The answers to our prayers are not always as concrete as we might have hoped. Sometimes we receive an answer but have no idea how to move forward. Or sometimes we have a feeling to do something but we don't know why. When situations like these arise, it can be tempting to give in to discouragement. But these are the moments we need to act. In his book When Heaven Feels Distant, LDS author Tyler Griffin shows how we can move forward when we feel like the answers to our prayers are incomplete instructions.
In the beginning, the Lord commanded Adam and Eve to “offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord” (Moses 5:5). Regarding those earliest sacrifices, Adam and Eve knew two things, what to do and how to do it, but they didn’t know why. After many days, an angel appeared to Adam and asked, “Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (v. 6). Adam and Eve did not allow ambiguity or uncertainty to overpower what they knew for certain—God had commanded them to sacrifice, and they obeyed. At the outset, they had no guarantee that they would ever learn the why. Thus, we clearly see their demonstration of faith despite ambiguity. In time, Adam and Eve learned about the symbolic connection with the ultimate sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father.
Similarly, God told Lehi to send his sons to get the brass plates from Laban. His sons knew what to do, and basic reasons for why to do it, but they didn’t know how to get them. Whereas Adam and Eve struggled to know the why, these brothers were wrestling with the how. After Laman’s first attempt failed, they offered to buy the plates with their father’s riches. When that failed, they could have easily given up and returned to Lehi’s tent, as Laman and Lemuel suggested. Nephi, however, obediently persisted and went forward into the dark night, being “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6).
As Nephi proceeded into the darkness of the night, the Lord finally revealed how to get the plates. This answer included killing Laban and introduced a much more serious and complex question for Nephi—why would the Lord require him to take a life? This command ran contrary to everything he had ever been taught. From this experience, we see that sometimes the answer to one question illuminates our path for one more step, but it also reveals new questions requiring us to exercise faith at a different level.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, also demonstrated great faith in the face of ambiguity. The angel Gabriel informed her that she had “found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:30–31). She was told what would happen, but she didn’t know either the why or the how. Faced with more questions than certainty, Mary submitted in faith, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (v. 38). Through this experience, Mary foreshadowed her own firstborn Son—because she was so highly favored of God, she became “despised and rejected of men.” . . .
Wrestling with Ambiguity
Like Adam, Nephi, Mary, and many other scripture heroes, we must also wrestle with ambiguity. Rarely does God give clear and complete answers to all questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why when He first delivers a call. He waits for us to move forward in faith, based on the incomplete instructions He has already given us, for we “receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith” (Ether 12:6; emphasis added). The Lord affirmed the incremental nature of answers and blessings when He said, “Unto him that receiveth it shall be given more abundantly, even power” (D&C 71:6). Consider what the people in each of the following examples know and what they don’t know:
A mother feels unsettled about allowing her child to attend a certain event but can’t provide a better reason than, “I just don’t feel good about this.”
A husband and wife feel inspired that the Lord wants them to welcome a child into their family, but they are struggling to make ends meet on a limited income.
A person feels that the Lord wants him to go to the temple soon, but he already has a full schedule that week.
A student is directed by the Holy Ghost to apply to a certain college, but she knows she is not qualified and will likely be rejected.
Two missionaries both get the prompting to turn around and walk in the opposite direction even though there seems to be no danger ahead.
A bishopric is inspired to call a certain individual to a calling when others in the ward are far more qualified.
A ward member feels prompted to take a meal or reach out to a specific family even though everything seems to be fine with them.
Ambiguous situations such as these force us to trust the promptings of the Spirit and proceed with faith. These people may not know where each inspired path may take them, but they know whose path it is.
A series of events during Paul’s second mission shows that even when we think we have a clear direction, the Lord may still insert ambiguity. In the opening of Acts chapter 16, Paul and his companions were confidently traveling toward the province of Asia when the Holy Ghost forbade them from continuing in that direction. So Paul decided to go toward Bithynia instead, “but the Spirit suffered them not” (v. 7). Being stopped twice, Paul decided to turn west toward Troas. Up to this point, the Lord had not told them where to go; He just told them where not to go. It was not until they arrived at the coast that the Lord finally gave Paul a vision wherein he was told to cross the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. Once in Greece, the ambiguity didn’t end. Nobody joined the Church in the first few cities they visited. After many days, they finally found success in Philippi with Lydia, their first convert (see v. 14–15).
President Howard W. Hunter said, “Where one door closes, another opens. Doors close regularly in our lives, and some of those closings cause genuine pain and heartache. But I do believe that where one such door closes, another opens (and perhaps more than one), with hope and blessings in other areas of our lives that we might not have discovered otherwise.”1 For Paul, that new door opened so he could commence the work of the gospel in Europe.
What would have happened if Adam had refused to offer a sacrifice until the Lord clarified why it was required? What if Nephi had sat down just inside the wall of Jerusalem, unwilling to move forward until the Lord delivered Laban and the brass plates into his hands? What if Paul would have insisted on a direct answer before proceeding after being stopped on two occasions by the Spirit? The greater the uncertainty we overcome, the greater the triumph of faith and growth of character we experience. Although we cannot always find the answers we desperately want, we can proceed in faith, based on what we do know. It is easier for God to direct our path when we are moving forward than when we are sitting around, waiting for Him to tell us what to do.
Get more encouraging advice from Tyler Griffin in When Heaven Feels Distant.
When our lives seem off course and constantly heading downhill despite our best efforts to keep the commandments and follow the Savior, our knee-jerk response is often to question God's motives, concern, and love for us. Like the Apostles on the stormy sea of Galilee, we may wonder, "Why does the Master sleep?" Why does God seem to keep His distance when we need His guidance most?
Tyler Griffin, an associate professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, strives to offer hope and perspective to those who feel isolated and distant from heaven, especially when those distant feelings are compounded by confusion, frustration, and deep hurts that spread over time. This book seeks to reaffirm and fortify faith in Christ amid the storms of life, and to help readers find a true sense of connection with the almighty God of the universe, who holds worlds without number in His hands, but holds you and your loved ones in His heart.