Phrases of faith

Men are that they might have joy

  • 2 Ne. 2:25

This great, insightful phrase from the Book of Mormon is not only scripture to members of the Church, but also has become part of our common sayings in congregations around the world. It's an aphorism that touches a responsive chord precisely because it expresses an underlying truth with style and distinction.

There are other such sayings from the scriptures, of course. They are a reflection of the gospel's underlying credibility because they speak directly to the common experience of those who hear them. They ring true because they are true.

Our language is full of such maxims and sayings, some drawn from scripture, many taken from everyday experiences. These sayings are among the more fascinating parts of our language because they convey a shared wisdom grounded in experience. Our everyday speech is peppered with phrases that we use unaware of their ancient origins. "Forgive and forget," for example, is a saying that's been current since the 14th century.

If we listen carefully, we can hear those echoes of experience. For Church members, their allure is greater because we know that the Lord sent us here to gain experience and to respond to the experiences of others. What we learn we are to pass along to our children – and mostly that is done through our speech. Our very language contains an accumulation of insights.

Common, non-scriptural sayings may express very prosaic thoughts: "Use it up, wear it out; Make it do, or do without" was a maxim in New England, and "A penny saved is a penny earned" is still spoken by parents everywhere. The sayings may reflect a core value. "All men are created equal" is so central to our concept of ourselves that we forget that Thomas Jefferson wrote it.

Sometimes the maxims reflect a wry fact. Asked once why the Church didn't try to answer all its critics, Brigham Young said, "The old adage is that a lie will creep through the keyhole and go a thousand miles while truth is getting out of doors." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 352.)

Every culture has its own sayings and adages. For example, in China, they say, "Talk does not cook rice," and we know exactly what they mean. In Hindustan, the phrase is, "Men trip not on mountains, they stumble on stones," and the meaning is clear. In Denmark, when urging each other to be charitable, they say, "You may light another's candle at your own without loss."

Because these sayings reflect accumulated wisdom and often a moral value, it's no surprise that many of them in English have their origin in scriptures. In fact, one of the great contributions of the Bible to Western culture has been its ability to express deep moral values to generation after succeeding generation.

Thus it's become the foundation of our moral code. The Ten Commandments thunder out of Exodus 20 and across three millennia. Who can not recite the words: "Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt not steal . . . Thou shalt not bear false witness"? Countless numbers of people have found solace in the familiar phrases of the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . ." The folk wisdom of Proverbs finds its way into our language in phrases like "A soft answer turneth away wrath" (Ps. 15:1) and "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Psalm 29:18.)

And the words of Jesus have also become aphorisms: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1); "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20); "The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

As the Restoration brought new scriptures and new revelations, we would expect to adopt new sayings that also mirror new understandings. Members of the Church have their own favorite sayings from additional scripture like the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

Phrases like, "The glory of God is intelligence. . . ." (D&C 93:36) and "This is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39) are already part of the cultural language of the Church, as is the statement by President Lorenzo Snow that concentrated in a single line numerous scriptures: "As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be." (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 26.)

These sayings, maxims, aphorisms and proverbs are no small matter. This is the way many of our cultural values are passed along. They've proven their worth over time, and the question now is, what sayings will be delivered to the future? Will they be the argot of the streets and the catchy phrases of advertisers? Or will they reflect the deeper values of the restored gospel? It's our responsibility to see that the latter prevail.