By Andy Proctor
As a missionary, you’ll encounter thousands of questions and doubts from the people you serve. Many of these questions will be things you may have never considered. How can you best prepare for these questions? If you are the parent or friend of a preparing missionary, how can you help your missionary prepare for the hard questions? Here are four ways to prepare that have helped me as I have considered the most difficult questions about the Church.
1. Don’t be afraid of inoculation in an environment of love and openness
Remember what Dante said: “the arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” This is true when it comes to missions as well. If you see what is coming, you’ll be more prepared, even if you don’t know the answer. At least you have heard the question before and it doesn’t come as a surprise to you.
The controversial questions that pop up during your mission will likely be determined by where you end up serving, but it’s good to be familiar with the most common ones because the Internet has globalized almost every country in which you could serve. The time to prepare to answer these questions is before you leave on your mission.
A great list of the most common questions that may arise is found in the Gospel Topics Essays produced by the Church under the direction of the first presidency. Don’t be afraid to read and become familiar with them.
Another great resource is a new book compiled by Laura Harris Hales, in which gospel scholars address the honest questions that many have wanted to ask. A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History is a collection of short essays on 17 controversial topics ranging from Joseph Smith and his years as a money digger to his practice of polygamy to homosexuality and the gospel to the relationship between religion and science.
One day Sister Hales was sightseeing in a metropolitan city in Europe. As part of her travels, she toured the temple site. While there she was approached by the Assistants to the President for the mission. When they found out that she and her husband write and speak about the past practice of polygamy in the Church, one of the missionaries asked: “Is it true that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy?” He followed, “It doesn’t affect my faith. I am just curious.”
Never worry about asking too many questions. Serious inquiry doesn’t need to be viewed as an expression of doubt. We need to destigmatize the questioning process and instead capitalize on its ability to lead us to a place where we can increase in learning. After all, wasn’t it a question that sent Joseph Smith, a world-class seeker, to a grove of trees almost two hundred years ago? Make studying these topics part of your preparation for your mission and share what you learn with your family.
2. Understand how to recognize authoritative sources
Something else that is really important is to learn how you can recognize what is an authoritative source and what is not. To do this, it is good to have a few questions by which you can filter the things you learn.
Here are a few examples of great questions you can use:
- What are the credentials of the author?
- When was it written?
- In what cultural/historical/social context was it written?
- Has this article or book been peer reviewed?
- What were the motivations of the author in writing it?
- Have you asked God to help you understand it?
- Have you asked God if this is a good source?
If you find something that creates doubt, run the authority of it through the questions above before you accept it. Be careful what you accept as truth. Form a mental gatekeeper of truth for yourself before you let things in. Ask God for help with this. Seek to develop the gift of discernment. This will help you as you filter teachings from outside and yes even inside the Church. As Elder Christofferson has said: “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.”[1. From The Doctrine of Christ, CR April 2012] And the second prophet of this dispensation, President Brigham Young, even said:
“I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves…I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of the leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God.”[2. From The Crucible of Doubt, p. 63 ]
Just as important as it is to do this with our own leaders, it is equally important to know for ourselves concerning contradictory teachings coming from outside the Church.
3. Be okay with uncertainty
If you grow up in the culture of the Church, you have probably heard these phrases: “I know with every fiber of my being” or “I know without a shadow of a doubt.” There very well may be those who know with this kind of certainty. If you do, I commend you. However, these kinds of phrases might make those who may not have that kind of certainty feel sheepish when talking about what they do and don’t know. This is where I would suggest that we become more comfortable with uncertainty. It is okay to say “I don’t know.” Indeed there are many who may say: “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet” or “I know that the Book of Mormon is true” because they have simply heard this phrase repeated thousands of times over the years at the pulpit and they don’t actually know this. But to say “I don’t know” would be socially awkward in the Church culture. I think this needs to change. Not to encourage people to doubt what is true or good, but to encourage every single member to seek truth independent of anyone else.
There are some things that we will never know until after this life. (D&C 101:32-34) And some of us are followed by these of “shadows of doubt” all our lives. The scriptures speak of saints of great faith who never received the promise in this life (Hebrews 11:39). To be human is to desire closure and certainty, but mortality implies uncertainty. That is okay. As a missionary, you can still have questions. You don’t have to be perfect to lead others to Christ.
We cannot know all things that we need to know before serving, and that’s okay. It’s okay to not know. And it’s okay to be wrong sometimes. Be open to correction. We are all constantly growing in spiritual maturity. As a missionary of the Church, I felt like I was supposed to be right all the time, but the most powerful teaching opportunities I experienced were the ones where those who I taught experienced my authentic humanity and imperfection. Then they could relate to my authenticity and love. They could not relate to flawless knowledge and unbreakable intellect. I believe righteous missionaries who love authentically will bring more people to the message of the gospel than missionaries who are always right.
4. Don’t abandon the truth you have found
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really is beautiful. Don’t abandon the truth you do have because of things you do not understand.
You have likely had an experience where you connected to something greater than yourself and saw further than human eyes could see. Maybe you were lifted and given strength beyond your own. Maybe you have experienced a miracle that you cannot explain. Maybe you have had pure intelligence flowing into your mind that was not there before. Perhaps you have or will experience the gift of tongues. These are all very real. Don’t throw out these experiences because of doubts, concerns or uncertainty. Keep them safe. Don’t cast them away. Let them strengthen you as you find your way and seek further light and knowledge. Start with the light of faith as you step into uncertainty.