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Don H. Staheli

 

Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional

May 8, 2012

  

 

"It's the Principle of the Thing"

Don H. Staheli

Secretary to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles


 

What a privilege it is to attend a Church-sponsored school. Here we study and learn with those of like values and similar interests. You can trust that your teachers are doing everything in their power to be sure the knowledge they pass on to you is in full accordance with the truth. In that sense, everything you are learning is comprised in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which encompasses all truth. In the early days of the Restoration, before Church universities or other formal institutions of learning were ever dreamed of, there was the School of the Prophets. The first such school was established in January 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio. The revelation that contained the Lord’s injunction for establishing of the School the Prophets, is found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-78:  

“And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand.”

Such is the mandate that governs this great university. We must teach one another. We must be diligent in that effort––that we might learn more perfectly the principles that are expedient for us to understand. In another revelation the Lord indicated to the Prophet Joseph that Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the Law of the Celestial Kingdom (see D&C 105:5).  Later, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 130, the Lord inspired the Prophet Joseph to say, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.”

 

This life is about learning principles. Principles are the fundamental truths that make up our system of belief and behavior. They do not change with the winds of social convention or personal style. As Thomas Jefferson said, “In matters of principle, [we must] stand like a rock.” The principles we learn are the bricks out of which we will build the mansion that will be our eternal home. Only celestial bricks, firm and true, can be used to build a home that will stand in a heavenly neighborhood. And the more we learn, the more bricks we accumulate, the greater our advantage in the world to come (D&C 130:19). True principles also serve as links in a chain of reasoning that will allow us to exercise wisdom and good judgment. In fact, these two essential virtues—wisdom and judgment—are derived from a sound understanding of fundamental principles. 

 

As we go through life things happen to us, we gain experience and we are educated. Sometimes the most difficult and challenging learning experiences teach us the most. Remember what the Lord said to the Prophet Joseph at his low point, “All these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). As we learn and understand the principles that are associated with our experience we develop knowledge, but that knowledge is worse than useless unless we actively apply it according to “the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). Wisdom is the capacity to make sound application of knowledge that is based on true principles. With practice and additional life experience, we gain in wisdom and develop good judgment. Good judgment is the ability to make choices that maximize the possibility of the most positive outcome. So, understanding true principles brings wisdom which allows for the exercise of good judgment. 

 

How do we derive from the experiences of life the fundamental and true principles on which our belief and behavior should be based and which will result in the wisdom and good judgment we seek? The answer is really quite simple. We pay attention. Let me give you a few examples. First, an experience from my childhood.

 

What is there about a tree that makes a young person crave to climb it? I guess even we older people want to climb, but the yearning is rarely powerful enough to get us up into the branches. All I can remember about the last time I climbed a tree is how long it took to get the sap off of my hands. Children don’t worry about sap.

 

When I was a boy, we lived near a large tract of trees, including evergreens in various stages of development. One of our climbing games required two boys to a tree. For this we sought out springy young pine trees. We chose each tree with great care. It had to be not too big and not too small, with just the right amount of spring. The first boy up the tree went as high as he could with the other boy following. As the second came close to the top, their combined weight would cause the tree to bend slowly downward, bending farther and farther, until the upper trunk had dipped its occupants down to a safe distance from the ground. Their four feet dangling a short way above Mother Earth, the boys prepared to drop from the tree. 

 

With synchronicity usually reserved for a far more sophisticated setting, the two boys, acting as one, released their grip on the sappy limbs. The well-torqued trunk sprang like an unloaded catapult back to upright dignity. The boys dropped to the ground with hardly a thud, their reward the cheers of admiring peers, each of whom judged the feat a 10. What fun we had! Find another perfect tree and go for it again.

 

In one particularly exciting bout, the smallest of our crew started up a young pine. He had to be matched with the heaviest boy in order to create a combined weight adequate to bend the tree. Sure enough, they moved toward the top and the tree bowed to their wishes. All was going well. The tree lowered to a proper height, hands let go, and the tree sprang up. But this time only two feet hit the ground. The heavy boy had let go before the light one was ready. Our little buddy nearly cracked like a whip as he shot up with the treetop. The snap of the tree shook him loose, and down he tumbled through the branches. The result was two broken arms and a stern parental lecture, and our tandem tree climbing had to be put on hold for a while.

 

Now, what did we learn from that? The older we get, the more obvious it is to us that we should stay out of trees. A person can get hurt! But we sure do a lot of other things without thinking too much about the consequences. We may not be scaling pines, but we introduce plenty of risk into our lives. We drive too fast; we go too far into debt; we eat too much junk food; we take on too much stress. Most of us, in one way or another, are way out on a limb, never figuring that something will go wrong. None of us young tree climbers ever thought about the possibility of broken arms, either. Our friend learned the lesson the hard way. So, the principle: Never climb higher than you’re willing to fall. Applying this principle will give you wisdom and good judgment.

 

Another learning experience took place for me at the dedication of the Preston England Temple which I attended in President Gordon B. Hinckley’s traveling party. Wherever President Hinckley went there were plenty of kind and helpful volunteer security people to make sure he was taken care of. This was no exception. One particular security guard caught my attention. His name was Leslie. He looked a little pitiful sitting by himself at the end of a long corridor. He was a rather small Englishman with thin and graying hair, not the kind to make one feel especially secure. 

 

In fact, Leslie was guarding a locked door at the end of a little-used hallway. Why, I cannot say. No barehanded human could get through the heavy, bolted door. Whatever could break it down, should someone for some unknown reason want to break it down, would not be deterred by diminutive Leslie. The main threat from this direction was not likely to be from any outside source of danger, but from the almost deadly boredom that filled the air at the end of the hall.

 

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this poor man. I introduced myself, hoping a moment of conversation might ease the monotony some.

 

“And your name?” I asked.

 

“Leslie,” he said quietly, perhaps a little annoyed at my intrusion.

 

“And where are you from, Leslie?”

 

“Liverpool.”

 

“Ah,” I quipped, “Leslie of Liverpool.”

 

He grinned a bit sheepishly and probably thought I was making fun of him. Leslie was very pleasant, though, and quickly my impression of him changed. Here was a bright, dignified, middle-aged man. He wasn’t a big man, but not quite as small as I had first thought.

 

I soon learned that Leslie worked as a security guard in another city, in Liverpool actually, but this post he manned as a volunteer for the temple dedication.

 

“Leslie,” I said, “could I get you a softer chair?”

 

“No,” he said, “this one will do.”

 

“Well,” I proposed, “do you really need to be here? Nothing seems likely to happen.”

 

He looked around as if to quickly assess the current level of security.

 

“I’ll just do what I’ve been asked,” he said in his thick Liverpudlian accent. “I’ll just do me duty.”

 

“May I at least bring you a can of juice or something? You could man your post and still drink some juice.”

 

“No thanks,” he replied with a certain firmness in his voice, “I’ll just do me duty.”

 

I finally gave up. “Okay, have a good evening.” I admit I was not very sympathetic to Leslie’s sense of duty. It seemed a bit overzealous to me.

 

That night I had an interesting dream. We were in England, so it is not surprising that it was a dream of knights and heavy armor and white horses. There were brave battle scenes with fighting hordes and clanging swords.

 

One knight stood out among all the rest. I don’t remember if his armor was actually shining, but he was strong and true and the hero of my dream. As the hero-knight emerged victorious, he stopped and dismounted his powerful steed. He stood before me, removed his helmet with dignity, and quietly introduced himself.

 

“Good day, sir,” he said calmly. “I am Leslie, Leslie of Liverpool.”

 

I awoke with a start. Wide awake. And I saw clearly the courage of Leslie.

 

He had been asked to perform a rather perfunctory task, but his sense of honor and duty caused him to do it to the very best of his ability. I think he would have guarded the Royal Jewels with no more pride or careful attention. Even as a volunteer, not being paid at all and sitting alone in that empty hall, he felt a commitment to muster all his professional skill and to focus on the performance of his duty. 

 

Leslie taught me the principle that to do your duty is to set aside self and give heart and mind to the higher good. To give it your all, even when the individual task seems truly menial, that is the fulfillment of duty. The next evening as I was leaving the building I looked in hope for Leslie. He was there again, at the end of the hall, a knight in invisible armor doing his duty. I was glad to see him. We greeted each other. I didn’t tell him why, but I asked a passerby to take my picture standing next to Leslie. I wanted to remember what a hero looks like and to prove that I had known one. The principle: I’ll just do me duty. Leslie had learned this and was therefore able to wisely exercise good judgment in fulfilling his responsibility. 

 

The Lord desires that we govern ourselves “according to just and holy principles” (D&C 101:77). There is an interesting correlation between these principles and our ability to fully exercise our moral agency. True principles are provided “that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78). It seems that an understanding of true principles increases our intelligence and expands our agency, or gives us greater power to act according to the moral agency which the Lord has given us. There is some risk in increasing our knowledge, for “where much is given much is required” (D&C 82:3). The more we learn, the more accountable we become for our actions. As our knowledge increases, the Lord expects us to be more reasonable and more wise, to exercise better judgment, and to act in truth upon the knowledge we have gained.

 

Apart from the risks involved, we can derive great benefit from the knowledge of true principles. The more we learn, the more likely we are to live a prosperous and faithful life. We know that we are saved no faster than we gain intelligence. “And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19). Indeed, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6).

 

As I mentioned, this learning process is not always pleasant. I have learned by sad experience, and I suppose that you have also, that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Though never inclined to serious sin, I have committed my share of youthful indiscretions. Though a few may have brought a little momentary excitement, happiness was never the result. From these experiences we learn the principles that govern the society in which we live, be it community or family. We also learn to exercise greater wisdom and better judgment in future choices, or, as the scriptures say, matters “pertaining to futurity.” At this point I could share some hair raising stories of childhood adventures, but wisdom dictates that grandpa give no big ideas to his grandchildren who may one day hear this message—especially ideas that he can’t defend by saying, “I would never dream of doing such a thing.” So, on to the next principle.

 

Let’s speak for a moment about what might be called the principle of two voices. In some of his most poignant instruction to his son Jacob, the Prophet Lehi taught the wonderful principle that “men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). He taught that in order to achieve this joy, we must listen to and follow the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. By consistently following the voice of the Spirit we choose eternal life. There is, of course, an alternative. If we follow the will of the flesh and listen to the voice of the natural man, then by and by we have chosen eternal death. 

 

We see then that there are two voices to which we may choose to listen: the voice of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the natural man. Our natural inclination is to listen to the voice of the natural man and “the evil which is therein” (2 Nephi 2:29). We are literally hard-wired to respond to the demands of our flesh and to give in to bodily beckoning which can lead to sin. When we do that, we give power to the devil, and he uses his influence to captivate us and to bring us down to hell, that he may reign over us in his own kingdom. But he has no power if we choose to ignore the voice of the natural man and pattern our behavior after the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, which always invite and entice to do good. This principle is born out in a statement that was made to describe Moroni. Of him it was said,

“If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea,the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.”

The devil only has power over us as we yield to the tempting voice of the natural man. It is so much easier to make daily choices when we understand that we only have to differentiate between two voices—the voice of the Holy Ghost and the voice of the natural man. Satan doesn’t enter into the equation until we yield to the natural man who, “is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19).

 

As we learn and understand this principle of two voices, our behavior will improve and we will become better and better at following the voice of the Spirit. By the grace of a loving Heavenly Father and the Atonement wrought by his Holy Son, we are given ample time to learn to apply this principle in our life. Right after describing Moroni as one who had learned to listen to the voice of the Spirit, the Book of Mormon writer says, “Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah, yea, and even the other sons of Mosiah, yea, and also Alma and his sons, for they were all men of God” (Alma 48:18).

 

It is interesting to note that Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger are all equated with Moroni as men of God. You know from your study of the Book of Mormon that they did not start out that way. So if there is hope for them to learn to listen to the will of the Holy Spirit, there is hope for us. The more we listen to the voice of the Spirit the less we will be inclined to give in to our natural inclinations and the less we will feel of the influence of the adversary. It’s easy to see how the application of this important principle will bring greater wisdom and better judgment.

 

Let’s explore one last principle. We live in a world that glorifies idols and champions. We appreciate those who are striving to be stronger, higher, and faster. But the strongest girl I ever saw was actually pretty frail and would have been no match in an athletic contest. No one would covet her young life, which was full of fear, confusion, and a deep self-loathing. It was during this time that she was being abused by her stepfather. 

 

Millie was physically and sexually abused by her mother’s second husband. He was not a nice guy, but we will leave his punishment to the powers that be. Millie wasn’t interested in punishing anybody. She knew what pain is like and didn’t want to be involved in giving or receiving any more of it.

 

When I met Millie, she was a young woman trying to understand what she had done to deserve such treatment. In her confused and painful thinking, she was certain that he wouldn’t have done it without some provocation or enticement. He had told her that it was her fault. And grown-ups are always right, aren’t they? 

 

But Millie was strong even with that misplaced sense of responsibility for her traumatic circumstances. She was trying to fight her way out. She was trying to figure out how to live with the memory of the abuse and not be consumed by it. For some time, the best she was able to do was to label herself a victim. This was an important first step, realizing that she had been victimized and that it wasn’t her fault, but for Millie it wasn’t enough. She wanted freedom from the on-going victimization of the terrible experience. She wanted to somehow let go of it completely. 

 

One day Millie was stunned by a thought-provoking passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It reads, “The soul helps the body and at certain moments uplifts it.  It is the only bird that sustains its cage.” This came as a revelation to Millie. She could see that her body is sort of like a cage that surrounds the real Millie. If that is so, she wondered, then could it be that he was hurting the cage, but that the bird was not damaged at all?

 

Of course! He could beat the cage, he could abuse the cage, he could even break the cage, but he couldn’t get at the beautiful bird inside. Even if he destroyed the cage, the bird would just fly free beyond his ability to afflict any more harm. He might frighten the little bird out of singing for a while, but he could not take away her song forever. With this insight Millie was liberated. 

 

Millie stopped calling herself a victim. She ceased defining herself by what he had done to her. The abuse is something that happened to her it is not her. Millie is one of the strongest people I have ever met. The principle: Bad things may happen to me, but they are not me.

 

Emerson said, “The value of a principle is the number of things it will explain.” The principles learned by Millie explain a great deal. When we know that we have a dual nature—spirit and body—we better understand our relationship with God and the purpose of our existence on the earth. When we know that we need not define ourselves by the hard things that happen to us, then we can move forward in life with greater joy and less sense of entrapment by the past.

 

Today we have covered only four of an endless number of principles that life can teach us if we pay attention. By way of review, never climb higher than you are willing to fall, just do your duty, learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and don’t define yourself by the bad things that may happen to you. By applying these and other essential principles, you will have a life that is cushioned by wisdom, guided by good judgment, and full of joy.