President Nelson on Gospel Learning

In the Sunday morning session of April 2021 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson made some remarks on faithful inquiry — asking gospel questions — that have caused some consternation especially among nonbelievers. Let’s parse and explore his remarks here.

For each of these items, there are links to explore the concept in more depth.

As a preliminary note, I would strongly recommend that people who are angry, not watch general conference. Find something else to do. Why? Harvard University’s Jennifer Lerner explains in her research on anger:

“. . . even when the object of subsequent judgments bears no relation to the source of one’s anger, anger increases . . .

  • a desire to blame individuals,
  • tendencies to overlook mitigating details before attributing blame,
  • tendencies to perceive ambiguous behavior as hostile,
  • tendencies to discount the role of uncontrollable factors when attributing causality, and
  • punitiveness in response to witnessing mistakes made by others.”

Lerner further explains that “[b]eing perceived as angry can increase one’s social status”, and that, “[r]elative to sadness and neutral emotion, anger activated heuristic processing (e.g., more stereotypic judgments, less attention to the quality of the arguments, and more attention to the superficial cues of the message)”

More on this here, but suffice it to say that anger fuels powerful biases toward reading a person’s actions or statements in a certain way. There are scientific studies supporting the idea that we should not undertake any important decision-making when we are angry, because our ability to actually understand things that people are saying goes out the window.

It follows, then, that we should also avoid commentaries on general conference (or any other things) that are written in anger. An angry commentator is likely to have greatly misunderstood much of what was said.

Another important note: President Nelson’s message was not gaslighting. That is one of the most misused words in contemporary discourse, and it’s making everyone dumber. See more discussion of gaslighting here.

President Nelson begins his discussion of gospel learning with this statement:

Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith. To do anything well requires effort. Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is no exception. Increasing your faith and trust in Him takes effort.

This is true. If we have grown up with the expectation that the church is there to do all the hard work of learning for us, we will feel resentful when we see the mountains of learning and development ahead for us to climb. I can say from experience that one of the easiest indicators of the outcome of someone’s faith crisis is whether or not they are willing to read books by people with professional expertise, and then whether they are willing to read books about other books, like scholarly surveys of scholarship. Another indicator is whether they are willing to make difficult commitments to sustained fasting and prayer over long periods of time, even years. All of this is hard work.

President Nelson offers five principles for developing faith:

Study. Become an engaged learner. Immerse yourself in the scriptures to understand better Christ’s mission and ministry. Know the doctrine of Christ so that you understand its power for your life. Internalize the truth that the atonement of Jesus Christ applies to you. He took upon Himself your misery, your mistakes, your weakness, and your sins. He paid the compensatory price and provided the power for you to move every mountain you will ever face. You obtain that power with your faith, trust, and willingness to follow him. Moving your mountains may require a miracle. Learn about miracles. Miracles come according to your faith in the Lord. Central to that faith is trusting His will and timetable: how and when he will bless you with miraculous help you desire. Only your unbelief will keep God from blessing you with miracles to move the mountains in your life. The more you learn about the Savior, the easier it will be to trust in His mercy, His infinite love, and His strengthening, healing, and redeeming power. The Savior is never closer to you than when you are facing or climbing a mountain with faith.

In all of my time ministering to people in faith crisis, I have been amazed at how many people are unable to point to any specific personal knowledge of Christ. It’s like He exists as an idea, an abstraction. The problem with that is, Christ is the starting point for any authentic gospel learning. If we are not coming to know him personally, then we might be learning about the gospel, but we are not learning the gospel. In his Saturday morning talk, Jan Eric Newman said that it’s like the difference between going to a new place versus viewing other people’s vacation photos. It’s not possible to personally understand the gospel without coming to understand Christ on a personal level. And without personal knowledge of Christ, we won’t be able to to receive people’s stories with grace and purpose. Everyone and everything will be disappointing to us.

There are church members in their 40s, 50s, and beyond, who have even served missions and held visible church callings, who have spent their entire lives learning other people’s ideas about the gospel but never actually come to know Christ, never begun the journey of real gospel learning. Speaking for myself, most of my real gospel learning has been taking place in my forties and I anticipate there are major breakthroughs and shifts in understanding in store for me as I continue. I anticipate my perspective will be very different in the next couple of decades.

Choose to believe in Jesus Christ. If you have doubts about God the Father and His beloved son, or the validity of the restoration, or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet, choose to believe, and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord, and to other faithful sources. Study with a desire to believe, rather than with a hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life, or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters. Allow the Lord to lead you on your journey of spiritual discovery.

Can we choose to believe? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I can’t choose to believe in a young earth or a flat earth, but there are some things that I can choose to believe because they are supported by a rigorous epistemology. Alma talks about the choice to believe, and likens it to an experiment with taking care of a plant. We can’t choose for a plant to grow or not, but we can choose to develop high quality soil, patiently tend the plant, and observe its growth and its fruits. Or, we can neglect the plant, poison it, give up on it because it somehow doesn’t meet our expectations, and so forth. Choosing to believe is about making healthy choices. Studying with a desire to believe, as President Nelson said, means giving the plant the very best possible chance to grow, rather than neglecting it or poisoning it. And if you have ever grown a garden, you know that getting things to grow is often a long, intensive, unpredictable process.

Rehearsing our doubts with other doubters is a phrase that gets to the heart of our motives. When we doubt, how do we respond? Do we just want to feel validated, or do we look to grow and develop? Finding validation is cheap and easy, and many people respond to doubt by spending years and even decades soaking in hot tubs of validation with other committed doubters in various online communities. The path of growth is different. It involves accepting responsibility for our learning (including learning how to discern between revelation and our own mental/emotional processes). It involves committing to doing challenging things over long periods of time, without instant gratification. It involves surrounding ourselves with people who engage in high-quality thinking that accounts for biases, avoids fallacious reasoning, allows for ambiguity and paradox, embraces witness testimony, and sees people and events in the most generous possible ways.

And when President Nelson says allow the Lord to lead you, it’s a good idea to begin by coming to know the Lord, how He lived, and what it looks like when someone spends a lifetime being led by Him.

Act in faith. What would you do if you had more faith? Think about it. Write about it. Then, receive more faith by doing something that requires more faith.

Here, President Nelson is suggesting that we take leaps of faith. A leap of faith is when we prayerfully, trustingly commit to do something in the Lord’s service that seems to require a more faith than we currently possess. For some people, that might mean taking a calling, or joining the ward choir, or studying scriptures that we have been avoiding. It might mean simply showing up with an open heart and mind. It might mean offering grace when we would rather someone hurt or be “held accountable.”

Physical exercise is a good analogy; the only way to become someone who can run a mile is to gradually do things we have never done before, that seem just beyond our capabilities. And then the same applies for 3, 5, or 10 miles. We grow and learn by doing things we’re not really sure we can do. When we apply this principle in our church callings, we have the added benefit of seeing the restoration confirmed as we witness God’s power in our service.

Partake of sacred ordinances worthily. Ordinances unlock the power of God for your life.

Ordinances are signposts and mile markers on the covenant path, and we can’t really understand the covenant path unless we are on it. The sacrament in particular has the effect of renewing our souls, which opens our hearts and minds to new learning each week. By contrast, I regularly see people who abandon their covenants and the ordinance of the sacrament, and soon whatever understanding they used to have begins to shrivel until they are unable to answer even basic questions about the plan of salvation.

Ask your Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ for help. Faith takes work. Receiving revelation takes work. But everyone that asketh, receiveth. And he that seeketh findeth. And to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

This is a very basic promise, but with a frank acknowledgement that gospel learning and the development of faith are very hard, very intensive processes that take a long time. My own experience is that this promise is 100% true.

God knows what will help your faith grow. Ask, and then ask again.

Here is a final plea for persistence. Sometimes the process of learning will require commitments to prayer, fasting, obedience, and service for years and even decades. Learning how to ask is part of the process, and the process is personal. For me, it has been very heavy in book-learning, but for another person, it might not be. For some people, simply learning to quiet the mind or undergoing a normal process of human development might be the key to unlocking growth and understanding.

2 thoughts on “President Nelson on Gospel Learning”

  1. Thank you for this. Questions can be a great way for faith to grow, so long as they’re asked in the right spirit. I especially appreciate the flowchart at the end of the post; that’s such a useful way of looking at gospel questions!

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