Nourishing the Spirit
December 1998

“Nourishing the Spirit,” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 7

Nourishing the Spirit

From a devotional address given at Ricks College on 13 February 1996.

God reveals Himself and His eternal truths to those who seek, serve, and listen in humility for His teaching.

We know that our physical bodies require certain nutrients to sustain life and to maintain physical and mental health. If we are deprived of those nutrients, our physical and mental vitality are impaired and we have a condition called malnutrition. Malnutrition produces such symptoms as reduced mental functions, digestive disorders, loss of physical strength, and impairment of vision. Good nutrition is especially important for children, whose growing bodies are easily impaired if they lack the nutrients necessary for normal growth.

Our spirits also require nourishment. Just as there is food for the body, there is food for the spirit. The consequences of spiritual malnutrition are just as hurtful to our spiritual lives as physical malnutrition is to our physical bodies. Symptoms of spiritual malnutrition include reduced ability to digest spiritual food, reduced spiritual strength, and impairment of spiritual vision.

There are some important principles that we should understand to help assure that we and our children will not suffer spiritual malnutrition.

We know the principal sources of spiritual food: prayer, studying the scriptures, attending inspirational meetings, singing the hymns of Zion, serving in our callings, fasting, partaking of the sacrament, and making other covenants, such as in the temple. We also know that some experiences can interfere with the assimilation of spiritual food, just as certain poisons can interfere with obtaining needed physical nourishment from physical food. For example, anything that drives away the Spirit of the Lord, such as pornography, profanity, or anger, will prevent us from obtaining the spiritual nourishment we need from experiences that would normally be effective as spiritual food. Some physical substances, like those forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, are harmful to both body and spirit. We must make sure that our children have sufficient spiritual food and that they are protected from those influences that will prevent this food from being assimilated into spiritual nourishment.

If parents receive sufficient spiritual nourishment, does this assure that their children will have it also? While some physical characteristics are inherited, experience teaches that strong faith and spirituality do not pass automatically from one generation to another. Consider the example of King Benjamin, one of the greatest teachers of the Book of Mormon. He taught the purity of the gospel to a generation who were so profoundly affected that they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” They had experienced what they called “a mighty change” in their hearts (Mosiah 5:2). But that marvelous faith and spirituality did not pass automatically to their posterity. The scripture records:

“Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.

“They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.

“And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

“And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God”(Mosiah 26:1–4).

Similarly, about a hundred years later, the powerful teachings of the Lamanite prophet Samuel caused many to believe. However, as their children grew up, the scripture says that they were led away and the people “began to decrease as to their faith and righteousness, because of the wickedness of the rising generation” (3 Ne. 1:30).

Perhaps you have seen among your own acquaintances some similar examples of parents who are faithful but whose children mostly reject or have no feeling for the faith of their ancestors. I have seen this, and I have puzzled over how it can happen.

In his first address to the Brigham Young University community, Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy, speaking in his role as the school’s president, reminded his listeners of a key principle:

“God’s children are more than intellect and body. The intellect is housed in a spirit that must also be educated. Sacred or higher truths relating to the spirit are the foundational truths … and center on Jesus Christ as the Son of God, … who gave his life for the sins of the world” (“A Zion University,” devotional address, 9 Jan. 1996).

We all know that the Lord has commanded parents who have children in Zion to teach them to understand the fundamentals of the gospel—faith in Christ and the doctrines of repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If parents fail to do this, the sin is on their heads (see D&C 68:25). Two years after that early revelation, the Lord commanded the Saints to “bring up [their] children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40), and then emphasized the importance of that commandment by applying it directly to Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, newly called counselors in the First Presidency. To President Williams he said:

“You have not taught your children light and truth, according to the commandments; and that wicked one hath power, as yet, over you, and this is the cause of your affliction.

“And now a commandment I give unto you—if you will be delivered you shall set in order your own house, for there are many things that are not right in your house” (D&C 93:42–43).

I believe all parents should remember this important truth—that if they fail to teach their children light and truth, the evil one will have power over those children.

As I have pondered how to prevent spiritual malnutrition and how to transfer faith and spirituality from one generation to the next, I have concluded that the most important thing we can understand in this matter is that spiritual truths—what the scriptures sometimes call the “mysteries of God”—must be taught and transmitted in the Lord’s way, not in the world’s way. This is demonstrated again and again in the scriptures.

When Father Lehi sought to explain his vision to his rebellious older sons and exhort them to keep the commandments of God, they fell into disputing over his words. Young Nephi, who had just experienced the glorious interpreting vision he had sought, recorded that his father had spoken “many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought” (1 Ne. 15:3). We need to remember Nephi’s teaching that the mysteries of God, the choicest of spiritual food, cannot be understood “save a man should inquire of the Lord.”

There are other important ingredients. The prophet Ammon gave this significant recipe: “He that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God” (Alma 26:22).

Why is it important to know the mysteries of God? President Spencer W. Kimball explained:

“Of all treasures of knowledge, the most vital is the knowledge of God: his existence, powers, love, and promises. …

“If we spend our mortal days in accumulating secular knowledge to the exclusion of the spiritual then we are on a dead-end street, for this is the time for man to prepare to meet God; this is the time for faith to be built. …

“Secular knowledge, important as it may be, can never save a soul nor open the celestial kingdom” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [1982], 390).

The knowledge of God and His plan of salvation is the kind of knowledge that saves, and this kind of knowledge can be obtained only in the Lord’s way.

God reveals Himself and His eternal truths—the spiritual food that the scriptures call the bread of life and the living water—to those who seek, who serve, who keep His commandments, and who wait and listen in humility for His teaching. Study and reason are appropriate to begin this process, but “the things of God cannot be learned solely by study and reason. Despite their essential and beneficial uses, the methods of study and reason are insufficient as ways of approaching God and understanding the doctrines of his gospel. We cannot come to know the things of God while rejecting or failing to use the indispensable method God has prescribed to learn these things. The things of God must be learned in his own way, through faith in God and revelation from the Holy Ghost” (Dallin H. Oaks, The Lord’s Way [1991], 56). Only in this way can we obtain the spiritual illumination, nutrition, and power necessary to teach and transmit faith and testimony.

Gospel learning is usually initiated by study and reason, but so far as I can observe, intellectual methods, standing alone, are not effective in transmitting abiding faith and deep spirituality from one person to another or from one generation to another.

The Book of Mormon contains many examples of this. For example, just a few years before the coming of Christ, “the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, … and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom. …

“And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:

“That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (Hel. 16:15, 17–18).

Then, the scriptures conclude, “Satan did get great hold upon the hearts of the people upon all the face of the land” (Hel. 16:23).

The Lord’s way of teaching the truths of the gospel is prescribed in the 1831 revelation now published as the 50th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Here we are taught that it is not enough simply to speak or teach the truth; we must teach gospel truths “by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth” (D&C 50:14). The Lord reemphasizes this vital truth by warning that if we preach or teach the gospel “by some other way it is not of God” (D&C 50:18). Similarly, the Lord declares, if “the word of truth” (D&C 50:19) is received by “some other way it is not of God” (D&C 50:20). Finally, the Lord states that He has explained these principles “that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you” (D&C 50:25).

Of course, we may ignore these directions and seek to teach the gospel to our children or to investigators by the world’s way of study and reason, independent of the witness and teaching of the Spirit. But the results are not the same. If we deviate from the Lord’s way, we relinquish the Lord’s promises. Brigham Young explained an important difference between a conversion based on intellectual grounds and a conversion based on a spiritual witness when he said:

“Many receive the Gospel because they know it is true; they are convinced in their judgment that it is true; strong argument overpowers them, and they are rationally compelled to admit the Gospel to be true upon fair reasoning. They yield to it, and obey its first principles, but never seek to be enlightened by the power of the Holy Ghost; such ones frequently step out of the way” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1977], 86).

There are those whose intellectual approach to spiritual things has left them spiritually undernourished and vulnerable to doubts and misgivings. President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, has suggested how such persons can seek greater spirituality: “Their faith can be strengthened by following their intuitive judgment and the purest and noblest feelings of their own souls” (Reach Up for the Light [1990], 29). Note President Faust’s use of the word feelings. Spiritual things, like conversion and testimony, come in large part by feelings—the enlightenment of the Spirit. Those who seek or are satisfied to stop with an intellectual conviction live in a spiritual habitation built upon the sand. For them and for their children—if that is all the inheritance their children obtain—that habitation is forever vulnerable. The things of God, including a spiritual conversion and testimony, must be transmitted in the Lord’s way, “by the Spirit.”

In response to a skeptic’s questions about the resurrection, the prophet Alma gave this great insight into the mysteries of God:

“It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.

“And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

“And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell” (Alma 12:9–11).

We teach and learn the mysteries of God by revelation from His Holy Spirit. If we harden our hearts to revelation and limit our understanding to what we can obtain by study and reason, we are limited to what Alma called “the lesser portion of the word.”

As we seek to transmit faith and spiritual nourishment to our children, few methods are more effective than parental example. Family prayer and parental teachings and testimonies, such as in family home evenings, are powerful transmitters of religious values. So are Sabbath observance, tithe paying, and missionary service.

Over a hundred years ago, President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, reminded parents of this principle. If they will teach correct principles and then show those principles in action by proper examples, he said, “As the children grow in years, they will think about the examples and precepts of their parents. Increasing years will add weight to all that [the parents] have said and done” (Gospel Truth, sel. Jerreld L. Newquist [1987], 383). I have seen the truth and power of that method as I have reflected on the examples of my parents.

Among the most important things parents can do for their children is to provide them with worthy examples and with opportunities for personal religious experiences. Statistical studies of Church members in North America show that the example of parents is the most important single factor in shaping the behavior and beliefs of youth. These studies also show that family experiences are the strongest methods of affecting religious behavior—clearly exceeding the effect of Church activities. Family religious observances when young people are adolescents are important predictors of their values and behaviors when they become young adults.

The same effect shows up when the scholars study those who become what they call “disaffiliated” from the Church. Where the family is religious in its ideals and practices, the proportion of youth who remain lifetime active participants in the Church is four times higher than that of those raised in families that are not religious.

None of this is surprising, but it is sobering. Think of the responsibility parents assume when they neglect family religious observances or when they engage in behaviors they would not recommend for their children. Further, intellectual methods and experiences are not sufficient to transmit faith and spirituality. Parents who fail to provide their children with good examples and positive personal religious experiences seriously jeopardize the transmission of faith and spirituality to the next generation.

Parents teach most effectively by what their children see them do. The parental examples that influenced me most were my mother’s expressions of faith in God, her absolute support and total noncriticism of the leaders of the Church, and her faithful payment of tithing, even when times were hard.

I will describe three parental examples of the kind that give children the spiritual nourishment to sustain them throughout their lives.

Levi M. Savage was a Latter-day Saint pioneer called to settle eastern Arizona. Year after year, he labored faithfully in his assigned area. Finally, after his large family was reared, he wanted a little rest. He would not ask to be released from his mission, but he allowed his stake president to contact President Joseph F. Smith in Salt Lake City to advise that at age 70 Brother Savage was still “doing day’s work on the Woodruff Dam, walking six miles to and from the place of his work.” The emissary asked whether Brother Savage had fulfilled his mission and could now leave and live in another place, but added that “he is willing to stay provided we think it is best for him to do so.” The president of the Church sent word that Brother Savage should “consider himself free to make his home elsewhere” (Joseph F. Smith, quoted in Nels Anderson, Desert Saints [1966], 359).

After receiving that word, Brother Savage remained for an additional time until the new dam was built to get the water into the valley again. Only then did Levi Savage feel relieved of the duty imposed on him by priesthood authority in 1871, 47 years earlier. What a heritage of faith and service for the spiritual inheritance of his posterity and others!

My second example also comes from pioneer times. When the Saints needed a large quantity of rags to process in their paper mill, the First Presidency asked bishops to sponsor rag drives in their local wards and settlements. In 1861, President Brigham Young called George Goddard, a loyal Church member, on a “rag mission” to promote this effort. Brother Goddard recalled:

“[This calling] was a severe blow to my native pride. … After being known in the community for years, as a merchant and auctioneer, and then to be seen on the streets going from door to door with a basket on one arm and an empty sack on the other, enquiring for rags at every house. Oh, what a change in the aspect of affairs. … When President Young first made the proposition, the humiliating prospect almost stunned me, but a few moments’ reflection reminded me that I came to these valleys of the mountains from my native country, England, for the purpose of doing the will of my Heavenly Father, my time and means must be at His disposal. I, therefore, answered President Young in the affirmative” (quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom [1966], 115).

For over three years, George Goddard traveled from Franklin, Idaho, in the north to Sanpete County, Utah, in the south, visiting hundreds of houses. On Sundays he preached what were called “rag sermons.” By the end of this three-year mission, he had collected more than 100,000 pounds of rags for the paper project. It was humble work, but it was essential for the progress of his community, and it was assigned by priesthood authority.

My third example is more modern. In Tongan Saints: Legacy of Faith (Laie, Hawaii: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1991), BYU—Hawaii President Eric B. Shumway shares something he experienced as a young missionary in Tonga. He was invited to the evening meal of a faithful Tongan family who were living in what we would call extreme poverty. Brother Shumway writes:

“Now the Kinikini family had no plantation and no animals on Tongatapu, except for a small flock of ducks that eventually dwindled to one little duckling. When I sat down on the floor in the family circle that night, four young children watched their mother put pieces of boiled breadfruit before each one of us. Then, before me, she put a freshly boiled duckling. The sight and the aroma of this delicacy made a visible impression on the children who were sitting quietly with their hands clasped in their lap. It was clear that the duckling was for me.

“‘I’ll not eat this by myself,’ I said to Brother Tevita Muli. ‘We will all share.’

“Before I could start dividing it, Tevita Muli quickly interrupted, ‘No, you will eat it by yourself. It is yours!’

“‘But your children?’ I protested.

“‘They do not want to touch it,’ he continued. ‘You honor them by eating it yourself. Some day they will be proud to tell their children they went without kiki (meat), so that a servant of the Lord might eat and be filled’” (page 10).

Parental examples like these provide spiritual nourishment and build faith in children and others who observe. This is the kind of teaching that builds testimony and passes faith and spirituality to the next generation.

Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well remind us of the difference between worldly things and heavenly things, between physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment. “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again,” He told the woman.

“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13–14).

Jesus frequently used the familiar examples of food and drink to teach His lessons. In the Beatitudes He declared, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). The inspired account in the Book of Mormon reveals the spiritual means by which this promise is fulfilled: “… for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost” (3 Ne. 12:6; emphasis added). In the Book of Mormon we also learn that partaking of the emblems of the sacrament—bread and water—is one of the means by which this is accomplished:

“He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled” (3 Ne. 20:8).

Similarly, John reports Jesus’ saying: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

When we think of how to teach our children the things of the Spirit—how to give them the living water and the bread of life—we should understand that this must be done in the Lord’s way, not in the world’s way. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote:

“A special standard of judgment is needed to prove anything in the spiritual realm. No scientific research, no intellectual inquiry, no investigative processes known to mortal man can prove that God is a personal being, that all men will be raised in immortality, and that repentant souls are born of the Spirit. … Spiritual verities can be proven only by spiritual means” (The Millennial Messiah [1982], 175).

Intellectual methods—study and reason—are essential to our progress toward eternal life, but they are not sufficient. They can prepare the way. They can get the mind ready to receive the Spirit. But what the scriptures call conversion—the change of mind and heart that gives us the direction and strength to move resolutely toward eternal life—comes only by the witness and power of the Holy Spirit.

President James E. Faust taught this same truth when he urged us to nurture what he called “a simple, untroubled faith,” observing that we sometimes “spend time satisfying our intellectual egos and trying to find all the answers before we accept any.” He continued: “We are all in pursuit of truth and knowledge. The nurturing of simple, untroubled faith does not limit us in the pursuit of growth and accomplishment. On the contrary, it may intensify and hasten our progress” (Reach Up for the Light, 15).

Gospel truths and testimony are received from the Holy Ghost through prayerful seeking, through faith, through scripture study, through righteous living, through listening to inspired communications and counsel, through serious conversations with persons of faith, and through reverent personal study and quiet contemplation. It is by these means that our souls are nourished and we realize the promise given in 3 Nephi that we will be “filled with the Holy Ghost.”

Electronic composition by Patric Gerber, posed by models

Photo of man by Welden C. Andersen; background: photo by Steve Bunderson.

Background: Photo © Photodisc

Photo of family by Craig Dimond and John Luke. Background: Photo by Craig Dimond.

Photo of members by Craig Dimond