Spiritual Algebra

Nathan Richardson

Put in …Out comes … 2 4 5 7 6 8 Pattern MyNumber + 2

When I was a kid, we had an Apple IIe with a fun little game called Function Machine (here is a similar example). You pick a number to put in the machine, it chugs a little, and out comes a different number. For example, I put in a 2, and a 4 came out. Then I put in a 5, and a 7 came out. After a putting a couple numbers in the machine, my seven-year-old brain noticed that there was a consistent pattern. I could figure out what the machine was doing each time (MyNumber + 2). So when a 6 went in, I already knew that an 8 needed to come out. It wasn’t as glamorous a game as Super Mario Brothers, but it beat watching the boob-tube, right?

X-Y Charts and Equations

xy 1 3 2 5 4 9

Later when I started seventh grade algebra, my teacher Mr. Hewitt played a similar game, only the patterns he chose were a little harder to discern. The class gave him a number, and he told us the result. As we talked back and forth, he created a chart and filled it out. When our 1 resulted in a 3, I immediately assumed the machine was adding 2. But when our next number, 2, resulted in a 5, I saw that it was more complex. When our 4 resulted in a 9, some students declared that he was just being random, making up numbers on the fly, and that it was impossible to ever predict the results he was planning.

Equation y = 2x + 1

Mr. Hewitt assured us, though, that he was not being capricious or fickle. He was being consistent, and if we just thought about it, we would see the pattern he was following, and we would know what outcome should follow each number we gave him. Eventually, of course, we figured out what his pattern was: OurNumber x 2 + 1.

After playing this little game a couple times, we found that if we gave him a few numbers and he told us the result, we could readily see a pattern. Once we knew the pattern (we later found out it’s called an equation), he didn’t have to tell us the outcome of every possible number we could conceive of. We could figure out the result for each number and fill out the chart ourselves (we later learned to call it an x-y chart). He was teaching us to know his mind by carefully using what he’d already given us, and we became wiser and more independent in the process.

Commandments and Principles

In tenth-grade seminary, we memorized a great scripture, D&C 58:26, in which the Lord says, “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.” In other words, there are so many ways to do good in this life, he’s not going to tell us every single one. The next year, I read Mosiah 4:29, in which King Benjamin says, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.” In other words, there are so many ways to do bad in this life, he’s not going to tell us every single one.

The Lord gives us many specific commandments, to be sure. And we should definitely obey every word he says. But the Lord also expects us to seek out opportunities for righteous works, without needing a specific written commandment tailored to our personal situation before we will start doing good deeds. (“Well, the Irwins need help, but I’m not their home teacher, so I’m not required to.”) And he expects us to learn to discern good and evil on our own, and to avoid and avert it in whatever form we encounter it, whether it’s been specifically prohibited or not. (“Well, the whole movie is about a scantily-clad woman who sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder, but it’s only PG-13, so it’s OK to watch it. Plus, it has a great soundtrack!”)

SituationCommandment David sees Bathsheba Look away
Adultery [or] any­thing like unto it Thou shalt not
A dirty internet ad pops up Close it immediately Principle Don’t look on another person lustfully.


There were some situations in high school, though, in which I genuinely wanted to do right, but I couldn’t figure out what I should do. I learned that if I studied the words of ancient and modern prophets, they often addressed similar situations to mine, even if they didn’t match exactly. With the help of the Holy Ghost, I could discern the principle those commandments were based on, much like our class figured out the equation behind Mr. Hewitt’s limited x-y chart. Once I understood the principle, I could figure out what to do in my own situation, even though it wasn’t covered in the scriptures, much like knowing Mr. Hewitt’s equation allowed me to expand the x-y chart to cover any number we put in the left column. For example, the scriptures had very little to say directly about dating or sports, but many principles in the scriptures can help a person make better choices in those arenas.

Sometimes when I had the equation, I would miscalculate and put the wrong result in the right column of the x-y chart. For example, with the above equation (OurNumber x 2 +1), I might put in 37 and come out with 73 instead of 75. This especially happened with high numbers, when you can’t count on your fingers, or with complex or unreduced equations, like 2/3x or x2. Mr. Hewitt would usually be there to point out my error in reckoning and tell me the right result.

Likewise, sometimes I thought that I thoroughly understood a principle, only to find out that in a certain situation, I had miscalculated and misapplied it. The first time I heard someone say we were supposed to wear white shirts when passing the sacrament, I dismissed it as ungrounded opinion. “The Lord doesn’t care what you wear. All he cares about is that your heart is pure.” When I later read several statements by modern prophets advising us to wear white shirts when performing that ordinance, I realized that I’d misapplied the principle. The Lord does care most that our hearts are pure, but he also sometimes expects us to dress certain ways in some situations.


Before someone objects, let me articulate what should be obvious: I am not saying God is as predictable as an algebraic equation, or that right and wrong are necessarily determined by articulable abstracts that can be applied to any situation. This is a metaphor, folks. I’m hoping to illustrate at least two ideas.

First, Heavenly Father is not capricious or arbitrary. Just as Mr. Hewitt was not making up numbers as he went, the Lord does not do things just because they are convenient, or because they fit his taste. Many scripture passages reiterate his reliability, and that every act he does is righteous. Perhaps he emphasized this because so many people in history believed in a variety of gods, all of whom could be fickle and selfish, and whose competing standards of behavior mortals were required to choose among.1 In contrast, Heavenly Father repeatedly taught that he was trustworthy and consistent in his righteous principles, and that we could depend on him to lead us right, even if it was often along paths we did not understand.

Second, the Lord loves us enough to want us to learn not only the x-y chart of specific commandments, but also the “equation” or eternal principle behind them. He “will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived” (D&C 52:14). With that pattern, he trusts us enough to allow us to discern for ourselves what to do in many unique situations we encounter. Boyd K. Packer explained that “Procedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. We are quite free, indeed, quite obliged to alter them from time to time. But the principles, the doctrines, never change.” Thus, “What we really need is a revival of the basic gospel principles,” enabling each individual to discern right and wrong in every situation.2

I’m also grateful that the Lord occasionally corrects our miscalculations by revealing further commandments. One grand, historical example comes to mind. In order “that there may not be so much contention … concerning the points of my doctrine” and to quell the dissensions between the various churches in the latter-days, he restored the gospel and sent modern prophets (D&C 10:63). That way, while the sincere in heart may be in any church, “inasmuch as they erred it might be made known” (D&C 1:25). That further light and knowledge has corrected the conflicting summations of many sincere spiritual algebra students like me.


1. I sometimes wonder if this is why the scriptures have statements like, “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God” (2 Ne. 31:21)—to emphasize that even though there are technically more than one God, they all share the same moral standard, as opposed to the pantheons of most cultures.
2. Boyd K. Packer, “Principles,” Tambuli, Oct 1985, p. 37.


  1. As always Nathan, this was an excellent piece. Only you could create a teaching moment out of a math equation. Very good.

  2. Wow! If only every teacher knew that when he multiplied an N by 2 and added a G to it, that a student (N)athan would grasp it, and then (G)od would make the result a lesson about life.
    You make my old memory of teaching a new spiritual experience.
    Thank you Nathan.

  3. Well hey, Mr. Hewitt! How’s that for a little reunion after sixteen years? 🙂 Thanks for your comment. All I can say in reply is, thanks for being such a great teacher (of multiple subjects!).

  4. Mr. Hewitt!!

    Nathan has shared this story with me for years, and I have used it in class when I teach graphing.

    I also remember walking by your class in the SEM one day, hearing you command your class to be seated, and sitting down in the middle of the hall just to be silly. … It was a silly thing, but I thought I was clever.

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