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When the Gospel doesn't make sense

03 August 2015

Ordain Women. Gay rights. The 100-person resignation march. Public protests at every conference and Temple dedication. The Church must be falling apart.

At least, that's what you'd think if you got all your information from outside media coverage. 

Actually, as Elder Cook taught this April, the popular idea that the Church is crumbling to pieces "is simply not true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger. The number of members removing their names from the records of the Church has always been very small and is significantly less in recent years than in the past... Let me say again, the Church has never been stronger."

But even if there are not more members leaving the Church today than in times past, the ones who are leaving are certainly making a louder exit than their predecessors. And as always, they leave while shouting that they were forced out of their faith because the Church can't tolerate doubts or concerns.

As members, I hope we know that is not true. I hope we know it's OK to have concerns. It's OK to have doubts. It's OK to have questions. As Elder Holland taught, we should "be as candid about [our] questions as [we] need to be."

I have concerns, doubts, and questions, too. Probably a million of them. I write them down in the margins of my scriptures alongside my other notes and references. Some questions have been answered to my satisfaction, while some will have to wait long beyond this lifetime to be answered. You probably have those too. What's important is not whether or not we encounter a question or a concern (hint: we will). The question is: how do we respond to them?

Last night, I read in 1 Nephi 15 again. It's quickly becoming one of my favorite chapters of holy writ. And just like every time I pick up the Book of Mormon, I found a hidden gem that I couldn't believe I had missed before-- the answer of what to do when something in the Gospel doesn't make sense.

Here's the background: Nephi has heard his father Lehi describe a vision he had regarding a tree of life, the scattering of the Jews, and the Messiah of the world. Nephi says, "You know, dad's dream wasn't all that clear to me. I think I'm going to go pray and see if God will show me that vision and explain it to me, too." 

He then sees his dad's vision in its fullness (including some details that his dad missed): the ministry and atonement of Christ, the future and destruction of his descendants, the Great Apostasy, the discovery of the Americas, the Restoration of the Gospel, and the entire Revelation of St. John.

Then in chapter 15 he comes back to camp to find his brothers arguing about what their dad's dream means. Nephi is so overcome that he takes a minute to recover, comes back to them and find that they are too stubborn even to ask God what the dream means. He then rebukes them for not asking.

Sound familiar? I wrote about this story last month. But what I missed last month was the profound lesson in verse 11 (in the middle of Nephi's rebuke):
Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you. 

There it is. God's formula for how to react when something in the Gospel doesn't make sense. Let's go through them one by one:
  1. "Not harden your hearts"
    When we encounter some aspects of the Church or the Gospel, they may at first seem unclear, confusing, contradictory, or even disturbing. When we stumble onto these concerns, we may feel hurt, betrayed, or angry. If we let our pride take over, we may conclude that we know better, and either ignore that aspect of the Gospel, or jump for the exit and turn away from the Gospel entirely.

    We can't give in to such a rash, impulsive, knee-jerk reaction. Elder Holland explains it this way: "Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process... so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved."

  2. "Ask me in faith"
    As Nephi asked his brothers in verse 8 so God asks each one of us who faces a difficult doctrine or an unpleasant bit of Church history: "Have ye inquired of the Lord?" Have we asked Him? Have we confronted Him whose work this is about our doubts and concerns? Do we petition Him day and night for answers, or if not an answer, for the comfort to accept it and move on? Or do we silently wrestle, unwilling to ask the aid of our Father? Too often, those who come to the conclusion that this Church is a fraud do so without ever having asked God.

    Also remember that "faith is a principle of action and power." Passively sitting and waiting for the answers from God is not faith. Do your part. Research all you can: read the scriptures, ask your Church leaders, and study it on LDS.org. Nine times out of ten, we'll find our answers in a General Conference address given within the past 5 years.

  3. "Believing that ye shall receive"
    It's amazing how well Satan can make us so focused on what we don't know that we forget what we do know. He can often even help us get so tripped up that we eventually convince ourselves that we never really knew it in the first place (for a great read, check out Middle-Aged Mormon Man's post on that principle).

    When Joseph Smith prayed that evening in September 1823, the appearance of the angel Moroni was actually no surprise. In fact, Joseph was expecting it. Remembering the life-changing spiritual experience he had witnessed in years past gave him the "full confidence" that God would again answer his question of the soul that night (JSH 1:29).

    We must have the faith to trust that God will answer. If not faith, then mere belief. If not belief, then simply a "desire to believe" will be enough. God cannot answer one who does not honestly want an answer.

  4. "With diligence in keeping my commandments"
    Remember that when God gave Adam the commandment to sacrifice the firstborn of his flock, He at first issued the surely strange command with no explanation whatsoever. I imagine that Adam struggled internally with that concept every time he had to go out and kill one of his precious lambs for no apparent purpose. Yet he obeyed because he knew it was the Lord that had commanded Him, and that was good enough to start. And it wasn't until after many days of such obedience that the Lord sent His angel to finally explain the divine purpose of that great symbolic sacrifice (Moses 5:5-8).

    God will wait until we have proven to Him (and more importantly, to ourselves) that our devotion to Him is not contingent on knowing every answer to every question the moment it surfaces. Lack of immediate confirmation does not justify disobedience. We must stay true to what we do know, and remember that "[we] receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith" (Ether 12:6).
There is no doubt we cannot conquer, no concern we cannot address, and no question that cannot be answered to our satisfaction if we but follow God's counsel as outlined. I know this because I have gone through this same process (an experience which I will probably share in some future post).

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