The First Presidency’s message last week regarding Covid-19 caught many members by surprise. Though many welcomed it, for those who feel that some members of the government and its agencies have been incompetent and hypocritical—and perhaps even dishonest—it felt like capitulation. Or worse, retreat. With shock, some members have found themselves thinking: “For the first time in my life I actually think I disagree with the Church. How am I supposed to think about that?” People who have defended the Church from critics are now, in clear consternation, finding themselves feeling critical.
This reaction is not surprising. Such members feel that in more than one way righteous principles and personal liberty have been under massive attack in our society. (You name the issue. There are many.) To the degree such members feel the government’s actions regarding Covid-19 are dishonest, or at least radically inconsistent (such as, in some locales, treating churches differently from other entities during lockdowns), it is easy to see these actions as just one more dimension of this ongoing assault on the gospel way of life. Feeling they have consistently stood with—and for—the Church on hot-button social issues, it now seems as if the Church is abandoning them and leaving them in the lurch. It is not surprising that some are asking in dismay: “What’s up with the Brethren?! How could they do this? Couldn’t they at least have been silent and said nothing?”
For those who wrestle with such questions and desire some degree of resolution, perhaps it will help to consider the following. They are some of the concepts I keep in mind whenever the presiding councils make decisions—including decisions whose rationale may not be obvious.
Every Decision Has Both Pros and Cons
First, it helps me to remember that every decision has both pros and cons. If I am surprised by something, it might be that I am seeing only the downsides of the decision. Think about something as fundamental as agency. It has huge downsides: every mistreatment of others, from lying to committing genocide, flows from individuals’ agency and how they choose to exercise it. Now if that’s what I think about, it is possible (as some did in our pre-earth life) to actually oppose individual agency. The problem, though, is that if I do that I am failing to appreciate agency’s upside—and that upside is huge. Agency, after all, is what makes the idea of becoming like our Heavenly Parents even possible. Without the freedom to choose, the growth needed to become like them would be impossibly out of reach.
All Church decisions are like this: they all have both pros and cons. And that means the question guiding any significant decision is always: What is the right thing to do all things considered? Only the Lord can decide that, because only he knows all things.
Thus, even when the upsides of a given decision are not obvious to me, I can at least be sure that they exist. From my mortal perspective I might not be able to see all of them—but the Lord can—and he guides his leaders accordingly.
The Lord Is Full of Surprises
Second, it helps me to remember that, because the Lord does indeed know all things, he is actually full of surprises. We mortals don’t have a divine and infinite perspective, so when we are dealing with Someone who does have a divine and infinite perspective, we are guaranteed to be surprised from time to time. Abraham was surprised to be told he would father a child, some Saints were surprised when Brigham Young settled them in the Salt Lake Basin rather than the greener pastures of California, and the Savior’s followers were surprised—and devastated—by his Crucifixion. Only later did the importance of all these events come to be clear. And such examples could be multiplied.
It seems to me that the Lord’s ways are so much higher than my ways that it should actually surprise me if I am not surprised by some (much?) of what he does. When I thoughtfully compare my knowledge, my wisdom, and my perspective to his, it is shocking how little I actually understand. Recognizing this helps me deal with surprise by helping me expect surprise from the Lord.
A friend once told me of his father, who served as a military commander during wartime. On one occasion, this leader’s contingent found itself isolated and under significant jeopardy from the enemy, which was located north of their position. In considering the best course to follow, this leader gathered advice from his lieutenants in command, all of whom urged immediately heading in one direction or another as long as it was not north. This leader then went to the Lord in prayer and received the inspiration that he actually should head north to escape the enemy.
This was completely counterintuitive and surprising, flying in the face of everything he knew. What he did not know, however, was that (1) a journalist had actually written an article describing the circumstances and jeopardy of this unit, (2) the enemy had read this article, and (3), as a result, enemy troops had moved from their locations in the north to take up positions in the south in order to prevent these troops’ escape. This military leader knew none of this, of course, but the point is, the Lord knew it—and thus gave him the inspiration to head north. Much to the consternation of his lieutenants, that is what this leader did, allowing his unit to eventually circle around the enemy’s new positions and head south safely.
Nothing could have been more surprising than the direction this military leader received—and yet it was precisely the direction that ended up saving his own life and the lives of his men.
In important ways we find ourselves in a similar situation in this fallen world, and, just like this military leader, we simply cannot know as much as the Lord knows. Sometimes, when our own wisdom tells us we can’t head north, he tells us to head north anyway. He does this because he knows things we don’t know—billions of them—including what will happen in the future. Based on such knowledge, he can direct decisions in the present that will have the best outcome given circumstances that have yet to happen. We can’t make calculations like that, and members are thus guaranteed to be mystified from time to time. Nevertheless, however counterintuitive the direction we receive from the Lord might seem, it is always based on his infinite knowledge—even of future events—and it is always the direction that, in the end, will save us . . . even when we can’t imagine how.
The Church Is Not Independent of Its Host Societies
Third, it helps me to keep in mind that the Church is not its own body politic. It is not independent from the world, regulated by its own societal and governmental orders. Something like that will come one day, but it is far from the reality now. Rather, the Church exists as a part of many host societies around the world. Obviously, the Church must honor and be a good citizen of those host societies. None of them is Zion and none of them is what the Lord would create if it were up to him, of course. Nevertheless, they are the host societies for his growing kingdom and he must work within them—and all at the same time!—in the best way he can.
Only the Lord Can Choose Which Hill to Die On
Fourth, when it comes to how the Church should navigate its relationship with its surrounding society, it helps me to remember that only the Lord can choose which hill is right to die on. Because the Church finds itself a member of many host societies, and because none of them is what the Lord would create if it were up to him, endless accommodations must be made to fit within them and to be a good citizen of those societies. Under the complicated circumstances of this fallen world, it is impossible not to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to be a responsible and peaceful member of Caesar’s domain. From a principled standpoint, of course, this will necessarily involve discomfort on various issues. But that doesn’t mean every such issue is a hill to die on. Even though it was wrong, the Savior did not challenge the Roman occupation of Israel during his earthly ministry. He lived with the occupation and taught his gospel within it, but, even though he could have, he did not condemn it. There were more important hills; that was not the one to die on.
The Church’s Respect for Its Host Societies Permits the Work of Salvation to Continue
Fifth, it helps me to keep this in mind as well: whatever aggravations I feel I have to accommodate and endure, the work of salvation is still able to go forward because of the respect the Church displays toward its various host societies. Proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the Saints, redeeming the dead, caring for the poor and needy—all continue, here and throughout the world. It would take a very significant issue to justify putting all that at risk. Being a good citizen, and being seen as such, allows the Church to pursue the work of salvation.
It is interesting, for example, that the Church practiced and defended polygamy for decades, and yet when it could no longer be sustained within its host society, the Lord stopped the practice. Though defended vigorously for all that time, even it was not a hill to die on. Of course, there were some who thought it was a hill to die on and thus resisted the change. To them the cons were obvious and they could see no pros. But they were mistaken. Under the Lord’s direction, the Church respected the authorized decisions of government leaders and, as a result, it was permitted to continue the essential work of salvation and the gradual building of Zion—none of which would have occurred if the Church had resisted and chosen that as the hill to die on.
In times to come, I am confident there will be hills to die on. I believe the Church is destined to be widely demonized, including by those in authority (and aided by dissenters), and that its harm will be pursued vigorously. However, not only will the Lord be with us through all this, but he is also the only one who can choose where to draw the lines that will generate such hostility. It is understandable for us to want to tell the Church where to draw such lines, but when we remember how minuscule our understanding is when compared to the Lord’s (the second point above), I think we can all see that it actually makes more sense to leave that up to him.
People in the Spirit World Depend on Us
Sixth, in thinking about what hills are worth dying on, I try to remember that people in the spirit world are depending on us. Recall that when the Lord stopped the practice of polygamy, a paramount reason was that continuing the practice would lead to the cessation of temple work—not only for the living, but for the dead who have to rely on mortals to do their work for them. This is an important point. The Lord has to navigate the realities of this fallen world in a way that permits the work of salvation to continue on both sides of the veil. Given that those spirits depend on us, we cannot really risk the alienation and hostility of host societies over matters that are not worth it. (Would those in the spirit world want us to choose masking and vaccination as the hill to die on—the issue on which to risk jeopardizing the good will of the Church’s various host societies?) Again, only the Lord can determine such things and thus only the Lord can determine the Church’s public stance on various issues. I might like to, but with his infinite perspective and wisdom, only the Lord can really determine when and where to draw lines in the sand.
The Lord Really Does Guide and Direct the Actions of His Prophetic Councils
I’m sure others could add to these points and I hope they will. Much more could be said. I only wish to emphasize one final matter, and it is one that I have actually assumed all along—namely, that the Lord really does guide and direct his prophets, seers, and revelators. It’s true! In thinking about one decision or another, I find it useful to recall what I already know: those who sit in the presiding councils of the Church are called and anointed of the Lord, and they genuinely are his spokesmen. President Joseph Fielding Smith once testified this way:
An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.
That is an important promise, and it is true. The united voice of the Brethren will always guide us in the paths where the Lord wants us to be.
Speaking more recently, President Russell M. Nelson testified of his experience with revelation, saying that “the night calls are coming with great intensity.”  On another occasion, he testified: “When we convene as a council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, our meeting rooms become rooms of revelation. The Spirit is palpably present.”  And because of such revelation to the presiding councils, he could also say that the Lord “directs all that we do.”
And regarding the Lord’s relationship to the Brethren, President Harold B. Lee once said simply: “He is closer to us than you have any idea.”
These statements are not true just because prophets have said them, of course. Indeed, prophets do not want us to simply take their word for it; they want us to find out for ourselves, through the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost. And the truth is, if we yield ourselves, and qualify for it, we can draw on that gift and know with a certainty beyond certainty that they are his representatives and that as a body they do indeed follow the course he wants them to follow. We may not know much, but we can absolutely know that.
This means that even when we feel we have good reasons to raise questions—when a given course by the Brethren does not make sense to us—we can at least come to know that it makes sense to him and that he is guiding his prophets accordingly. Whether they remain silent on an issue, or make a statement about it, they are doing what he wants them to do. They come and go, speak out and remain silent, at his behest. Once we know that, we can go where the prophets lead even when we don’t know why.
This reality is glorious. We are the luckiest people on earth to know that there are living prophets who know the Lord’s will and who faithfully follow it. We aren’t left to our own mortal wisdom to navigate these troubled times. (Really, how many want to do that?) We might have a lot of faith in our own best thinking, but, when we really ponder the matter, we have a lot more faith in the Lord’s—and he is the one who is guiding his servants’ actions. Thus, in the end, even when we don’t know why the Brethren are doing one thing or another, we at least know that he knows why. Speaking personally, I find it hard to ask for more than that!
So what, then, is up with the Brethren? Well, what’s up with them is that they are simply treading the path the Lord wants them to tread . . . and hoping we will have enough trust in them, and in the Lord, to hike alongside. It’s the path they have been given, and they would like to have sixteen million companions.
Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles in BYU Studies Quarterly, Interpreter, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, The FARMS Review, and The Religious Educator. Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president and with his wife in the Russia Moscow mission.
He is co-author, with Kimberly White, of the forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times (Meridian Publishing, 2021).
 Joseph Fielding Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” General Conference, April 1972, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1972/04/eternal-keys-and-the-right-to-preside?lang=eng.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” General Conference, April 2018, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2018/04/revelation-for-the-church-revelation-for-our-lives?lang=eng.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Opening the Heavens for Help,” General Conference, April 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/37nelson?lang=eng.
 Harold B. Lee, “Admonitions for the Priesthood of God,” General Conference, October 1972, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1972/10/admonitions-for-the-priesthood-of-god?lang=eng.