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As I speak in various regions of the Church, people frequently come up to me after my lecture, with a flush of excitement in their voice, and inquire: “what do you think about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I notice the inevitable drop in their countenance as I explain that those documents are valuable and important, but I feel there is so much of greater value and importance yet to discover in the scriptures themselves, the four standard works, that I don’t really have much time for those other curiosities—I actually consider them distractions.

I explain my belief that we should be aware of these other documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha; we should be acquainted generally with the theories of “higher criticism,” the Documentary Hypothesis, Book of Mormon geography, and other such issues. We should know something of what they are saying out there, and be informed. We may even have occasion to adapt and use some of the truths found in extra-scriptural literature, just as Paul did with the Greek poets, and Jude did in quoting from apocryphal works.

My own opinion, though, is that an inordinate amount of interest in these peripheral studies causes us to be distracted from things that matter more. Some LDS scholars and popular lecturers get hung up on or obsessed with one topic or notion. Some entangle themselves in esoterica, minutia, even intellectual trivia. One subtle distracter is a current movement to study the greatest book, the Book of Mormon, mostly with a scholarly or academic approach. We need to study and work on faith, repentance, prayer, getting the Spirit and avoiding pride—that is what the Missionary Training Center experience taught me.

Nevertheless! Someone could cry: “you studied biblical geography and history and archaeology and languages, and other such peripheral subjects; what is the difference?” Well, I did study those background subjects and found them interesting and helpful for understanding many revelations and teachings in their physical context. I feel uncomfortable, however, and am genuinely bothered when people identify me as a “biblical geographer.”

I don’t want to be labeled as a biblical geographer. I have no inherent obsession with those background subjects per se; I spent years with them because I was hired to study and teach them in Jerusalem. And I still maintain an edge and interest in everything to do with Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount, and the issue of water in the Near East.

The accent here is placed on the things that matter most. The main focus of all our gospel studies, our writing, our teaching, and our talks, should be the Lord Jesus Christ. Satan wants to distract us—meaning that he wants to draw our minds and our hearts to a different object, to divert our attention from the Savior and his work. He distracts us with money, sex, power, influence, and so-called “intellectualism.” The Lord has a perfect knowledge and understanding of all things intellectual. He has even revealed great intellectual treasures that remain buried away in the scriptures because we have not exerted the effort to dig them up.

In his “Second Century Address” at BYU, President Spencer W. Kimball explained that we must “come to understand what Jesus meant when he said that the key of knowledge, which had been lost by society centuries before, was ‘the fulness of the scriptures.’ We understand, as few people do, that education is a part of being about our Father’s business and that the scriptures contain the master concepts for mankind.”

President Ezra Taft Benson, in his address “The Gospel Teacher and His Message,” counseled us: “Always remember, there is no satisfactory substitute for the scriptures and the words of the living prophets. These should be your original sources. Read and ponder more what the Lord has said, and less about what others have written concerning what the Lord said.”

Among Church members who pursue scholarly studies, some may distort and overly-magnify the value of the world’s point of view. In his talk “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” Elder Boyd K. Packer commented, “I have come to believe that it is the tendency for many members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession. . . . It is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard. In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.”

Elder Dean L. Larsen used the word “infatuated” when describing those whose interest in things peripheral caused them to look beyond the mark and lose sight of key, foundational truths. “Jacob speaks of people who placed themselves in serious jeopardy in spiritual things because they were unwilling to accept simple, basic principles of truth. They entertained and intrigued themselves with ‘things that they could not understand.’ They were apparently afflicted with a pseudo-sophistication and a snobbishness that gave them a false sense of superiority over those who came among them with the Lord’s words of plainness. They went beyond the mark of wisdom and prudence and obviously failed to stay within the circle of fundamental gospel truths that provide a basis for faith. They must have reveled in speculative and theoretical matters that obscured for them the fundamental spiritual truths. As they became infatuated by these ‘things that they could not understand,’ their comprehension of and faith in the redeeming role of a true Messiah were lost, and the purpose of life became confused” (Ensign, Nov. 1987, 11).

In summary, then, we should search out all truth, wherever we can find it, and embrace it, and live by it, but at the same time being careful not to be distracted or diverted from the only sure foundation on which we must build our lives. Search the scriptures—the Standard Works—the words of God Himself; in this there is safety; in this there is peace.

Excessive interest in extra-scriptural doctrines, like the Second Anointing, or even in scriptural doctrines, like the Second Coming, can be problematic. Follow the prophets. Emphasize what the Brethren emphasize. There aren’t too many talks in general conference about the Second Coming, probably because the Brethren do not want to stir up premature zeal about the Second Coming. They do want to encourage mature zeal for establishing Zion. Right now most of their talks focus on preparing ourselves spiritually for what lies ahead.

I suppose we would all agree that our main focus should be on Heavenly Father and the Savior, have the love of God, be full of the Spirit, serve others, be morally clean, learn about and live by Temple blessings and covenants.

Satan is a Hebrew word; it means literally adversary. He is our adversary! He is our opponent, our antagonist, our enemy. But he is not so much a belligerent enemy as he is subtle. He undermines our allegiance to God and godly things by encouraging our attachment to worldly things.


He underhandedly leads us away from heavenly objectives with intellectual distractions. Everybody is tempted. No one is exempt. Even Religion teachers can get sidetracked, with emphasis on research, publishing books, preparing a paper for every symposium, maybe building our own little kingdom instead of the Lord’s Kingdom. If our occupation takes us away from our family, it takes us away from God.

Satan also distracts us with money, power, influence, physical lusts, sports, and entertainment. These may become our gods, our idols. President Spencer W. Kimball, in his powerful book The Miracle of Forgiveness (pages 40-41) wrote:

“Idolatry is among the most serious of sins. There are unfortunately millions today who prostrate themselves before images of gold and silver and wood and stone and clay. But the idolatry we are most concerned with here is the conscious worshipping of still other gods. Some are of metal and plush and chrome, of wood and stone and fabrics. They are not in the image of God or of man, but are developed to give man comfort and enjoyment, to satisfy his wants, ambitions, passions and desires. Some are in no physical form at all, but are intangible.

“Many seem to ‘worship’ on an elemental basis—they live to eat and drink. They are like the children of Israel who, though offered the great freedoms associated with national development under God’s personal guidance, could not lift their minds above the ‘flesh pots of Egypt.’ They cannot seem to rise above satisfying their bodily appetites. As Paul put it, their ‘God is their belly.’ (Phil. 3:19.)

“Modern idols or false gods can take such forms as clothes, homes, businesses, machines, automobiles . . . and numerous other material deflectors from the path to godhood. What difference does it make that the item concerned is not shaped like an idol? Brigham Young said: ‘I would as soon see a man worshipping a little god made of brass or of wood as to see him worshipping his property.’

“Intangible things make just as ready gods. Degrees and letters and titles can become idols. Many young men decide to attend college when they should be on missions. . . . The degree, and the wealth and security which come through it, appear so desirable that the mission takes second place. Some neglect Church service through their college years, feeling to give preference to the secular training and ignoring the spiritual covenants they have made.

“Many people build and furnish a home and buy the automobile first—and then find they ‘cannot afford’ to pay tithing. Whom do they worship? Certainly not the Lord of heaven and earth, for we serve whom we love and give first consideration to the object of our affection and desires. Young married couples who postpone parenthood until their degrees are attained might be shocked if their expressed preference were labeled idolatry.”

We all need money. We have needs, and money helps satisfy those needs. But the desire for money can become one of the great spiritual traps of this world. Professor Chauncey Riddle, commenting on Jacob 2:18-19, probably the best passage in all of scripture describing what we should want money for, said the following:

“True followers of Jesus Christ know that the only riches worth counting are the riches of eternity. They know that all flesh is grass, and will be gone tomorrow. They know that God is good, and amply rewards the faithful for any sacrifice of worldly goods they might make. They trust completely in the wisdom of their Master, having tried him and having found him to be trustworthy in every particular. So their faith commends only one thing as the first priority in a person’s life: Seek first for a hope in Christ before doing anything else.

“Youth is looked upon by the world as a time of freedom from responsibility, a time of learning, of indulging, or exploration before settling into the sacrifices and rigors of adulthood. That largely perverse view is the foundation of very poor preparation for adult, responsible life for most of its adherents. No wonder so many want to be supported by society through their lives, or to be perpetual students, or to indulge their ever increasing desire for pleasure, or to avoid the responsibility of family. . . .

“The ideal pattern of youth for a Latter-day Saint would seem to be that of the life of Jacob himself, who in his youth sought for a hope in Christ and found it. As a youth he beheld the glory of the Savior (2 Nephi 2:4). Then Jacob could ask for anything and know that he would receive it because of the promise of his God: If you become pure and spotless, you may ask whatsoever you will and you will receive it, for you will not ask amiss (D&C 46:30).” (“Pride and Riches” in Book of Mormon Symposium, BYU, November 28, 1988.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with money, but the excessive desire for money can distract us and lead us away from God and His work, which is infinitely more important to us than any amount of money we can accumulate here—all of which, of course, we leave behind anyway. “Seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion,” the Lord says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “Seek not for riches, but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:6-7). “If ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity” (D&C 38:39).

Physical lust can drive away the Spirit and alienate us from God as fast as anything we know. Spirituality and lustfulness cannot abide in the same person. Lust not only distracts, it destroys. The Lord taught, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out . . . if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off” (Matt. 5:29-30)—not literally, of course, but He means if we have any weakness or temptation that is warring against our spiritual self, get rid of that weakness, avoid that temptation at all costs. Do whatever you need to do—more praying, more fasting—to avoid being carried away from all the good things that matter infinitely more. Movies can be hazardous to your spiritual health. Movies that contain profanity, crudity, illicit sexuality, and violence will desensitize you and detract from coming unto Christ.

Paul wrote to Timothy that “in the last days perilous times shall come.” People will be “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1, 4).

Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. Examine where your treasures and your heart are. Identify exactly what your ultimate objectives are. Write down what, in the end, you want the results of this life to be. Be honest. Then write down any specific ways you can see that you are being led away or distracted from accomplishing those results. Again, be honest.

Maybe it would help to simplify. Some of our distractions come from being too busy—too busy to learn about God, too busy to worship Him and serve Him, too busy to serve others.


 

You already know the best ways to avoid being distracted from eternal things, the things that matter most: (1) serve God by serving others, (2) pray, and (3) study the scriptures daily, and study the words of modern prophets; study the Proclamation on the Family. It is simple, direct, and powerful; it will point you to Christ and help you avoid distractions.

 

D. Kelly Ogden is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University