We don’t know about you, but Brittney and I can’t think of many significant spiritual experiences that weren’t directly related to the scriptures (whether by pondering the words as we go about our day, having a focused study session, or hearing a verse read or expounded in a talk). We’ve come to know for ourselves why Prophets like President Benson have so strongly emphasized that the Book of Mormon, and other scriptures, can change your life.
Dustin and I have also learned, however, that reading a few verses in a “going through the motions” sort of way, isn’t going to change anyone’s life. You’ve got to do more than endure through a chapter if you want to have experiences with the Spirit.
We’ve definitely had our fair share of days when we’ve read just to read. We probably all have. But the difference between those days and the times when we have really feasted on the scriptures is tremendous. Once you have tasted of the inspiration and spiritual experiences that come through true scripture study, you develop a deep hunger to come back again and again.
The tools Britt and I list below have dramatically impacted our scripture study experiences, and we hope they make a difference for you too.
1. The 1828 Dictionary
I don’t think we realize how quickly language changes. Words that meant one thing at the time of the BOM translation have since taken on very different meanings. Lucky for us, Noah Webster completed his famed American dictionary in 1828. By doing so, he preserved in time the meaning of words at about the exact time that Joseph Smith published the first edition of the Book of Mormon.
Using this dictionary (there are apps and websites for it) can help you find little treasures that you may have otherwise completely missed. We want to share just two examples of the impact that the 1828 Dictionary can have.
A) “Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
We don’t know about you, but “condescension” is one of those words that, for a long time, we sort of just skipped over. But as it turns out, understanding what “condescension” means is key to fully understanding 1 Nephi 11:16-33, and it can give us a greater appreciation for Christ’s role in the Plan of Salvation.
The word “condescension” is no longer used in today’s vernacular, but we are all familiar with the verb it is related to: “to condescend.” Today, it has a very negative connotation. When we use “to condescend,” we mean the act of pretending to be superior to others.
This is a perversion of the word as understood in Joseph’s day. It appears that “to condescend” was used sarcastically for so long that the original meaning was lost to history.
When you read the 1828 dictionary’s definitions of “to condescend” and “condescension,” a really powerful picture starts to form in your mind. Noah Webster tells us that condescension occurs when someone of high status or rank, like a King, performs an act of service for those beneath his rank, for example, peasants or servants. The act of generosity and kindness must be something that justice does not require of him. According to Webster, the word also implies humble submission to inferiors and even a temporary “relinquishment of distinction.”
“Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
Who knew that a word once existed that so perfectly describes what Christ did for us when he descended from his throne divine to be born without rank? This King of Kings and Lord of Lords stepped off his throne to minister to people who are nothing compared to Him, and He willingly submitted Himself to vile men so that we might have a chance at Eternal Life. And on top of it all, He didn’t have to! Justice did not require it of him. Otherwise, it would not have been an act of condescension.
Suddenly, the question “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” takes on a special gravity. By understanding what “condescension” means, we realize more powerfully than before what the angel intends to reveal to Nephi.
At first, Nephi responds to the question by saying that he doesn’t fully know the answer but that he knows of the love that God has for us. The angel builds on this response because if Nephi (or anyone else) is to understand the great condescension of God, we must first have a sense for the unspeakable love that motivated it.
Once this foundation is laid, the angel returns to “condescension.” He now tells Nephi:
“Behold the condescension of God.”
Nephi then proceeds to witness how Christ condescended. He saw the Great I Am descend from His throne to teach the multitudes, provide an example for us to follow, and serve the sick and afflicted. And ultimately, he saw the Prince of Peace defamed and assaulted by wicked men, men who are in fact subject to Him.
In his vision, Nephi witnessed the greatest act of “condescension” possible as the highest of Kings voluntarily submitted Himself to the lowest of creatures, that all humankind might be saved. “Condescension” helps us to visualize and better appreciate what Christ has done for each one of us.
B) “He shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem…”
So, believe it or not, the meaning of “at” has changed in a small and yet significant way. And no, neither of us thought to look up “at” in the 1828 Dictionary. The type of word I look up is “condescension.” Leave it to my former Mission President, Loren Spendlove, however, to map out every word in the first half of the Book of Mormon (for his personal scripture study). And I mean every word.
Spendlove points out that this verse is interesting because some people use it as evidence that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith—not ancient prophets. After all, Jesus wasn’t born at Jerusalem, he was born in Bethlehem.
As it turns out, however, the word “at” has changed over time. Today, when you say you are “at” the mall or “at” the chapel, it means you are in the mall or chapel, or at least in the parking lot. If you said you were “at” the office when you are really 15 blocks away, that would be considered a dishonest statement. But not in the early 1800s. According to the 1828 Dictionary, “at” means near. Thus, the above verse does not mean that Jesus was born in Jerusalem—only that he was born near it.
The Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary is worth using.
2. Look for more than you’ve already seen
When I (Dustin) was on my mission in Mozambique, my Mission President shared a thought that completely changed the way I viewed and studied the scriptures. What he shared helped me to see how easy it is to think you already know what the scriptures say when there are really so many stones left unturned and lessons yet to be discovered.
The key is to always approach the scriptures with an open and inquisitive mind. If you read with the mentality that you already know what they say, then the Spirit won’t be able to teach you anything new. He won’t force you to realize your ignorance. You have to acknowledge and really accept that you don’t know everything (far from it). We’ve all got a lot of learning to do.
Here’s the thought that so powerfully impacted me:
1 Nephi 8:5-6 reads:
“And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me. And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.”
So, who do you think the man in the white robe is? Your answer is probably similar to the answer that just about any Latter-day Saint would give. Owing to the “white robe” you would assume that he is an angel, the Holy Ghost, or perhaps even Jesus Christ Himself. I assumed that as well.
However, as we continue reading, it becomes rather clear that we may have missed something that was right in front of our eyes.
The next verse reads:
“And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.”
Okay, so that’s a little strange. We know that Christ and His emissaries lead to light, not darkness. So, why is this angel leading Lehi to a dark and dreary waste? Perhaps it’s because he means to teach Lehi something about what the waste represents. Maybe the angel is going to say, “this symbolizes the iniquity and misery of the wicked” or something similar.
But that’s not what happens.
Verse 8 then reads:
“And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.”
So, let me get this straight. This “angel” doesn’t just lead Lehi to darkness, he leads him through it for hours on end, and eventually Lehi has to pray to be freed from the guidance of a messenger who was supposedly sent by Heavenly Father Himself…?
But whoever said that Lehi’s guide had to be an angel of light? We only think that he was because we assumed it due to his appearance. How do we know that the guide wasn’t someone who, instead, only appears “nigh unto an angel of light?” Which would mean that this “angel” is, in fact, Satan trying to deceive Lehi and doing what he does best—leading people to darkness and misery.
And as soon as Lehi called upon the Lord, he was led out of darkness and to the tree of life. Now, that sounds like the Heavenly Father we know.
Of course, this interpretation of these verses is certainly not written in stone. You may not be convinced by the evidence. Although I must say that I personally see no reason to object to the above understanding (except that it’s not what we’re used to, which is probably not a good reason).
But whether or not you are convinced, consider the implications of the interpretation being true. It would mean that you, myself, and millions of others have read these verses dozens, if not hundreds of times, without noticing something rather conspicuous.
That realization blew me away, and it led me to read each verse of scripture with incredible care. Instead of just plowing through the chapters, I started taking my time and asking lots of questions about each verse. I wanted to make sure that I understood what the prophet was trying to communicate, not just what I had already seen and what generations past had already seen.
As I did this, I found treasure after treasure of spiritual knowledge. I learned for myself that maintaining an inquisitive and open mind while studying the scriptures is a sure way to learn from the Spirit.
Consider rereading 1 Nephi 8:5-8 a few times. There are so many lessons to be learned by seeing them from the new perspective just outlined. And then commit to a more careful study of the scriptures. The results will blow you away.
3. Go Slow
This is related to the tip above, but it is worth reemphasizing. I (Dustin) remember being a little dumbfounded when, as a young man, a bishop told me in an interview that he would sometimes spend even an hour on just one verse or set of verses. I couldn’t understand how that was possible.
But as I began to do more than just read my scriptures (by using tools mentioned in this article), I found how easy it is to spend enormous amounts of time reading, pondering, rereading, asking questions, seeking inspiration, etc. all in regard to a single verse or small section of verses.
Not all scripture study has to be like that, but engaging with the scriptures in this way can make all the difference.
And if you are having a hard time with this, consider the following: each word written on the plates would have been pretty painstaking to record. You had better believe that those prophets weren’t saying things that didn’t need to be said. (But seriously, can you imagine how mind numbing it would have been to record their thoughts on the plates? I can barely stand to transfer a couple of pages of text with a pen and paper.) When you look at it this way, it leads you to take each verse more seriously, knowing that it wouldn’t have been included if it didn’t have a purpose.
Plus, Nephi said, “I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men.”
4. Write something down
There’s no need to elaborate much here. It’s pretty simple. Writing about what you’ve read and pondered has a way of helping you to focus and connect with the Spirit. Dustin and I have found that our personal scripture study never comes close to reaching its full potential unless we sit at a table or desk and prepare to write what we learn. Something about the process makes it so much easier to connect with the Spirit.
Elder Scott taught that if we write down things we learn from the Spirit, we will receive more inspiration. He said that writing down inspiration shows God how much we value personal revelation and leads him to give us more of it.
If you are having a hard time knowing what to write, consider writing out a verse or two and then writing down the thoughts that come during the process.
5. See beyond the story-line
There are different levels of scripture study. The shallowest level is understanding the plot, which is to say that you understand the story (i.e. Lehi was commanded to declare repentance, the people got angry and wanted to kill him, and the Lord commanded Lehi and his family to flee into the wilderness). This level of understanding is certainly important and it’s about as far as you get in Primary. But if we never move beyond it, we fail to see all that the scriptures have to offer.
And when you are stuck at only seeing the story-line, it’s easy to begin feeling like scripture reading is boring or pointless because “I already know the stories” or “it’s just the same thing over and over again.”
To move beyond this we sometimes use a three step approach.
- “What happened (this is the storyline level)?”
- “Why was this story included in the scriptures?” or “What does the Lord want me to learn from what happened?”
- “How can I apply what I learned” or “what am I going to do different based on what I have learned?”
As we implement these steps we discover treasures of truth in the scripture, and we allow them to change our hearts and the way we live.
From our experience, the harder we strain to learn what the prophet intended to convey and the longer we take pondering, the greater the inspiration that comes.
6. Ask yourself how you are like the sinner in the story
Britt and I have noticed that we, and everyone else, have a strong tendency to think “how can Laman and Lemuel be so dumb?” without ever asking, “Am I ever like them?” The first question doesn’t really help us be better, while the second question helps us to locate weaknesses and improve.
Seeing ourselves in the sinners helps us be humble and honest. It reminds us why God sends prophets and why He sent Christ to atone for our sins and help us overcome the weaknesses that cause us to commit sin.
We want to share two quick examples of the impact that this approach can have:
1. The allegory of Isaiah and the harlot (found in Hosea 2) becomes a touching and indescribably beautiful story when we don’t just see the harlot as representing the Israelites but each one of us. Reading it this way helps us to more fully understand our relationship to Christ and how often we try to rely on things other than Him. (Try reading it using this approach).
2. In 1 Nephi 19:7, Nephi says that there are people who take the things of “great worth” and trample them under their feet. He then says that these people are trampling “the very God of Israel” under their feet.
My (Dustin) natural impulse is to think, “Yeah, Nephi, you tell ‘em.” But with that attitude, I miss a really important lesson in the verse.
After using this imagery of trampling God under foot, Nephi clarifies what he is referring to: “I say trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.”
With the, “What lack I yet?” lens on, I ask myself, “do I ever not hearken to the voice of God’s counsels? Because if that is the case, I am trampling Him under foot.” And then I think of a counsel I could be better following and make a concerted effort to be better (currently its family history work).
7. Ponder and Discuss
Nothing has brought more inspiration and enlightenment into our lives than deep pondering sessions and discussions about scripture. There is a power that comes with these things that we do not fully understand.
And in a world of news-feeds and cat videos, this is something we’ve really got to work at. Pondering is a skill that is carefully developed, not quickly downloaded.
What we do know is that the greatest revelations given to prophets in ancient and modern times have come after strong deliberation over the meaning of scripture. Their examples are definitely worth following.
Brittney and I have found so much excitement come into our lives and marriage as we make more and more of our conversations revolve around deep discussions about the scriptures and the Gospel more generally.
We can’t think of anything that has greater potential to bring us unto Christ than the scriptures. But it’s not just good enough to have them in our homes or to skim a few verses; we need to immerse ourselves in them.
We hope that the tools we listed will help you more fully enjoy the blessings of the scriptures.
Consider sharing this article: It might just help someone you know discover their own love of scripture study.
“There is a power in the [Book of Mormon] which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. The scriptures are called ‘the words of life’ (see D&C 84:85), and nowhere is that more true than it is of the Book of Mormon. When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance.”
-President Ezra Taft Benson
By Brittney and Dustin Phelps