14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
(1 Nephi 11:14-17)
Receiving revelation is an active, not a passive, process. Immediately after appearing to Nephi, the angel asked him two questions to facilitate his learning:
- “What beholdest thou?”
- “Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
The first question was relatively easy. Nephi told the angel that he saw a beautiful young woman. But the second was more challenging, for at least two reasons. First, how can you tell your angel-teacher that you understand something as profound as the condescension of God? Second, the question was clearly related to the prior one: “Do you understand the condescension of God, and do you know how it relates to what you are seeing?”
I like to think that Nephi paused for a moment before answering. What did he know about the condescension of God? He knew that the Creator of the Universe, whose “throne is high in the heavens” was willing to communicate with his father “in visions and in dreams” (1 Nephi 1:14, 16). He knew that God would answer his own prayers and soften his heart, so that he could believe (1 Nephi 2:16). He also knew that God, who “is mightier than all the earth” was willing to deliver him from danger and would prepare a way for him to fulfill difficult commandments (1 Nephi 4:1-3, 1 Nephi 3:7).
So Nephi really did know the condescension of God, at least at some level. With a combination of boldness and humility, he answered the question in two parts:
- “I know that he loveth his children.” (I understand that God is mindful of us. In that sense, yes, I am aware of His condescension.)
- “Nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. So, no, I do not fully understand.”)
I think it’s meaningful that Nephi began by declaring what he knew before acknowledging what he did not. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught, in matters of faith, we would be wise to “assert [our] strength first and only then [acknowledge our] limitation” (“Lord, I Believe,” General Conference, April 2013). By leading with testimony, Nephi not only helped the angel understand the boundaries of his own knowledge, he also declared his willingness to believe, to exercise faith, and to accept truth when it was given to him. This signaled to the angel that he was teachable, and it likely also helped him achieve a teachable state of mind and heart.
Today, I will follow Nephi’s example as I seek for spiritual knowledge. When faced with difficult questions, I will begin by reviewing and affirming what I already know. I will follow by acknowledging what I don’t know with humility and with a willingnesss to learn more.