The New Testament apostle Paul complained to Timothy of people who were “ ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7.) Jesus lamented that the lawyers had taken away the key of knowledge (Luke 11:52.)
Today, we see that many people confuse the concepts of education and wisdom. No matter how many years of schooling a person might have, there is no guarantee he will also have gained wisdom, or even truth, as Paul told Timothy.
Wisdom isn’t book learning or classroom learning. It comes from the Holy Ghost, sometimes also known as the Holy Spirit. It’s more than memorizing a list of facts, especially facts that might change as scientists, historians, or philosophers come up with new research or new ideas. True wisdom is the ability to recognize among the millions of pieces of information a person is given those things that are eternal truths, and to be able to apply those truths to make eternally correct choices. This comes not just from books and teachers, but from many hours of prayer. It is the result of having learned to recognize how the Spirit of God communicates with you and having the unselfishness and self-control to honor those communications, even when it’s hard or unpopular.
But most people today don’t give a lot of thought to wisdom, or, when they’re looking for it, they fall into the trap of confusing education and wisdom. They search the bestsellers of the well-educated of the world instead of the writings of God and His prophets. In the Book of Mormon, a prophet mourns, “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.” (2 Ne. 9:28–29.)
These verses tell us that there is nothing wrong with getting an education in secular things—in fact, Mormon beliefs include strong support for education—but that it must be measured against the teachings of God.
For instance, a science class might discuss how and when the earth was created, but never at all cover who created it or why. The textbooks were not written to answer who or why and the Bible was not created to answer how and when. The Bible is not a textbook on how to create an earth, which is why it does not matter that Genesis chapters one and two tell the creation story differently, and place events in a different order.
A wise scholar will take what is learned in school, measure it against the teachings of God, and come up with a more complete answer than they could gain from either the Bible or the textbook. Each book has its own purpose and while the purpose of the Bible’s version is far more important, each can contain useful knowledge. However, the textbook is completely useless from an eternal standpoint without the Bible’s additions to the body of knowledge, while the Bible can stand alone if need be.
The textbooks and other works of secular learning generally only focus on what we need to know to live on this earth during this lifetime, or what will help future generations live here. The Bible and other scriptures, however, are focused on both this life and our eternal lives. They contain the essential information we need to live as Christians and to return to God for eternity.
While Mormons fully support secular education when it is respectful of religious education, they caution members to take worldly knowledge as interesting information and not to give it priority over eternal information. Sometimes the secular and spiritual teachings will conflict. A person who has the gift of wisdom will turn to God for resolution in those areas that impact eternal life. It really makes no difference to our eternal salvation how many modern days it took to create the earth, but it matters completely who created the earth and why. Mormons focus on those things that impact eternity and leave the rest to history and science. While some Mormon prophets have held and even expressed opinions on these secular aspects, they are not canonized—made an official part of the eternal religion. The canonized teachings fall under the category of wisdom.
How do we gain wisdom? Study is part of the process, of course. It’s important to study scripture and learn what God’s prophets from the time of Adam to the present have taught, and to pay special attention to the words of Jesus Christ, even though we only have them as remembered and recorded by others, and translated many times.
Prayer is also a critical part of gaining the gift of wisdom. If we want to be wise, we need to ask God to help us develop that gift. Then we need to pray often, taking care not to leap up and rush off when we’re done talking. Just as it’s rude to do all the talking when you’re conversing with an earthly friend, it is not proper or profitable to do all the talking when talking to God. You need to be still and listen with your heart so He can answer you.
Not all prayers will be of the type that can be answered with immediate action. “I need enough money to pay the rent.” Some require the ability to feel the Holy Ghost “whispering” in our hearts. “Heavenly Father, my heart is broken today. I need comfort.” “I need to know which church to join.” “I need to know how to handle my daughter.”
For these, we have to have true wisdom. The Holy Ghost won’t send us a letter and will seldom speak in a true voice. Instead, we might have thoughts come into our minds or feelings of peace come into our hearts. God might lead us to someone who has the answer, but we must then be able to recognize the source of that action. If we’re close to God and have worked to know what the Holy Ghost feels like when He’s nearby, we will recognize truth when we encounter it.
Recognizing and applying truth is what wisdom is all about.
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.