Be Wise

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Brigham Young UniversityIdaho Devotional

November 7, 2006


Sister Oaks and I are thrilled to be with you and with President and Sister Clark here in Rexburg.  We thank each of you for your presence here.  This is a great and blessed place to pursue your education, and we feel privileged to try to contribute to that process.

I have felt to speak to you about the scriptural direction that we should “seek . . . wisdom” (D&C 6:7) or “get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7) or “learn wisdom” (Mosiah 2:17; Alma 32:12; Alma 37:35).  We are also taught that things should be “done in wisdom and order” (Mosiah 4:27).

Wisdom is defined as the quality of knowing what is true or right and knowing what to do about it.  I do not speak of worldly wisdom, for as the apostle Paul wrote, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19).  Paul advocated a special kind of wisdom when he told the Roman saints, “I would have you wise unto that which is good” (Romans 16:19; emphasis added).  That is wisdom in seeking and doing the will of God.

The scriptures teach us that we can learn that kind of wisdom “by humbling [ourselves] and calling upon the Lord . . . that [our] eyes may be opened that [we] may see, and [our] ears opened that [we] may hear” (D&C 136:32).  We learn that kind of wisdom line upon line, precept upon precept, by harkening to the precepts of God and by lending an ear to His counsel (see 2 Nephi 28:30).

I have chosen to apply this teaching about wisdom to about a dozen different subjects.  I believe that some of these will have application to each person here.

I begin with some wise advice from our prophet.  In a talk given eight years ago, President Hinckley urged a group of BYU students to have “more excellence” in their studies.  He asked for “a little more self-discipline, a little more consecrated effort. . . .”  He continued:

“This is the great day of preparation for each of you.  It is the time of beginning for something that will go on for as long as you live.  I plead with you:  Don’t be a scrub!  Rise to the high ground of excellence.  You can do it.  You may not be a genius.  You may be lacking in some skills.  But you can do better than you are now doing.  You are students at BYU.  Most of you are members of this great Church whose influence is now felt all over the world.  You are people with a present and with a future.  Don’t muff the ball.  Be excellent.”  (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Journey Together,” an address at Brigham Young University, November 10, 1998.)

After President Hinckley spoke those words to all students, he gave this advice to those who were married or anticipating marriage:

“I could wish for you nothing better than a good marriage, a happy marriage, a marriage fruitful in the sweet and satisfying things of life.  Your marriage will not be excellent if it is marred with argument, if it is filled with disrespect one for another, if there is any lack of loyalty or devotion to one another.  Cherish your spouse as the greatest possession of your life and treat him or her accordingly.  Make it your constant goal to add to the happiness and comfort of your companion.”  (Ibid.)

I feel to build upon that wonderful advice.  Sometimes married persons think that when disagreements arise¾as they will¾that their goal should be “to meet their companion half way.”  That is totally inadequate because one spouse’s perception of half way will always be different than the other’s.  Be wise and understand that the only way to happy resolution of disagreements in marriage is for each companion to be willing to meet the other 90% of the way.  Only by that approach can you be sure that your efforts will bridge the gap and bring you into harmony, hand-in-hand.

My second subject of wisdom concerns looking beyond the mark.  In the Book of Mormon the Prophet Jacob described a people who “despised the words of plainness, . . . and sought for things . . . they could not understand” (Jacob 4:14).  He said this caused them to fall because when persons are “looking beyond the mark,” God takes away plainness and gives them what they sought¾things they cannot understand.

We see this today.  For example, some persons write General Authorities asking when we will be returning to Missouri or how we should plan to build up the New Jerusalem.  Others want to know details about the Celestial Kingdom, such as the position of a person who lives a good life but never ever marries.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  What I do know is that persons worrying about such things are probably neglecting to seek a firmer understanding and a better practice of the basic principles of the gospel that have been given to them with words of plainness by the scriptures and by the servants of the Lord 

If we neglect the words of plainness and look beyond the mark, we are starting down a path that often leads to a loss of commitment and sometimes to a loss of faith.  There is enough difficulty in following the words of plainness, without reaching out for things we have not been given and probably cannot understand.

On our refrigerator at home Sister Oaks has posted these wise words of Sister Elisa Wirthlin:  “Don’t complicate the simplicities of the gospel with questions that are not in harmony with simple truths.”

Prayer Language.  Be wise in your public prayers.  Keep them short, and remember to give a prayer, not a speech.

Short prayers are in order in any public meeting.  The Savior taught that we should not use “vain repetitions” like the “heathen,” who “think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (3 Nephi 13:7).  The Lord knows what things we need before we ask Him (see vs. 8).  To avoid vain repetitions we should limit our public prayers to the unique circumstances of that meeting and the people in it.

Also, remember not to accept an invitation to pray to the Lord and then twist that invitation into an opportunity to give a speech to the audience.  I have seen this many times, especially at funerals.  A person who wanted to give a talk was invited to give a prayer instead.  So he brought his intended talk and gave it as a prayer.  This is not appropriate.  Talks are addressed to an audience; prayers are addressed to the Lord.

I had an experience with this many years ago when I was a young law professor at The University of Chicago Law School.  A prominent university official had been invited to give a prayer at a large public occasion in the university chapel.  He sought my advice on how he should begin the prayer.  This man had given many public lectures, but, not being a minister, he had never given a public prayer.  He asked me because he knew I had done this.

“How do you begin a prayer?” he asked.  “Oh, that’s easy,” I replied.  “You just say ‘Our Father in Heaven.’”

His reply revealed his concerns.  “Why do you call him ‘Father’?  How do you know God is male?”  “That’s what it says in the Bible,” I explained.

That didn’t satisfy him.  “Won’t you offend some members of the audience if you address God as a male?” he asked.  That was my opportunity to speak about the principle I am suggesting to you.  “Oh, Edward,” I replied.  “If you want to pray to God, you begin with ‘Our Father in Heaven.’  If you are worried about speaking to the audience, then you begin the prayer with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen.’”

You might be interested to know what he did with that advice.  After he gave the prayer, he sent me a copy.  I still have it in my files.  His prayer begins, “God our Father, Father of us all.”

My advice has not always been followed.  For example, a few months ago a young neighbor who is a returned missionary drew a tag to kill a moose in the mountains of Utah.  Later, his father told me about the hunt.  His son was successful in shooting a moose, and then phoned his father to come and help him drag out the huge animal.  When the father finally got to the remote location, his son said, “Of all the advice Elder Oaks has given, this is the advice I didn’t follow and wish I had.”  He remembered my telling him, “If you’ve got a moose tag, kill the moose near the road.”  My young neighbor had shot his moose over a mile from the road, downhill.

Gospel teachers and Church leaders should keep it simple.  President Hinckley has given us many examples of this wisdom.  He is a genius at stating a principle or giving a challenge in such simple terms that it draws us all into increased understanding and more effective efforts.

A few years ago he told us we should “raise the bar” for missionary service.  He gave no complicated explanation.  He just used that vivid metaphor to give a clear, simple challenge, and its impact has been felt by LDS teenagers, parents, teachers, and leaders everywhere.

Similarly, last year President Hinckley asked every member of the Church to read the Book of Mormon again before the end of the year.  That simple challenge has probably changed more lives than any comparable teaching by any president of the Church within my personal memory.  What he asked was easy to understand, and he gave a specific deadline.  In doing so he directed each of us into an activity where we could benefit from the power of the scriptures and the witness of the Holy Ghost.  Remarkably wise leadership!

I am reminded of Nephi’s words:  “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).

It would be wise for each of us to look for simple but powerful things we can do in our own lives and in the teaching of our children, family members, and associates in the Church.

My mother did this over 50 years ago when I was leaving to go to law school in Chicago.  I had been working in a radio station, routinely employed on the Sabbath.  As I left for a new challenge in my life, she told me for the first time that in his graduate studies my father never studied on Sunday.  He felt that he could do more in six days with the help of the Lord than he could do in seven days without it.  He believed that by refraining from studying on the Sabbath¾even in the difficult challenges of medical school far from home¾he would receive the blessings of the Lord.  It was a new time in my life, and that simple new challenge caused me to do the same.  Study was my work, and the Lord had commanded us to labor for six days and rest on the seventh.  I followed my mother’s simple teaching about that commandment, and I was richly blessed for it.

As our children were growing up, we had another simple practice that brought many blessings.  We always turned the television off during mealtime.  This forced us to have conversation without outside distraction.  We had incalculable benefits from mealtime conversation.  Parents grew closer to children and children to parents.

Another simple practice many parents use is to remind teenagers as they leave on a date, “Remember who you are.”  We always did that with our dating children, and I believe that last-minute reminder was a shield and protection for them.  It had one unintended consequence, however.  Many years later, after the death of my wife June, the time came for me to remarry.  I was on my way to what you would call a “date,” if I had not been 67 years old.  A daughter followed me to the door and with a twinkle in her eye said, “Now, dad, remember who you are.”

Be careful how you characterize yourself.  Don’t characterize or define yourself by some temporary quality.  The only single quality that should characterize us is that we are a son or daughter of God.  That fact transcends all other characteristics, including race, occupation, physical characteristics, honors, or even religious affiliation.

Yet there are those among us who choose to define themselves by some other characteristic.  It may be the fact that they are “a patriot,” a Cardinal fan, a person from Texas, a redhead, a great basketball player, or an underachiever.

We have our agency, and we can choose any characteristic to define us.  But we need to know that when we choose to define ourself or to present ourself by some characteristic that is temporary or trivial in eternal terms, we de-emphasize what is most important about us, and we overemphasize what is relatively unimportant.  This can lead us down the wrong path and hinder our eternal progress.

For example, a person who calls himself an “underachiever” tends to look for¾or encourage others to look for¾things that interpret his behavior in those terms.  That has a very different consequence than if he and others looked on his quality of “underachieving” as simply a temporary tendency that needed to be disciplined in the course of seeking graduation, employment, or eternal life.  Always remember that you are a son or daughter of Heavenly Parents, seeking to qualify for your eternal heirship under that parentage.

As a positive example of self-characterization, I cite our daughter, Jenny Oaks Baker.  As a nationally recognized violinist, she could easily identify and think of herself as a great violinist who is also the mother of three little girls.  I am pleased that she does not do this.  She thinks of herself as a mother who happens to be a violinist, and she orders her priorities in that way.

Here is another subject of wisdom in seeking the will of God:  “Hanging Out” and Dating.  About a year and a half ago Kristen and I spoke to many single people in a CES broadcast from Oakland, California.  In part of my talk I urged young people of marriageable age¾especially young men¾to cut back on hanging out and get busy with dating.  I said:  “My single young friends, we counsel you to channel your associations with the opposite sex into dating patterns that have the potential to mature into marriage. . . .” (“Dating Versus Hanging Out,” Ensign, June 2006, p. 14).  I told the men that to qualify as a date a meeting with a girl had to pass the test of the 3 P’s:  planned ahead, paid for, and paired off.

Dates involve commitment, if only for a few hours.  But hanging out, as one BYUIdaho student wrote me, is just “being idle in groups.”  No commitment in that.  I urge each of you to experiment with commitments and to follow patterns that have the potential to lead to marriage.  It isn’t difficult to see the gospel significance of that.

Those interested in an elaboration of that counsel can find the entire talk in the June 2006 Ensign or on the internet through

Be Men.  I was inspired and edified by the wisdom of the talk Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy gave at the recent general priesthood meeting.  He issued this challenge:  “We who hold the priesthood of God . . . must arise from the dust of self-indulgence and be men!” (“Let Us Be Men,” Ensign, November 2006, p. 46).

Elder Christofferson shared many personal experiences and scriptural teachings on a major problem we feel in the world around us and even among the young men of the Church.  Here are some of his words:

“The prophet Lehi pled with his rebellious sons, saying, ‘Arise from the dust, my sons, and be men’ (2 Nephi 1:21; emphasis added).  By age, Laman and Lemuel were men, but in terms of character and spiritual maturity they were still as children.  They murmured and complained if asked to do anything hard.  They didn’t accept anyone’s authority to correct them.  They didn’t value spiritual things.  They easily resorted to violence, and they were good at playing the victim.

“We see some of the same attitudes today.  Some act as if a man’s highest goal should be his own pleasure. . . . Dodging commitments is considered smart, but sacrificing for the good of others, naïve.  For some, a life of work and achievement is optional. . . .

“We who hold the priesthood of God cannot afford to drift.  We have work to do (see Moroni 9:6).  We must arise from the dust of self-indulgence and be men! . . . .” (Ibid.).

Elder Christofferson praised the quality of the young women of the Church, and then added:  “I ask myself, Do we have men to match these women?  Are our young men developing into worthy companions that such women can look up to and respect?” (Ibid, p. 47).

I would like to say more about this, but in the interest of time I simply endorse the importance of that message, and urge all of you to read it in the November Ensign.

Be Women.  While I am telling the men to be men, I also want to tell the women to be women.

Sisters, don’t fall for the worldly urging that women should emulate men in various masculine characteristics.  That is not what the Lord created you to do.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that women should not be doctors or lawyers or any particular occupation that fits their circumstances.  To use lawyering as an example, what I am saying is that women should not attempt to be manly lawyers.  Nor should women emulate the worldly ways of womanhood.  Your destiny is to be a wife and a mother in Zion, not a model and a streetwalker in Babylon.  You should dress and act accordingly.

I quote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, from the October General Conference one year ago.

“First of all, I want you to be proud you are a woman.  I want you to feel the reality of what that means, to know who you truly are.  You are literally a spirit daughter of heavenly parents with a divine nature and an eternal destiny.  That surpassing truth should be fixed deep in your soul and be fundamental to every decision you make. . . .”  (“To Young Women,” Ensign, November 2005, p. 28).

There is wisdom!  Be true to your identity and role in the Great Plan of Happiness, given to us by a Heavenly Father who created us “male and female” (Gen. 1:27; Moses 2:27).  Our inspired Family Proclamation declares that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Elder Holland made a special appeal about how young women should dress for Church services and Sabbath worship:

“[F]rom ancient times to modern we have always been invited to present our best selves inside and out when entering the house of the Lord¾and a dedicated LDS chapel is a ‘house of the Lord.’  Our clothing or footwear need never be expensive, indeed should not be expensive, but neither should it appear that we are on our way to the beach.  When we come to worship the God and Father of us all and to partake of the sacrament symbolizing the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we should be as comely and respectful, as dignified and appropriate as we can be” (Ibid.).

You will find the entire talk in the November, 2005 Ensign.

Gospel wisdom also dictates that you should refrain from resisting personal change by insisting “that’s the way I am.”  Don’t create a barrier to progress by tying yourself to your past experiences or your present capabilities.  Saying “that’s the way I am” anchors you to the past or the present, and prevents personal progress.  None of us is a finished product.  The major message of the gospel is repentance, and repentance means change.  Open the door to change in your own life.  Look ahead and move on down the road toward better things in yourself.

Now I move on by inviting Sister Oaks to move up to the pulpit for her message to you.

Kristen M. Oaks: 

It is so good to be here with my husband.  We love BYUIdaho.  Our grandson attended here, met his wife here, married here, and loved every minute of his time here.  For many reasons this campus is especially precious to us.

Elder Oaks has been sharing his wisdom with you.

Did you know there is a distinct difference in the dictionary definitions of wise and wisdom?  To be wise is defined as “judging properly as to what is true and right.”  Wisdom is “the knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”

When we use wisdom, we act and apply the information we know to be true.  It is not enough for us to know the difference between right and wrong; we must choose right over wrong.  Elder Bruce R. McConkie also admonished us that it is “our obligation not only to believe, but to conform our lives to what we believe” (Bruce R. McConkie, “Jesus Christ and Him Crucified,” BYU Devotional, September 5, 1976).

Always remember your identity:  You are not mortal beings having spiritual experiences, but spiritual beings having mortal experiences.

It is very significant to me that the first words Elder Oaks taught in the Philippines, where he was sent to help establish the Church, were from Mosiah 10:4:  “Now if you believe these things, see that ye do them.”  That was a call to action.  It is not enough to believe¾even to believe with all our hearts.  The Lord would have us act on our beliefs.

There is a promise connected to this scripture in the following verse:  If we repent and remember the greatness of God, we “shall always rejoice and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of [our] sins and [we] shall grow in the . . . knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4:11-12).

I want to testify of this in all aspects of my life.  When I read the scriptures, the wise and pure words touch my soul and I know of their truth, and the more I read, the more I know for a surety.

Also, I know that when we practice the precepts we know we improve.  When we first married, I was working as a consultant for a publishing house based in Boston¾I never cooked except once a year.  Poor Elder Oaks.  The first few months we were married I burned everything, even grilled cheese sandwiches.  I knew very little about housework; I didn’t even know how to match socks.  Elder Oaks wears only two colors¾black and blue.  I called my married sister in tears and asked how to sort them and she told me to go stand by the window.  That was wisdom!

It seems humorous now, but six years ago it wasn’t so funny, and I felt totally inadequate.

I learned to persist because I wanted my husband to live a healthy life.  The scripture in D&C 64:33 became a reality for me¾I just kept persisting:  “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work.  And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”  Last year for the first time I single-handedly cooked Thanksgiving dinner by myself.  The Lord can and will strengthen us.

Nephi also learned to be wise.  He records that what was written on the Liahona, “. . . did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord:  and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it.  And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).

Brothers and Sisters, you are just beginning your lives as adults and none of you knows what lies ahead.

I never dreamed when I sat where you are sitting that I would not marry until my mid-fifties.  I had not prepared to support myself financially or emotionally or even spiritually.  Living this gospel and making small correct choices helped me survive and progress.

I testify to you that if you seek to learn the wisdom the gospel offers your trials will be surmountable, your afflictions bearable, and your joys sweeter.

You are an exceptional generation.  Remember who you are and apply the concepts you are being taught.  If we listen to our Heavenly Father and try to be obedient and follow His commandments, the result of that obedience will manifest itself in our lives.

I am so thankful to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to have the knowledge of a Heavenly Father who loves me and cares personally about my life and my struggles and those of my family.  I am thankful for my Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and the power that the scriptures afford me.  I am thankful for our living Prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, and for the Church leaders who surround him.  I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks:

Thank you, Kristen.

Handling Difficult Questions.  One of the wisdom lessons learned from President Gordon B. Hinckley is that when you are faced with a difficult question and you don’t know the answer, be positive and tell what you do know.  He provided some wonderful examples of that wisdom ten years ago in his interview with Mike Wallace on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”  Here is my favorite.

Mike Wallace:  There are those who say this is a gerontocracy; this is a Church run by old men.

President Hinckley:  Isn’t it wonderful?  To have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Another good example of a positive statement in response to a difficult question was experienced by Elder Angel Abrea.  We had a missionary murdered on a street in Peru, a Peruvian Elder.  Elder Abrea was sent to represent the leadership of the Church at the funeral.  He called on the mother of the murdered missionary.  She was a widow and this was her only son.  In tears, she asked the agonized question, “Why, Elder Abrea, why?”  He didn’t know what to say, and stood silent, pondering why the only son of a widowed mother would be taken from her.  Then the mother answered her own question with these words:  “Well, one thing I do know.  I will see my son again, in the time of the Lord.”

When you are asked a difficult question, such as a puzzler about Church history or doctrine, be frank to say that you don’t know.  But then be sure to say what you do know:  “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

Finally, All Things Must be Done in Wisdom and Order.  Sometimes we are just overwhelmed with all that we have to do, in school, in our Church callings, and in our other responsibilities, including our personal lives (where we need regular rest and at least a little recreation).  Joseph Smith must have been overwhelmed in just that way when the Lord spoke these words to him about his work translating the Book of Mormon:  “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end” (D&C 10:4).

The Lord inspired King Benjamin to teach his people that same principle about how they should follow another important commandment¾giving to the poor.  He said:  “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27).

Some years ago Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught how we can be guided by this standard of “wisdom and order” and be comforted by the assurance that we are not required to run faster than we have strength (see “Wisdom and Order,” Ensign, June 1994, p. 41).  In describing how we can “manage ourselves wisely” he quoted Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who said, “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.”  Elder Maxwell taught that “some choices are matters of preference, not principle,” adding that “wisdom and order [will] help us to separate preferences from principles” (p. 43).

We are wise to conclude that we can’t do it all and that we are not required to.  When we feel overwhelmed with all that presses upon us, we should pray for inspiration to guide us in identifying what is required by eternal principles.  These things command priority.  We do them first.  Then, in the time that remains, we pray for wisdom to exercise our preferences among those things that are merely good but not essential.  Finally, when inspired wisdom has guided our choices, we proceed, as President Hinckley has taught us, to just “do the very best [we] can.”

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