Putting a price on the priceless
Those who know me know I really like economics. It's a fascinating subject, and even humorous at times. There's a classic economics joke that goes something like this:
Two economists walked past a Porsche showroom. One of them pointed at a shiny car in the window and said, "I want that."
"Obviously not," the other replied.
OK, OK, so while economists may be smart, comedians they are not. But it's one of my favorite jokes because of what it teaches: when it comes to economics, what you say you want is not important– it's your spending that tells us what you really want. If the first economist in the joke really wanted the Porsche bad enough, he would scrimp and save for years or subject himself to an insane car loan so he could buy it. The fact that he is not planning to buy it means that he obviously does not value the Porsche to the amount that the showroom is asking. Economist David Friedman explains:
When you say that you cannot afford something, you usually mean only that there are other things you would rather spend the money on. Most of us would say that we could not afford a $1,000 shirt. Yet most of us could save up $1,000 in a year if it were sufficiently important– important enough that you were willing to spend only a dollar a day on food…, share a one-room apartment with two roommates, and buy your clothing from Goodwill.
You can talk about what you consider important all you want, but when push comes to shove, your monthly expenses will tell the truth about where your priorities really lie.
Why am I going into economic principles today? Because that concept is equally applicable to spiritual matters. But in the economy of the Gospel, the currency is not just dollars and cents– it's also time and attention.
The Scriptures: "of great worth"… but how much exactly?
There is a game I used to play with members on my mission. After dinner, we'd let family members take turns guessing the price of various items we brought with us. We tried to make them surprising so the kids would get a shot. Here are some examples:
- Hair gel: $6, but so strong that you can make one bottle last an entire year.
- A ballpoint click pen: $4 (it's the one with the perfect ink for writing leave notes on glossy pass-along cards).
- Darth Vader key chain: built into the price of a $3.25 happy meal.
- Necktie: $0.95 from the thrift store.
- My prescription glasses: $15 from an online glasses retailer in China (this one always shocked the adults who usually paid a few hundred for theirs).
- A soft-cover copy of the Book of Mormon: $3.00 from the distribution center.
We would then ask the members what I ask you now. Try to put a price tag on the Gospel. Pretend for a moment that you never had access to the Book of Mormon in your life but you knew what you were missing out on. With that in mind, what would you be willing to pay for the Book of Mormon? Would you be willing to pay the $3 price at the distribution center? How about $300? $3,000? How about everything you own?
Now let's take this beyond dollars and cents and ask what would you be willing to do for the Book of Mormon? Would you be willing to tag a friend in an Instagram comment for a chance to get a copy? Would you be willing to wear a shirt to school or work that says, "I love the Book of Mormon?" Would you be willing to learn a foreign language so you could read it? Would you be willing to hike to a different state to get it? Would you be willing to adopt a new member of your family? Would you be willing to voluntarily exile yourself and cut ties with all your friends and extended family to keep it? Would you maybe even be willing to kill someone to get it?
In other words, I invite you to honestly consider the questions Pres. Nelson asked us to consider:
- "What would your life be like without the Book of Mormon?" and
- "How precious is the Book of Mormon to you? If you were offered diamonds or rubies or the Book of Mormon, which would you choose? Honestly, which is of greater worth to you?"
The price Lehi and his family paid
Last week, we read about Nephi and his family's efforts to get the plates. What we see throughout these chapters is that Lehi's family was required to make the same sacrifices and pay the same prices I asked you to consider just a minute ago (except for the Instagram and T-shirt examples).
They learned a foreign language (Egyptian and possibly others) so they could read and write their records. They forsook all their friends and extended family to live in the wilderness. They hiked back and forth to Jerusalem to retrieve the brass plates (from the low valley of Lemuel to the highlands of Jerusalem was about 500 miles round-trip!) They gave up all their possessions to Laban in an attempt to get the plates. They "adopted" a new family member (Zoram). And in the end, Nephi even had to kill a guy. Lehi and his family didn't just wish they had the scriptures like the economist outside the Porsche showroom– they valued them enough to act and pay the price to get them. Like the man in Christ's parables of the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field, they were willing to give everything they had for the word of God.
But merely getting access to the Scriptures is one thing. What would it say about their priorities if they never used them? Righteous members of Lehi's family were not just willing to make the "down payment" to acquire the plates– they were constantly using them, treasured the word of God. They lugged them through deserts and oceans and jungles. Their "souls delighted in the scriptures" and their "hearts pondered continually" as they "feasted upon the words of Christ." They taught them to each other and to their children (2 Ne 25). They likened the scriptures to themselves (1 Ne. 19:23). They spent many hours and precious ore to make more of them.
Then, when they discovered new records from an extinct people, they wore out their prophet by pestering him to translate those records because they were so anxious for more scripture (Mosiah 7). And they carefully handed down their own records for a thousand years so those records would eventually outlast them once their whole nation was extinct. The righteous Nephites clearly demonstrated that their priorities were focused on studying and learning the word of God– they treasured the Scriptures.
Measuring value in minutes and miles
If you're feeling a little guilty right now, that's probably a good thing. I'm feeling guilty, too. When I think of how I spend my time, I know I definitely fall short in how much effort I put into treasuring the Scriptures. My daily study is not as edifying as it should be. And most members of the Church are in the same boat. In a past post, I pointed out that the Lord put the Church in Joseph Smith's day under condemnation for not involving the Book of Mormon enough in their lives. Pres. Benson told Church members a few decades ago that that condemnation has not been lifted, and Pres. Nelson quoted him on that very recently. So we know we're not where we're supposed to be on that. So where do we go from here? Well, our first step is to quantify where we are.
A few years ago, I was in the presidency of a branch that covered the entire stake (to those in out west: here in the South, stakes are big). One day in a branch meeting, we discussed the needs of one family who was really wonderful in many aspects but never seemed to make it to Church. We were asked, "What is preventing this good family from coming and partaking of the Sacrament every week?" One brother responded, "It's very simple– they don't have faith. If they had faith they would come."
After a bit of uncomfortable silence, someone kindly responded, "that's partially true– if they had sufficient faith, they would act on it. However, this family lives 25 miles from the chapel. I believe this family has faith– just not 25 miles worth of faith. Our job is to help them develop at least 25 miles of faith so they can come and worship with us."
I reflect on that meeting when I hear of members in other countries who wake up at 3 AM and walk nine hours or trek through muddy roads all day so they can worship with the Saints each week. Faith is an active expression of how much you value something. Right now I am blessed to live 2 miles from my chapel, so I know that I honestly value weekly Church attendance at least to the tune of a 2-mile commute in a climate-controlled car. But would I value my attendance enough to take a weekly 24-hour hike through the jungle like those stalwart members in other countries? I suspect I have a ways to go in building my faith before I could say I would pay that price every week.
Just as we can see how we value weekly Church attendance using the unit of miles, perhaps we can learn how much we value daily scripture study using the unit of minutes. There was an investigator on my mission I'll call Suzy. She was a very nice lady, but we noticed that she never seemed to have the time to read the weekly reading assignment we left her– not even when the assignment was all of 4 verses long.
One week, we started our lesson and, as usual, asked her if she'd "had the opportunity to read" the past week. As usual, she told us the week was insanely busy and she'd had no time for it. As we got ready to move on to the opening prayer of the lesson and she turned off the TV, I was impressed to ask her how she liked the program that was playing. Suzy lit up, got very excited, and said "Oh, I love that show! I never miss a single episode! I'm such a big fan that I stop whatever I'm doing and even stay up late to watch it whenever it comes on– even if the episode is a re-run!"
I'm sure you can figure out what subject we decided to talk about after that opening prayer. "That sounds like a really fun show," we said, "but not three minutes ago, you told us you had been so busy that you didn't have time to start the 5-minute reading assignment we left one week ago. And now you are telling us that you make time to re-watch an episode of a TV show you've already seen, including commercials."
Thankfully, she received that counsel with the love we intended and we had a very uplifting conversation about priorities. She had read her reading assignment the next week we came– for the first time I can remember. Once she could identify what her obstacles really were, she was able to address them and grow.
Most investigators walk the path Suzy did. They start listening to the missionaries because they're nice and they like missionaries and they're even interested in the lessons. But they don't read. If they do read, it's like skimming a textbook. And they're surprised when the missionaries are disappointed (or even "devastated") to find they haven't really studied.
Prioritizing personal study
If we're being honest, even as members we don't fully appreciate the worth and priority of scripture study. A few years ago, I was a full-time student at a challenging university, working full-time as a software engineer leading an intense project, a new parent, a counselor in the branch presidency. It was a struggle to fit all of those good things in. I got home very late most evenings. My sweet wife would stay up late so we could have even just an hour to talk about the day and get ready for bed together and fall asleep at the same time. I treasured that time at the end of every day I was able to spend with my wife. However, although I was spending time with my wife, I was not as diligent at spending time in the Scriptures. Every night, it seemed I found myself quickly scrolling through a few verses in bed so that I could "check off the box" and fall into a much-needed sleep.
Over time, I began to feel uneasy. I felt that my own personal spiritual needs were not being met. I was depriving Heavenly Father of the chance to communicate with me every evening. That time together with my wife every evening was precious to both of us, and I did not want to give that up, but a quick scroll on my phone in a half-asleep stupor was not sufficient for me. So after our time together, I would kiss my wife goodnight and tuck her in, close the door, and go to another room, turn on the light, and study the scriptures.
Studying the scriptures has never been as hard as it was those late nights during college. But it has also never been as rewarding. Thoughts and impressions I received and recorded those evenings remain with me to this day and still direct my life. I learned that Elder Scott was serious when he talked about the purpose and value of daily Scripture study. It really is more important than work, school, or even sleep (a price that gets higher with each kid we add to our family):
Study the word of God in the scriptures and the words of the living prophets. We talk to God through prayer. He most often communicates back to us through His written word. To know what the voice of the Divine sounds and feels like, read His words, study the scriptures, and ponder them. Make them an integral part of everyday life…
Don't yield to Satan's lie that you don't have time to study the scriptures. Choose to take time to study them. Feasting on the word of God each day is more important than sleep, school, work, television shows, video games, or social media. You may need to reorganize your priorities to provide time for the study of the word of God. If so, do it!
Work it out with the Lord
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that if we really loved the Scriptures, we would spend every waking moment reading them. I'm not saying that there is any universal minimum amount of time that "counts." Exactly how long we can spend immersed in the Scriptures every day is a personal matter between us and Heavenly Father. My experience has been, however, that usually when we think we're doing OK, if we ask God what we should be doing, He usually asks for something a little bit of a stretch beyond our current efforts.
So I invite you to take inventory of your own level of value in the Scriptures. Quantify it. Go to the Lord asking how your scripture study can be taken to the next level. As Elder Lawrence challenged, ask the Lord "What lack I yet?" Then wait and listen. If you're sincere, you will receive an answer. And if you act on that answer, it will be one of the most rewarding things you could do.
Coming up next time! In an upcoming post, I'll highlight some of the obstacles that we often face in learning to treasure the Scriptures (hint: if you want a list of reasons not to do something, talk to some teenagers).
NOTE: The header image for this post is Replica of the gold plates by David Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith