How to Build Resilient Faith: An Almost Ensign Article

In late 2014, I heard the story of a friend of a friend who had lost faith and left the Church. I wished there was something semi-authoritative I could have pointed to which would have shifted this person’s paradigm in healthier and more robust directions. Yes, there’s lots of material like that… but not directly published by the Church. Frustrated I couldn’t find something, I decided to write it myself, for catharsis. I did a little research, wrote up an article in Ensign style, and passed it around to some academic and Church-employed friends, who encouraged me to submit it.

To my surprise, the article received enthusiastic acceptance, was given a contract number, and set to run some time in 2016… which did not happen. To shorten the story, due to a staff death, falling between the cracks, some turnover, and some changes in direction, my article was not published, but kept in the queue through a dozen revisions. Although the final version even had a staff-added title, italic intro summary, and final “the author lives in…,” the editor told me in early 2019 it wouldn’t be published. He liked it, but couldn’t convince the rest of the staff, and with the Come Follow Me changes, it just didn’t seem to fit.

Regardless, I was very pleased with this piece and how I met its challenges: the balance I struck, nailing the Ensign style, some of the wordsmithing, concision, the inclusion of the daughters of Zelophehad and Chieko Okazaki, etc. It did change over time, adding some good bits, losing others. I still believe it is a good piece, made better through refinement, time, and many eyes. I allude to much, in between the lines.

I post it here in hopes it may be helpful (link to PDF).

NB: the footnote links don’t work, but they are present at the bottom.

How to Build Resilient Faith

While rereading the Book of Mormon, I discovered something surprising: Captain Moroni took time away from constructing important physical defenses in order to prepare “the minds of the people to be faithful” (Alma 48:7). As a volunteer institute teacher, I’m engaged in a spiritual struggle for hearts and minds,[1] so the idea of “preparing minds to be faithful” stuck out to me. I wondered what Moroni had done, so I began looking for principles and prophetic teachings I could use to prepare “the minds of the people to be faithful.”

Since then, I have identified six broadly applicable principles that can help build resilient faith—whether in our students, our children, or ourselves.

1. Study the Scriptures Deeply

We can miss out on scripture’s full potential when we just skim over the surface or only read that which is familiar or easy. Do we read the scriptures or really study—taking notes, looking for patterns, asking questions, researching contexts, and so on?

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland warned of the dangers of shallowness:

“When crises come in our lives—and they will—the philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won’t do. Are we really nurturing our youth and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories?”[2]

Perhaps one irony of serious scripture study is that sometimes in order to understand scripture, we must turn to resources other than scripture; certain kinds of knowledge are not accessible to us from scripture alone. For example, in spite of his prophetic gifts, Joseph Smith had to gain his knowledge of Hebrew through study, like anyone else. Even General Authorities consult experts on various topics. President M. Russell Ballard recently explained how his apostolic

“calling and life experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in a specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions: I seek help from others, including those with degrees and expertise in such fields.”[3]

Like the eunuch trying to read Isaiah (see Acts 8:26), “we oftentimes need an inspired interpreter to help us understand.”[4] I frequently draw on non-Latter-day Saint scholarship, including multiple Bible translations[5]— not for doctrine but for scriptural connections, patterns, history, and contexts. President Dallin H. Oaks cautiously approved of such study:

“Latter-day Saints know that learned … commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but … they must be used with caution. Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food.”

President Oaks went on to define “commentaries” as anything interpreting scripture, including Church manuals and articles, even the very Ensign article in which he made this point.[6]

The Church has added study tools to the scriptures—such as chapter headings, Guide to the Scriptures, the Bible Dictionary, footnotes, and so on—as contextual tools. President Ballard recently taught that we “need to be blessed by learning doctrinal and historical content and context.”[7] We should remember that although these contextual tools are printed with scripture, they are not themselves scripture, and so should not be understood either as revelation or as “[determining] doctrine. There have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them.”[8]

2. “Read. Read. Read.”

Captain Moroni said we must “make use of the means the Lord has provided” (Alma 60:21). I liken Moroni’s statement to us today by connecting it with those “means” of the heart and mind that God has already provided and commanded us to use—namely, books. “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). “Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:15). And “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man,” which knowledge is not merely for intellectual curiosity but “for the salvation of Zion”! (Doctrine and Covenants 93:53).[9]

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) counseled even college graduates not to think,

“‘Now all of that is behind me.’ No, there is much more ahead…. Drink deeply from this ever-springing well of wisdom and human experience. If you should stop now, you will only stunt your intellectual and spiritual growth…. Read. Read. Read. Read the word of God in sacred books of scripture. Read from the great literature of the ages.”[10]

And again from President Hinckley,

read constantly the scriptures and other books related directly to the history, the doctrine, and the practices of the Church. But we ought also to be reading secular history, the great literature that has survived the ages, and the writings of contemporary thinkers and doers.

Satan seeks to blind our minds,[11] but reading broadly and deeply helps remove those blinders and builds knowledge and mature faith.

3. Learn to Discern

While teaching at Brigham Young University, I became aware of a directive to the Religious Education Department:

“Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to ‘gray’ areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church.”[12]

Struck by the responsibility and trust placed on me in modeling discernment of these gray areas for my students, I identified biological evolution as one example. “Nothing has been revealed concerning evolution,” and the Church currently has “no official position,” but Church-owned schools have taught it for at least 50 years.[13] Similarly, “Did dinosaurs live and die on this earth long before man came along? There have been no revelations on this question, and the scientific evidence says yes.” Like evolution, “you can learn more about it by studying paleontology if you like, even at Church-owned schools.”[14]

Learning to research and reason through the gray and unrevealed is an important aspect of developing a faithful mind and resilient testimony. It also forms part of the revelatory process, as “good inspiration is based upon good information.”[15] Elder Bruce C. Hafen taught:

“We need to develop the capacity 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 to them saying whether they have been reviewed at Church headquarters. Whether in the form of 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 or courses of instruction. Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle 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.”[16]

4. Develop Intellectual Humility

With the dangers of shallow study come the dangers of shallow certainty. [I was really pleased with that line.] Laman and Lemuel illustrate this problem. They said, “We know that [Nephi] lies unto us” (1 Nephi 16:38; emphasis added). “We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment. … And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people” (1 Nephi 17:19, 22; emphasis added).

BYU professor Dil Parkinson uses their misplaced “knowing” as a cautionary tale:

“Look how many times they used the word know, how sure they were of what they had figured out. Are we ever as wrong about what we know and what we are sure we have figured out as Laman and Lemuel were?” [17]

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf similarly asked,

“How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”[18]

After learning this lesson multiple times myself, I have taught my students that we cannot think ourselves well-versed in Church doctrine, history, and scripture simply by attending church or seminary, growing up in the Church, or even serving a mission. [See my story here, teaching about the seer stone to RMs at BYU] While surely these are helpful and good beginnings, Elder Marion D. Hanks (1921–2011) forcefully taught that self-motivated, independent effort is required:

“No one knows anything about Christ’s work simply by being born a member of the Church, and often he knows little about it after years of unmotivated exposure in meetings or classes. He must learn. And learning involves self-investment and effort.”[19]

As we make efforts to increase our gospel knowledge, we may also come to realize that some things are different or more complicated than we thought. President Hugh B. Brown (1883–1975) once observed that “God desires that we learn and continue to learn, but this involves some unlearning.”[20] We need enough self-awareness to realize when our gospel understanding is limited or has been passively inherited from tradition.

President Brown acknowledged how little we know:

“We have been blessed with much knowledge and revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers– that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.”[21]

5. Develop Your Curiosity and Question-Asking Skills

We dispel ignorance through asking questions and seeking answers. Elder Uchtdorf taught that

“we are a question-asking people, because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is the way the Church got its start—from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question.”[22]

Examples abound: Nephi sought to see what Lehi saw (see 1 Nephi 11), Moses sought revelation prompted by a question from the daughters of Zelophehad (see Numbers 27), and many modern revelations resulted from Joseph Smith’s questions. For example, “The Vision” of D&C 76 came after inquiring about John 5.

Learning to ask questions is both a key to revelation and an important study skill because we rarely obtain answers to unasked questions. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught his son that “revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch.”[23] Paraphrasing Captain Moroni’s words in Alma 60:11, do we think God will simply reveal everything to us while we do not make use of those means he has already provided?[24] When the heavens seem closed, we can often make good progress by investigating questions with those earthly means available, such as studying, reading books, and seeking out experts. The Gospel Topics essays represent this approach.[25]

Although questions lead to progress, Sister Chieko Okazaki observed that sometimes

“we don’t create a very hospitable climate for questions in our Sunday School classes, Relief Societies, and priesthood quorums … [and so people] suppress the perfectly wonderful questions they have, because they’re afraid the questions may sound accusatory or faithless.”[26]

I have consciously tried to make my classroom feel open to questions, even when my answer might be “I don’t know, and it’s complicated.” On that issue, President Ballard declared that

“gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”[27]

6. Hold to the Rod of Iron and Follow the Liahona

It is far easier to place our trust in the absolute certainty of an undeviating Iron Rod, than in a Liahona that guides only a little at a time before turning unexpectedly in a new direction. However, the Liahona was the daily reality of the Nephites’ journey, while the predictably straight Iron Rod existed only in the inspired dream-state of Lehi and Nephi (see 1 Nephi 16:10, 29). We must hold fast to what has actually been revealed through God’s prophets, while also anticipating revelation pointing in new and perhaps unanticipated directions. A Church founded on continuing revelation, “line upon line” (2 Nephi 28:30), and the principle that “God will yet reveal many great and important things” (Ninth Article of Faith) is a living Church that changes, adapts, and grows. Perhaps this accounts for the phrase in Doctrine and Covenants 1:30, “the only true and living Church” (emphasis added).

Following these six principles will, I believe, build faithful minds and enable us to more fully enjoy the blessings of Christ’s gospel.

Notes

[1] See Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Matthew 22:37-39; Doctrine and Covenants 64:34.

[2] Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Teacher Come from God,” Ensign, May 1998, .

[3] M. Russell Ballard, “Questions and Answers,” BYU Devotional, Nov. 14, 2017.

[4] “Guidelines to Gospel Study,” Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 229

[5] Apostles have cited other translations in general conference and Church magazines.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign, Jan. 1995, 7.

[7] M. Russell Ballard, “By Study and By Faith,” Ensign, Dec. 2016, ; emphasis added.

[8] See Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989): 289-290

[9] See also Doctrine and Covenants 88:79.

[10] Gordon B. Hinckley, BYU Commencement address, Apr. 27, 1995; see also President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s comments on libraries and books in “Two Principles for Any Economy,” Ensign, Nov. 2009, .

[11] See also 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Nephi 8:23; 15:24.

[12] “Questions and Policies,” religion.byu.edu.

[13] “What does the Church believe about Evolution?” New Era, Oct. 2016, ; see also Doctrine and Covenants 101:32–33.

[14] “What does the Church believe about Dinosaurs?” New Era, Feb. 2016, .

[15] See Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–8. President Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives” Ensign, May 2018.

[16] Bruce Hafen, “On Dealing with Uncertainty,” Ensign, July 1979, .

[17] Dil Parkinson, “We Have Received and We Need No More,” BYU Devotional Mar. 2, 2004.

[18] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Acting on the Truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Feb. 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training address.

[19] Marion D. Hanks, “Theological Illiterates,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1969, 42.

[20] Hugh B. Brown, quoted in James E. Faust in “Finding The Abundant Life,” Ensign, July 2000, page.

[21] Hugh B. Brown, “An Eternal Quest” BYU Devotional, May 13, 1969.

[22] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Reflection in the Water,” CES Fireside, Nov. 1 2009.

[23] Spencer W. Kimball, in Edward W. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (2005), 216.

[24] See also Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–8.

[25] A list of more online resources for gospel study are found here: “Gospel Topics, Essays, and Other Resources,” lds.org/si/objective/doctrinal-mastery/gospel-sources.

[26] Chieko Okazaki, Disciples (1998), 229–30.

[27] M. Russell Ballard, “By Study and By Faith,” Ensign, Dec. 2016, .

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11 thoughts on “How to Build Resilient Faith: An Almost Ensign Article

  1. Oh, that was hard to get through. You captured the Ensign writing style too well; dull, tiresome, and pretentious. Nevertheless, it does a good job of promoting personal responsibility and independent effort using resources that most members might consider “unfaithful.” Until such practices become the norm, I will remain a heretic.

    Like

  2. Many thanks for this clear and well reasoned article. The references helped to anchor the points being made and will be useful when trying to make these same points in a formal church setting.

    Like

  3. I agree that an approach to learning as outlined here will help to build in people a more resilient and a more confident and a more independently chosen and established faith.

    I have often thought to myself that God is unlikely to fill an information void for us, so I resonate with the statement that “we rarely obtain answers to unasked questions.” I believe that we make progress, individually and institutionally, when we’re willing to face the discomforts and uncertainties associated with permitting ourselves to ask the questions that scare us for where they might lead and what we might learn. Face them, study, learn, and I suspect they’ll lead to much better places than feared.

    Like you, Ben, I like the line “With the dangers of shallow study come the dangers of shallow certainty.” Culturally we value declarations of absolutes and certainties more than the process of discovery. Are we more comfortable when someone says “I know” something about a spiritual principal, and are we less comfortable when someone acknowledges that the discovery to knowledge involves some questioning, examining and even doubting? We’d rather skip the discomfort of the the discovery stage to arrive at the comfortable assurance of certainty. But that doesn’t build personalized, understood, discovered or chosen faith. That doesn’t encourage questioning, discovery or creativity. It doesn’t encourage critical thinking or risk taking in study and examination.

    Culturally, do we overemphasize feeling and emotion as a means of learning at the expense of study?

    I like the idea I heard expressed recently that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. Doubt is necessary for faith. You have to have (acknowledge) doubt to make a choice to believe.

    Thanks for your efforts that are hopefully helping church members such as myself to make a cultural shift in how, when and where we apply absolutes in our beliefs, and when those absolutes might be misplaced, misunderstood, uninformed or inappropriate.

    Like

  4. I confess that I had never given much thought to “Ensign style” writing until I observed your dramatic shift in style for this piece. I think you nailed it, clear down to the 18:1 ratio of male to female quotations…the one female quotation being optional, of course.

    Like

  5. Ben
    I often find value in your posts. This one brought out a lot of questions.:
    What about when a person does all these things and arrives at a different conclusion? What about when someone has reason to stop believing in god?
    Can we accept that there are multiple ways to understand the world?
    Can we truly respect other viewpoints?
    Do we actually practice Article of Faith 11?
    How do we respond when the above questions pertain to a close family member?
    Are we always right?

    Like

  6. Hope you don’t mind, but I basically stole this whole article and translated it into Norwegian for my talk in church this past Sunday. With a full acknowledgement up front to the congregation I was Skyping into that it was from you and with a few minor adjustments to reflect my delivering it. Various church members in Norway have been passing the link around on church Facebook pages, so I thought members in places like ours in the far north of the country where we are spread out and have to video conference-connect a very small number of members each Sunday would enjoy hearing it in their own language. The Ensign (Liahona) style made it very digestible including to a member of the mission presidency who said he really enjoyed it and thought it was an important message.

    Also, Díl was my Arabic professor years ago and any chance to highlight him is always appreciated. I’ve never known someone who blends humor, cynicism, and faithfulness in such a deep and entertaining way. He’d probably wanna slap me for saying that 🙂

    Like

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