Teaching Truth in the Language of Love

Teaching Truth in the Language of Love

S&I Annual Training Broadcast 2021

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Sisters and brothers, this has been a marvelous opportunity to listen and learn! I don’t know how many of you have joined the meeting, but may I express my deep gratitude to each of you nearly 56,000 called seminary and institute teachers and you more than 2,200 teachers employed by CES to teach this very important group—the rising generation! Thanks to your consecrated service and heroic efforts, many of our precious youth and young adults are choosing to be faithful and stay on the covenant path. The spiritual instructions and experiences you provide are so critically important to building their testimonies. And I give special recognition and applause to you unsung heroes: the spouses of these teachers. Without your steady emotional, spiritual, and household support, this effort would not succeed. So a huge thank-you to each of you, from the bottom, the middle, and the top of my heart!

At the start of a brand-new year—which we all hope brings a breath of optimism or maybe just a sigh of relief from the last one—it is good to take a fresh look at what we’re doing. Of course, we all want to be professional in our work, but most of all we yearn to make a positive difference in the lives of our students.

As you work with the rising generation, you want to help your students understand their divine origin, their purpose in mortality, and who they can become. Your deepest desire is to help them rise to their divine potential. The officially stated purpose of Seminaries and Institutes includes helping students learn about and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ and preparing them for the priesthood ordinances of the temple and eternal life. As you work to fulfill those purposes, you are arming them against the “fiery darts of the adversary”1 as well as strengthening them to be faithful Latter-day Saints who look forward to the Savior’s coming. You are helping them prepare for their future roles in the family, Church, and community as righteous leaders and examples of good.

As I thought about what topics might be helpful today, I thought about the tremendous blessing of having the seminary curriculum aligned with Come, Follow Me and the strength that can be for youth and their families. I thought about the young adults who are living away from home and how a “home-centered” gospel study approach at institute can apply to them. And I thought about ways to make the instruction relevant to youth and young adults. After consideration, I concluded that through seeking your own revelation and counseling with other teachers and administrators, you can find answers to accomplish those “how-tos.”

Instead, I’d like to focus on a couple of principles. The principles I’d like to discuss are in the category of “What I wish I knew when I was a seminary teacher.” Serving as an early-morning seminary teacher for six years was a fabulous opportunity and blessing. The ward where I taught included a large group of students who attended 10 different high schools. They were scattered in location but unified in fellowship. I wish I could say I was a stellar teacher, but I can say I learned a few things over those years, and I’d like to share just two of them with you.

The first principle I learned is to give students spiritual “meat.” The youth and young adults of these last days need the spiritual “meat” of the gospel in order to answer the difficult questions that arise and to help them withstand the pressures that may draw them away from the covenant path. They can handle it. They need it! We must take the time to pray and prepare—not only the lesson materials but also take the time to get to know the students so we can understand what they need and then know what to use from what we have prepared. We can answer the call: “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat.”2 Let me share some examples.

When I attended seminary as a teen on the East Coast of the United States, ward members were scattered over a large geographic area. There were only two other students in my large high school who were members of the Church besides my sisters. The negative influences in society were significant. It was a time of tumultuous and divisive events, including urban unrest exacerbated by conflicts with authority figures, widespread race riots, wars on the other side of the globe, and antiwar protests at home. A lifestyle of “free love” and liberal use of marijuana and mind-altering drugs created an environment that celebrated individualism and flouted the abandonment of moral norms. Political assassinations and wide differences of opinion in how government should function separated people into fiercely competing camps of thought. The turbulent decade finally ended on a good note when the first man landed on the moon.3 Does any of this sound similar to the social environment our youth and young adults are facing today?

For me, high school began a time of discovery and making choices in a wider world than my home and family. I was exposed to many worldly philosophies, and I began to question the truth of all I had been taught by my faithful parents and Church teachers during my childhood. My first seminary teacher was Sister Thomander, a grey-haired, no-nonsense woman with a great breadth of experience in the Church and a deep testimony of the gospel. She challenged us to read the entire Book of Mormon that year and to come prepared each day to discuss what we had read.

Sister Thomander’s thoughtful, inspired teaching of doctrine impacted my testimony in a major way. I knew without a doubt that she knew the Church was true, because she came well prepared to explain in clear ways the verses we read, and she testified of those truths. It was obvious that she spent time preparing to share what she felt would be most impactful. I don’t remember any games or parties or treats, but I do remember being spiritually challenged and spiritually uplifted and spiritually fed each day. Every lesson wasn’t fireworks and whistles, but every day was affirming and reassuring as she answered with patience and encouragement the sincere questions that students asked. Her forthright invitation and high expectations made a difference in my life that is immeasurable. Sister Thomander is one person I want to see and thank when I get to the other side of the veil!

I contrast that year with one when I was in the older class. The seminary teacher was fun and friendly, but, curiously, I felt little actual connection. The weeks went by as he taught the material with a very casual approach. It was obvious the students didn’t take him seriously; the older girls polished their fingernails as they sat on the back row while the boys played jokes on each other, and the rest of us passed notes back and forth to entertain ourselves. Although we were pretty sure he had a testimony of the gospel, because he was a returned missionary, we learned not to ask doctrinal questions, because his answers were often perfunctory or vague, and we weren’t sure he could or would answer them. Seminary served an important social purpose but was not a spiritual experience.

You are familiar with Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”4 As teachers of the gospel to the rising generation, we must “sound as a certain trumpet.” In Old Testament times, the trumpet was a shofar, a ram’s horn, which has a simple, unmistakable sound. It was used to call the Lord’s people to gather for worship, to warn of coming danger, and to signal instructions in time of war. In ancient battles, the noise and clamor of war created chaos. If the leader couldn’t clearly communicate with the troops, the army would face certain defeat. Thus, the “certain trumpet” was devised. Every soldier was trained to recognize the sound, so even in moments of confusion each would know whether to advance or retreat, to attack the left flank or the right.5

Sister Thomander was that trumpet for me. We must be that trumpet, that trusted voice of assurance of eternal truth in the face of fast-moving, ever-changing world values. We must tell our students the truth and help them understand the why as much as the what. We can do that “in mildness and in meekness,”6 but we must do it. As one seminary teacher phrased it, “We don’t blast the trumpet in someone else’s ear, but neither do we indiscreetly sound its message; rather, the call should be sweet and sure and certain of sound.”7 Teaching my own seminary classes, I learned that, yes, youth enjoyed fun learning activities and needed the social interactions with their peers but also craved real answers to gospel questions and practical ideas on how to apply gospel principles in their own lives.

The second principle I found essential is to connect with genuine caring. How do we connect with our students in ways that are appropriate and meaningful? Language can certainly make a difference. For instance, if I try to speak Q’eqchi’ to students who only understand Tagalog, I won’t be successful in getting the message across. Gratefully, there are two international languages that all youth and young adults understand: the language of the Spirit and the language of love.

The first language, that of the Spirit, is recognized by all who seek truth. As Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin taught: “There are no language barriers in the Church. There is a mighty power that transcends the power of messages conveyed by words alone, and this is the power of messages communicated by the Spirit to our hearts … , regardless of tongue or dialect. It is a universal messenger to every heart in tune.”8

The Spirit communicates heart to heart. As Paul reminded the Saints in Rome, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”9 As we seek for, listen to, and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we will receive inspiration on ways to speak to our students through the Spirit in a manner they understand. Preparing well, using the lesson materials designed by inspired curriculum writers, helps us stay grounded in basic doctrine, which we know has the most power to change hearts and lives. Most important is to seek for personal revelation on what to share and how to share what you have prepared. The language of the Spirit will communicate far more than you can say.

The other language that will help you connect to students is the language of love. Love, since it is also of divine origin, also speaks heart to heart. John the Apostle, an eyewitness of the Savior, shared this simple truth: “We love him, because he first loved us.”10 The same is true in human-to-human relationships. You’ve heard the saying that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”11 As teachers, our long-term impact will be directly influenced by the Christlike love we have for our students.

You are probably familiar with the concept of “love languages.”12 These are ways to express love that will be understood and accepted by others, depending on their personality and the influence of their past experiences. Different people may respond more readily to one type of love language than another, but all students will recognize your genuine caring in at least one of the three ways I’ll share today.

One type of love language is words of affirmation. These are phrases that encourage and uplift, such as “You can do it” or “You are really improving” or “I’m proud of you for working hard.” These words communicate to a student that he or she is valued and capable. The Savior’s tender affirmation of George Miller, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, is a marvelous example of this type of love language. Describing him as a man “without guile,” Jesus Christ went on to say of him that “he may be trusted because of the integrity of his heart; and for the love which he has to my testimony I, the Lord, love him.”13 Most of us would not remember this early convert’s name, but I can only imagine how those words of affirmation must have strengthened George’s testimony of the restored gospel as well as his love for his Savior.

Some of the most powerful words are “thank you” and other expressions of appreciation. As an observant and loving teacher of youth or young adults, you can notice simple things a student does for you or for others in the class, or listen for good things you hear about them doing at school or in the community, and express your appreciation. Sending a note to a student’s parent about something positive you have noticed about their teen also increases the student’s feeling of accomplishment and self-worth. All of these types of affirming comments build and strengthen relationships, increasing the feeling of genuine caring between teacher and student, which in turn enhances the influence of the Spirit in their lives.

Another love language is acts of service. Being prepared with spiritually uplifting and enlightening material each day is a tremendous act of service and love! Your gifts of time and effort may not always be recognized by youth on a daily basis, yet over time their spiritual sensitivity will increase and they will “call [you] blessed,”14 as I do my Sister Thomander.

Let me share how two teachers are demonstrating their love through acts of service. One seminary teacher in Zimbabwe was called just before the worldwide pandemic hit. The students were excited to meet before school each day and had just gotten used to the schedule when they were no longer allowed to gather in person. The teacher was faced with a dilemma: most of the students did not have access to the internet at home, so an online class was not possible. So, to make sure her students were receiving daily spiritual food, she began to create lessons with scriptures, thought questions, memes, and videos that she sent them each day via WhatsApp, a social platform readily available to her students. Her students are being “nourished by the good word of God”15 even in this time of social distancing.16 They recognize and appreciate these acts of service as an expression of her love. They respond with spiritual impressions of their own and eagerly look forward to their daily dose of spiritual guidance and uplift based on the scriptures.

A teacher in Norway has the opposite challenge. Her classes are only online because her students are scattered across the country. Yet no matter where she is traveling in the world or what time it is in her location, she is prepared to teach those early-morning students with love and genuine interest. Despite the geographic distances between her and them—and rarely seeing them in person—she knows something about the personalities and interests of each one. Whether she sees their faces on camera or not, she welcomes them and asks for their input. She provides a warm place of security where students can ask questions without fear of feeling inadequate. She gives them a rich diet of spiritual food, complete with frequent opportunities to hear her testimony of the principles of the gospel, and she invites them to share their own spiritual learnings.17 Like you, these teachers speak the language of love through their acts of devoted service.

The last love language I’ll talk about is giving quality time. Making class time as valuable as you can—focused on spiritual experiences—is a gift that keeps on giving. Rather than spending time on games that are simply social or using significant preparation time to create an elaborate handout that may be left on the floor as students leave, your focused attention on engaging students in learning how to recognize the Spirit and apply the gospel in their lives will pay the biggest dividends. As you answer questions with meaningful, thought-filled responses, your efforts communicate love in an unmistakable way. Valuing student’s contributions—respectfully listening to their comments and questions and responding with a validating comment—helps the students know that you care about their concerns and needs rather than being focused on presenting the material you simply must get through that day. Being willing to digress to answer that out-of-the box question or repeat that simple answer in a different way until the concept is finally understood communicates your sincere desire for their spiritual and personal progress—in other words, it communicates your Christlike love.

On another note, as a seminary teacher, one of the greatest blessings for me was being able to study and learn more about the gospel from the excellent materials provided by the Church Educational System. However, the point of that study was to be fully prepared to give students what they needed, not to be able to enthusiastically expound on the personal discoveries I was making. You have been and will continue to be blessed by your opportunity to learn and teach the gospel in seminary and institute, but your students will be even more greatly blessed by your focus on their learning rather than on your own.

From one early-morning seminary teacher to all of you, I understand the difficulty of juggling the needs of family, employment, or community obligations. I understand the challenge of finding enough time to prepare—and finding enough time to sleep—with everything else on your plate! I witness that the Lord will help you as you ask, seek, and knock. As you pray, study, and act on the promptings you receive, you will be able to give your precious students the meat of the gospel—the spiritual sustenance they need to become the leaders, fathers, and mothers they want to and must become in these last days. You will be able to communicate truth through the language of the Spirit and the language of love. You will be able to connect with genuine caring, demonstrating the love Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have for them through your affirming words, acts of service, and the quality time you spend in listening to and answering their searching questions.

May you continue to teach truth and give love in ways that will build testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the rising generation. May you seek to prepare them to fulfill their divine potential as they gather Israel in this last day is my fervent prayer and invitation in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.