This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
This is how I pick which talk to write about every week: I pick the one I can’t stop thinking about. This means that there are basically two kinds of talks that I write about.
First, I write about my favorites. These are the talks that strike me when I first read them, and that continue to resonate in my mind and heart long after I have reached the end. Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s talk Love of the Right from the April 1971 General Conference is one of those, and I ended up quoting from it in my Sunday School lesson on Sunday. This week, I liked Elder Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk Watch the Switches in Your Life, and especially one line that I took as a great comfort: “the work of the world is not done by intellectual geniuses. It is done by men of ordinary capacity who use their abilities in an extraordinary manner.”1
Second, I write about the talks that confound, puzzle, or even discomfit me. The first are talks I don’t want to leave behind, the second are talks that don’t want to leave me alone. This week, that would definitely be President Harold B. Lee’s concluding address to the priesthood session: Admonitions for the Priesthood of God.
There was an awful lot that I highlighted from this talk. Here’s one part that has been troubling me since I read it. President Lee recounts a question a sister asked “concerning the promise made that if one would keep the Word of Wisdom he should run and not be weary and should walk and not faint.” The sister asked, ““How could that promise be realized if a person were crippled?”
This is the kind of technicality my 7-year old son is always asking me about. It seems that every time I ask him to do something, or give an explanation, or basically say anything at all, he turns into a pint-sized lawyer and finds the exceptional case and then asks me about it (if I’m lucky) or does it (if I’m not lucky).
So sure, the question seems a little pedantic to me. General promises aren’t fulfilled in a perfectly regular, obvious, and transparent way without exceptions. And for good reason. That would turn Heavenly Father into a sort of cosmic vending machine. As with many hardships we face on Earth, the chaos and confusion of this fallen world are features, not a bugs. And yet here was President Lee’s response, “Did you ever doubt the Lord? The Lord said that.”
President Lee then goes on:
The trouble with us today, there are too many of us who put question marks instead of periods after what the Lord says. I want you to think about that. We shouldn’t be concerned about why he said something, or whether or not it can be made so. Just trust the Lord. We don’t try to find the answers or explanations. We shouldn’t try to spend time explaining what the Lord didn’t see fit to explain. We spend useless time.
If you would teach our people to put periods and not question marks after what the Lord has declared, we would say, “It is enough for me to know that is what the Lord said.”
Some of this, I love. The phrase, “too many of us… put question marks instead of periods after what the Lord says” is refreshing and memorable. But the thing is that if you were to boil everything I write about religion down into its distilled essence, you would be left with “try[ing] to find the answers or explanations.” That is, by and large what I do. And it is this which President Lee dismisses as “useless time” spend trying to “[explain] what the Lord didn’t see fit to explain.”
The peril for you, dear reader, is that when I pick talks the way I do, I don’t always know quite how to process them. I’m afraid that if this is a troubling passage for you, as it is for me, we must simply be troubled together.3
In this case, my provisional understanding is that President Lee’s primary point is that we should not let our questions or searches for explanations interfere with our obedience in the meantime. The pattern of faith emphasizes experimentation. If you try to work out all the pros and cons of (for example) following the Word of Wisdom without every trying it for yourself, then the quest for theoretical knowledge will crowd out and replace more valuable experience.
Rationalization? Cherry-picking? Perhaps.
There is no member of the Church who couldn’t benefit from prophetic guidance. We’re all wrong about something. That much is a given. It’s the reason we have prophets in the first place. But I don’t think that rushing precipitously from one view to its opposite is the best approach. The most important doctrines are the one that are repeated most frequently and most plainly, and that is where our attention should be focused.
For lesser issues—such as the precise implementation of the principles President Lee was teaching in this passage—I think the most important thing we can do is allow ourselves to be bothered by what we hear and read. Dismissing it out of hand is obviously folly. But rushing to try to adopt it before we really understand is another, lesser species of folly.
There are lots of quotes about how you should be kind to everyone you meet because everyone is fighting some battle, carrying some burden, wrestling some demon. This is both dramatic and, for the most part, true.
But it’s also true that everyone you meet is walking around with pebbles in their shoes. Little things that don’t make sense. That they haven’t figured out. Little irritants that remind them that they have something to learn, something to change, something to do, but they haven’t figure out just what or how quite yet.
If you have pebbles in your shoes, as I have in mine, that’s OK. Don’t ignore them, because they mean you have something to learn, but don’t obsess over them either, because there are probably bigger concerns.
In time, you will figure many of them out. And when you do, they will be replaced with new pebbles. And that, too, is OK. A kid who graduates from pre-algebra to algebra may feel equally challenged by both subjects, but they’re still progressing. That’s how it is for us a lot of the time, too. We learn and grow, but so do our challenges. It’s OK. Be patient. Trust God. He’s a good teacher.