One day, while reading the Book of Mormon, I was startled by a description of the prophet Ammon that I had not previously noticed, in Alma, chapter 18, verse 22:
Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.
Wise, but harmless. This unexpected combination of words has stayed with me since that time and I’ve often thought about what they mean. It could mean the historian recording the event had a sense of humor, but it’s likely there is more to the phrase than might initially be obvious. How can you be wise, but harmless? The key lies in understanding the source of wisdom. When we are truly wise, and our wisdom comes from the proper source, we are harmless to others. When we mistake the source of wisdom, we can do great eternal damage to ourselves and to those we teach.
Today, too many people confuse credentials and secular knowledge for wisdom. They presume if a person has a high degree and an impressive resume, he must also be wise. The press, the politicians, and the ordinary people line up to learn wisdom from such people.
Job asked, “But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding (Job 28:12)?
He goes on to answer the question in a beautiful poem:
13 Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living.
Secular knowledge is not bad; God expects us to learn, and he planted in many hearts a longing for knowledge. However, it is critical to know the difference between learning and wisdom. Timothy warned that in the last days-the days in which we live, people would be “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:7). In the Book of Mormon, Nephi explains this problem even more clearly: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! 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, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (See 2 Nephi 9:28-29.)
As these prophets have made clear, wisdom can come only from God. Secular learning is useful for learning to physically heal a heart that is not functioning; only wisdom can heal a heart that is spiritually broken. While we need both types of learning in our lives, it is the wisdom that will help us find our way back to God. Wisdom helps us to evaluate the swarms of conflicting secular learning and the teachings of men and find in them what is really true. College professors sometimes declare only reason and logic must be used in making decisions, but when we rely on reason and brainpower to find truth, we only find confusion. Over the centuries, and even in the course of mere weeks, secular knowledge changes. Suddenly, even though everyone “knew” the sun revolved around the earth, now we know something different. One day we know a food is good for us, and the next a new study says it is not. Marriage that was once for life is suddenly until it’s no longer convenient. Secular knowledge is constantly changing to suit new discoveries or the selfish motives of others.
To find unchanging and perfect knowledge, we must turn to God, the source of all truth and wisdom. When we look to Him to understand complex issues of morality, family, purpose of life, and eternal perspective, we can be assured of finding truth that is unchanging and perfect. No new scientific studies are needed when the information comes from God. Changes in society don’t require changes in truth. Practices in the church might change, but practices aren’t doctrine. Doctrine is pure, unchanging truth and it is in that doctrine that wisdom is found.
“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding (Proverbs 4:7).
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.