“Teaching the Gospel with Power,” Ensign, Sept. 2005, 60–65
My friend spoke almost wistfully about an experience that had left an indelible impression upon him during his teenage years. “I sensed that my father had called the family together for something important,” he said. “We weren’t sure what Dad had on his mind, but he insisted that all of us keep the evening free. Following one of Mom’s ‘special occasion’ meals, Dad dimmed the lights and set a blaze in the fireplace as we situated ourselves in the living room. He said there were some things he had wanted to say to us for some time and asked that we listen carefully. He then spoke at length and with great sincerity. I think I shall never forget his words. After expressing his love for us and his concern for our spiritual welfare, he told the story of his courtship with my mother, the sealing of their love in the temple, and the hopes they held for the future. He expressed his love of God and the truths of the gospel, then bore a powerful testimony of Christ and the Restoration of His Church to the earth.”
As this father revealed the intimate feelings of his heart, the Spirit of the Lord brought a poignant response within his son, and later, as he lay in bed rehearsing his father’s words, a great spiritual desire awakened within him. That night he made personal commitments he would live by throughout the years to come.
Though the settings and circumstances may vary, such experiences are not unusual in the lives of Church members. Whether in a special family home evening, a memorable sacrament meeting, a classroom experience, or a session of general conference, the power of the word, delivered under the influence of the Spirit, nurtures and sustains God’s children.
The scriptures attest to the central importance of teaching in the Church. The Lord gave a commandment and promise to the Church in the early days of this dispensation: “Teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you” (D&C 88:77–78). The important place of teaching in the Church was also evident among the Nephites. Moroni referred to their being “nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way” (Moro. 6:4). Accordingly, the obligation of those who serve is always to teach, expound, and exhort as they watch over the Church (see D&C 20:42, 50, 59).
The preaching of gospel truths is something dynamic and vital. We are reminded of Paul’s words in this regard: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Though the effect of preaching the word may not be apparent to the world, the scriptures suggest that it surpasses any other approach to shaping human behavior—that it has a “more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else” (Alma 31:5).
It was through a sermon preached by King Benjamin that the Nephite nation was transformed. By this means they came to an intimate knowledge of God’s glory and goodness, tasting of His love and receiving a remission of their sins (see Mosiah 4:1–4, 11). Similarly, the words of Enoch had such a profound effect upon a rebellious people that the order of Zion came to flourish in their midst (see Moses 6:26–29; Moses 7:12–19).
“But how do I do it?” comes the important question. How do ordinary Latter-day Saints emulate those who have set such impressive examples as great teachers? Fortunately, there has been clear prophetic counsel setting forth the principles and prerequisites involved. A sampling of this counsel is summarized under the five general headings that follow.
As a young missionary, I sat in a stirring missionary conference at which President Henry D. Moyle (1889-1963), First Counselor in the First Presidency, gave some sound counsel. “How many of you know that the gospel is true?” he asked, calling for a show of hands. There was an unhesitating affirmative response. Then came his second question, “How many of you truly know the gospel?” It was a dramatic moment as each of us did some soul searching. Continuing, he challenged us to rise above a superficial understanding of gospel doctrine. He was not referring to unanswered questions and speculative theories. His counsel pertained to the doctrinal foundation of the Lord’s kingdom. Although these principles are simple enough to be taught to a child, they involve so many layers of meaning and have such vast implications as to justify a lifetime of study. In a revelation to the early missionaries of our day the Lord enjoins them to “give heed to that which is written” and to pray always that He might “unfold the same to their understanding” (D&C 32:4). Surely this direction applies to all who are invited to teach in the Church.
The study and teaching of revealed doctrine seems to involve a cause-and-effect relationship so far as people’s actions are concerned. To know and believe some things is to feel a powerful desire to act accordingly. Such was the case as Aaron, a Book of Mormon missionary, taught the Lamanite king. Coming to an understanding of the doctrines Aaron had taught, the king felt great spiritual desire. With earnestness he said: “What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day?” Then, as Aaron more fully expounded the doctrine of repentance, the king prostrated himself upon the earth and cried mightily to the Lord, “O God, … wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:15, 18).
Though our times and circumstances may be different, those who understand the doctrine of personal redemption and can teach it with power will see similar effects in people’s lives. Whether subtle or dramatic, whether in the lives of the old or young, whether the hearers need only encouragement in their upward strivings or the call to forsake forbidden paths, the inspired teaching of doctrine is a potent influence for good.
Perhaps the most important question as one approaches speaking or teaching obligations is simply, “What is my objective?” After Alma established the Church of Christ at the Waters of Mormon, he commanded those he had appointed to teach the people “that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people” (Mosiah 18:20).
When one’s objective is to teach gospel truths in a way that promotes repentance and increases faith, many decisions regarding the what and how of the presentation fall naturally into place. One would be reluctant, for example, to teach with the intent of merely purveying information or to speak of secular or controversial things. It is important to remember that the teaching of faith promotes vision and confidence, counteracting those feelings of doubt, fear, and confusion sponsored by the evil one. The teaching of repentance renews personal resolve and worthy desire. It provides comfort, hope, and peace, offering a powerful antidote for the diminished sense of personal worth associated with unworthiness.
In preparing for speaking or teaching assignments, we typically focus on the subject matter involved. As important as this may be, we also need to prepare ourselves as we approach the sacred trust of teaching. Among other things, such preparation involves prayerful and reflective thought, which opens our minds to divine direction. Perhaps the most important element in personal preparation is our continuing effort to remain full of faith, keeping the light of personal testimony alive within. Peter’s counsel seems to touch upon this principle: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
That which past experience has put in our hearts is often a vital part of preparation as contemplation brings these acquired insights to the fore. The Lord’s words give us reason to regard these “spiritual memories” as a veritable treasure chest: “Treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85).
Elder Matthew Cowley (1897–1953) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was noted for his masterful sermons, wrote a few words of good counsel to his younger brother, who was serving as a missionary and striving to cultivate the necessary skills to preach the gospel: “Preparation is a prerequisite to inspiration,” explained Elder Cowley. “Inspiration will never elicit thoughts from an empty head. Study assiduously, striving to develop a creative mind.”1
“And what do I study?” one might ask. In addition to the standard works, the general conference reports are significant sources of inspiration as we prepare to formally teach the gospel. Here one has access to current guidance from those who set an exemplary teaching standard in both message and approach. The wise teacher will turn again and again to the masterfully prepared discourses of our living prophets, sensing an obligation to help distill their inspired teachings into the mainstream of thought and understanding within the Church.
Other less authoritative sources can also be of value if we are careful not to be distracted from the doctrine central to our teaching. It has been said that every good teacher should be something of a pack rat, collecting poignant ideas and powerfully expressed sentiments from the sources he or she encounters day by day. Daily living, when viewed through the eyes of a teacher, is full of experiences that spring to life as stories, analogies, and illustrations when it is time to teach.
The operation of God’s Spirit has a profound influence upon the dynamics of speaking or teaching. It promotes a quality of communication between speaker and hearer that heightens understanding. Describing this superior level of communication, Nephi states that “when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Ne. 33:1). The Lord further describes this process in a revelation to the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio: “Why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:21–22).
Another reality sometimes prevails when teaching is sustained by the Spirit. What the speaker says may be transmitted to the hearer with meaning and suggested application that is unique to that individual. This great blessing is frequently apparent in comments such as, “What you said was meant for me,” or “That was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Teaching by the Spirit is of such importance in the mind of the Lord as to warrant this caveat: “If ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). Without the Spirit, one’s teaching is mechanical and lacks the power of edification. The following suggestions are worth remembering as we strive to increase the influence of the Spirit in our teaching:
Remember the Lord’s promise that “the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith” (D&C 42:14).
Unless circumstances call for a fully written text and the verbatim reading of one’s remarks, use a brief outline and limited notes, allowing the inspiration of the hour to suggest the final structuring of the presentation.
Avoid the tendency to aggrandize self through erudite language or stories that draw undue attention to one’s personal achievements. Typically, the Spirit testifies of those things that are more important than self.
Don’t allow the desire to entertain one’s listeners interfere with the higher objective of inspiring and edifying.
While analogies and illustrative devices are of great importance, don’t allow teaching techniques to become so elaborate or extreme as to obscure rather than clarify the principles being taught.
Focus on the scriptures. Remember that secular interpretations, philosophical constructs, and political ideologies belong to a different sphere of teaching and learning.
Finally, the place of personal testimony in teaching must be emphasized. Not only do such expressions invite the Spirit of the Lord into one’s presentation, but they bring a divine seal of affirmation to what has been said. Alma’s stirring testimony during his remarks to the people of Zarahemla exemplifies this principle: “Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me” (Alma 5:45–46).
May we ever strive to increase our capacity and effectiveness as we teach the gospel. As is the case with all service, our efforts to faithfully magnify our callings will bring great blessings in return. How typical it is for devoted teachers to experience an increase in understanding and worthy desires equal to or exceeding that which is imparted to those they teach.