Heavenly Father bestowed the blessing of agency upon each of His children in our pre-earth life and gave us the opportunity and responsibility to act as agents for ourselves. Through His atoning sacrifice and victory over death and sin, Jesus Christ redeemed us from the fall of Adam. “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…” (Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ, 2 Nephi 2:26).
Nephi said that we are agents with the responsibility to act rather than objects to be acted upon. This principle applies to every aspect of our mortal lives and especially in our efforts to learn the gospel of Jesus Christ. We each carry the responsibility to learn the gospel for ourselves and to gain our own testimonies. These important tasks are things that no one else can do for us. We must make learning the gospel an active experience instead of sitting back and expecting someone else to teach us. We cannot expect speakers and teachers to do all the labor, and us to reap the rewards. When we exercise our agency to diligently seek truth, the Lord blesses us with increased light and knowledge.
The Apostle John taught that we must do the will of Heavenly Father in order to know whether or not it is His will: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
James the Apostle taught the same principle with these words: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).
Nephi, an early American prophet, said that we will find truth if we diligently seek it: “For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round” (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 10:19).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that when we receive truth and act on it, we receive more truth: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24).
The Prophet Joseph Smith also taught that we must seek learning by study and by faith: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith”(Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).
Elder David A. Bednar spoke about using our agency to learn by faith in an address to Church Educational System educators in 2006. His address was entitled “Seek Learning by Faith” and began with this thought, “We are admonished repeatedly in the scriptures to preach the truths of the gospel by the power of the Spirit (see D&C 50:14). I believe most parents and teachers in the Church are aware of this principle and generally strive appropriately to apply it. As important as this principle is, however, it is only one element of a much larger spiritual pattern. We are also frequently taught to seek learning by faith (see D&C 88:118). Preaching by the Spirit and learning by faith are companion principles that we should strive to understand and apply concurrently and consistently.
“I suspect we emphasize and know much more about a teacher teaching by the Spirit than we do about a learner learning by faith. Clearly, the principles and processes of both teaching and learning are spiritually essential. However, as we look to the future and anticipate the ever more confused and turbulent world in which we will live, I believe it will be essential for all of us to increase our capacity to seek learning by faith. In our personal lives, in our families, and in the Church, we can and will receive the blessings of spiritual strength, direction, and protection as we seek by faith to obtain and apply spiritual knowledge.”
Elder Bednar reminded his listeners that “When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth [the message] unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Nephi 33:1). “Please notice how the power of the Spirit carries the message unto but not necessarily into the heart. A teacher can explain, demonstrate, persuade, and testify, and do so with great spiritual power and effectiveness. Ultimately, however, the content of a message and the witness of the Holy Ghost penetrate into the heart only if a receiver allows them to enter. Learning by faith opens the pathway into the heart.”
Continuing his address, Elder Bednar explained how faith in Jesus Christ is an action. When we learn by faith, we become agents to act and not objects to be acted upon. “In the grand division of all of God’s creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon (see
2 Nephi 2:13-14). As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of agency – the capacity and power of independent action. Endowed with agency, we are agents – the capacity and power of independent actions. Endowed with agency, we are agents, and we primarily are to act and not only to be acted upon – especially as we seek to obtain and apply spiritual knowledge.
“Learning by faith and from experience are two of the central features of the Father’s plan of happiness. The Savior preserved moral agency through the Atonement and made it possible for us to act and to learn by faith. Lucifer’s rebellion against the plan sought to destroy the agency of man, and his intent was that we as learners would only be acted upon.”
Elder Bednar gave several examples from the scriptures to illustrate how Heavenly Father teaches His children. Instead of giving lectures to His children, He chooses to involve them in the learning process. While Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, the Father asked, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9) even though He already knew where Adam was hiding. The Father wanted to involve Adam in the learning process.
When Nephi wanted to know about Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, the Spirit of the Lord began with a question, “Behold, what desirest thou?” (1 Nephi 11:2). Why did the Spirit ask this question when He clearly knew the answer already. “The Holy Ghost was helping Nephi to act in the learning process and not simply be acted upon. Notice in 1 Nephi 11-14 how the Spirit both asked questions and encouraged Nephi to `look’ as active elements in the learning process.
“From these examples we recognize that as learners, you and I are to act and be doers of the word and not simply hearers who are only acted upon. Are you and I agents who act and seek learning by faith, or are we waiting to be taught and acted upon? Are the children, youth, and adults we serve acting and seeking to learn by faith, or are they waiting to be taught and acted upon? Are you and I encouraging and helping those we serve to seek learning by faith? We are all to be anxiously engaged in asking, seeking, and knocking (see 3 Nephi 14:7).
“A learner exercising agency by acting in accordance with correct principles opens his or her heart to the Holy Ghost and invites His teaching, testifying power, and confirming witness. Learning by faith requires spiritual, mental, and physical exertion and not just passive reception. It is in the sincerity and consistency of our faith-inspired action that we indicate to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, our willingness to learn and receive instruction from the Holy Ghost. Thus, learning by faith involves the exercise of moral agency to act upon the assurance of things hoped for and invites the evidence of things not seen from the only true teacher, the Spirit of the Lord.”
Elder Bednar explained that missionaries help investigators to learn by faith when they ask them to do certain things: “making and keeping spiritual commitments, such as studying and praying about the Book of Mormon, attending Church meetings, and keeping the commandments.” He said that these commitments “require an investigator to exercise faith and to act.
“One of the fundamental roles of a missionary is to help an investigator make and honor commitments – to act and learn by faith. Teaching, exhorting, and explaining, as important as they are, can never convey to an investigator a witness of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. Only as an investigator’s faith initiates action and opens the pathway to the heart can the Holy Ghost deliver a confirming witness. Missionaries obviously must learn to teach by the power of the Spirit. Of equal importance, however, is the responsibility missionaries have to help investigators learn by faith.
“The learning I am describing reaches far beyond mere cognitive comprehension and the retaining and recalling of information. The type of learning to which I am referring causes us to put off the natural man (see Mosiah 3:19), to change our hearts (see Mosiah 5:2), to be converted unto the Lord, and to never fall away (see Alma 23:6). Learning by faith requires both `the heart and a willing mind’ (D&C 64:34). Learning by faith is the result of the Holy Ghost carrying the power of the word of God both unto and into the heart. Learning by faith cannot be transferred from an instructor to a student through a lecture, a demonstration, or an experiential exercise; rather, a student must exercise faith and act in order to obtain the knowledge for himself or herself.”
When the Prophet Joseph Smith was but a boy, he “instinctively understood what it meant to seek learning by faith.” After reading in James 1:5-6 about prayer and faith, he went into “a grove of trees near his home to pray and to seek for spiritual knowledge.” He was prepared to “ask in faith” as instructed by James (James 1:6) and then to act upon the answer to his question.
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right … and which I should join” (Joseph Smith – History 1:10, 18).
Joseph was not merely interested in gaining information about which church was right; he wanted to know what he should do. In other words, he was determined to act upon the information he received.
“Ultimately, the responsibility to learn by faith and apply spiritual truth rests upon each of us individually. This is an increasingly serious and important responsibility in the world in which we do now and will yet live. What, how, and when we learn is supported by – but is not dependent upon – an instructor, a method of presentation, or a specific topic or lesson format.
“Truly, one of the great challenges of mortality is to seek learning by faith. The Prophet Joseph Smith best summarizes the learning process and outcomes I am attempting to describe. In response to a request by the Twelve Apostles for instruction, Joseph taught, `The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.’
“And on another occasion, the Prophet Joseph explained that `reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God.”
Think about something you have learned – not just heard - recently. Did the learning occur during a lecture or did it involve some action on your part? Learning the gospel is an active experience, one that requires us to become involved personally.
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord instructed us, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-27).
This counsel applies directly to learning the gospel. When we are “anxiously involved” in our scripture study, we are seeking and searching for inspiration. When we are “anxiously involved” in a classroom discussion, we are committed to be part of the conversation. When we are “anxiously involved” in getting all we can from our attendance at sacrament meeting, we come to the meeting prepared to receive inspiration.
Heavenly Father gave us our moral agency in order for us to become agents unto ourselves. We are to act and take part in learning all we can in order to prepare ourselves for what comes next in our lives. We are to act rather than just be acted upon!