One night several years ago, we had an older teenaged daughter who did not arrive at her 12:00 a.m. curfew. One o’clock came and she still wasn’t there. We did what any good parent would do. We panicked. We prayed. We made those awkward middle-of-the-night calls to her friends. 2:00 a.m. Our imaginations were flying with the dangers she could be in. We prayed harder. I cried with worry. The minutes seemed like hours. 2:30 a.m. 2:45 a.m. The world was asleep, but not us—two parents so concerned about their precious daughter.
At last, at 3:00 a.m., we heard the front door quietly open. We had decided on a plan to divide and conquer. My husband, Scot, stayed up in our bedroom and prayed for me while I went down to greet our daughter. The conversation was just as you might expect. I pounced on her—not literally, but there was an edge in my voice. I reminded her of her curfew, told her of the dangers and temptations abroad in the late hours of the night, described our painful worry. She was defensive. She asked if we didn’t trust her. She told me she was too old for a curfew. The more she resisted my teaching, the more tension you could feel between us. I badly needed help to turn this divisive conversation into a sweet moment of love and teaching. Just then I felt the influence of my husband’s prayers for me, and an impression came into my mind. I had been praying much for this daughter of ours whom I had been worried about, and just a few days earlier the Spirit had whispered something about her to me.
I stopped my lesson on curfews for a moment. I was still and knew that this was the moment to tell her that message. “Last week,” I said, “the Spirit told me something about you.” Her defensiveness began to fall from her. It was the first time she really heard anything I said. “Tell me,” she said with real eagerness. I answered, “The Spirit told me not to worry so much about your life because all things would work out for you, that everything would be OK.”
“You heard that, Mom?” she asked eagerly. “What else did the Spirit tell you about me?” Listen to the faith in her questions. She believed that God had heard my prayers and answered them. She believed that he knew her and loved her. When I saw her as a daughter pushing the limits by coming in late, he knew her heart and the faith that resided there that maybe she didn’t even know. Our conversation became sweet as I told her of the confidence that God had in her and of his personal knowledge of her heart and goodness.
Before, she had been eager to escape my presence and lecture. Now, she was all ears and we talked until 4:00 a.m. I count it as a treasured hour in my mothering experience.
Our life is like the journey the Jaredites anticipated across the stormy sea, where the mountain waves would dash them, they would be carried here and there by the winds, and they would be tossed by strong currents.9 This is a journey they could not survive in the dark.
Was there anything really wrong with the way I began talking to my daughter? Given the situation, I was fairly calm, I was clear, I was also right. The problem was, until the Spirit stepped in with his light, I was also totally ineffective.
The brother of Jared sought a remedy for the darkness. Putting his mind and muscle to the solution, he “did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear.”10 I have tried to imagine the work and ingenuity it would take to melt stones. What kind of grueling labor in those times was required to create a heat source that can melt stones, sweat dripping from your brow?
Yet still, after all the brother of Jared could do, after hard labor and effort, and the best solutions of his own mind, still he had only sixteen dark stones. They were only able to shine when they were touched by the finger of God.
So often we are troubled and hurried, wearied and overworked. We create the equivalent of sixteen stones in our lives, and that is where we leave it. The world is so much with us11 that we do not take the journey to the mountaintop and let the Lord touch all our dizzying effort with his finger and fill it with light. Until he does, however, we are still traveling in the darkness.
Busy and hurried, too often we take “natural man” solutions, rushing from one task to another, checking off the items on our lists to do in a mad frenzy without the transforming power that spiritual insight always brings.12 The alarm rings in the morning, and we are off and running, too often without climbing the mountain to have the stony pieces of our lives touched with light.
The scriptures have a phrase for this hurry in the darkness. They speak of people who suffer from “the blindness of their minds.”13 The original Greek translation of this word “blindness” yields some profound understanding. The word is poˊ-ro-sis, which means: “the covering with a callus; obtrusiveness of mental discernment, dulled perception.”14
Paul, before his conversion, had this kind of blindness. He went around with great zeal doing the wrong thing, spewing out anger and persecuting Christians. Then after his vision on the road to Damascus, he literally lost his sight. He was blind until he received a blessing and the scales fell from his eyes.15
Then there was the man, blind from birth, whom the Lord healed on the Sabbath. Of course there was a ruckus and the Pharisees called the man before them, wanting to know how he had received his sight. They said, “[The man who has done this] is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day.” Healing was not a Sabbath-day activity to their way of thinking. The healed man answered, “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”16
Is there anything greater than those moments in our own lives where the scales fall from our eyes, when we can say, “Whereas I was blind, now I see”?
Alma says the Spirit enlightens our understandings and expands our minds.17 Conversely, you can feel the lack of the Spirit sometimes when you wander along, dulled and shrunken, blind and blunted in your mind and heart.
King Benjamin said, “Believe in God; believe that he is, … believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”18
He comprehends the answers to every question we have. It isn’t his will that we travel in the dark. He knows how to spring us from our limitations and lift the roadblocks. Don’t you wonder: How can I love effectively and open my heart to bless those whose lives touch mine? How do I choose between all the possibilities and make the best use of my life? How do I find sustenance for the dry times? What is the song I came to sing? How can I overcome the things that hurt? Who am I? And dear Lord, who art thou?
The Lord offers us his solutions to all our questions, and he tells us, “I am more intelligent than they all.”19 There is not a problem we can pose to him or a challenge so perplexing that he does not already have the answer. How can some of that light be shed into our own minds?
The scriptures reveal a pattern for receiving enlightenment—and it is not one we usually talk about: Serious reflection precedes revelation.
Lehi tells his sons about his vision of the tree of life, and they have vastly different reactions. Laman and Lemuel went into a tent and fought about its meaning, but Nephi turned his mind to serious reflection. His mind became a fertile field in which the Lord could plow. He says, “As I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.”20
Laman and Lemuel’s debate in the tent did not lead to revelation. Nephi’s pondering opened the door to an expansive revelation that has blessed us all. Serious reflection was Nephi’s way of being, for he tells us later, “My heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”21
In October of 1918, Joseph F. Smith received a glorious vision of Christ coming to the host of the dead.22 The record of that vision is now found in section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this vision he saw the joy and gladness of the innumerable company of spirits who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus Christ. What opened his eyes to receive this powerful experience? He said, “I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures,” and again, “As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened.”23
Joseph Smith tells us that before he received his First Vision of the Father and the Son, his “mind was called up to serious reflection.”24 What is serious reflection? It is focused and concentrated thought, like sunlight through a magnifying glass that will burn a hole in paper. It is not superficial. It does not flit around from one distraction to another. It does not leap off course or waver like the waves of the sea.25
We receive further insight on this from Oliver Cowdery’s description of Joseph the night that Moroni first visited him. Oliver writes, “On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to everything of a temporal nature that earth to him had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.
“At length the family retired, and he, as usual, bent his way, though in silence, where others might have rested their weary frames ‘locked fast in sleep’s embrace,’ but repose had fled, and accustomed slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him—he continued still to pray—his heart, though once hard and obdurate, was softened, and that mind which had often flitted, like the ‘wild bird of passage,’ had settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven from its purpose.”26
I love that image of our thoughts as a “wild bird of passage.” How often they are! And how often we wish they were not that way.
When I think of a wild bird of passage, I remember the day that a bird flew into our office through an open window. It could not find its way out, and in its panic it flew from one side of the room to the other in useless flutterings. We watched it swoop from corner to corner, dashing about and making no progress. That sort of panic is in great contrast to Joseph’s determined prayer that would not be decoyed or driven from its purpose.
Prayer and spirituality demand mental discipline and focus. Is it any wonder that this kind of prayer does not lead to revelation: “Dear Heavenly Father, Thank thee for … did I thaw the meat for dinner? Bless us to … I hope this won’t take long. I have so much to do. And please bless … Is the party Friday or Saturday night?”
Distractions are the enemy of pondering and serious reflection. It doesn’t always take a major sin to leave us blind. Enough little things that turn our heads will do. C. S. Lewis captures this idea in his book The Screwtape Letters. The premise is that these are a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to a junior devil, teaching him the best way to tempt the mortal to whom he is assigned.
Screwtape explains, “I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way.” In other words, this sound atheist considered for a moment that there might be a God. He had a moment of serious reflection about the divine and eternal.
Screwtape says, “Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. [God] presumably made the counter-suggestion … that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been his line, for when I said, ‘Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,’ the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added ‘Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,’ he was already halfway to the door.” Of course, Screwtape reported with satisfaction, the distraction worked, and by the time the man was out the door and had seen a No. 73 bus and a newsboy, he was back to what he called “real life” and the thought of God never returned to his mind.27 Why tempt us with dark deeds, when our heads can be so easily turned from eternal things by a distraction?
Not only are our lives riddled with distractions, too often we think the distractions are what life is all about. We become “caught in the thick of thin things.”28 In fact, should we have a moment of quiet, too often we actively seek to fill it with more distractions. We turn on radios in cars, or work to the background of the television’s blare. We stay on the shore playing with plastic beach toys instead of wading into the deep water where so much waits to be discovered.
Joseph Smith said, “Deep water is what I am wont to swim in,”29 and he also said, “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”30 He said this in the context of saying that in too many of our classes and gatherings we have been light-minded, “vain and trifling,” and unfocused in our direction.
We cannot understand the answers to questions we have not asked. God cannot share his deep knowledge with those who are not interested in the elementary curriculum. In the journey to understand the vast expanse that God would teach us about our own lives and the universe beyond, vista leads to another vista. Impressions come to minds open to be taught, not those already rattling with trifles.
But, we want to cry out: “My life is fragmented and torn to pieces by obligations and duties, all the nits and gnats of mortality. I cannot help it. It’s the condition and jangle of the modern world.” I say, we must help it. We are the people of God. He has things to tell us that are only accessible to a mind that can often be given to serious reflection. We did not come here to forget our divine destiny under a clutter of random thoughts.
Once as a young mother I needed an answer to prayer.31 I got a babysitter, took my scriptures and journal, and hiked a trail to the top of a mountain where I overlooked a wondrous vista. I sat down, opened my scriptures and journal, and began to pray. Suddenly I heard a buzzing noise, lots of buzzing noises. Flies were everywhere, circling my head, landing on the pages of my scriptures, obliterating my reading. I tried to continue, but it was hard. The flies buzzed and dive-bombed around me, and in great frustration I gathered up my things and went home, thinking I had not received an answer. In reality, I received an answer that has stayed with me my whole life.
I realized that the flies were a symbol. They were like the distractions that too often kept me from a spiritual focus when I needed it so badly. Just as I would have liked to read verse one, a fly landed in the middle of the second sentence. Verse two had two flies. I would love to ponder, to focus on the deep things of the Spirit, but distractions kept me from it. I was like Martha, “careful and troubled about many things,”32 but spiritual focus was the better part, which too often daily life allowed little time for.
It does not surprise us to find out that in order to learn to play a musical instrument to perfection it requires the utmost concentration, thought, and practice. Why then do we suppose that having the mysteries of God unfolded to us would somehow require little mental energy?
We must decide if we will travel this mortal journey tangled in distractions or find time on a daily basis for the serious reflection and pondering that leads to revelation, whether we will travel in dark barges or have them lit by stones touched by the finger of God. These times are so dangerous we simply cannot afford to travel blindly.
What kind of pondering leads to revelation and answered prayers, to throwing open doors of understanding in our minds?
Nephi helps us here. He gives us clues as to what he was thinking just before he was caught up to that high mountain. First, he says, “I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”33 We ponder because we have a real question or challenge. We ponder because we really want to know the truth about something. We want to know things as they really were, “as they really are, and of things as they really will be.”34 Desire burns in us for heavenly knowledge.
Abraham left the residence of his fathers in Ur because, he said, “Finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers … desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge and to be a greater follower of righteousness.”35
There’s that word desire again. For Abraham it flung open the door to a new dispensation of gospel light.
Listen to the pitch of desire that led Lucy Mack Smith to ponder and seek for the true religion. She said that
in the anxiety of my soul to abide by the covenant which I had entered into with the Almighty, I went from place to place to seek information or find, if possible, some congenial spirit who might enter into my feelings and sympathize with me.
At last I heard that one noted for his piety would preach the ensuing Sabbath in the Presbyterian church. Thither I went in expectation of obtaining that which alone could satisfy my soul—the bread of eternal life. When the minister commenced, I fixed my mind with breathless attention upon the spirit and matter of the discourse, but all was emptiness, vanity, vexation of spirit, and fell upon my heart like [a] chill, untimely blast. … It did not fill the aching void within nor satisfy the craving hunger of my soul. I was almost in total despair, and with a grieved and troubled spirit I returned home, saying in my heart, there is not on earth the religion which I seek. I must again turn to my Bible, take Jesus and his disciples for an example. I will try to obtain from God that which man cannot give nor take away. I will settle myself down to this. I will hear all that can be said, read all that is written, but particularly the word of God shall be my guide to life and salvation, which I will endeavor to obtain if it is to be had by diligence in prayer.36
Lucy’s words are an expression of serious reflection. Her desire expressed with great emotion “the aching void” and the craving void of my soul.
Do you think it was wanting too much for Nephi to desire to see and hear the vision that his father Lehi had told them about? Do you think it was self-important for Abraham to leave home because of his intense desires for righteousness? Was Lucy’s desire just too much?
No—they were all answered with profound revelation and blessings on their heads. Their desires for heavenly knowledge were linked to the unwavering sense that God was able to guide them to answers. Too often we are not creatures of too many desires, but shallow, vapid souls wanting too little, refusing to think too deeply.
We live in a universe, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “drenched in divine design,”37 where wonder is added to wonder. God and his Son Jesus Christ are willing to share the secrets of the universe if we are only willing to receive their gifts (and “not become offended by Their generosity”38).
Pondering the scriptures leads to revelation. Joseph Smith had been pondering James 1:5 when he went to the Sacred Grove and John 5:29 when he received section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph F. Smith had been pondering scriptures from 1 Peter 3:18–20 and 1 Peter 4:6 when he received his vision of the spirit world.39
Pondering deep things leads us closer to God. The Lord has told us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”40 Yet, he desires our thoughts to gradually become like his thoughts and our ways to become his ways.
As Elder Maxwell said, “All knowledge is not of equal significance. There is no democracy of facts! … As we brush against truth, we sense that it has a hierarchy of importance. … Some truths are salvationally significant, and others are not.”41
What can we ponder? We can ponder what the scriptures mean. We can ponder what the real questions are we need to pray about. Sometimes before I pray, I write my questions down in a notebook, so I don’t forget them. Too often something urgent and obvious blinds us to the real issue at hand. What is it that I need to see that I’m not seeing?
We can ponder how the Lord sees our challenges and how he would solve them. We can ponder the tender mercies of the Lord in our lives and what it teaches us about his attributes. Pondering leads us to truths beyond what the “natural man or woman” can find, stability when the world around is reeling, light when we have been traveling blindly. A world of invitation awaits. So many things about our lives we cannot choose, but we can decide where our minds travel.
One of my favorite passages is the record of a sleepless night spent by Lucy Mack Smith guarding the chest that held the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. This was during the time the Book of Mormon was being printed in Palmyra.42 Guards were posted around her home, because enemies of the new church hoped to steal the manuscript and burn it. That night she could not sleep for pondering. As she said, “I fell into a train of reflections which occupied my mind until the day appeared. I called up to my recollection,” she said, “the past history of my life, and scene after scene seemed to rise in succession before me.” During that night she thought of her family, of her intense search to find the truth of salvation. She remembered her confidence that God would raise up someone who would bring the truth to “those who desired to do his will at the expense of all other things.” She remembered with “infinite delight” the truths that Joseph had taught her. She said:
My soul swelled with a joy that could scarcely be heightened, except by the reflection that the record which had cost so much labor, suffering, and anxiety was now, in reality, lying beneath my own head—that this identical work had not only been the object which we as a family had pursued so eagerly, but that prophets of ancient days, angels, and even the great God had had his eye upon it. “And,” said I to myself, “shall I fear what man can do? Will not the angels watch over the precious relic of the worthy dead and the hope of the living? And am I indeed the mother of a prophet of the God of heaven, the honored instrument in performing so great a work?” I felt that I was in the purview of angels, and my heart bounded at the thought of the great condescension of the Almighty.
Thus I spent the night surrounded by enemies and yet in an ecstasy of happiness. Truly I can say that my soul did magnify and my spirit rejoiced in God, my Savior.43
May our ponderings give us light in our journeys, perspective for the moment, and enlightenment in both big things and things that are big to us. One night years ago, when I had been pondering and praying about how to help my daughter, I was given just the right thing to say at the right moment. It was a big thing to me.