Knowing, Doing, Being

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Kevin J. WorthenDevotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

February 23, 2006
Kevin J. Worthen
Dean of the BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School

The airport had been packed for hours. The usually crowded holiday-travel conditions were exacerbated by weather-related delays and cancellations at other airports. The situation had sent hundreds of frustrated travelers scrambling from one gate to another, as they sought alternate ways to reach their destinations. At one gate, the line to talk to the agent stretched for more than 50 yards. One of the passengers in the line was a well-dressed and obviously impatient man. As he glanced at his watch with ever increasing frequency and tapped his foot at an ever increasing rate, it was obvious to all around him that he was not a person who was accustomed to waiting. Finally, the man could stand it no longer. He bolted from his place in line and stomped up to the gate. Pounding his hand on the desk, he bellowed: "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" An awkward silence instantly gripped the area.

The agent at the desk calmly picked up her telephone and, in a steady voice, said, "We may need a little additional help at Gate 19. There's a man down here who doesn't know who he is."

It's always important to know who we are. The ancient Greeks who traveled to Delphi in order to receive direction from the oracles in the temple of Apollo found inscribed over the entrance to the temple the maxim: "Know Thyself," indicating that such knowledge was a key to guidance in any situation. There is great wisdom in that injunction, for the process by which we come to know who we really are brings great power into our lives—power that can literally transform us.

I want to talk today about that process and power—the process by which we can learn who we really are and the power that can come into our lives as we gain that knowledge. As with any learning process, the first step in coming to know who we really are is to acquire correct information on the topic. In that regard, a good starting point is The Family: A Proclamation to the World. That proclamation clearly declares that "Each [of us] is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny." You are, no doubt, already aware of this important information. However, as with all profound truths, a closer examination reveals that there is more there than initially meets the eye.

Note, for example, that the statement from the proclamation refers to our past, our present, and our future. Thus, it seems clear that in order to really understand who we are, we need to know about not just our present state (our divine nature), but also our origin (as sons and daughters of Heavenly parents), and our future (our divine destiny).

It is even more important to note that in each of these three time periods, the common reference point is God. Because He begat our spirits in the past, we currently partake of His nature, and we can, ultimately, become like Him. If we want to fully know who we are, we must, therefore, first gain some understanding of who God is. As Joseph Smith explained, "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves."

Gaining an understanding of the character of God is not an easy undertaking. It takes time—indeed, a lifetime of scripture study, prayer, and revelation to even begin to understand the character of God. But, as we learn about His power, His love, and His knowledge, we will also begin to understand more fully who we really are.

Understanding that we are children of a God—with the potential to be like Him—and acquiring information about what He is like are, therefore, the first steps in the process of truly knowing who we are. And great power can come into our lives from the mere possession of that knowledge.

The prophet Moses learned this important point early in his ministry. In the revelation recorded in Moses chapter one, Moses is "caught up into an exceedingly high mountain," to visit with God. God first introduces himself to Moses by informing Moses of some of His (God's) attributes. He then tells Moses in verse four: "behold, thou art my son." In verse six he emphasizes that relationship again, telling Moses, "I have a work for thee...my son." In verse seven he refers to their kinship one more time, "this one thing I show unto thee, my son." Clearly God wanted Moses to understand at the outset not only who He—God—was, but also Moses' relationship to Him. And the reason God wanted Moses to have this critical information quickly becomes apparent as the story unfolds. As soon as God leaves Moses to himself, Satan quickly appears to tempt Moses (as he often does when important things are about to happen). Moses' response to the temptation is revealing: "Who art thou," Moses inquires of Satan, "For behold, I am a son of God." Moses' understanding of his direct relationship to God, gave him the power to resist Satan's temptation and eventually the power to banish him from his life. Moses' experience clearly demonstrates that with respect to an understanding of God's nature and our relationship to Him, knowledge literally is power.

Thus, acquiring information about God's nature and our relationship to Him is the first step in truly knowing who we are—and it is a step which, by itself, brings power into our lives.

But, while we need to acquire information about God and our relationship to Him if we are to know who we really are, mere possession of that abstract information will not suffice. The scriptures indicate that those who chose to follow Satan in the pre-earth life understand (at least at one level) the nature of God, and they recognize that their brother Jesus is the "Son of God most high." Yet, despite this knowledge, they abandoned their opportunity for exaltation—their divine destiny—because they did not act in accordance with that knowledge in the pre-earth life. Thus, as the apostle Peter made clear, abstract knowledge—even abstract knowledge of important truths—can be "unfruitful" if it does not lead to correct action. And knowledge that is not fruitful is not full knowledge.

President Spencer W. Kimball taught this important truth in his own unique way several years ago. When he heard the lyrics for the beloved children's hymn, "I Am a Child of God," President Kimball — then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve—talked to one of the Primary General board members. He "expressed his love for the song, then stated that there was one word in the chorus that concerned him. He wondered if Sister [Naomi] Randall [who wrote the lyrics] would consider changing the line that sa[id] "Teach me all that I must know," to "Teach me all that I must do."" Sister Randall "gladly accepted this suggestion" and later explained a great truth she learned from this experience. "I wondered why I didn't include that thought at the time the lyrics were first written," she stated. "But as time went on I came to feel very sincerely that this was the way the Lord wanted the song to evolve, because it became a teaching moment for members all over the Church and impressed upon their minds that knowing the gospel is not all that is required; it is the day-by-day doing the Lord's will...that help[s] us reach our eternal goal."

It is also day-to-day doing that leads to a more complete knowledge of things. As the Savior taught, "if any man will do [God's] will, he shall know of the doctrine..."
Thus, having information about a subject is not the same as fully knowing the subject. We must do something with that information if we truly want to know it in its fullest sense.

Let me illustrate what I mean with a personal example. Two years after I graduated from law school, I found myself working on a project for a partner in a law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. By that time, I had not only finished law school, I had completed judicial clerkships for two very good judges, at two of the best courts in the country, and I had passed the bar exam. In my mind, I knew the law, or at least I knew how to acquire the information I needed to determine what the law was. After extensive research of the applicable statutes, regulations, and cases—and after revising several drafts—I proudly presented to the partner a memo which I felt answered the question he had posed.

The partner quickly skimmed the memo, read the conclusion, and then confidently opined, "This can't be the law." I was quite taken aback—and quite offended. "I've read the statutes, the regulations, and the cases," I responded, "That's what they say." "I don't care," he retorted, "the law in this area can't work the way you've described it. Go try again."

After discussing the issue with him further, I examined the problem from several angles which started at different points from the one where I had begun the first time. Over time, a different analysis appeared—one that changed the answer to the question in a subtle, but important, way. When I presented a revised memo to the partner with a more in-depth analysis and a slightly different answer, he was satisfied. I asked him at that point whether he had known the answer all along and was just trying to make work for me. "No," he replied, "I really didn't. I just know how the law works in this area. Your earlier approach just didn't seem right."

I knew how to acquire legal information; I even knew how to analyze that information in the abstract. However, I did not really know the law. The partner did. And the difference between him and me on that point was that he had practiced—or "done" law. He had a kind of knowledge that comes only from experience.

The same can be said with respect to a true knowledge of who we really are. It will come only through experience. Only through doing something. We cannot fully understand our divine potential until we try to act like our Heavenly Father—until we are in situations which require us to demonstrate the patience, the wisdom, the love, and the other attributes of God. Only then can we truly begin to know what God is really like—and therefore, who we really are. Indeed, the opportunity to have those kinds of practical learning experiences is one of the central reasons why we came to this earth.

When I was in primary, I was often puzzled when hearing that we lived with Heavenly Father before we came to earth and that if we kept His commandments, we could return to His presence. Why, I wondered, didn't we just stay there in the first place? Over time, I came to realize that we left God's presence because there are certain critical things we can learn only from experience—from actually doing something ourselves. We could not have truly known—or fully realized—who we are if we had remained in heaven memorizing a list of godly attributes which Heavenly Father possesses and which we hoped to acquire. We had to come to earth to learn some things from personal experience. It is only when we are called upon to do—in some small ways—the things God does, that we can really understand what He is like—and therefore, who we, His children, really are.

As with the learning that accompanies the acquisition of information, there is great power in the kind of learning that comes from doing. Elder Bruce Hafen illustrated this principle when he shared an experience from his family life at a conference on family law a number of years ago.

"One of our children once was in great difficulty in his fourth-grade class." Elder Hafen related. "If he didn't complete a certain hand-made project by the next day, he would face certain disaster. After dinner, my wife, Marie, told me she had thought of a way to help him. I ushered our other children into another room for other activities, and the handicraft project began in the kitchen. Periodically, I heard outbursts from our fourth-grader, who kept tormenting his mother and insisting he wouldn't do another thing. I was ready to send him to his room and forget it, but my wife calmly proceeded with her plan.

"After about three hours, as I was tucking the other children into bed, the little builder and his mother entered the bedroom. Carrying his project as proudly as if it were a birthday cake, he invited his two brothers to come and see it. It was obvious from looking at it that he had made every stitch of it himself. He placed it on a counter and started for his bed. Then he looked back at his mother with a broad, boyish grin. He ran across the room, threw his arms around her waist, and hugged her tightly. As he grinned at her again, the two of them exchanged glances that carried great meaning. He went back to his bed, and we left the room.

"What happened?" I asked Marie. "How did you do it?" She replied that she had simply made up her mind that no matter what he said or did, she wouldn't raise her voice or lose her patience. She had just decided that leaving him was not an alternative, even if the project took all night. Then she made this significant observation: "I didn't know I had it in me."

Those kinds of experiences teach us truths about ourselves that no amount of abstract study will ever reveal. I'm confident that after that night Sister Hafen had a more complete understanding of both her own potential destiny and Heavenly Father's great patience and love for His children. Such experiences—which require that we do something—provide a more complete knowledge of who we really are.

But even knowing about God and our relationship to Him and doing the things that will enable us to understand those truths at a deeper level will not lead us to a full understanding of who we really are. For just as there is a difference between knowing about something and doing something, there is an equally big difference between doing something and being something.

Let me explain what I mean. In my opinion, the greatest basketball player of all-time was Bill Russell—Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant notwithstanding. In 21 seasons of playing organized basketball, Bill Russell won 18 championships, including 11 NBA championships, 9 of them in a row. He won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal, and an NBA championship—all in a single year. Russell obviously knew a lot about basketball. And he just as obviously knew how to do (or play) basketball.

Russell tended to stand out in a crowd. He was 6"9" and had a unique goatee. He was also notoriously unapproachable. When he was traveling, people regularly asked him if he was a basketball player. He always said no. His teammates often were exasperated with this answer—thinking Russell was being sarcastic or condescending. After seeing this scenario repeat itself yet again in an airport, one of his teammates, John Havlichek, finally summoned up the courage to ask Russell why he denied being a basketball player when it was obvious that he was and that he was one of the best known basketball players of his time. Russell's answer was profound: "Basketball is what I do, it's not who I am."

Bill Russell understood that there is a difference between doing something and being something. That is true of our quest for a full knowledge of who we are as well. Our divine destiny is not to "do" something, but to "be" something—to be gods and goddesses. Merely doing something will not allow us to achieve that goal. As Elder Dallin Oaks explained, "[w]e do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something."

It is noteworthy in that regard that, when speaking to the youth of the Church a few years ago, President Hinckley gave us six "be's" not six "do's." He did not urge us to "say thanks" or to "pray often" — he challenged us to "be grateful" and to "be prayerful." Although it is sometimes hard to discern on the outside, there is a vast difference between the two. Ultimately, then, to fully know who we are, we need to be who we can become.

Just as there is power in knowing and doing, there is even greater power in being—power that can transcend any individual truth a person knows or any individual act he or she can perform. Again, let me illustrate.

At the end of the American Revolutionary War, the new American country was in a perilous situation notwithstanding its recent victory over Great Britain. The biggest problem was that the Continental Congress had decided that it could not pay the members of the Continental Army the full salaries and pensions that Congress had promised them during the war. Facing the prospect that despite all their sacrifices they would soon be returning home penniless and without jobs, many members of the Army, including many officers, concluded that they should remain together as an Army, and retain their arms, to make sure that Congress paid them in full. The Revolution had reached its real crisis stage. As one historian noted, "[a]lmost every revolution in the history of the world [prior to that time] however idealistically begun, had ended in tyranny." And that seemed to be the trajectory toward which this revolution was headed, as many of the officers demanded that the Army take over the government.

In early 1783, General George Washington indicated to his troops that he disapproved of any such action. However, discontent continued, and several officers suggested they ignore Washington and proceed with their proposed takeover. On March 17, 1783, Washington met with the officers. He spoke to them with some passion, urging them—in his words—not "to open the flood gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood." Despite his best rhetoric and despite all he had done for them, the group remained unmoved. One of Washington's biographers described what happened next:

"[Washington] remembered he had brought with him a reassuring letter from a congressman. He would read it. He pulled the paper from his pocket, and then something seemed to go wrong. The General seemed confused; he stared at the paper helplessly. The officers leaned forward, their hearts contracting with anxiety. Washington pulled from his pocket something only his intimates had seen him wear: a pair of eyeglasses. "Gentleman," he said, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

"This homely act and simple statement [which reminded the officers of Washington's true character]" his biographer explained, "did what all Washington's arguments had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept" — and the plans for military takeover were abandoned.

Referring to this critical event, Thomas Jefferson later commented: "The...virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." The virtue of Washington's character—who he was—carried the day when what he knew, what he said, and what he did could not.

Similarly, I believe God's power derives as much, if not more, from His nature—from who He is—as it does from what He does. I believe it is His infinite goodness—the perfect love which defines His character—that gives Him infinite wisdom and infinite power. If that is true, we can really know who He is—and therefore who we really are—only to the extent we not only know about Him and do the things He does, but also to the extent we become like Him.

Thus, the critical question: how does one become something? Interestingly—and importantly - the first steps are to know and to do. One cannot become something without knowing what one wants to become and doing the things that lead to that result. In the case of becoming like God that means we must first know and keep the commandments, which are really just the laws by which mortal beings become immortal gods.

But, even though knowing and doing are essential to becoming, they are not, by themselves, sufficient to that end. One can mechanically know and do, and still not become. Consider, for instance, the examples of Laman and Lemuel. Despite their bad reputation, they actually did most of what they were commanded to do—at least insofar as their outward actions were concerned. They left their riches in Jerusalem and went with their family into the wilderness when God instructed them to do so. They went back to get the plates of Laban when Lehi requested it of them. They went back again to get the family of Ishmael. And, they traveled in the wilderness for eight years and eventually arrived in the new world, all in keeping with the instructions they received.

In one sense, then, Laman and Lemuel did what they were supposed to do. Yet, none of us would hold them up as models of what we want to become. Instead, most of us remember them for their attitude. Yes - they did what they were commanded to do, but they did it reluctantly, grudgingly. And, they murmured constantly along the way. And, that made all the difference, for when it comes to moving from doing to being, attitude matters.

Indeed, according to the prophet Mormon, if we do not act with the right attitude—with the right intent—what we do will avail us nothing. "For behold," Mormon told his son Moroni, "God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good.... For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift."

Mormon's instructions, and Laman and Lemuel's experience, indicate that the key factor that distinguishes "doing" from "being" is our attitude—or to use the scriptural term our "desire."

The scriptures make clear that we will be judged not just according to our works, but also according our desires. When both our works and our desires are in alignment with God's will, our natures transform—and we become like Him. As Alma taught his son Corianton, all will be judged "and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good,...they should also at the last day, be restored to that which is good."

Thus, it is our desires that ultimately determine whether our good works transform us into who we really can become. Indeed, our desires ultimately determine not just who we are, but also what we know and what we do. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained, "everything depends - initially and finally - on our desires. These shape our thought patterns. Our desires thus precede our deeds and lie at the very cores of our souls, tilting us toward or away from God."

It is therefore not surprising that God has promised that He will grant unto us according to our desires. In the long run, it is our desires which determine our destiny. God is God because his most deep-seated desire is to do love perfectly and to do good continually. That dictates what He knows, what He does, and who He is. Our desires will ultimately dictate the same for us.

Fortunately, our desires are not set in concrete. God can "educate our desires," but only if we allow Him to do so. As Elder Maxwell explained, "One's individual will thus remain uniquely his. God will not override it nor overwhelm it." Because the doctrine of agency iƒs paramount, the choice of who we become is truly ours. If we submit our will to God's, He will shape our desires such that we can become like Him. If we do not, He will not. It is that simple. As C.S. Lewis explained, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says... "Thy will be done.""

But submitting our will to God's is not easy. Indeed, it can be frightening because our will may be the only thing that is truly uniquely ours. We may thus fear, as Elder Maxwell stated, that "by letting our will be swallowed up in the will of God, we [may] lose our individuality." However, as Elder Maxwell also explained, "It is not a question of one's losing identity but of finding his true identity!"

Thus, we will truly know who we are only when we allow God to direct our lives completely—only when we know Him and trust Him enough to direct our will. Until we do that, we will not fully know who we really are. Once we do that, we will have an entirely new perspective on that important matter.

C.S. Lewis explained this well. "Imagine yourself as a living house," he said. "God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." Only God knows who we truly are. We can learn that truth only from Him and only when we trust His will completely.

Finally, it is important to know that this process of knowing, doing, and becoming is possible only because of God's great love for us, manifested in the atoning sacrifice of His son. Without the atonement we could not truly know, do, or be.

It is only because of the atonement of Jesus Christ that we can continue to communicate with, and receive revelation from, God—even after we sin—thereby allowing us to acquire the information we need in order to truly know who we are.

It is only because of the atonement of Jesus Christ that we can, in the words of Elder Hafen, "learn from [our] experience without being condemned by it"—and thereby gain the eternal understanding about ourselves that comes only from doing.

And, it is only because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, that we are "free to choose" to follow the process that will lead us to know who we really are by becoming who we can become. May we so choose, is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.