Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 01: “Our Heavenly Father” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by BrianJ on January 3, 2010

As discussed in a previous post, I tried to create lesson notes/questions that explore what we, as individuals, believe and importantly why we do. I’ll stress that I prepared these notes with teaching in Relief Society or Melchizedek Priesthood in mind, not teaching the Gospel Essentials class for new members. But first, a little redlining:

The revisions made seem minor to me. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • The title switched from “Our Father in Heaven” to “Our Heavenly Father.”
  • God now referred to as “the Supreme Being” instead of “the one Supreme Being.”
  • Altered phrasing of God having a “body that looks like ours” to state that “our bodies are like His body.”

Two changes that are somewhat significant are:

  • Added a quote by Joseph Smith where he described God as “the Great Parent of the universe….”
  • Deleted the words “a god” from the phrase “…to help His children become like Him—a god.”

Why are those last two significant? The first is pretty straightforward: in a lesson about Our Heavenly Father, now we have a quote that emphasizes his fatherly nature. The second, I think, is less clear. Why would “a god” get dropped in the revision? Some reasons could be:

  • Because this is a lesson about Heavenly Father, not about deification, exaltation, etc., so this phrase is a distraction.
  • Because this doctrine is kinda…”big stuff,” and might be too shocking to new members (for whom this manual was primarily written). (Note: I don’t buy this explanation for one moment: the new members already heard this during the discussions.)
  • To avoid the distraction of distinguishing between capital ‘G’ “God” and lowercase ‘g’ “god.”
  • The difference between focusing on a title versus a state of being; becoming a god versus being like God:

    Can we behave “like God” today? Can we be “a god” today?

    If you’re like God, does it really matter how you’re labeled or what title you carry?

    Why would you want to be a god? Why would you want to be like God?

End redlining.


Now for lesson notes.

What are some things that testify to you that there is a God?

What a great opening question (straight from the manual)! But without follow-up questions, it falls flat. I want to know why someone views a particular thing as evidence of God. For example, if Alma were in my class, I’d ask him why he views planetary motion as evidence of God. Lots of atheists, including 46% of astronomers, are not swayed by the same observations. Why aren’t they? If the “stars and planets…did not get there by chance,” as the manual states, then does any natural phenomenon happen by chance? e.g., the carving of the grand canyon, or the restriction of lemurs to Madagascar, or the assortment of genes that gave me green eyes and my brother blue eyes, or the pattern the leaves made when they fell on my lawn this fall? How does one distinguish between something that occurred by chance and one where God directly intervened? i.e., does the pattern of leaves on my lawn testify that there is a God? If something about you occurred by chance, does that diminish your importance in God’s eyes or your potential? (Note: I focused on this answer as an example for follow-up questions because it was the example I had, not because I think it is more appropriate or correct than other answers. In fact, the most appropriate answer to discuss is whatever answer(s) your class members give.)

What does it mean that “God created man in his own image and likeness”?

What is God’s image? Is this meant literally or figuratively or both? (A literal reading would be that we look like God whereas a figurative reading might take “image” to mean that we reflect God in some way—his attributes, responsibilities, or potential.) Are there scriptures that support whichever answer you chose? (e.g., Moses 2:26 supports—or at least fits with—a figurative reading, where “dominion over all life” might be read as expounding on “image/likeness”.) Why do you care that you look similar to God—would he love you less, or you him, if you looked nothing alike? Why does God want us to be like him?

Does God have a pancreas?

Does God have arms? eyes? lungs? a pancreas? blood? Why would or wouldn’t he need those organs? Why do you care that God has a tangible body? Assuming he could still love, guide, and protect you without a body, what difference would it make if he were only spirit? (It might be interesting to keep any spirit-only negative responses in mind for a future discussion on the Holy Ghost—lesson 07.) What does knowing that God has a body teach us about our own bodies (despite knowing very little about God’s body)?

Is God limited or self-limiting?

The manual states that God “has all power”; what does that mean? That he has all types of power or that all powers flow from him? Can God do anything? (A simple way to derail this question is to parry with some nonsensical response like, “create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it.” That line of discussion is, from my point of view, just silly. What follows are more serious questions to get to the point.) Can God force you to love or obey him? Can he renege on his promises? Can he create matter? Can he create spirits? Does God refrain from doing these things (i.e., he could but forever chooses not to) or are they actually impossible for him?

16 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 01: “Our Heavenly Father” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. joespencer said

    Nice start to the series, Brian. I’m just going to jot down a few notes here on Alma 30.

    I’ve been uncomfortable with the “argument from design” since I encountered it seriously for the first time. And that discomfort has grown over the subsequent years, first into a distaste, then into a kind of impatience, and finally into a persistent temptation to militate against it. And, of course, all along the way I’ve been nagged by Alma’s argument in Alma 30:44. So, a bit of contextualization, by way of arguing that Alma is not actually presenting anything like an “argument from design.”

    First, Alma is talking to Korihor about, specifically, signs. Korihor asks for a sign, and Alma tells him that he has had “signs enough,” up to and including the world as created. But, as Alma makes especially clear two chapters later (in Alma 32), signs are slippery and signify nothing in themselves; any strength they have derives from the faith that summons them. Hence, according to Alma’s own terms, it would seem he can’t be providing anything like a “proof” or an “argument” about the existence of God. Rather, it would seem that he has to be claiming only that the order of the creation is meaningful to the believer.

    But is there any actual textual evidence that Alma means such a thing? I think so. In verse 42, Alma says to Korihor: “Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit.” If Alma’s words from that point proceed with that presupposition—that Korihor actually does believe—then his “thou hast had signs enough” is not meant to suggest that Korihor cannot avoid philosophically rigorous proofs that there is a God, but that Korihor actually does believe and so recognizes the faithful significance of things like the order of creation. (This argument is, I think, something like Paul’s in Romans 1—everyone can be said to be guilty because their non-knowledge of God is actually a repression of a deep-seated knowledge they cannot avoid.)

    Moreover, I think it is worth pointing out that Alma’s description of the signifying character of the creation is more complex than we usually let on. It needs to be thought about more carefully. For instance, Alma draws—at least at the rhetorical level, but perhaps more deeply still—a distinction between “a God” and “a Supreme Creator,” associating with the former “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it,” and associating with the latter the earth’s “motion” and “all the planets which move in their regular form.” Why this division of labor? The earth versus the heavens, and God versus a Supreme Creator? Why does a Creator get associated with motion and movement, while a God gets associated with the proliferation of things? Time versus space? What does all of this tell us about Nephite cosmology?

    • jennywebb said

      Joe, this is a little off topic, but I really liked your line that Alma is claiming “that the order of the creation is meaningful to the believer.” This reminded me of the presentation of the creation in the temple ceremony—the presentation of the creation is, in comparison to the rest of the endowment narrative, incredibly detailed and ordered. Rather than just an example of repetition, I think that part of the meaning of the endowment is that, as believers, this particular narrative structure holds great significance and demands our continued attention. The same could be said for the endowment narrative as a whole of course: we perceive its actual value to the extent we already believe, and we demonstrate this belief to the extent we actually seriously take up what is being presented / given to us.

  2. Sterling Fluharty said

    I like your questions about natural phenomenon. It reminds me of the debate over whether God follows the laws of the universe, or whether he is not bound by our current understandings of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. If he did cause natural phenomenon by transcending our present theories of natural laws, then it would stand to reason that scientific measurement could observe and quantify these deviations from the norm. So detecting the hand of God may be as much a pursuit of non-random patterns as it is of non-empirical means and methods.

    I find it interesting that we can seriously consider whether we literally look like God but then shy away from considering whether then phrase “all things denote there is a God” is to be taken literally rather than figuratively. I like Joe’s line of questioning about a possible distinction between terrestrial and cosmic signs. But perhaps there is just as much fruitful analysis to be had with Alma’s admission that words may not be powerful enough to convert and that sometimes physical objects that exist independent of the linguistic realm are necessary for signifying the divinity of all creation.

  3. joespencer said

    Sterling, nice point about the gap between the linguistic and the phenomenal in Alma’s discussion. That is especially poignant because the sign that is actually given to Korihor a few verses later deprives him of his ability to speak. I’ll take the liberty of referring to a lengthy post I wrote about Alma 30-31 some time ago: here.

  4. BrianJ said

    Joe, #1: Your first point about signs vs. proof is a helpful way to approach this bit from Alma. Thanks.

  5. Robert C. said

    Thanks for these Brian. I noticed Julie also posted some notes at T&S, if anyone’s looking for more help.

    Also, I noticed this fantastic line straight from the manual (my emphasis): “Use questions at the beginning of a section to start a discussion and send class members or family members to the text to find more information.

  6. KirkC said

    First off, thanks for posting this Brian.

    #1, Joe, thanks for your thoughts on Alma 30, I have also always been a little unsure on how to read that pericope.

    #5, Robert, nice quote from the manual. In fact, that is maybe the best quote I have seen in a church manual for a long time.

  7. aquinas said

    #1, Joe, I appreciate your thoughts on the Alma-Korihor exchange and I agree that reading Alma as offering the argument by design may not be the best ways of understanding the passage. I’ve offered my thoughts on that exchange here.

  8. [...] BrianJ, Aquinas, and Julie on Lesson #1 – I just hope lesson #1 is not the foundation for everyone [...]

  9. Jennifer said

    Thanks as always for the help in preparing my lessons – I had a little different take on this lesson, as I tend to take things from an academic point of view (as opposed to the usual emotional take in RS) — I plan to study the things we learn about GOD from the Bible vs. things we’ve learned thru modern revelation…. should make for some great discussion…. I hope!

  10. BrianJ said

    Jennifer: sounds like an interesting approach. Perhaps you could share with us some of the comparisons you find.

  11. jennywebb said

    In our lesson today, several things arose that I thought were useful / interesting. The teacher was presenting the first section and during the discussion, my friend leaned over to me and pointed out that in order for nature to be the witness that Alma describes, one has to be out in nature, looking. We’re both mothers of young children, and there are often days where we don’t even leave the house … or when we do it’s in the car to go to another indoor location. It struck me that there’s kind of an underlying or hidden ecological theme at work in Alma’s message, and that by ignoring the physical, natural environment in which I live, I am, in a sense, ignoring (or at least not taking full advantage of) a witness of God.

    The second was a series of questions that developed out of Brian’s “Why does God want us to be like him?” question. The teacher was presenting material on learning from God as a parent, and I wondered the following: What does it mean to grow to be like Him? Like Him in what way? How does a child grow to be like their parent? What does a parent desire when they want their child to be like them?

    I want my daughter to be like me, but I’m not sure what that means. Although I’m often happy to observe her love for books or music, I think what I want most is for her to value the things I find most important: family, God, friends, etc. It’s just another way of approaching how when we say we will grow to be like God, what we’re saying in part is that we will grow to value the things He finds most important.

  12. Karen said

    When will you be posting lesson 5, The Creation?
    I am anxiously awaiting everyone’s comments as I am preparing my lesson, they always help.

  13. joespencer said


    Lesson 5 should be up by this Sunday. We always aim to have the lesson up on the Sunday before it will be taught.

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