The Saviour’s Message was always designed to transform
The purpose of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is to reconcile and transform individuals. As we reconcile with our Heavenly Father through the atonement of the Saviour Jesus Christ we are transformed into new creatures. Through the process of sanctification the Holy Ghost makes a person a “new creature” (Mosiah 27:26; see also 2 Corinthians 5: 17; and Galatians 6:15):
The spiritual birth comes after the natural birth. It is to die as pertaining to worldliness and carnality and to become a new creature by the power of the Spirit. It is to begin a new life, a life in which we bridle our passions and control our appetites, a life of righteousness, a spiritual life. Whereas we were in a deep abyss of darkness, now we are alive in Christ and bask in the shining rays of his everlasting light. Such is the new birth the second birth, the birth into the household of Christ (McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 282).
This process of becoming a new creature is best illustrated in The Book of Mormon following King Benjamin’s discourse. The people who heard this last sermon went through the sanctification process; they humbled themselves and prayed the atoning blood of Christ would take effect in their lives. The Holy Ghost came upon them and filled them with joy; they experienced a change of heart and had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). The application of the Atonement takes place initially when a person is baptized, when they are born again, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Through reception of the Holy Ghost a person can begin this mighty change of heart:
Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceeding great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God (Alma 13:11-12).
As with the sanctification process, the creation of a new person is a continual event:
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (Alma 5:26).
This continual renewal reflects the importance of developing the lifelong relationships with Christ and the Holy Ghost. Only through their influence can a person hope to become a new creature and receive salvation. Parley P. Pratt once described the process of becoming a new creature/receiving sanctification, the Holy Ghost:
…quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections, and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. [He] inspires, develops, cultivates, and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings, and affections of our nature. [He] inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness, and charity. [He] develops beauty of person, form, and features. [He] tends to health, vigour, animation, and social feeling. [He] invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. [He] strengthens and gives tone to the nerves. In short, [he] is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being (Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology , 61).
It is not just a passive process, but one where ‘bad’ qualities are replaced with Christlike characteristics.
As we reflect on the teaching of the Saviour we begin to recognise the transformative power of these teachings, both in terms of the world, but most especially on the individual. As Christian teachers we must recognise that when we teach we are emulating the Saviour in teaching to transform. The implications of what we teach, wherever we teach should be uppermost in our minds. Parker Palmer suggests:
A teacher, not some theory, is the living link in this epistemological chain. The way a teacher plays the mediator role conveys both an epistemology and an ethic to the student, both an approach to knowing and an approach to living. I may teach tlx rhetoric of freedom, but if I teach it ex cathedra, asking my students to rely solely on the authority of “the facts” and demanding that they imitate authority on their papers and exams, I am teaching a slave ethic. I am forming students who know neither how to learn in freedom nor to live freely, guided by an inner sense of truth (Palmer, 1983,29,30).
The purpose of the teaching of the Saviour is to change and transform and motivate to action:
I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning. I have many things to say and to judge of you: but he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him. They understood not that he spake to them of the Father… As he spake these words, many believed on him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed… (John 8: 24-27, 30-31).
This passage indicates the purpose of Jesus’ teaching; he taught for people to become disciples. The most impactful passage that indicates this is the call of the fishermen:
Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him (Mark 1:16-20).
The disciples heard the brief teaching ‘Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men’ and straightway became the Saviour’s disciples. We may not go through the same immediacy of conversion, but the purpose of the teachings of the Saviour and of his gospel is to transform us into disciples. As we consider the purpose of our teaching we are able to recognise a transformative space for the learners. We recognise a third space between where the learner is and what is being taught. It becomes a dialogic third space between the two parties which constitutes “holy ground.”
This third space enables a place where a learner can encounter new teachings which can transform their understanding of the other, but also their understanding of themselves and their worldview. The concept of a dialogical third space borrows heavily from the work of Homi Bhabha but diverges from the resultant hybridity models that he suggests such spaces would create. Engagement with a third space as a place of “radical openness” provides a perfect description of the type of space needed for learning to be successful. The way that this space can be “radical” and transformative at the same time is in engaging in a dialogue that is grounded in the students’ own experience. It is possible to see how they are inextricably linked the pedagogy a teacher follows or develops.
This transformational process is highlighted in different places in the scriptures and in the teachings of the Saviour. First of all, the conversion of Saul/Paul. We first read of Saul in Acts 8 with him having just consented to the death of Stephen. He is a part of the major persecution of the Church;
As for Saul he made havock of the Church, entering into every house, and hailing men and women committed them to prison (v3)
Again, we pick up the story of Saul in Acts 9, here he was
yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, [Saul] went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem (vv1-2).
To the modern reader, who knows what happens next, it may seem strange to include this section- we already know the personality and persecutions of Saul, why not go straight into the road to Damascus experience? Luke reiterates for the reader that Saul had not wavered in his opposition to the Church- he was not seeking an experience, he did not doubt the course of his action. How many times as teachers do we look at someone who is seemingly happy with the course they are taking and the life they are living and dismiss any possibility of us sharing the Gospel with them? However, an inner struggle may have been going on in Saul, similar to struggles going on in people around us. David O’ McKay has said;
Damascus is about one hundred and fifty miles north of Jerusalem, so it would take Saul and his attendants about a week to travel the distance. Perhaps during those few days of comparative leisure he began to wonder whether what he was doing was right or not. Perhaps the shining face of the dying Stephen and the martyr’s last prayer began to sink more deeply into his soul than it had been done before… Perhaps he wondered whether the work of the Lord would make him feel restless and bitter (The Teachings of Christ and his Apostles, p258).
It was left to the Saviour to rescue Saul, but how many Sauls do we dismiss? In our teaching Spencer W. Kimball has said:
One of the best ways to find out [if people are spiritually prepared to hear the Gospel] is to expose [them] to the full time missionaries as soon as possible. Don’t wait for the precise, perfect moment. What you need to do is find out if they are elect… If they hear and have hearts open to the gospel it will be evident immediately. If they won’t listen and their hearts are hardened with scepticism or negative comments, they are not ready. In this case, keep loving and fellowshipping them and wait for the next opportunity to find out if they are ready. You will not lose their friendship. They will still respect you… No one ever loses a friend just because he doesn’t want to continue with the visits from the missionaries… Sometimes we forget that it is better to risk a little ruffling in the relationship of a friend than it is to deprive them of eternal life by leaving then silent(Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p553-4).
The Lord has the power to change lives, it is not our responsibility to decide for the Lord, or even for our friends. At this point, they might not accept the Gospel because they’re not searching or not ready, but the Spirit will touch them, and a seed will have been sown and a friendship strengthened. Had the apostles of Saul’s day been asked for referrals it is extremely doubtful that in and of themselves they would have come up with Saul. From the story of Saul we can learn, that even those we consider to be so far away from the Gospel and its standards have the ability to live the Gospel. For as we learn in the Old Testament:
But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)
The story is told in my home ward of a man showing up for Church with the missionaries, a builder by trade- some members wondered what the missionaries were thinking. A few years later they knew what the Lord was thinking when he was called as Bishop. How many of us would be here if the Lord looked on the outward appearance?
Having established Saul’s opposition to the Church we read;
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ And he said, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord [said] unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought [him] into Damascus (Acts 9:3-6,8).
We can learn many things from Saul’s Road to Damascus experience- the first is that we all need one. While serving as a full-time missionary I was counselled to find my own Sacred Grove- a place where I could be alone and open to the revelations from the Lord. In a similar way to this any member of the Church, indeed, any person transforming their lives through discipleship must have their Road to Damascus Experience when disbelief, scepticism, apathy and sometimes even opposition are replaced by a knowledge of Christ as their personal Saviour, and the Restored Gospel as true. This will not be in the form of a blinding light, or a vision of Christ, but it will be as undeniable. The promptings of the Holy Ghost provide a person with a strong witness that will be an anchor in any storm. To use their experience, as does Paul in later life when faced with opposition and death. Indeed, such was the strength of Paul’s example that Joseph Smith used it to inform his own defence of a vision;
However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise(JSH 1:24).
How do we gain these experiences? For an answer to this question we must turn to the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants;
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things (Moroni 10:3-5).
We need to encourage those we teach to exercise our faith to “an experiment on the word,” we gain a testimony of things as we live it.
When I joined the Church it just made sense and felt right. I didn’t need to ask of God- I just knew- for some this experience would have been enough. But two years later, in my final year of Seminary- at the end of which I was to embark on my mission I decided that I needed to be sure that it was actually true- I needed a Road to Damascus experience. I fasted and prayed and spent the time of my fast (I was off school) studying the Book of Mormon- it was while I was reading 3 Nephi 17 that I felt the Spirit wash over me and assure me of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel.
Just as we learn from Paul that he did not rely on this experience for the rest of his life, it is important for us, as teachers and as learners, to recapture and experience these Road to Damascus feelings again and again. We do that by a constant and consistent living of the Gospel. As an individual, husband, father, missionary and Church leader I have experienced these feelings again and again, with such strength and force that I am led to declare- along with Paul and Joseph Smith;
So it was with me I had actually felt the Spirit, and the Lord did in reality speak to me; and though I might be hated and persecuted for saying that I had felt the Spirit, yet it was true, and while they may persecute me, revile me, and speak all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually felt the Spirit; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had felt the Spirit; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God and bring myself under condemnation (JSH 1:25 adapted)
We must put ourselves in a position to receive spiritual experiences every day of our lives- again to reiterate, this can only come through a constant and consistent living of the Gospel. This is our goal as teachers both for ourselves and for those whom we teach.
Once we have received and continued to nourish our Damascus experiences we gain a responsibility similar to the one undergone by Saul;
And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and [from] the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, [and] to turn [them] from darkness to light, and [from] the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 26:15-18)
At the time of the Road to Damascus experience Saul received his commission to preach the Gospel. Having heard the voice, and the teachings of the Saviour, Saul needed help to develop in his discipleship:
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I [am here], Lord. And the Lord [said] unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for [one] called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth…(Acts 9:10-11)
At this point it is interesting to note that further light is going to be given to Saul because he is acting on his experience. He is not waiting for things to happen he is actively seeking them. He is an example of the principle of the Gospel that;
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have (2 Nephi 28:30).
Had Saul not responded by exercising his faith he would have been left spiritually and physically groping in the dark. Only by acting on his experience and seeking more was he able to receive more- it was not his as a right. In contrast to this is the story of Laman and Lemuel who after seeing an angel, and witnessing the power of God through Nephi sought no further experiences for themselves and they and their posterity were left groping in the dark.
Similar parallels can be drawn to our day; without constantly living the Gospel and having spiritual experiences as detailed above, the light we have had will dwindle. Examples can be found in persons such as Oliver Cowdery- who having received much lost much. Perhaps, even in the boundaries of our own Stakes and Wards we can think of people who have reached spiritual highs- but because of a failure to nourish that spirituality have lost that which they have had. The strait and narrow path is like a treadmill- we need to keep moving forward or we slip back. This can similarly be applied to new members and investigators- after the initial answer to their prayers it must be nourished, this can be done in a threefold way as explained by Gordon B. Hinckley:
With the ever-increasing number of converts, we must make an increasingly substantial effort to assist them as they find their way. Every one of them needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with “the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4). It is our duty and opportunity to provide these things (pp. 301-302).
As we return to the story of Ananias we can see the application of these principles. Concerning Saul’s prayer we read;
And the Lord [said] unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for [one] called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting [his] hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name (Acts 9:11-14).
Here, Ananias receives the prompting from the Lord to act in a certain way towards Saul- he reacts Jonah like. Had Ananias carried on in this vein Saul would have been left groping in the dark. How many people are left groping in the darkness of the apostasy because we have ignored the promptings of the Spirit? We must be heavily reliant on the Spirit as we share the Gospel, or when we are seeking for what we should say at a particular moment. Perhaps on many occasions the Lord will prompt us to share something, and all it will have done is sow a seed- there will be no immediate impact evident. Should we allow this to get us down- or believe we were mistaken in recognising the prompting? –No, the Lord prepares us, and often tests our response to the promptings of the Spirit. As our reliance on it develops the Lord has proved us and knows we are humble enough to heed his counsel and promptings.
The story of Saul and Ananias continues;
But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16)
We now realise the responsibility that the Lord has in store for Saul, as teachers and leaders should we be any less diligent in finding responsibilities for those who come into the Church? This would mean, as far as possible, preparing the men to receive the Aaronic Priesthood on the day of their confirmation, and their assignment as ministering brothers and sisters in addition to any callings.
The friend mentioned by Gordon B. Hinckley is then answered in the role of Ananias;
And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, [even] Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized (Acts 9:17-18)
On the first promptings of the Holy Ghost scales fell from the eyes of Saul. How many people have scales blocking them from the knowledge of their Saviour and the Restored Gospel? Some of these people may be inside of the Church; they may have a block in their conversion or their path of discipleship. These people are described in two places in scripture;
And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well–and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell. And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none–and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance (2 Nephi 28:21-22).
These are they who are honourable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men (D&C 76:75)
These scales are not built up overnight- we would surely notice. The scales of unbelief and apostasy are built up over time so that we don’t recognise they are there until someone, or the Holy Ghost prompts us, that they are. Even then we may be unwilling to recognise them. However, the cure is there through the promptings of the Holy Ghost and an accepting of Jesus Christ and his restored Gospel. The scriptures teach us of the destiny of those who have these scales throughout their lives belongs in the Terrestrial Kingdom (see D&C 76:75,79 those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus, are those members who allow scales to be built up).
It is in relation to this that we must take upon ourselves the role of Ananias. To seek out those who are ‘blinded by the craftiness of men’ and those ‘who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus’, and bring them the teachings of the light of the Gospel and the promptings of the Holy Ghost. We must become friends and guides to those around us, that as we expose to them the joys of Gospel living and the wonderful views of eternity we have, they will recognise the scales for themselves and ask us how to remove them. Sometimes, however, we must take the initiative. Ananias seemingly didn’t question his prompting to give Saul his sight (both physical and spiritual), neither should we question whatever the Spirit prompts us to do.
Saul was not left to fend for himself after his baptism;
And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus (Acts 9:19)
There is no detail as to what Saul spent his time doing while he was with the disciples, it is not unreasonable to assume, however, that the Disciples taught him the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the disciples opened their hearts and homes to Saul following his baptism- so should we to those who join the Church. We cannot allow them to flounder on their own- yes it is the responsibility of Ministering brothers and sisters, Relief Society Presidents and so on- but it is also ours. We should not have to wait for an assignment from the Bishop. When the Saviour healed the son of the widow of Nain, he was moved with compassion- he was not asked or assigned by his Bishop- he went and did it of his won accord- so should we. We covenanted at baptism to ‘mourn with those that mourn’ (see Mosiah 18), this can mean so much more than grieving with those who grieve for the loss of a loved one. It refers to accepting Jesus and his atonement into our lives. Linking back to the teachings of President Gordon B. Hinckley, our role is to nourish those we teach with the good word of God.
The blind man
A second example, is the healing of the blind man in John’s Gospel. The initial healing narrative is what we would expect:
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing (John 9:4-7).
There are elements prior to these events that highlight that the man had been blind since birth. Interestingly in this passage the Saviour uses clay and asks the man to go and wash in a specific place. Along with the scales that fell from Paul’s eyes, we can see the washing of the clay being a precursor to being able to see. Maybe this stage was important as it shows that the blind man needs to do something to show his faith prior to his healing. This miracle or sign always makes me stop and think because I am completely blind in my left eye and have been since birth. I remember speaking to a consultant when I was a teenager and he explained that there may be procedures that were being developed that would possibly be able to rectify my folded retina. However, he quickly followed up that observation with a ‘but’, these procedures if they ever were developed would be of no use to me; the time I had been blind meat that my brain had learned to ignore any signals that may have come from or been sent to my eye- it wasn’t a case of healing the eye but also of rewiring my brain which would have been impossible. I like the idea within this miracle that it wasn’t just a simple cosmetic healing, it required a rewiring of the brain so that the man could see- something was going on inside! This idea of an internal healing extends to the spiritual healing and journey the blind man goes on in the rest of the chapter. At different points in John 9 the blind man is asked questions about the identity of the man who healed him. We can see a progression in his understanding, firstly:
Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened? He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight (John 9:10-11 emphasis added).
He gives a very straightforward answer ‘A man called Jesus’. The next people to question him were the Pharisees:
Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see. Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them. They say unto the blind man again, What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes? He said, He is a prophet (John 9:15-17 emphasis added).
With time, and listening to the discussion that was taking lace among the people and the Pharisees, the man’s understanding had developed to recognising ‘He is a prophet’. After a brief interlude where the man’s parents refused to become involved in the discussion, the Pharisees return to the man born blind:
Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner. He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see. Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes? He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples? Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is. The man answered and said unto them, Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing (John 9:24-33 emphasis added).
With the passage of time and further questioning (and opposition) the man is reinforced in his belief that Jesus is sent from God. He could not deny the experience that he had had. Just as Paul before King Agrippa he could not deny his initial, and ongoing, experience. The man was cast out for his belief, but the Saviour sought him out and taught him more important truths than the physical healing:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him (John 9:35-38 emphasis added)
The man’s transformation is complete; he is a disciple of Jesus Christ as he recognises him to be the Son of God. Jesus’ actions and teachings throughout this event was to transform the man born blind both physically and spiritually.
The agency of the learner
In both of these experiences from the teaching of the Saviour we see the success that he had in drawing other people to Him. However, I think there are important lessons for us as Gospel teachers when we recognise that not all of our teachings will lead people to transform their lives. As a missionary, a member, a teacher and a leader I recognise that although the teachings and the power of the Holy Ghost that accompany them are transformative, the opportunity to grasp them is not always taken. When we consider the agency of individuals I am reminded of a message from Elder David A. Bednar:
These four words—“Receive the Holy Ghost”—are not a passive pronouncement; rather, they constitute a priesthood injunction—an authoritative admonition to act and not simply to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26). The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and those four important words are spoken. As we receive this ordinance, each of us accepts a sacred and ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work, and to so live that we indeed “receive the Holy Ghost” and its attendant spiritual gifts (2010, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’).
We have to allow the Holy Ghost to enter into our hearts, it is an act of agency to receive the Holy Ghost, it is an act of agency to allow the transformative power of the atonement and the teachings of the Saviour to be activated in our lives. We can consider the two such examples from the life of the Saviour.
Firstly, the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to find out how to receive eternal life:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16-22; see also Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-24)
It is only a brief interchange, but the Saviour’s teaching fell on deaf ears. In contrast to the call of the first disciples who immediately left their nets and followed Jesus, this rich young man could not give up his wealth in seeking the kingdom of God. As a teacher it is possible to teach and for the learners not to listen or internalise what is being taught. The English educationalist Mary Myatt highlights this in a humorous way:
There is a joke about two men in a bar. One says to his friend, ‘I’ve taught my dog to speak French.’ ‘Really?’ says his mate, ‘let’s hear him then.’ ‘I said I taught him, I didn’t say he’d learnt it’ comes the response.
As a teacher, we can lead people and we can expend every effort but in the end whether students learn is a matter of their agency.
Secondly, the crowd who greeted him on his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. John’s Gospel records the events of that first Palm Sunday:
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt (John 12:12-15).
The week begins on a high. Fulfilling Old Testament prophecy the Saviour enters Jerusalem triumphantly. He is greeted and lauded as the ‘King of Israel’. Why did the people greet him as such; John records that the people came because they had heard that he had performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Maybe it was the hope that they had for the Messiah who would deliver them from Rome. The way that John records it suggests that he knew, and perhaps the Saviour did too, that those same people who came to laud and praise him might well be the first to desert him at the first sign of trouble. We might even consider that some of those who were in the crowd shouting ‘Hosanna’, five days later on Good Friday may have been in the crowd shouting ‘crucify him’. This event calls to mind the parable of the Sower:
When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful (Matthew 13:19-22).
The Saviour himself acknowledges that there will some who we teach who may be initially receptive, but either through tribulation, opposition or the cares of the world will reject it. As teachers it is important for us to recognise that there are limits to what we can do, we cannot affect people’s agency. We teach with the Spirit, the things that we are prompted to share and then the learner needs to take the next steps for themselves. This has echoes of Joseph Smith’s teaching:
I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.
Lehi and his sons are often used as examples of the same teaching having different receptions dependent on the willingness of his sons to learn. As a teacher I often teach the same topics and have vastly different experiences with different classes, we must realise that the teaching we undertake is a symbiotic relationship. In an ideal situation:
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 (D&C 50:21-22).
As teachers, this does not mean we give up or that it gives us an excuse to be half hearted in our teaching efforts; but to recognise that it is not us that effect transformations in people’s lives; rather it is the Saviour and the Holy Ghost through the agency of the individual. We can only offer the invitation to change.
The Sermon on the Mount
The transformative nature of the Saviour’s teaching is on a person’s heart but it is also on the truths that people already hold. This is best exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount where the Saviour explains his purpose of his life and teachings:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil (Matthew 5:17).
This truth is echoed throughout The Book of Mormon, particularly when the Saviour visited the Nephites after his resurrection:
And it came to pass that when Jesus had said these words he perceived that there were some among them who marveled, and wondered what he would concerning the law of Moses; for they understood not the saying that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new. And he said unto them: Marvel not that I said unto you that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new. Behold, I say unto you that the law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses. Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end. Behold, I do not destroy the prophets, for as many as have not been fulfilled in me, verily I say unto you, shall all be fulfilled. And because I said unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which hath been spoken concerning things which are to come. For behold, the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled; but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me. Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life (3 Nephi 15:2-9).
This is an important truth of teaching and especially of teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We begin where people are; the Saviour recognised the importance of the Law of Moses, but in the Sermon on the Mount showed how it was being fulfilled and a higher law being implemented. This was highlighted earlier in a discussion about the authority of knowledge in our teaching but a couple of examples to reiterate the raising of the standard is appropriate here:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart…
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (Matthew 5:27-28, 33-44).
The standard is much higher than the Law of Moses, but it was important for the Saviour to highlight to his audience where they were starting from. It emphasises the point that they’re part of the way there, but that the higher law required of them expects a further step. Some of these seem difficult, and perhaps even more difficult to the immediate audience. The idea of taking away a coat and being compelled to go a mile is rooted in the Roman occupation of Judaea. To place additional responsibilities on laws that were already difficult shows the cost of discipleship.
When we are teaching people the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ it is just as important to start where they are, and recognise how the teachings of Jesus Christ can and will transform the truths that they already have in their lives. Sometimes there may be a temptation to think we are pouring water into an empty vessel, but people have truths in their lives from their religion or moral codes that are enhanced, rather than replaced, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. George Albert Smith articulated this principle:
We have come not to take away from you the truth and virtue you possess. We have come not to find fault with you nor to criticize you. We have not come here to berate you because of things you have not done; but we have come here as your brethren … and to say to you: “Keep all the good that you have, and let us bring to you more good, in order that you may be happier and in order that you may be prepared to enter into the presence of our Heavenly Father (Smith, G. A. 1948: 12-13).
We also find it in The Book of Mormon as Ammon teaches King Lamoni:
And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth. And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit? And he said, Yea. And Ammon said: This is God. And Ammon said unto him again: Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth? And he said: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens. And Ammon said unto him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels (Alma 18:24-30; see also Aaron’s teaching of Lamoni’s father in Alma 22)
Ammon did not teach by saying that ‘the Great Spirit’ was a wicked tradition of Lamoni’s fathers that should be rejected and replaced. Rather he accepted it as an imperfect understanding that could be built upon and transformed through the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Implications of teaching to transform
As a parent, teacher or leader in a Christian setting recognising the need to teach with the purpose of transformation of ourselves and learners is easy to see. In a Christian environment it calls learners to a living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are helping all of the people we teach in their process of becoming; making steps ‘line upon line’ in their discipleship and relationship with the Godhead.
Recognising what it means n a secular environment is slightly more difficult. Teaching to transform encourages learners to apply the knowledge that they encounter. It should also help the Christian educator consider the importance and application of all they teach. What application will what I teach have for the individual either for the assessment of learning or for the learners wider life. As a teacher educator I have to consider what impact what I am teaching has on a student’s teaching identity; as a school teacher I need to consider the impact of my teaching on who the children are. This is an incredible responsibility; the Dalai Lama has suggested:
If the hermit acts inspired by bad motivation, he’ll harm only himself. But if a [teacher], who can directly influence an entire society, acts with bad motivation, a large number of people will experience the negative consequences (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Autobiography Charlotte Mandell, trans., (Ebury Press, UK: 2010), 83; I have changed politician to teacher in this passage).
As a Christian educator in a secular setting I am not responsible for the Christian transformation of the learners, rather I look for the opportunities for the things that I am teaching to make a difference to the learner’s current or future lives. The motivation might be Christlike, but it should not be to Christianise the content or the people.
How do we teach ‘secular’ content to transform? In my work as a teacher and a University Professor there are a number of educational theorists whose work I admire greatly that can help me understand how I can do this. I don’t think many of them will have seen it as a Christian approach to learning, but as I adopt their views I really see the resonance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the way that the Saviour taught to transform. The transformative nature of our teaching, and the interrelatedness of all involved is highlighted by Parker Palmer (he is a Christian education writer), he suggests:
As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart — and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require (The Courage to Teach).
I will speak further in the next chapter about the importance of relationships when we teach but the idea that the subject that we teach can be woven into the fabric of the community, and I would suggest the heart of the people then the way we teach will be transformed. I think this is an important point as the chapter so far has focussed on the transformation of the learner, or possibly the material, but an important part of this transformation is the teacher. Is this something that is Christlike? We know the Saviour progressed ‘grace for grace’ and he ‘increased in wisdom and stature’ but it feels strange to suggest that through his teaching he was transformed. But as we read Alma 7 we realise that the human experience changed him; he knew what it was to have infirmities both through his act of living and through his sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cross. In the Garden he was ‘amazed’ at the strength of sin. Through his relationships he was changed- again something that will be explored in the next chapter. As a Christian teacher I must be open to transformation in myself both in relationship with the Saviour, with others and with that which I teach.
Paolo Freire outlines some of the problems with what he sees as the ‘banking model’ of education. In this system the system is designed so that information is deposited into a learner so that it can be withdrawn at a later point in the system. The reinforces the structure of what is known as the neoliberal system of education, where everything can be measured and competition and measures are an important part of the process. One of the shortcomings that Freire suggests is:
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
The question arises for the Christian teacher as to whether their teaching is unquestioningly reinforcing the status quo, or whether learners are being encouraged to question or critically analyse what is being learned. Sometimes we see education as a passive/neutral process because after all facts are facts. The problem is that the way they are framed reinforces a particular approach to topics. We may feel that what we are teaching is correct and the system within which we work is perfect, but it is important for learners to ask questions and in this way be transformed in confident and secure learners. If we think in these terms, the transformative nature of learning is possible in all classrooms. Freire suggests that when this happens learners are in the process of becoming:
[P]roblem-posing education affirms human beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality . . . [P]eople know themselves to be unfinished; [and] they are aware of their incompletion. In this incompletion and this awareness lay the very roots of education. The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity (Freire, 2000, p. 84).
This links with the learning line upon line and also the humility that we should always show in our learning and teaching. We may not agree with Freire’s politics or some of his conclusions but it is crucially important that we take seriously his critique. I have an aversion to the measuring of learning taking place through factual recall or multiple choice tests, although there are arguments that it embeds knowledge, if this is all we do as teachers then we are preparing learners for a pub quiz. It measures learners knowledge but not much beyond this. We have to go beyond factual recall and allow learners to ‘do’ things with the material; in this way they are more prepared for life in general. Consider this satirised version of the Sermon on the Mount:
Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathered them around. He taught them saying:Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when you are persecuted.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in Heaven.
And Simon Peter said, ‘wilt we be having a test on this?’
And Phillip said, ‘I don’t have any paper.’
And Bartholemew said, ‘Does it matter about my spelling?’
And Mark said, ‘Do we have to hand this in?’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
And Matthew said, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’
Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan and enquired of Jesus, ‘Where are your learning and assessment objectives?’
Another asked, ‘What range of teaching strategies did you draw from, and do you have differentiated provision?’
A third Pharisee asked to see a cross-section of work.
And Jesus wept (source unknown).
Adopting Freire’s critique of the education system, we can see that if we make anything, especially the Gospel of Jesus Christ, about measurables we can lose sight of what is truly important in the learning process. As a teacher I was always aware that there was an external exam that pupils would need to sit at the end of Year 11 (age 16) and Year 13 (age 18). I adopted an approach that if I could have pupils engage with the subjects and topics we were learning then they would recognise the relevance of the subject and fall in love with it. This didn’t always happen but it would have the impact of pupils being able to recall the lessons and the topics they had learned. We would do exam preparation but this was sprinkled throughout the course and wasn’t a major of focus of learning until the last few weeks when the exam was imminent. I have also worked with teachers who have been frightened by this approach; their learning is structured around a practice exam question every lesson and everything throughout the course is focussed on the exam. Their argument is that in the neo-liberal system in which we work this gets results- and it does. The problem for me is that the love of learning and the importance and relevance of the subject for the future is lost. There is risk involved in moving away from the safe, but there is so much opportunity to be found. This reminds me of the words of bell hooks:
But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom (hooks, 1994: 207)
In terms of grading and marks, teaching for recall with no critique limits the opportunities of our learners. We are teaching individuals and we are lighting a fire in each of them
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (Hooks 1994: 13).
The decisions learners make will determine what they will be doing next year, and the year after that and they year after that. St Catherine of Sienna once said: ‘Be who you are created to be and you will set the world on fire.’ Let me reminisce slightly of my time as a learner in a formal school setting. I had a fantastic childhood, I was full of life, confident and enjoyed many different things. However, when I was about 11 an influence came into my life who told me I was rubbish; that I was worthless; that what I had to say was not worth listening to; and I would never amount to anything. This continued for a period of about 4 years, and for some reason despite others who said differently this person had a huge impact on my life. Some of these words still echo in my mind as I encounter new situations, and to be honest some of the reasons why I push myself to do new things is to prove to myself that this person was not right. It was at the point in my life- at the age of 14 that I changed school. It was then that I began to rediscover myself and some confidence within myself with the help of my mum and my friends. One person in particular stands out- he was my RE teacher- Mr Banks. I don’t know if he ever realised the effect that he had on my life. I have to admit that prior to coming here I hated RE- the only reason I took it at GCSE was because I hated geography more. Mr Banks, however, was an inspiration- first of all as a human being and then as a teacher. I recaptured my desire to be a teacher from him, but he opened up the world of RE to me and helped me realise that there were things that I was good at. He again, had a sense of humour that engaged my teenage personality. The thing that stands out to me though is that he believed in me, and that he loved all of his students. It was always with great delight when I would go to Macclesfield Town matches as an adult and as I stood in the McAlpine stand see him directly across stood near the dugouts. I wish I could let him know the influence he had.
Why do I reminisce? For two reasons; firstly, without the support and belief of loved ones, parents, carers and teachers we wouldn’t be able to be transformed. As Christian teachers we need to recognise the impact that we can have. Secondly, that as we teacher we recognise the potential that learners to set the world on fire; they all have the potential to make a difference to the world. My favourite film is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’- in this film George wonders why he was ever born; he thinks he has made no impact in the world. His angel in training Harold shows him what the world would have been like without him. The world itself might not be too different, but his local community would have been. We may not have an impact on the whole world, but we can have an impact on all of those around us and in our locality, and who knows we may just set the world on fire.