The idea for this discussion comes from Elder Jan E. Newman’s April, 2021 Conference talk entitled, “Teaching in the Savior’s Way.” This isn’t a discussion of his talk, though all quotes below come from his talk. I want to talk about our relationship with borrowed light in our lives versus the light we discover for ourselves.

Borrowed light

When we talk about borrowed light we are referring to the knowledge we get from others. If we are active in the Church that light is all around us. It comes in the form of Conference talks from the Brethren, articles, such as this, and those found in the Church magazines. We can find borrowed light in the lives of our neighbors who live by the principles of the gospel and spend their lives doing good. It is also found in the born testimonies we hear from others and in the hymns we sing at Church.

We have the opportunity to be surrounded by light from sources outside of ourselves. It all depends on how we choose to live our life. The important difference between what we call borrowed light and what I call discovered light, lies in the transformative power of discovered light. What I am calling discovered light is that spiritual knowledge you discover on your own from study, prayer, insights, and life experience. Let’s look at the New Testament parable of the 10 Virgins found in Matthew 25:1-12. I’m pretty sure you know the story, so just skim it if you like. I would like to point out a couple of details after you read it.

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

What defines the “foolish” virgins? The answer is that they did not fill their lamps with oil, so when the Bridegroom (Christ) came, they were unprepared. It wasn’t that they had no oil in their lamps, but that they didn’t have sufficient oil to last through the upcoming feast. Their lamps were running on almost empty. Also, the parable doesn’t say that the only oil they had was what was in their lamps.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. [emphasis added]

All of them had containers for their oil. They used those vessels to fill their lamps. The wise virgins made sure their vessels were full of oil, so they had plenty to top off their lamp when the Bridegroom came. The foolish virgins may have had some oil in their lamps, but their vessels were empty, so they couldn’t fill their lamps when they needed the oil the most.

… Conversion must come from within. As illustrated in the parable of the ten virgins, we cannot give someone else the oil of our conversion, as much as we might want to. As Elder David A. Bednar taught: “This precious oil is acquired one drop at a time … patiently and persistently. No shortcut is available; no last-minute flurry of preparation is possible.”

path to the lightIn the parable, the foolish virgins begged for the oil they required in the hour of need from those who already had plenty of oil in their vessels. But giving of their oil to someone else would have meant they wouldn’t have had enough to last for themselves, so they couldn’t share. This is why these unprepared virgins were called foolish. Having a reservoir on hand was such a basic thing to have that they were foolish to think they could just take someone else’s oil and get by on someone else’s hard work. Learning this lesson cost them dearly in the end, for they were shut out of the wedding feast of the Lord.

The oil in the lamps represents the light or knowledge of the gospel we carry around inside of us. We are the vessel. Our lamp, if you will, is the light that shines from the life we live because of the gospel knowledge we have internalized and made part of our soul. This is something we can show to others, but can’t actually give to others, for it is within us. It is a part of us and who we have become from the life we live in the gospel setting.

Unlike the parable where the five foolish virgins went to buy the oil, we can’t buy oil, we have to seek it and earn it drop by drop. We can’t just purchase a gallon of spirituality and conversion, and pour it into our soul. This oil has to become part of us through concerted effort on a daily basis throughout our lives. This is why, when it is needed the most we must already have it within ourselves. At that point it is everlastingly too late to begin to get it.

They did okay

Note that, for a time, the foolish virgins did alright not having their vessels full of their own oil, their own source of light. They were able to live by the light of those with whom they surrounded themselves. Others exuded light from their own lives, and this was “enough” for the foolish five. Unfortunately, borrowed light isn’t enough. It is the wrong kind of light to sustain a person when real need arises.

Like medicine for the sick person, borrowed light/knowledge/lived examples may help strengthen a person until they can stand on their own two feet, but at some point they must become self-sustaining, instead of always needing to be fed and spiritually nurtured by others. I’ll address this issue of being fed by others later.

Discovering light for ourselves

Elder Newman referred in his talk to a missionary prep class he took. This is what he said of his teacher and his own experience in that class.

When he taught, the Spirit enlightened my mind. He taught doctrine, but he also invited me to learn it on my own. That invitation helped me clearly see my responsibility to learn the Lord’s doctrine for myself. That experience changed me forever.

conversionThis is an important lesson to learn. When we teach, we need to teach doctrine, not just feel-good platitudes or worldly principles. Those around us NEED doctrine. And just as importantly, they NEED to realize that they need to learn that doctrine on their own. Referring back to the parable above, if we don’t fill our own vessels with the oil that produces light (the goodness that radiates from living the gospel of Christ) we are only living on borrowed light. We each need to begin this search for ourselves. Each of us needs to be instilling the doctrines and principles of the gospel within the framework of our life by living what we know to be true, and seeking to learn more than what we already know. Why? So we can live even better lives than we live now.

Here are a couple of principles found in the quote above. Elder Newman recognized when the Spirit enlightened his mind. It is important to seek to recognize when the Spirit it working in our life. Often times we won’t see that He has been working in our life until after something has happened and we realize He has been in the background paving the way for that thing to happen for us. We may have thought we were alone, but the Spirit is notoriously faithful to those who have made covenants with God. He is loath to leave them to themselves. We have to drive Him away for Him to really go away. Anything we do that will allow Him back into our lives is invitation enough for Him. The Spirit loves us with the same purity of love we receive from our Savior and our Father in Heaven.

Elder Newman also recognized his own personal responsibility to learn the Lord’s doctrine for himself. This is my responsibility. It is also your responsibility. We each must learn it for our self. This means I have to do my own questioning, my own seeking for answers, my own pondering to try to understand how something fits with what I already know. I also have to do my own choosing to be good and do good each day. I must choose to study my scriptures and pray for guidance and understanding, and I must exercise my own faith, no matter how small it may feel, so I can increase it.

light of the gospel

This is how we collect our oil for our own lamp. We are the vessel, and we are responsible for the reservoir getting filled. No amount of money can buy what we need. All of the work involved in becoming personally converted to the gospel of Christ is ultimately on our own shoulders. No one else can be blamed if we come up short in the end. Conversion is what we become, not what we know. The light of Christ’s gospel must shine from the inmost part of our soul. It cannot be carried around like a candle to be lit and extinguished at will. Once lit and nurtured by study, prayer, and practice, the light of Christ’s gospel becomes evident to all with whom we come in contact. They will see it in our attitudes, our behavior, and even in our very face. It will change our speech, and how we fill our spare time. Filling ourselves with the gospel of Christ changes our whole life. Here is another quote from Elder Newman.

To be truly life-changing, conversion to Jesus Christ must involve our whole soul and permeate every aspect of our lives. This is why it must be focused at the center of our lives—our families and homes.

Please remember that being single or alone at this time in your life doesn’t mean you don’t have a home or a family. Where you live is your home. If it is only you in your life right now then you are your family. Hopefully, you also have friends and others you can envelope in the arms of love and they also become your family. The gospel of Christ works the same for every soul, no matter what your conditions are in life. The needs are the same, and the answers are the same. Sometimes only the path to the answer is different. The gospel is glorious, precisely because it is for everyone, but it also caters to the needs of each individual.

Good uses for borrowed light

Light and knowledge is still light and knowledge, whether we learn it from someone else or discover it on our own. The difference between the two methods of finding the light is what makes all the difference in our life. When we personally discover something about God’s personality, His goodness, His mercy, His plan for our salvation, or anything else that falls under the category of goodness, it becomes a part of us. It changes us. Our perspective is altered and we begin to have not just knowledge, but understanding. When applied to our life that understanding broadens, deepens, and opens doors to understand even more about God and His goodness. It is like being in a well of limitless knowledge. We can drink our fill, yet never drown. If anything, our thirst for more grows with consumption.

If it is so important that we discover everything for our self, what good does borrowed light serve? It actually has a number of good uses. When we are lost and new to the gospel, the light and knowledge others have to share with us open our eyes and entice us to begin searching for ourselves. The danger here is that sometimes we don’t take seriously the need for personal searching and personal study. I mentioned earlier that borrowed light can act like medicine to a sick person. It can help them heal enough to stand on their own feet, but at that point we should seek light and knowledge on our own. Too many of us get lazy and become addicted to living off the light others share through their own hard work and efforts. We bask in their goodness and receive of their kindness, but do nothing to fill our own reservoir with the personal knowledge they worked so hard to discover for themselves.

Studying on our own can lead to a narrow view of the gospel. Enjoying the things other have discovered through talks, testimonies, life examples, and written articles allow us to see the gospel from different perspectives. But we still need to seek to see how these different perspectives can stand on their own when they are different from our own understanding. This process of balancing our views and understanding from different angles on life and the gospel keep us learning and pondering every day. In this regard borrowed light can lead to even more self discovery and self enlightenment. The trick is to not get lazy and get caught up in other’s views to the neglect of our own spiritual pursuits. That will just put us back into the foolish virgin category.

Moving from borrowed to discovered light

Elder Newman was able to experience something that, for him was profound. But when he tried to describe his experience to others, they were unmoved by his own experience. Here is his description of what he learned from this experience.

So it is with the word of God. We can teach it, we can preach it, we can explain it. We can talk about it, we can describe it, we can even testify of it. But until a person feels the sacred word of God distill upon his or her soul like the dews from heaven through the power of the Spirit, it will be like looking at a postcard or someone else’s vacation photos. You have to go there yourself. Conversion is a personal journey—a journey of gathering.

Everyone who teaches in the home and at church can offer to others the opportunity to have their own spiritual experiences. Through these experiences, they will come to “know the truth of all things” for themselves.

I love his explanation of why we need to learn to relish the process of discovering spiritual things for ourselves. This harkens back to my statement that the gospel is for everyone, but has to be experienced one soul at a time. Even if all of us are experiencing the gospel in our lives at the same time, because the Spirit is just that awesome, each and every one of us will have a different experience, for each of us is on our own personal journey of conversion. The Spirit knows what each of us needs at this moment in our life, and He supplies what we need most, even if it is not what we thought we were looking for. If there is one thing about the gospel that always holds true, it is that it is never boring. We are learning from Gods, and our understanding is very imperfect. We can’t ever outguess what They will require of us next. Our responsibility is to be humble, teachable, and always trying to learn something each day. In this way we will always be distilling within our soul, our vessel, the truths of the gospel. Just remember though, the truths must be self discovered. They cannot be someone else’s findings, for true conversion is what we have become, not what we have learned.

Viewing borrowed vs. discovered light

I will end this discussion with just a couple of points which I think are really important to consider. Both borrowed light and discovered light are important to us. All of us begin with borrowed light, so I don’t want you to think I am giving it a bad name or knocking it in any way. My point about borrowed light is that it is great in its supportive role, but it utterly fails if we try to promote it to the starring role in our lives.

Borrowed light, that which comes from others, and other sources outside of ourselves, is only meant to lead us to our own desire to discover knowledge for ourselves. It is not in the nature of borrowed light to give us the strength to endure great hardship or to convert the soul to God in the deepest ways. Borrowed light in general terms acts like a beacon to show the way. It acts in our lives like a candle in the window to indicate that someone is home. But what it doesn’t do is give us the strength to persevere in times of adversity or when waves of doubt wash over us. Borrowed light is just too buoyant. It floats on the surface of life, the surface of real spiritual knowledge. Borrowed light can be compared to the waves on the ocean. They are just on the surface, and though they can be informative, they only hint at what might be just below the surface.

Just as Elder Newman experienced an amazing thing when he and his son went to the home of golf, itself, in Scotland, but he couldn’t convey that experience to anyone else, so too is borrowed light and knowledge like viewing a postcard of someone else’s vacation or family photos. It is only meant to convey the possibility of further depth. We need to recognize that this is as far as it goes. If we want more we have to seek the experience that created that borrowed light in the first place.

Discovered light is deeply personal. Its very nature is meant to change and stir the soul. When we discover that we truly love someone, no one around us can understand what we feel for that person. Why? Because they have only borrowed light about that person. We have the real thing. We have experienced it for ourselves. This is also true for all spiritual endeavors. 

When we pray, study, ponder, and practice living the gospel of Christ, that is when we have our eyes opened spiritually, by the Spirit, to the reality, the depth, and the beauty of the gospel message. Once we have had our eyes opened for ourselves, the testimony of others may move us, but their testimony only moves us as they do because we remember having had the same feelings. Before, the borrowed light of someone else’s testimony stirred our soul to want to do something different with our life, but now we are moved by memories of pleasant and sacred experiences we have shared with that person, even if we weren’t there when they had their experience. We have had our own experiences that brought us to feel the same things.

Discovered light is sacred, personal, deep, and precious. Like being thrown into that bottomless well of knowledge I talked about earlier, once we experience for ourselves the peace and beauty of a truly enlightening spiritual experience, or come to the knowledge of a gospel principle in a way that is deeply personal to us, all forms of borrowed light become instructive, but never again can they measure up to the real discovery we just made for our self. Borrowed light may be great for intellectual learning about something, but if you really want to know, deep down in your soul about something, you are going to have to dive into the spiritual waters and drink deeply for yourself.

the gospel is glorious

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Borrowed vs. Discovered Light