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Michael Otterson

 

Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional

March 5, 2013

 

 

Exploring Questions through Faith and Reason

Michael Otterson


 

It is a signal honor to be invited to address such an impressive body of young Latter-day Saints, to stand face to face with so many who, like me, have embraced the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ because of the truth that God has spoken to our hearts.

 

In the short time I have with you, I want to explain what I mean by that phrase, “the truth that God has spoken to our hearts.” I would like to explore something of what faith means, and touch on the important balance of faith and reason. I want to discuss the issue of doubt, how we should view it and how we might deal with it.

 

I am confident that most of you were born in the Church or have grown up in the Church from an early age. There are also represented in this audience some with very different experiences, including those who first learned of the Church through missionaries or friends. Some of you, no doubt, grew up in homes that lacked the support of at least one active parent, possibly both.  Whatever your circumstances, whether or not you were “born in the covenant,” all of us at some point have to decide for ourselves what we believe and how that belief is going to help shape and guide our lives.

 

 If you have a believing heart, you have a great gift. Paul told the Corinthians that there are many different gifts of the spirit, and he acknowledged that wisdom, knowledge and faith are all different gifts.1  Since faith is a prerequisite to so much of what we do in the Church and in our lives, it surely is a great blessing to have the kind of faith that brings peace of mind and surety of purpose.

 

But what of those who don’t have that gift. Is it wrong to ask questions? Is it wrong even to have doubts?

 

I want to take you back to that never-to-be-forgotten Sunday when Jesus Christ showed himself to his most trusted followers as the first person ever to be resurrected to immortality. Remember the circumstances? Despite the many warnings and predictions that Jesus had made to his disciples about his coming sacrificial death, the apostles—two days after the crucifixion of their beloved Lord and Master –were still numb with shock, disoriented, uncertain what to do and most certainly in dread fear for their lives.

 

Into that frightened assembly and behind closed doors stepped the resurrected Lord, appearing suddenly in the midst of them. We can scarcely imagine their joy and wonder as he showed them the scars in his hands, feet and side.

 

But the record of John tells us that one of the apostles was missing. Thomas Didymus was somewhere else. What a meeting to miss!  When later they told him, no doubt exultantly, that they had seen the Lord, he could only react with a kind of defiant skepticism:

 

“Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”2

 

The gospel narrative tells us that it was more than a week later when the apostles were again assembled; this time Thomas was with them. The scriptures are silent on whatever conversations might have taken place between Thomas and the other ten during that tense week.  I can’t believe that they would not have discussed the resurrected Lord. Nevertheless, after eight days they are again assembled, again behind closed doors, and the Lord appears for a second time. Seemingly perfectly aware of Thomas’s earlier reaction, Jesus wastes no time in addressing Thomas directly:

 

“Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.”3 

 

And then follows this powerfully provocative statement: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” 4

 

What does that mean, exactly?  Jesus is not discounting the validity of those who see signs and miracles and believe. But he seems to place on a higher elevation those who believe without those tangible evidences.

 

This gets right at the heart of how we balance reason—based on our physical senses and external evidence—with faith, which Alma tells us specifically is the evidence of things not seen, which are true.5 Or, as I said earlier, the truth that God speaks to our heart.  Faith requires us to stretch a little, beyond our comfort zone.

 

Let’s dig a little deeper into the scriptures.

 

It’s night, early hours of the morning, sometime between 3 a.m. and dawn. There is a storm raging on the Sea of Galilee, and the apostles are in a ship, being mercilessly tossed about in the dark. Suddenly, in the dim gloom they see a figure out on the water, and we can easily understand the intensity of their fear in that moment. They cry out in what I suppose was close to panic, but then the calming and familiar voice of Jesus comes across the waves: “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”6

 

What exactly motivated Peter at that moment we can only guess, but right then nothing seemed more important to him than being with his beloved Master. “Lord,” he calls out. “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.”

 

Jesus obliged with one word. “Come.”  And then Peter, defying all logic, not to mention gravity, against all reason and contrary to his entire life’s experience as a fisherman, steps into that wind-whipped sea and actually walks.  For a few moments—and I can imagine his eyes riveted on the Savior—he is carried by pure faith. And then it’s almost as if he suddenly asks himself, “What on earth was I thinking!”

 

“When he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”7

 

How interesting! Here is Peter, who has just done what no ordinary man in recorded history has ever done, but he falls just short—just another particle of faith. If he had stretched just a little bit more, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

 

But what of the other apostles in the ship? They exercised their reason—they saw with their eyes, heard with their ears. And they concluded from this tangible evidence, “Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”

 

With whom would the Lord have been most pleased at that moment?  Peter, motivated by faith, or the others, with their reliance on the evidence of their physical senses?  Like Thomas, the others believed because they saw. Peter acted —and succeeded for a moment—because of what his heart told him.

 

President Boyd K. Packer has taught:

 

Faith, to be faith, must center around something that is not known. Faith, to be faith, must go beyond that for which there is confirming evidence. Faith, to be faith, must go into the unknown. Faith, to be faith, must walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness. If everything has to be known, if everything has to be explained, if everything has to be certified, then there is no need for faith. Indeed, there is no room for it.8

 

Is it reasonable for us to ask, why? What is this thing called faith that is not a perfect knowledge, but that we are expected to act upon with all the surety and confidence as if derived from tangible evidence?

 

Faith is so much more than mere belief or assent.  Faith stretches us. It forces us to reach beyond our senses, and in that reaching we develop spiritual strength and greater trust in the Lord. As James tells us,  “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”9  I repeat: faith, therefore, is more than belief. Faith is an active force, not a passive condition. I suspect that one reason why we have to develop it here on earth is because of the expectations that will be placed on us when we are in the next sphere. I offer this only as personal opinion, but the Lord has promised that those who are faithful will inherit all that the Father has. In the eternities to come, will those who create worlds do so because they have learned the laws of physics that govern the universe, or will they work through the exercise of perfect faith, or a combination of both?  How much reaching and stretching will it take? We don’t know, but when Jesus says that by faith we can move mountains, is he merely being figurative or is there something about the power of faith that we now only dimly perceive, but that we must learn while here on earth?

 

It seems to me that Jesus often stretched those whom he encountered. You are familiar with the incident in which a man approaches Jesus and pleads on behalf of his son. The father paints a touching picture of a young man who, since childhood, has had fits, foams at the mouth and sometimes was driven to extremities of casting himself into fire or the sea. The father’s plea, “Have compassion on us” —plural—reminds us of the tender feelings of every parent who has anguished for a sick child.10

 

Jesus was about to stretch this man.

 

“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”11

 

There it is again. “Help thou mine unbelief.” He believes, he is so close, but he recognizes he is short of perfect faith and he pleads with Jesus to help him make up that deficiency.

 

“When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.” 12

 

I think, perhaps, that this father was stronger after this incident in which his son was healed, partly because he reached deep into his own soul and drew upon every ounce of faith.

 

What incidents in your life have stretched you like this?  Is there something that seems just out of your reach that a little extra faith could deliver the hoped-for blessing?

 

May I share with you an incident from my own life that I have never shared publicly, but which I think illustrates a point? Many years ago when I was living in Australia, I received a call one Saturday afternoon from a young mother for whom I was the home teacher. Her little son, about two years old as I recall, had found his way under the kitchen sink, and she thought he had swallowed some cleanser or fluid or something he shouldn’t have. She wasn’t sure, but she was in a highly distressed state, as was the child. She asked if the home teachers could come quickly and give the child a blessing. Without transport, she had not even thought about a hospital. Within a few minutes, I had collected my home teaching companion and we were in her home.  It became immediately apparent that giving a blessing in the normal way was going to be very difficult. The child was writhing and screaming in his mother’s arms so focusing and concentrating on the blessing and placing our hands reverently on the little boy’s head seemed out of the question. As my companion unscrewed the cap from the consecrated oil, I knew suddenly what I had to do, and consciously pushing all doubt from my mind I placed my hands on the struggling child and said just one word: “Sleep.”  Immediately the child’s cries stopped, and as he slept soundly in his mother’s arms we proceeded with the blessing. 

 

I had never had such an experience before, and although I have given many blessings I have never had one like it since. It is many years since this incident, and whether the child was truly sick or just reacting in panic to his mother’s acute distress no longer matters. But I do know one thing: In that moment of need we were stretched to exercise perfect faith, and we couldn’t afford to doubt.  That is what I remember, and that is what I took away from that experience. Sometimes the Lord puts us in circumstances where we have to reach beyond what seem to be our natural limitations.

 

Moroni tells us to “dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”13  And he adds: “For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.”14 Faith really does precede the miracle.

 

The biggest obstacle to this kind of faith is doubt. We might define doubt as the antithesis of faith.  It denotes uncertainty, hesitation and lack of confidence, especially when it comes to decision-making. In earlier English usage the word also conveyed a sense of fear.

 

In referring to doubt, I do not mean to include the absence of answers to legitimate questions. By doubt I refer to a disbelieving heart.  A questioning attitude when accompanied by cynicism is an enemy to God and will prevent the spirit from bearing witness.  But having unanswered questions about gospel topics or Church history is not the same thing at all.

 

I would be disappointed if I felt my own children or grandchildren felt they could never ask questions.  Questioning, probing, searching and exploring when accompanied by an attitude of personal growth and spiritual enrichment is not only one of the joys in life, it is absolutely essential to our continued progression.  God has given us brains to use. Not using them is no better than the servant who, in the parable of Jesus, hid his talent in the earth.  If you have questions, embrace them, not with a doubting heart, but with a thirst for knowledge. Then go to the sources where both reason and revelation can work together. A religious truth will never be in contradiction with a scientific truth. If they appear to be so, it’s because we are lacking information on one side or the other, or both.  And if a question can’t be resolved immediately, don’t worry. Time has a habit of solving lots of questions.

 

My own experience as a convert at the age of nineteen might be helpful, here, in understanding how faith and reason sometimes compete, and sometimes can work together.  I had first learned of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through my sister, who had been found by missionaries and had joined the Church. She was ten years older than me, and in quite a different place, spiritually. She had always been something of a seeker, but at last she had found what she was looking for.

 

For me, it was quite different. In the British high school I attended, my closest friend and I were known as the class atheists. I was quite familiar with the Bible – in fact, in the English education system at that time we not only had a devotional assembly every morning, but scripture knowledge was a required subject.  I passed the scripture exam quite easily because I simply memorized scripture passages and knew the answers to the questions—not because I believed in God.

 

So when my sister began to share her religious convictions with me I wasn’t greatly impressed.  Like all good Mormons, however, she didn’t give up.  Eventually I found her religious views to be so provocative I determined to learn enough about this new religion to set her right.

 

That process took a few years, and ended differently than I expected.  I began to be a frequent attender at the great city library in Liverpool, an impressive and imposing building where I discovered, as I recall, some 33 books about Mormonism or with extracts about the subject.  Only two of them were favorable to the Church. I read everything. 

 

And I learned a lot of facts. I quickly found that most of the anti-Mormon literature was written by members of other faiths whose distortion of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine was so palpably obvious, that it drove me to seek out more LDS literature where I could at least see for myself what Mormons believed.

 

Then, gradually, something began to happen. As I worked through the pages of the Book of Mormon, went back to the New Testament and associated with Latter-day Saints, I found my natural cynicism to be in retreat, and I began to think of things more objectively.  Whereas before, I read passages of scripture like any textbook, I now began to feel something. You will recognize what I could not at that time—that the Spirit was beginning to work on me. Very unscientific, but true, nonetheless.

 

Toward the end of 1967 I had progressed enough, read enough, had enough time with missionaries and members that it had become all-important to me to know for myself whether Joseph Smith was a prophet, the key to which appeared to be the Book of Mormon.

 

Moroni 10:4! How many members around the world have arrived at that scripture, exactly as I did, and come face to face with those remarkable verses that call for faith in Christ and real intent as preliminaries to a witness from the Holy Ghost.

I had prayed about this for weeks—yes, I had got that far since my atheist days at school—and one evening alone in my room I was wrestling for that testimony after fasting for far longer than was wise.  I was nearing the end of my prayer. My mind began to settle on whether I was willing to be baptized. Had I learned enough? Could I say that the Church was true?  And although not in these words the question I was asking myself was, “Should I stretch?” Should I take what I had and embrace the gospel even though it meant a few steps into the unknown. The answer, I concluded, was, yes, I could. And it was in that moment of decision that the witness came. “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” I understand that scripture now with perfect clarity. The Lord could have answered my prayers weeks earlier and saved me a lot of anxiety. But he cares enough about us to stretch us, to push us beyond where we would otherwise go.

 

People come into the Church in many different ways. Some have a believing heart and need no convincing. Some, stubborn and proud like the teenage me, require something more. There is no one way, no single prescribed way.  But what a difference attitude makes.  Like my schoolboy peers, I stood in those morning assemblies for six years, sang the hymns and heard the scripture readings. But I remained completely unmoved by any of it.  Yet today, there are times in a sacrament meeting when I drill down deep into the words of some of those same hymns and savor the music and I literally feel the tears running down my cheeks. I read the words of the four gospels or the Book of Acts and they seem to me to be so far above and beyond what I once failed to recognize. This is not just great literature, it is life changing, lifesaving eternal truth.  Such is the difference that attitude makes. Such is the difference that comes from asking questions with real intent. Such is the different when the Spirit is present.

 

Did I have all my questions answered, that night when I received that witness? Not at all. As a matter of fact, there were two big questions with which I had greatly wrestled and which the missionaries had not been able to answer satisfactorily. Neither could I find answers in Church literature. And yet, though those questions had once seemed like great, insurmountable stumbling blocks, now they seemed of far less consequence.  Since I could not resolve them, I decided to put them on the shelf for some future resolution. In time, one of those troubling questions settled itself—in June 1978 when the priesthood was extended to men of all races. The second one, you may be interested to know, is something I am still working out, 45 years later. But I’m getting close!

 

What I’m telling you is that questions are healthy if asked with “real intent,” which to me means with honesty and sincerity of purpose rather than in a challenging or cynical “I dare-you-to-prove-it-to-me” kind of way, which is characteristic of so much anti-Church literature, and which sadly sometimes snares even faithful Latter-day Saints.  I’m also telling you that we are not expected to have every answer to every question handed to us—that faith, in fact, requires that we don’t have such an easy time, as President Packer taught us, if we are ever to grow.

 

One last thought.  I have found in my life that there is great joy when we always look ahead. There is a scripture that has always impressed me: “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”15

 

Why would I ever want to look back to a time when I had no knowledge of some of the great questions of life? I cannot imagine what it would be like without the knowledge that I have gained from the gospel in a lifetime’s pursuit. Why do we exist? Why did God create us? What is heaven and hell?  Why is there suffering? What is our eternal destiny? Is it a mere continuation of consciousness, or some kind of permanent rest, as some teach? Or is God, Our Father, capable of imagining and delivering for us something far, far grander?  The gospel provides me with persuasive, marvelous answers.

 

If I did not have the gospel in my life, how would I explain away volumes of scriptural prophecies, such as the amazingly precise writings of Isaiah 700 years before Christ?  How would I explain the traditions the Jews have kept alive for thousands of years if the Passover and Exodus never happened?  How could I dismiss the detailed accounts of multiple witnesses in the New Testament and thereby relegate Jesus of Nazareth to the status of a local carpenter with a flair for itinerant preaching? How could I ignore the legion of stories and accounts of healing the sick, raising the dead, and the entire concept of the Atonement? How could I account for the personal testimonies, spiritual conversions and life experience of countless millions of Christian people from the time of the Savior to today?

 

Without the gospel and my sense of accountability to God, would I lose my moral anchor, and be content to decide right and wrong from each circumstance, subject to shifting conventions of political correctness?

 

Thank you, but no, that path holds no promise for me. There will be no looking back. I intend, with God’s grace and blessing, to stay committed to the truth that God has spoken to my heart. I hope to continue to stretch my faith at the same time I use my reason and intellect to explore new horizons. I believe the Lord promises us joy in this life and untold possibilities in the next for those willing to stretch, and who reach into the unknown with faith and confidence.

 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:

 

God is anxiously waiting for the chance to answer your prayers and fulfill your dreams, just as He always has. But He can't if you don't pray, and He can't if you don't dream. In short, He can't if you don't believe.

 

May we believe. May we develop faith. May we pray and work and stretch and dream and seek answers to the right questions.  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

 


1. 1 Cor. 12: 8-9

2. John 20: 25

3. John 20: 27-28

4. John 20: 29

5. Alma 32: 21

6. Matt. 14:27

7. Matt 14: 30-33

8. Elder Boyd K. Packer, "What is Faith," Deseret Book Company, 1983, p. 42

9. James 2:18-24

10. Mark 9: 22

11. Mark 9: 230-24

12. Mark 9: 25-27

13. Ether 12:6

14. Ether 12:12

15. Luke 9: 62