snorkeling and pineapple and fishing. Just as it was time to close, he asked, "What does all of this have to do with the apostle Paul?" The silence was deafening. Clearly, our time had been wasted by a man who was unprepared to teach that day. It would have been far more enjoyable and worthwhile simply to read selected passages and invite comments on the material from class members. Many of us went to Church hungry that day but returned home largely unfed.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie described our responsibility as teachers and students in the quest for mutual edification: "We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that's all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don't get anything to speak of.
"On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are obligated in the Church to speak by the power of the Spirit. We are commanded to treasure up the words of light and truth and then give forth the portion that is appropriate and needful on every occasion." 7
Not long after Shauna and I were married, we moved into a new ward. In priesthood meeting the instructor of the high priests group said, "Look, guys, we all know this stuff that's in the manuals, as well as the stories in scripture; we've been over it again and again. I propose that we grow up and move on to discussions of things that really matter." I smiled inside, because I sensed then—and I know it ever so much more surely today—that the scriptures and the words of the prophets have an eternal relevance and thus a life of their own. Each one of us brings to our most recent reading of scripture new challenges, new accomplishments, new insights, and hopefully new eyes that now see more clearly than the last time we engaged that particular passage. Constant review of basic principles constantly brings increased spiritual insight. We reduce the realm of the unknown not by wandering in it but by feasting on our knowledge of that which God has already revealed. A vital key to individual revelation is institutional revelation.
No matter the depth of our personal searching after the meat of the plan of salvation, true spiritual maturity will be manifest in our continued return to the milk that provided substance for our souls in our formative years. I have a love and depth of appreciation for the scriptures now that I simply could not have understood thirty years ago. I treasure the words of living apostles and prophets today as silver and gold. In addition, the people I admire the most, the men and women I consider to be some of the finest teachers in the Church, are people who, despite their breadth and their depth, are devoted to the standard works of the Church and have a great desire to teach the portion of the word the Lord has allotted for us today. For them, as for those they teach so ably and well, the simple has become profound.
I think I would be correct in suggesting that the institutional Church is not responsible to teach very much meat; the Church teaches largely the milk of the gospel. Thus, it's foolish for members of the Church to become either disenchanted or discouraged because they aren't hearing deep doctrine preached in sacrament meeting or receiving new historical or doctrinal truth in Sunday School each week. The Church is, in many ways, like a university, a place where a person should learn to learn. We need not find fault with the Church if things are too simply presented or if matters seem repetitious. The gaining of meat becomes an individual responsibility, a personal quest. "God's earthly kingdom is a school in which his saints learn the doctrines of salvation. Some members of the Church are being taught elementary courses; others are approaching graduation and can do independent research where the deep and hidden things are concerned. All must learn line upon line and precept upon precept." 8
Let us consider what might be called the parable of the hidden treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who learned of pearls of great price buried in a field. With joy and anticipation he began his search for the priceless gems. After barely breaking the surface of the ground, he came upon a valuable stone, one which later brought substantial material gain. The man led his friends to the field, and other stones of like worth were uncovered, all barely beneath the surface of the ground. Indeed, as often as a person chose to drop his trowel or hand spade into the now well-furrowed field, he was almost assured of a valuable find.
Then one day a certain man went to the field alone, a man who had previously uncovered many valuable stones. As he sank his shovel into the earth and pushed beneath the accustomed level of digging, he happened upon a larger variety of stones and many gems of even greater value. Upon telling of his discovery, many were heard to say, "We have enough! Are these our stones not of great worth? Are they not to be had through digging near the surface?"
A few of his friends, however, rejoiced with him in his prize and sought the same with eagerness. These made the extra effort to dig deeper, made similar finds, and were richly rewarded.
Blessed is that man who seeks deep to find and know the word: unto him is given the "greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full" (Alma 12:10).
1. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, 107-8; italics in
2. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 343.
3. "Clementine Recognitions," III, 34; cited in Nibley, Since Cumorah, 97.
4. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 206.
5. Roberts, Seventy's Course in Theology, 5:iv-v.
6. Packer, Conference Report, October 1986, 20.
7. McConkie, "Seven Deadly Heresies," 80.
8. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:324.
This article is taken from Robert L. Millet's recent book More Holiness Give Me.