“Straight Thinking / Right Choices”
Brigham Young University-Idaho Commencement
April 24, 2004
Elder M. Russell Ballard
This is a great day for you graduates here on the BYU-Idaho campus. I know this is a time of excitement and perhaps some nervousness for you as you now must contemplate the opportunities and the challenges which lie ahead. One thing I am sure of is that your hearts must be full today with deep appreciation for the outstanding faculty and staff of this university. This is a special place led by special people. I am also quite sure that today, especially, you feel great love for your parents and, if you are married, your spouses for their help and support in reaching this day of graduation.
As some of you may know, both of my grandfathers served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My grandfather Hyrum Mack Smith died before I was born, and my Grandfather Ballard died when I was just ten years of age. President Packer’s account in his conference address of his small grandson calling him, “Grandpa, Grandpa,” and throwing his arms around the President’s legs, brought back a memory of my Grandfather Ballard. On my eighth birthday, he took me to the Rialto Theater to see a movie. I remember that as soon as the lights went off in the theater and the film came up on the screen, Grandfather fell fast asleep. He slept rather noisily right on through the feature film and the cartoons. When the film started over the second time, I woke him up. He took hold of my hand and out of the theater we went. I recall thinking to myself, “How is it possible that anyone could sleep through such a good movie?” Years later, when my family took me to see Star Wars, when the lights went out, I fell fast asleep. My children could not believe it. However, I realized then that when the lights go out, General Authorities will soon fall fast asleep. This is one of our occupational hazards.
My father was with my grandfather in the hospital just prior to his death. He told me that Grandfather pushed himself up in his bed, looked about the room as though he were addressing a congregation and said, “And above all else, brethren, let us think straight.” Then he died, and his spirit passed to the other side of the veil. Those last words spoken in mortality by Grandfather Ballard are prominently displayed on one of the walls in my office as a constant reminder to me to always strive to “think straight.”
You graduates have completed many classes on many subjects to earn your degree. You now step away from school into a world that desperately needs people who can “think straight” You may ask, How does one learn to “think straight?” The book of Proverbs has a guide that is helpful. It is found in the 19th chapter, 20th verse: “Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise.” In my experience I have learned that straight thinking generally begins with straight and careful listening. The most important thing we must listen for is the prompting of the Spirit. The Spirit will be your companion if you are worthy and will help you make wise and righteous choices. Those with whom I have associated who are most successful in life are straight thinkers. And as I have come to know, straight thinking is always preceded by good listening.
The Nephite prophet Lehi counseled his sons in words that are particularly appropriate for you as you graduate today and begin a new phase of your lives. He said:
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit (2 Nephi 2:26-28).
When we contemplate the great plan of happiness that our Heavenly Father has given to us to live by, we understand that agency and freedom to choose are essential to our eternal progress. So important is our agency that our Heavenly Father was unwilling to intercede and to stop His spirit children from exercising that agency in the pre-mortal world. We fully understood what our options were in the grand council in Heaven. We knew that Lucifer’s plan would eliminate our freedom and the agency to act for ourselves. We knew that our Father’s plan of salvation required that His children face good and evil in mortality and that we would have our agency to choose between them. We understood the Savior’s role in God’s eternal plan. I believe that one of the most important times in our eternal lives that required us to “think straight” was when we chose to follow our Father’s plan, led by His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The privilege of coming to earth and receiving a body of flesh and bone and continuing our eternal journey would require us to choose to keep the commandments and follow the Lord and to shun the enticements of Lucifer. We receive the gift of the Holy Ghost to aid us through life’s journey. There is safety in listening to and heeding the promptings of the Spirit.
There is no question in my mind that we understood the importance of agency. In fact, we were so excited about the privilege of coming here to receive a body of flesh and bone that the prophets teach us that we shouted for joy for this opportunity. The reason we did is because we understood that we could not become like our Heavenly Father unless we experienced mortal life.
Now we know through the Book of Mormon that “the natural man 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, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
The test for us, then, is can we develop enough spiritual strength to overcome the temptations of the flesh? Can we learn to “think straight” and set our lives on the course that will allow us to enjoy all of the blessings of God’s great plan of happiness?
Seventy-five years ago, I came here. Some of you left your heavenly home in the spirit world only 20 years ago or so. You haven’t been here very long. But I hope you have been here long enough to know that the power of the Lord and the influence of the devil that were in existence in the pre-mortal world are in full operation here today. Lucifer has not given up. He has not gone off into a corner to hide himself. Rather, he and his billions of followers are very much in the business of trying to do everything they know how to draw the sons and daughters of God away from the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When Lucifer was cast out of the Lord’s presence, he was called “the father of all lies” (Moses 4:4). That is exactly what he is. He is not interested one bit in your welfare. In fact, his greatest desire is to confuse your capacity to “think straight.” But each one of you has a good mind, and God has given you the freedom and the agency to decide for yourself what you will do with your life. You have a great destiny. Each of you has an eternal destiny as a son or daughter of God. He loves you. Our eternal destiny depends upon our ability to “think straight” in the choices we make. No wonder Helaman gave as one of his last messages to his sons this counsel:
And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall (Helaman 5:12).
Now, my dear young friends, stay close to the Lord. Study the scriptures, say your daily prayers. “Seek. . . first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). The leaders of the Church have counseled the members of the Church about this from the beginning of the Restoration. Never forget that in the scriptures are found the words of the Lord. In the scriptures are found the way of life, the principles of happiness that our Father has for His children.
If we get lazy and decide that we do not need to study the scriptures and say our prayers every day, that is a bad choice. I believe you will not study anything that is remotely as important as what you will learn in the standard works of the Church. The principles they teach give you the guidelines to help you “think straight” in making right and positive decisions all the days of your life.
Some years ago one of my missionaries came to visit me. He said, “President, I am in trouble. I think I am losing my testimony of the gospel.”
I asked this fine elder how that could be possible.
“Well,” he said, “for the first time in my life I have been reading some of the literature written by the enemies of the Church. I have many questions, and I am worried about my feelings for the Church.”
As we talked further, I learned that he had visited with his bishop and his stake president; but he still had many questions. I said, “All right, Elder, give me the list of your questions.” I told him I wanted one week to prepare the answers to his questions. It seemed as though I had lifted a great weight off of his shoulders when he realized that I was going to respond to the anti-Mormon attacks against the Church.
As he was about to leave my office, the Spirit prompted me to say, “Elder, I have one question before you leave. How long has it been since you have read from the Book of Mormon?”
His eyes dropped to the floor. He finally looked back and said, “President, it has been a long time.”
I responded, “Elder, I will answer your questions, but I want you to do something for me. Promise me that you will read for one hour every day from the Book of Mormon. Will you do that?”
“Yes, sir, President, I will keep that promise.” And he left.
One week went by, and he returned. We knelt in prayer. With tears in his eyes, he said, “President, I am not sure we need this meeting.”
I asked, “Why is that, Elder?”
“I have kept my promise. I have read from the Book of Mormon; and, President, I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I am not worried about my questions any more.”
I answered that I was grateful he had kept his promise, but since I had spent time and effort preparing the answers to his questions, he was going to get them anyway.
Now, what is the Lesson? If we are to “think straight” as we use our agency to make choices in life, we must be willing to give equal time to the Lord. You will never have difficulty with your testimony, you will never be challenged beyond your ability to resist temptations, if you will give equal time to the Lord through your prayerful study of the scriptures.
We are living in a day and a time when we must be spiritually anchored. You and I must be anchored to the Lord Jesus Christ. We also must be anchored to the divine truths that have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
In our quest to think clearly and find answers through our prayers, we will need to follow the counsel the Lord gave to Oliver Cowdery:
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 (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8).
Pray for guidance, and if you are living righteously the Holy Ghost will help you make good decisions. Now, do not expect to be successful in everything you do. You will experience some failure and disappointment. You will face temptation, trials, and tests; but I can assure you that if you stay in tune spiritually, you will know what to do and what not to do by the promptings of the Spirit.
My dear young brothers and sisters, may our Heavenly Father bless you with the desire to cultivate in your lives the capacity to “think straight.” Remember that straight thinkers do not make serious mistakes in life. They do not have moral problems. They do not have problems with the Word of Wisdom. They do not have problems in paying tithing. They do not have problems in following the counsel of the leaders of the Church. As you master the ability to “think straight,” study and pray, the Lord will bless you in your vocation, your family, and in your Church service.
True understanding, peace and a feeling of eternal security will be yours because you know that you are part of a divine plan designed by our Heavenly Father who loves you. When you understand this truth, then you will not be pressured to compete for worldly position or acclaim. Rather you will seek spiritual strength and an eternal assurance. Of course, you will work hard to provide for your families and do the best you can with the talents God has given to you. But when you consider the unique perspective for eternity that the gospel provides, you will know that fame and popularity aren't nearly as important as loving and being loved; status doesn't mean much when compared to service; and acquiring spiritual knowledge is infinitely more meaningful than acquiring the things of this world.
Always remember that when our time comes to return to our Heavenly Father to give Him an accounting of our stewardship while here on the earth, I believe He will be pleased with all of our honorable accomplishments. I also believe that He will have a special interest in the service-including sharing the gospel-that we have rendered to our family, His Church, and others of His children along the way.
I testify to you that I know that God is our Father and that Jesus Christ is His Beloved Son. He lives and today directs the leaders of His church. This knowledge has been my best guide all of my life. I pray for the continued blessing of “thinking straight” for you and for me, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.