[Alternate titles: The Fruits of Sincere Uncertainty; Can a Wand Really Be Broken Just by Stepping on It?]
The following is a lightly modified excerpt from my upcoming book.
Midway through the final book, Harry Potter learns a devastating truth about Albus Dumbledore’s past, and deflates into despondency. The man he looked up to for so long—the symbol of absolute good he had come to know, the mentor who had personally trained him—had flirted with the dark arts and an ideology of tyranny in his youth. This revelation shatters Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew, even so far as to doubt Dumbledore ever even cared for him.
Later in the book, Harry, once doubting Dumbledore’s leadership, and Hermione, once trying to convince Harry of the same, completely switch positions. After learning about the mysterious Deathly Hallows, Harry has finally caught onto just a glimmer of what he suspects Dumbledore’s ultimate plan to be, and it excites him. He starts to put together clues, see meaning where once he saw void, and connect dots that once appeared to be mere random scatterings. Hermione, alarmed at Harry’s reliance on knowledge she believes faulty, essentially tries to talk Harry out of it, to crack his renewed faith in Dumbledore. Driven by pure logic and reason, she doesn’t catch the vision that Harry does, and instead tries to divert his path elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Harry reaches the conclusion that Dumbledore made the challenge so hard because he was letting Harry try things out for himself. He realizes that Dumbledore has worked this way from the beginning, that if Dumbledore had swooped in and done all the work for him, Harry would never have the learning experiences he began to gain all the way back when he first saved the Sorcerer’s Stone from Quirrell and Voldemort in the first book. If Harry had never had the chance to be heroic, he never could have been a hero.
There is something to be said for times of sincere uncertainty. This world is indeed intended to be a proving ground, a test to see which path we’ll choose with our God-given agency. Uncertainty and even doubt can be an essential step to proper learning as we seek out truth and assurances. After all, if we had perfect knowledge, if we remembered everything, and could see God’s smile or frown after each step we take, there would be no reason to strive, nor would our choices much matter at all. Elder Maxwell writes, “It seems clear, not only scripturally but logically, that this second estate could not include either the direct memories or the reference experiences of our first estate. If such were to impinge overmuch upon this second estate, our mortality would not be a true proving ground.”
So the next time you feel doubt, or acknowledge a nagging question, neither of which you have immediate answers to, consider that part of the point! Knowledge is never gained in a day, and it would be unfruitful and untruthful to never admit that a doubt has entered your head. My friend Stephan Peers once wrote me concerning a spiritual question I had, saying, “Aren’t doubts great? I mean, they have to be resolved, right? So [if] you find a place for them then they cease to be doubts. If you don’t find [them] a place they become ignorance and end up undermining everything.” Indeed, suppressed doubts have a way of bursting out at unfortunate moments, moments designed and planned on by the Adversary.
Lehi’s sons give excellent examples of the two paths of this process. Nephi received his own vision of the tree of life simply because he wanted to know for himself: “I had desired to know the thing that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Nephi 11:1, emphasis added). Nephi only received answers as he tried to work them out in his own mind, while at the same time asking God for help. As we are admonished to frequently in the scriptures, Nephi asked, and he received; knocked, and the Lord gave unto him what he desired.
Later, Laman and Lemuel are (surprise!) complaining about something their father said to them, and Nephi, overhearing their disputes (probably with a little groan and a sigh), seeks to know what the matter is this time. They tell him that they can’t understand some particular doctrine; Nephi asks if they had even bothered to pray about it, and they say, Well, no, “for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:9). Nephi gets understandably exasperated, and reminds them, after a few critical questions, of the great promise of the Book of Mormon: if you ask in faith, with sincere belief, and exerting yourself in trying to do the right thing, then the requested answers will be given unto you. But rays of light will not shine down if your heart is hard, if you are unwilling to act on the message delivered. (1 Nephi 15:6-11.) The example of Laman and Lemuel, then, is a warning to us that we’re not going to get everything by our own wits alone; reliance wholly on the arm of flesh will lead to murmuring and perhaps even apostasy. It is the sincere question that is answered, the earnest effort that will be rewarded, as long as the asker maintains the necessary degree of patience and relies on the Lord’s timetable, not their own, for God’s timing is better than our own.
What’s interesting, however, is that Laman and Lemuel do eventually ask questions, and pretty direct ones at that! In fact, just a few verses later they “were pacified” by Nephi’s answers, and “did humble themselves before the Lord” (1 Nephi 15:20). But, as the pattern goes, eventually they find new causes to complain as they spiritually shrink away from the harder truths, those words of chastisement that they just can’t bear to hear from their younger brother. It is pride and anger, more than the actual doubts, that lead the doubter down forbidden paths. Thus we can see the imperative of maintaining that attitude of humility and pacification in the face of the next wave of questions and even doubts that will inevitably wash over us.
We’ll always eventually come across that scary moment where we can only admit, “I don’t know.” But though that obstacle might make us stop in place on the path, it is not just cause for turning around or for venturing off on some tangential journey. It is that very “I don’t know” that drove the great scientists and seekers of truth in more ancient times! Did Newton stop at “I don’t know” and turn to go play video games? Did Galileo? Did Darwin?*
Did 14-year-old Joseph Smith?
No. Every revelation to human civilization, terrestrial or celestial, has come because the seeker kept seeking. They knew that lack of knowledge of a thing did not extinguish the importance of that thing, nor did they simply label that thing unknowable, dismiss it as a just a contradiction in, say, the laws of the universe, and give up because it didn’t make sense. Science and religion, those great bastions of all manner of truths, are driven by the thirst to know, to truly know. Walls do not stop the genuine truth-seeker. Instead they drive the great thinkers to wonder: “What’s behind that wall?”
No serious scientist or theologian has ever demanded every bit of knowledge immediately, but has persisted in studying and thinking and working hard until they came across a satisfactory solution. This should be our behavior and perspective as well when we in the church come across that “I don’t know” moment. When we hit those walls, we should do some homework. Fast, pray, counsel with your bishop. Go to the temple with an open heart and open mind. Look up studies and scholarship being done. Know our religion better, and the factual findings that fill it. And if you truly want to know, if you truly want to verify what you’ve been pondering over all that time without ever being given a direct witness from the Spirit, make a test of obeying the commandments. For Christ has said, “If any man will do [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
Live fuller! Look deeper! For there are always answers.
As we do look deeper, however, we may find hard questions answered with equivalently hard doctrines. These are those that test the mettle of our testimony, whether because they are hard to live or hard to accept that others lived them with the Lord’s approval. Such hard doctrines can discourage us, dampen our enthusiasm for the gospel because we might feel betrayed by the church for seeming to selectively teach certain doctrines and histories and ignore others as if to hide them. But those truths that lie in the shadows, spiritually speaking, still should not eclipse the effulgent rays of what truth we have been given.
In my experience there are many more reasons to believe than to doubt. The tension between the two is, of course, what this is all about, and why faith is the first and foremost principle of the gospel—why we are to always hold up that shield of faith and counseled to stay loyal to the church in all times and situations. I promise it will eventually lead to a brighter enlightenment than you ever could have before, and you will have a deeper, more mature understanding of the inexhaustible gospel than if you’d never asked questions at all.
Though a seemingly unintuitive technique of God, withholding immediate answers from us does indeed assist in the construction of our souls. Elder Maxwell wrote, “How often have you and I in our provincialism prayed to see ahead and, mercifully, been refused, lest our view of the present be blurred?” Knowing too much at a given time may dull the edge of this world, and sharpened sensations are necessary to gain all the experience we need here. But the decision to believe that answers are out there, even if we do not know them—this should spur us forward, and it is what prepares our minds to receive answers when the time is right.
When God does not answer our prayers for inspiration or revelation or confirmation right as we ask them, or even a short time afterwards, we should not take this as evidence that there is no God, or that He does not care. For if we truly start progressing in attempts to find God—praying more frequently, doubling our scripture study time, gradually discovering more knowledge and building our mind and spirit block by block—then wasn’t that lack of direct answer worth it? Aren’t we better, stronger people for it?
How far are we willing to go for God? For truth?
Enos was willing to pray all day and all night for his answers. Are we?
*Darwin in particular is still at the center of religious conflict today, as his discoveries seem to directly contradict the origin of man as depicted in the Bible. Darwin, though he was an ardent believer in his younger days and became less so as he studied the process of natural selection, never ceased in his wrestles with the existence of God, a grapple of agnosticism predicated on his research and his own intuitions. But regardless of his personal beliefs, his scientific legacy has brought many since to reject the notion of God as Creator. So was his search for truth worth it? I, for one, think so. As I detail more thoroughly later, I suggest to the vacillating soul to wait before deciding if one side or the other in the debate of religion and science is truly and absolutely correct. After all, for many, Darwin’s discoveries have inspired a grander view of God with a more expansive understanding of His creative ways. Though the theory of macro-evolution seems to contradict the story of Eden as the beginning of human existence, perhaps with time that discovery will be revealed as simply another stepping stone toward a greater truth that neither the church nor science could have predicted or even understood at this moment in time.