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Sermons in Our Subjects

Kerry Powell - Jan 2024

I am humbled by the invitation to speak to you. Devotionals have been a blessing in my life from my days as a student at Ricks College, to BYU, and now here at BYU-Idaho. One of those devotionals even prompted me to change jobs and move my family to another state! I pray that you will be helped by the Holy Ghost to understand spiritual truths that are personal and needed by you, regardless of what I may say today.

One of the key steps of the Learning Model at BYU-Idaho is to ponder and prove what we are studying. Sometimes we may interpret this to simply mean giving and taking tests, but it more fully means to internalize learning through reflection and application, to think about things carefully and deeply, and to test and try the things we are experiencing. To “ponder and prove” is valuable in learning temporal subjects, and as we seek to learn and live the gospel.

Recently, BYU-Idaho graduate Lila Jolley was asked to speak at her convocation ceremony as she received her bachelor’s degree. She said,

I remember my very first science class here on campus . . . I went in thinking I had a testimony of our Savior. I came out with the knowledge that He created all things, that God is our creator . . . Every semester as I took more and more advanced science classes, I was taught how the world worked and my faith was strengthened. From physics, genetics, animal behavior, biochemistry, animal reproduction, nutrition, and organic chemistry, I began to realize that God is the ultimate scientist. [1]

Lila received one of the great blessings of attending this university and experienced, in fact, one of its great purposes: our earthly studies can, and should, strengthen our spiritual knowledge and bring us closer to God. Brigham Young, in giving direction to Karl G. Maeser at the time of his assignment to lead Brigham Young Academy, said, “I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the spirit of God.” [2] Lila gained her realizations because the Spirit of God was with her as she learned.

Her comments reminded me of my own experience at BYU. I remember concluding, after finishing a biochemistry course in graduate school, that I would likely not remember very many details of the class going forward in my life, but that course gave me a greater appreciation for God’s creative genius. I had been given a small peek into the microscopic universe and came away more convinced there was indeed a divine Creator. I had received another witness, in the words of Alma, that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” [3]

Similarly, God spoke to Joseph Smith about the witnesses found in the physical world and, referring to planets and stars, said, “Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.” [4]

I invite you to seek for and ponder the witnesses of God and the connections to gospel principles that you encounter in your classes, jobs, or life experiences. These witnesses and teachings are usually quiet, personal impressions that come as we need them and seek them. Doing this on a regular basis will increasingly open your eyes to God’s reality and His work.

For me, these witnesses of God and lessons of the gospel are particularly noticeable in the biological sciences. But if Alma declared that all things witness of God, then I am sure you can discover God and His laws and principles in music, chemistry, literature, social science, history, engineering, art, and so on. Imagine how you will feel about a class or job when you occasionally see the fingerprints of God in it! These discoveries of spiritual insights, gospel analogies, and eternal truths will enliven your learning and provide you with motivation to increase your knowledge.

For example, I teach in the Animal and Food Science department. In our animal science major, we study areas related to domestic animals, such as reproduction, nutrition, health, behavior, and genetics. I would like to share with you some of the spiritual principles and lessons that have come to my mind in these areas, starting with reproduction.

We are familiar with God’s mission statement: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” [5] This is God’s objective, and it requires the process of reproduction in order to succeed. To support that primary purpose, God created and blessed animals, saying, “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the sea; and let fowl multiply in the earth.” [6] I have observed that people can sense the goodness and beauty of God’s plan as they experience the birth and growth of baby animals. You have seen how young children are naturally drawn to cuddle kittens, puppies, and other babies. The marvel of reproduction and birth is a part of earthly life that innately feels sacred and important to spiritually sensitive people. As man continues to learn about the complexities and carefully choreographed interactions required to bring about new life, it creates in faithful people an additional sense of amazement, gratitude, and awe for the Creator.

Once the necessary environment of the physical Earth and its plants and animals were in place, God then organized human bodies and “blessed them, and said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” [7] We assist God in His work, and bless ourselves in the process, when we create families according to His plan. Have you felt the sacredness and importance of this part of life?

The opportunity to partner with God in creating mortal bodies for His spirit children is one of the most valuable hands-on labs we can enroll in, as we learn about being a creator and a steward over precious creations. I have learned that the experience of being married and then bringing children into the world is a powerful internship that teaches me much about my heavenly parents and something of how they feel about us.

This is a bovine, or cattle, embryo. Look closely for the milk cow that is inside that sphere. Actually, I don’t think you can see the cow, as it is really just a microscopic cluster of cells at this point. It doesn’t much look like or act like what it will become, but the foundation to become the finished animal is there. Because of my work experience on ranches and dairies, when I look through a microscope and see an embryo, I often visualize in my mind the valuable adult animal that the embryo can become. The amount of time it takes for a bovine embryo to develop into a dairy cow capable of producing more than 3,000 gallons of milk annually is about three years.

This is a human embryo. At some point, a person’s immortal spirit joins with mortal cells to become a living soul. Before long, according to the Creator’s plan, and with supportive inputs, those few cells become a precious child. In a few more years, that child will develop into a physically mature person with tremendous capabilities. Someday, this person will become a glorified being with all the divine attributes that her Heavenly Father possesses, if she faithfully proceeds along the developmental, or covenant, path, following the example of Jesus Christ.

But remember, when she was an embryo, she didn’t much look like or act like what she would, and will, become. Think of that embryo as you consider the words of the Apostle John, a special witness of Jesus Christ: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” [8]

We are made in the image of God. [9] From what the scriptures define as “intelligence,” which has always existed, [10] our spirits were formed by heavenly parents before our birth on this Earth. We are explicitly informed by scripture and latter-day prophets that we are the offspring of God. [11] The observation of nature teaches us that offspring are designed to become like their parents.

If you own animals or grow plants, you are, of course, aware that living things require nutrition. Alma spoke of feeding a tree of testimony in this way: “And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care, it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.” [12] While the process of reproduction brings genetic combinations together that will direct growth, there must be nutrients steadily available to supply that physical body or it won’t grow. Our spirits need spiritual nourishment just as our physical bodies need food. When I have felt spiritually weak, susceptible to sin, and have reduced faith, I have come to see that my infirmity is a result of a poor spiritual diet. I am malnourished in the essential nutrients needed by my spirit. Praying earnestly, diligently studying scripture, engaging in sacrament and temple ordinances, giving loving service, and acting in faith are some of the nutrients that we need to spiritually grow, as Paul said, “unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” [13] When you have the opportunity to feed animals or even just watch them eat, remind yourself of your need for spiritual nutrition.

The study of animal health provides some important spiritual analogies. Good nutrition, as already mentioned, is a key factor in animal health. Animals also have, through their divine design, some degree of natural immunity or ability to withstand infectious diseases. Skin, mucus membranes, and stomach acid are protective barriers against disease-causing organisms. However, we know that if we place animals in environments with large numbers of pathogens, the natural defenses can be overwhelmed, and the animals can succumb to disease. Do you see parallels to both our physical and spiritual health? In addition to the protective barriers, newborn animals also receive antibodies created by their mothers. It is referred to as “passive immunity.” We are born with something like this in a spiritual sense—called the light of Christ [14]—to help us distinguish right from wrong and provide a natural aversion to sin and darkness.

As animals grow, they develop a functioning immune system that can produce new antibodies to protect against disease, which is referred to as active immunity. As we grow and make covenants with God, a more effective protection comes as we receive and use the gift of the Holy Ghost. But remember that these defenses can be overcome if we subject ourselves to an unhealthy spiritual environment. So, as I learn about animal health, I am also reminded that I need to reduce my exposure to unclean things, increase my intake of spiritually fortifying nutrients, and activate the protective power of the Holy Ghost in order to stay spiritually healthy.

Unfortunately, we are all sometimes careless with our spiritual health and get sick at times with sin. Spiritual sickness is healed through the medicine of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It is a medicine so effective that it can cure any spiritual disease by bringing a remission of sins as we repent. Repentance is the very medicine President Russell M. Nelson recommends we take on a regular basis. [15]

Animal behavior is a fascinating area of study. It can be influenced by both the genetics of the animal and the environment that the animals experience. The same is true of people. One behavioral pattern that is typically seen in livestock animals such as cattle and sheep is that when they are moved from their pasture or pen where they have felt safe and found food, they want to return to that place of safety. This knowledge helps us in livestock production to design handling facilities that animals will easily move through, but I think this can also teach us something about human desires. We left a heavenly home where we were loved and nourished. While the memory of this home is temporarily veiled in our minds, it seems that Heavenly Father’s children feel an innate longing to return to Him, and this may help us as we seek to understand others. Perhaps you can bear witness to this emotional pull to find your heavenly home.

Now, let’s consider what my academic area can teach us spiritually with regards to genetics.

In physical bodies, the genetic code found in cells contains information that directs the creation of proteins and exerts some control over various traits. The simplicity and complexity of this system is itself a witness of God. In animals, and people, the physical genes that are passed from parent to offspring result in clear similarities between them. In addition, many traits, such as growth rate or temperament, are affected not only by the genes an animal or person carries in their cells, but also by the environment and experiences to which the individual is exposed.

From scriptural accounts of prophets who saw the premortal spirit body of Jesus Christ, known then as Jehovah, it seems that the spirit resembles to some degree the physical body that will house it later. [16] I have pondered whether our spirits have the spiritual equivalent of genes from our heavenly parents and, if so, what this can teach us.

In animal science, a genetic selection tool has been developed to estimate the genetic value of livestock. It is referred to as “expected progeny difference,” or EPD for short. It provides an estimate of the performance of offspring based on the genetic value of their parents. Those animal parents that have the best genetic combinations, or genotypes, for certain traits will pass those favorable genes to their offspring. Using this temporal genetic concept, let’s make a comparison with your spiritual pedigree. Your heavenly parents possess the ultimate in spiritual value and have passed it to their offspring; therefore, your predicted spiritual value is huge!

Remember, however, that genetic expression can be affected by environmental factors. Consider the environment in which you now live. It is likely that you have been exposed for years to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and, if you have made good choices, had the companionship of the Holy Ghost. You have historically unprecedented access to scriptures and the teachings of living prophets to constantly provide you with true principles and spiritual guidance. You have the influence of this university and other Church-provided environments such as missionary service and ward families. In short, you have an optimal environment through God’s blessings and your correct choices and, therefore, an ability to express your divine genes as great as anyone on Earth. What a time and place to be you!

May you recognize the truth that you have the potential to become like our heavenly parents, or future heirs of God, as declared in the opening scripture today. God knows your physical genetics, and He knows your spiritual genetics. Charity, intelligence, honesty, forgiveness, creativity, and service are in your spiritual DNA. When we take upon ourselves His name and bind ourselves to Him through the covenants that we make and keep, our relationship to Him is enhanced, and our spiritual genes are more fully activated. As we do so, we can sense an increased family connection to Him, as taught in the Book of Mormon. [17] Because of His love and concern for you, He will guide you in life and provide the environment you need to mature as you use your agency to follow Him.

When you are discouraged with yourself and fail to see much progress in your life, despairing if you will ever be a celestial person, I suggest you ponder on that little group of cells you once were. Even if you still feel like a little child, consider what you now know and are able to do today and compare it to that embryo that you were just a few years ago. Then imagine what decades more of development will bring—let alone a few millennia—with the help of the grace of God! In the words of President Nelson, “Think Celestial!” [18]

Consider again the words of the Apostle John I shared earlier, and please note the additional verse that follows it: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” [19] If you have this understanding of who you are, with the powerful hope that understanding brings, you will strive to purify yourself through the Atonement of Jesus Christ so that you mature fully as a child of God.

Well, those are some of the witnesses and spiritual lessons that occur to me in my occupation. Again, I make an invitation to you: Let us as disciple-learners look for the works of God and true principles as we go about our everyday lives. Ponder how these witnesses teach us about God and His eternal truths. Just as Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf can see gospel principles and witnesses of God in aviation and President Nelson in medicine, the Holy Ghost can assist you to learn spiritual knowledge as you ponder and prove earthly subjects. Then, share the insights you gain with classmates, family, and friends—this can be another way of sharing your testimony.

I am so very grateful for heavenly parents and this Earth they have blessed me with. I understand and feel, both in my mind and in my heart, many witnesses of the reality of God. I am certain God loves us and knows us personally. Brothers and sisters, He loves you. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


Notes

[1] Lila Jolley, Convocation of the College of Agriculture and Life Science, Brigham Young University-Idaho, Dec 14, 2023.

[2] Reinhard Maeser, “Brigham Young’s 1876 Charge to Karl G. Maeser,” BYU Speeches, Apr. 5, 1976, https://speeches.byu.edu/documents/brigham-youngs-1876-charge-to-karl-g-maeser.

[3] Alma 30:44.

[4] Doctrine and Covenants 88:47.

[5] Moses 1:39.

[6] Moses 2:22.

[7] Moses 2:28.

[8] 1 John 3:2.

[9] See Moses 2:26.

[10] See Doctrine and Covenants 93:29; Abraham 3:22–23.

[11] See Hebrews 5:4; Romans 8:16–17.

[12] Alma 32:37.

[13] Ephesians 4:13.

[14] See Bible Dictionary, “Light of Christ.”

[15] See Russell M. Nelson, “We Can Do Better and Be Better,” Ensign, May 2019, 67.

[16] See Ether 3:6–16.

[17] See Mosiah 15:10–11.

[18] Russell M. Nelson, “Think Celestial!,” Liahona, Nov. 2023, 117.

[19] 1 John 3:2–3.