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Dealing With Difficult Questions

by Robert L. Millet

This page contains comments from:

BYU Devotional on February 3, 1998
Streadfast and Immovable


Let me close by sharing with you three simple suggestions-learned through both sad and sweet experince-on how we might effectively deal with difficult questions posed by those not of our faith. First, stay in control. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing the truth, loving the truth, sincerely desiring to share the truth, and yet being unable to communicate our deepest feelings to another who sees things differently. Argument or disputation over sacred things cause us to forfeit the Spirit of God and thus the confirming power of our message (3 Nephi 11:28-30). We teach and we testify. Contention is unbecoming of one called to publish peace and thus bless our brothers and sisters. In the words of Elder Marvin J. Ashton, "We have no time for contention. We only have time to be about our Father's business." Second, stay in order. The Savior taught that gospel prerequisites should be observed when teaching sacred things (Matthew 7:6-7). A person, for example, who knows very little about our doctrine will probably not understand or appreciate our teachings concerning temples, sealing powers, eternal life, or the deification of man. Joseph Smith the Prophet explained that "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it [will] be a hard matter to get right."

It is always wise to lay a proper foundation for what is to be said; the truth can then flow more freely. The Apostle Peter is said to have explained to Clement:

"The teaching of all doctrine has a certain order, and there are some things which must be delivered first, others in the second place, and others in the third, and so all in their order; and if these things be delivered in their order, they become plain; but if they be brought forward out of order, they will seem to be spoken against reason."

Third, stay in context. As we have already noted, we love the Bible and cherish its messages. But the Bible is not the source of our doctrine or authority, nor is much to be gained through efforts to "prove" the truthfulness of the restored gospel from the Bible. Ours is an independent revelation. We know what we know about the premortal existence, priesthood, celestial marriage, baptism for the dead, the postmortal spirit world, degrees of glory, etc., because of what God has made known through latter-day prophets, not because we are able to identify a few biblical allusions to these matters.

Some of our greatest difficulties in handling questions about our faith come when we try to establish specific doctrines of the Restoration from the Bible alone. There is consummate peace and spiritual power to be derived from being loyal to those things the Almighty has communicated to us in our dispensation (D&C 5:10; 31:3-4; 43:15-16; 49:1-4; 84:54-61).

"Our main task," President Ezra Taft Benson explained, "is to declare the gospel and do it effectively. We are not obligated to answer every objection. Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand."

I testify to the truthfulness of these remarkable doctrines about which we have been speaking. I know, by the witness of the Holy Ghost to my soul, that God is our Father, Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of the living God, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indeed the kingdom of God on earth. These things I know, because I have studied and searched and sought to understand. These things I know, because I have read and pondered and prayed and pleaded for light and knowledge.

What has come to me is as settling and soothing to my heart as it is stimulating and enlarging to my mind. This work is true, and because it is true it will triumph. The First Presidency of the Church in 1907 declared: "Our motives are not selfish; our purposes not petty and earth-bound; we contemplate the human race, past, present and yet to come, as immortal beings, for whose salvation it is our mission to labor; and to this work, broad as eternity and deep as the love of God, we devote ourselves, now, and forever."

I pray that we will come to know what we believe, by study and by faith, and then with boldness but quiet dignity share those saving truths with others. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


Ponder for a moment upon what God has revealed in these last days. Through Joseph Smith and his successors, the Lord Almighty has seen fit to make known the answers to some of life's most perplexing questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going when I leave here? As Latter-day Saints we are able to talk intelligently about doctrinal matters that are completely mysterious to those outside the faith, some matters which must sound like the gibberish of alien tongues to those who have not received the gift of the Holy Ghost. The nature of God, life in a premortal and a postmortal existence, the continuation of the family unit into eternity-these and a myriad of other topics are but illustrative of the unutterable knowledge and intelligence that have been poured out upon the heads of the Lord's people in this final gospel dispensation. These great truths are uniquely Latter-day Saint; they are a part of our heritage and constitute the doctrinal reservoir that helps to make of the Latter-day Saints "a peculiar people." (1 Peter 2:9.) We have so much.

In fact, we're spoiled! We have the answers to so many questions, the solutions to so many of the world's vexing issues, the only meaningful suggestion for peace in a troubled world—peace here and peace hereafter. In fact, we have so many answers to so many religious questions that some of us expect to have them all. And it's downright unsettling when we happen upon some dilemma for which no answer is forthcoming, something which is at best unclear or at worst unrevealed. It is the nature of mankind to seek for closure, to strive to fill in the blanks. That is as it should be. Our souls reach out for answers. We are eternal creatures living in a mortal world, spiritual beings undergoing a temporal experience. The veil of forgetfulness purposely and purposefully denies us access to many things we once knew, many parts of a rather intricate and complex puzzle. Even with all that has been delivered by prophets and apostles, by wise men and women, and by the spirit of inspiration, there are and will be questions. Difficult questions, nagging questions, questions that are troublesome and at times seemingly unanswerable.

It is important to note that there is no evil in having questions, no harm in wondering and asking and inquiring. No person, Latter-day Saint or otherwise, ought to feel guilty because he or she has questions. Such is perfectly normal, a part of the plan. If we already possessed the solutions to all the traumas and the formulae for all the paradoxes, there would be little purpose and certainly little fulfillment to be had in this second estate. Success in life and spiritual maturity, depend not upon whether we have questions but rather with how we deal with them. Whatever the nature of our queries, there are both counterproductive and productive, both fruitful and unfruitful means of engaging them. We shall in this chapter consider some examples of each.

Some Counterproductive Approaches

There are several approaches to solving our doctrinal or historical problems that do not prove to be extremely helpful. Indeed, they are and will always be hazardous to our spiritual health. Some years ago my family and I moved from a part of the country we had come to love dearly. I was asked to assume a new assignment in the Church Educational System, which required a relocation. We had been in our new home for only a few weeks when I received a telephone call late one Sunday evening. The woman on the other end of the line was deeply distraught. "Brother Millet," she said, "this is Sister Johnson."

"Yes, Sister Johnson," I responded. I had known the Johnson family quite well. Brother Johnson had been a member of the bishopric in their ward and Sister Johnson had served in the presidencies of both the Primary and Relief Society, while I had served as a member of the stake presidency in that area. I had been in their home several times, had enjoyed dinners and social gatherings with them, had known of their dedicated Church service, and believed them to be one of the most settled and secure Latter-day Saint families anywhere. They had joined the Church after having been found and taught by the missionaries some ten years earlier. They were themselves extremely missionary-minded and had been instrumental in leading several families to baptism. But there was obvious pain in Sister Johnson's voice. I tried to be positive and asked, "What can I do for you?"

"I desperately need your help," she said. "My husband is about to leave the Church."

Her statement nearly took my breath away. "Leave the Church?" I asked. "What do you mean?"

She explained that her husband's brother, a nonmember who had opposed their baptism, had for several months been sending bitter anti-Mormon propaganda through the mail. She said that at first her husband had ignored it but after a few weeks he began perusing it out of sheer curiosity. "I began to notice a gradual change in Bill," she stated. She pointed out that he had become argumentative and uncooperative at Church, touchy and ill at ease at home, and just plain unsettled in his demeanor. "He has a lot of questions, Brother Millet," she added, "and I'm afraid that if he doesn't get them answered pretty soon, we'll lose him."

"How can I help?" I inquired.

"He wants to talk with you," Sister Johnson came back. "Good," I said, "put him on the line."

"Oh no," she said, "he wants to meet with you in person." I replied that such a meeting would be perfectly fine with me but that we were now some ten or twelve hours driving distance from each other. I suggested that if this was the only way to deal with his questions, if his concerns could not be addressed by someone in their area, then we should set a time when we might get together.

"He's already on his way," she then observed. "He left a couple of hours ago. Would you please meet with him? He'll be at the institute by 9:00 a.m."

I was a bit startled, but I quickly assured Sister Johnson that I would be more than happy to meet with him and do what I could.

Brother Johnson wasn't the only one who didn't sleep that night. I tossed and turned through the night, arose several times, and retired to the living room to pray for guidance. The morning came faster than I had wished, and my stomach churned as I contemplated what the meeting might entail. Sister Johnson was quite accurate in her prediction: her husband arrived a little after nine o'clock. She was also quite accurate in her description of her husband's condition. He had a fallen countenance, a dark look in his eyes, and in general a rather gloomy appearance; this simply was not the man I had known before. He had lost the Spirit and was like a broken man, a person who had lost his innocence, who had lost his way. We knelt and prayed together, and I pleaded with the Lord to dispel the spirit of gloom and doubt and endow us with the spirit of light and understanding. The answer to that prayer came eventually but only after a long and difficult struggle. As is so often the case, Brother Johnson had been confronted with scores of questions on authority, on the Church's claim to being Christian, on temple rites, on doctrinal teachings of specific Church leaders, on changes in scripture or Church practice, etc., etc. An endless list. I responded to every issue, suggesting an answer if such was possible. In some cases, the answer was simply a call for faith, an invitation to pray or pray again about whether Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, whether his successors have worn the same mantle of authority, and whether the Church is divinely led today. I sensed, however, that there was something deeper, something beneath the surface issues that he was raising, something that was festering and eating away at his soul like a cancer. It took me almost eight hours to discover what that something was.

When Brother and Sister Johnson were first taught the gospel and introduced to the Book of Mormon, one of the missionaries—no doubt well-meaning but short-sighted—had said something like, "Now, Brother and Sister Johnson, the Book of Mormon is true. It came from God to Joseph Smith. And you can know for yourselves that it is true by praying about it. But, the fact is, there are so many archaeological evidences of its truthfulness these days, it almost isn't necessary to pray about it!" The statement sounded convincing enough. Brother Johnson bought into that line of reasoning and—short-sighted on his part—never took occasion to pray with real intent about the Book of Mormon. When anti-Mormon materials suggested that there were not as many external evidences of the Nephite or Jaredite civilizations as he had been told previously, his whole world collapsed. If the Book of Mormon wasn't true, he reasoned, then Joseph Smith was not a prophet. If Joseph Smith was not a prophet . . . . And so on. One fateful step led to another. And now he was ready to throw it all away, unfortunately because his testimony was not substantive, his doctrinal foundation was weak and shifting. And he had been unwilling to exercise sufficient faith and patience to refocus upon the things that really count—in this case the message or content of the Book of Mormon.

It was a relief to finally get down to the core issue. I explained to him that we were now up against the wall of faith and that the only issue to be decided was whether or not he was willing to pay the price to know the truth. I asked some hard questions: Did you ever know that this work is true? What was your witness based on? What has this doubting and this vexation of the soul done to your wife and children? Does the bitter spirit you have felt during the last few months come from God? And then I asked: Are you willing to throw it all away, to jettison all that is good and ennobling because your foundation was deficient? He paused, reflected again on the painful and poignant strugglings he had undergone, but then added that he wanted more than anything to feel once more what he had felt ten years earlier. I stressed to him the need for staying with simple and solid doctrinal matters, particularly in regard to the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, for focusing upon the things of greatest worth, for following the same course of study and pondering and prayer that he had followed during his initial investigation of the Church. I challenged him never to yield to the temptation to "jump ship" when he encountered things he didn't understand, especially when there were so many things he did understand. It was a sweet experience to watch the light of faith and trust come back into his countenance and into his life.

I have detailed this experience because it highlights the tragic reality that too often people are prone to "jump ship," to forsake family and friends and faith—to give it all up—because there is an unanswered question or an unresolved dilemma. It also points up graphically that our spiritual lives must be built upon the proper foundations if we are to be steady in our discipleship and mature in our faith. (We will discuss this point later.)

Let me briefly refer to another experience. Several years ago I became acquainted with a lovely young family who joined the Church-a mother, a father, and two children. They seemed a perfect conversion, people who loved the Church, were eager to jump in with both feet, and anxious to share their newfound way of life with others. Sister Brown was quickly absorbed into the Primary, while Brother Brown became fast friends with members of the elders quorum. It was after they had been in the Church for well over a year that Brother Brown came to see me at my office one day. He expressed his love for the Church as well as the thrill he felt at seeing his family deeply rooted in Mormonism. Then he shared with me something that I never would have supposed—that he did not really have a witness of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling. He said, in essence: "Bob, I love the gospel with all my heart. I know that this is the true Church. There's no question in my mind about it. This is what I want for my family, now and always. But I have a problem, one that won't go away: I just don't know that Joseph Smith was a prophet."

He then commented on how silly such a thing must sound to me, that is, to accept and embrace the revelation and at the same time be unable to accept and acknowledge the revelator. He said, "I've prayed and prayed and prayed for a testimony of Joseph Smith, but I still can't say that I know he was called of God. I sincerely believe that he was a great and good man and that in the purest sense he was inspired of God. But I just don't know for sure that he was a prophet. What do I do?" This was a bit unusual to me. From all I could discern, there was no duplicity, no cynicism, no skepticism, only simple and pure uncertainty; he wanted so badly to know, but he didn't know. We worked together on this problem for years. We read books on Joseph Smith; we fasted together; we prayed together. In all that time, Brother Brown remained true and faithful. He labored in the auxiliaries of the Church and for a time served as an elders quorum president. He and his family were active and involved in every way that could be expected of them. Our families grew quite close, and we often spent time talking about life and its challenges, about the central place of the gospel in our lives, and about where we would be if we were not members of the Church.

In time we moved from the area. Several years later I received a telephone call from Brother Brown. "Bob," he said excitedly, "I have something to tell you. I have a testimony of Joseph Smith. These feelings have been growing within me for several months now, but I can finally stand and say that I know. I know." I wept with him as we talked about the peace of mind he had gained, as we discussed this most recent phase of his lengthy but steady conversion. It had taken almost eight years for him to come to know, but in the interim he had done all that was expected of him. I have a witness as to how much the Lord loves Brother Brown and all the other Brother and Sister Browns who have the spiritual stamina and moral courage to hang on, to hold to the rod, even when they are not absolutely certain about the destination of the path they traverse. Surely that is what the Savior meant when he counseled us: "Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another." (D&C 90:24.)

Another example of a counterproductive approach to obtaining answers is going to the wrong people for help. A man and his wife whom I knew quite well joined the Church in the southern part of the United States. After a year's involvement with the Church, they traveled to Washington, D. C., to receive the blessings of the temple. On returning home, the man had several unanswered questions about the temple, and so he contacted his former Protestant minister and arranged a meeting. The minister was of course more than willing to oblige him and especially eager to give answers to his queries regarding Mormon temples. As one might suppose, the family left the LDS Church within a matter of weeks and returned to their former church. Simply stated, one does not go to Caiaphas or Pilate to learn about Jesus. One goes to Peter, James, or John, those who knew the Master intimately. One does not go to the enemies of Joseph Smith or the critics of the Church if one sincerely wants to gain understanding concerning the faith. Wisdom suggests that one does not take one's doubts to a known doubter and expect to receive peace of mind.

Each of us is under obligation to search and ponder upon the issues ourselves, to do our best to learn by study and by faith the answers to our concerns. (See D&C 9:7-9.) Every member of this church has a direct channel to our Heavenly Father; there is no one between us and God. Every person who has been baptized and confirmed has a right to the companionship and guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, even that Spirit of Truth, which knows all things. (See D&C 42:17; Moses 6:61.) In addition, members of a ward or branch can readily take their concerns to their priesthood leaders—their bishop or branch president. If he does not know the answer to the question, he can inquire of the stake president. If the stake president is unable to address the concern and feels it advisable to do so, he may inquire of the general authorities of the Church.

People ought to feel free to ask their questions. If an answer is to be had, it can be obtained through proper channels. There is a temptation, when we are troubled by a particular matter, to spend inordinate amounts of time researching it. Some things have just not been revealed, and thus to devote ourselves endlessly to the discovery of what in essence is the undiscoverable (at least for now) is counterproductive. It's almost a waste of time, especially when our efforts could be so much more profitably expended in studying upon and reinforcing the things that have been given of God. There is a remarkable phenomenon to which we ought to pay particular attention, one to which I can bear especial witness: Constant review of basic principles constantly brings increased spiritual insight. "Those who preach by the power of the Holy Ghost," Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, "use the scriptures as their basic source of knowledge and doctrine. They begin with what the Lord has before revealed to other inspired men. But it is the practice of the Lord to give added knowledge to those upon whose hearts the true meaning and intents of the scriptures have been impressed. Many great doctrinal revelations come to those who preach from the scriptures. When they are in tune with the Infinite, the Lord lets them know, first, the full and complete meaning of the scriptures they are expounding, and then he ofttimes expands their views so that new truths flood in upon them, and they learn added things that those who do not follow such a course can never know." (Promised Messiah, pp. 515-6; italics added.)

Stated differently, we reduce the realm of the unknown not by wandering in it but rather by delighting in and expanding our knowledge of what God has already revealed. It is a soul-satisfying experience to be reading Topic A and then to have our minds caught away to consider Topic B. Indeed, serious, consistent, prayerful consideration and reflection upon the institutional revelations (the standard works and the words of the living prophets) result in individual revelations, including—should the Lord determine that it is appropriate and we are ready to receive the same—the answers to our more difficult questions. Those answers may come as a specific response to a specific concern, or they may come in the form of a comforting and peaceful assurance that all is well, that God is in his heaven, that the work in which we are engaged is true, that specifics will be made known in the Lord's due time. Either way, answers do come. They really do, but only when we go to the right source.

Some people trip over a false assumption whenever they encounter hard doctrine or tough issues or uncover something they consider to be a painful discovery. After they have searched and looked and sifted and sorted through all they can find, after they have made what they believe to be their best effort to solve the problem, they conclude that because they do not understand, then no one else does either. That's quite a presumptuous conclusion, but it is, nevertheless, a surprisingly common one. Humility demands a different stance. Meekness forces us to acknowledge that there just might be someone brighter or more experienced than we are, or maybe even someone who has struggled with this issue before. Common sense suggests that the odds are against absolute originality in regard to our specific concern. And even if it is possible that we have indeed unearthed something that no other mortal has ever encountered, still, there are good and wise people in our midst who have been blessed with the gifts of the Spirit- with discernment, with revelation, with wisdom and judgment—to assist us in putting all things in proper perspective.

Unfortunately, some members of the Church do not learn this lesson and thus wander in the morass of a sort of dwindling belief. Having yielded themselves to the spirit of skepticism, having become thereby an easy prey to those who proselyte others to share their doubts, some members of the Church begin to read, as President Joseph F. Smith warned, by the lamp of their own conceit, to interpret what they know and experience by rules of their own contriving. (Gospel Doctrine, p. 373.) If not checked by repentance and sincere submission, such persons can lose their faith and thus their vision. When a person refuses to exercise faith—to have a hope in that which is unseen but true (Alma 32:21), he thereby denies himself access to the spiritual world, another realm of reality entirely. His vision of things is at best deficient and at worst perverse; he does not see things "as they really are." (Jacob 4:13; compare D&C 93:24.) Such a view of reality precludes one's apprehension of the unseen and one's desire to grasp the unknown. In time there will be no place in such persons' tightly enclosed epistemological system for such matters as spirit and revelation and prophecy. The doubter—the one whose faith centers in what may be seen and heard and felt through natural means only—errs grossly through generalizing beyond his own experiences. What he has not experienced, he assumes no one else can. Because he does not know, no one knows (see Alma 30:48); because he is past feeling, surely no one else has felt; because he lacks internal evidence concerning the things of God, unquestionably the evidence amassed by every believing soul is either insufficient or naively misinterpreted. Those who dare not believe dare not allow others to believe.

A related tendency by some is to parade their doubts, to suppose by "coming out of the closet" with an announcement of all things that trouble them that they shall somehow either feel better about their difficulties or identify and join hands with others who similarly struggle. One need not suffer alone. Help is available, within fairly easy reach. To be quite direct, however, precious little good comes from "hanging out our dirty laundry," from making public proclamations about one's inner anxieties—little good to the individual, and little good to groups of people. Such things merely feed doubt and perpetuate it. "Why are a few members," asked Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "who somewhat resemble the ancient Athenians, so eager to hear some new doubt or criticism? (see Acts 17:21). Just as some weak members slip across a state line to gamble, a few go out of their way to have their doubts titillated. Instead of nourishing their faith, they are gambling 'offshore' with their fragile faith. To the question 'Will ye also go away?' these few would reply, 'Oh, no, we merely want a weekend pass in order to go to a casino for critics or a clubhouse for cloakholders.' Such easily diverted members are not disciples but fair-weather followers. Instead," Elder Maxwell concluded, "true disciples are rightly described as steadfast and immovable, pressing forward with 'a perfect brightness of hope' (2 Nephi 31:20; see also D&C 49:23)." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1988, p. 40.)

Again, one of the signs of our spiritual maturity is how we handle difficult issues or controversial matters. A Latter-day Saint may have a genuine difference of opinion from one or more leaders of the Church or may not agree with a particular doctrine or practice of the Church. Those may be matters with which he or she labors for many years before a resolution is forthcoming. But for the loyal and devoted Saint they are private struggles of the soul, never intended to become public crusades. To proceed otherwise—to promote differing views, to publish differences with the Church, to sensationalize what we feel to be error or misdeed in the Church—is to border on personal apostasy. "We could conceive of a man," President George Q. Cannon observed, "honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.

"We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the Authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him, and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy and be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern His Church." (Gospel Truth, p. 493.)

Some Productive Approaches

Questions will arise in each of our individual spheres, at least as long as we are learning and growing and seeking to understand what life is about. With some questions we may simply be able to ask ourselves: "Does this really matter? Is this issue important enough to worry myself about? Is it worth the effort?" We have only so much time and energy in this life; we would do well to ignore, where possible, the unimportant, to avoid getting caught up, as someone has suggested, in the thick of thin things. As a professor of religion at Brigham Young University, it has been fascinating to me (and sometimes a bit discouraging) to find what some students grapple with. This one just has to know the exact size of Kolob. That one won't rest until he has calculated the precise dimensions of the celestial city seen by John the Revelator. Others wrestle with the present resting place of the ark of the covenant or Joseph Smith's seerstone. "There is so much to learn," Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written in an open letter to honest truth seekers, "about the great eternal verities which shape our destiny that it seems a shame to turn our attention everlastingly to the minutiae and insignificant things. So often questions like this are asked: 'I know it is not essential to my salvation, but I would really like to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and if it makes any difference whether the pin is made of brass or bronze?' There is such a thing as getting so tied up with little fly specks on the great canvas which depicts the whole plan of salvation that we lose sight of what the life and the light and the glory of eternal reward are all about. (See, e.g., Matt. 23:23-25.) There is such a thing as virtually useless knowledge, the acquisition of which won't make one iota of difference to the destiny of the kingdom or the salvation of its subjects." (Doctrines of the Restoration, p. 232.)

In teaching some of my religion classes, I have occasionally said that it is as important to know what we do not know as it is to know what we know. Further, to quarrel and dispute over the unknown and the unrevealed is fruitless and absolutely unnecessary. In that spirit, it is fundamentally necessary for us occasionally to say, "I don't know." Part of our spiritual maturity is reflected in our ability to deal with ambiguity, to handle uncertainty. President Joseph F. Smith wisely pointed out that "the religion of the heart, the unaffected and simple communion which we should hold with God, is the highest safeguard of the Latter-day Saints. It is no discredit to our intelligence or to our integrity to say frankly in the face of a hundred speculative questions, 'I do not know.'" (Gospel Doctrine, p. 9.) And yet our focus need not be upon the unknown; rather, we can emphasize what we do know. This is the pattern found in scripture, the pattern whereby a prophet says, in essence, "I don't know this, but let me tell you what I do know." An angel asked Nephi: "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" Now note the young prophet's response: "I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (1 Nephi 11:16-17.) Alma, in discoursing on the coming of the Messiah to the people of Gideon, said: "Behold, I do not say that he will come among us at the time of his dwelling in his mortal tabernacle; for behold, the Spirit hath not said unto me that this should be the case. Now as to this thing I do not know; but this much I do know, that the Lord God hath power to do all things which are according to his word." (Alma 7:8; italics added.) Later in the Nephite story, Alma, in counseling his errant son Corianton, spoke concerning life after death. He indicated that he did not know the particulars, the details concerning the time of the resurrection. "There is a time appointed unto men that they shall rise from the dead; and there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection. And now, concerning this space of time, what becometh of the souls of men is the thing which I have inquired diligently of the Lord to know; and this is the thing of which I do know." (Alma 40:8-9; italics added.)

Though it may be obvious at this point, one cannot be lazy or lethargic in one's quest to find answers to difficult questions. There is an effort required in the spiritual realm, at least as extensive an effort as that associated with finding solutions in the world of physical phenomena. "It is a paradox," Elder John A. Widtsoe noted, "that men will gladly devote time every day for many years to learn a science or an art; yet will expect to win a knowledge of the gospel, which comprehends all sciences and arts, through perfunctory glances at books or occasional listening to sermons. The gospel should be studied more intensively," he stated, "than any school or college subject. They who pass opinion on the gospel without having given it intimate and careful study are not lovers of truth, and their opinions are worthless." (Evidences and Reconciliations, pp. 16-17.) It is one thing to know that the gospel is true, and another to know the gospel. And we certainly cannot expect to understand some of the more difficult doctrinal matters, for example, save we pay the price in appropriate study and investigation.

It is one thing to be ignorant of a matter. It is quite another to allow that ignorance to be transformed into a type of festering spiritual sore that robs one of peace and shakes the foundations of one's faith. Though the following quotation is rather lengthy, I feel it is an excellent statement on the matter of doubt. Elder Widtsoe explained: "Doubt usually means uncertainty. You doubt the presence of gold in the ore, though there are yellow flakes in it; or that the man is a thief, though stolen goods are found in his possession; or that a principle of the gospel is correctly interpreted by the speaker. What you really mean is that the evidence in your possession is insufficient to convince you that there is gold in the ore, or that the man is a thief, or that the gospel principle has been explained correctly. Doubt arises from lack of evidence.

"Intelligent people cannot long endure such doubt. It must be resolved. Proof must be secured of the presence of gold in the ore, or of the dishonesty of the man, or of the correctness of the doctrinal exposition. Consequently, we set about to remove doubt by gathering information and making tests concerning the subject in question. Doubt, then, becomes converted into inquiry or investigation.

"After proper inquiries, using all the powers at our command, the truth concerning the subject becomes known, or it remains unknown to be unraveled perhaps at some future time. The weight of evidence is on one side or the other. Doubt is removed. Doubt, therefore, can be and should be only a temporary condition. Certainly, a question cannot forever be suspended between heaven and earth; it is either answered or unanswered. As the results of an inquiry appear, doubt must flee. . . .

"The strong man is not afraid to say, 'I do not know'; the weak man simpers and answers, 'I doubt.' Doubt, unless transmuted into inquiry, has no value or worth in the world. Of itself it has never lifted a brick, driven a nail, or turned a furrow. To take pride in being a doubter, without earnestly seeking to remove the doubt, is to reveal shallowness of thought and purpose. . . .

"Doubt of the right kind—that is, honest questioning—leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees—these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn that some things are known, others are not. They cease to doubt. They settle down with the knowledge they possess to make the forces of nature do their bidding, knowing well that they will be victorious; and that more knowledge will come to them, if sought, to yield new power.

"On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor. The simplest truth is worth the sum of all such doubts. He joins the unhappy army of doubters who, weakened by their doubts, have at all periods of human history allowed others, men of faith, to move the world into increasing light." (Evidences and Reconciliations, pp. 31-32.)

There are many things we will need to wait on, many questions we will encounter whose answers will definitely not be forthcoming right away. Some things we need to be willing to "put on a shelf." We continue our searching, our prayer, our discussions, but we wait patiently upon the Lord. I, like many others, do not understand for the present all the things that took place in the history of our Church or all the doctrines preached by leaders of the Church. But my confidence and my trust in Joseph Smith and his successors is implicit. We simply do not have the whole story yet. Joseph and Brigham and John and Wilford are not here to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, nor are the rank and file members of the Church from bygone days available for oral interviews and clarifications. We must do all that we can in the present to reconstruct the past, to write and understand the story of the Latter-day Saints, but we must be patient, avoiding the temptation to attribute improper motivation or to jump prematurely to conclusions; we need to give the leaders of the Church the benefit of the doubt. The Lord will vindicate the words and works of his anointed servants in time. Of that I have no doubt. In the meantime, we must receive their words, as the revelation declares, "in all patience and faith." (D&C 21:5.)

While serving as missionaries in the eastern states, my senior companion and I entered a town in New Jersey and began a systematic program of door-to-door contacting. We had not worked in the area for long before it became obvious that the local Protestant ministers had prepared their parishioners for our coming. At almost every door we were greeted with, "Oh, you must be the Mormons. Here, we have something for you." They then handed us an anti-Mormon tract. We collected hundreds of these pamphlets and stacked them in the corner of our apartment. Curiosity eventually got the better of us, and both of us decided to peruse some of the material. There were many things we read that were disturbing, but I remember most of all an issue regarding the LDS view of the Godhead that caused me extreme uneasiness. My companion was no less disturbed than I. Day after day we went about our task of knocking on doors, being rejected and rebuffed, and expanding our collection of anti-Mormon propaganda. When I had reached the point of spiritual discomfort where I couldn't stand the tension any longer, I said to my companion at lunch, "Elder Henderson, what if the Church isn't true?" I expected him to be startled by such a question. He was not. He responded, "I've been wondering the same thing."

Now I was startled. He was my senior companion, my leader, my example. "What if the Baptist church is right?" I asked. "What if the Catholics have had priesthood authority all along? .... I don't know what to say," he replied. It was a depressing time for both of us.

I can still remember how very intense and focused my prayers were during those difficult days. I pleaded with God to give me an answer, to give me a feeling, to give me something! I lifted my voice heavenward constantly—on my knees whenever I had occasion and in my heart all through the day. For more than two weeks we struggled. I had concluded—though I had not expressed this thought to my companion—that unless some resolution to my soul-searching came soon, I would go home. I felt then that I just couldn't be a hypocrite, that I couldn't bear testimony of something I didn't know was true. (If I had only understood the principle that a testimony is strengthened through the bearing of it, I could have gone on.) The questions I had about the Godhead were eating me alive. I was confused, ashamed, and terribly uncomfortable. One afternoon when we returned home for lunch, I sat in the easy chair in the small living room in the apartment. I propped my feet up, sat back, let out a sigh, and for some reason picked up a copy of the pamphlet "Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story." I opened the brochure and began reading. I was not five lines into the Prophet's opening statement before I was absolutely wrapped in a feeling of warmth and comfort that I had never known, almost as though someone had covered me with a type of spiritual blanket. Though I heard no words, the feelings that came to me seemed to say, "Of course this work is true. You know it is true. And now, as to your question, be patient. You'll understand soon enough." This was all I needed for the time being. It was inspiration. It was perspective. I shared my newfound faith with Elder Henderson, he felt a similar spirit of comfort, and we went about our task with more courage in our conviction. The difficult matter had been put on a shelf. The answer to my question, by the way, did come in time. Within a year I was blessed with a companion who understood thoroughly the issue and helped me to see an aspect of the gospel that to me had previously been a mystery.

I do not hesitate to acknowledge that I have placed many things on a shelf over the past twenty years. A number of those items have come down from the shelf as information and inspiration have brought light and understanding where darkness and uncertainty had been. Some matters will probably stay on the shelf until that glorious millennial day when the God of heaven makes known those things "which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof-things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven." (D&C 101:32-34)

There is a final suggestion that we might consider with respect to finding answers to difficult questions. It is a bit more painful and requires a strict honesty on our part, a willingness to reflect and introspect. "Search your hearts," was Joseph Smith's challenge and invitation, "and see if you are like God. I have searched mine," he added, "and feel to repent of all my sins." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 216.) Some things are kept from us because we are not prepared, not spiritually ready, to receive them. Some things we cannot comprehend because our souls are not attuned to the Infinite, because we are in sin. Sometimes our willful submission to sin points up our unbelief, and unbelief frequently leads to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. (See Mosiah 26:1-3.) There is an incident in the Book of Mormon that symbolizes our dilemma and at the same time prescribes a means of recovery. Nephi and Lehi, sons of Helaman, taught the gospel to the Lamanites with great power and persuasion. A multitude of people watched with much interest as Nephi and Lehi, held as prisoners up to this time, were "encircled about as if by fire." The earth shook, a cloud of darkness overshadowed the people, and "an awful solemn fear came upon them." A voice was heard: "Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings." This voice was heard three times. Aminadab, a Nephite by birth, sensed what needed to be done to dispel the darkness. Now note: "You must repent, and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ...; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you." (Helaman 5:21-41; italics added.) And so it is with each of us. As we call on the Lord in secret and solemn prayer, express to him our willingness to forsake our sins and follow his Son in truth and righteousness, and live in such a manner thereafter that we evidence the sincerity of our covenant, we will once again walk in the light. The film of facade, the dimming and damning influences of duplicity and double-mindedness, and the painful and poignant pull of pride will have been removed. It will be as if a cloud of spiritual darkness has been blown away by the winds of faith and trust in our Redeemer. We then can begin to see things as they really are. We can be at peace.

Steadfast and Immovable, Chapter 1

Copyright 1992 by Deseret Book


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