This is a follow up post to “Don’t Let Knowledge Make You Bitter.”
I came home from school one day in second grade and announced to my parents that I no longer had a need for school. With curious grins, they asked me why. I told them I had learned the life cycle of a bird, and the life cycle of a frog, and so I was pretty much set for the rest of my life. In my mind, I had hit the peak of human discovery – surely anything else at this point was irrelevant.
As humorous and innocent as this memory is, it actually represents an interesting tendency in human nature: when we learn something new, we assume we know everything – and when we assume we know everything, we prevent ourselves from learning further truth. It’s sort of a negative feedback loop that can stunt our growth.
Because this is human nature, it happens all the time. For years, astronomers believed the universe was geocentric. When further discoveries and evidence suggested the universe revolved around the sun, it was met with a lot of controversy (and this wasn’t a “science vs. religion” issue – scholars of the day generally rejected Galileo and Copernicus’ work).
In the scriptures, the Lord commented on how the Gentiles would react to the coming forth of further truth and scripture: “And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3).
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. As the prophet Jacob noted, “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves” (2 Nephi 9:28).
Experience teaches us that one need not be a scholar to “think they are wise,” and suppose “they know of themselves.” This can apply to anyone who lets any amount of new information make them prideful – great or small. My observation is that we’re especially prone to this when learning something that doesn’t appear to be widely-known or understood.
I’ve seen this in atheists, Jews, Christians, Mormons, anti-Mormons, political activists, scholars, and more. They learn a thing and are quick to assume they have learned everything. It is the same pattern in all because it is the same natural man.
Like authority, as soon as they get a little knowledge (as they suppose), they immediately begin to lift themselves up. Like Priesthood authority, as soon as pride enters into their hearts “in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved,” and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the [light, knowledge, and understanding] of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:37-39).
The Nature of Condemnation
When our actions, beliefs, and values are aligned to the truth and light God shines on us, we live in the light. We submit our entire will to the Lord’s. This is a state of justification.
When we turn away from any degree of light, we cut off our connection to heaven. This is what happens when we ignore promptings, or try to “rationalize” them away. This is what happens when we’re proud, selfish, or act in any way contrary to what the Spirit tells us is good and right. This is what happens when we knowingly avoid repentance, because we fear the light. This is a state of condemnation.
The Savior observed to Nicodemus “And this is the [world’s] condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God” (John 3:19-21).
When we resist the Spirit, or gratify the natural man, we turn ourselves away from God’s light. Without God’s light, everything turns into chaos. We do not necessarily forget what we’ve previously learned, but our understanding becomes distorted with time.
Truth is information when it is properly structured by light. When we are in a state of justification, the Holy Ghost will begin to do the work of structuring all of the information we have.
Like all things, our knowledge is “created” as it’s ordered by God’s light. Like all things, our knowledge decays back into chaos as the light withdraws; we begin losing truth, and eventually end up with a bunch of puzzle pieces that we can’t seem to piece together.
Most people still try their best to piece things together without the Spirit, by their own strength and reasoning. This is generally a terrible idea. It’s why the world is divided by a million opinions. When we are not enlightened by the Spirit, our efforts to piece things together will always fail. This is why it is so deeply important that our hearts be set right before we pursue greater truth.
The Thoughts of the Heart
The scriptures frequently describe thoughts as coming from one’s heart. The reason for this is because ancient Israelites understood that the state of one’s heart will affect their thought patterns.
Consider, for example, how being angry or depressed influences your ability to reason. When we allow anger to overtake us, we can’t think as clearly. Our view becomes narrowed in that moment – hence the advice that sometimes it’s good to let things cool off before saying anything too severe, or making any major decisions. When we find ourselves overtaken by depression, our thought patterns will reflect those feelings back to us – we’ll highlight evidence to craft a narrative that supports those feelings. But in fact, Christ (who has suffered all), knows that things are not as hopeless as they seem.
These same principles come into play when pride, resentment, fear, etc., are in our hearts. If these things are present, they create conditions for self-deception. Fear could make us impatient, and impatience would cause us to focus and reason in a way that tended towards those things. Hatred might cause us to overlook the needs and inherent value of others, which would spiral into something much worse. People under the influence of any kind of drug or alcohol think they’re acting logically – until they’re sober and look back on the decisions they’ve made with regret.
The only way we can ensure our sense of justice is aligned with reality is if we ourselves are aligned with reality.
For years I believed the whole battle for truth was in the mind – that I simply needed to find (or have) the most logical and comprehensive argument, and it’d be settled. I’ve since learned that it’s not that simple, as one’s ability to even register and discern truth is inseparably connected to the degree that they live according to it. An unjust person cannot discern true justice (which is the heart of political corruption).
No, the battle for truth is not in fact in the mind, as I once supposed, but in the heart. When we seek to do good and be good above all else, truth distils upon our souls like the dews from heaven.
We must learn to observe and discern the spirit in all things, ideas, and people. This is why Christ taught us to test teachers by their fruits.
A lie might be cunning and compelling, but a lie nonetheless.
We need not live in fear that someone will come along with an argument we haven’t heard or considered, collapsing everything we thought was true. If our desire is to be good, then we will recognize those with truth are those who bear good fruit, are filled with light and the Spirit, and whose works evidence such. We will desire what they have, and seek to learn more.
By the same token, we will know that those who carry a spirit of pride, hatred, or cynicism, are not inspired by a spirit of truth. It may not be that they are entirely wrong – Satan’s greatest deceptions typically consist of some portion of truth mingled with error – but if the spirit that animates their conclusions is not one of love, but resentment, pride, or fear, we can know it is not structured by the Spirit of Truth, and therefore is a well-crafted lie.
If it bears bad fruit, it is a bad tree – and all bad trees are eventually “hewn down and cast into the fire” (3 Nephi 27:11).
We must learn to pay attention to whether teachings and ideas enliven us, or cause us to decay. Do they set us free, or shackle us in the chains of hell? Do they expand our world, or make it more narrow? Do they deepen our love for others, or cause us to think less of them? Do they fill us with spiritual light, or merely stimulate our intellect?
We must learn to think about things spiritually rather than only logically. Reason has a place in the revelatory process, but it is wholly inadequate if not given over to the principles of discernment, repentance, and revelation. If you can discern a lie spiritually, but can’t yet break it down logically, wait upon the Lord for further light and knowledge. Continue to trust Him more than yourself, and in time, His light will shine upon your life so as to expel all darkness.
The heart matters above all else in these matters. The search for truth is a pursuit fit for our whole souls, not just our minds. Any number of distractions can serve as obstacles on the path God has ordained for us to receive greater truth. As we turn to Him with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy, He will teach us greater and greater truths for the purpose of our personal sanctification, development, and joy.
The Lord Himself instructed us on this matter in these words:
“Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question—unto what were ye ordained? To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.
“And then received ye spirits which ye could not understand, and received them to be of God; and in this are ye justified? Behold ye shall answer this question yourselves; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto you; he that is weak among you hereafter shall be made strong.
“Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
“And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God.
“Therefore, 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.
“And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:13-24, emphasis added; see also 2 Nephi 9:42; Alma 12:9-10; Alma 26:21-22).