As we walked to our car, adjacent throngs of joyful October General Conference attendees after the Saturday morning session, I was not surprised that the teenaged granddaughters at my side responded to my traditional inquiries about their important personal takeaways with prompt, unanimous mention of Elder Dieter Uchtdortf’s talk. It had, after all, been specifically directed at them. To further and deepen our conversation, we all eagerly opened and began reading and sharing thoughts from the new “For the Strength of Youth” booklet we had been given as we exited the Conference Center. Our conversation was animated and felt important.
One spirited, self-reliant young woman who likes to know where she is going right from the start, turned quickly to the last pages of the pamphlet and read aloud: “Your Heavenly Father is a God of truth. He is all-knowing. All truth comes from Him and leads to Him. You show that you value truth as you seek learning, live with integrity, and bravely stand for what you know is right…Living with integrity means that you love truth with all your heart – more than you love personal comfort, popularity, or convenience. It means doing what is right simply because it is right” (page 31).
That courageous, independent young woman looked up and pronounced her own, “Amen!” She clearly liked the obvious implication that all of us, including young people, have the precious prerogative to find truth for ourselves from an all-knowing God who is indeed our loving Father. I think she was speaking for a whole generation of magnificent modern young people who are brave do-it-yourself-ers, able and eager to claim and assume responsibility to make their own choices with capacity and confidence.
“Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” has long been a powerful and resonant quotation from Joseph Smith we can all recite with affirmation nearly in our sleep, but that energetic front-loading of instruction and subsequent letting go of control that Joseph Smith’s commitment requires is both more challenging and more liberating than it may sound initially. We might nervously wonder:
- How old must young people be to be trusted to successfully understand and apply correct principles?
- Isn’t there a risk that they will make poor choices?
- Don’t we adults who know and love them have the responsibility to be sure they don’t mess up? We know so much more than they do! They really should trust our judgment and respect our authority, right?
- Are we sure we can trust their young judgment to get it right every time?
Some possible answers to those important questions might be:
- Not very old.
- Only if we want them to be spiritually immature and dependent forever.
- No, but we can most definitely trust their Father in Heaven’s judgment and His willingness to help them (and us) get it right if they (and we) stick with it and do it His way.
As I admired that young woman who was so eager to claim the blessing of agency with courageous can-do, I thought of a group of young women I had served with years ago. Those girls had expressed much of the same determination to know and choose truth cooperative with the will of heaven without heavy-handed imposition from those who were bigger and older than they were.
Those years ago, I had barely accepted a call to serve as our ward’s Young Women president when one of the girls approached me as a spokesperson for the group. With much confidence and little fanfare, she simply asked me, “So what’s the deal about two-piece swimsuits? In or out? Some say in, some say out. We are willing to be obedient, but we want a straight answer.” I had both the advantage and the disadvantage of being new to the ward and, therefore, not knowing the girls well. I had no preconceptions about them, but neither did I have much knowledge of their personal dispositions or inclinations. With determined restraint, I stalled, saying, “I have my personal opinions, but you need and deserve something more authoritative than that. May I get back to you?” She agreed.
After doing my own searching among scriptures and official Church materials for the youth and seeking heavenly help through prayer, I concluded that the answer for those girls specifically was not mine to receive in detail. That answer belonged to them and could be accessed by them as they sought it with real intent. It was their question, it would be their answer – and individually, not as a group. I believed we could support and assist each other in the quest for the truth they each sought, but the specifics of the truth would be personal and customized by the Father who knew their hearts and their needs, one by one. After all, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). We believe that. It’s true.
Our task as those girls’ leaders was neither to compel them to certain behaviors nor to spoon feed them answers to their questions, no matter how well considered those answers might have been. A higher goal for us was to encourage and help them to follow the heavenly pattern that the scriptures teach. As, in fact, Children of God, they were fully eligible to gain personal answers to their question, as well as familiarity with a process that would bless their lives forever.
Over the course of the next several months, we all committed significant time and much spiritual energy to studying everything we could think to study to connect ourselves with heaven and to find illumination relative to the girls’ question. We read the scriptures alone and together; we staged panel discussions with parents, young men, and the Bishopric; we listened to General Conference seeking relevant instruction; we prayed about the question individually and as a group. And we repeatedly shared and refined what we each and all were learning in profound, candid conversations in our Young Women classes and over ice cream. It was all blessed and powerful in customized, enlightening ways.
The discovering and becoming happened for us all, step by step, insight by insight. We were all changed, even us adults. When we almost reluctantly determined to conclude that formal quest, we enthusiastically pledged to continue to engage in new ones forever. We had all found learning “by study and by faith,” and we had all gained confidence in our ability to get answers to prayers in ways that were applicable, personal, and real.
We hadn’t settled on a single yes or no answer to the girls’ original question, but we had found a deeper, more principle-based understanding of the issue and the applications of it for each of us personally. We couldn’t draw a picture of a single swimsuit that was unquestionably Church approved. We ceased to need that. We found illumination that was deeper, richer, more customized.
In a final roundtable conversation, the girls shared their takeaways about the principle of modesty. They said:
“I know when it’s okay by how I feel. I can’t and don’t want to deny that.”
“You can be sure when you think about how close you feel to the Spirit. When I make a choice that isn’t pleasing to God, I feel farther from the Spirit. I don’t like that.”
“You know, the right question really isn’t, ‘Should I wear a one-piece swimsuit or not?’ The right question really has more to do with modesty. And reverence. And respect for myself and for others and for God.”
“If we are honest with ourselves, we need to be able to look in the mirror and know by the Spirit what’s okay and what’s not. It would be easy if someone would just draw a picture, but that’s not agency in action. And that doesn’t make me be honest with myself and what I really know from the Spirit. Simple obedience would really be easier than knowing by the Spirit and honoring what I know.”
“It takes a lot of spiritual self-reliance to know what’s really right and to do it. I want to do it more when it’s my own discovery.”
As one grand exclamation point at the end of our glorious experience petitioning heaven, the young women analyzed what had occurred as we had taken a question to the Lord and sought His help gaining understanding. They discussed the elements of the process that had encouraged their discoveries, as well as what they had learned that would be of lasting value to them. They made pledges to each other to be true to the light they had gained and, hungry to duplicate the delicious process of being edified together, they agreed to seek additional opportunities to study and learn in authentic ways as a group. Those eleven young women had unmistakably learned that their questions mattered to their Heavenly Father and that He would enlarge their understanding as they invested honest energy seeking His help.
One of those young women was asked to share her experience at her stake conference. She confidently stood before her stake and told them, “I learned about searching for truth. I prayed for the Spirit to direct me to look in the right places and to know truth when I found it.” She continued, “I found myself with a hunger for spiritual growth and assurance. I desired so sincerely to do the right thing and I tried my very best. Through it all, the most important thing I gained was a knowledge that I can and do receive personal revelation. I feel empowered because I know that my Heavenly Father listens to me and cares about what I care about. He actually listens and cares.”
She knew it. We all knew it. We can indeed trust the promises of God to us all, young and old. He listens, cares, and answers.