Have you ever noticed that asking difficult questions about the Church and the gospel can seem a bit taboo at times?
Why is that?
After all, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a long, important history of asking questions. If it weren’t for Joseph Smith’s inquisitive mind, the Restoration would have looked completely different.
In fact, many of this dispensation’s early revelations came because of questions—many of which are now published as scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants. Our own living prophet, Russell M. Nelson reminds us, "You have been encouraged to learn and to seek knowledge from any dependable source.”
Our missionaries encourage thousands of people every day to ask questions to the missionaries during lessons or through prayer to Heavenly Father after the lessons are over. And even a recent release of the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum encourages us to ask questions in our families, at Church, and in gospel conversations wherever they happen.
And yet, I struggle to ask hard questions.
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So why is it, then, that asking certain kinds of questions can sometimes feel like, let’s just say, kind of awkward? Why is it often easier to restrain yourself and keep quiet instead of asking questions that are difficult to answer in the Church? I can’t possibly be the only one that’s embarrassed—or worries that my faithfulness will come into question when I vocalize them.
Maybe you’re familiar with the kinds of questions I’m talking about. They might be questions about Church policy—particularly as it relates to the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. You might, like I do, have questions about Church history and how revelation has played a part in our ever-changing church.
I have lots of questions. However, please allow me to clarify: I’m not “on the fence” when it comes to the gospel or the Church. But therein lies the very concern I’m writing about today:
Why, in the first place, do I feel like I have to prove to you that I have good intentions even when asking difficult questions about the Church? Why do I feel like I have to preface an article about asking hard questions with a disclaimer that “I’m a faithful member”?
In a Church where Elder Uchtdorf’s popular sermon reminding us to “doubt [our] doubts before [we] doubt [our] faith” gives us goosebumps (and rightfully so), where do legitimately difficult Church and gospel questions fit in?
I don’t feel like I can ask hard questions in Sunday School. In that setting, I risk derailing an inspirational lesson. Elders Quorum or Relief Society may provide a more appropriate venue, but the last thing I want is for my leaders to think I’m leaning toward leaving the Church. Because I’m not. I also worry about planting doubts in the minds of fellow classmates too. I don’t want to be the catalyst for someone doubting their faith in Jesus Christ or His Church.
I don’t claim to have this conundrum solved. It’s a hard nut to crack. What I have realized this far into my exploration is this: both the “asker” and the “hearer” of difficult questions play a key role in finding the best gospel answers.
For the Askers of Hard Questions
It’s important to keep in mind that Christ doesn’t ask us to be blindly obedient. In fact, He who encouraged us to “ask and ye shall receive” also encourages us to take actions when we are in need of further inspiration or clarification on an issue.
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1. Begin by asking questions in private, with people who know you well enough to know your intentions.
Because even people with the best intentions may not know how to best approach answers to your difficult questions, consider beginning your learning in private. Start by praying to your Heavenly Father, who knows you best and loves you most. Next, move to trusted friends, family, and priesthood leaders who know your heart and can receiving inspiration together with you on your behalf.
2. Ask questions of people who you trust will have helpful answers.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking out fellow Saints who are learned in certain areas you may not more fully understand. Seek out experts in your own social circles or elsewhere. Read books by scholars of your faith. Avoid going outside the trusted circle of faithful Latter-day Saints to ask difficult questions as you’ll often find they bring their own agenda to the conversation—often including convincing you that continuing in your faith is a poor decision.
3. Don’t stir up contention.
If your intentions are pure and your heart is in the right place, you’ll be able to feel the Spirit leave when contention begins to come into play. Your intent in asking hard questions should never be simply to fluster faithful members of the Church or stir up confusion and contention. If you’re asking questions to make a point instead of earnestly seeking an answer, you’ve crossed the line.
You’ll need the Spirit to stay close to you if you intend to eventually find answers to all your questions. And since the Book of Mormon teaches us that “contention is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29), you should avoid it like the plague it is. You’re more likely to receive answers if you “ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ” (Moroni 10:4).
4. Ask questions that impact your ability to live and embrace the gospel.
The difficult truth I’ve come to accept as I have many questions is this: Understanding every small detail of Church protocol, Church history, or gospel doctrine doesn’t greatly impact my ability to live and embrace the gospel itself. It’s possible you will have questions that you never find an answer to in this life. That’s okay. It’s hard, but it’s okay.
Focus on are the questions that impact your ability to live the gospel on a daily basis. If you find you’re unable to fully embrace the Church or the gospel because you’re hung up on a difficult question, that’s a perfectly good reason to pray, search, ask, and work to find an answer.
5. Understand that not all questions are meant to be answered in this life.
Personally, I hate this. I highly debated leaving it out of this article altogether. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s true: No matter how badly I want answers to every little question I’m faced with, not every question I have during my mortal experience is meant to be answered. Certainly, not all of them are meant to be answered easily.
But I have to believe that part of being made perfect at the Resurrection also means I’ll be blessed with a mind that is perfect enough to understand every little doubt or misunderstanding I had while on this earth.
For the Hearers of Hard Questions
I recognize not everyone finds themselves with a lot of questions. That’s a blessing. As someone who wishes I could ask more questions from more people, here are a few requests.
1. Don’t assume someone is the enemy just because they have questions.
When people approach us with tough questions about our faith, some of us may have a tendency to tense up. The hair on our neck may raise. We might get a bit nervous. But fight the urge to assume that someone is our enemy just because they ask hard questions about our Church history or doctrine.
In fact, helping someone with very hard-to-answer questions may actually be one of the best missionary opportunities of all—to save the lost sheep before they leave the ninety and nine in the first place.
2. Please don’t jump to conclusions.
It can be so easy to jump to the wrong conclusions in these kinds of situations.
Is my friend leaving the Church?
Is my friend doubting the gospel?
Does my friend even believe anymore?
Are they going to try to convince me to leave too?
Do they think I’m a fool for believing?
If you find yourself following these lines of thought, please snap out of it. Take time to listen—really listen—because chances are this “asker” of hard questions is coming to you as someone they trust and love. Instead of following a slippery slope of “what ifs,” remember to doubt their doubts before you doubt their faith too.
3. Avoid contention even when you disagree or don’t understand how someone could have questions.
Above, I advised the question askers to avoid contention like the plague that it is. As question hearers, it can be easy to get defensive or even contentious when you disagree or don’t see how someone possibly doesn’t see the Church or gospel the same way you do. Remedying this requires a huge dose of empathy and understanding. It’s your job to give your brother or sister the benefit of the doubt and try to see it from their point of view.
4. Don’t assume someone is not worthy or spiritual just because they have questions.
Just because a friend or loved one has serious questions about the Church or gospel doesn’t mean they aren’t faith-filled or spiritual. In fact, some of history’s most spiritual moments came as a result of questions—think the burning bush, the Brother of Jared, or the Restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. To assume that an asker of difficult questions is falling away from spiritual things is simply to assume wrong.
5. Listen carefully and pray for help to provide answers.
If you’re in tune with the Spirit and have a prayer in your heart to help answer your friend’s difficult questions, you might be inspired to know what to say and how to say it. It may not come immediately, but—if it’s the will of the Father—you and your friend can solve these big questions together. Continue forward by listening carefully, pondering the questions, studying the doctrine, including more followers of Christ, and being persistent.
6. Help people come to conclusions on their own.
If you find a friend or family member frequently comes to you with questions about the Church or gospel, you should also consider how well you’re teaching them to find answers on their own. Instead of proverbially giving them a fish every time they come to you with a question, try encouraging them to pray, study, ponder, and explore on their own in addition to conversing with you about it. In time, the hope is you’ve helped a fellow Saint build the kind of faith they need to find answers—or peace amidst the lack of answers—to the questions they have.
Be Edified and Rejoice Together
No matter what happens, there will always be questions about the Church and the gospel. But as we embrace the idea that hearers and askers of hard questions can work as a team—together with the Lord—to receive answers (and then act on those answers), we’ll “understand one another, and [all be] edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:22).