Let’s imagine that you were to undertake an inventory—not of your earthly goods—but your heavenly insights. To what principles has the Spirit spoken peace? When has something you heard had the unmistakable ring of truth?
In 1999, Neal A. Maxwell shared insights from his life and invited all of us to inventory our insights. Following his talk, I started a list of things I know through sweet and sacred experiences. I knew that God had called a special spokesman to bring a flood of light to the world. I knew that loving people mattered a lot more than figuring them out. I knew that my imperfect efforts to be faithful filled me with joy. The list grew longer and longer. The feeling of goodness grew larger and larger.
Hopefully you also have such a list—whether written down on paper or written in your heart. And hopefully those sacred interfaces with the divine enhance your faith.
Along with our inventories of heavenly insights, we also occasionally encounter questions without immediate answers. It’s possible we might discover ideas and stories related to the gospel or the Church that unsettle us. We may be troubled by uncomfortable discoveries. This is especially challenging if we expected the story of the Restoration and the revealed gospel to be simple and tidy. What do we do with those issues?
There are several potential responses. Some people double down on their declarations of faith. They refuse to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. They embrace simplistic mantras.
Others become pained. Their list of spiritual experiences with peace and truth becomes swamped by doubts. They may choose to stay, but struggle to access that which was once sacred and sweet.
Some may feel unable to stay, so they walk away from heavenly insights that once sustained them.
There are other options. Some might be willing to place an unsettling issue aside and wait until a later time when answers might reveal themselves. Others might acknowledge the doubt, but make the decision not to allow a moment of uncertainty to eclipse a mountain of truth.
Camilla Kimball said, “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them” (Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning, by Lavina Fielding, October 1975).
I have experienced some of what Sister Kimball described. For example, there were phrases and expressions in the Book of Mormon that bothered me in young adulthood. They just seemed awkward and unnatural. I chafed. Yet I also knew that the Book of Mormon has some of the most inspiring truths I had ever read. Those two realities remained in an uncomfortable coexistence until I had an Institute class from Ken Godfrey. As part of the class, he talked about Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. Many of the phrases that bothered me were authentic evidences of Hebrew origins. That experience taught me a measure of humility.
Now, decades later and having read Brant Gardner’s discussion of Book of Mormon translation, I’m not sure that Hebraisms are the final answer for my discontents. In later adulthood, I have chosen a different posture.
The Book of Mormon is an incomparable gift. Where would I be without Nephi’s dream, the great atonement chapters, King Benjamin’s address, Nephi’s psalm, Alma’s conversion, or the brother of Jared’s experience? These, together with thousands of powerful phrases and insights, are precious gems to me. Yet, it would be okay with me if we dropped most of the Isaiah and war chapters. We could abbreviate the allegory of the olive tree.
Maybe I am simply too immature to appreciate some parts of the Book of Mormon. Or maybe some parts are just more sacred than other parts.
There are other unsettling issues and other radiant blessings. I am everlastingly grateful for the radiant truths in the Book of Abraham even though the process of “translating” it is still unsettled. I am profoundly grateful for the prospect of spending eternity with my beloved Nancy and I am not worried how polygamy fits into God’s plan. There is abundant and glorious truth interspersed with occasional untidiness.
The glorious truth and the occasional untidiness are both blessings. The glorious truth gives us confidence that God is a wise and magnificent creator. The untidiness encourages us to come to God, trusting that He understands things we cannot comprehend.
As a parent, I never want to break trust with one of my children. Yet, I am comfortable with the idea that Andy didn’t understand calculus in junior high. I want him to trust me and the truths I had given him and wait patiently for the truths yet to come.
More than anything else, God wants us to trust Him. He gives us gigantic truths and asks that we trust Him with those parts we are not yet prepared to understand. God cares more about us trusting Him than about us having all truth all at once.
I think Stevenson has said it well: “If I from my spy-hole, looking with [partially blind] eyes upon a least part of a fraction of the universe, yet perceive in my own destiny some broken evidences of a plan, and some signals of an overruling goodness; shall I then be so mad as to complain that all cannot be deciphered? Shall I not rather wonder, with infinite and grateful surprise, that in so vast a scheme I seem to have been able to read, however little, and that little was encouraging to faith?” (Fosdick, Meaning of Faith, 1918, pp. 138-9).
Maybe the untidiness in our religious experience—and life in general—is a sacred opportunity to practice and enlarge our trust in God. Maybe it is not a bug but a feature. God wants us to focus on the big picture and trust Him with the details.
Life—including our spiritual journeys—is not unlike the pioneer experience. The saints were driven from Nauvoo, sheltered in winter quarters, trudged across the plains, and were greeted in Utah by hard soil and crickets. Yet, those who saw divine purpose in God’s plan, could still sing every step of the way,
‘Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell—
All is well! All is well!
In all this talk of untidiness, I want to be clear. In the Church of Jesus Christ, I find the most exquisite portrayal of God, the most sensible explanation for our purpose, and the most amazing processes for connecting with God. The restored Church with its brave and gracious doctrines and its extraordinary organization is a sweet and sacred gift from a God who is determined to bless His children.
I am grateful. And I am okay with living with a few crickets and patches of hard soil as I seek the divine.
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annie Foster for their insightful contributions to this article.