The Elusive Balance
March 1989

“The Elusive Balance,” New Era, Mar. 1989, 44

The Elusive Balance

From a devotional address delivered at Brigham Young University on March 25, 1986.

On one side there is the scholar who sees little need to ask the Lord anything. He looks for answers only in books, and discounts what leaders say because he thinks he knows more than they do. On the other side is the person who feels that because he is a worthy member of the Church, his decisions will be inspired. He sees little need to do his homework or reason out the options.

The honest seeker after truth must learn to strike an elusive balance between academic or intellectual pursuits and a reliance on the promptings of the Spirit. How can we avoid relying too much on our intellectual powers while ignoring the Spirit, or expecting spiritual solutions while ignoring our own power to reason things out for ourselves?

You are all aware of the great insight the Lord gave us on this subject when he told Oliver Cowdery why he failed in his attempt to translate the Book of Mormon.

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought” (D&C 9:7–9).

Of this scripture Elder Bruce R. McConkie has commented, “Implicit in asking in faith is the precedent requirement that we do everything in our power to accomplish the goal that we seek. We use the agency with which we have been endowed. We use every faculty and capacity and ability that we possess to bring about the eventuality that may be involved. … There’s a fine balance between agency and inspiration” (“Agency or Inspiration—Which?” in Speeches of the Year, 1972–73, Provo: BYU Press, pp. 110, 113).

President Marion G. Romney put it this way: “When confronted with a problem I prayerfully weigh in my mind alternative solutions and come to a conclusion as to which of them is best. Then in prayer I submit to the Lord my problem, tell him I desire to make the right choice, what is, in my judgment, the right course. Then I ask him if I have made the right decision to give me the burning in my bosom that He promised Oliver Cowdery. …

“When we learn to distinguish between the inspiration that comes from the Spirit of the Lord and that which comes from our own uninspired hopes and desires, we need make no mistakes” (New Era, Oct. 1975, p. 35).

This doctrine is so simple and straightforward one might feel guilty admitting he has had difficulty in its application. How do we determine when enough homework has been done and, consequently, we have a right to a spiritual confirmation? How can we become a master at knowing when we have received a spiritual witness? I will try to define the elusive balance of the intellectual approach versus the spiritual approach by giving examples of two extremes.

On one side of the spectrum is the person within or without the Church who sees very little need to call upon the Lord because this person is a scholar. He wants to be independent and free in his thinking and not tied to absolute truths which the gospel tells us do exist. He may spend his life chasing down every intellectual loose end. All counsel from general or local authorities is taken with a grain of salt because, after all, their knowledge is so minimal when compared to that which the scholar has amassed.

The other end of the spectrum is just as dangerous and probably a greater threat to the majority of this audience. A person on this end of the spectrum thinks like this: “I know the Church is true and I have received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I am a worthy member of the Church and, therefore, have access to the Spirit.” When faced with a problem he will pray for an answer and the first thought which comes to mind is canonized. I would propose that an idea or solution which comes without appropriate reasoning is nothing better than a hunch. There are times of instant inspiration, but they are rare and usually involve an emergency.

In Church circles we use the sentence “I feel really good about it.” Every time I hear it, I see a red flag go up. It’s a perfectly good way of expressing a feeling of the Spirit, but far too often the literal translation is “I haven’t done my homework.” Some very bad decisions have been made by people who “feel really good” about something they have failed to reason out or even apply common sense to.

With those two extremes in mind, I would now like to give some examples which might help us inch our way into the center of the spectrum or toward that elusive balance. A few years ago I learned a great lesson while laboring as the new managing director of the Welfare Services Department of the Church. We were at a critical stage in the history of welfare. It was time to go through an agonizing reappraisal of the program in light of current world conditions. I was beside myself with worry and concern.

After praying for a solution, I decided to ask for meetings with some of the Brethren. I poured out my concerns and added my feeling that we were at a stage where further revelation on the subject was necessary. Then I sat back with my yellow note pad and Cross pen and waited for pearls of wisdom.

They each gave me the same pearl: “Brother Pace, I commend you for your concern and conscientiousness in finding solutions to these weighty matters. I, too, have some deep concerns and anxieties, and you are absolutely right—we do need revelation. Now, go get it!” Who, me? I was an employee of the Church, not a General Authority; but I had the responsibility to bring forth well-thought-out recommendations to the Brethren which could be confirmed, modified, or rejected in the appropriate forums. It was my obligation and right to receive inspiration, but it came with intense, agonizing study, research, and meditation.

What can we learn about balance from the recent fuss about historical documents? The lessons on straying off center are vivid. Would the discovery of any document, no matter how contradictory to what you believe to be true, destroy your testimony? It may raise some intellectual questions, but it need not destroy your testimony. There is an avenue to truth greater than intellect and more certain than the five senses. The most glorious of all avenues to truth is direct revelation from heaven. A saving testimony will never come from a spectacular historical or archaeological find, and a testimony need never be lost on the basis of such a find.

This does not mean we should have no interest in history. I love Church history, and my joy when visiting Church historical sites is intensified by knowing their background. But the more lasting impressions are from what is felt there, rather than what is remembered.

A few years ago my wife and I went to some of these sites. Two experiences come to mind which have relevance to this search for balance. In Jackson County we sat on the lawn within the boundaries of the future Jackson County temple. It was sunset. We were alone. We talked of history and prophecies of the future. But we remember most the sweet, peaceful, spiritual witness that Jesus Christ stands at the head of this church and that Joseph Smith is what he claimed to be, a prophet of God. No amount of historical research alone can bring to pass that spiritual witness. It comes only when we become attuned and learn to recognize spiritual things. However, the spiritual witness was strengthened by our knowledge of what has happened and what will happen there. That evening we found the elusive balance.

The next day we strayed off center. We went to Adam-ondi-Ahman, part of a sacred past and destined to be included in a sacred future. Knowing this history helped us understand the significance of the land. We had a history book which told of an altar of Adam and the Nephites. We didn’t know subsequent research has given rise to some questions on the exact location. We arrived an hour before sunset and, in search of the precise location of the altar, we drove to and fro becoming more frustrated by the minute. Fortunately, we came to our senses and drove to a knoll just in time to watch the sunset and enjoy the spirit of the place. Again, the Lord blessed us with a spiritual experience which can be recalled vividly upon reflection.

How often do we get so involved in the search for historical and archaeological details that we fail to take advantage of spiritual experiences right before our eyes. The same historical knowledge which can intensify spiritual experiences can destroy spirituality when we stray too far off center.

A complete testimony was never intended to be gained through history, except that kept by prophets and coming forth as scripture. The Lord didn’t mean for our testimonies to be based on physical, historical evidence.

Do you remember what the Lord told Joseph regarding Martin Harris’s desire to see the plates? “Behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you should show them all these things which I have committed unto you” (D&C 5:7).

There is no other way to gain a testimony but through the witness of the Holy Ghost. You can rely on nothing else. Spiritual manifestations are generally reserved for the spiritually mature, not so much as a trial of faith as to assure they are not mocked. One must become adept at recognizing the Spirit before a spiritual manifestation can be a sanctifying experience. We have numerous scriptural examples of how pointless a physical manifestation can be without the accompanying receipt of the witness of the Holy Ghost. Conversion comes not by physical manifestations from heaven.

Laman and Lemuel observed many miraculous manifestations such as that recorded in 1 Nephi 3:30–31: “And after the angel had spoken unto us, he departed.

“And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?” [1 Ne. 3:30–31]

Nephi couldn’t believe it and said, “and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt?” (1 Ne. 4:3). Here we have an example of knowledge being of no eternal value because the Spirit was absent.

Nephi put his finger on Laman’s and Lemuel’s problem in 1 Nephi 17:45. “Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling.” [1 Ne. 17:45]

Even in heavenly manifestations we must acquire the ability to recognize the Spirit and feel the experience as well as see and hear it. Were it not so, Satan could thoroughly confuse us with his own demonstrations. Despite all the spectacular manifestations received by the Nephites and Lamanites at the birth of the Savior, within a short period of time doubts crept into the minds of those who were not converted.

“The people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen—

“Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people” (3 Ne. 2:1, 2).

If a witness of the Spirit is necessary to discern the validity of a visit by an angel, how very vital that witness is in more subtle situations.

How can we acquire the ability to recognize a witness of the Spirit? Even as I attempt to explain, I know it’s impossible to convey an understanding of this phenomenon. We must make the discovery privately and individually.

First, remove yourself from the guilt feelings you have experienced when you have fallen short in your attempts to recognize the Spirit. Have any of you ever been certain you have received a spiritual witness only to have subsequent events prove you were in error? Have any of you had a spiritual witness you dismissed as indigestion only to find out you blew it?

We have more patience with our failures in learning to ski than we do in learning how to recognize the Spirit. When we fall going down the slope, we get up, laugh at ourselves, and try again. When we have a failure in recognizing the Spirit we feel great guilt and are reluctant to go forward. It’s natural to have spiritual setbacks. It’s okay. It’s all right. Stay with it.

We all know it takes years of practice to become a professional athlete and a price must be paid. However, we expect to be overnight successes in spiritual things.

Joseph Smith said, “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation until you become perfect in Christ Jesus” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 151).

Please note he said, “you may grow into the principle of revelation.” To become proficient in basketball one practices shooting countless shots. By repeating successful approaches and changing failures, the player gets the uncanny ability of knowing as soon as the ball leaves his hands whether the shot will be good or not.

In spiritual things we need to learn when we have had a witness of the Spirit and be able to recognize a counterfeit thrown at us by Satan or self-imposed by our own ambition and desire. Sometimes a young man will tell his girlfriend, “I have received a spiritual witness that you are to be my wife.” In some cases I would suggest the witness is more a desire than a manifestation. If, when the time comes, you receive that witness, put it to the test. Ask her to marry you. If she says yes, you were right; if she says no, you were wrong. But keep your witness to yourself. She is perfectly capable of receiving her own revelation.

What does a spiritual confirmation feel like? It’s the feeling you have when you read the Book of Mormon. It’s the feeling you have when you talk of heavenly things with your parents or a valued friend. Learn to recognize it. Learn to follow it.

If it were possible, I would lay down a formula for instant and certain success. One of the reasons it is so hard to enjoy consistent success is that the variables change each day. We are in tune more on one day than another. We are more emotionally vulnerable on one day than another. Satan works harder on us on one day than another. However, with all the variables there is one constant. The Spirit witnesses only the truth.

If your success ratio for recognizing the Spirit is low, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How well am I living the commandments?

  2. Am I studying the scriptures in order that I might be more attuned to spiritual things?

  3. Am I praying with real intent?

  4. Have I done my homework and gone to the Lord with a well-thought-out solution?

  5. Have I learned to recognize a stupor of thought?

  6. Can I honestly say “thy will be done” and am I willing to take no for an answer?

Don’t fail to invest adequate time learning things of the Spirit. I’m not speaking of religion classes, although I heartily endorse them. I’m speaking of learning how to recognize and obtain revelation. It’s a lifetime course, but you don’t have to wait until graduation to receive benefits. The rewards are immediate. Close in on that elusive balance between intellectual pursuits and that of learning to recognize the promptings of the Spirit. There is a balance and it is incumbent on each of us to find it.

Lettering by James Fedor

Photography by Jed Clark

Illustrated by Scott Snow