A False Idea
I (Duane) once taught a Sunday School class of high school juniors and seniors, including my daughter (and co-author of The Last Safe Place) Kimberly. Over time it became clear to me (1) that these youth held a shared assumption or idea (whether consciously or not) and (2) that this idea was coloring everything I taught them about the gospel. They all, implicitly, believed it—and yet, it was completely false.
The idea was that they could not or should not accept anything unless they understood it. Their unstated assumption was that if they didn’t understand something, then they should be suspicious of it. In other words, they assumed that when a doctrine or statement or scripture “didn’t make sense” to them, their inability to understand or make sense of the issue served as evidence that the doctrine/statement/scripture was wrong—or at least, imperfect or incomplete. And this idea was creating doubts in them about the Church itself and its doctrines.
This idea—that they could not accept anything unless they understood it—is not limited to that one class, of course. It is a quite common assumption. And it’s not surprising, since in many cases it is wise to be skeptical about ideas we can’t understand. Otherwise we would be gullible fools and fall for everything that anyone might say. In our day-to-day interactions we have to understand what is being said and evaluate it on our own. We are correct, in mortal life, to distrust things that don’t make sense to us. That is only common sense.
The problem is, while that is a good rule to follow when it comes to our fellow mortals, it is exactly the wrong rule to follow when it comes to the Lord. When it comes to the God of the universe and the everlasting gospel, our own ability to understand things is no longer a very good indicator of whether those things are true or not. In the gospel context, my students’ assumption was an unfortunate and false one.
It was not enough, then, to counter these students’ doubts by answering all their questions and explaining all the difficult issues they were worried about. I had to show them why this was simply the wrong expectation.
The Lord Can’t Pour Calculus into Our Third-Grade Brains!
I decided to provide the best object lesson I could think of. To do this, I invited my third-grade daughter, Courtney, to join us in class one Sunday. I then invited Kimberly, who was in high school and proficient in math, to teach calculus to Courtney as the class watched. Kimberly went to the chalkboard and, over the next several minutes, began teaching concepts that would lay a foundation for understanding calculus. But Courtney could grasp none of it. Kimberly kept trying, getting more and more simple in what she was teaching, until it was obvious that the effort was going nowhere. I then called a halt.
At that point I asked the class if Courtney had come to understand calculus. They answered no. I then asked: “Does that mean calculus does not exist?” Again they answered no. Then I asked: “Well, then, does it mean that Kimberly does not know calculus?” Again they said no. “So then why doesn’t Courtney understand calculus? If calculus exists, and if Kimberly understands it, then why didn’t she teach it to Courtney?” The class knew the answer: the problem was Courtney’s own limitations. She didn’t understand calculus because she couldn’t understand calculus. No matter who was teaching her, it was simply not possible to simplify the concept enough to bridge the years of math understanding that Courtney lacked at her young age. She could come to understand it later, but not then—and not without much more preparation along the way.
That, it seems to us, is what it’s often like for the Lord. 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 is not His fault that He can’t pour calculus answers into them!
Remember: “He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever” (D&C 88: 41). How can a Being of such divine, infinite capacity explain all of His reasons to us? Well, He can’t. Jacob thus declared that God’s “depths” are “unsearchable” and that it is “impossible that man should find out all his ways” (Jacob 4:8).
That’s what I tried to illustrate to my class. We have the fulness of the gospel, which means we know the most important things. But we don’t come close to understanding everything. We don’t know the reasons for some of the Lord’s decisions and we don’t even understand exactly how the Savior performed His infinite atonement—and that act is the very foundation of the gospel. We lack understanding not because such doctrines are not true, or because our questions do not have answers. We lack understanding because we are so limited in what we are able to understand. Like it or not, in trying to understand everything the Lord does, we are all third-graders.
My students then, and many of us today, believe that we should be suspicious of things we don’t understand. We assume that when there is a statement or principle of the gospel that we don’t understand, we are correct to doubt it unless and until it is fully explained. Indeed, this idea could be a major factor in the “faith crisis” some members face: the lack of full understanding of a doctrine or a decision is taken as evidence against it. The problem is, the Lord knows and understands things that are like calculus to a third-grader—completely true, and yet completely beyond our understanding. Our lack of understanding is not evidence that they are not right, or true; it is only evidence of how radically limited our mortal brains are. Many divine things will never make sense to our earthly minds. Our only way forward is to get revelation from the Spirit that such things are true. And that we can do.
Part Two on this topic will appear next week.
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.