BYU VIDEO: Observation, Reason, Faith, and Revelation | Dale G. Renlund | 2023 | BYU Education Week

VIDEO: Observation, Reason, Faith, and Revelation | Dale G. Renlund | 2023 | BYU Education Week



Thank you, brothers and sisters for being here. Thank you for coming to Education Week. Thank you for your faith, your faithfulness, for your examples, and your desires to be here. Sometimes we fall into a trap of dealing with false dichotomies. For instance, we might believe that observation or reason are the only valid ways to learn truth. Or we might believe that observation and reason undermine faith to such an extent that they should have no role in religious life. This is a false dichotomy because observation and reason works synergistically with faith. Faith without works will not amplify itself. Faith will only grow by observation and reasoning, coupled with other spiritual work. In addition, observation, reason, and faith are often prerequisites not only to receive personal revelation, but to understand that revelation. First, let’s look at how observation alone can be unreliable. Especially when we’re unaware of the external conditions affecting our observations. Technologies that use computer-generated images and videos are rapidly evolving and can portray believable material. A news story in May 2023 used an artificial intelligence-generated photo to document an explosion at the Pentagon. This caused the stock markets to dip until the bogus nature of the photo was made known.

To ingratiate myself with this audience, I show you a photo depicting me receiving a diploma from the B. Y. U. President himself in 1976. I like this image, but it is an artificial intelligence-generated image. I didn’t graduate from B. Y. U. In the future, we’ll be wise to avoid relying on observation alone and should seek corroborating evidence from other reliable sources. Second, reliance on reason alone can mislead. Interpolation can be erroneous, and extrapolation is potentially even more dangerous. Let me illustrate. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle was an amazing Greek philosopher. His teachings profoundly affected scholarship into the Renaissance. He was tutored by Plato, and he, in turn, tutored a boy in Macedonia named Alexander, who received the last name of the Great. Aristotle taught that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. He reasoned those heavier objects belonged more on the ground. Therefore, they would fall faster than lighter objects that belonged less on the ground. Let’s test his reasoning. I have here two fans of Aristotle, sister Melanie Suarez and brother Ethan Brown. I hold in my hand a hymn book and in the other hand, a piece of paper. Melanie, you check which is heavier?

The hymnbook. The hymnbook. Ethan, double-check. Now I’m going to drop them, and I’d like you to tell us which one hits the ground first. Let me go this way, but you just watch. Which one hit first? The hymnbook. The hymnbook. Thank you. These individuals presume from this demonstration that Aristotle was right, as he always was thought to be. Now, if I crumble the paper, has the weight changed? Not unless I’m really sweaty and nervous, right? Let’s just double-check. Melanie, is it still the book? Still the book. Okay, now when I drop them, which one hits the ground first? They hit at the same time. They hit at the same time. It’s amazing. What? Please. When friction and air resistance are eliminated, heavy things and light things fall at the same rate. From this demonstration, Melanie and Ethan may question Aristotle’s teaching. They may suspect, though, that my involvement in the demonstration may have affected the outcome. Ethan could say, Elder Renland, I might believe you, but you’re old. Melanie could and would likely say, I might believe you, but you’re bald. They both could say with some loathing, And you didn’t even graduate from B-Y-U.

Nonetheless, reasoning alone led Aristotle astray in his teachings. In the 1600s, Galileo had to couple observation with reasoning to prove Aristotle wrong. Such methods can achieve truth, but not always reliably. Thank you. Third, let’s evaluate how reliance on faith alone could mislead. In 1984, a world-renowned eye surgeon, Ronald G. Michaels, joined the church in Baltimore, Maryland. I was serving as his bishop. He was absolutely converted to Jesus Christ and his restored church. At the height of his career, Ron developed a life-threatening cancer. His physicians prescribed chemotherapy. His prognosis was bleak. Even with treatment, it was unlikely that he would survive more than six months. Some members of the church told him that he shouldn’t take the medicine, that he should instead rely on faith alone. These members told him that taking the medicine would demonstrate to God that his faith wasn’t absolute. Ron invited me to his office in the hospital. Spread over his desk were 10-15 pills. He told me his situation, the advice of his doctors, and the advice of some church members. He said, Dale, you’re my bishop. If you tell me to take the pills, I will. If you tell me not to, I won’t.

As I struggled to formulate a response, I remembered what my wife and I had recently read from the Book of Moramun, the letter Captain Moron, I wrote to the governor of the land, Pehoron. In encouraging Pehoron to give more support to the armies that were fighting for freedom, Moron, I wrote, Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God, ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? Behold, if you suppose this, you’ve supposed in vain. Moron, I repeated himself for emphasis, Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us? I asked Ron to read these verses and asked, What do these verses teach you? He replied, I think it means that I should take the pills and continue to exercise my faith. He took his prescribed medicine, followed the advice of his doctors, making use of the means that the Lord had provided, and he exercised his extraordinary faith. He lived much longer than expected, approximately eight years. Both he and I were confident that the outcome would have been worse if he had relied on faith alone.

Given that observation alone, reason alone, and faith without action are not sufficient, let’s look at the interaction among observation, reason, and faith. After John the Baptist was in prison, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the promised Messiah. He could simply have answered yes. However, he responded in a way that encouraged them to use observation and reason to develop faith. Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which ye do here and see. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk. The lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. These disciples were to observe what was happening, use their reason to answer their own question, and come to the realization that Jesus was the Messiah. In this example, the savior encouraged observation and reason to activate faith. In the sermon on the Mount, the savior warned of false prophets who might appear as sheep, but inwardly were ravening wolves. He taught how such scoundrails were to be detected. He said, Ye shall know them by their fruits. Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them. To evaluate metaphorical fruit, one needs to observe and discern whether it’s good or not. Again, the savior asks us to discern truth by observation and reasoning. The savior’s parables are premise similarly. His parables were simple stories comparing ordinary objects or events to illustrate a spiritual truth. He then asks us to reason our way to discern the underlying meaning. Recall the time when the savior was asked by a certain lawyer how to inherit eternal life. This led to the scriptural answer that included the admonition to love our neighbors ourselves. This prompted the lawyer to ask, Who’s my neighbor? After relating the parable of the Good Samaritan, the savior asked, Which now of these three, the priests, the Levi, or the Samaritan, thinkest thou was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves. And the inquiring lawyer said, he that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go and do thou likewise. Insightful reasoning was required to discern the underlying meaning and the application of the parable. As we use observation and reasoning to build faith, our own inclinations toward or away from faith are critical. In Acts chapter two, we read that the apostles gathered to teach the people, and there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind, and there appeared unto them cloth and tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of the apostles.

They were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues. The multitude came together and were all amazed and marbled, saying one to another, ‘Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? ‘ And how hear we, every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? ‘ However, some in the assembled group were disinclined to look for and see the hand of God working in this circumstance. They relied solely on their own intellect and logic and came up with what they considered the most reasonable explanation. They mockingly asserted, in essence, these men are drunk. Often those who lack faith in God choose to trust in their own limited understanding or choose skepticism and doubt. That leads them to say things like, It’s not reasonable that such a being as Christ shall come. Or, Some things, alleged prophets may have guessed right among so many. But behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass. Those disinclined towards faith in God often overrely on reasoning and look to explain away the hand of God. That’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost. Inclinations away from faith caused some to misinterpret this remarkable spiritual outpouring.

While inclinations away from faith hamper its development, inclinations toward faith promote it. In his mission to the Zoramites, Alma and his missionary companions found that they couldn’t teach the self-righteous Zoramites anything. Alma likely reflected on his experience with Korahor when he said to the Zoramites, Ye, there are many who do say if thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of assuredy, then we shall believe. Alma knew that miracles don’t produce faith, that seeking a sign is very different than sincerely asking, seeking, and knocking. He taught how faith can grow and how an inclination towards faith makes all the difference. Alma invited the subset of the Zoramites who would listen to him to perform an experiment comparing his words to a seed. Brothers and sisters, we blunder if we equate this experiment to the scientific method, even though it uses observation and reasoning. A scientific experiment carefully seeks to minimize or preferably eliminate inclinations toward a particular outcome. Skepticism is a treasured attribute when using the scientific method and necessary to interpret the results correctly. The experiment encouraged by Alma was different. A favorable outcome depended on an inclination to believe.

He said, But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties even to an experiment upon my words and exercise a particle of faith, yet even if you can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until you believe in a manner that you can give place for a portion of my words. Alma recommended that his listeners abandoned skepticism and encouraged an inclination to believe. He even counseled against approaching the experiment neutrally so that we do not accidentally cast the seed out by our unbelief. With an inclination to believe, we plant the seed in our hearts. When we do, the seed will begin to swell within our breasts. It begineth to enlarge our soul. Ye, it begineth to enlighten our understanding. Ye, it begineth to be delicious to us. As the seed swells, sprouts, and grows, our faith is strengthened, and we come to know that this is a good seed. Alma said, And now, behold, are you sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, ye, and now, behold, because you have tried the experiment, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect?

Ye, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant, and this because you know. For you know that the word has swelled your souls, and you also know that it had sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand. Oh, then, is not this real? I say unto you, ye, ye must need, ye must know that it is good. When we start with an inclination to believe, observation leads to faith. As faith grows, reason facilitates the transformation of faith into revelatory knowledge, and revelatory knowledge produces added faith. The Zoramites understood the metaphor, but were a bit fuzzy on what the word, which was likened to a seed, represented. This is crucial because it is this word that we can know is true. Alma clarified and encouraged his listeners to begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins, and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall to pass the resurrection. The word that Alma wanted them to plant in their hearts was Jesus Christ and His atonement.

Alma promised, if they did, they would come to know the reality of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice, and that this knowledge would become a tree springing up in them unto everlasting life. This knowledge enables receiving the greatest gift God can give His children. While Elma applied the metaphor of a seed to Jesus Christ and His atonement, others, including the savior, used a simile comparing a seed to faith itself. Sister Beatrice Goff-Jackson did so in her beautiful children’s song, Faith. She penned, Faith is like a little seed. If planted, it will grow. Faith is a swelling within my heart. When I do right, I know. Strong faith is developed by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wish we could transmit faith the way we transmit the common cold. That way, we could just go around and sneeze on people and their faith would increase. But that’s not how faith grows. This principle can perhaps be illustrated with a hypothetical faith curve. It starts at zero. Then faith is kindled by hearing the testimony of those who have faith. After the initial kindling, for faith to grow further, we need to act in faith.

Faith is nourished and grows by righteousness. As Sister Jackson correctly explained, I feel faith grow whenever I obey. President Russell M. Nelson taught that we gain faith in Jesus Christ and His atonement by, one, studying about Jesus Christ; two, choosing to believe in Him; three, acting in faith; four, partaking of sacred ordinances worthily; and five, asking our heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ for help. As we do so, something remarkable happens. Faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement not only grows but can be transformed into the spiritual gift of knowing that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he was crucified for the sins of the world, for your sins and for mine. This transformation occurs when we keep the commandments of God, remain faithful, and continue to be willing to receive more and more. We’ll then come to know the mysteries of God in full and know all things. On this hypothetical faith curve, nowhere is the slope zero. Faith is either growing stronger or becoming weaker. There is no built-in place to stop and rest. There is no plateau. However, faith can atrophy in at least three ways. First, if we stop actively building our faith.

This happens when we heighten our hearts or become self-satisfied with our status quo. This is doing the opposite of what President Nelson encouraged us to do. We stop studying, stop choosing to believe, stop acting in faith, stop participating in ordinances, and stop asking God for help. Second, faith atrophies, when we actively choose to go back down the faith curve. This happens when we become disobedient and stop repenting. The third way faith can atrophy is when we shift our inclination away from faith toward skepticism and doubt. Recall those individuals in Lehi’s vision who made it to the tree, partook of the fruit, and then looked around as if they were ashamed. In that vision, the fruit represents the blessing Jesus Christ can bestow because he accomplished his atoning sacrifice. The ashamed people represent those of us who pay attention to those who demean, ridicule, or scoff at our faith. Lehi noted, for as many as he did them, had fallen away. If we shift our inclination away from faith and pay attention to distracting voices, we will fall away. In all three ways, faith atrophies. We receive less and less until we lose all that we had previously received.


We lose the companionship of the Holy Ghost and ultimately know nothing concerning the mysteries of God. It’ll be like disengaging the gears of a vehicle that has no brakes on a steep mountain road. Once our upward momentum ceases, we will roll backwards, and it’ll happen no matter how flashy the car is or how powerful the engine is. Now, the combination of observation, reason, and faith in receiving and understanding revelation is well illustrated and an example from the life of President Joseph F. Smith. In 1918, President Smith was in poor health, and death was on his mind. His oldest son, Hyrum, became ill and died of a ruptured appendix. Hyram’s widow, Ida, died of heart failure shortly thereafter. A world war was raging. More than 15 million soldiers and civilians eventually died. A deadly strain of influenza was killing people around the world. The number of deaths worldwide would reach 50 million. On October third, President Smith sat in his room reflecting on the atonement of Jesus Christ and the redemption of the world. He opened to 1 Peter and read about the savior preaching to the spirits and the spirit world. The spirit descended upon President Smith, and the eyes of his understanding were opened.

He saw into the spirit world and saw that the savior appeared to multitudes of righteous women and men who had died before the savior’s mortal ministry, these righteous spirits rejoiced at their liberation from death. President Smith wondered how the savior could preach to all of the spirits in prison because his ministry was limited to the time between the crucifixion and his resurrection. Having formulated the question, he then understood by revelation that the savior didn’t go in person to the disobedience spirits. Rather, he organized the righteous spirits to carry the message of the gospel to the spirits in darkness. This revelation is now canonized as Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As we consider these experiences of President Smith, we see that reason and faith provided a springboard for that revelation. Let’s discuss some principles that are involved in this process. Principle number one, revelation requires work, including learning how the Holy Ghost communicates individually with us. Personal revelation involves more than simply being confirmed a member of the church. It’s naive to think that just because we’ve received the gift of the Holy Ghost, all we need to do is say, Okay, I’m ready, reveal.

Early in his life as a scribe to Joseph Smith, Oliver Calgary made that mistake, thinking that all he had to do was ask. Studying it out in one’s mind, coupling faith and observation with reason was necessary for spiritual impressions to come. We focus on a problem, study it out, and think about it. We formulate various solutions. It seems that only then can personal revelation reliably come. The Holy Ghost communicates in different ways to different people at different times. Observing how he speaks to us is critical to receiving further revelation. The voice of the Holy Ghost is mild and still like a whisper, not loud or noisy. It may be stunningly simple and plain. It can be piercing or burning. It affects both the mind and the heart. It brings peace, joy, and hope, not fear, anxiety, or worry. It’s enlightening and delicious, not muddling. Observing this, we can reasonably dismiss certain contrary voices to focus on the voice of the Holy Ghost. Elder David A. Bednar taught that spiritual impressions could come along a spectrum, ranging from all at once, like flipping on a light switch to gradually like the intensity of light progressively increasing as occurs in a sunrise.

Most of the time, when impressions come all at once, observation and reason precede that flip of the light switch. Most of the time, when impressions come gradually, observation and reason are part of the progressive, revelatory process. Some members hesitantly admit that they’re not sure they’ve ever felt the Spirit. We should remember those remarkable Lamanite converts in the Book of Mormon who were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost and knew it not. We might discern that we’ve been influenced by the Holy Ghost if we ask ourselves, have I ever felt peaceful after making a decision? Felt an increased capacity to resist temptation? Felt an increase in love for others, or felt an increased desire to serve? Have I received ideas to help, wanted to be a peacemaker in a conflict, or simply known what to do in a complex situation. These feelings may be manifestations of the Holy Ghost influencing us to do good. Principle number two, personal revelation is facilitated by understanding and formulating questions from multiple angles. Formulating and reframing questions requires observation, reason, and faith. At one time or another, many of us have asked ourselves, How do I know whether the thought I have is my own or if it’s from the Holy Ghost?

This is a reasonable question. Perhaps a better question and certainly more actionable is this. Should I act on this particular thought? The prophet, Mormon, answered this second question. He taught everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good and to love God and to serve Him, is inspired of God. The way to judge is as plain that you may know with a perfect knowledge, for everything which inviteeth to do good and to persuade to believe in Christ is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ. Wherefore you may know with the perfect knowledge, it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil and believe not in Christ and deny him and serve not God, then ye may know, with a perfect knowledge, it’s of the devil. These are the criteria to determine whether we should act on a particular thought. It promotes believing in heavenly Father in Jesus Christ. It promotes loving and serving them and promotes doing good. If the thought meets these criteria, does it really matter whether it was planted directly by the Holy Ghost in that exact moment, or if the thought arose thanks to a lifetime of experiences and prior decisions?

In reality, it doesn’t. But observation and reason provide a filter through which we determine whether to act on an impression. Understanding and formulating questions from multiple angles is not the same as repeatedly asking God the identical question. Doing so is unwise, as Joseph Smith learned in the episode with Martin Harris and the 116 manuscript pages. I’ve wondered what would have happened if Joseph had relied on the answer he first received and then formulated different questions the second time Martin Harris approached him. What would have happened if Joseph had clearly stated the problem to the Lord? The prayer would have been something like, heavenly Father, we have a problem, and that problem could interfere with the coming forth of the book I’m translating. We need Martin’s resources, but his wife is opposed to him helping. What can we do to make things easier for Martin? Do you think posing and pondering this question might have resulted in different insights or answers? Perhaps. Principle number three: Personal revelation usually requires depending on and acting on incomplete understanding. For me, revelation frequently comes in short, tourst, imperative directives such as go, do, and say. Or it may come as ideas, usually coupled with a notch to act on those ideas.

Such promptings may be conveyed without words. Revelation can be delicate and trying to put into words that which wasn’t given with words can limit understanding. Rarely does revelation come with clear explanations of why we should do something. Trying to explain why when no revelatory reason was given often misleads or can cause us to stumble. President M. Russell Ballard shared his tender experience of rationalizing away a spiritual prompting. It’s instructive for us all. As he was leaving his bishop’s office late one evening, President Ballard had a strong impression to visit an elderly widow in his ward. However, he reasoned that it was too late and it was snowy. He postponed the visit until the next day. Early the next morning, he drove to the widow’s home. Her daughter answered the door and tearfully said, Oh, Bishop, thank you for coming. Mother passed away two hours ago. President Ballard was devastated. He missed the opportunity to hold her hand, comfort her, and perhaps give her a final blessing because he reasoned away a strong prompting from the Spirit. Something like this has happened to me more than once. Perhaps it’s happened to you too. Observation, reason, and acting in faith does not mean that we’re paralyzed when we do not feel an affirmative prompting, though.

President Dahleneid Schoekstatt taught we should study things out in our minds using our reasoning powers the Creator has placed within us. Then we should pray for guidance and act upon it if we receive it. If we don’t receive guidance, we should act upon our best judgment. Elder Richard G. Scott made this comforting promise. When you’re living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you’ve made the wrong decision. Principle number four, personal revelation is iterative. God has said, for behold, doth saith the Lord God, I’ll give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here little and there a little, and there a little. And blessed are those who harkon unto my precepts and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom. For unto him that receiveth, I will give more. Thus, we should recognize what God has already revealed to us personally while being open to further revelation from Him. Even when we’ve received revelation, it often takes acting and faith to understand how best to apply that information. You may recall the apostle Peter had a vision in which he saw something like a tablecloth being let down, wherein were all kinds of foods that observant Jews considered unclean.

He was commanded to eat, but he protested. He was then told what God hath cleansed that call not thou common. The vision occurred three times. The vision was crystal clear, as if a light switch had been flipped. But Peter didn’t understand it. He had to walk all the next day from Joppa to Cessarea, and to the home of the centurion Cornelius, and hear him out before he understood that the revelation was a commandment to take the gospel to the non-Jewish population. Even then, Peter and the other apostles had to discuss and reason how to apply this revelation in practical terms. Only after it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them did they know how to proceed. That understanding came gradually, like the light of dawn progressively getting brighter. Principle five, personal revelation requires humility to corroborate and not concoct impressions. Observation, reason, and faith propel us to corroborate spiritual impressions. As we pray for inspiration, we compare our spiritual impressions with the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets. Impressions from the Spirit will align with these sources. We rely on personal revelation only within our own purview and not within the prerogative of others.

When we seek revelation that is rightly the prerogative of others, it’s easy to be deceived. Years ago, three acquaintances separately mentioned to me that they felt inspired that they were going to marry the same woman. None of the three had even gone on a date with her. I believe all three misinterpreted physical attraction and raging hormones as a spiritual prompting. None of the three ended up marrying her. Heavenly Father respects agency and is unlikely to send promptings that violate the agency of someone else. He may prompt us to further action, but coercion will never be part of His plan. President Dahleneh-Oaks cautioned. Persons who persist in seeking revelatory guidance on subjects on which the Lord has not chosen to direct us may concoct an answer out of their own fantasy or bias, or they may even receive an answer through the medium of false revelation. The prophet, Joseph Smith warned nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God. We shouldn’t try to force spiritual things. If we try to, we may rely on emotions that mimic spiritual promptings, but are not.

These emotions may include sentimentality, awe, empathy, excitement, or raging hormones. Similarly, it’s an advanced spiritual skill to know that revelation has not been received and to be prompted not to act. I know a relief society present, Sister Jones, whose first counselor moved out of the ward and needed to be released. Sister Jones felt inspired to recommend that her second counselor be called as her first counselor, but didn’t feel prompted to recommend a new second counselor. The bishop encouraged her to consider several qualified sisters. She gave prayerful consideration, but affirmative confirmation didn’t come, and she knew it. So she waited, and she knew that she should wait. Two weeks later, a relatively new convert, Sister Brown, moved into the ward. Sister Jones now felt a prompting to recommend that Sister Brown be interviewed by the bishop, and if he felt a spiritual confirmation that she should be called as her second counselor. Sister Brown was called, served for several years as a counselor to Sister Jones, not only helping significantly, but learning from Sister Jones and the experienced first counselor. Upon Sister Jones released, Sister Brown was called to be the new Ward Relief Society President.

I’m grateful that Sister Jones did not force a conclusion prematurely and instead had become sufficiently spiritually mature to know that revelation hadn’t been received and that she was prompted to wait on the Lord. Brothers and sisters, observation, reason, and faith facilitate revelation and enable the Holy Ghost to be a reliable, trustworthy, and beloved companion. These elements will be key factors in producing spiritual momentum in our lives, helping us move forward amid fear and uncertainty. I testify of heavenly Father and His plan, Jesus Christ and His atonement, and the Holy Ghost and His role in helping us fulfill our purpose in mortality. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. Amen. Amen.


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