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Elder Bruce C. Hafen: Helping students navigate turbulent spiritual waters

by | Dec. 14, 2020

This is the final installment of a four-part series from Elder Bruce C. Hafen about helping those who may be dealing with questions or doubts based on Faith Is Not Blind, the book he and his wife, Marie, co-authored. This series is adapted from an address Elder Hafen gave to religious educators.

Once a student develops enough trust with a mentor to feel safe in expressing his or her deepest concerns, it may be timely for the mentor to offer a few perspectives, patterns, and suggestions—not as edicts, but as ideas worth considering.

Religion teachers and bishops pray to find the sensitive balance between their obvious but often unspoken tie to the Church and their deep, authentic interest in a young person as a person, not a project. I know of one young single adult who was at first intimidated and suspicious of what she assumed was her new YSA bishop’s “policeman” role. But after he found low-key ways to let her come to know him, she finally felt safe enough to share her secrets and ask her scary questions. After a few visits, she said, “He treated me the way I think the Savior would have treated me.” And permanent personal blessings followed.

In such safe contexts, a religion teacher’s institutional role is clearly a strength because when the student comes to trust the teacher, he or she is implicitly trusting the Church—the flip side of losing institutional trust when some other Church leader appears to trigger a negative complexity. Moreover, Church members do expect religion teachers to understand and be able to explain (as distinguished from simply asserting a conclusion) a historical or other controversy in the light most favorable to the Church, even when the lack of clear and conclusive historical evidence allows only a plausible—that is, a reasonable—faithful interpretation.

When discussing such cases, it may help if students can learn why the Lord deliberately refrains from providing so much overwhelming evidence about all kinds of questions (even about whether He exists) that we feel compelled to believe only one way. He wants not only to preserve our agency; He also wants to help us learn from needing to make crucial choices. As written in Faith Is Not Blind, we can’t “prove” enough about such questions to answer them with sure certainty. So the Lord wants us to choose where to repose our trust, through a demanding, searching, personal process that connects us to Him—and with what all of our experience teaches us about whether we can trust Him.

The Lord often puts us in such places, where we’re not forced by the circumstances to believe, even as He then invites us to “be believing.” For “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that [choose to] believe on his name” (John 1:5, 11-12). Why? Because something happens to people who [choose to] receive Him. They learn. Following His will changes them. Our uncoerced choices set in motion the process of becoming like Him.

The Lord sees an infinitely bigger picture than we do. If we want the blessing of that infinite perspective, we give Him and His prophet the benefit of the doubt—which is ultimately a trust issue. And only if we extend our trust is He able to help us learn what He wants us to learn. We value what we discover far more than we value what we’re told.1  

So, after we weigh the plausible evidence for both sides of an important question, what usually tips the scale is not simply the weight of the evidence, but our own choice. As Terryl and Fiona Givens have said, God designed this reality because what we choose to believe and “embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of what we love.”2

This same perspective will help protect students against the claims of anti-Church critics who unjustifiably assert that they base what they say only on “objective” evidence. As Jacob Hess has written, the evidence these critics present isn’t as objective as they claim; rather, they are only presenting their particular interpretation of the evidence. But after piling up a “growing aggregation of disconcerting evidence,” they teach their listeners to put these uncertainties on their shelf of unanswered questions—until the pile is heavy enough that the shelf breaks.

However, “it’s not the evidence that broke your shelf. It’s the intensity of suspicion [the critics have created] around the evidence.” The critics will ask whether we have the integrity to follow their version of the truth. But given the inconclusive nature of each piece of the evidence they have alleged, the real issue is whose interpretation of the evidence is most trustworthy; that is, in whose advice do we have the most confidence in the midst of unavoidable uncertainties?3

Incidentally, “the burden of proof” or the standards of proof used in criminal cases, civil cases, and other cases in our legal system offers a useful comparative tool when we want to understand how much evidence, and what kind, should be enough to “prove” (or “disprove”) a historical claim. In addition to the standard outcomes of “true” and “false,” what does a jury (or what do we) do when, even after much effort, the real answer is—“we can’t tell for sure”? That’s when the legal standard about which side should receive “the benefit of the doubt” can decide a case, and lawsuits deal constantly with that problem. For an understandable description of how the legal system’s approach can help us weigh evidence about Church history, watch or listen to the Faith Is Not Blind podcast by “Bill”—Bill Barnett, a lawyer in Denver.

Moreover, one of the most common arguments made by anti-Church critics is that when they learned new information (at least it was new to them) about an incident in Church history, they often claimed that Church leaders had covered up the complete story—or that the Church had simply lied—in order to protect the leaders’ power and control. We discuss this issue in Faith Is Not Blind  but add just one other comment here.4

Over the past generation or two, our culture has gradually changed in significant ways, blending with and perhaps causing similar changes in academic and professional standards. Some of this is simply generational change. And on such complex topics as LGBT issues, the surrounding culture has undergone massive changes while the Church’s teachings are just what they’ve always been. But those without that historical perspective can understandably wonder why the Church doesn’t align its teachings to be in tune with the times. On the general topic of how cultural changes affect the way history is written, here is Jacob Hess’s informal summary of his essay, “Did the Church Lie to Me?” His original article is cited in the footnote.

Condemnations of historians of the past from the present represent a remarkable ethnocentrism—applying our standards of share-all, reveal-all (including the ugly stuff) therapeutic culture . . . to a generation who came home from war and didn't want to talk about the awfulness . . . a generation that witnessed painful abuse, and often (tragically) didn't want to talk about it (at least not as we do today) . . . and yes, who wrote histories about America and the Church that focused more on the positive elements, with less acute attention on the messy, harder elements. Should that really surprise us so much? And even if it does, might we recognize the leap we're making to impose a narrative of deception on top of it all?5

Those whom we interviewed often told us that, after prayerfully weighing all of the plausible evidence about hard questions, if the available evidence couldn’t conclusively settle the outcome, they learned to give the Lord and His Church the benefit of the doubt. Having done all they could, they deliberately chose to give their trust not only to the Lord and His prophet; they were also giving it to the gospel and its power—the combined personal assurances from all the Latter-day Saints that the Lord keeps His promises. In all their paradoxes and uncertainties, the Saints reflect those assurances in the shining eyes of a million personal discoveries.

It will strengthen us to trust the hard-won personal testimonies from these thousands upon thousands who have read, thought about, and prayed over the Book of Mormon, year after year; who have served missions of faith and sacrifice all over the world; who have intimately felt the Lord’s influence, His closeness to them; who have seen the promises of the Redemption bear sweet fruit in their lives and the lives of those closest to them; who have often told the Joseph Smith story to their children, their friends, and to strangers—and felt the spirit of its simple, pure truth. We “are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1).

These are they who have grown beyond complexity to the calm trust of informed simplicity; who trust prophetic leadership not as the outcome of cunning calculations, but because they have discovered the same convictions and feelings in their own souls. They have found their own answers, even if not yet all of the answers they seek. They know enough that they cast not away their confidence. They are not of them who draw back (see Heb. 10:35–39).

 “These are they which came out of great tribulation [and complexity], and have washed their robes . . . white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame” (Rev. 3:21).6

True faith is not blind. Rather, true faith sees and overcomes

Conclusion

What an opportunity you have—to prepare your students to turn their complexities into learning opportunities (prevention), to show real compassion to the struggling ones (empathy), and to assist their navigation of turbulent spiritual waters (help). I know that your students, who now include our grandchildren, want and need your mentoring. We hope that you, in your own way, might do for them and our grandchildren what West Belnap did for us. What did he do?

Belnap once said to me about BYU religion teachers, “Some of them have it in their heads, and some have it in their hearts. But it’s best when they have it both places.” West had it in both places. Educated at a leading divinity school, he understood both history and the modern culture. He had unusually good sense about how to read a book—or a person. He knew a sound argument from a weak one. Yet, like Nephi, he also delighted in the scriptures, and he yearned to understand and live the deep things of God. He was honest and had good judgment, and he knew and loved the Brethren. He embodied what he taught, mentoring us both to think incisively and to become true disciples. What made his teaching so effective? 

  •  He required critical, constructive thinking and reflective writing.
  •  He encouraged us to search out our own answers, but pointed us to reliable sources.
  •  He asked us tough questions, jogging us to think clearly and pray earnestly.
  •  He gave us intellectual or spiritual nudges when we needed them.
  •  He allowed us to struggle in our seeking and encouraged us when we needed it.
  •  He assured us that the answers to our questions would come—in the Lord’s timing.

In order to teach us the pattern of how to ask honest religious questions and to seek responsible and Spirit-confirmed answers, in our first class Belnap shared his Jacob’s ladder wrestle to answer his own religious question—“How can I obtain the gift of charity?” As he told us how his faith had developed from his childhood on, it was soon clear that his question was not just a matter of intellectual curiosity. He candidly shared some of his most personal spiritual experiences from his two-way relationship with the Lord. We sensed that for him, talking about one’s “religious problems” is a faith-affirming and weighty process that requires complete, mature openness.

He finally told us how puzzled he was that he didn’t feel he had been able to obtain charity—the pure love of Christ. He knew what it was. He knew everything the scriptures taught about it—such as how it reflects the divine nature and that God has promised it to “all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48). Yet, he meekly told us, despite years of trying to live as pure a daily life as he knew how, the gift had eluded him. We sensed the poignant sincerity of his desire.

Only a few years later, Belnap died in his mid-forties from a prolonged and terribly painful brain cancer. At his funeral, Elder Harold B. Lee spoke of his friendship with Belnap. He said that when the brain tumor persisted after two surgeries, Belnap told him the pain was so unbearable and the prognosis so dim that he wondered if he shouldn’t forego further treatment and let himself go quickly. But Elder Lee counseled him,

West, how do you and I know but what the suffering you’re going through is a refining process by which [the] obedience necessary to exaltation is made up, [perhaps] greater than all the rest of your life. Live it true to the end, and we’ll bless you and pray to God that pains beyond your endurance will not be permitted by a merciful God.7

Belnap followed that counsel, accepting an unknowable degree of suffering before finally being released in death.

As we listened to Elder Lee, we couldn’t help remembering that classroom discussion about charity a few years earlier. As we thought of West’s heartfelt desire to be Christ’s consecrated disciple, it was as though he were still teaching us. He couldn’t have known how dear the price for charity might be. Had his excruciating illness somehow led him to his heart’s desire? We couldn’t know, but we kept wondering—maybe it isn’t possible for us to have Christ’s charity without in some way, physically or otherwise, entering into “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). After all, the charity and the suffering are but two sides of the same, single reality—His love for humankind is fully intertwined with the exquisite pain of what Elder Maxwell called Christ’s “earned empathy.”

With his head and his heart, Belnap taught us that sincere religious questions deserve to be taken seriously—and that answers that develop our souls do come. The motivating quest to answer those questions with our eyes and our hearts wide open can have eternal consequences. Belnap taught us that faith in Jesus Christ is not blind.

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  1.  Hafen and Hafen, Faith Is Not Blind, p. 122.
  2.  Terryl L. Givens and Fiona Givens, Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 2014), p. 144.
  3.  Jacob Z. Hess, “It Wasn’t the Evidence That Broke Your Shelf,” Meridian Magazine, 3 December 2019.
  4. See Hafen and Hafen, Faith Is Not Blind, pp. 19–21, 29–34.
  5. Hess, email message to Hafen, 9 April 2020. See Jacob Z. Hess, “Did the Church Lie to Me?” Mindfully Mormon (blog), 2 April 2015.
  6. Excerpts from Hafen and Hafen, Faith Is Not Blind, pp. 127–28.
  7. From tape transcription of funeral, as quoted in Hafen, Disciple’s Life, p. 60.

 

Image titleWe often encounter unexpected questions and complexities that can challenge our faith. Faith Is Not Blind offers fresh concepts and tools that will help readers learn from these experiences, rather than feeling disillusioned by them. Available now at DeseretBook.com

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