Teaching correct principles: finding, understanding and applying scriptural principles in real life
We are to teach students the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the words of the prophets. These doctrines and principles are taught in a way that leads to understanding and edification. We help students fulfill their role in the learning process and prepare them to teach the gospel to others. (S&I Teaching and Learning Emphasis, 2009)
A critical component in gaining knowledge from the Savior is acting upon the principles He taught. In order to gain the greatest insights the scriptures have to offer, our study will focus not so much on places and names as on principles and doctrines. It is not simply book knowledge we are after but insights that will change the way we live that will actually make a difference in our lives. We must see the scriptures for what they are: an instruction manual for becoming like our Savior. (Elder Robert D. Hales, The Journey of Lifelong Learning, BYU Education Week, 19 August 2008. See also: http://bit.ly/y3SOyp)
As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle.” (Administering Appropriately: A Handbook for CES Leaders and Teachers, p. 8. See also: Elder Richard G. Scott in Conference Report, Oct. 1993, 117 or Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86).
What is the difference between a doctrine and a principle? A doctrine is true no matter what the circumstances. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. God the Father has a body of flesh and bones. All mankind must be baptized. The Book of Mormon is true. All of these statements are doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Doctrines also motivate behavior- knowing that Jesus is the Son of God and that He has the desire and power to have influence in my life motivates behavior.
In order to be effective in our mandate to teach the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and words of the prophets, it would be helpful if we could define and illustrate what a principle looks like. By doing this, we would be more effective in the classroom and we would have the ability to show the relevance of the scriptures in the lives of students as they see that the scriptures answer the problems that they are facing.
A principle, when properly understood, does the following:
1. It makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. Principles should be applicable to situations, in other words, they are situation specific.
2. It is applicable under a wide variety of circumstances- students will see a principle illustrated under enough circumstances so that it is clearly understood. This is usually accomplished by having different types of circumstances presented to the student so that the principle can be applied with different actions being applied in their various circumstances.
3. It should be compelling- compelling enough so that it will persuade the student to choose correct even when the circumstances are pulling them in an opposite direction. The more compelling the principle appears in the mind of the student, the more power it will have in their lives.
4. It is packaged so that the student will own it. Usually students “get” a principle when they say things like, “I see what you mean”, after which they illustrate the principle in a circumstance that they are currently facing. When a student sees that the scriptures answer problems they are facing in their life, they will have a greater likelihood of going to the scriptures with questions seeking guidance from the Lord.
5. The principle has a handle. A handle is a simple phrase which will help the individual remember the principle quickly, so that in times of need this simple phrase will give the owner the strength to live according to the principle.
A principle is situation specific– meaning that following a principle in situation A will bring about an action, whereas following the principle in situation B might not necessarily bring about the same action. A classic example of this is modesty- the modesty principle can be stated as “Your dress and grooming send messages about you to others and influence the way you and others act.” Usually a specific action is taught when illustrating this principle and the message is usually to the young women- “girls make sure you are covered.” Although it is important to teach the youth to be covered, it is also important to understand modesty as a principle and see it illustrated over a variety of situations so that it is clear in the minds of the students what appropriate actions are available to them under a variety of circumstances.
For example, a young man wearing his tuxedo to the prom sends the right message- he is at a formal dance and is dressed appropriately for the activity. The next day, when the young man is attending church and is going to bless the sacrament, it could be distracting to some in the meeting for him to wear his tuxedo while he is blessing the sacrament. For some it might be sending the wrong message. Instead of approaching the sacrament table with thoughts about this sacred ordinance, the young man is sending a message to all who see him that he went to prom the night before. Those who look at the young man now have their attention pulled away from this ordinance and towards thoughts surrounding prom. He is technically covered, but he is violating the modesty principle, at least to a degree.
Another illustration of modesty would be Deion Sanders preaching a sermon from the pulpit wearing a green leather suit with lots of gold and diamonds on his person. He is completely clothed, but the message he is sending is the wrong message. This is another illustration of violating the modesty principle. We see this played out several times in the Book of Mormon- the Lamanites violated the principle in wearing too little clothing, the Nephites in wearing too much, or in being ostentatious in their apparel. Both sides were unbalanced and in violation of this principle.
A principle is applicable under a wide variety of circumstances– When a student can see a principle illustrated under many different circumstances where the actions are not the same, they begin to see the power of the principle in helping direct their behavior. An example of this happened in my class about a year ago. We were discussing the power that reverence brings into our lives and how by being reverent, we invite the Spirit to teach us. We used some quotes from a talk by Elder Packer entitled “Reverence Invites Revelation” (Ensign, Nov. 1991, p.21) when I asked the question, “What is the reverence principle?” No one knew. We talked around the issue for a few minutes, but we just couldn’t get a handle on what the point was. We all knew that we should be reverent in church, and we knew that disruptions interrupted the delicate communication of the Spirit in our lives, but beyond that specific application we were just stuck.
Then I played a 911 call where a lady calls 911 to complain that her chicken nuggets were cold. All the students laughed, but then realized that the lady on the phone really was distraught about her cold nuggets, that she wasn’t joking. “What is the problem with this situation?” I asked. She was acting inappropriately for the situation- she should talk to the manager of the restaurant and not the 911 operator. The 911 operator was doing her best to be polite, but this action was inappropriate for this particular situation, and could have diverted the 911 operator from a life and death call, thus endangering someone’s life.
Then we talked about behaviors that do not match the time and place. For example, we would not stand and cheer for the bishop when he introduces the speakers in sacrament meeting. But when would it be appropriate to stand and cheer? Lights started to go on in the minds of the students the more we illustrated the principle. Cheering is appropriate at a football game. But what would be an improper action at a football game? Several students said that it would be improper to boo the players or the referees. This led to more class discussion of how reverence applies to how we speak of one another, whether we are at a sporting event or in other areas of our lives. Why would a good Latter-day Saint act like a crazy person at a sporting event? This is an example of a compelling circumstance. In the heat of a game, some members say and do things that they would not normally do. Seeing the reverence principle applied in this area helped the students see that reverence is not just being quiet in church, but it is dressing and behaving in appropriate ways that match the setting that they are currently in.
This discussion answered questions some students had as to why we do not stand, clap and cheer in sacrament meeting. The principle could be applied to different settings- how to dress and behave at a funeral versus a wedding. Both are family gatherings, but have a radically different purpose. Perhaps the students would dress similarly in both situations (their Sunday best) but their manner of speech and volume level of communication would not be the same.
One teacher I discussed this with mentioned a ward party he attended where the members of the ward all came in their pajamas. It was a ward breakfast and so everyone was asked to come dressed in this particular way. One member of the ward came in a suit and tie to the activity. He did so intentionally as he attended every gathering in a suit and tie, but at this particular breakfast he and the other members of the ward felt very uncomfortable. This situation opened the minds of students to think of times when either their dress or their actions did not fit the setting that they found themselves in.
This may seem like a small thing- to discuss reverence as a principle in seminary. Yet in my experience, it needs to be taught. From teaching 9th grade seminary for a number of years, this is a principle that young people need to be taught in order to develop both socially and spiritually. There are several places in scripture where this principle is illustrated. For example, the money changers in the temple did not match their actions with the setting in which they found themselves. The experience Nephi had with his brothers and their families in 1 Nephi 18:9-10 illustrates this principle as well.
To have power a principle should be compelling
Oftentimes we teach in a manner where we show a principle and perhaps give it one illustration with a specific action. Then our students walk out of class thinking of the one action instead of thinking how the principle influenced the action. As we illustrate the principle over a variety of circumstances, they begin to see how the principle can be applied in various ways. Even after all of this effort, if we do not help the students visualize the compelling nature of the principle, it can lose effect in their lives.
People matter more than things
The first great choice a man ever made on earth reflected that truth that people matter more than things or places. Given the choice of Eve or Eden, Adam chose Eve. The paradise or the person. He rightly chose the person.
What if you were given the opportunity to have a million dollars or a twenty minute phone conversation? Which would you choose? What if the conversation were with your spouse or parent who had passed away? Illustrating the principle this way can make it more compelling in the minds of students to help them realize that people do matter more than things. This principle is discussed in the Doctrine & Covenants section 18.
More thoughts on principles
Elder David A. Bednar: “As I travel around the Church, I find the word ‘doctrine’ is not very well understood. Sometimes we think doctrine refers to weird, abstract, mysterious subjects in the gospel of Jesus Christ… Rather, doctrine refers to the eternal, unchanging, and simple truths of the gospel… Doctrines are never altered. They never vary. They will always be the same. You can always count on them. There is, for example, the doctrine of the Atonement. There is doctrine related to priesthood and priesthood keys. There is doctrine related to continuing revelation and the pattern whereby our Heavenly Father communicates with us and we communicate with Him. These are eternal, unchanging truths… Doctrine answers the why questions of our lives… There are also principles. Principles are doctrinally based guidelines for what we ought to do. Therefore, if there is a doctrine of the Atonement, then the first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance is the second principle or doctrinally based guideline for how we should live. Both of these principles are linked to the doctrine of the Atonement… Principles provide us with direction about the what and the how” (‘Teach Them to Understand,’ BYU-I Education Week Address, 4 June 1998).
The statement above helps in that it shows us how principles of action should grow out of simple, eternal truths. It is Elder Bednar’s example of repentance and the atonement that help with the ‘why,’ Why should I repent? Because Christ loved me enough to suffer for my sins. When we understand the doctrine, then we better understand ‘why’ we should live certain principles. Sister Susan W. Tanner spoke to this when she said: “I love For the Strength of Youth because it’s based on doctrine. Doctrine is eternal truth, set from before the foundation of the world. And standards are based upon doctrine” (“For the Strength of You,” Ensign, Oct. 2007, p.14). Why should we not tattoo ourselves? Because our bodies are temples–a simple eternal truth that helps us understand ‘why’ we should live this principle.
Caution on specific actions- let the student apply the principle
“I bear you my testimony that the book is written in such a way that the students will feel there are principles they should try. You need to be cautious that you do not set up little applications or challenges that are not suited to that student because God will be speaking to that individual. As you read it, you and your students will know some things you should do. As you do them, you will have greater light given to you because you will have proved that you believe. I bear testimony that however much you have learned from the Book of Mormon before, you should read it again and prove it. Prove it by proving yourself. Do the things you feel impressed to do, and you will find things in it that you have never seen before.
“Well-taught doctrines and principles have a more powerful influence on behavior than rules. When we teach gospel doctrine and principles, we can qualify for the witness and guidance of the Spirit to reinforce our teaching, and we enlist the faith of our students in seeking the guidance of that same Spirit in applying those teachings in their personal lives.” (Henry B. Eyring, ‘The Book of Mormon Will Change Your Life’, CES Symposium on the Book of Mormon, 17 August 1990.)
Teachers who are commanded to teach “the principles of [the] gospel” and “the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C 88:77) should generally forgo teaching specific rules or applications. For example, they would not teach any rules for determining what is a full tithing, and they would not provide a list of dos and don’ts for keeping the Sabbath day holy. Once a teacher has taught the doctrine and the associated principles from the scriptures and the living prophets, such specific applications or rules are generally the responsibility of individuals and families. Well-taught doctrines and principles have a more powerful influence on behavior than rules. When we teach gospel doctrine and principles, we can qualify for the witness and guidance of the Spirit to reinforce our teaching, and we enlist the faith of our students in seeking the guidance of that same Spirit in applying those teachings in their personal lives (Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teaching,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78-80).