Faith Promoting “Problems”

A few weeks ago my Bishop asked me to be the speaker at the monthly Bishop’s Youth Discussion. I’ve spoken at several of these events and enjoy teaching the youth so I quickly agreed. When I asked what subject I should speak on he thought for about 5 seconds and asked that I speak on the prophet Joseph Smith. This is an interesting occurrence since 9 times out of 10 church leaders ask me to speak on topics that have to with the scriptures, but in this case:  Joseph Smith. Preparing and delivering my remarks has drawn my mind to reflect on Joseph Smith, Church History, etc. over the past few days so I share a few autobiographical thoughts akin to some fairly recent posts found here by Enoch and here by TT.

In the last 18 months I have come to realize just how complex the prophet (and human being) Joseph Smith is. Never again will I look at him the same. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing only time can tell; however, I feel blessed to have somewhat of a better understanding about the history of our founder. Magic, seer stones, masons, plates and all, I feel that I am a more informed person having learned what I have learned. Many have asked me how I can know the things that I know and still have a desire to be a Mormon (just last night in fact). The answer, like Joseph, is complex but certainly entails these points: (1) I feel that the gospel as taught by the LDS Church (despite many concerns) helps me and my family to be better people, (2) I find it comforting to belong to a group of people that know how to serve and push me to serve more, (3) I love belonging to a group with such a rich history and tradition. I would be dishonest if I didn’t feel a need/want to carry on this tradition (at least the parts I like :)) (4) It’s fun! I’ve met a number of amazing people in the church that make life better and certainly a whole lot more interesting. Strangely enough though, I must say that many of the more “human” episodes in Joseph’s life (and in Church History) have helped me to feel closer to Joseph than before. Why? Because he is not just an infallible fairy tale that my parents tell me about anymore. He is a real man that makes real mistakes and is yet (according to my faith) a prophet of God. How prophets are nothing more than human and yet represent the divine is quite a paradox and yet, paradox describes my faith so adequately. I believe it was Richard Bushman in a podcast who said something to the effect of, “if you don’t have paradox in your life, then you are not living.” This is certainly not to say that I have found ways to view all the less-than-stellar moments in our church’s history (not to mention present situations/happenings) that are helpful and make sense, but I have found enough to continue. And so it is that many of the events in our Church’s history that have been seen as “problems” have, in an odd sort of way, become faith promoting problems.

15 Replies to “Faith Promoting “Problems””

  1. Nice post. I agree; I’ll take the fully-formed, flesh and blood Joseph over the stick figure any day of the week.

  2. Absolutely. I love the idea that if you don’t have paradox in your life, you are not really living. The flesh-and-blood Joseph has increased my faith exponentially.

  3. I am fine with someone having revelatory experiences in situations where they are not perfect. It is ok for prophets not to be perfect.
    For me the primary question is whether Joseph is a reliable witness or not. I am in the middle of trying to understand as best I can where he was in the space between deception, self-deception, and honesty. Have I been overlooking facts or points of view? If he was a reliable witness, I feel comfortable with the authority claims of the church. If he was not a reliable witness, the situation is much more complicated. If I feel the authority claims of the church are not valid, I am in a church, not the church. This is a huge difference.

  4. Thanks for your post.
    I would love to know how you addressed this topic to the youth. I have a calling in YW and often am troubled to
    tell them what I really think on a certain topic. Is it my place to instill in them healthy skepticism and criticism, or should I not tell them things of which their parents would not approve? I struggle, and often bite my tongue, although am pleased when some girls ask insightful questions and I can direct them to sources of answers. Although I am happy with the level of faith I have, I feel that young people, my own children included, perhaps need spoon feeding of orthodox church doctrine before being introduced to some distasteful or socially unacceptable ideas. Some of my young women have been suprised/shocked to learn of even simple things like Heavenly Mother or polygamy.
    How did you go?

  5. I’m a ditto-head here, in that it actually strengthens my faith in the Gospel plan and motivation to strive for repentance to see that all people, including Prophets, have weaknesses.

    My first calling was ward clerk. I saw the weaknesses of the Bishop and his counselors, and I realized that I don’t have to worry about stumbling so much, as long as I keep trying to do better. And that I really felt the spirit of revelation in some decisions, while some were sort of limbos, helped me have less heartache over sometimes feeling unable to connect with the Spirit.

    It’s important that we don’t have an idealized picture of our leaders, or especially that our testimonies don’t depend on an idealized picture of, say, Joseph Smith.

    Look at the Bible Patriarchs and Prophets! Were they perfect? Not by a long shot!

  6. I like the post. It gets one thinking. I recall discovering the paradox of Joseph Smith. It caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for me that needed resolving. It seems like you (and many others) have resolved it by saying that the Church brings good things into your life. But does the belief that the church (1) makes you a better person, (2) gives you service opportunities, (3) has tradition and (4) helps you meet interesting people thereby mean that it is true or that Joseph was a real prophet? Aren’t there other ways to find these benefits? And even if there weren’t, and the Church really gave these 4 social benefits to everybody, does that mean the truth claims of the church are true? And does it even matter if the truth claims are factual?

  7. Josh, interesting questions. I can’t answer for anyone else, but for me that’s about where my reliance on spiritual confirmations, and my current view of books in the LDS canon come into play, as well as Mormonism’s expansive soteriological reach.

  8. Hi Jenny,

    In this particular presentation I talked about the phrase in D&C 38:32 that tells the saints “to go to the Ohio and there I will give unto you my law and there you shall be endowed with power from on high.” I focused on how Joseph and the other saints kept thinking that this “endowment from on high” had occurred, first at a meeting at the Morley Farm, then in the Kirtland House of the Lord, then finally in the Nauvoo temple. I showed that even though this revelation was given in 1831, it took Joseph and the saints a number of years of “trial and error,” learning along the way, to fully understand the full meaning of the revelation. I then drew the parallel that JS receives revelation much like all of us do. I tried to steer the group away from the idea that prophets have a grand, unaltered, and infallible view of all things every time they receive insight into spiritual matters. I also tried to explain how this is a good thing. We can all relate to a human being who has human experience far more than a perfect being who has a perfect understanding of all things. It went quite well. I had about a dozen yw/ym along with yw and ym leaders, bishopric, and several parents. The young people were more than OK with idea. I find they are usually hungry for something new and interesting. Among the parents and leaders, most were very excited about my presentation. There were a few that looked a little nervous at times, but everyone commented to me about how much they liked it. Admittedly, I didn’t get into all of the aspects of every event and frankly left some issues untouched (for example, someone brought up that Moroni was talking about Elijah in his visitation to JS and thus JS knew what temple work was early on. I explained a little bit about how this was an 1838 recollection so might not be an exact recounting of the events, but I left the issues of this largely untouched). Overall, I feel that I successfully pushed people a bit out of their comfort zone without pushing them over (i.e. learning occurred) and that for me is a victory.

    Your comment about YW’s parents is so true. For me, it is very rarely the young people who have a hard time thinking critically, they are the ones that always want to know more. It is usually the parents who are concerned with teachers wanting their children to do such. But that’s just my experience. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your YW’s calling!!

  9. Josh,

    I echo BHodges in saying that these are interesting questions and that there are certain beliefs that are somewhat unique to Mormonism that help form who I am and thus produce for me a belief in enough of Mormonism to make it true at least for me. I would add to BHodges list ideas about eternal relationships with loved ones and ideas about heavenly parents to name a few. I realize these are only faith claims and lie outside the realm of empirical evidence, but that’s what religion is about I suppose. To speak to your first question, I do not belief that the LDS church is the only place where I can experience these benefits, however, it is the only place where I can experience these benefits via the language of Mormonism, the religious language I feel most compatible with most of the time. Thanks for your comments

  10. #5 Jenny, with regard to the question of how to teach youth around the edges (admittedly my phrase, not yours), I think parents hope we’ll do so from a position of strength (as in, I’ve had questions like that in the past and here’s what I did and how it strengthened my testimony). And I think many youth hope we will answer that way, too.

    I don’t think our role as teachers is to expose youth to every questions we’ve ever encountered without tools for seeking resolution (note I said resolution, not “easy answers”). Just as Joseph sought (but apparently did not find) support from his teachers after his first vision, I think our youth, in particular, look for some safety. There is great value in helping them to learn how to face questions, strategies for dealing with them, and so on.

  11. So, sorry — my comment in #11 comes of as rather preachy, which was not my intent. BTW, MD, terrific OP. And i was also glad to hear about what you taught the youth.

  12. As usual, a lot of this is over my head. But I took a class on “Teachngs of the Prophet Joseph Smith” years ago and read the book I came to love him from his own words. I think a lot of the crap we get into arguing about would never happen on his watch. Like women not being permitted to give the opening prayer in sacrament meeting. Which has now changed. But I bet that drove him (and God) as crazy as it did me. He had common sense.

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