Reflections on Come Follow Me 1: We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning

Image of the Come Follow Me manuals, from Deseret News.
With the very first lesson of the new Come Follow Me curriculum, the Church is making it clear that every Latter-day Saint is ultimately responsible for their own gospel education. The manual for individual and family study invites us to reflect on what it actually means to take responsibility our own learning (the question is specifically asked on p. 3).

For most people, I imagine, the answer is to dedicate personal time throughout the week, outside of Church, to reading the scriptures, conference talks, and studying gospel topics. And of course that is a part of it—even the main part of it. But I think to truly take responsibility of your own learning, it has to go further than that.

People who take ownership of personal gospel study shouldn’t be dependent on the Church for everything they learn. In a revelation given in Jackson County, Missouri, the Lord stressed to the early Saints, “it is not meet that I should command in all things,” adding that, “he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant” (D&C 58:26). Relying on the Lord—or his divinely appointed leaders—to tell us everything we should do, learn, or know is to be slothful. Instead, like with any “good cause,” we should be “anxiously engaged” in our own gospel learning, and “do many things of [our] free will” (D&C 58:27).

In my view, achieving this kind of proactive independence—where we are not “command[ed] in all things”—requires that we not limit ourselves and our gospel study to the resources provided by the Church. We must become “agents unto [ourselves]” (D&C 58:28), proactively seeking and learning “out of the best books” (D&C 109:7, 14).

Now don’t take that the wrong way. I am not saying that we shouldn’t take advantage of the wonderful resources provided by the Church for gospel study. A lot has been invested into these resources, and they absolutely should be used to their fullest advantage both at home and in the classroom. But the Lord himself has commanded us to “seek learning,” from “the best books” (D&C 88:118)—which surely includes more than just the scriptures, manuals, and Church published material. In fact, President M. Russell Ballard expressly stated that the “best books” include “the best LDS scholarship available.”

If we think or expect that the Church’s resources are all we need for our scripture study, then we are shifting a large chunk of our responsibility from ourselves back to the Church—which is kind of the opposite of taking responsibility for our own learning.

The Church itself has begun to recommend some additional resources, and if you are looking to take your gospel study to the next level, that’s a good place to start. But in my view, even relying solely on external resources recommended by Church isn’t quite owning up to our personal responsibility.
The apostle Paul taught the Thessalonian saints to “prove” or “test” (δοκιμάζετε) “all things” and then “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Alma encouraged the humble Zoramites to “experiment upon [his] words” to see if they are good (Alma 32:27). Responsible gospel learners test, experiment, and judge for themselves whether a book, essay, or website is a good resource for their gospel study, rather than relying on the Church to declare it “good” with its stamp of approval.

Again, I want to be clear about what I am not saying: I am not saying that we should completely ignore or disregard whether the Church has or has not approved a resource. The Church is very deliberate and judicious about which external resources it recommends for gospel study, and so it’s worth taking note. But the ultimate responsibility to evaluate (“test” or “prove”) the merits of any given resource—both those approved and not approved by the Church—must fall upon ourselves. Otherwise, we are not fully taking responsibility for our own learning.

This does not mean that every Latter-day Saint needs to take a deep-dive into New Testament scholarship this year or they aren’t being responsible. The level of engagement and interest will always vary from person-to-person. What’s more, as in all facets of life, different people are ready to take on different levels of responsibility. If you’ve generally been lackadaisical in your personal scripture study up until now, perhaps the best way for you to take more responsibility for your learning is to just get better at reading your scriptures more regularly and not worry about sorting through outside resources at this time.

While everyone should be hoping to make personal progress and grow to take on greater responsibility, however, the end-goal of the Church or gospel study is not to turn everyone into biblical scholars. Some people may never want to take a deep-dive into New Testament scholarship, and that’s OK, really. Where I do think these thoughts are most relevant, however, is with regard to seeking answers to questions.

Asking questions is a fundament part of taking responsibility for your own learning, and the manual for individuals and families offers some principles that can be followed for seeking understanding when we have questions. One thing I notice is that the emphasis is on “addressing” questions, or “seeking understanding” rather than seeking answers—which, as the manual mentions, may not come right away. There simply won’t be “official” answers to everything out there—and expecting there to be is to make the Church, or God, or whomever you think should be answering your question responsible for your learning, instead of yourself. Elder David A. Bednar explained:
I have observed a common characteristic among the instructors who have had the greatest influence in my life. … They refused to give me easy answers to hard questions. In fact, they did not give me any answers at all. Rather, they pointed the way and helped me take the steps to find my own answers.
Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are master teachers, so it should come as no surprise that they do not offer up a lot of easy answers to hard gospel questions. Still, those who put forth the effort to seek can indeed find (cf. Matthew 7:7). But instead of finding direct, easy answers, they’ll usually find resources that can help them seek understanding—and as they gain understanding, they can begin to answer their own questions.

Whether our questions are about Church doctrine, or history, or scripture, we must learn to seek out our own answers. Even as the Church provides resources that can help us better understand various topics, sorting out an answer that satisfies both our hearts and minds must remain our own responsibility. When those questions involve historical or scientific issues, then we should look to relevant experts. President M. Russell Ballard recently taught that when dealing with questions, we should “consult the works of recognized, thoughtful, and faithful LDS scholars,” along with the words of prophets and apostles.

It should be said, however, that scholarship rarely offers definitive answers. Academics generally disagree amongst themselves as to how to answer thorny historical and scientific questions, and so it should come as no surprise that sometimes the scholarly analysis may leave you wanting or unsatisfied; or perhaps an answer that once seemed suitable has become less appealing in light of new learning. That’s OK; even expected. It’s happened to me many times over the last 10 years.

This is why above all else, it’s important that you seek inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit as you approach your gospel study and consider what the best resources for you personally to use would be. Nor is it enough to simply know or understand the gospel on an intellectual, or even spiritual, level—if we truly want learn it, we must seek to live it (John 7:17). When we combine high-level gospel study with living its principles and serving others, we invite the Spirit to come into our lives in a powerful way.

I’d encourage everyone to look at the recent changes in Church schedule and curriculum as an opportunity to take greater responsibility for their own learning. These musings should be understood merely as my own thoughts as to what that really looks like to me, and shouldn’t be considered an indictment of others in any way. Everyone should consider what taking responsibility for learning might look like for them personally, and then seek to implement appropriate changes to their own gospel study habits.