The Education of Our Desires
Elder Neal A. Maxwell
of the Quorum of the Twelve
(University of Utah Institute of Religion Devotional, 5 January 1983; transcribed by Daniel R. Mower)

I apologize for the condition of my voice. As I said to the group in the prayer meeting, if I’ve got to have President Kimball’s voice, I’d like to have his virtues as well. I hope you’ll come to this place regularly. My wife and I first met at Institute at the University of Utah. I can’t promise you’ll find your partner here but I’m so glad I came to the Institute for all kinds of reasons, and that of course is chief among them. You’ll be able to keep your learning in true perspective if you take advantage of the institute coursework, and I hope you’ll come. I thank the choir for that lovely number and special preparation that it undoubtedly took.

I’m grateful to be with you tonight and want you to know how highly I regard you. It is, brothers and sisters, and will be your lot to strive to be true Latter-day Saints in a most unusual time in the Earth’s history. You have fallen into history at a time when in the paraphrased words of Joseph Sobran, who has described our time so eloquently and candidly, when the family is becoming a political subdivision of the state with parents acting as minor civil servants. Yours, Sobran said, “is also a time when the dirty joke has ceased being a joke and has become a lifestyle.” You likewise live when the old sins are now the new rights.

To those perceptive observations I should like now to add my own comments. It is your lot to live in a secular society when there is growing tolerance for almost everything except that which is spiritual, and when more and more individuals wrongly conclude that there are no absolute principles to be honored, only personal preferences to be obeyed. Likewise, brothers and sisters, yours is the time, scripturally speaking, when some people will rage against that which is good and will for the praise of the world even make war upon the saints. You will need to learn to love and to defend the Book of Mormon, which you can do, by the way, by coming to the excellent courses here. The Book of Mormon, by the way, is the only book which people feel they need not read before they reject it. Moreover amid cresting criticism, you will serve in the church at a time when many non-members will accept only those descriptions of the church which are given by the church’s dropouts. You will have demonstrated for you in so many ways, regardless of his intentions, how the adversary actually seeks the misery of all mankind, what might be called the joyless herd. So be it. Collectively you will handle such stern challenges because you are made of stern stuff. You will be able to manage all of these things because you have oil in your lamps.

Unlike some of those in Jeremiah’s time who were “not valiant for the truth upon the Earth” (Jeremiah 9:3); collectively you will be anchored in and be valiant for the truth. Let our enemies, if they choose, mock or imitate the sacred temple rites, scorn the prophets, rejoice over the imperfection of leaders and members in the church. Such scoffing was foreseen and you will be able to cling to the iron rod and pass through the thick mist successfully. Do not be surprised however if, in order to strengthen the gospel grasp of its church members, the church increasingly focuses on teaching the basics of the gospel, such as the plan of salvation, concerning which the choir sang so beautifully tonight.

Anciently there was a time when one prophet found it necessary to leave off his administrated chores to go among the people and to preach with his own mouth the gospel to them; in order to stir them up in remembrance of their duty. There was apparently no other way that people could be reclaimed. Alma recognized how powerful the words of truth are when he said, “[For] the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea it had had a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5). It will be a great help to you in the kind of times in which you live if you try the virtue of the word of God—even more than you now do.

And if you become, brothers and sisters, even more familiar than you now are with what might be called the grammar of the gospel—that is, its basic elements, its doctrines, [and] its structural as well as conceptual relationships between all that makes up the gospel of Jesus Christ—by heightening your literacy in spiritual things, you will become increasingly able to withstand the heat of the day. This literacy in spiritual things will enable you to give principle preeminence over procedure, but without being ignorant of procedure in the kingdom.

You will be able to balance the needs for both substance and structure in your lives. This spiritual literacy will likewise permit you to blend the comprehension of the gospel doctrines with the doing of its duties. And thus balanced; you will be able to stand. As you come to understand even better God’s very straightforward plan of salvation, the time will come, if you are not already there, when you will actually exclaim with Jacob, “O how great the plan of our God!” (2 Nephi 9:13). Once this is achieved you will also be able to understand, better than you now do, what the scriptures call the adversary’s plan, which is “a very subtle plan” (Alma 12:4). When the adversary wants to harvest people, in words found in Ether, he simply decides to “[adopt] the old plans” (Ether 10:33). They have served him so well for so long. As your grasp of the gospel is strengthened, you will be able to avoid “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14). So many in our society engage in one form or another of looking beyond the mark. They are like a person in a speeding car who focuses on a traffic light two intersections away while running a red light at the immediate intersection. Such people lack the precious perspective of the gospel. Though refusing to be overwhelmed by the simplicity of the obvious, they are taken in by the complexity of trivia; all because they lack a basic sense of proportion.

With gospel perspective, brothers and sisters, you will be concerned not only with social, political, and economic inequality, but you will become more and more anxious about another form of inequality. It is the most profound form of inequality of all. It is that inequality, the scriptures tell us, which is brought about by sin and transgression. It is the most lasting form of inequality. Clearly the Lord loves us all perfectly, individually, but the righteous are favored of God because they receive blessings according to obedience to his laws (see 1 Nephi 17:35). These blessings therefore come to mankind unequally and differentially, because of our differential desires; desires, which inevitably we carry out one way or another.

What I have said up to now is a rather long introduction to my text for tonight which I have entitled “The Education of Our Desires”. It is an intriguing quotation from President Joseph F. Smith, which says much about the importance of continuing education, in that you and I have continuing challenge to educate our desires. For tonight’s purpose I shall define desire as characterizing our very inmost feelings as representing the distillation of our strongest motivations and as that which truly calls the cadence for our thoughts and our deeds. Indeed, brothers and sisters, our desires clearly control the tilt of our souls.

We may one day find that our desires are truly our own and cannot be wholly implanted from outside by anybody—even God—without dishonoring our individual moral agency by means of which we are free to choose good or evil. Especially in our time, the buffet which is spread before believers permits you to choose more than your parents and grandparents from a myriad of opportunities to do good. It is the most elaborate buffet for believers ever prepared.

Your opportunities for service are greater than any of those who have preceded you. Alas, however, the smorgasbord of sin is presented to you in an astounding array. And accessibility to it, is less restrained by peer, by family, by political, and by social pressures than ever before in the past. Therefore your generation, perhaps more than any other, is free to choose. And this is a time when the contrast between that which is good and evil, that which is right and wrong, is sharpened and profound. Therefore, your deepest desires will control your choices, and your choices will then control the consequences to be felt both in this life and in the life to come. Alma, as he did so often, put the case succinctly. “I ought not to harrow up in my desires, the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men … according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction” (Alma 29:4)

Let me cite some examples of the role of desire as we see it operating in scriptural history. Abraham, for instance, desired greater knowledge, greater righteousness, greater happiness in his life; much more than he found in his father’s household. And he records, “And finding there was greater happiness in peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, … having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess greater knowledge, … and desiring to receive instructions, … I became a rightful heir” (Abraham 1:2). He really wanted to be righteous. He had a lapsing father, but his desires overcame the poor example that he had before him. Some of you may have that challenge too; that is, a lapsing parent. Nephi’s challenge was somewhat different. Nephi was impressed both by what his father was and what he knew. And Nephi desired to know more about the Lord’s overarching plan of life. “For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, 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” (1 Nephi 11:1). Two young men desiring something better than that which they then had: one with a righteous father; one with a lapsing father. But what they desired then controlled what happened subsequently. No wonder, as President Joseph F. Smith said, “You and I must take great care concerning the education of our desires.”

I do not, brothers and sisters, know, at what precise point the prodigal son came to his senses, or precisely what the proceeding emotions and experiences were, but he did come to his senses and then he acted upon his desire for a better life. The scriptures say, “when he came to himself” then he “[arose] and [went] home to [his] father” (Luke 15:17-18). I don’t know either what preceded Enos’ stirrings of desire or righteous service to his fellowman, but he acted upon them. Just how these stirrings of desire begin within us, we know not. Enos records how it was that he began to feel a desire for the welfare of his fellow man. He prayed mightily and was given according to the desires of his heart (Enos 1). The Lord can work with us, he tells us in the scriptures, “even if [we] can do no more than to desire to believe” (Alma 32:27). But presumably we must initiate and develop the desire. It is my personal opinion that desire is not something, given our free agency, which can be developed within us against our will. Perhaps you will permit a parenthetical example.

Much celebrated in our time is a so called roots phenomenon, people wanting to know about their ancestors. It is not a new phenomenon. We read in the book of Mormon about how Mosiah expended much effort to have certain Jaredite records translated. Why? “And this he did because of the great anxiety of his people; for they were desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed” (Mosiah 28:12). So our desires stir us deeply whether as the prodigal son or young prophet Enos or people who wish to know about their ancestors. These desires are a profound part of our personality. They lie at the very root of our being. And therefore our deeds and our actions really become an extension of those desires. One prophet wrote, “And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good” (Alma 41:3-5). The one is raised to happiness according to his desires, and the other who has desired evil, so he shall have his reward too.

Indeed our desires even control the degree of divine disclosure that can be given to us as was true of this group about whom we read in the scriptures. “Yea, after having been such a highly favored people of the Lord; yea, after having been favored above every other nation, kindred, tongue, or people; after having had all things made known unto them, according to their desires, … [they learned] of that which has been, and which is, and which is to come” (Alma 9:20). Some really wanted to know, brothers and sisters, they really wanted to know about the history of man before their time, during their time, and that which was to come. They really desired to know, and it was granted to them. Indeed, part of our problem at times is that we sometimes desire to know truth but not all of it.

In one revelation we read of a certain people, “Behold, I say unto you that they desire to know the truth in part, but not all, for they are not right before me” (D&C 49:2). There are people who want the truth but not all of it, and they too get their desires. Once there were those who believed on Jesus. These men were placed in a power structure of ancient Jerusalem. They believed on him, but they desired their seats in the Synagogue more than to become his followers. “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more that the praise of God” (John 12:42-43). I wonder where those seats in the synagogue are. They got their desires; they kept their place in the synagogue and missed the great adventure of discipleship for Jesus. But it was according to their desire. And at judgment time they cannot have it any other way. They got that which they desired. Again, no wonder it is so vital that we educate our desires. We become the composite of our desires; and so the relentless justice of God, as well as his ceaseless mercy operate, bringing about a situation of which Jeremiah said, “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10).

We live, as I have indicated to you, in a carnal and secular society. It is becoming more so; except for people like you. These words might describe our society, “having gone according to their own carnal wills and desires; having never called upon the Lord while the arms of mercy were extended towards them; for the arms of mercy were extended towards them, and they would not; they being warned of their iniquities and yet they would not depart from them” Mosiah 16:12). King Noah for instance, represented, as you know, gross personal immorality. He also was a political leader who believed in a gross taxation of his people almost as if the two things went together. King Noah received the desires of his heart, for which he alone was responsible.

Now because you are advancing disciples, though youthful, I share with you this sober warning about the continuing need for us to educate our desires. “For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him” (D&C 3:4). It is the continuing education of our desires and the alignment of those desires with the desires of our Heavenly Father that becomes the great challenge of education for us.

Now may I presume to give you some counsel out of the love and respect I have for you as the generations who will govern the church and who have such a rendezvous with destiny. My counsel is rooted in respect for the free agency that God has given to you. But I speak, I think realistically, because as indicated earlier, if ever there were a generation that could do merely as it pleased behaviorally, yours is it. Unless you align your desires with those of the Lord you will have neither happiness here nor everlasting joy in the world to come. And the education of your desires includes developing a sense of history so that you will see nonsense for what it is. However resplendently arrayed in the fashions of the day, “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Therefore I plead with you, please do not mistake the laughter of the world for genuine happiness. The laughter of the world is merely garrulous guilt trying to reassure itself. It is the sound of selfishness emanating from the cul-de-sac of terrible loneliness. Don’t mistake it for something else.

If like Abraham of old you desire even greater happiness, then you too must also be desirous of being further instructed in the ways of the Lord and in the grammar of the gospel. You must seek to comprehend not only the structure of the plan of salvation but also its substance including the schooling that must come to each of us concerning the wintry doctrines of the gospel, such as those about the role of adversity; two of which I read you now. “My people must be tried in all things”—that isn’t somebody down the block, that’s you—“that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom” (D&C 136:31). From Mosiah, “nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 23:21). That’s us, brothers and sisters, about whom the scriptures speak [of] our need to develop the capacity to be patient in the midst of life’s ordinariness or its tribulations, to develop the capacity to accept chastening circumstances that are required for the shaping of our soul. We can better do that if we understand the grammar of the gospel and the structure as well of the substance of the plan of salvation. The tutorial implications of the scriptures I have just read to you are enormous. The implications of those scriptures can only be managed by our desiring, and then developing, a deep trust in our Heavenly Father, in his purposes and in his love of each of us.

When we have a genuine desire for him to instruct us—as did Abraham—and to tutor us—as did Abraham—then either the onrushing and sometimes crushing events of life or its deceptive ordinariness will be seen realistically and developmentally by us. Either way, one will then allow for the divine design and the pattern which is present even when we cannot see it. A perplexed Nephi on one occasion said of his Father in Heaven, “I know that he (God) loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). He knew what mattered most. He didn’t know all the other answers, but he know that God loved him, and that must be yours and that sense of his love must sense into the very marrow of your soul so that you can trust him when he is stretching your soul and know that he loves you even when you cannot explain the meaning of all the other things that are going on around you. The clinical experiences of life, brothers and sisters, are built into even the seeming ordinariness of life, into the repetition of life itself. Sometimes, as the Prophet Joseph said, “We have crushing experiences that break off a whole piece of us painfully.” My experience is that while that sometimes happens, most of the time our soul gets polished by the sandpaper of circumstances, relentlessly, carefully, and yet it is underway. If we have that kind of deepened trust and the desire to be instructed, then we will have the patience so that we can outlast life’s seemingly imponderables and the seeming contradictions.

In perhaps the most significant dimension of desire, we must be willing to submit to our Father in Heaven even in those moments when he desires us to be righteously independent in making some of life’s most difficult decisions, in order that we will develop our capacity to act for ourselves under the influence of his spirit and to be his friend in all circumstances, even in the midst of gloom. It is that circumstance about which President Brigham Young spoke when he said that “you and I must learn to be righteous in the dark.” And that requires us to be tutored and to desire to be tutored even in those circumstances that cause such wrenching of the soul. Abraham, if he had not early on had a deep desire to be instructed in the ways of the Lord, could not have done what he did on Mount Moriah. The one followed the other. When we have this kind of precious perspective we have another great advantage. We will not mistake the imperfections in each other or in the institution of the church for imperfections in God or his plan. And that requires some sophistication, but if we desire to develop that kind of trust, we can. We will come to understand how it is that we are in a congregation of imperfect people who are saints in the slow, slow process of becoming. That means so many things in the church are done very imperfectly; it must be so in this laboratory of life and as we pass through these necessary clinical experiences, and it shouldn’t surprise us, since we end up practicing on each other, sometimes cruelly, sometimes indifferently, and sometimes we practice on each other with the zeal that doesn’t have much wisdom to accompany it. Either way, once we have the precious perspective of the plan of salvation we can surmount those disappointments, and that’s why I focus tonight on our strengthening our gospel grasp upon the iron rod. Frankly, brothers and sisters, I see no way for us to educate our desires except for us to first understand God’s desires for us and then to proceed in that lifelong educational process to align our desires with his. It can never be the other way around. God’s plan of salvation is plain, is straightforward. There can be no mistaking its purposes. We are to become like Jesus virtue by virtue, experience by experience. There is neither another objective nor any other way. And once we desire to be instructed by him, we will see that it is so.

Now we do a lot of other chores while we’re here in mortality, [for] some of which your education at the University of Utah is fitting you and fitting you well. Those chores that we do here in mortality, many of them are useful—some of them are even important—but they are part of a process, not the point of the process. And the individualized experiences and opportunities for service, that we will have, each of us, carry within each experience an opportunity to become more like Jesus if we will but use that opportunity. But we won’t unless we desire to be like him. And we cannot become like him, unless we first desire to be like him. And that means once we have made his purposes for us paramount in our lives our souls will be wrenched again and again and again. There is no pain-free way that the natural man can be realigned, and that’s why we must deeply desire to be like him so those desires can then be carried out in our lives. And without those desires, the relentless reminders of his unfolding purposes will become irritations instead of confirmations of his love for us.

There is so much misperception about life that is rooted, brothers and sisters, in the misperceptions of the character and purposes of God. Not only who he is, but what his desires for mankind are. I give to you this interesting example of a misperception about Jesus concerning his birth. The Jewish authorities who waited for the Messiah were looking beyond the mark. They dismissed Jesus of Nazareth because they failed to ascertain that he had been born at Bethlehem. They assumed he was a Galilean because he came from Nazareth. So surely he had been born there; yet he and his parents went to Bethlehem, the city of birth, to be taxed. How could they miss that clue? Because they were looking beyond the mark. And this ancient example of missing the obvious could be multiplied indefinitely by citing the misperceptions of God that abound in the world today. God gets blamed all the time for mankind’s misuse of free agency. He gave us agency so that we could grow. And then many of mankind blame him for the misuse of that agency. God gets blamed for the tutoring and testing dimensions of life because he knows our possibilities better than we know ourselves. Thus it is if people do not desire, really desire to believe in the Lord, give up their seats in the synagogue if necessary, they will not desire to behave unless they desire to believe; and we ought not to be so surprised once people’s theology comes tumbling down that so does their behavior. Now the rationalizations that people produce when they are about to sin would be amusing if they weren’t so tragic. Every time I hear someone say, “I have a right to be happy” it makes me nervous because I think they’re about to do something wrong. After all, do not the scriptures inform us that men and women are that “we might have joy”, not that we will have joy? We have an opportunity for happiness—but not a right!

So as I prepare to conclude and thank you for the patience and putting up with this voice (it’s harder for you than it is for me), I suggest to you that the spiritual person is one who is truly literate in the things of the intellect, because such a man or woman is aware and respectful of the lessons that come to us from scriptural history. The sensualist is inevitable provincial. He lets the carnal desires of the moment control. David of old was so provincial; Uriah was the universalist. He understood about loyalty, David forgot. The fleeting things of the moment are allowed to predominate over the things of eternity. I speak not only of sexual lusts but also of inordinate desires for status or praise or wealth or recognition or, even more simply, the desire for careless ease; that casual and slackened and selfish form of life which robs life of its meaning and of its tutoring possibilities by insulating oneself from the very experiences of life which, after all, are why we have come here.

We cannot of course, you and I, frustrate the overall purposes of God for us, as mankind generally. But we can surely fail to rise to our personal possibilities because we fail to desire as did Abraham, that which is possible within us. Around us all the time there are people settling for less than they are, for less than they have the possibility to become. And I believe so much of that stems from an intrinsic failure for them to educate their desires. One of the great virtues of the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that as we ponder it, as we are in a sense flung against it by the circumstances of life, we see tribulation, not as God’s indifference to us but as an expression of his caring, and even more than that, a vote of confidence in that which we have the power to become by surmounting. But without that precious perspective then life is seen differently. Without the precious perspective of the gospel Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” We have the second great commandment which says to us, we are to love our neighbor as our self (see Matthew 22:39). So I plead with you, as one who has confidence in you collectively, educate your desires, as President Smith said. Don’t be distracted by the disturbances around us; as you live in a time indicated earlier when the old sins have become the new rights. Don’t let the smorgasbord of sin become camouflaged by appearing to be anything other than what it always has been—misery, for which there is no relief except repentance.

Now I bear my testimony to you, my brothers and sisters, this church is lead by Jesus Christ, in a marvelous blend of letting us work things out and directive revelation. He has so structured this life’s experiences that a Bishop who is new learns to get revelations, but he does not have everything done for him. He must struggle; he must strive, because that’s the way we grow. And the same might be said for any of us, whatever our calling. The Lord will not make it too easy, because he loves us too much. And if we desire to be like to his son Jesus Christ, we must then submit to those experiences which will help us move in that direction. There is no easy escalator that will take us there. There are no short-cuts. And in a hundred ways that could be mentioned if there were time and voice, he has beckoned us to become like him, because he loves us. And that love is too pristine and pure for him to let us cut corners. One of the things I notice about the straight and narrow path is that there are no corners to be cut. It must be so. So in addition to certifying to you that this is his church, I certify to you the existence of his Lordship Jesus Christ, that he is a reality and that so is his personality a reality. And that whether it is his mercy, his patience, his love, his compassion, his truthfulness, we are to become like him. And he uses the church as a great shaping instrumentality to move us along that path. But it is filled with imperfect people, the church; and that was foreseen by him. And in the midst of that imperfection we are to struggle to become more like him.

And lastly, I certify to you that he loves us with a perfect love, which brings him to that rendezvous yet future for you because you’re young, that moment when he shall stand alone at the entry to his kingdom, for “he employeth no servant there” (2 Nephi 9:21)—there, not only to certify our worthiness to enter, but there because he loves us and he waits for you, brothers and sisters, in that marvelous rendezvous which is so movingly portrayed in the scriptures. He waits for you with open arms. That’s why he’s there. He waits for you with open arms. Do nothing to mar that moment. Do not allow yourself to be deflected from that straight and narrow path, but to arrive at that rendezvous in such a circumstance spiritually that you can be drenched with joy and know the touch of those arms, for his arms of mercy and love are extended for you. I certify to you that rendezvous is a reality. For some of you it will come soon and some later, but it will come if we are faithful. Of that I testify, and I close by giving you an Apostolic blessing that inasmuch as he who knows you best, and loves you best, even perfectly, has placed you here now in the midst of all of these things, some of them so trying and so distressing, I ask his blessings therefore to be upon you and I so bless you, that you can be sufficiently stirred by the desires you now have which are righteous; that those desires can begin to work in you that you will give an increased place for a portion of his words, that there can be a deepening appreciation of the gospel in your lives, and therefore the motivation to become more and more like him; and that in those moments when you will wonder if your courage will fail, to be brave enough to be who you are. And I assure you he has not placed you here to fail, but to succeed. I thank him for that testimony which I leave with you and for such utterance that this feeble voice as I have had tonight. My words are intended to be strong in affection for you, in adoration of Him, in confidence for you, and of assurance that he lives and that he loves you. He does indeed wait for you with open arms, of which I testify as one of his special witnesses, in the holy name of Jesus Christ. Amen.