How God Makes Up His Jewels

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My friend Russell Elkins recently relayed an email he’d gotten from a friend of his. This friend had a cluster of questions that were bothering him. Russell’s a pretty cool guy, and lets me contribute some answers when he gets questions like these. I choose to post my response here so that others can hopefully find some solace if facing similar questions and doubts.

Here’s the email he was sent:

In  Sunday school, the teacher asked. “If Christ were standing here instead of me, what questions would you ask him?” The answer easily came to my mind.
“How can I confidently receive answers from you.”
I think this question is at the root of my doubts. How can I trust in something that may or may not answer me, and I can never be sure if the answer came from God or out of my own mind?
My best friend prayed about the girl he was dating, received an answer to “stay the course and not give up on her” because of that answer he married her when everyone around them knew they shouldn’t get married, and ended up divorced after less that a year of marriage.
Another one of my friends who is very spiritual and knowledgeable, prayed about quitting his good job in real estate to pursue a multi level market. Received an answer to quit his job, and has now burned through all his savings and trying to find work again.
I prayed about selling our home and selling security systems with my buddy,  And while I don’t regret that decision,  it definitely wasn’t a good financial move for either of us.
Was Joseph Smith wrong to lead the saints from town to town only to get persecuted and move again? Was he hearing God wrong? Why didn’t God just tell them to go straight to salt lake?
Were the prophets wrong when they kept the priesthood from blacks? Did they not hear God correctly?
Did my friends think they received an answer from God, but it actually wasnt from God?
When I received an answer to sell security systems, I thought I actually heard a voice in my head. Was I wrong?
How can I have trust in God in the face of all these inconsistencies?
During this election, I have wondered. After all the damning evidence that had come out about both candidates, how can people still support them? I think the answer is, they have already  made up their mind. They will believe no matter what.
I don’t want to be like them.
If a person in my life said,  “I’ll help you whenever you need it, but if I don’t help, just know it’s not meant to be.” I would not trust that person, and after so many times of not receiving an answer, and not receiving help, it would be foolish to continue trusting that person.
I don’t want to ask God anything anymore because I can’t trust to know if the answer really came from God or not.
And the more sure I am that the answer came from God, the more likely I am to do something, even if it isn’t logical.
Horrible things have been done in the name of God.
To sum it up, I don’t trust myself to ask God a question and know if the answer came from him or not. Therefore, I don’t want to ask him anything.
I used to think, if I get spiritual enough, I will then be confident in my answers from God. But I don’t know if that is the case either. Extremely spiritual people seem to get inconsistent answers as well.

As I have dug deep, I think this question lies at the center of what I struggle with.
When I hear someone say they did something because God told them to, I instantly feel bugged and think, “no you think it was an answer from him”

I’m going to do my best to answer as much of this as I can, but reading it straight through you’ll find my mind wanders to and fro and sometimes back to things I’ve already written about. That means you’re going to get the full blast of my meandering response in all its unedited glory. So don’t expect too much organization from this, just some points to think about for yourself.

Oh, and readers, feel free to comment and leave some of your own insight as well. The project of Zion is a group effort.

In Sunday school, the teacher asked. “If Christ were standing here instead of me, what questions would you ask him?” 
The answer easily came to my mind. 
“How can I confidently receive answers from you.”
I think this question is at the root of my doubts. How can I trust in something that may or may not answer me, and I can never be sure if the answer came from God or out of my own mind? 

First of all I want to point out that, hey: maybe that answer came to your mind because the Spirit was assisting you. God was telling you to ask this question. God knows our weaknesses, where the cracks in our armor are, and He does not condemn us for them. He wants us to recognize them and do whatever we can to repair. This is obviously one of those cracks, and that you’re seeking wisdom from others is exactly what He would have you do.

So, on to the point: you ask how you can be sure that what you’re hearing is from God and not your own brain. Well, I’m not going to give the standard answer of, “there’ll be a burning in your bosom.” I myself have felt that burning in my bosom exactly ONE time, and it was in a situation entirely removed from what you’re asking about. That’s because God talks to all of us in different ways. Not just our nationality’s language, but through messages and promptings and media that is particular to us, and sometimes us alone.

Like I said, I’m not a “burning in the bosom” guy. Over the years I have received revelation and inspiration in ways that are intensely personal, that speak to my experience and the way I see the world. That’s going to be different for all of us, and it all depends on our relationship with our Savior. That’s something you have to work at over time.

And yet even then, you can STILL be wrong! It can be maddening. But it’s not an impossible problem to solve. Sometimes you have to start over with principle of the gospel #1: faith. Faith that God exists at all, and that He loves us. There’s a reason that “God Is Our Loving Heavenly Father” is the first thing you teach out of Preach My Gospel.

Before you can tackle these complex issues, you must have a firm testimony and a concrete relationship with Christ. You must accept the truth that God loves you, and that everything painful that happens to you—apart from those things you inflict upon yourself (though even those are meant to be instructive)—happens for a reason, and for your own good. That is the basis of Nephi’s faith. It’s what led to his vision of the tree of life. If we can accept that foundation, the question becomes different: now it is, “What was I supposed to learn from this? What does God want me to conclude from this experience?”

And most of the time it’s not going to be obvious. In other words, it changes from the pained and despairing “Why?” to the genuine “Why?” What I mean by that is this: so often we ask “Why did this have to happen?” but we really aren’t asking that; we’re just complaining to God, protesting His executive decision, not anticipating that there might actually be a good reason to it all. The key, then, is to be looking for that reason. I really don’t think God minds us expressing our pain to Him after something truly traumatic or disappointing. But I do think He minds if our thinking never evolves past whimpers and whining. I don’t mean to belittle your or anyone else’s innermost pleadings to our God, but if we’re willing to ask serious questions (“Why?”), we need to be willing to accept serious answers. And sometimes the only way to accept those answers is to arrive at them with our own powers of cognition. That’s when God expects us to dig and search and study and meditate—all done with a foundation of faith.

My best friend prayed about the girl he was dating, received an answer to “stay the course and not give up on her” because of that answer he married her when everyone around them knew they shouldn’t get married, and ended up divorced after less that a year of marriage.

 I obviously can’t know for sure, but there’s a fair chance he was deluding himself. I know that because I did the same thing.

 Story time!

 A long time ago—almost exactly 7 years—I was in a relationship with a girl. It got going right before she had to leave to go back to BYU. It was long distance for a while, and I made a trip out to visit her, but it was clearly impossible to continue. We mutually decided to break it off, leaving us both a little heartbroken. To this day I will argue that it hurt me more. It was my first real relationship with a girl; she had had a few boyfriends before me, so she knew how the getting-over-it process worked. I didn’t. Then, of course, there was the fact that the first guy she went on a date with after me—about a month or so after we broke it off—became her new boyfriend. All while I had to watch from California, powerless to do anything about it. Pretty painful.

As the weeks passed, I felt it was time for me to get endowed in the temple. I was in the process of being rejected for missionary work for the second time due to my bipolar disorder. My stake president agreed and I went through the temple—with a certain question on my mind: should I give up the girl and move on? or was she part of my destiny and should I hold out patiently for her to break up with this new guy?

I got my answer sitting in the celestial room. It was pretty clear, and very plain and small. Move on, I was told in that simple clear voice.

But I didn’t. I plastered over the Spirit’s answer with my delusions of grandeur and endless hope. I convinced myself that it would work out with her, probably because the thought of losing all hope in that area of my life was just too depressing. It hurt too much.

I received some emotional punishment for that. A couple of months later I visited Provo again and hung out with the girl’s best friend, who had become a good friend of mine (though never romantically). I thought it was a good idea, for some reason, to torture myself by being in the presence of this friend and my ex-girlfriend—and her new beau.

Man, was that painful. Like constant acid in my gut. Pain beyond belief. Utter torture. But I guess it was better than losing hope entirely. That hope died eventually, of course. Because at the end of my trip she took me aside and told me it wasn’t going to happen.

 So that was that. I could have saved myself two months’ depression and one week’s pure torture by simply valuing the Spirit’s insight over my own. Instead I lied to myself.

So I think there’s a good chance this friend did the same thing.

(Anyone who wants more juicy details of this story, let me know. It’s kind of fun to talk about seven years later like this.)

But I can’t speak for him or the Spirit. It may be something I just don’t understand.

Like the story of one of my best friends. He came home from his mission and within a couple of months found the girl he ended up marrying. He had written me a letter on his mission saying he felt strongly he’d be married before a year had passed. And he was! Seemed like a perfect match. Destiny.

Now they are divorced. They are not even members of the church. I don’t know if or when he’ll ever be back.

Should they have not gotten married? Did they not ask God? Did they not take that seriously? I never asked God about Nyssa. Why? I don’t know—I feel like I knew she was coming and was waiting for her. So when she turned up in my life, with signs along the way, I didn’t feel it necessary to ask God if she was the one. I already knew. But maybe my friend felt the same way. Maybe he saw signs, too. Maybe he even asked, and felt like he got an answer. I don’t know. I never asked him about it. At this point I’m afraid to.

Were they destined to fail? Or were there choices either could have made to make it work?

Gosh these questions are tough. But they are ESSENTIAL to ask, to have in mind, because that’s when we learn. If we all just go around saying, “Well, the answer to that question isn’t important to my salvation so I’m not going to bother with it,” then WHERE ARE WE, spiritually? How can we deepen our understanding of the gospel? How can we expand the breadth of our knowledge? How can we help people who genuinely struggle with these questions? Because to some of us, this type of question is ABSOLUTELY important to our salvation. Because these kinds of questions, if allowed to fester without being exposed, lead us away from the waters of salvation. Because as they stand, they are cracks in the image we have of God.

Another one of my friends who is very spiritual and knowledgeable, prayed about quitting his good job in real estate to pursue a multi level market. Received an answer to quit his job, and has now burned through all his savings and trying to find work again. 
I prayed about selling our home and selling security systems with my buddy,  And while I don’t regret that decision,  it definitely wasn’t a good financial move for either of us. 

 When I received an answer to sell security systems, I thought I actually heard a voice in my head. Was I wrong?

 You tell me. Do you regret the decision? You said yourself you don’t. Maybe God was interested in helping you in another way than financially. God gives us answers all the time that are meant for purposes other than the ones we pray for. D&C 58:3: “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.” Sometimes that glory comes right after our trials and sometimes it’s not meant until the next life, where we’ll be able to truly understand the winding path God put us on—and realize that it was indeed a path, not a wilderness we were roaming through at random.

How can I have trust in God in the face of all these inconsistencies?

I’ve struggled with this. Because the answer is: the only thing we can be sure to receive when a prayer is uttered is peace. Peace is the knowledge that God is in control, and as we let God keep control, and not try to wrest our lives from His steady hand, all things will ultimately be for our good.

But even that “good” is the eternal sense of the word. We have very little guarantee of anything in this lifetime. That’s the scary part about trust, about faith. We have to be willing to go through horrible ordeals. We may not HAVE to go through them, but we must be willing to. We are not promised an easy or ideal life. We are only promised it will be for our good, aka the welfare of our eternal soul, rather than the comfort and ease of our mortal body.

During this election, I have wondered. After all the damning evidence that had come out about both candidates, how can people still support them? I think the answer is, they have already  made up their mind. They will believe no matter what. 
I don’t want to be like them.

If a person in my life said,  “I’ll help you whenever you need it, but if I don’t help, just know it’s not meant to be.” I would not trust that person, and after so many times of not receiving an answer, and not receiving help, it would be foolish to continue trusting that person.

I don’t want to ask God anything anymore because I can’t trust to know if the answer really came from God or not. 

And the more sure I am that the answer came from God, the more likely I am to do something, even if it isn’t logical.

Horrible things have been done in the name of God.

To sum it up, I don’t trust myself to ask God a question and know if the answer came from him or not. Therefore, I don’t want to ask him anything.
I used to think, if I get spiritual enough, I will then be confident in my answers from God. But I don’t know if that is the case either. Extremely spiritual people seem to get inconsistent answers as well.
As I have dug deep, I think this question lies at the center of what I struggle with.
When I hear someone say they did something because God told them to, I instantly feel bugged and think, “no you think it was an answer from him”

I have been where you are. Recently, too. Honestly, I’m in a situation right now where I am asking similar questions, wondering if previous promises I’ve felt God has given me are still in effect and I just have to wait a little bit longer, show a little bit more patience—or if I was fooling myself from the start, constructing answers that I just wanted to hear so I wouldn’t sink in despair. This situation is all the grayer because I struggle with an emotional disorder, one inclined to produce delusions of grandeur in its worst moments, and I worry that the promises I’ve felt God has made to me have been fake all along, just chemicals in my brain firing haphazardly.

I don’t have a solid answer for that, and probably won’t unless those promises do come true. In the meantime I’ve found joy in other areas of my life, including a potential career path I didn’t even think was possible since I dreamed of it back in high school.

However, not getting an answer right away can be an amazing blessing. Sounds contradictory, but it can give rise to great and grand personal progress. Say a new missionary is struggling with his testimony, and prays to God for an angel or some other miraculous sign to grant the confirmation he needs. The angel doesn’t come. The miracle doesn’t materialize. So what does the missionary do? He can give up and go home. Or he can look for answers. In the scriptures, in the soul, in the many doctrines and sermons of our church. By the end of that search, the missionary understands the doctrine better than he ever could have if an angel simply appeared to him. In the end God’s silence compelled the missionary to stand up on his own two legs and improve himself, and by the end he is a changed being—and that’s the point of this earth life.

This happened in my own life. Not word for word, but if I hadn’t believed in promises I had thought given to me by God, I would never have accomplished the things in my life that I have. I still hope and pray that miracle I desperately crave is still waiting for me out there, but in the meantime I will continue to struggle, continue to work, and continue to raise myself up to try to be ready and worthy for the miracle when it comes.

There’s a line in Come, Come Ye Saints: “Why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?” Sometimes that fight is persisting in faithfulness, choosing to believe that God loves us, even though we don’t know the meaning of all things, and when that great reward eventually comes, we will truly have earned it, and God will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

If you have the time, watch this devotional from Elder Christofferson:

If a person in my life said,  “I’ll help you whenever you need it, but if I don’t help, just know it’s not meant to be.” I would not trust that person, and after so many times of not receiving an answer, and not receiving help, it would be foolish to continue trusting that person.

Might I suggest that you may in fact be getting an answer? God is very different than a normal person, and He speaks in diverse ways. Silence can be one of them. If we’re asking for help and not receiving it, that can be just as tangible an answer as actual help would be. It might be God telling us to try something else, to turn in another direction. Prayer is meant to be seeking out God’s will as much as it is seeking out God’s help.

I’ll admit, God can be finicky when it comes to actual wording of our prayers. That’s not because He is a finicky God, but because reevaluating the substance of and way we say our prayers forces us to reevaluate our thinking process, to reflect on that very question: why isn’t God helping here?

My friend Chris Heimerdinger says, “If we’re not as close to God today as we were yesterday, who moved?”

And above all, we need to add that all-important addendum to every single prayer: “Thy will be done.”

Did my friends think they received an answer from God, but it actually wasnt from God?
When I received an answer to sell security systems, I thought I actually heard a voice in my head. Was I wrong?

To answer these questions we have to look at what God’s priorities are.

Here, we’ll use your example:

Was Joseph Smith wrong to lead the saints from town to town only to get persecuted and move again? Was he hearing God wrong? Why didn’t God just tell them to go straight to Salt Lake? 

That’s a fair question. If it was all led by God, why so many stops along the way? Why so many killed and injured and starved and beaten and raped and plundered?

Well, think about it like this: was God’s goal with His fledgling church just to get them to the Salt Lake Valley? No. Especially when we consider how many hardships they faced once they got there (plagues of crickets, harsh winters, Johnston’s Army, etc). There is nothing particularly holy or useful about the Salt Lake Valley in and of itself; it’s just a desert with a saltwater lake and some bordering mountains.

The purpose of God’s guidance and direction is never simply to get from Point A to Point B. Why? Think about this: Point B will always, ALWAYS be our graves. That’s where we all end up. No one is exempt from that except for those few exemptions in the scriptures.

Remember the story of Zion’s Camp. Brother Joseph led a sizable band of armed men across several states to supposedly go retake their stolen lands. Upon getting to Missouri, however, they turned around and went right on back, never firing a shot. But that was never really the goal the Lord had in mind for them. He was giving them a test. A purging exercise that would reveal traits in some of the men that they wouldn’t have know about themselves before. Traits that would go on to flourish as they continued in the Lord’s work, traits that would produce the next generation of leaders in the church.

God does not work by magic. He does not snap His fingers and make everything suddenly perfect. He works with processes. And He develops souls and worlds alike one trait and corrected flaw at a time. This is especially true where human souls—His children—are concerned. Because the point is that somewhere along the line, we realize what He is doing and start to work to develop those traits—faith, humility, patience, charity, etc.—of our own volition. Traits that are literally godly, because He is trying to create beings that are like Him, and you cannot be a god without choosing to be one. As C.S. Lewis said, He will eventually require the creature to stand up on its own two legs. We are agents, free to choose our own fate. He will not, cannot, interfere, and thus getting us to the perfected state He can see for us is tricky and complicated and requires a LOT of stops along the way.

The revealed infant church was the same thing. As they passed from point to point (line upon line, precept on precept), they acquired certain attributes along the way. They also acquired certain SOULS along the way. Different converts in these various places, people who were essential to building up the church with Brother Joseph. If the church had gone directly from upstate New York to Salt Lake, they’d only be a body of a few hundred souls. A few hundred untested, unproven souls, at that. Joseph Smith himself said it best when describing his own life experience:

I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact become marred.

Were the prophets wrong when they kept the priesthood from blacks? Did they not hear God correctly?

This is also one of the trickiest questions I’ve encountered. After all, if we follow the prophets, we won’t go astray, right? We learn that in primary. Yet this policy seemed to be very, very astray.

We don’t know the exact origin of that policy. It certainly wasn’t in effect in the early days of the church; it was picked up somewhere along the way and treated as doctrine, but doctrine that could never be backed up consistently. Everyone had a different explanation for it. Spencer W. Kimball prayed about it, wept about it, poured his soul out to God over it. But God didn’t give it the okay to change it until the time was right. Why? Why not institute the better doctrine from the beginning? Why wait all this time, when it was simply making enemies of the church, preventing souls from being baptized, giving the church a bad name it’s still trying to recover from? Non-members who are not even generally hostile to the church still bring this point up as evidence of the “prior racism” of the church, even as they are happy the church changed. But that very thing is troubling, that the church which has supposedly been led by Jesus Christ Himself from its beginning was incorrect about something for so long.

Hugh Nibley on this:

“As C. S. Lewis used to point out, the test of the Christian is not to conform with the commandments and accept teachings which are perfectly right and sensible to any normal way of thinking; if the gospel consisted only of such convenient and unobjectionable things, we could be quite sure that we were making it up ourselves. It is the very contrariness and even absurdity of the Christian teachings that provide, for him, the highest proof of their divinity—this is not man’s doing. In the efforts of every president of the Church to explain our position to the world… we see the admission that this thing is not the invention of those men—they are embarrassed by it, and they all pass the acid test for honesty when they refuse to put their own opinions forth as revelation—which in their case would have been an easy thing to do. They are all sure that the policy is right, but none claims to give definitive rational or scriptural justification for it, though they are not backward in putting forth suggestions and speculations. This put the Mormons in an embarrassing position, and why not? The Lord has often pushed the Saints into the water to make them swim.”

In other words, God sometimes tests the faithful, even at the expense of the church’s public relations. The same thing happened with Abraham. I just love that last line in that quote: “The Lord has often pushed the Saints into the water to make them swim.” It puts it in the right context for me.

It comes down to this: the purpose of life on this earth is NOT merely arriving at the destination. It is the journey. It is what we pick up, what we become along the way. We are all going to die. It’s how we get to that point that makes the difference in the eternities.

So you made a major life decision based on what you perceived to be revelation for you and your family. It seemed to have negative consequences on your financial state. Very well, it might have. The early latter-day saints went up and down in their financial states too, and yet for the most part the church as a whole was an upward trajectory from the day of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. I suspect your life might be too, and I’d encourage you to examine other areas of life those hard decisions might have affected. I think it all comes down to that simple piece of advice, one that I myself need to take.

Doctrine and Covenants 101:
Verily I say unto you, concerning your brethren who have been afflicted, and persecuted, and cast out from the land of their inheritance—
I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions;
Yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels.

16 Therefore, let your hearts be comforted concerning Zion; for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God….

36 Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.

37 Therefore, care not for the body, neither the life of the body; but care for the soul, and for the life of the soul.

38 And seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life.

Would you believe it? The above section was literally the next thing I read in my regular scripture study after getting this email from Russell. That, for me, is one of those signposts from the Lord that tell me I’m on the right track. So keep your eyes open, Friend of Russell. Look for those signs. It’s all true. It really is.

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