In last week’s installment we shared the experience of high school students in their Sunday School class watching a classmate (Kimberly) try, and fail, to teach calculus to her third-grade sister (Courtney). As they watched the interaction, class members could easily see that Courtney’s inability to understand calculus was not because there is no such thing as calculus. Nor was it because Kimberly herself did not understand that level of math. They could see that Courtney’s lack of understanding was simply due to her own limitations. She was just too young—and thus lacked the methodical, step-by-step progression in math, over years, that could eventually lead to understanding calculus. But as a third-grader, she couldn’t.
As a result of this exercise, the class was able to appreciate that in trying to understand everything the Lord does, we are all third-graders. If we ask a question that requires a calculus answer, there may be nothing He can tell us that we could possibly understand. As mortals, we simply have elementary brains; it’s not His fault He can’t pour calculus answers into them!
This is one reason it is a mistake to think, as some do, that we should doubt a statement or principle of the gospel, or a decision by modern prophets, if we don’t understand it. That idea often seems to be a factor when members are plagued with doubts—with what is sometimes called a “faith crisis.” But doubts based on this idea are completely unnecessary, because the idea is false.
“It’s Not the Pattern of the Lord to Give Reasons”
Our inability to understand calculus answers is not the only reason the Lord does not explain Himself, however. After all, some things are simple enough that the Lord could explain them if He wanted to. For example, the Lord told Lehi to leave Jerusalem with his family in order to save his life, but He could also have explained that He was taking him far away in order to establish a new civilization. There was much more to it than that, of course, but it would have been easy for Lehi to understand at least that much. But the Lord didn’t do this. Instead, through His Spirit, He gave direction to Lehi one step at a time, requiring him to follow each direction before He gave the next.
This is the pattern the Lord follows generally: He doesn’t explain Himself, but simply requires us to follow the Spirit without knowing much (or even anything) about why we are following it. This is a common feature of the scriptures; our spiritual forebears were often asked to follow directions they did not understand. For example:
- Adam and Eve offering sacrifices after leaving the garden of Eden
- Abraham sacrificing Isaac
- A leper washing in particular water—the Jordan River—even though he had no doubt washed himself elsewhere many times before
- Nephi making a separate, shorter record after he had already made another—thus creating the small plates
- Mormon including these small plates in his final, abridged record
- Withholding various matters from Emma Smith and the world simply because “it is wisdom in me”
- The Saints building a temple in Kirtland, despite understanding virtually nothing about what a temple would mean for them
- Brigham Young settling the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley—knowing it was the place, but not knowing why it was the place
In all of these cases, individuals were responding to a divine message, but none of them knew everything they no doubt wanted to know. Indeed, in the cases of Nephi and Mormon, the reason for the small plates did not become evident until centuries later.
Such episodes teach us that the Lord generally does not give explanations for what He is doing—or for what He directs mortals to do. And this is true of His modern prophets as much as it was true of His ancient prophets. Very often even they do not understand why the Lord is directing them to do something. He expects them to follow His direction, not because they understand the reasons for it, but simply because it is His direction. He simply asks them to take His word for it.
Dallin H. Oaks put the matter this way:
If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, “Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,” you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons.[i]
This reiterates Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s own observation that “the Lord gives more instructions than explanations.”[ii] The same principle was emphasized by Elder Neil L. Andersen. “The Lord’s voice,” he taught, “often comes without explanation.”[iii] Joseph Smith himself observed that we may not understand the reasons for the Lord’s actions “till long after the events transpire.”[iv]
Growing in the Spirit
What we see, then, is that even when mortals would be able to understand at least some of the reasons for what the Lord directs (the answers are not “calculus”), He typically still does not give an explanation. The reality seems to be that the Lord is simply more interested in developing our spiritual capacity than our intellectual capacity. He expects us to learn how to rely on the witness He gives us through the Spirit, not on what we might learn through our intellects.
Think about Moroni. He does not tell us to become masters of the evidence about the Book of Mormon, pro and con, and then to reach an intellectual conclusion about it. Instead, he tells us to seek and receive the Lord’s own spiritual manifestation about the book. That leaves us in a position of knowing the Book of Mormon is true—even though we can’t explain why it is true.
This exhibits the Lord’s typical sequence in dealing with mortals. We can know that the Book of Mormon is true, now, through the Spirit; knowing why it is true, through the intellect, is something that can come later. This was the sequence in all of the episodes mentioned above, from Adam and Eve to Abraham to Mormon. These individuals knew in the moment, through the Spirit, what they should do; knowing why they should do it, through the intellect, was something that would have to come later.
This principle also applies to controversial decisions by the Brethren. Specifically regarding such contentious matters, Boyd K. Packer stated simply that there are some things “we can’t answer.” Recognizing that the Lord’s pattern is not to give reasons for what He does, he added: “I don’t have the slightest embarrassment or hesitancy to say that I do not know why the Lord has done some of the things He has done.”[v] Yet he knew it was the Lord who had done them.
This is the way the Lord works with all of us, both prophetic leaders and ordinary members: He requires us to grow in the Spirit. It is a central feature of the way He prepares us for what awaits us in eternity.
Am I Willing to Take the Lord’s Word for It?
Lack of understanding is not a reason to worry about the gospel or the Church. Limited brain function is simply one of the conditions of mortality. There are probably many reasons the Lord doesn’t explain things to us, but one of them, surely, is just that: our puny mortal brains just wouldn’t understand them. Another reason, also surely, is that He is trying to get us to follow something Divine—the witness of the Spirit—rather than something telestial, like our meager intellects. That’s the way he treated Adam and Eve, Abraham, Lehi, and other prophets. He gave them instructions and simply asked them to take His word for it.
That is really the question for all of us. Do we want to insist that the Lord explain everything to us before we accept or do it? Or are we willing to seek the Spirit and then simply take His word for it? As members of His Church, there might not be a more important question.
Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. Learn more about modern prophets in their new book, The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times.
[i] Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2011), Kindle location, 655–659. Emphasis added.
[ii] Neal A. Maxwell, in Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 413.
[iii] Neil L. Andersen, “The Prophet of God,” General Conference, April 2018, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2018/04/the-prophet-of-god?lang=.
[iv] Joseph Smith, “History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843] [addenda],” p. 3 [addenda], The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-d1-1-august-1842-1-july-1843/284. The statement is also found in Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1938), 256.
[v] Boyd K. Packer, Mine Errand from the Lord: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Boyd K. Packer (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2008), 331.