Let me now address the question of why the spiritual gift of being quick to observe is so vital for us in the world in which we do now and will yet live. Simply stated, being quick to observe is an antecedent to and is linked with the spiritual gift of discernment. And for you and for me, discernment is a light of protection and direction in a world that grows increasingly dark.
Much like faith precedes the miracle, much like baptism by water comes before the baptism by fire, much like gospel milk should be digested before gospel meat, much like clean hands can lead to a pure heart, and much like the ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood are necessary before a person can receive the higher ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood, so being quick to observe is a prerequisite to and a preparation for the gift of discernment. We can only hope to obtain that supernal gift of discernment and its light of protection and direction if we are quick to observe—if we both look and obey.
President George Q. Cannon, who served as a counselor to four presidents of the Church, taught powerfully about the gift of discernment:
One of the gifts of the Gospel which the Lord has promised to those who enter into covenant with Him is the gift of discerning of spirits—a gift which is not much thought of by many and probably seldom prayed for; yet it is a gift that is of exceeding value and one that should be enjoyed by every Latter-day Saint. . . .
Now, the gift of discerning of spirits not only gives men and women who have it the power to discern the spirit with which others may be possessed or influenced, but it gives them the power to discern the spirit which influences themselves. They are able to detect a false spirit and also to know when the Spirit of God reigns within them. In private life this gift is of great importance to the Latter-day Saints. Possessing and exercising this gift they will not allow any evil influence to enter into their hearts or to prompt them in their thoughts, their words or their acts. They will repel it; and if perchance such a spirit should get possession of them, as soon as they witness its effects they will expel it or, in other words, refuse to be led or prompted by it.[Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, comp. Jerreld L. Newquist (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 1:198–99]
Can we recognize how crucial this spiritual gift is in our lives today and how being quick to observe is a powerful invitation for the blessings of discernment?
President Stephen L Richards, who served as a counselor to President David O. McKay, has provided additional instruction about the nature and blessings of discernment:
First, I mention the gift of discernment, embodying the power to discriminate . . . between right and wrong. I believe that this gift when highly developed arises largely out of an acute sensitivity to impressions—spiritual impressions, if you will—to read under the surface as it were, to detect hidden evil, and more importantly to find the good that may be concealed. The highest type of discernment is that which perceives in others and uncovers for them their better natures, the good inherent within them. . . .
. . . Every member in the restored Church of Christ could have this gift if he willed to do so. He could not be deceived with the sophistries of the world. He could not be led astray by pseudo-prophets and subversive cults. Even the inexperienced would recognize false teachings, in a measure at least. . . . We ought to be grateful every day of our lives for this sense which keeps alive a conscience which constantly alerts us to the dangers inherent in wrongdoers and sin. [CR, April 1950, 162–63; emphasis added]
As we integrate the teachings of Presidents Cannon and Richards, we learn that the gift of discernment operates basically in four major ways.
First, as we “read under the surface,” discernment helps us detect hidden error and evil in others.
Second, and more important, it helps us detect hidden errors and evil in ourselves. Thus the spiritual gift of discernment is not exclusively about discerning other people and situations, but, as President Cannon taught, it is also about discerning things as they really are within us.
Third, it helps us find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in others.
And fourth, it helps us find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in us. Oh, what a blessing and a source of protection and direction is the spiritual gift of discernment!
The teachings of Presidents Cannon and Richards concerning the power of discernment to detect hidden evil and to identify good that may be concealed become even more important to you and to me in light of a specific element of Lehi’s vision. In the vision various groups of individuals were pressing forward that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree of life (see 1 Nephi 8:21). The strait and narrow path came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree (see 1 Nephi 8:20). The mists of darkness described in the vision represent the temptations of the devil which blind the eyes of the children of men and lead them into broad roads so that they are lost (see 1 Nephi 12:17). Now please pay particular attention to verse 23 in 1 Nephi 8, and let us liken this scripture to our day and the challenges we face in an increasingly wicked world:
And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost. [1 Nephi 8:23]
I repeat again for emphasis the truth that discernment is a light of protection and direction in a world that grows increasingly dark. In these latter days you and I can press forward safely and successfully through the mist of darkness and have a clear sense of spiritual direction. Discernment is so much more than recognizing right from wrong. It helps us to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the important from the unimportant, and the necessary from that which is merely nice.
The gift of discernment opens to us vistas that stretch far beyond what can be seen with natural eyes or heard with natural ears. Discerning is seeing with spiritual eyes and feeling with the heart—seeing and feeling the falsehood of an idea or the goodness in another person. Discerning is hearing with spiritual ears and feeling with the heart—hearing and feeling the unspoken concern in a statement or the truthfulness of a testimony or doctrine.
I frequently have heard President Boyd K. Packer counsel members and priesthood leaders: “If all you know is what you see with your natural eyes and hear with your natural ears, then you will not know very much.” His observation should help all of us to appropriately desire and seek these spiritual gifts.
Observing and discerning also enable us to assist others who are seeking to obtain the path and who desire to press forward with steadfastness in Christ. Blessed with these spiritual gifts, we will not lose our way; we will not wander off; we will not be lost. And we can only hope to obtain the supernal gift of discernment and its light of protection and direction if we are quick to observe. As Alma taught his son Helaman, “See that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God and live” (Alma 37:47).
Elder David A. Bednar, "Quick to Observe" (BYU Devotional, May 10, 1995)http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=8883&x=43&y=8