No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship

Earlier this year I read something from James Comer that encapsulates my approach to education, and as I thought about it, it really captures my approach to life. The quote is: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” I will come back to that in a moment, but first I want to mention the purpose of life. In the book of Abraham we read: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them…” (Abraham 3:25). We are here to be tested, we are here to learn. Education and learning may be interpreted as the accumulation or acquisition of knowledge and skills. Certainly, that is a commandment in the scriptures: “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). 

Joseph Smith taught: 

Add to your faith knowledge, etc. The principle of knowledge is the principle of salvation. This principle can be comprehended by the faithful and diligent; and every one that does not obtain knowledge sufficient to be saved will be condemned. The principle of salvation is given us through the knowledge of Jesus Christ (Smith, J. 1938: 297).

The path to exaltation is a way of knowledge, a way of learning. Let me return to the quote with which I started and amend it slightly: “No significant learning can occur without significant relationships.” What does it mean to learn? We often think this is limited to an accumulation of knowledge and facts, but learning is both transformative and practical. In every learning experience I have an aspect of who I am or what I do is changed. If I learn a new word my vocabulary is enhanced; if I learn a new Gospel principle then my behaviour changes to help me draw closer to the Saviour. This is most starkly exemplified in the life of Saul in Acts 9:

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, 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. 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 the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. 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…. [through this learning experience we read later of Saul]

And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests? But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.

Learning, and especially Gospel learning, is an invitation to change and to transform, to draw closer to the Saviour. These learning experiences can be found in every aspect of our lives. Comer is often misunderstood in the sense that some people feel that he is only talking about the teacher-pupil relationship- there are many other relationships that influence our life- some of them will be with people, others will be aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this talk I will mention three different but interlinked relationships that help us learn more about ourselves and the Saviour.:

  1. With the Godhead- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  2. With our families
  3. With our friends

As a disciple of Jesus Christ our most important relationship and the one from which we learn the most is our relationship with the Godhead- the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The greatest relationship of which we are part, is the relationship we develop with the Godhead; with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This relationship will mould us into, what the scriptures describe as, “new creatures”. As we develop these relationships we become sanctified and developed into Christlike beings. Bruce R. McConkie describes it thus;

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.  

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). This 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 abiding in them can we hope to become a new creature.

What kind of characteristics would we have as we are drawn into this relationship? There are many scriptures that describe a “a disciple of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book which has had a profound influence on me, it was called The Cost of Discipleship. This helps us know, that this relationship that will mould us and make us new creatures, people who are so much more than we could be on our own actually costs something. We need to sacrifice some of the things that we are attached to to allow the Saviour’s influence to come into our lives. This making of the new creature takes place through sanctification; this is also known as the baptism of fire which is an ongoing process throughout our lives. I feel fire is used as the metaphor for two reasons; firstly, there is no greater purifying agent than the Holy Ghost. Sin and carnality are taken away through the atonement of Christ with the active involvement of the Holy Ghost: “It is ‘by the blood’ (Moses 6:60) − meaning the blood of the Saviour− that we are sanctified. But it is through the cleansing medium of the Holy Ghost that the regenerating powers of that infinite atonement are extended to mortal man” (McConkie and Millet).  By the power of the Holy Ghost iniquity, carnality, sensuality, and every evil thing is burned out of the soul as if by fire; the cleansed person is literally born again of the water and the Spirit. The second reason fire might be used as a metaphor is because of the pain that this process might involve. We may have to give up some things, including aspects of our personality that we have become rather attached to, to become sanctified.

However, we err if we suppose that sanctification is merely the process of removing bad things. The developing of a relationship with the Godhead, involves the removal of sin and iniquity, but also its replacement with things of greater worth. This process of sanctification entails the removal of sin and its replacement with Christ-like qualities. The Holy Ghost is not just a passive channel for the atonement. Rather, the Holy Ghost actively

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).

Our relationships with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost will make us more patient, more kind, more loving, and overall more Christlike. The Saviour seeks to build us up, and make us who we have the potential to be.

A further relationship where we learn and prepare for exaltation is our relationships with our family. Generally, we spend the majority of our time with family members, and as such they can have the greatest influence on our learning. Sometimes the learning is overt, such as in the new home centred curriculum that we will be blessed to study in the new year. As we learn together as families we have a greater scope to ask questions, and develop our testimonies of the Saviour Jesus Christ.

It is also in our families that we can learn Christlike qualities, among other things. When I first met Ruth I was about to turn 20, and having just returned home from my mission I had the fashion sense of a 17 year old. I had Garfield t-shirts, Bermuda shorts, and other disturbing items in my wardrobe. Over a few months, and with certain gifts from Ruth, my wardrobe changed. I no longer wore, and still don’t today wear comic book t-shirts. But Ruth has changed me in so many other ways, her kind heart and compassion has made me much more aware of how I treat other people, and the impact that my words can have on others. We are changed for better or worse through our relationships, which is why we must choose our relationships carefully. But our relationships are also a preparation for eternity.

I think of each of our children and the things that I learn from them. One of my favourite scriptures is 1 Corinthians 13. As we develop charity we become more Christlike. In discussing Charity Paul suggests:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal… Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

If I think about each of these qualities of Charity, I think that at different times each of the children has helped me to develop the ability to ‘suffer long’; to be ‘kind’; to be not easily provoked. In our family relationships we are perhaps the most raw, the most honest that we can be. Our families know us better than most other people. In these relationships we learn most about ourselves, who we are, and who we can be. We can turn on and off our public face, but our families help shape and show who we truly are.

Family life is a preparation for eternity as we act in union with our spouse and our children. In marriage we are told in the scriptures that they each leave their parents ‘to become one flesh’ and further in section 42 that a husband is to ‘cleave unto his wife, and none else.’ This unity and fidelity is replicated in our relationships with the Saviour. We seek to be unified in our thoughts and actions with our spouse- and this in turn prepares us to be unified with what the Saviour would have us do as we strive to follow him. The common phrase ‘What would Jesus do’ becomes an integral part of our nature and character. 

We think and act in complete accordance with the promises we make with our spouse, and by extension we are completely faithful to the covenants that we make our Saviour. 

The outward expression of that we are in this covenant relationship would be found in our actions. They are the expression of the grace that we receive through the Saviour. Just as our actions in marriage are an expression of the reciprocal love that we find. In our covenant relationship we would: pray, study the scriptures, and obey the Lord’s commandments not least by serving the people around us and expressing love and charity to all. We would place the Saviour and his expectations of us front and centre in all we do as an expression of the love we have and the grace we have received. If we are not fully committed to that relationship this will be manifest, not just by failing to do these things but also by the placement of other things at the centre of our lives, or even in such a way that they obscure the Saviour and his influence. What do I mean by that? It does not necessarily mean that we are bad people who engage in inappropriate activities, rather that other considerations are preeminent in our lives. A person’s discipleship should underpin everything that they do, not be pushed to one side as an inconvenience.

One of the most important relationships that we find in our lives, that also helps us learn in preparation for eternity is that of a relationship with friends. There is a common aphorism that friends are the family we choose for ourselves. Joseph Smith once said:

“Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers. … “… Friendship is like Brother [Theodore] Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.” “That friendship which intelligent beings would accept as sincere must arise from love, and that love grow out of virtue, which is as much a part of religion as light is a part of Jehovah. Hence the saying of Jesus, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ [John 15:13.]”

I am grateful for friends from whom I learn so much. Who inspire me to be better and do better. We should surround ourselves with friends from whom we learn much and inspire us. In turn, we should also be that kind of friend. In all of our relationships we should be striving to learn what we can and draw closer to the Saviour. Through friendships we have the opportunity to serve and the be served. In our interactions with others we can learn how to put the Gospel into action in our lives. We can emulate the Christlike qualities that we see in others. We are not friends with people by accident. Elder Ronald A. Rasband taught of the hand of the Lord in all our interactions in General Conference in 2017:

Elder Neal A. Maxwell once explained: “None of us ever fully utilizes the people-opportunities allocated to us within our circles of friendship. You and I may call these intersectings ‘coincidence.’ This word is understandable for mortals to use, but coincidence is not an appropriate word to describe the workings of an omniscient God. He does not do things by ‘coincidence’ but … by ‘divine design.’”

Our lives are like a chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another—if we are responsive to spiritual promptings. Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives…

Significant events unfold in the gospel and in the Church that further the kingdom of God on earth. They are not by accident but by God’s plan. He who fashioned this world can calm the seas with His word and can steer both Alma and Amulek and Nephi and Laban to be at the right place at precisely the right time. Likewise, events and associations unfold in each of our lives that further God’s work on earth.

I love the idea of the chessboard- this should help us think of the various interactions that we have in our lives. Recently I have had the opportunity to reflect on my friendship with Sister Tagg; in 1993 I was assigned to be Alison’s Home Teacher as she was living in Macclesfield- my companion and I visited a few times and we attended the same ward. There were many other people that could have been Alison’s home teacher, and at that time they may have been more useful. But if we fast forward 25 years later, I look back and think that the Lord placed us there then because he knew that those experiences would be helpful in the future, for me as a bishop and for Alison and her family as they returned to Church.

The relationships we have, and the circumstances we find ourselves in, are not accidents. We are there to learn, to bless, to influence- we should be open to the promptings of the Spirit, what we can learn and what we can do in every circumstance. I was recently in a Q&A fireside with some YSA and a question was asked about dating. One YSA panellist suggested that when asked out on a date the answer should be yes, because although it may not lead anywhere, the question we can always ask is ‘what can I learn from this person?’. I’m not necessarily advocating that but we do need to consider why the Lord has placed us in certain situations. It may be to bless others, but most often it will be to bless ourselves.

In various aspects of my writing I often talk about a third space. Our relationships with others become a dialogic third space which constitutes “holy ground.” This space enables a place where we can meet others which can transform our understanding of the other person, but also our understanding of ourselves and our worldview. Engagement with this space as a place of “radical openness” provides a perfect description of the type of space needed for learning from others. The way that this space can be “radical” and transformative at the same time is in engaging in a dialogue that is grounded in our own experience. We have to be open to learning and being transformed through the circumstances in which the Lord places us.

We find these friendships all around us, but most especially at Church. In the novel, The Shack, an explanation of what the Church is, by Jesus, could have been written to describe the Latter-day Saint ideal: “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now− just doing this− and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships” (Young, 2008: 178).  If we hope for exaltation we must spend life developing relationships. The most important is with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But one important way that we do that is in relationship to other people. The Church (including the ward and the Stake) is organised to help us develop unified relationships that prepare us for exaltation. Each of us is an integral part of the Ward and we should each make every effort to develop this service and unity, without which we cannot hope for exaltation.

This new year is a great opportunity for each of us to further develop friendships with others at Church. Through our ministering assignments, service in the Temple and through involving others in our study of Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families.

There are many other relationships I could mention- our relationship with the scriptures is one that I am sorry I don’t have time to explore. Our relationships can be with things- that can also be used to draw us closer to, or away from, our Saviour Jesus Christ. We have to be careful with whom, and what, we focus our relationships on. I look forward to a time when I can enjoy “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2). Over the last couple of months I have had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with most of the people in the room- I have cherished each one of those experiences and am so grateful for the relationships that we have that are based on a shared love of our Saviour Jesus Christ.