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The Lost Art of Pondering
We live in a world that is literally drowning in information and social communication. Our idea of what it means to think about something, to ponder something, consists of typing it in Google and reading about what other people think. Or, we bump into it while scrolling through our Facebook feed. Sadly, this is not thinking, and it most certainly is not pondering.
I have a phrase that I like to use for the lack of pondering, it is IL-pondering. The prefix IL stands for not or no. So, IL-pondering is no pondering or not pondering.
To ponder means: to think about something carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion. To ponder is to contemplate, consider, review, mull over, and meditate on something. The origin of ponder comes from the Latin pondus (weight), to the Latin ponderate (weigh, reflect on), to the old French ponderer (consider), to the current Middle English ponder (appraise, judge the worth of).
Pondering is so much more than thinking. It’s reasoning. It’s comparison. It’s logic. It’s feelings and emotions. But, most importantly, pondering is done by us. And secondly, pondering takes time. Finally, pondering culminates in personal witness. Pondering does not end in a non-peaceful resolution.
You might ask, “Why is pondering so important?”
My answer, “If you don’t ponder, you are not in control of your life, someone else is. If you don’t ponder, then you will end up in places, situations, health issues, conversations, and even relationships you don’t want to be in. All because you didn’t ponder.”
Now, if you don’t value being in control of your own life, then not understanding pondering may not frighten you. But, if you ultimately want to be in control of who you are and where your life goes, then you must learn to ponder. Without pondering you are actively choosing to let others think for you, choose for you, and determine who you will be and where your life will go. And, if you are unhappy, then you have only yourself to blame for letting others determine what makes you happy.
There is no vicarious road to replace the individual effort required to ponder, study, reason, and receive individual answers and witnesses from God through the Holy Ghost. If we let others ponder for us we are likely to end up converted to, and preaching, their version of the gospel (or their version our life!), instead of God’s version… And their version cannot and never will spiritually sustain us or bring us true happiness.
My second answer to, “Why is pondering so important?” is this. “You can’t ever be truly converted to God (or satisfied with your life) if you haven’t received your own personal witnesses from God, through the Holy Ghost, from pondering.”
Pondering is not about a quick fix. It’s not about what we normally think of as happiness. Pondering leads to deep, inner peace and ultimate joy. And, it can’t be substituted by quick fixes, emotional highs, food binges, and short cuts.
Not pondering leads to only one end—and end you didn’t want, a place you don’t want to be, a life you can never be a peace with.
Here is a blurb from a middle grade fiction book I love, called The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Milo, the main character has entered an imaginary world in a toy car. He ends up stuck in a place called the Doldrums where his car has stopped moving completely and he can’t figure out why. He can’t seem to get it moving again and he is in a place he doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t even know where he is or how he got there to begin with. He’s stuck. Then, an interesting character, the Watch Dog shows up.
“Help you! You must help yourself,” the Watch Dog replied, carefully winding himself with his left leg. “I suppose you know why you got stuck.”
“I guess I wasn’t thinking,” said Milo.
“PRECISELY,” shouted the dog as his alarm went off again. “Now you know what you must do.”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” admitted Milo, feeling quite stupid.
“Well,” continued the watchdog impatiently, “since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect, that in order to get out, you must start thinking,” And with that he hopped into the car.
So, how does a person ponder? I suspect that the art of thinking is a lost one, these days. There are many ways to ponder. But, I think it’s fairly easy to do. The biggest problem is people don’t take time to do it. They get far too happy with only partially pondering or jumping off the thinking-bandwagon when it appears they’ve made some progress. They are to apt to jump to conclusions rather than to wait for the witness and certainty that comes from the Holy Ghost.
Here is another blurb from The Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo has again found himself somewhere he doesn’t want to be:
“Now will you tell me where we are?” asked Tock [the Watch Dog] as he looked around the desolate island.
“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”
“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.
“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”
“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”
“Well, I’m going to jump right back,” announced the Humbug, who took two or three practice bends, leaped as far as he could, and landed in a heap two feet away.
“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here…. The only way back is to swim, and that’s a very long and a very hard way.”
Pondering is only hard if you want everything to happen right now, everything to be solved right now, and everything to make sense right now. Pondering is not a right now thing. Sometimes certainty, witnesses and answers do come fairly quickly, but most often that’s because you’re seeking for knowledge, inspiration, and answers in the correct places with an open mind, a humble heart, and a willingness to submit to truth.
If you get used to not pondering, then just like Milo’s trip to the island of conclusions, you will find that getting back to the art of pondering is a very long and a very hard way. But it gets easier and easier the more you do it. And trust me, it’s worth learning to do. It gives you power over your own happiness!
So, in preparation to ponder, you need to understand the following.
- Pondering is very rarely, a right now thing. It takes as long as it needs to take: days, weeks, months, years.
- You have to make time to ponder. You have to get out your smart phone and carve out 15 minutes to an hour each day, either all at once or in pieces. Turn off everything! And turn on your brain!
- You need to make a list of things to ponder, or seek sources that will initiate pondering. God asks us to read the scriptures daily for a reason. Not to memorize the stories. To take the time to stop and ponder His will, our will, His plan, and our progress in it. If you read your scriptures without these thoughts in mind, you’re almost (not quite) wasting your time.
- You have to want personal peace and true joy more than you want anything else. You can’t be happy to settle for good, or better, when best is your goal. If you’re willing to settle, then you aren’t ready to ponder.
- You have to look in the correct places for knowledge. You can’t go to the easiest places (the web, your dysfunctional and opinionated friend). You’ve got to identify and go to the right places. (D&C 88:118; 109:7)
- You have to seek with a humble heart, and open mind, and a willingness to submit to the truth and witness from God that you seek. If you want to know but you have no intention of acting on what you learn, you won’t find what you’re looking for.
- Pondering ends in peace, certainty, and a feeling of assurance. It doesn’t end in extreme emotions that drive irrational or weakly thought out actions. It doesn’t end in emotions that drive revenge, anger, confusion, retaliation, jealousy, hatred, or irrational fear. It may inspire actions that scare you, or excite you, but it will inspire patience and preparation in whatever action it leads you to. It will lead you to act and not to be acted upon.
So, 1-7. If you’re good to go on those, then here are what I would suggest as steps on HOW TO PONDER. The following steps have been compiled from a combination of three scripture references: Doctrine and Covenants 8:2-3, 9:7-9; Joseph Smith-History 1:8-13, as well as my own experience.
Once you have something to ponder (that has to come first, of course), then here are the steps.
HOW TO PONDER
- Set aside your self-imposed, limited expectations for what God’s answer and guidance will be and open yourself up to consider not what you expect to learn, but what God has for you to learn and understand. Don’t put God in a box.
- Establish a firm, doctrinally-based question upon which you intend to act (For help with this concept see blog post Getting Answers to Prayers: EXPEDIENCY). God can tell you anything, but He’s much more likely to reveal those things to you which pertain to “you” and which will help “you” become more like Him. That includes even the mundane, such as health, fitness, education, work, entertainment, music as well as the deep spiritual topics you have questions about.
- Pray for guidance and then while you are waiting for it, continue to act on the truth you have, study, research correct sources, and reason about your question or topic from every angle you can think of.
- Pray again for understanding and to sort through the knowledge you’ve gleaned. Ponder what you’ve already got and toss out anything that isn’t helping and study deeper anything that sticks out to you. (repeat as often as necessary)
- Do not allow yourself to be overly awed or swayed by educational credentials, claimed associations, quotes and blurbs taken out of context, etc. If something sounds good, but sits wrong in your gut or incites feelings of anger, confusion, jealously or revenge, chances are it is wrong, false, only partially true—or at the minimum biased and incomplete. Also be careful about sources that tell you exactly what you think you want to hear. That’s always a red flag. Click here for more info on what this means and how to tell truth from falsehoods (in any text, blog, quote, interview, etc.)
- Live worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost and invite Him to testify and guide you by being an active learner. You can do this by accessing those resources God has commanded us to use to get His answers: prophetic guidance, scripture study, prayer, and other appropriate and positive influences within our lives.
- When you receive advice from others, get the counsel confirmed by the Holy Ghost who will tell you in BOTH your mind and your hearts, if the advice is God’s will for you.
- Wait for that personal witness of peace, certainty, assurance, calmness, and patient determination. When the resolve comes to you, you will recognize it. It’s different from everything the world offers. (St. John 14:27)
Now that you know what pondering should basically look like, let’s also review what IL-pondering looks like. Sometimes looking at the reverse helps us identify where we are getting in our own way.
THE PERILS OF IL-PONDERING
So, how do we il-ponder? Il-pondering is skipping, reversing, ignoring, skewing, or slothfully completing any of the above steps. But, here are some statements that may help.
- Il-pondering will happen IF we limit our perspective for learning and receiving answers from God to our own limited and finite expectations. We think we can imagine what God will say, but we can’t (Isaiah 55:8-9). So, if we try to put God in our box (which can’t be done), then we will sit inside that tiny box, all alone—or with others who have climbed in—and never get the knowledge and peace we need.
- Many times we il-ponder when we focus on superficial questions to which God has an answer, but because of the lack of eternal importance of the answer, or our inability to comprehend the infinite expanse of the answer, we cannot receive it. For example: it’s not that understanding how the dinosaurs and Cro-Magnon man play into the creation of Adam and Eve aren’t interesting, but the reality is that the answer won’t affect our ability to keep God’s commandments and become like Him. We can do that without knowing those things. Plus, the answer would probably be beyond our ability to grasp.
- We also il-ponder when our excessive emotions of disappointment, anger, resentment, vengeance, passion, and even dumfounded-confusion drive our search. This is because what we are looking for is an immediate fix for our emotional discomfort and not the ultimate truth—which is often not immediately comfortable.
Il-pondering can happen, and frequently does, when we allow others to do our thinking for us. This happens when we set out to research an issue, problem, question, or even a doubt. In our impatience and haste, we find that other people (often on the Internet) have already done some. Then, we sit down comfortably and listen to their pondering, eat their narrative meal, accept their biased viewpoint (which certainly sounds as if they are trying to be unbiased and fair), and completely ingest their answers and their gospel. This meal is especially appetizing if it agrees with our emotional feelings or uneducated conclusions. We jump to their conclusions, never having fully come to or pondered our own. When this happens, I know of few who actually take the time to take the easily ingested pondering (done by others) and vet it through an inquiry to the Lord. They simply think they’ve found the answer and then stop. They never seek a witness from the Holy Ghost. They put up an umbrella over their heads, blocking the further light and knowledge raining down that they would have found.
We il-ponder when we jump to conclusions before having all the information (and since when did anyone have all the information, except God?). We are so prideful and selfishly convinced of our own intelligent conclusion based on minimal evidence that we harden our hearts and become incapable of receiving any other information. Messages from the Holy Ghost bounce off of our armor because we’ve decided to only soften for certain kinds of information.
We il-ponder when we study minimally, research at a glance, reason only our limited viewpoint, and fail to pray before and after for inspiration, help, and guidance. And I’m talking about day-to-day life just as much as I am what we often consider the deeper spiritual questions. We’ve got to pray!
We il-ponder when we ask God for an answer and then turn to sources He has not instituted for His answer. We turn to men for guidance instead of God’s words and ordained mouthpieces (Doctrine and Covenants 1:37-38).
We il-ponder when we accept the counsel and guidance of others in our lives without vetting their guidance with our Father in Heaven. No matter how wise and wonderful advice may seem (of any kind); no matter how educated or experienced another is; none is more wise and educated and experienced than God. If we get good advice and He wants us to follow it, He will tell us IF we seek His opinion.
In the scriptures we see many people deceived by il-pondering.
Laman and Lemuel often sought explanations from Nephi. Nephi always preached true doctrine to them. So, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Laman and Lemuel never went to the Lord to get it verified. They never got their own witness.
The Zoramites were notorious for not pondering for themselves. They turned to Alma and his sons for information. Alma 32 is an entire chapter in The Book of Mormon of Alma counseling the Zoramites to ponder! Try it out, plant the seed and see what happens! Alma taught.
Alma’s son, Corianton, succumbed to temptation because he struggled with a few critical gospel doctrines. His emotions got in his way of taking the time to ponder and get the truth. His father finally set him straight, but Corianton still had to gain his own witness.
Alma the Younger was an il-ponderer until his soul was at stake. Then, as he was “racked with torment” and “harrowed up by the memory of [his] sins” he remembered his father taught about “one, Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world” (Alma 36:17). In his internal pondering he sifted through all that he had ever heard and found hope and a testimony in Jesus Christ.
Zeezrom tormented Alma and Amulek with his cursory knowledge of the gospel. He tried to cross them in their words. When they were inspired by the Holy Ghost to put Zeezrom in his place, he too was tormented until he pondered what they had actually taught about Jesus Christ (Alma 11 & 15).
The Pharisees were the blind guides upon whom so many were so often deceived. The Pharisees were accused by Jesus Christ of being blind guides and making converts to “their version” of His religion twofold more the children of hell than they, themselves, were (Matthew 23:15).
If we continually submit to others’ versions of truth, to others’ pondering, and not doing our own, we are allowing ourselves to be led by “blind guides” and we have no personal promptings or spiritual witnesses to fall back on. And, if we are not careful, we will become their converts and not Christ’s, we will preach their gospel and not Christ’s, and we will become twofold more the children of hell, than those whom we originally followed. We will end up in places in life we don’t want to be! We will be on diets that work or others not us. We will be in jobs that others love but we don’t. Etc.
We cannot receive personal revelation and guidance from God if we let others do the asking, studying, and pondering for us. If we think God is not answering us, that His promises are not being fulfilled, it may be because we are not anxiously engaged in getting our own answers from Him (Doctrine & Covenants -58:26-33).
2 Nephi 32:1-7 says:
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way. But, behold, why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?
Do ye not remember that I said unto that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?
Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.
Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ…
And now, I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be.
I am one of those people that is inherently untrusting of others’ opinions, and even more so of their facts. If someone cites a reference in their research paper, blog, or other post, I look it up. And, I’m never shocked to find out that they’ve skewed the ideal, misunderstood the point, misquoted the facts, failed to read the whole reference themselves, and “jumped to conclusions” about its interpretation. Often they steal ideas because they don’t have their own! Talk about unreliable information.
I’m not shocked because those who preach (especially the rigid, eccentric, angry, or overtly biased) the most vehemently are often il-ponderers themselves.
When I cite references in this blog, I fully expect (and hope) that you (my readers) will look them up. Why? Because if you read them, for yourself, the Spirit will be able to teach you far more than my little blog could ever do. If you read the references yourselves and ponder the right questions, the Holy Ghost will do wonderful things with your minds, hearts, and your lives. Far beyond what all my typing can do.
So, hopefully, if you’re reading this and you’ve been an il-ponderer, you will get moving again (out of the Doldrums) by thinking on your own and seeking your own witness. Or, perhaps you will swim back from the Island of Conclusions—even though it’s a long swim. Or, hopefully, you will finally get past Expectations and to the destinations that God intends for you. I hope you will use pondering to take control of your life and find your way to where you actually want to be.