When we are young, most of us tend to think in terms of black and white-there is very little gray in either the intellectual or spiritual dimension of our perspective. So most young adults have a childlike optimism and loyalty that make them wonderfully teachable. It is typical of students at Latter-day Saint colleges, for example, to trust their teachers, to believe what they read, and to respond with enthusiasm to invitations for Church service.
New converts to the Church often have similar attitudes, which help them make a refreshing contribution to their wards and branches as their optimistic spirit and outlook influence those who have been in the Church for many years.
Where else but in a college student ward would you find a Church member so thrilled to be called by the bishop as the hymnbook coordinator or the refreshment specialist for ward socials? As an older student at Brigham Young University told me, one thing he likes about being in a student ward composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores is that when topics such as faith or repentance are raised for discussion, nobody yawns.
The Gospel Essentials class in many wards has a similar feel, because it is attended mostly by new members, investigators, and those returning to Church activity, who all tend to share an engaging freshness as they study the gospel.
As time goes on, however, experience often introduces a new dimension to the perspective of younger and newer Church members. This new dimension is typically a growing awareness of a kind of gap between the real and the ideal-between what is and what ought to be.
One way of describing this gap is to imagine two circles, one inside the other. The inner boundary is “the real,” or what is. The outer boundary is “the ideal,” or what ought to be. We stand at the inner boundary of reality, reaching out to move our reality closer to our lofty ideals. We first see the distance between these two boundaries when we realize that some things about ourselves or about other Church members are not what we expected-or what we wish they were. That realization can naturally produce some frustration.
Our experience with the Church, or with Church institutions, can make us a little vulnerable to the questions this gap can raise-in part because our idealistic expectations may be very high. A new Church member, for example, is accustomed to receiving frequent-sometimes almost daily-visits from the missionaries who first taught him or her the gospel.
But within a few weeks after baptism, the missionaries probably aren’t visiting as often, because they spend most of their time with investigators, and the newly assigned home or visiting teachers may miss a few visits. This unexpected decline in personal support may make it harder for a new convert to keep the commitments that asked for major lifestyle changes-which is one reason why strong ward priesthood and auxiliary leaders work hard to increase their own support for new members.
Similarly, a new BYU student may find it a bit lonely and frustrating to be one among thirty thousand students, fighting occasional battles with the red-tape machine that seems to control the processes of admission, registering for classes, or transferring credits from another school. A student in his first few weeks of school may feel unknown and nameless to the bishop of a student ward who is flooded with many new ward members all at once. Or he may brush up against a faculty member whose attitudes about the Church are more flexible (or more rigid) than he had expected them to be.
At a more personal level, perhaps an important prayer goes too long unanswered, or one suffers a surprise health setback or an unexpected conflict with a family member. Perhaps one becomes conscious of the imperfections of other Church members and leaders or of one’s own parents. When we become acquainted at an adult level with those who have been our heroes and our trusted friends, we naturally begin to see their human limitations.
Perhaps one encounters some anti-Mormon literature, or one discovers differing views about the Church among its members and leaders. We may also find ourselves looking for more complete ways to clarify the previously unarticulated assumptions behind our testimonies, which were perhaps based mostly on spiritual feelings. As Peter said, “Be ready always to give . . . a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
New missionaries may discover a jarring sense of distance between the real and the ideal as they move from the “premortal realm” of the Missionary Training Center to the “mortality” of daily life in an assigned field of missionary service. I vividly recall my feelings of great discouragement during my first few weeks as a missionary in a foreign country. I had studied the language in college, but hearing the natives speak their mother tongue at first sounded incomprehensible to me; I understood virtually nothing and was literally speechless for the first time I could remember.
Even after the language began to make sense, I repeatedly fought back tears of disappointment when in various parts of our work, the promised fruits of a positive mental attitude seemed frequently to elude me.
I recall, for instance, my feelings of disbelief and pain one night when we had an appointment to make final plans for the baptismal service of a young couple I had considered truly golden investigators. They had responded positively to each lesson we taught, they had attended church, and they were reading and praying about the Book of Mormon with very believing attitudes. But that night, as we rang the doorbell, someone turned out the lights inside their apartment. We rang again. Nothing.
In disbelief, we stepped away from the door and called through their window, “It’s us-the missionaries! We’re here to see you!” No answer came. My companion and I looked at each other and then began to cry as we trudged together back to our bicycles. I knew there was some untold story behind their behavior, but that didn’t help. I later learned that it was not that unusual to lose progressing investigators with no explanation.
There is a kind of poignancy in those moments when we first discover there might be some limitations to the idea that we can do anything we make up our mind to do. I once gave everything I had to that proposition in my determination to be the greatest shotputter in the history of my junior high school. But I simply wasn’t big enough. It really was hopeless.
Experiences like these can produce uncertainty and ambivalence-in a word, ambiguity-and we may yearn for simpler, easier times, when life was more clear and more under our control. We might sense within ourselves the beginnings of skepticism, of unwillingness to respond to authority or to invitations to commit ourselves to highsounding goals or projects that don’t seem very realistic.
Not everybody will encounter what I have been describing, and I don’t mean to suggest that everyone must encounter such experiences. However, many Church members do run into at least some forms of ambiguity sooner or later. (It helps me understand the word ambiguity to consider its German translation-zweideutig, meaning “capable of meaning two different things.”)
The basic teachings of the restored gospel are potent, clear, and unambiguous. But it is possible on occasion to encounter some uncertainty even in studying the scriptures. Consider, for example, the story of Nephi when he killed Laban in order to obtain the brass plates (1 Nephi 4). That case is not easy to interpret until the reader realizes that God Himself, who gave the original commandment against murder, was also the source of Nephi’s instructions in that very exceptional case.
Consider also the case of Peter on the night he denied any knowledge of his Master three times in succession (Matthew 26). We typically regard Peter as fearful or, perhaps, weak. We assume his commitment was not strong enough to make him rise to the Savior’s defense. But I once heard President Spencer W. Kimball offer an alternative interpretation of Peter’s behavior. Then Elder Kimball suggested that the Savior’s statement that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed just might have been a request to Peter, not a prediction. Jesus might have been instructing His chief Apostle to deny any association with Him in order to ensure continued leadership for the Church after the Crucifixion.1
As Elder Kimball asked his audience, who could doubt Peter’s willingness to stand up and be counted? Think of his boldness in striking off the guard’s ear with his sword when the Savior was arrested in Gethsemane . Elder Kimball didn’t offer this view as the only interpretation, but he said there is enough basis for it that it should be considered. So what is the correct answer-was Peter a coward, or was he so crucial to the survival of the Church that he was prohibited from risking his life? We are not sure. The scriptures don’t give us enough information about Peter’s motivation to clarify the ambiguity.
Consider other examples from the scriptures. The Lord has said that He cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31). Yet elsewhere He has said, “I have forgiven you your sins” (D&C 64:3) and “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). Justice is indeed a divine law, but so is the principle of mercy. At times these two correct principles can seem inconsistent, until the unifying higher doctrine of the Atonement brings them together.
These references illustrate that even though God has given us correct principles by which we may govern ourselves, these very principles may at times be in conflict. Choosing between two principled alternatives (two “goods”) is more difficult than choosing when we see a stark and obvious contrast between good and evil.
We often face competition between true principles, such as when we are trying to fulfill our duties to family, Church, and profession. I remember a young mother who had a large family, a responsible Church calling, and a busy husband. She expressed her bewilderment about trying to decide what should come first in her life and when. Someone advised her, “Well, just be sure you put the Lord’s work first.” Her reply was, “But what if it is all the Lord’s work?”
During our young parenting years, Marie and I were at times perplexed about how to deal with our children in some circumstance that hadn’t been anticipated in anything we had ever heard or read about child-rearing. At times one of us had a clear feeling about what to do, but sometimes we had no idea what approach was best-so we prayed often for help. Once we asked a friend for advice about a vexing question. He wasn’t very helpful when he simply said with great conviction, “Well, just be sure you do the right thing.”
Church and family life are not the only topics where the right answer is not always on the tip of our tongues. To stretch our minds about the implications of uncertainty and differences of opinion among Church members, we have only to ask about the recent war in Iraq . With the hindsight of a few years, do we see that war as a mistake, or was it a heroic act of liberating a nation? Or consider whether we should sell everything except what is truly necessary for our survival and donate our surplus to those with far greater needs than ours. Especially amid the current global economic chaos, we might also ask how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much-or not enough.
The people on the extreme sides of such questions often seem very certain about the right answer. But some people would rather be certain than right.
We might encounter the naturalness of ambiguity in literature. Arthur Henry King, then a literature teacher at Brigham Young University , said that most truly great literary works raise a profound question about a human problem, explore the question skillfully and in depth, and leave the matter for the reader to resolve. He added that if the resolution seems too clear or too easy, the literature is perhaps not very good or those reading it have missed its point.
Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot , for example, seriously raises the question whether it is possible for a true Christian to love unselfishly. The story’s main character is a pure and good Christian who loves two different women in two very different ways. One he loves as most men love women-she cares for him, she helps him, he is attracted to her romantically, and she could make his life very happy. The other woman is a pathetically inadequate, dependent person. He loves her primarily because she needs him so much, and he has a compassionate heart.
Posing the dilemma of which woman the man should marry, Dostoevsky asks whether it is realistically possible to be totally devoted to the unselfish ideals of Christianity. He leaves that huge question unresolved, forcing the reader to ponder it for himself.
Life is full of ambiguities, perhaps because some uncertainty is characteristic of the mortal experience. The mists of darkness in Lehi’s dream are, for that very reason, a strong symbolic representation of life as we face it on this planet (1 Nephi 8:23). Thankfully, many things in mortality are very certain and very clear, as so beautifully represented by the iron rod in Lehi’s dream (v. 19). But enough complexity pricks and pokes at us to make the topic of dealing with uncertainty at least worth discussing.
Given, then, the existence of a gap for most of us between where we stand and where we would like to be, and given that we will have at least some experiences that make us wonder what to do, I suggest three ascending levels of dealing with ambiguity.
At level one, I’ve noticed two typical attitudes. One of them is that we simply do not-perhaps cannot-even see the problems that exist. Some people seem almost consciously to filter out any perception of a gap between the real and the ideal. For them, the gospel at its best is a firm handshake, an enthusiastic greeting, and a smiley button. Their mission was the best, their ward is the best, and every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose and relax. They are able to weather many storms that seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if they have somehow missed hearing that a storm is going on.
A second group at level one has quite a different problem with the gap between what is and what ought to be. This group eliminates the frustrating distance between the real and the ideal by, in effect, erasing the inner circle of reality-and thereby removing the gap. They cling to the ideal so single-mindedly that they just don’t feel the frustration that would come from facing the real facts, perhaps about themselves, about others, or about the world around them. I have sometimes heard from people in this group when reading letters to the editor in the school newspaper at a Church college. They are sometimes quite shocked to discover that some person or some part of the institution has seemed to fall short of perfection.
Those in this group struggle to distinguish between imperfections that matter a great deal and those that may not matter so much. Perhaps Hugh Nibley had them in mind when he spoke of those who find it better to get up at 5:00 a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at 9:00 a.m. to write a good book. While self-discipline is a virtue, Brother Nibley didn’t think the exact hour when we arise is quite as important as what we do once we are up.
I recall listening to a group of Church members who discussed which of the two types of people just described offered the best model for their emulation. They felt they had to choose between being relaxed, carefree, and happy about everything in life and being an intense, uncompromising perfectionist. As I listened, I began to see that both categories suffer from the same limitation. It isn’t much of a choice when we must select between a forced superficial happiness and a frantic concern with apparent perfection.
Both perspectives lack depth; they understand things too quickly, and they draw conclusions from their experience too easily. Neither is well prepared for adversity, and I fear that the first strong wind that comes along will blow them over. I believe this is primarily because their roots have not sunk far enough into the soil of experience to establish a firm foundation. Both also reflect the thinness of a philosophy that is untempered by simple common sense. In both cases, it would be helpful just to be more realistic about the way life is, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that may make us feel a little uncomfortable. That very discomfort can motivate us to lean into the wind and experience some real growth. As President Harold B. Lee occasionally said, the true Church is intended not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.
We should then step up to level two, where we see things for what they are. Only then can we deal with reality in a meaningful and constructive way.
If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the spiritual maturity necessary to reach our ultimate destination. Heber C. Kimball said that the Church has yet to pass through some very close places, and those who are living on “borrowed light”-the testimonies of other people-will not be able to stand when those days come.2
So we need to develop the ability to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives. We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas don’t always come along with little tags attached saying they have been reviewed at Church headquarters. Whether in music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals, conference talks, or courses of instruction. Those who are not open to people or experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program may well live less abundant lives, and make fewer contributions, than the Lord intends.
We must develop enough independence and judgment that we are ready for the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that may come to us. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear. Our encounters with reality and disappointment are actually vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding.