Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. Concepts and facts relate to one another, and understanding a concept in isolation is likely of limited value.
Isaiah taught that some knowledge has prerequisites:
Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little (Isaiah 28:9-10).
Nephi expanded on this concept, teaching that only people who are receptive learners can grow through the levels of knowledge described by Isaiah:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have (2 Nephi 28:30).
We all understand this principle when it comes to secular learning. You can’t teach someone calculus if they haven’t mastered basic arithmetic. The same is true of spiritual knowledge. You need a foundation of basic gospel concepts in order to have a frame of reference for new information. Some questions must wait until you have the understanding to place the answer in an appropriate context.
As a seminary teacher, I used an example of a jigsaw puzzle to teach this principle. Suppose that I gave you a single puzzle piece and asked where it fits:
Without any other pieces in place, you can’t answer my question. Furthermore, even if I have a complete collection of pieces, it is highly unlikely that I will be successful in solving the puzzle by starting in the middle. Most of us start by finding the corner pieces, which are much easier to place.
Then, we fill in the sides to create a frame. After that, we find it much easier to fill in the rest of the puzzle. But even then, there are pieces which we temporarily set aside, trusting that we will see where they fit eventually. As other pieces fall into place, eventually it becomes clear where our center pieces fit:
I think this is why prophets often reaffirm what they already know even as they acknowledge what they have yet to learn. They aren’t giving up on answering the question eventually; they are simply acknowledging that the new knowledge, when it comes, will be connected to knowledge they have already received.
- When an angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi answered by first stating what he knew: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16-17).
- As the prophet Alma taught members of the church in the city of Gideon, he acknowledged something he didn’t know, but he immediately reaffirmed something he did know: “Behold, I do not say that he will come among us at the time of his dwelling in his mortal tabernacle; for behold, the Spirit hath not said unto me that this should be the case. Now as to this thing I do not know; but this much I do know, that the Lord God hath power to do all things which are according to his word” (Alma 7:8).
- Mormon acknowledges that he doesn’t understand how the three Nephite disciples can remain on the earth until the Savior’s second coming, but he immediately follows with something he knows for sure: “And now, whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration, I know not; but this much I know, according to the record which hath been given—they did go forth upon the face of the land, and did minister unto all the people, uniting as many to the church as would believe in their preaching; baptizing them, and as many as were baptized did receive the Holy Ghost” (3 Nephi 28:17-18).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland provided the following guidance when we face difficult questions that we can’t immediately answer: “hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes” (“Lord, I Believe,” General Conference, April 2013).
Today, I will remember that the process of gaining spiritual knowledge is incremental. There will always be some questions that I can’t immediately answer, because I don’t yet have enough understanding to provide a context for them. I will follow the examples of Nephi, Alma, and Mormon, reaffirming what I already know to ensure that I have a solid foundation for the additional knowledge I will receive over time.