Skip to main content

To See Things as They Truly Are

I have a question for you: Have you ever noticed that the brain isn’t the most, let’s say, “photogenic” member of the body? 

It’s kind of wrinkly, isn’t it? It looks like something you packed in your suitcase for a trip and you should probably iron it before you wear it, right?

Have you ever wondered why the human brain looks like that?

While you ruminate on the answer to that question, let me introduce the direction we’re headed in. Some of you have heard me pose this question before in a presentation that I give about visual communication. I want to share a different principle today with my question.

As an art instructor charged with the task of teaching students, I often tell them, “Before I can teach you to draw or paint, I first have to teach you how to see!” You see, we as human beings don’t actually “see” objects; what we see is light bouncing off of objects. Our brains interpret those light and shadow patterns as form—faces, fabric, building surfaces, trees, water, etc. What we are actually “seeing” is light, not objects.

I could go on about this subject for hours, but that’s a topic for another day. The important thing to understand is that light allows us to interpret the physical world around us. 

By the same token, the Light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, and revelation allow us to see things as they truly are. These “things” are eternal, and they are things that the rest of today’s world is largely unaware of. These are the “mysteries of God” spoken of so many times in the scriptures.

Today, you and I will together compose a list of four eternal concepts that the Light of Christ allows us to see. Our list will be far from comprehensive, but my hope with this narrow list is that your understanding of these concepts will deepen.

So let’s get back to our wrinkly brains that need ironing. The reason the brain looks this way is because it needs as much surface area—the outer layer—as possible. It’s kind of like this grocery sack. We all know that it’s this big when it’s opened up, but I can stuff it into a really small space if I have to, right? You see, if you actually could iron out the surface of the brain, it would take up a lot more room than it does inside your skull. That outer layer is called the cerebral cortex, and it’s where the highest level of thinking occurs. It needs as much space as possible because it has to hold about 80 to 100 billion special cells called neurons. Neurons pass electrical currents to other neurons, and those impulses translate into thoughts and knowledge and memory. Pretty miraculous, in my opinion.

Now I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around—sorry for the pun—wrap my brain around the number 100 billion. Just how big is 100 billion of something? 

As I contemplated that one day, I happened to have a roll of pennies sitting on my dresser. A roll of pennies has 50 pennies in it. “Maybe,” I thought, “I could imagine 100 billion pennies stacked one on top of another.” Not 100 billion rolls—just 100 billion individual pennies. Would that stack go a mile high or 10 miles high or 100 miles high?

Turns out that a stack of 100 billion pennies would only be almost 12 earths high.

Every human being on this earth holds that many neurons inside his or her brain. Even someone like myself, whose elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top, has 80 to 100 billion neurons.

Each of those neurons has connections to at least 20,000 other neurons. When you do the math, the possible combinations are greater than the number of molecules in the known universe. The prospect of comprehending your brain alone is, well, mind-boggling. When the Lord tells you that your body is a temple, he’s not just waxing poetic.

Which brings us to concept #1 on our list:

  1. You cannot currently comprehend the eternal potential you have as a literal son or daughter of God.

We often sing “I Am a Child of God,” but I propose to you that the comprehension you have of what you are, because of who you are, is a very tiny comprehension indeed. I bear solemn testimony to the fact that you are much more than you realize. Sister Rosemary M. Wixom put it this way:

We come into this world “trailing clouds of glory.” “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” teaches that each one of us “is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents” and “each has a divine nature and destiny.” Heavenly Father generously shares a portion of His divinity within us. That divine nature comes as a gift from Him with a love that only a parent can feel.

We come to this earth to nurture and discover the seeds of divine nature that are within us. [1]

I’ll introduce concept #2 by sharing a story: 

There was once a young couple who had a sweet angel daughter about to turn three. Though money was tight, they wanted to have some kind of celebration for her birthday. Fortunately, the small child was too young to be aware of expensive gifts, so they decided that the regular Sunday afternoon gathering at grandma and grandpa’s house would be a great venue for a simple celebration with family.

The young mother woke up early that Sunday morning to prepare and bake a humble birthday cake. She pulled it out of the oven while preparing to go to church, but as they were walking out the door, a backward glance revealed that the cake had fallen significantly. 

Upon returning home, the young mother faced a bit of a dilemma. She didn’t have the time or ingredients to start over, nor did she feel right about running to the store on the Sabbath. She’d just have to do the best she could.

She made up a double batch of frosting, and soon the hole was filled and the cake was nice and flat on top. She’d have to embarrassingly confess before the cake was cut into, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

That birthday cake is a fairly appropriate metaphor for my life. I try to act like I know what I’m doing in life—that I’ve kind of got my act together. But the truth is, one doesn’t have to scratch into the frosting very far to realize that I have some significant holes in my cake. The mistakes I have made in my life are pretty hard to miss when the frosting isn’t hiding them. And though they aren’t front-and-center to everyone else, I know they are there, and so does the Savior, and so does my Father in Heaven.

For many years those mistakes gnawed at my faith. How in the world, I thought, could my Heavenly Father and the Savior possibly love me? For they truly know what I am under that frosting.

Fortunately for me, my current job in online curriculum development causes me to explore, research, and investigate how the human brain works, and how we learn. At the top of my office whiteboard is written “The Myth of Errorless Learning.” This is a constant reminder to me that learning cannot occur without errors. In other words, mistakes are a necessary part of learning. 

In this week’s devotional discussion board, I posed the question “Have you ever made a big mistake, but learned something really important from it?” There were several inspiring thoughts shared. Thank you to those who participated. I’ll point out two who both felt that although the mistakes might not qualify as “big,” they were definitely learning experiences. One student shared that as a young lady she worked summers on her grandparents’ farm. One morning she showed up a bit late. Her grandfather told her to go home because only those who arrive on time have the privilege of receiving earnings for the day. What a great lesson from a great teacher! A discussion post from another student was a classic. He registered for a course just to be in the same class as a particular gal. Turns out she dropped the class and he was stuck in it. What a way to learn a lesson! Now that’s what I call deep learning!

To some degree, when we make mistakes, we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. That doesn’t mean we should use them as an excuse to intentionally wander—but it does mean that honest mistakes don’t lessen our Father in Heaven’s love for us. The Savior’s Atonement makes even more sense when you understand this concept.

So concept # 2 on our list is:

  1. Your mistakes in life do not keep your Heavenly Father and the Savior from loving you. You are valued in their eyes more than you can comprehend.

President Russell M. Nelson has said:

To the individual who is weak in the heart, fearful in the heart, be patient with yourself. Perfection comes not in this life, but in the next life. Don't demand things that are unreasonable, but demand of yourself improvement. As you let the Lord help you through that, He will make the difference. [2] 

For concept #3, I’d like to tell you a personal story. This is a concept that I was relatively clueless about for a long time. Let me explain.

Early in my life I knew I would grow up to be an artist. By the time I left high school I was aware of the path I wanted to take. My heroes were artists who had been illustrators of books and magazines, and later transitioned into what we call “fine artists”—those who create paintings and sell them in galleries. So that was the path I embarked on.

I went to a year of art school at Utah State University before serving a mission to Chile. After my mission, I returned to Utah State, met my wife, Johnna, and convinced her to support me in my dream. It would be necessary for her to work for quite a few years while I climbed the proverbial art-world ladder. 

As a side note: fortunately for me, Johnna is brilliant, so she had a career as a software developer and project manager for many years.

After we were married we moved to Los Angeles, where I studied at one of the best illustration schools in the country while Johnna worked for a well-known aerospace company. Jump ahead a few years and we moved to Connecticut, where I could be near New York City and the world’s major publishing houses. Over the next several years I was blessed to be a freelance Illustrator, doing drawings and paintings for hundreds of books and magazines.

As I mentioned, my heroes eventually became fine artists. By the early 2000s we had moved to Teton Valley, Idaho, to be near the Jackson Hole art scene, and my paintings were selling in galleries and hanging in collections. I thought that I would continue down this path the rest of my life. But the Lord had other plans for me.

I consider myself extremely blessed that He let me follow my dream far enough to be successful before he took me down HisHIS path. Starting about 2008, the floundering economy threw a huge wrench into the cogs of my plan. I always knew that if the economy took a turn for the worse, the last thing that people would need was a painting on the wall. I was right—but it was one of those things you don’t exactly want to be right about.

Fortunately, in 2002, I had started teaching as an adjunct faculty member at BYUI in the art department. To my surprise I found that I had an undiscovered love for teaching. I decided to take advantage of the lull in the economy as a chance to go back for a master’s degree.

I’ll skip a lot of details here of the next several years, but there is one important detail that needs to be pointed out. The Lord, knowing I was ready for an important lesson, allowed me to pass through a very difficult phase of life for a while. It included working at four different part-time jobs simultaneously, for several years, just to make ends meet. The struggle was very real and stressful. But that struggle brought me to the point that I was ready to completely give up my will and follow His will. I was willing to go anywhere He wanted me to go, and do anything He wanted me to do, if He would just let me provide for my family.

And that’s when He started opening doors.

In 2011 I moved from the art department to a full-time position in the online department, to work as a media developer. I hadn’t known it, but for years the Lord had been training me for this exact position at this exact time, because my career had taken some unusual twists and turns along the way, and I had become skilled in a lot of areas related to art.

I now have the daily opportunity to serve thousands of my brothers and sisters all around the world each and every day. I still paint pictures, and the economy has recovered, so they sell, but what I do here at BYU-Idaho is what I know the Lord wants me to be doing. What an honor it is for me to play a very small part in the gathering of Zion to prepare the world for the Savior’s Second Coming.

It is my testimony that your gifts, whatever they are, are just as essential to building the kingdom as any of mine. So concept #3 is this:

  1. Take your best, inspired attempt at your path ahead, but expect and welcome the Lord’s modifications to it.

And pay attention to your patriarchal blessing. Last week Brother Doug Mason, in his devotional address, stated, “I bear witness that patriarchal blessings are a witness that God our Father lives and that He is well acquainted with you and what your needs are. Patriarchal blessings are an intimate, loving, and amazing gift from an all-knowing Heavenly Father.” [3]

The topic of gifts takes us to our final concept, concept #4.

I’d like to introduce you to one of the greatest gifts of my life, my daughter McKeand. Every member of my family is a precious, unique, and wonderful gift—Johnna, Molly, and Noah. I’ll focus here on McKeand, though, because her gift is a bit more disguised.

When McKeand was born, she seemed like every other healthy baby. Within a week or so, however, we started having a few concerns. We didn’t realize that what we were actually seeing were seizures.

We took her to the pediatrician, who recognized what two dumb, young parents couldn’t, and suddenly we were sitting in a hospital room waiting for answers. We didn’t know it at the time but we would spend many, many days and weeks in hospitals during McKeand’s life, and the seizures would eventually number in the thousands. They were just a small manifestation of much larger issues.

Fortunately, the Lord had taken us to Connecticut, about an hour from Yale University Hospital. For most of her first decade, many of the preeminent medical brains in the country all up and down the east coast poked, prodded, and pondered for answers. But McKeand was always a mystery. When we moved to Idaho, Primary Children’s Hospital and the UofU became the new “home away from home.”

It would take hours for me to tell the whole story, so we’ll jump way ahead. Now, 28 years later, McKeand’s diagnosis and prognosis still have a lot of unanswered holes. Her disease is officially listed as “atypical methylmalonic acidemia” on medical forms. But that’s just a “close as we can get” description. 

Fortunately, what the Light of Christ allows us to see is one of those “angels among us” that Brother Brett Cook referred to in the last devotional of spring semester last month.

You see, McKeand fulfilled her needed eternal progress when she received her body. She was a celestial spirit that didn’t need to prove anything. She didn’t need to be tested. She could have lived one minute and been well on her way through the eternities. But it is my testimony that McKeand chose to stay behind, to be our family’s teacher. And what an amazing teacher she has been.

You see, the concept of eternity is constantly front-and-center in our home. Because of McKeand’s disabilities, we are in a perpetual state of remembering that this life is a temporary condition. We have personal witnesses that the veil is thin, and that angelic ancestors administer to those on earth. I bear humble testimony that the doctrine of resurrection is true. The Holy Ghost has burned that knowledge into my heart many, many times. McKeand will one day shine forth in all of her glory. In the meantime, she is here teaching her dad. And while there are many, many things she has taught me, perhaps the most important thing is this: I know, with a knowledge that I’m incapable of putting into adequate words, that the gospel we are taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more true than you can possibly comprehend. 

So concept #4 is this:

  1. Our Father in Heaven has incredible gifts in store for each of us to help us return to Him. Sometimes they come disguised.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated:

It’s extremely important for you to believe in yourselves, not only for what you are now, but for what you have the power to become. Trust in the Lord as He leads you along. He has things for you to do that you won’t know about now, but that will be revealed later. If you stay close to Him, you will have some great adventures. You will live in a time when instead of just talking about prophecies that will  sometime be fulfilled, many of them will  actually be fulfilled. The Lord will unfold your future bit by bit. [4]

So we have our finished list. As you contemplate these four concepts, I want to testify to you that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that each one is true. I have personal experience, as well as the Holy Ghost that has born witness of them to me. I bear humble testimony that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. He lives. I invite each of you to ponder on these concepts, to “come unto Him,” and be constantly mindful of your eternal nature and capabilities. I do so in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] Rosemary M. Wixom, “Discovering the Divinity Within,” Ensign, Nov. 2015.

[2] “Watch: President Nelson Shares Harrowing Near-Death Experience to Encourage Those Who Feel ‘Weak in Heart’,” LDS Living, Jan. 26, 2018.

[3] Doug Mason, “These Things I Know For Sure,” BYU-Idaho devotional, July 29, 2019.

[4] “Friend To Friend,” Liahona, June 1984.