Church manuals are purposefully written to be clear, clean, and precise. For the most part, the doctrine expressed in a Church lesson manual is more or less obvious. If you want deep doctrine or cool insights, you will have to learn how to connect with the Spirit or with others who may have different perspectives than you. It has been my experience when studying Church lessons that they are often written so well and so clearly that I read the material then think to myself, “Okay, so now what?” These are the times when the information is so basic that you figure most anyone would already know it.
Now I admit, there are times when I read the Teachings of Presidents of the Church and I finish a paragraph and have no idea what was just said. Usually, it is because the prophet in question was from a different generation and I just don’t understand how they worded things back then. But all is not lost. There are ways to figure out what is being said, but it takes practice, and sometimes some mental gymnastics. Often times it just takes multiple readings and trying to reword the complicated sentence to see if you can say it in a simpler fashion. Once you come to understand what the sentiment is behind the words he used, you will find it difficult to say it in a simpler way, and you will feel compelled to use the prophet’s wording so as to not change his meaning. This introduces its own special challenges to teaching a lesson, but perhaps we can address that in another article.
The Importance of Questions
The Lord is always telling us to seek so we can find, and to knock so it can be opened to us. In other words, He wants us to learn to ask questions. Our Father in Heaven is not offended when we question what we learn. He is actually pleased that we are taking the effort to wrestle with an idea and trying to figure out how it fits into our understanding of the gospel. If we don’t ask, He can’t answer. If we don’t seek, we can’t find. We are supposed to question everything. Usually, if we don’t question something we aren’t going to get a testimony of its truthfulness.
So what do you do when you see a paragraph in a Church manual and the information is so plain or simple that you don’t know what to do with it? This is where learning to ask questions comes in handy. Learn to question the definition of words. We may think we know what a word means, but if we look it up in the dictionary or in the Bible Dictionary or in the topics section of lds.org, we will most likely find that there are uses for the word we never imagined before. Just recently I asked my Gospel Principles class if “eternal” was a name or a period of time. In the final lesson of the class manual it used the word “eternal,” which is a period of time. If the manual had used the word “Eternal,” it might have been referring to one of the names of God, for Eternal is His name.
Another trick is to look at word choice. The Lord is a master at using language, especially figurative language that can have multiple meanings. He chooses His words carefully and with deliberation. Oten you can read a sentence or phrase in the scriptures, and if you try to reword it you find that the meaning changes substantially if you don’t use the exact word God chose to use. It is then that you need to ask yourself, why that word? If a certain word or phrase has to remain intact in order to still mean the same thing, then there must be more to the choice of words than just convenience. Following is an example of how you can take a phrase or sentence and, using questions, and a little research, enlarge your understanding of what you just read.
In the April 2011 General Conference, L. Tom Perry gave a talk about the Sabbath and the Sacrament. In that talk he said,
What does it mean to offer up our sacraments to the Lord? We acknowledge that all of us make mistakes. Each of us has a need to confess and forsake our sins and errors to our Heavenly Father and to others we may have offended. The Sabbath provides us with a precious opportunity to offer up these—our sacraments—to the Lord. He said, “Remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.”
Ask yourself this question: What does it mean to “offer up our sacraments?” We don’t usually use the phrase “to offer up.” This is something that is used a lot in religious texts, but not in our daily conversation. That leads me to think that the phrase must have special images or uses the Lord wants me to see in my head when I hear that phrase. When I offer up something, it is like those in the Old Testament who went to the priests at the temple to offer up sacrifices to the Lord. An offering is something that is special. We offer it to the Lord because it has deep meaning to us or to Him. Elder Perry says that when we offer up our sacraments to the Lord we are taking the ‘forsaking of our sins’ and the ‘confessions of our errors and sins’ and offering them to the Lord, hoping for His forgiveness. An oblation is an offering, and a sacrament can be any sacred sign or symbol (Yes, I looked them up in Dictionary.com). When we take the sacrament, as the symbol of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for us, and we offer or promise Him that we will stop sinning and be obedient to His commandments, then a sacred exchange takes place. He accepts our recommitment to our baptismal promises, and in exchange offers us, once again, forgiveness for our sins. What a wonderful experience we can have each and every Sabbath day when we take the sacrament.
So what did I do in that example? I looked up a couple of words. In both cases I discovered that beyond the obvious meaning of the words there were definitions that seemed to fit this special meaning. Both “oblations” and “sacrament” took on special meaning when used in the context of Elder Perry’s quote. I also looked beyond the word in front of me and asked when and where else in the scriptures is the phrase “to offer up” used? When generation after generation of prophets use a particular phrase the same way, chances are it has a specific meaning the Lord wants us to understand, so we understand it in the same way the prophets do.
Learning to increase our understanding of a lesson that is written for the basic reader is not always easy. We need to use prayer, extra study, thinking and questioning, and time pondering on the meaning of what is supposed to be taught. This goes for both the teacher and the student in the class. While it is generally true that the teacher learns the most about the lesson, it doesn’t have to be that way. Every student who studies the lesson as though they were going to have to teach it to someone else will learn just as much as the actual teacher of the lesson. By learning to ask questions and trying to apply the lessons in our own lives, our minds will be opened and we will gain knowledge that just the printed manual could not give us in a thousand years. This is what the Lord wants to happen. After all, revelation is the only way we can be truly taught the gospel, and that has to come by way of the Holy Ghost. Asking questions, then following up our questions with research and pondering is the key to coming to a new level of understanding. Some weeks will be harder than other weeks, but the pattern does not change. If we keep at it we will find that our lives will be bursting with new understanding of the plain and simple truths from our Church manuals.
What else do you do that helps you learn new things about the gospel when you study a lesson?
L. TOM PERRY
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles