Learning the Gospel of Christ is like learning your native tongue in that some of it comes naturally as you are exposed to it year after year, but some of it must be studied to be learned. There is a pattern of study required of us.
When I was first told in elementary school that we were going to start studying the parts of the language, like nouns and verbs, I felt very put upon. I knew how to speak my own language, why did I have to learn the mechanics of the language? And no, I did not use the word “mechanics.”
The mechanics of a testimony
Learning the gospel also requires learning some of the mechanics of the plan of salvation. If we are to truly understand the workings of this glorious plan, we have to know more than “God wants me to be good.” Perhaps that is why the Lord told us that we cannot be saved in ignorance.
The gospel is more than just book learning. Much of the gospel has to be revealed to us. True, most of it is already in print, but to connect the dots and really understand the good news Christ brings us requires more than just reading scriptures. We need to have the Holy Ghost show us where the connections are and why they are important to us in our individual lives. That takes revelation. That is the reason we are told to keep studying the scriptures. We read them through once and gain a certain level of understanding. Once we have lived a little longer and spiritually matured a little more, the scriptures we reread now have new meaning, new insight, and new depth. The more we study and put into practice what we have learned the faster this cycle can repeat itself. This is what is meant in the scriptures by being taught “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little” (2 Nephi 28:30).
In Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8 when Oliver Cowdery tried to translate the Book of Mormon, and wound up just sitting there, staring at the plates, and nothing was revealed to him, he got frustrated and wanted to know why. The Lord had told him he could learn to translate, just like Joseph Smith, so why wasn’t anything happening? This was part of the Lord’s response to Oliver.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
The principle the Lord is trying to teach to all of us in this instance is that when we want to learn anything that requires the Holy Ghost to learn, we can’t just ask and He will hand it to us. It doesn’t work that way. He expects us to work for what we receive. We must do the studying. We must work through it and put in the mental and emotional effort to learn what we can on our own. Only after we have done what we call in legal circles “due diligence,” or our part, will the Lord step in and take us the rest of the way. This means we need to try to figure it out for ourselves, take what we already know and see if we can fit new questions into our framework of old knowledge. Sometimes we can do it on our own. Sometimes the Lord needs to give us a new framework or perspective so we can see things differently or from a different angle. But we still need to be the one to put in the first half of the work.
Let’s take a real-world example. Phil is investigating the church. He believes what he has heard so far, but is having trouble with the Law of Tithing. How can Phil receive a testimony of this law? We know there are rules to receiving testimonies, because it works for any testimony. There must be study, prayer, and practice. First Phil needs to find all the information he can on the Law of Tithing, when was it first given, what are the requirements of the law, and what are the promises of the law? All laws have both requirements and promises. We need to understand both.
Now that Phil has done his research, he needs to pray for the strength to live this law (that is exercising his faith because he intends to give it a try, even though he may be nervous about the results). Next he actually tries living the Law of Tithing by paying his tithing. Please note that once is not usually enough for the testimony to come. Phil needs to persist and assume that the testimony will come with compliance to the law. Once Phil has complied with all the requirements for receiving the testimony he has a right to expect the Lord to give it to him. How Phil’s witness of the truthfulness of this law will come is something that is personal between him and God, but the Lord will always deliver on the promise once we have done our part and have proven ourselves faithful. Ask almost anyone who has had to learn to live a law that was hard for them. The pattern is the same for every law.
Phil could have just assumed paying his tithing was what he had to do, and did it. He may have gone on for years doing this, and at some point may have actually gained a small testimony of the law, but to really gain an appreciation for this law, studying the requirements of the law and the blessings that come with living it, then purposefully exercising his faith to live it, will provide Phil a much stronger witness and testimony of that law that he could not get otherwise.
Try the pattern for yourself. Pick a principle of the gospel or a law of the gospel and run it through its paces. Study it out in your mind, meaning learn all you can about it from the scriptures and the prophets. You are always safe with those two sources. Pray about what you have learned. Try to fit it in with what you already know then go get the rest of your questions answered if you can. Finally, take it to the Lord for confirmation with a promise to live the principle and a request for a witness of that principle’s truthfulness. Don’t be at all surprised when your answer comes, because you have done all that the Lord requires for you to get an answer.
When we do missionary work, whether for the living or for the dead, this pattern of learning and receiving a witness equally applies, whether in family history work, Temple work, or Indexing. Participation in any part of the plan of salvation can be tested and proven by learning all we can about that part of the plan, exercising faith in it then seeking for the testimony that will lead to our conversion to that part of the gospel.
When we minister to our family, friends, neighbors, and to strangers, we need to be teaching these steps to them as well. We can’t expect the Lord to help them become converted through magic when He has already spelled out the steps all of His children need to take to learn anything important in the gospel we have been given. And the more examples we can give them of our own successes in this pattern, the more power our own testimonies will have when we bear them to others.