Bang-Bang Beliefs
© 22 Aug 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
other posts


Reflections on “‍Open your mouths and they shall be filled‍” (DC 33:8).


When I was a full-time proselytizing missionary At the time of writing, all of my known readers know about such missions, but looking ahead to broader fame, they are discussed here. I heard attributed to Bruce R. McConkie the paraphrase “‍I know I have been inspired because I have taught things I did not before know‍” or various other words along those lines. That thought, whatever its source, rang true. Often as I taught the good news I would find myself learning as I taught.

Since I was unable to verify that McConkie or anyone else I trusted to understand divine inspiration had actually ever said such a thing, I took this idea with a grain of salt, my own experience notwithstanding. I was more comfortable with the scriptural injunction-with-promise, “‍Open your mouths and they shall be filled‍” (DC 33:8). This I could support without reservation. Many a time I had “‍the Holy Ghost teach [me] in the same hour what [I] ought to say‍” (Luke 12:12). Though using the idea of learning by teaching as a rubric to detect divine inspiration strained my confidence, the underlying idea seemed sound.

Years passed, and I found myself teaching more secular material—still truth, insofar as I knew it, but not the sort that I expected divine help in expounding. That I didn’t expect divine help is a problem in its own right, but not one for today’s post. And yet I found no diminishing of the trend wherein a disjointed collection of thoughts coalesced as my mouth was open, transforming from a sloppy brainstorm into a beautiful treatise. Often this beautiful surprise not only resulted in clearer teaching but also a new light illuminating the recesses of my understanding, giving food for much pondering thereafter.

I cannot express how happy this discovery was. I was tickled past delight by the joy hidden in teaching others. It was a slow, quiet elation, distilling over years; I hardly noticed it until it had become truly habitual. All at once I noticed that the world was an even more beautiful place than I had supposed.

In that moment of realization, my perspective of the open mouth promise abruptly changed. Beware the abrupt change! Instead of feeling that God was promising to jump in and save His floundering emissaries, I now saw Him to be hinting at this glorious surprise I had discovered. Mouths are filled by the mind when the mind is filled with truth. He was revealing a fundamental Truth, not giving out promises.

For a time I bowled along quite merrily, confident in my feeling of superiority that I understood this better than you did—for that unidentified you that it is so easy to cast as the other party when boasting or bemoaning my state.

And then the fateful day came. I was teaching institute“‍Institute‍” meaning a course for the local branch of the institute of religion. and was happily discovering how the lesson would be even as I was following my prepared notes on what the lesson would be. And then along came the Spirit and took over. Completely. My lesson, my pleasant ride of exposition and discovery, was over. For bits and pieces He still let me bumble along, trying to find word for His ideas, and once in a while I still even got to make a comment, but I was definitely not running the class anymore. There was no doubt in my mind. On the one hand was my lesson, with my ideas and my planning I was adjusting as I taught, and on the other there was His lesson in His words which I was first hearing as I gave them voice .

I should have seen this coming. Newton isn’t wrong just because Einstein is right. Yes, there was an observation about the way the world works in those scriptures. But there was also the promise that God sustains His servants, even those who frankly don’t deserve his support. I, in my pride, had thought that learning one meaning had removed the other. He, in His mercy, did not scold me; He simply showed me I was wrong.

While the specifics of this story are accurate, my real point is the structure of the story. That structure shows up again and again. I learn that Joseph Smith tried to bust out of jailSee History of the Church, edited by B. H. Roberts, Volume 3 pp. 257–258, 292. “‍The sheriff and jailer did not blame us for our attempt; it was a fine breach, and cost the county a round sum […]‍” and ignore that I knew he had waited patiently on the Lord until He reminds me what patience really means. I discover I am not immune to a particular temptation I had not before felt compelling and assume that means I am destined to be a sinner until the Savior points out that His sacrifice still allows me a way out. I have a revelation I can more easily describe as a vision than anything else and forget for a time that literal visions also actually do exist. And so on, and so forth, to the present example and, quite probably, the next, and the one after that, etc.

In control theory there is a name for devices that exhibit this kind of reaction: they’re called “‍bang-bang controllers‍”. My car has a bang-bang air conditioner. Bang! it’s chilling air as hard as it can; then Bang! it’s completely off again, outside air coming through uncooled. I often slip into these bang-bang belief patterns. Bang! it’s observational only. Bang! no, it’s promissory. Bang! I’m sinless from today on. Bang! I’m an inveterate sinner again.

I don’t know why it is so hard to run the colling pump just a little, to take the new evidence and use it temper rather than replace the old, to accept my desires and my mistakes as elements of a consistent self. Perhaps it’s the appeal of a simple view of the world. Perhaps it’s to save face: “‍True, I was mistaken before, but now I Know!‍” Perhaps it’s an echo of something deeper and more fundamental I have yet to see.

Whatever the cause, I have a pattern of bang-bang belief; not in whole, for I also have gradated understandings, I wouldn’t want to bang-bang this belief too… but more often than appears to be useful. Perhaps recognizing that fact will be of some value.

Looking for comments…

Loading user comment form…