Teaching Youth and Young Adults
“Apply Your Hearts to Understanding”

“Apply Your Hearts to Understanding”

Evening with a General Authority • February 8, 2019 • Salt Lake City Tabernacle

My dear brothers and sisters, it is a joy to serve with you in this great work. I express to you my love and gratitude for all the extraordinary work that you do in helping the rising generation of youth and young adults to learn deeply in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When gospel learning is deep, our students grow in (1) knowledge and understanding, (2) in the capacity for effective righteous action, and (3) becoming more and more like the Savior and our Heavenly Father.

Gospel understanding is a critical link between gospel knowledge and effective righteous action. I want to share with you tonight some brief thoughts about what we can do to help our students grow in their understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I begin with that wonderful phrase Abinadi used to chastise the priests of King Noah: “Ye have not applied your hearts to understanding; therefore, ye have not been wise.”1

The priests had the scriptures, and they knew about the law and the prophets, but they had not applied their hearts to understanding. The heart is the symbolic center of our will, our desires, our commitments, our values and priorities, our feelings, and our testimony of the truth.2

Understanding the gospel is much more than a cognitive experience.3 It’s a spiritual experience in which the Holy Ghost witnesses of the truth, enlightens our minds, and changes our hearts.4 Understanding of the heart is a gift of the Spirit.

When one of your students desires to apply her heart to understanding a gospel principle like faith in Jesus Christ, she must exercise her agency to choose Jesus Christ and live that principle. Her experience with the principle is the gateway to her heart. Her action authorizes the Holy Ghost to testify, enlighten, and change the way her heart embraces the Lord and that principle.5 As she continues to live the principle, reflect on her experience, and testify of what she knows is true, her understanding of faith will grow, and her heart will change:

  • Her will, desires, and priorities about acting with faith in the Savior become more closely aligned with His will.

  • Her covenants with the Lord define more deeply the commitment in her heart to act with faith in Him.

  • Her feelings of love, devotion, joy, and faith in the Lord become deeper and stronger.

  • Her personal testimony of the truth of faith in Jesus Christ and of the Lord’s power and love will grow.6

What can you and I do as teachers of the gospel to help our students apply their hearts to understanding the doctrine of Jesus Christ? Let me share with you a story which I believe has important insights for us.

A teacher assembled a group of 4th graders and in a few minutes told them about Martin Luther, the German Catholic priest who was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe.7 He then gave the children a short quiz. The students, however, answered the questions as though they had been taught about Martin Luther King Jr., the American civil rights leader; they answered no question correctly.

The teacher then assembled a second group of 4th graders. However, this time he began with a question: “How many of you know who Martin Luther King Jr. was?” All of the hands shot up. Those children knew a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. The teacher then asked, “Do you know why Martin Luther King Jr.’s parents named him Martin Luther—King?” No one knew. He then said, “I am going to tell you why.” He then taught them about Martin Luther, using exactly the same information he used with the first group. When he gave them the same quiz, the second group answered all of the questions correctly.

The first group of students learned absolutely nothing about Martin Luther.8 But in the second group, the teacher connected Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr., someone about whom the students knew a great deal and had strong feelings.

The teacher’s questions and his discussion with them opened the minds and hearts of the students to new information and new feelings. They not only learned about Martin Luther, but that learning also increased their understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.

The story has implications for creating experiences that will help our students apply their hearts to understanding gospel principles. Two stand out:

  1. There is great power in connecting the principle to their own experience and to what they already know and understand. Personal experience really is the gateway to their hearts.

  2. It is critically important to use both questions we ask and questions the students ask. Questions unlock their minds and their hearts.

These are powerful ideas. I invite you to use them in concert with two others:

  1. Intentionally teach the process. Applying hearts to understanding is a spiritual process; understanding of the heart is a spiritual gift. Please teach the students how the process works. Help them feel their responsibility to use their agency to choose the Lord and live the principles. Teach them to reflect on what they experience and share what they learn and bear witness of the truth. The grace of Jesus Christ will attend them as they teach one another.9

  2. Focus on the Savior. It is His doctrine and His light and love and power they need; all things come together in Him. When we bear witness of Him and connect the principles to Him, the Holy Ghost will bear witness of truth, teach, and enlighten.

As you do these things and many others, the Holy Ghost will witness of the truth, especially that Jesus is the Christ. He will teach your students one by one. He will change their hearts, and they will grow in their understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know this is true. I leave you with my love and my witness, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


  1. Mosiah 12:27.

  2. See Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, “Heart,” merriam-webster.com.

  3. For an extended discussion of the relationship between the heart and gospel understanding, see David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning (2011), 66–70.

  4. Our minds are an important part of this process, of course. But if we only use our minds and do not “apply [our] heart[s] to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2), we will not truly understand the principle. We will know about it, but we will not truly understand it the way the Lord intends. Moreover, when we speak of increasing understanding in our hearts, we are speaking about changing our hearts.

  5. Elder Richard G. Scott (1928–2015) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught this principle: “The Lord will not force you to learn. You must exercise your agency to authorize the Spirit to teach you. As you make this a practice in your life, you will be more perceptive to the feelings that come with spiritual guidance” (“To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2009, 8; see also 6–9).

  6. There is a very important and powerful principle at work here. As in all things, Jesus showed us the way. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of our weaknesses and our infirmities, and yet He chose to suffer them in the flesh (see Alma 7:11). He did this so that He might descend below all things and comprehend all things in His heart, that He might be filled with mercy and have perfect empathy and power to redeem, strengthen, and succor us. This idea—that in His choice to take upon Himself our infirmities in His flesh, Jesus increased in understanding beyond what He knew intellectually—is beautifully stated in Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s talk, “Willing to Submit” (Ensign, May 1985, 70–73).

    Later, in Gethsemane, through His suffering, Jesus began to be “sore amazed” (Mark 14:33), or, in the Greek, “awestruck” and “astonished.” Imagine, Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, “astonished!” Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fulness, it was so much, much worse than even He with His unique intellect had ever imagined! No wonder an angel appeared to strengthen him (see Luke 22:43)!

    There are many scriptures that make clear that we receive blessings (like the spiritual gift of understanding a gospel principle) only after we take action to live the principle (see John 7:17; John 8:31–32; Ephesians 1:17–21; Mosiah 12:27; Alma 32:28; Ether 12:6; Doctrine and Covenants 88:4; Doctrine and Covenants 130:10–11).

  7. This account is based on James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (2002), 124–25.

  8. The students in the first group filtered everything they heard through their established framework of knowledge about Martin Luther King Jr. When they heard the words “Martin Luther,” they connected those words to “King” and activated their established framework. They literally perceived nothing about Martin Luther.

  9. See Doctrine and Covenants 88:77–78.