The Great Plan of Happiness and Personal Revelation

Elder Boyd K. Packer
of the Quorum of the Twelve

(Address given at Young Adults Church Education System broadcast 7 November 1993;
reprinted in Boyd K. Packer, Things of the Soul [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996], pp. 45-60)

Here I want to discuss two matters: a plan and revelation.

On a Sunday evening in a west coast airport, I met a friend from college days. As we talked of olden times, the names and faces of classmates were drawn from memory like clips from old movies. Some few are gone, but most have retired and spend their time with families, traveling, many of them serving missions. In their older days they draw on resources, seen and unseen, which they earned when they were young.

The ones we admire most are those who have lived very ordinary lives untouched by wealth or prominence, having made a success of those things which matter most-faith and family. I asked about one classmate, more gifted than all the rest of us, the one most likely to succeed. We had all watched as he rose to national prominence and then disappeared. Where was he now?

My friend told me that after our classmate achieved both fame and good fortune, he fell away into forbidden paths and was lost.

There came to my mind words from a literature class in those college days-words of a poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. He told of a peasant girl, Maud Muller. One day as she worked in the hayfield with her family, she stopped to drink from the spring. As she stooped to get a drink, a rider on horseback drew near. Maud Muller looked up into the face of a noble young man. He asked her for a drink.

She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,
And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.

He was captivated by her bashful, hazel-eyed innocence, for
Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.
He spoke of grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing bird and humming bees …

At last, like one who for delay
Seeks vain excuse, he rode away.
And she, looking after him, thought,
Ah me! That I [his] bride might be!"

The [man] looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.
"A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne'er hath it been my lot to meet.

And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.
Would she were mine, and I today,
Like her, a harvester of hay;" …

He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.
Yet oft, in his marble hearth's bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go,
And sweet Maud Muller's hazel eyes
Looked out in innocent surprise.

As for Maud Muller,
Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;
But she saw her man … by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o'er pipe and mug, …
Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, "It might have been."

Then said the poet:

God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

Follow the Right Plan

I thought that night of my generation, for whom now "it might have been," and of the current generation of youth, for whom "it is yet to be."

I can imagine some young persons reading this and thinking: "Too late! I've completely ruined my life already." I understand! You may think that a dozen times or more in the next few years. But it is not so. In fact, whatever your age, if you follow the right plan, you will be all right. Come what may, wherever you go, whatever happens to the world, whatever trials you face, you need not fear the future. "If ye are prepared ye shall not fear" (D&C 38:30). I assure you, you need not fear the future. You will be happy-if, that is, you follow "the great plan of happiness."

The plan of happiness comes with many choices and options to suit individual personalities, abilities, desires, and needs.
The plan is found in the scriptures, and spoken of as:

  • The Merciful Plan of the Great Creator (2 Nephi 9:6; Alma 42:15, 31).
  • The Great Plan of Redemption (Alma 12:25, 26, 30, 32; 17:16; 18:39; 22:13-14; 29:2; 34:16, 31; 39:18; 42:11; Jacob 6:8).
  • The Plan of Salvation (Jarom 1:2; Alma 24:14; 42:5; Moses 6:62).
  • The Great Plan of the Eternal God (2 Nephi 9:13; Alma 34:9; Abraham 4:21).
  • The Eternal Plan of Deliverance (2 Nephi 11:5).
  • The Plan of Restoration (Alma 41:2).

And the title I favor:

  • The Great Plan of Happiness (Alma 42:8, 16).

Once a person has even the outline of the plan, he knows which way to go.

Following are the essential components of the great plan of happiness, of redemption, of salvation.

Premortal Life

First, our premortal existence. I don't know of any idea that helps us make sense out of life as much as this fundamental truth: We lived as spirit children-individual, intelligent sons and daughters of God-before our mortal birth. So many things in life can be understood only if we know there was a premortal life, and so many things can never be understood without that knowledge.

Why is it that two children born of the same earthly parents, so alike in physical appearance, frequently are so different in personality, temperament, and disposition-which seem inborn with them? Further, did you ever ponder on the expression "all men are created equal" (which incidentally is not a scriptural statement) and wonder, if this is true, why there is so much inequity and seeming unfairness in life? Why the unequal distribution of talents and gifts, of advantages and disadvantages?

I don't know how to answer such questions as these without the doctrine of a premortal life.

This great plan of happiness was first presented in a grand council in our premortal life. Each of us was there, a son or a daughter of God. Each had a choice to accept or to reject it. There was a rebellion, and a war erupted over the plan. Our being here with a mortal body tells us we were on the right side.

The leader of the rebellion formulated a plan of his own. It is described in the revelations as the "cunning plan of the evil one" or the "very subtle plan of the adversary" (2 Nephi 9:28; Alma 12:4-5) or the "great plan of destruction" (3 Nephi 1:16; see also Helaman 2:8; D&C 10:12).

Each of us chose the great plan of happiness. We know this because otherwise we would not be here in mortality. So far, so good.

But in mortal life, with both good and evil present, we must decide again. We must undergo the test. We have been given our agency and cannot escape confirming or rejecting the decision we made in the first estate. It is "choose you this day whom ye will serve" (Joshua 24:15; Alma 30:8; see also D&C 127:2; Moses 6:33).

Following are the other components of the plan of happiness, in outline form.

After the spirit creation, the physical creation of the world and all living things took place, with a separate creation of physical bodies for the sons and daughters of God.

The Fall of Adam and Eve

The transfer from the first estate in heaven to the second estate in mortality is in effect the fall of man. Even though we may not fully understand it now, we need to accept the Fall as truth or we will not understand the ministry of Christ as our Redeemer, the Atonement, the ordinances and covenants, or the purposes of life itself.

The Fall came by transgression of a law, but there was no sin connected with it. There is a difference between transgression and sin. Both always bring consequences. While it may not be a sin to step off a roof, in doing so one becomes subject to the law of gravity, and consequences will follow.

The fall of man was made from the presence of God to this mortal life, where, now in the presence of both good and evil, we face the test.

The plan provides that we experience all that is good in life. It is intended that we be happy.

The Atoning Savior

Essential to the plan is the Redeemer, who compensated for the transgression which brought about the Fall and guaranteed that, regardless of who we are or what we do, we will rise from the dead in the resurrection. However, we will not return to the presence of God unless we are clean.

The plan presupposes mistakes. Under the plan, penalties connected with bad choices, our sins, may be cancelled on condition that we keep the commandments which activate the influence of the Atonement.

We are commanded to do some things, and we are commanded not to do others in order to merit the redeeming power of that sacrifice, the atonement of Christ. The choice is ours. Alma said, "God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption" (Alma 12:32).

A Plan and a Creator

The plan is not based on chance, nor on accident. It is based on purpose, on agency, on choice. It accords with laws which were in force long before the plan was ever laid down. All of it has order; all of it was planned for us.

The beauty and precision of the universe, the endless variety of plant and animal life, all testify of a plan, and of a Creator.

  • The bats, who invented radar.
  • The beaver with his contracting license.
  • The hummingbird, a tenth of an ounce, navigating with more proficiency than could Magellan or Columbus, or any who have followed them.
  • The swallows, who keep a calendar.
  • The monarch butterfly, who summers in Canada but owns shares in a condominium in Mexico.
  • The trapdoor spider, who invented camouflage.
  • The bees, who pioneered the year's supply then taught it to the squirrels.
  • The birds, who designed hollow bones so that they could fly.
  • The duck, choosing a broad, flat breast so that Archimedes wouldn't be ridiculed when he expounded his principles of flotation. 
  • Water, volunteering to expand when it gets cold (rather than to contract, like everything else does), so that ice cubes will float in a glass and so that fish won't have to evolve an ice pick in order to get supper from the bottom of a lake.
  • Planets that flew into orbit and became so addicted to running in circles that we can locate with exact precision where they were five thousand years ago and where they will be a thousand years from now.

The Lord said that "any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power" (D&C 88:47).

We could list on for a thousand pages and not begin to list all that was created to give beauty and variety to the face of the earth. And Enoch said, "Were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of [his] creations" (Moses 7:30).

Don't Accept Conflicting Philosophies of Men

The scriptures tell us "it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things" (2 Nephi 2:11). Therefore, we will be confronted with philosophies of men which conflict with the plan of redemption. We must be sure we don't "buy into" them. Any philosophy that claims to exempt us from moral or spiritual accountability will bring trouble.

Do not be ashamed if, especially in your youth, you lack the knowledge, the experience, or even the courage to challenge those theories and philosophies or to confront those who teach them. Sometimes wisdom or common sense may tell you not even to try.

We may safely study and learn about the theories and philosophies of men, but if they contradict the plan of redemption, the great plan of happiness, do not "buy into" them as truth. If you do, you may be putting a mortgage on your testimony, on your knowledge of premortal life, on the creation of man, on the Fall and the Atonement, on your Redeemer, the Resurrection, and exaltation; for "every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" (Matthew 15:13).

If you "buy into" the philosophies of men, you may have your testimony repossessed. Your respect for moral law may go with it, and you will end up with nothing. "Everything that is in the world, whether it be ordained of men, by thrones, or principalities, or powers, or things of name, whatsoever they may be, that are not by me or by my word, saith the Lord, shall be thrown down, and shall not remain after men are dead" (D&C 132:13).

The prophet Jacob urged us not to spend our labor for "that which is of no worth … which cannot satisfy" (2 Nephi 9:51).

Testimony Comes from Personal Revelation

Now, although a testimony of this plan is of crucial importance to us, we must not count on winning many debates on the plan of redemption versus the prevailing theories and philosophies of men. I learned a long time ago that spiritual knowledge is described in a different language than is secular knowledge.

On this I had a valuable experience before I was a General Authority. It affected me profoundly. I sat on a plane next to a professed atheist who ridiculed my belief in God. I bore my testimony to him: "There is a God. I know He lives!"

He said: "You don't know. Nobody knows that. You can't know it." When I would not yield, the atheist posed perhaps the ultimate challenge to testimony. "All right," he said in a sneering, condescending way, "you say you know." Then, "Tell me how you know."

I could not do it. I was helpless to communicate. When I used the words spirit and witness, the atheist responded, "I don't know what you are talking about." The words prayer, discernment, and faith also were meaningless to him.

"You see," he said, "you don't really know. If you did, you would be able to tell me how you know."

Perhaps, I thought, I had borne my testimony to him unwisely, and I was at a loss as to what to do. Then came the experience. A thought, a revelation, came into my mind, and I said to the atheist: "Let me ask you a question. Do you know what salt tastes like?"

"Of course I do," was his reply.

"When did you taste salt last?"

"I just had dinner on the plane."

"You just think you know what salt tastes like," I said.

He insisted, "I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything."

"If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar, could you tell the salt from the sugar if I let you taste them both?"

"Now you are getting juvenile," he said. "Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. I know it as well as I know anything."

"Then," I said, "assuming that I have never tasted salt, explain to me just what it tastes like."

After some thought, he ventured, "Well-I-uh, it is not sweet, and it is not sour."

"You've told me what it isn't, not what it is."

After several attempts, of course he could not do it. He could not convey, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt.

I bore testimony to him once again and said: "I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words alone how this knowledge has come than you are able to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He lives! And just because you don't know, don't try to tell me that I don't know, for I do!"

As we parted, I heard him mutter: "I don't need your religion for a crutch. I don't need it."

That to me was a great lesson on personal revelation. From it I learned about prompting and the truth of the scripture which says, "Treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man" (D&C 84:85).

Since then I have never been embarrassed or ashamed that I could not explain in words alone everything I know spiritually, or tell just how I received it. From such experiences we will surely suffer some humiliation, but that is good for our faith. And we have an ever-present guide. We will be tested, but we will never be left without help.

Someone wrote:

With thoughtless and impatient hands
We tangle up the plan
The Lord hath wrought.
And when we cry in pain, he saith,
"Be quiet, man, while I untie the knot."

The Lord said, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). The process of knowing is personal revelation.

I base what I will say about personal revelation on two gospel principles. The first principle is this: We are dual beings, a spirit son or daughter of God, alive and intelligent in the first estate, confined now to a body of flesh and bone. "The spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15). The spirit is eternal; the body will become so. There are languages we can speak and hear with the body. There are languages of the spirit, one being revelation.

The second principle: There are two sources of revelation-the one consistent with the great plan of happiness, the other growing from "the cunning plan of the evil one" (2 Nephi 9:28). So that we will not be deceived, there is order in the Church and there are established channels through which revelation is given to the Church and to us, its members, as individuals.

It should not be as difficult as it is to teach the reality of the spirit to some adults, especially those who "when they are learned they think they are wise" (2 Nephi 9:28). But the Lord taught that "except ye … become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3; see also Luke 18:17; 3 Nephi 11:37-38).

Perhaps that is because little children learn quickly things that adults are slow to comprehend. A friend told me that his young son knew all about computers, and said, "I have no idea where he gets it." I said, "Probably from his younger brother or sister."

The computer is a good illustration of our dual nature. Computers are made of metal, plastic, and glass, and can hold an astonishing amount of information-all the standard works, sets of encyclopedias, dictionaries, whole libraries, even illustrations. Press the keys, and you can select any part of what is stored and see it instantly on a screen. You can rearrange, add to, or subtract from what is stored in the computer, and can print on paper whatever you desire, even in full color. You then can hold in your hand tangible, absolute proof of what is inside that box of metal and glass and plastic.

However, should you take the computer completely apart or melt it down, you could find not one word, not one illustration-no tangible evidence that there were volumes, verses, or illustrations inside the computer. You could no more find words in the ashes of a computer than you could find the spirit in the ashes of a cremated human body.

Notwithstanding that the spirit is invisible and intangible, it is the very essence of reality. "Ye are the temple of God, and … the Spirit of God dwelleth in you" (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Revelation is the process of communication to the spiritual eyes and to the spiritual ears that were ours before our mortal birth. The scriptures speak of "the eyes of our understanding" (see Jeremiah 5:21; Ephesians 1:18; 2 Nephi 21:3; D&C 110:1; 138:11, 29), and of "blindness of mind" (Ether 4:15) and of heart (Deuteronomy 28:28; Ephesians 4:18; D&C 58:15). They speak of "feeling" words, rather than hearing them (1 Nephi 17:45), and of the still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12; 1 Nephi 17:45).

Light of Christ and Gift of the Holy Ghost

There is a quiet, spiritual endowment that every soul who comes into mortality receives. Whether this inner light, this inborn knowledge of right and wrong, is called the light of Christ, moral sense, or conscience, it moderates our actions-unless, that is, we subdue it or destroy it. It is an ingredient which has no counterpart in animals.

In addition to that, after baptism the ordinance of confirmation confers upon us the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is the supernal gift. The Holy Ghost is the spirit of revelation: "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground. Therefore this is thy gift; apply unto it, and blessed art thou, for it shall deliver you out of the hands of your enemies." (D&C 8:2-4.)

After Nephi explained that angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, he said something else that applies to every one of us: "Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark. For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do." (2 Nephi 32:4-5.)

Learn to see with the spiritual "eyes of your understanding"; learn to feel the words of the still, small voice, the voice of the Spirit, the voice of revelation.

The Prophet Joseph Smith explained plainly how revelation can work: "A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.,) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus" (Teachings, p. 151).

The Lord taught Oliver Cowdery (and all of us) about revelation: "But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right" (D&C 9:8).

Personal Spiritual Experiences

Dreams and visions and visitations are not uncommon in the Church and are a part of all that the Lord has revealed in this dispensation. Thus a worthy Church member may be the recipient of a marvelous spiritual experience. I have come to know that these experiences are personal and are to be kept private. Recipients should ponder them in their heart and not talk lightly about them. (See Alma 12:9.)

Those personal spiritual experiences do not convey any authority to direct the lives of others unless the recipient is the father or the mother or one who has been properly called and set apart. "It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church" (D&C 42:11).

I have come to know that the witness does not come by seeking after signs. It will not yield itself to pressure or to force. It comes through fasting and prayer, through activity and testing, through obedience. It comes through sustaining the servants of the Lord and following them.

Karl G. Maeser was leading a group of missionaries across the Alps. As they reached a summit, he stopped. Gesturing back down the trail to some poles set in the snow to mark the safe path across the glacier, he said, "Brethren, there stands the Priesthood. They are just common sticks like the rest of us … but the position they hold makes them what they are to us. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost." (Alma P. Burton,Karl G. Maeser, Mormon Educator, p. 22.)

There Are Two Plans

A warning! Remember, there are two plans: the great plan of happiness and the "very subtle plan of the adversary." The adversary speaks to the spirit in clever counterfeit languages, and many are deceived by it. To our young people I say, stay close to your bishop, your priesthood leaders. Follow their counsel and I promise you that you will not be led astray. Beware of others who presume to have revelations to direct your life.

The prophets have said, "Ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free" (Helaman 14:30).

Each of us has agency; each is free to choose. Nothing can free us spiritually more than obedience-obedience to the laws, to the Lord. Nothing is more liberating spiritually than the worthiness which is maintained, and at times perhaps must be reclaimed, through repentance. We need to keep the Word of Wisdom (that is the key to revelation, to treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures); pay tithes and offerings; sustain our leaders; study the scriptures (therein is a testimony of the Restoration as it relates to the great plan of happiness). We must live the gospel. The gospel is the Great Plan of Happiness. By following its path, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

The plan of happiness is not apparent in the Bible. Only after one studies the Book of Mormon, particularly, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, and then revisits the Bible, does one see elements of the plan scattered through it from beginning to end.

Obedience Leads to Happiness

I cannot overemphasize that one's independence and spiritual strength depend on obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. As we do so willingly we will learn to trust those delicate, sensitive, spiritual promptings. We will learn that they invariably lead us to righteousness, to happiness.

I indicated at the beginning that we know which way mortals chose in that grand council in heaven. Let me say particularly to the young people of the Church that I know something else about you. Because Church leaders can see what awaits your generation in the future, we also know that you are a generation of great promise, of great spiritual power.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophets spoke of a generation which "because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity … [forgot] the Lord their God, and [did] trample under their feet the Holy One," in consequence of which they were chastened with "all manner of pestilence," with death and with terror (Helaman 12:2-3). Did you ever read those words in the scriptures-pestilence, terror?

The Lord has never abandoned the earth to the power of the adversary. Always there has been a superior compensating power of inspiration and righteousness.

Justice and Mercy

Now, what of my college classmate who fell away into forbidden paths and was lost? Will he be gone forever? Not so! The final page will not be turned, nor the record of the plan of salvation put away, until he too is redeemed. He will pay the uttermost farthing (Matthew 5:26) for his mistakes, for the law requires it. But Mercy, our gentle friend, will revisit him and remind him of his accountability until finally he is willing to yield to the demands of Justice, clean up his premises, haul away the rubbish left there by both sin and transgression, and put his house in order.

Justice can seem to be so very demanding. But we must learn that when we put everything as right as we can put it right, it is Justice who invokes the Atonement, orders the adversary off our property, and posts the notice that his agents will make no more collections from us. Our debt will have been paid in full by the only perfect pure person who ever lived.

When that prodigal classmate of ours is wiser than he has yet shown himself to be, he will have learned that Justice is another name for Mercy, and Mercy is another name for Justice.

In the revelations there is a touching interview between Enoch and the Lord:

And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?

And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?

And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; … how is it thou canst weep? … .

The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency… .

… Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? (Moses 7:28-32, 37.)

Our Father's Plan

We rightly call it the Great Plan of Happiness, for so it is. It should be known as well as Our Father's Plan. As we grow older and, we hope, wiser, particularly when we have children of our own, we come to realize that the whole plan of happiness was designed for us and for them by our Father.

Young people, now move forward much as did Nephi of old, of which he said: "I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do" (1 Nephi 4:6). But we all have a plan to follow-the Great Plan of Happiness, Our Father's Plan. And His "word is a lamp unto [thy] feet, and a light unto [thy] path" (Psalm 119:105).

I bear witness of our Father, the architect of the plan; and of the Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and the central, pivotal figure in that plan. I close with the latter's comforting words:

If ye love me, keep my commandments.

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. (John 14:15-18.)