Have you ever wondered “what are the hard questions?” If you’re like me, you probably have been curious more than once. But that’s not what this post is about. This time we ask the question: “Why are they hard?”
I’ve often wondered why certain people have a hard time with certain aspects of the church, and others don’t. For example, people who have left the church often discuss their “shelf breaking” question – in other words, what was the tough question about Mormonism that was too tough. There’s never a single answer. It’s never the same thing for everyone.
There’s probably a few reasons why this is the case, most notably, perhaps, is the truth that there is no silver bullet – there is no single thing that “breaks” the church for everyone. For some it’s questions of church history. For some it’s questions of revelation. For others it’s questions about Joseph Smith.
Interestingly, a question that one might consider a huge challenge to faith, another might consider no challenge at all.
So what, then, do all these potential challenges to faith, phrased as questions, have in common? They all represent instances of our individual understanding of reality seeming to conflict with our individual understanding of an ideal as presented by the church.
The Real vs The Ideal.
Here’s an example: One person may have an understanding about revelation that includes the ideal that the prophet is always going to “get it right.” This is probably a fairly common ideal held by many members of the church. He is a prophet, after all, they reason. The Lord won’t let him get it wrong. Then somebody comes along with new information which challenges that fact – an example of when the prophet seemed to get it wrong. Maybe super wrong. And this information is usually framed in the form of a question.
For example, “Why don’t modern translations of the papyrus match what Joseph Smith translated in the Book of Abraham?” The effort here is to cause discomfort by pushing an understanding of reality (the modern translation) against the ideal (that a prophet can’t “get it wrong.”) The hope of the questioner, of course, is that you’ll panic, stop thinking, and accept the implied premise that Joseph must have been a fraud.
But this question, like all the “tough questions,” is leading, and forcing a fight that doesn’t need to exist.
The Question Itself vs How To Question.
It turns out that it’s not just the topic of a question that makes it one of the “tough ones,” but the way that it is asked. Consider the following in light of that papyrus question:
Instead of forcing a conflict between Joseph Smith’s calling as prophet and the modern translation of ancient texts, a better set of questions might include things like “If we assume modern translations of the papyrus are correct, what can we learn about how Joseph Smith received revelation?” or “What does Joseph Smith’s experience in trying to translate teach me about revelation for myself?” or “What can I learn about my assumptions based on this information?”
These types of questions can lead to greater light and knowledge, greater truth, and a deeper understanding that the simple assumption of “prophets always get it right” failed to provide. When coupled with the guidance of the spirit, honest questions can bring incredible truths and deep satisfaction to the seeker of knowledge.
As another example, somebody might ask “how can a church that is true ever have a history of polygamy?”
But do you think a person asking that question really wants an answer, or do you think they’ve already made up their minds and simply want to use the question to convince you to agree with them?
Of course, this is another example of a question meant to prove a point, rather than actually gain knowledge.
In this case, the question isn’t being asked in the form of “how am I to understand polygamy in the context of the church,” but rather “how does polygamy show the church is not true?” Can you see the difference? One way of asking about polygamy presupposes the church is false, and the other way of asking seeks to understand without a bias.
One might ask other “hard questions,” but frame them in faithful ways:
“How can I learn from Joseph Smith’s mistakes? What do his flaws teach me about my own relationship with God?”
“What can I learn about revelation by studying the ways the church has developed over time?”
“Are there examples of prophets who made mistakes in the scriptures, and what can that teach me about the church today?”
Reframing and Faith
Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently spoke about faith and questions, and how questions are meant to be born of an earnest desire to learn rather than a self-righteous desire to preach “truth.” Here’s how he put it:
When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.” I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief…
Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.
I believe this advice is telling us to back away from the questions that are meant to inspire doubt, and ask them in truly open and honest ways. Instead of questions that try to corner the listener into a certain conclusion, we should be asking God what we’re meant to learn with the new data we have, and allowing him to teach us instead of relying on our own understanding, or worse yet, the understanding of the hypocrites and deceivers who carry their own agendas.
As we rely on the Lord for answers, we naturally begin to recognize that the questions with which we grapple might shake our world view, but can’t remove us from our relationships with God if we don’t let them. This faith in God becomes a foundation on which we can rely as we re-evaluate our understandings of the real and the ideal and gain greater light and knowledge.