On Resilience, Vulnerability, and Trusting Joseph

In a world of social media and internet misinformation, how do you maintain faith?

A few thoughts came to mind this week that I felt were poignant and worth sharing in the hopes that they may aid others. Speaking from my own experience, of course:

From a Young Age

Most of my exposure to challenges of faith came at a very young age. In 7th grade, several of my friends, whose parents were heavily involved in criticism of the LDS church, became aware of my religion. Their parents would then make comments to them, which in turn I felt the need to answer when they would ask me. At age 12, I found myself wrestling with questions like the LDS doctrinal conception of the Godhead, the nature of eternal families, and the translation and historicity of the Book of Mormon. I was forced to ask myself if what I was reading was what I really believed, and if I knew it was true. I stretched myself for better answers to their questions and my own, and my obsessive personality would not stop until I had those answers to my satisfaction. That was true not only for my friends’ questions, but for the questions I would overhear my older siblings being asked. I was attempting to find answers to questions posed to far more experienced people than I was.

I was also young enough to trust that God knew better than I did, and that he would give me the answers I sought in due time. Being young means there is still a semblance of inherent goodness that can’t be taken away by the slyness of pride in your own intellectual abilities. By the time I was old enough to be prideful enough to think that I knew better than the Spirit, there were very few things that appeared to be new or novel challenges.

Openness to Questions at Home

It helped immensely that I had parents who would not only engage with me on these hard subjects, but who had learned and challenged themselves to be able to give me honest answers and to direct me to where I could find my own. My dad was a convert, and always shared with us his insights. My mom would focus on study and the power of personal revelation to confirm the doctrines taught in scriptures and by modern prophets. It would have been far harder to be spiritually resilient had I not had them to teach me 1) what the right questions are, and 2) how to ask them. There is a right and wrong way to go about checking the understanding of your faith. There was enough openness at home that I could trudge through that messy process with the support of my parents and older siblings.

There is Always More to the Story

Part of being open means understanding that within every question is an implied desired answer. When someone asks a question about religion, it’s often that they are actually looking for the answer to a different question. It’s always important to remember that with every piece of information and every question, there is always more to the story than the questioner or the presenter of critical information is acknowledging.

Case in point: people often criticize Joseph Smith for utilizing a ‘seer stone’ in a hat to aid him in the translation process for the Book of Mormon, saying the entire thing is outlandish.

Coming from anyone of religious faith (let’s take any Christian church as an example), being so critical of such a method seems… well… hypocritical.

What medical purpose does Jesus having placed clay on the eyes of a blind man before healing him actually answer? Do any of us think Jesus was limited to using physical elements in order to heal, or that he used “magic mud?” It was designed as an instrument to produce faith. The cleansing of Naaman in the Old Testament was accomplished by washing in the Jordan seven times. Did Elisha think the Jordan in particular had curative properties? The point was to develop and demonstrate the gift and power of God, which according to Joseph Smith, were the real instruments used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Such a thought should be approached with respect. That’s all most Mormons want in a conversation.

Let’s take a secular look. Anyone can poke fun at a claim like Joseph’s on the surface. And yet let us consider what this actually means. Were there no actual revelation or divine action, then Joseph Smith dictated what is now 500+ English pages of a manuscript within the period of three months–with his eyes darkened by a hat, having no room to place an existing manuscript in the hat and no light by which to read it–straight through, beginning to end, completely from memory, having little formal education and in the clutches of poverty. If nothing else, that makes Joseph Smith worthy of serious respect for that accomplishment alone–an accomplishment that cannot be glibly tossed aside because his “process” doesn’t seem orthodox.

There is always more to the story. Answers will come. Peaceable answers will come. There are answers. It may require giving up our own pride or presentism, but they do come.

The Place for Faith and Trust

If there is one concept that has always been a part of Christianity (and of any worldview), it is that of faith. That is action and belief in the face of uncertainty.

As I’ve pointed out, faith is as much a part of a secular worldview as it is a religious one. Any time we attempt a scientific measure, we are exercising faith as we pursue an answer where there is not 100% certainty (which is really the basis of science).

Christ was very clear that it is by “grace through faith” that we are saved. In order for faith to exist, by definition, there must be some probability that some idea is false, which is only allowed in uncertainty. The evidence never does compel us (i.e. make it impossible to believe the opposite) one way or another, or else it wouldn’t be faith. If 100% of the evidence pointed to Joseph Smith as a prophet, then there would be no use having faith in Christ having used him to accomplish something. Being intellectually compelled morally is no different than being physically or politically compelled to do something, and even God does not compel us.

God gives uncertainty by design.

It is worth remembering that in the example of Joseph Smith, even the people who knew him best were divided about his character. Some of his closest friends like W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery, at one point, turned on him, and then returned to being close to him. Compare the experience of his brother, Hyrum, who was ever close and faithful to everything Joseph asked of him (including accompanying him in death), to that of William Law, a close associate whose actions led to the murder of Joseph Smith at the hands of an angry mob.

Now if people who knew him so well–who saw him in his capacity as a husband, brother, father, and prophet–relied despite uncertainty upon faith in his experiences and integrity and also were deeply divided on his character and motivations, how could we possibly have room to say that we know his motivations nearly 200 years later?

Imagine you get to know someone who becomes a good friend. You don’t know everything about them, and sometimes you may argue because you aren’t in a good mood or don’t want to hear what they have to say. Now one day they make the effort to introduce you to someone that changes your life and becomes your spouse. You are forever changed because of your friendship, and they become an interested party in the success of your marriage.

Joseph Smith is that friend to me. He introduces me in the greatest way to the best friend I have ever had-Jesus Christ. That relationship stands above all others. It has left me indebted to Joseph for the effort he exerted to make that introduction. When rumors soak the air, that relationship with Jesus allows me to give Joseph the benefit of the doubt, and it has always left me with peace and trust in his honesty because of the fruits that my connection to Christ has brought.

There are things we just don’t know. It is within that space that we grow. We have to learn to be okay with that. In that space is where we develop trust. Just as no one enters a relationship knowing perfectly all the ins and outs of their friends’ or loved ones’ thoughts or see perfectly that they will never harm us, so too it is that we cannot know perfectly of every action Joseph took or why. We learn to trust our friends by having experiences with them, taking their advice, and seeing that advice pan out.

If every time we could imagine a supposed betrayal we confronted them or began frantically moving through their personal information to find evidence of a betrayal, trust would die, as would the relationship.

In the end, I trust Joseph. I trust in his honesty. I trust in his purity of heart. I trust in his testimony and in his experience. I trust in God and in Christ to have supported Joseph when Joseph says, “I would like you to meet a very dear friend of mine…” Doing so has changed my life and reaped the goodness that has defined my years on this earth. That makes me vulnerable to criticism.

And I’m okay with that.

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