How can we really progress in spiritual knowledge?

“How can we really progress in spiritual knowledge?” Ensign, Mar. 1984, 39

I study the scriptures regularly, but often I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. How can we really progress in spiritual knowledge?

Roger K. Terry, College of Business Management, Brigham Young University. All our lives we have been taught that we cannot be saved in ignorance. And so we study the gospel, cross-reference our scriptures, and ponder the words of the prophets. But sometimes after listening to powerful testimonies or after kneeling in earnest prayer, we seem to hear vague echoes speaking to us of a higher level of learning—and suddenly we wonder how prophets of the past learned what they learned.

This much at least seems clear to me: true progress in spiritual knowledge begins at the line which divides conceptual understanding from experience.

Some examples from academia might illustrate the point. I can learn the grammar and vocabulary of Russian; I might even acquire, through much training and effort, a Russian accent (if I am especially gifted). But I cannot really understand Russian until I have spent much time actually speaking with and listening to native Russians. Only in this way can I learn how the Russian mentality and culture is expressed through idiomatic phrases and various tones of speech. Likewise, I can learn business principles and theory, but without the experience of actually participating in management decision-making, my ability to teach business management is very limited. It is possible for a blind person to become an expert in the theory of color and light or the mechanics of seeing—to understand how the nerves and tissues function to transmit visual images to the brain. But there are some things about seeing that one who is blind does not understand in the same way that those who experience sight understand them.

In the same way, I might have an intellectual understanding of the gospel—even a fairly sound and deep comprehension of doctrinal principles—and yet not really “know” the gospel. For in religion, even more than in secular subjects, experience is a crucial element. Experience binds substance to the shaky framework of conceptual understanding. Faith, for example, is but an idea until I have learned how to exercise it and have received through personal righteousness an increase of faith. Then faith becomes a power—a principle of power.

I can learn of repentance and even gain a witness that Jesus Christ has the power as my Savior to cleanse me of my sins, but only when I partake of his atoning sacrifice and feel my sins actually forgiven do I truly understand repentance and forgiveness.

I might delve into the doctrine of spiritual rebirth, but unless I feel that mighty change within my heart, transforming me into a Saint, making me new in Christ, I know little of holiness.

I can study about the Holy Ghost and the mechanics of personal revelation, but until I conform my life to eternal truths and thus become worthy of the presence of the Holy Spirit, I cannot comprehend the peace of that sacred guidance and companionship.

I might speak eloquently of the bread and waters of life, but how can I speak with certainty and authority until I have tasted of them?

The higher learning is always the knowledge born of experience. But how do we obtain the right kind of experience? This, I believe, is a matter of the heart—a matter of submission and consecration. “Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind.” (D&C 64:34.)

Speaking of the people of the church of God at a time of great persecution, Mormon tells us of their spiritual blessings: “Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.” (Hel. 3:35; italics added.)

It seems that much of the ‘experience learning’ we gain is a direct result of this yielding our hearts to God and doing his will. Having our hearts right with God is sometimes the most difficult challenge in the learning process; the willingness and tendency to be spiritual are by no means natural for most of us. Often, only sincere prayer and fasting can prepare our hearts for such meekness and increase our desires for righteous experience.