Latter-day Saints recognize that, rather than an aberration in God’s plan, lack of knowing is a central and defining feature of mortal experience.
Yes, it’s somewhat counterintuitive that to become like God we have to leave His side in the cosmos and become ignorant infants, 100 percent dependent on other limited humans. How fascinating: to know as God knows, we must experience mortality through the tiny lens of our own subjective bodies and limited life context, without a clear view of our eternal past. But the reality is, in order to spiritually progress, we had to forget everything we knew in premortal life and dive intentionally, knowingly into a daunting embrace of not-knowing.
Rather than seeing this lack of certainty as a sign of failure, our faith community acknowledges this as crucial context within which our agency is preserved. In this world, “one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial,” Terryl and Fiona Givens note. The thing that “tip[s] the scale,” they suggest, is the fact that each individual is “truly free to choose belief or skepticism, faith or faithfulness.”1
In comparison, imagine if God made crystal clear His will to all humankind—whether they wanted it or not. That would change things, and not in a good way.
Remarkably, it’s in the lack of clarity, the confusion, and the slow progression to knowing (from constantly changing states of not-knowing) that our growth and learning happen—and our freedom to direct our lives is preserved!
Making Space for Not-Knowing
If the gospel plan is not rattled by states of not-knowing, maybe we don’t need to be either. Instead of having to “fight against” these moments, perhaps they can become platforms launching us into new inquiries and learning before our God.
A great deal of suffering might be allayed if we created more compassionate space to hold sincere questions, within ourselves and within our larger communities (family, ward, and stake). Individually and collectively we can “fear not” when faced with unresolved questions. Instead we can breathe deep. Relax. And get curious.
But oh, that space is not easy when we want to figure it all out, right? Are we really willing to wait—if that’s what clarity requires? As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu writes, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”2
As challenging as it can be to not seem to be receiving anything back from God in prayer, Adam Miller proposes this as a pivotal moment: “When this happens, you’ll have to make a choice. You’ll have to decide whether to get up and leave the room or whether to continue in silence.” If the latter, “You may discover that God’s silence is not itself a rebuke but an invitation. The heavens aren’t empty, they’re quiet. And God, rather than turning you away, may be inviting you to share this silence with him. This is part of what atonement looks like: sitting in shared silence with God.”3
One new mother who began to feel deep concern around the history of polygamy shared her concerns with her husband. Rather than try to “figure it out” and make it go away, they decided to create space around it and be patient. They chose to hold the questions in a sacred space and wait for further light and knowledge to come as they continued to look to the prophets and follow the Lord as best they knew how. When peace and understanding did come, although some questions still remained, the inquiry became more infused with assurance, patience, and a sense of God’s love.
Another young man, trying to make sense of his sexuality and identity as he was confronted with feelings of attraction toward other men, wondered why God would allow him to experience something that “feels so natural” when those feelings seem to run counter to the family ideal that is taught in the Church. As challenging as it was to continue to trust in the teachings of Church leaders when cultural ideals and narratives were often so loudly critical of those teachings, he found some solace in the words of Elder D. Todd Christofferson, that “to declare the fundamental truths relative to marriage and family is not to overlook or diminish the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal is not a present reality,” and that “everyone has gifts [and]…can contribute to the unfolding of the divine plan in each generation.” Elder Christofferson added that “much that is good, much that is essential—even sometimes all that is necessary for now—can be achieved in less than ideal circumstances.”4 This young man chose to trust that God would help him to understand the “why” of his experience in time, having faith that all of life’s experiences are purposeful and have power to bring us closer to God. In the meantime, he would focus on living one day at a time, nurturing meaningful relationships with others and with the Savior, and serving in the kingdom in the best ways he could.
Even if not fully “fixed,” faith struggles can be held in a mindful space with awareness and patience. No doubt, it takes maturity and strength to hold onto this complexity, and, for some issues, to hold them for a really long time. But rather than bearing such questions like some dirty secret we must take pains to hide from those around us (or hint that others do so), we can take confidence knowing that this is part of the process not just for some, but for all of us.
In this way, we can experiment with creating space where not-knowing can coexist quite naturally alongside conviction and passion. Perhaps it’s the overemphasis of either that gets us mired.
More than simply “making space” for not-knowing, some have taken it several steps further, to the point of embracing uncertainty as a kind of ultimate aspiration. In this way, it can be tempting to glorify paradoxical confusion and uncertainty as somehow more enlightened—with “doubt” spoken of as a kind of higher state of consciousness. From this place, conviction itself can be portrayed as unhealthy or even foolish: “Don’t be too convicted or certain.” Some have even started pathologizing conviction as an inherent vice (aka “the sin of certainty”).
As Latter-day Saint mindfulness teacher Thomas McConkie has put it, “Unknowing can be valorized in postmodern culture to the point that any form of knowing is branded as childish, or naive”—pointing out that “clinging to uncertainty is very much its own form of certainty.”5 Even those who claim “one cannot know anything,” in other words, often do so with a lot of conviction.
More humility would go a long way for all of us, including among those who feel secure in their knowledge. As part of this, maybe we can all admit that discerning the truth of what’s happening isn’t always so easy.
Lead image: Shutterstock
Using Latter-day Saint vernacular and examples, The Power of Stillness explores ways in which mindfulness can help deepen our conversion to the gospel. Infusing our homes with more stillness, silence, and space can reinvigorate the joy inherent in our faith and help us feel calmer, more present and engaged in our lives, and more spiritually connected to our Savior. Available now at DeseretBook.com.
- Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 5. They add: “The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we ‘get it right.’ It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire.” All this is made possible, they argue, by being “confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for a Divinity that is a childish projection, for prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for scriptures as so much fabulous fiction. But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious Divinity presides over the cosmos, that His angels are strangers we have entertained unaware, and that His word and will are made manifest through a scriptural canon that is never definitively closed” (4–5).
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Fifteen), translation by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 17.
- Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 32, 35–36.
- D. Todd Christofferson, “Why Marriage, Why Family?” Ensign, May 2015.
- Personal correspondence in authors’ possession, Jacob Hess with Thomas McConkie.