“And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking “But I never knew before, I never dreamed…” – C.S. Lewis
A thought I would like to share is a personal insight into the way the Lord often teaches truth. We all know that we receive line upon line, precept upon precept. The image this process invokes in my mind are principles building upon each other to fill out a full understanding of truth. Like pieces of a puzzle, we eventually receive all the individual parts until we see the whole picture. My experience, however, often hasn’t followed this pattern. Once I understood the pattern the Lord uses to teach me truth in my own life it cleared up a lot of confusion, doubt, and fear.
Learning this new pattern came first with the realization that my spiritual growth was not limited primarily because of things that I did not know. My ignorance of gospel truth was not what was keeping me in the dark. The limiting factor of spiritual growth was not what I didn’t know, but what I thought I already knew. My concepts of truths and doctrines, either incorrectly held or partially understood, and mistaking that partial or incorrect understanding for a full and complete understanding, had a much more damning effect on my spiritual growth than I ever could imagine. I learned that the Lord often could not teach me new things without mercifully correcting incomplete and incorrect notions of things that I had already been taught.
Once I understood this – that almost everything I thought I knew to be true and have a completed understanding was either partially true or false because I erringly considered it a full understanding, the table could be cleared to be taught rapidly. I learned that in order to learn spiritual truth, all of my understanding has to be continually on the alter. It all has to be continually vulnerable to expansion, change, eradication, or replacement. If we close the book on any subject of knowledge and consider it complete, it will limit the Lord’s ability to increase our understanding.
I believe this is why the Lord instructs us often to become as a child (Mosiah 3:19). A child has an insatiable desire for learning. They are easily taught because they do not have fear of having their understanding and knowledge disrupted. They do not have fear because of their unbelief. They do not carry with them the pride of believing they have been blessed with understanding. Pride and unbelief does not stand in the way of their spiritual growth.
Nephi teaches this principle with force when he wrote “whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.” (2 Nephi 9: 42)
One of the best way to explain this process of learning is to use an analogy.
Imagine that you live in a house without windows and doors, and have no understanding of the outside world. The Lord comes to you and tries to teach you of the world on the other side of your walls. He tells you that there are great big mountains outside. But you look at him with a blank stare, having no idea what a mountain means. He then begins to explain that it is a huge geological phenomenon that juts from the ground in large rock formations. Again, you look at him confused, trying to comprehend what he is talking about.
Then the Lord explains that there are very large triangles outside, which reach to the sky.
This concept of large triangles is easily conceivable. Just by looking around your house you are already with triangles from what you can observe in your current state. This makes more sense.
You become very excited and grateful that you’ve been taught about these unseen “mountains”. And you are grateful that you now know that they are just big triangles outside. You share this knowledge with people and eventually create a religion around it. You have the truth.
But then the Lord comes back to you and tries to enlarge your understanding. He explains that they aren’t really triangles, but something much more tangible and complicated.
As you increase in your ability to be endowed with more knowledge, the Lord then shatters your understanding by teaching you that mountains aren’t really triangles, but something much greater. He needs to give you the original framework for comprehension, but in mercy, also has to shatter it to bring you to greater understanding.
The next step for the Lord may be to teach you that triangles aren’t just straight-lined shapes, but have curves, and bumps, and can take a more irregular shape.
The next thing he teaches you that it is not really a two-dimensional “shape,” but an actually three-dimensional object.
After grasping the concept of irregular shaped objects, he may teach you that it is actually a part of the ground in which you stand. Now he must prepare you to understand by teaching you about geology, minerals, matter, and the laws of the physical universe. An understanding of supplementary knowledge, and a broader foundational knowledge is now requisite to receiving more.
And so the teaching of what a mountain is continues to be given, along with the necessary foundational knowledge, but with each “line upon line,” what is actually happening is that former notions and explanations are being erased and replaced. This will go on until the Lord brings you physically to the mountain so that you know from experience the real thing. Now you understand it with perfect clarity. The way the Lord teaches you is a great blessing, and he is preparing you to eventually truly perfectly understand what a mountain is.
But what if, in the beginning, you continued the rest of your life comforted that you now understand the meaning of the concept of mountains as just large triangles? What if this teaching that a triangle is a mountain was taken as the last word? After all, the other persons in the house you live with received the same teaching, and so you talk and study about triangles together, and rejoice that the Lord made such a revelation to you. It would be easy to live life with the pride that the Lord has revealed to you that mountains are triangles. You have been given the truth!
If we persist in our understanding that mountains are triangles, what once was an enlightening revealed truth can now become a falsehood and a stumbling block. If we resist having our comprehension not just increased, but necessarily shattered so that it can be increased, our current understanding will change from an enlightened teaching to a stumbling block that will literally damn us and lead us to err.
What makes this “truth” is not necessarily the current state of understanding of our view of truth, but the process by which it is taught and from whom the teaching is received. The truth is the process the Lord uses to endow with knowledge. We should be very careful not to mistake our current understanding with a fullness. Rather, we should cling to the Savior who will lead us to greater and greater understanding. This is the essence of the “fullness of the gospel,” not that we have received a fullness of the gospel, but that we are in the process of receiving a fullness. We must continually consider ourselves “fools before God.”
I think if the church was viewed as the process of a group of people increasing in light and truth rather than a people that have already received the light and truth, we would approach it as a people much differently.
The same applies to what we consider doctrine. A doctrine will always be a “triangle” until we come to the point in our progression that we comprehend all things. It is a snapshot in time of our understanding of truth at any point in the process of receiving a fullness. This is why doctrine can be both changed and eternal. It is eternal from the perspective that it is static for all of those that occupy the level of understanding at which it is taught. And, if we decline or increase in understanding, the doctrine can change to match where we are in the process of learning and receiving truth.
The stumbling block we face is to mistake a portion of truth for a fullness.
As the scripture warns the Latter-Day Saints: “Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!” (2 Nephi 28: 27)
Does this mean the Lord lies to us and can’t be trusted? Not at all. In the analogy of the mountain and the triangle the Lord is not at all dishonest by calling mountains “large triangles”. He was framing an understanding. If we persist that we now understand that a mountain is a triangle and we don’t allow that understanding to be challenged, changed, and increased, then it becomes our problem. We should never take too much comfort in our current understanding, rather, we should always be preparing ourselves to receive greater light and truth – even if that means allowing our current understanding to be fundamentally disrupted.
This is a glorious process once we understand how it works.
I regularly refer to my triangles being shattered. Personally, my understanding of priesthood, atonement, faith, the self – every aspect of the gospel has had to be shattered and reformed over and over again. At first, it was a terrible and fearful experience. I know that in many ways the Lord has taught me one way to think at one point in my life, and then seemed to turn that understanding upside down in an effort to lift my understanding. When the real thing becomes a bit clearer, I become grateful that the Lord sometimes teaches in this way.
I fear that there are those that have their current understanding shattered and it leads to doubt and fear and mistrust in the Lord’s church and process of teaching truth. Everything should always be on the alter – and this includes our current understanding of eternal truth. There is one constant – the Lord will increase our understanding as we commit to him in obedience, sacrifice, and diligent humility. If we continue to repent and remain open to his truth, and allow the comforts of our understanding to be disrupted and shattered, we shall progress much faster towards he who embodies a fullness.