Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. Sister Samuelson and I feel privileged to be with you today in your weekly devotional. We appreciate being with many friends who love you all very much. We have known President and Sister Clark, Vice President and Sister Eyring and several of your leaders for a number of years and greatly admire their devoted and inspired service to the university and to the kingdom. It is a treat to watch the remarkable growth and development of this special university over the past decade or so.
We are also thrilled to be in this wonderful, spacious and beautiful conference center. The last time that I had the opportunity of speaking at your devotional several years ago, the spirit was great and strong but the surroundings were not so impressive and the audience not so apparently comfortable. Congratulations to all who have contributed to these many successes and especially to your very bright future.
I am quite sure that President Clark and your other leaders regularly face the same kinds of questions that we receive at BYU. Many have to do with campus policies, traditions and expectations. They are usually good questions, although I am constantly amazed by the small number of students who request more and better exercise equipment while in the same breath complain about the relative lack of parking immediately adjacent to any building on campus they would like to access. The question usually doesn’t seem quite as ironic to the askers as it does to me, but we do have fun as we try to reconcile the wish for more equipment and less exercise!
While such questions are perhaps amusing and sometimes even important and enlightening, in our minutes together today, I want to focus on questions both more personal and much more significant. They tend, in the age group of most students on our Church Educational System campuses, to center on such matters as academic major, marriage, missions, and always on the implications for the individual’s future. Even though often framed in the “what should I do?” fashion, what is usually meant is “how do I decide?”
Before I address this conundrum directly, let me encourage each of us with these struggles to remember how fortunate we really are. Most of the young people living on the earth today have fewer options than you do regarding various paths that might be followed. Some, unfortunately, have so very few as to appear that they might have none at all.
We must, therefore, be grateful for our dilemmas and multiple opportunities because we have the privilege of fully and wisely exercising the great gift of agency, which is so central to Heavenly Father’s plan for each of His children. It is a tremendous vote of confidence from our Father in Heaven and our Savior, Jesus Christ, to be given so many options, choices and opportunities. When we feel a little burdened or oppressed by the weight and magnitude of the decisions we need to make, we should remember that a third of our spirit siblings in the pre-mortal realm were not willing to take the responsibilities we all chose but rather decided to accept the horrible and limiting consequences of letting someone else decide for them. If we are struggling to enjoy fully living the mortal experience of the “Great Plan of Happiness,” then we must remember that these most unfortunate spirits have opted to have no choice but to always live with the ever-limiting dimensions of Satan’s plan of continual sadness. But, you might say, they at least never need to make a serious decision and you would be correct.
Happily for us, we made the very fundamental determination of accepting the plan of Heavenly Father articulated and implemented by His Son, the Savior. Because our agency and the need to decide regularly about many things, big and little, trivial and important, are so key to the plan, the central role of Jesus Christ must be central to us as well. That is, we must not only acknowledge and accept His sacrifice and atonement, but we must also live in such a way that our hearts, our heads, and our behavior consistently demonstrate we understand what a very big deal our key decisions in life are. If you are not concerned about the most major decisions in your lives, then you should be. If you are concerned, then you should be comforted to realize that you can get proper help in making the right choices. When you fail or fall or make mistakes or commit sins, through proper repentance you can be forgiven and make things right with the help of Heaven and the magnificence of the atonement.
Before we think more about the most important decisions and how we can best decide, let me remind all of us that every decision in life should not carry equal weight. I will share with you an experience I had many years ago in accompanying Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Twelve to a stake conference where the stake presidency was to be reorganized. As part of the process, many of the leaders of the stake are briefly interviewed to seek their counsel and to let the presiding authority get to know them. As this was transpiring, a good man began the interview, not by answering Elder Maxwell’s questions, but by saying that he had a personal dilemma on which he wanted some counsel from the apostle. He said that he had a good job and that he and his family were pleased with their current location and circumstances but that he had been offered other enticing employment in another part of the country that would require a move. He said he had carefully considered his options and prayed about them but had received no specific answer and now he was looking to the General Authority to tell him what he should do.
As an observer myself these many years ago, I was very interested to see how Elder Maxwell might respond. He was kind and asked the good man a further question or two to make sure that he really understood the fellow’s dilemma and then inquired as to whether or not the Lord’s answer might be a phrase that occurs in our scriptures many times. This is the phrase: “It mattereth not.” Note that Elder Maxwell didn’t tell the good brother that it did not matter, but he did teach him that some decisions may not have earthshaking or eternal consequences. I don’t know what the man’s final decision was, but it was a great tutorial for me.
Elder Maxwell made reference, as I recall, that he was wearing brown shoes that day but also had some black shoes at home and had not spent much time or effort deciding which ones he should wear to the stake conference. I don’t know whether the man was satisfied or not with the counsel, but I learned an important lesson. Before I finish today, I will relate another personal experience with Elder Maxwell when the answer to the question I asked him really did matter to me.
Over the years, I have developed a series of four questions I ask myself as I try to make important decisions that require and deserve the help of heaven in deciding. Note again I don’t consider all the judgments we make about which shirt or blouse or skirt or trousers to wear to require special inspiration. Of course I have the advantage that many of you do not of having my wife Sharon immediately tell me that certain striped ties don’t go well with glen plaid suits and white socks are better in the temple than with a tuxedo. Nevertheless, there are important questions which have answers that do matter to you, to those who love you and to heaven as well. With these significant queries, I then try to measure them with these four standards or questions.
First, is what I would like to do or wish to do consistent with the teachings of the scriptures?
The standard works of the Church do not address every question we have, but we will often find not only spiritual, but practical advice if we are willing to look carefully and prayerfully. We only have time for a few examples but let me give you one that might be a concern for more than a few here today. If the question is, “How should I feel about going into debt for my education?” consider this counsel.
From the Doctrine and Covenants: “Pay the debt thou hast contracted . . . . Release thyself from bondage” (19:35). And this also, “Behold, it is said in my laws, or forbidden, to get in debt to thine enemies” (64:27). I read in these verses and others you might choose to acknowledge the reality of some debt for really essential things, but we should limit as much as possible what we borrow, pay it off honestly and on time and never borrow from those you would consider to be enemies or those who would take unfair advantage of you. As you study the scriptures carefully, you will find clear and helpful answers to many of the seeming dilemmas you face.
Second, is what I am doing or wish to do consistent with the teachings and counsel of the apostles and prophets?
I trust that you are all familiar with General Conference, the Ensign magazine and the other opportunities we have to be taught by our leaders. Have any of them said anything that might guide you in whether and how you should date? Have they said anything about how we should treat other people? I think you know exactly what I am talking about because you know that they are speaking directly to you and to me.
Third, is the matter under your consideration within the bounds of your own stewardship?
In the Church, every bishop understands that he has keys for his own ward that allow and require that he teach, correct, administer, and even sometimes discipline members of his ward. He might be very inspired and see things in someone else’s ward but that is not his responsibility, calling or even his option to become involved. Likewise, each of us has our own stewardship assignments and we must not intrude on those of others. Some of you will think you can teach a better lesson than your assigned Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society or priesthood leader and you might be right except you do not have stewardship for teaching the class unless you have been called to it by proper authority. You can and must leave important decisions of this type to those who own the responsibility.
Fourth, does the decision you consider impinge on the agency of another?
I am sure it would never occur at BYU-Idaho, but it has on occasion been the case in other places that a very spiritual young man recently home from his mission feels it has been revealed to him that he should marry a certain beautiful young lady of his acquaintance. He should then treat her nicely, ask her on proper dates, get to know her and her family as well as possible and then if he senses things are moving in the right direction, discuss the matter with her. It is true that the converse also could occur. That is, it is the young woman who is the one who feels the inspiration about a potential eternal partnership. She, of course, should follow a similar proper course in making her interest known.
What is essential for both parties to clearly and fully understand is that each––individually and separately––should receive the inspiration or direction to move forward without undue pressure or influence from another. It will come directly, if it is right, from the Holy Ghost. It will not come from one individual to another as much as at least one of the parties would wish it to be so. You each deserve to know directly and for yourselves. An eternal marriage relationship must never be tinged with buyer’s remorse!
You might well make adjustments to your own method of evaluation for considering the feelings you have in making major decisions. Our doctrine and Church history are replete with directions and suggestions that can help us in making the important decisions in our lives. Our time permits touching only a few and you will be familiar with them but we all must learn better as Nephi taught to “liken them unto [ourselves]” (1 Nephi 19:23).
This group will know the life story and experiences of the Prophet Joseph Smith quite well. We sometimes think, in historical shorthand, that the unfolding of the restoration of the gospel just happened. In fact, it began with very big questions, asked in the correct way, and then followed by proper decisions when the answers came. Usually, the framing of the queries and the process to the solutions were not easy. Think of just a few of young Joseph’s questions.
In his early teens as Joseph was surrounded by what he described as a “war of words and tumult of opinions,” he asked himself: “What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (See JS-H 1:10.) I would submit that these are very big questions.
You know what happened next. Let me read his words, not because we don’t know them, but because they are so important to the solution of his questions and also to our own. Said Joseph:
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James (you see where I got my rule number one), first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (JS-H 1:11).
Of course, this led the 14-year-old Joseph to the Sacred Grove where he had the life-changing interview and instruction with the Father and the Son. We won’t take time to review all the questions that Joseph posed, but you will recognize that by the time this unexpected experience ended, he had some answers he had not expected or even imagined.
We know that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had their questions answered about baptism because they were doing their duty in translating the Book of Mormon. All that Joseph ever learned and had revealed to him came as the result of careful study and preparation followed by earnest and thoughtful prayer with the determination to follow fully the Lord’s will and the answers which he had received.
Because fervent and serious prayer is so essential in making proper decisions, it might be understandable, if not excusable, to forget that much more is required of us than just asking Heavenly Father for the answer. You will recall the enlightening experience of Oliver Cowdery. Remember, very early Oliver felt impressed to seek out Joseph and assist him in the translation of the Book of Mormon. He was with Joseph when they received the revelation on baptism and the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist (see Doctrine and Covenants 13) as well as other spiritual manifestations.
While Oliver was very faithful as a scribe for Joseph in the work of translation, he also, reasonably, expressed an interest in trying his own hand at this sacred work. In Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn that the Lord granted Oliver’s wish to have the gift of translation as well as giving him some wonderful counsel and insights on the spirit of revelation. Because Oliver apparently did not immediately attempt to translate himself, he was not able to do so at a later time.
I think we can imagine that he was disappointed and likely confused. He knew he had been granted a gift, but apparently did not proceed in a timely fashion and the gift was then temporarily withdrawn. Let me read several verses from the 9th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants to review what the Lord said to a disappointed Oliver:
“Be patient, my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.
“Behold, the work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph.
“And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
“Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
“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.
“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.
“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:3-9).
Lots of lessons can and should be learned by careful study of our Church history and the scriptures. We also can learn from the experiences of others. If I may, please let me share a personal experience that was very helpful to me in making an important decision. It taught me that getting proper inspiration and direction from heaven requires more than just going through the motions.
During the time I was deeply involved in my postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University after completing my medical internship and residency, I was approached with several interesting opportunities for my future academic career. I admit that the entreaties were flattering and most looked attractive. The problem for us was that we were very happy at Duke and in living in Durham, North Carolina. We loved our ward, our friends and felt that the academic experience was first-rate. While we missed our extended families, all living in the West, we felt we would return there some day and were quite content that we were exactly where we ought to be.
Thus, we prayed about our options and opportunities, but did not feel any compulsion or even inclination to do so more than just casually mention our preferences in our prayers. Happily for us, a man who later became a good friend and mentor sized me up much better than I had myself.
One day he called me about an opportunity that we had discussed twice in recent weeks. Not wanting to close any doors for future opportunities, my answer to him on those two occasions was that I appreciated the offer, the position was attractive, but the timing was not right and therefore I needed to decline. On the third call, he simply said that he understood my position and that the offer was the same as before. He then said if I could assure him that I had gone about the decision-making process in exactly the right way, he would not bother me again.
I did not know Dr. John A. Dixon very well at that point, although I knew he was a faithful Latter-day Saint and a former bishop. His question about “exactly the right way” caught me off guard and led to new and serious consideration about what that really meant and what I really should do. Without further details, I will report that we went about the process in the right way and got the right answer––an answer the Lord would not provide when we prayed as if we already knew the answer.
This process led me to leave my position at Duke and return to my alma mater. While perhaps not nearly as earthshaking as was President Clark’s leaving Harvard for BYU-Idaho, it was traumatic for us. My chairman at Duke thought I was committing career suicide and even gave me the chance, which I did not take, to repent of the decision a couple of years later. The fact that my decision was not understood by most didn’t matter. Now almost forty years later, some of my associates from that time acknowledge that perhaps the decision was not too bad after all since I seem to have been very happy over the years. What is not clear to most is that this was a very pivotal time in our life and many of the opportunities and experiences we have enjoyed over the years would not have been ours if our good friend had not insisted that we make our decision in exactly the right way.
All of us have important crossroad decisions to make in our lives. At this time for most of you they center around issues of missions, marriage, and academic majors, as I mentioned at the outset. Sometimes the answer will be “it mattereth not,” but more often than most of us suspect it will be that it mattereth very, very much. Thus, it is vital that we never be confused or deflected from the responsibility and privilege of deciding and choosing in the right ways.
Now, as I conclude I will share the experience with Elder Maxwell that was so important to me. The details are not vital for today’s purposes and as I would not wish to cast negative reflections on anyone, I will be economical with the specifics.
More than 20 years ago and before I was called as a General Authority, I had a very difficult professional decision to make. I considered the matter every way I could and believe I did so in exactly the right way. I was still confused. Whatever I decided, it would likely affect in significant ways the lives of people I cared about and who cared for me. Because I knew that Elder Maxwell was familiar with several of the details and people involved in my dilemma, I sought his counsel and advice. His response surprised me and frankly initially severely disappointed me.
In great detail, I presented the facts of the matter and my analysis to him. He listened quietly and carefully. When I finished, he remained silent for more than a few seconds and then said simply, “Above all else, you must protect your integrity.” That was all. I waited for his reasoning and further counsel but none was forthcoming and it became very clear that the meeting was over. He was not angry or dismissive in nature, but clearly was not going to say anything more.
As I left his office and returned to my own, I was confused and frustrated. I knew that he knew more than he said. Why didn’t he just tell me what to do? As I puzzled over this, I then realized after two or three hours of agony and angst that he had given me the real answer that I needed. Once I recognized that my integrity was more important than the perceptions of friends or the approval of associates, the course that I needed to follow was crystal clear.
Like our Heavenly Father who knows all, Elder Maxwell who knew so very much could have given me the answer but in doing so he would have usurped my agency and the growth that could come from my making important decisions properly. As I have come to understand these principles better, my feelings of disappointment and frustration have transformed to profound appreciation and admiration for the ability of this disciple of the Savior to teach so effectively.
It is my prayer that all of us will work very hard to make the proper decisions in our lives with understanding and gratitude to our Heavenly Father for the gift of agency and the privilege to grow by governing our lives properly by always deciding in the Lord’s chosen way. The gospel is true, including the provisions it makes for us to become wiser, more faithful, more teachable and more faithful. God bless you in your important decisions with the comfort that the Holy Ghost will bring when you follow the Lord’s prescribed patterns. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.