When You Have Unanswered Questions About Church Policy, History: 6 Powerful Insights

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 or when commandments, policies, or so many other things about the Church seem contradictory.

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.

Contradictions and Inconsistencies

Struggles with ambiguity are accentuated when seemingly inconsistent or contradictory statements appear in the scriptures. For instance, during His life, Jesus focused His ministry on the descendants of Israel. He altered that policy on the Mount of Ascension, when He commanded the eleven Apostles to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15; emphasis added). This new direction was largely misunderstood or ignored by the Apostles for a few years. The Lord brought about the first Gentile baptisms by giving complementary visions to Peter, the chief Apostle, and Cornelius, a Roman centurion (see Acts 10). Peter’s visions on that occasion directly contradicted Israel’s strict dietary laws (see Deuteronomy 14). Peter was commanded to kill and eat the very things the Lord had expressly forbidden for 1500 years (see Acts 10:9–17). These policy changes caused anxiety and confusion for some of the Church members in Peter’s day.

One trend that emerges from apparent scriptural incongruities is that when the Lord establishes patterns or rules, he sometimes commands exceptions in order for His work to progress—hence the need for living oracles, ongoing revelation, and adaptable practices in the Church. Jesus provided a key for understanding conflicting commandments when He said, “Except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (3 Nephi 12:20; emphasis added). Changes in policy, practice, and procedure in the Church of Jesus Christ are evidence it is a living, growing church.

Differing Interpretations

Another source of distance-inducing ambiguity comes from not fully understanding the Lord’s directions or misapplying one of His teachings. To illustrate: Jesus delivered a sermon filled with symbolism that caused many of His disciples to stop following Him at a high point of His popularity (see John 6:26–71). It must have been shocking and troubling to hear Him use phrases such as, “I am the living bread . . . and the bread that I will give is my flesh” (v. 51); “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (53); or “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (v. 56). Many of Jesus’ followers could not understand and walked away in exasperation (see v. 66). It is intriguing that He did not call them back and explain that the Bread of Life sermon was a symbolic reference to a future ordinance He would call the sacrament. He simply let them walk away without adding clarity or explanation. He then asked His Apostles, “Will ye also go away?” (v. 67). Devoted disciples then and now resonate with Simon Peter’s answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (v. 68).

Examples of confusion or misapplication of principles or practices are not limited to ancient scripture. For instance, when the revelation came regarding baptisms for the dead, many early Saints excitedly began performing them in the Mississippi River with no semblance of order or recorder present. The Lord did not condemn them for performing the ordinances incorrectly; they had simply done the best they could based on the knowledge they had at that time. Further direction regarding how to properly perform the ordinance soon came through the prophet.

For many today, a particularly troubling practice in Church history is plural marriage. Detractors of the Church can easily paint these situations in the worst possible light by using twenty-first-century lenses to judge what we read from nineteenth-century sources. Joseph had no how-to handbook when it came to implementing the practice. The Lord gave him a command to live the Biblical law of plural marriage, and not unlike Nephi with the brass plates, Joseph had to figure out the how along the way.

In a powerful talk reminding us that faith is a choice, Elder Neil L. Andersen gave some advice regarding what to do when we are tempted to condemn Joseph based on our limited understanding of events in those early days: “For now, give Brother Joseph a break! In a future day, you will have 100 times more information than from all of today’s search engines combined, and it will come from our all-knowing Father in Heaven.”2 Whether doctrinal clarifications or policy changes come early or late, quickly or slowly, they come according to the Lord’s timing when the work requires them and when the people are capable of making needed adjustments.

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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.

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