Not Pertinent to My Eternal Salvation

[ 16 ] Comments

by Brenda

talkA few weeks ago I overheard a comment that has become typical in modern Mormon conversation. It was this: “We shouldn’t worry about answering that question because it’s not important to our eternal salvation.” When the person who made the statement was pressed as to why that was the case, that person pulled out the standard, “We need to stay close to the trunk of the gospel tree and out of the branches,” which pointedly ended the conversation. And while it may not have been the appropriate time to discuss the subject raised, the statements used bothered me.

Every time the “It’s not pertinent to my eternal salvation” dismissal of a question comes up, somewhere deep within I feel a profound frustration, for several reasons.

First of all, the inference is that if a person asks a deep or complex question, he or she is not exercising faith and is teetering on apostasy.  Second, it seems this phrase gets used sometimes by those who don’t know the answer or who aren’t comfortable with what they do know, and are covering that fact up. The third reason reaches back to my teen years.

In the fresh days of my conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ I had myriad questions that went beyond the usual seminary fare. These were serious questions about salvation and Church history, not whether-the-pearly-gates-roll-or-swing subjects. It seemed inconceivable to me that a loving Heavenly Father would expect me to be satisfied with such a trite rejection of my thirst for truth and knowledge.

Invariably as I pestered teachers and others for answers they would pull out the scripture, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” The discussion once again was expected to end. I found myself walking away empty-handed and grumbling. How was I ever to get from milk to meat if no one would feed me some mashed banana so I could work my way up?

From my perspective, the reason these good and faithful people were blocking my quest for answers was rooted in statements from prophets and apostles, like the following from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin:

God has revealed everything necessary for our salvation. We should teach and dwell on the things that have been revealed and avoid delving into so-called mysteries. My counsel to teachers in the Church, whether they instruct in wards and stakes, Church institutions of higher learning, institutes of religion, seminaries, or even as parents in their homes, is to base their teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.

And this from Joseph Smith*:

The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.

On the surface these quotes sound like a call to stick to the questions in the Sunday School manual. Don’t get too far out on the branches or you will fall out of the tree. But upon inspection what both say specifically is to base teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets and use the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God in our study.

climb trees

As you dig into the prolific writings of latter-day prophets and the scriptures it becomes apparent that there is revealed information on almost any question you may have. How we go about finding answers seems to be the crux of the matter. Instead of a call to dismiss anything deep we instead discover the key to finding solutions.

Seek for the answers in the reliable sources that God has provided for searchers of truth and don’t go to just anybody for them. Revelation by the Spirit, the words of prophets, and scripture; that is where you find answers.  Not only do we carefully use the sources God has provided, but we also need to know:

…the things of God are of deep import, and time, and experience, and careful, and solemn, and ponderous thoughts can only find them out.  Thy mind, oh man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation must stretch as high as the utmost heavens and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanses of eternity, thou must commune with God.  How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God than the vain imaginations of the souls of men.

The answers come line upon line and will take time, experience, and serious pondering to work out.  The Lord may give you milk to start but in time you will get your mashed banana and then maybe some string beans. One day you may even enjoy the Salisbury steak.

The most serious problem, as I see it, is that when we give this knee-jerk reaction to complex questions, we set the stage for the very situation we are professing to avoid. When my teenage son runs into a “that’s not pertinent to your salvation” roadblock from a well-intentioned teacher or other member, all he has to do is use his phone to access the internet and ask his question there. In a flash he will receive thousands of half-truths, flat-out lies, and incomplete answers. Without an understanding of where to go and how he should go about answering a demanding question, he is apt to accept one of the easy and inadequate versions out there. This can lead to perfectly logical doubt and eventual apostasy. You see it happen all the time.

Questions are how we learn. When we aren’t asking questions, we aren’t growing, and while it certainly doesn’t matter if the pearly gates swing or roll, most of the questions being asked out there are real and worthwhile. So let’s stop blocking searching souls and instead teach as latter-day prophets have the path to answering those questions. Let’s be honest with young people and others if we don’t understand fully a particular subject, and let’s not pretend we know it all and that they just aren’t ready for the answers. Let’s make sure they know that it takes patience and work and an open mind to move forward with the Spirit.

Questions in the gospel aren’t always easy and even following the pattern we may not have the complete picture in this life, but “time, and experience, and careful, and solemn, and ponderous thoughts” that are nurtured through divinely appointed forms of learning are certainly relevant and will help us move closer to the full truths of eternity. So please, please stop saying “It isn’t pertinent to our salvation.” It is.

  • Are there questions in the Gospel we shouldn’t ask?
  • How do we move past searching for easy answers and think deeply about the Gospel and latter-day history?
  • Are there other attitudes we have in the church that discourage thoughtful consideration of complex subjects?

*(History of the Church, 3:30; from an editorial published in Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44; Joseph Smith was the editor of the periodical. Copied from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith)

About Brenda

Brenda (Truth, Beauty, & BLT’s) is the mother of four tremendous children and wife to a very patient and witty man she lovingly calls “Buns”. She enjoys flying kites, thinking about things that make her brain hurt, and is pretty good with a slingshot. She spends her time searching for truth, beauty, and humor wherever she can find them.

16 Responses to Not Pertinent to My Eternal Salvation

  1. ji says:

    I appreciate the kind tone of your posting.

    What we teach in public and what we ponder deeply in private need not always be the same. These are different spheres, and each can help inform the other, but these are different spheres.

    One of our problems is that we expect all of us to agree on everything — it seems that if you and I disagree on something, then I must be right and you must be wrong — with this mindset, it is best to simply avoid talking about matters where there might be differences of perspective — arguments about those matters certainly are not helpful to anyone’s salvation.

    If we can get past this mindset, we need to realize that anytime I endeavor to explain the HOW or WHY of something in the ways of God, we are invariably going to be wrong — we might be right in the sense that what we’re thinking makes sense to me now, and fits my circumstances now, but we’re wrong in that what we’re thinking now must be absolutely right. Even if the Holy Ghost has given us an impression or teaching, and that teaching is right, it is still wrong in the absolute sense. The Holy Ghost teaches line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little — if I ever take my understanding now as the absolute and final truth, I err — and if I ever use my understanding now as a club to beat my neighbor, so to speak, I err.

    So we’re free to climb the tree — we’re free to go out into the branches of the tree — but when we’re carrying someone else’s baby, we need to stay close to the trunk. And if we do venture out into the branches in our private pondering, we need to take care that our experience in our branches may differ from someone else in his or her branches — both can be right if we differ — and both can be wrong, too.

    When we call others to join us at the tree, we need to call them to the trunk. If we teach others, we need to teach close to the trunk. Expeditions into the branches should be private or in small groups, unofficial, and with frequent reorienting towards the trunk — and with respect to others in their own branches and also with those back at the trunk.

    In the final analysis, it is not the esoterics of our religion that will save us — they can kill us, but they can’t save us — rather, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and charity in the Lord Jesus Christ will save us in the celestial kingdom of our God.

    • Brenda says:

      Really well said. I should have been more clear about teaching others. It was not my intent to encourage others to answer these questions for the folks asking, but to implore them to point the searcher in the right direction by going to the correct sources and giving it personal study, time, and experience. I’ve seen and experienced so much frustration with statements that simply close the door.

      It is so beautiful, as I grow older to see how the experiences of my life allow the reading of even the most simple scripture passage to take on new depth meaning. Conversion and understanding are such a personally tailored transformation that it would be quite impossible for us to understand it the same way as anyone else. I’ve heard it described as viewing the different facets of a diamond and I quite agree.

      I’m grateful to be in such a supportive community here at Real Intent. I learn and grow with every conversation. 🙂

    • Kelsey says:

      I think these are some good thoughts ji. I think we need to be careful though, that when “someone else’s child” or friends, family, ward members, etc. venture into the branches, we don’t call them back to the trunk as if they’re sinning. I like how Brenda highlighted that in these circumstances, we can help teach about a faithful, appropriate way to navigate the branches so we can see through the leaves and receive more light. In these cases we should definitely emphasize that process rather than shutting someone down by calling them back to the trunk (I’m not saying that’s what you were saying, I’m just adding that thought to the conversation and highlighting that part of Brenda’s essay).

      I also think it’s important to respect other people’s processes. If we are coming to different conclusions, we need to be careful not to project our own spiritual guidance onto others, and assume that if they were more righteous, or better understood the trunk, then they would have the same light coming through the branches as we do. Instead, we should respect each other’s experiences and try to find ways that they are compatible, and in harmony with “the trunk” as you say.

  2. Marilyn says:

    I love this. I agree. Thank you.

  3. Kelsey says:

    This post is just so great. Very well written- nice job tackling a tough topic! I’ve spent years thinking about this, and I haven’t ever been able to really write a post about it because I just wasn’t sure how to capture my thoughts. I love everything you had to say, and I think embracing this approach is going to be critical if we want to encourage and maintain activity with academics, critically-minded individuals, and/or the youth in our church. I know so many people who are struggling with this very issue. Thanks for sharing your insights, and so beautifully.

    • Brenda says:

      Thanks Kelsey, I too have been mulling this for a long time and it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on why it bothered me so much. In the comment below Michelle references a recent CES devotional by Pres. Uctdorf that helped me to connect the dots. It is really wonderful.

  4. Michelle says:

    I know I tend toward linking to talks and such but it’s because part of how I wrestle with issues like this is to go to the words of prophets. 🙂

    I love what>Pres. Uchdorf says about asking questions:

    “What about doubts and questions? How do you find out that the gospel is true? Is it all right to have questions about the Church or its doctrine? …[W]e are a question-asking people because we know that inquiry leads to truth…. [N]ot only can the Lord answer the questions we ask but, even more importantly, He can give us answers to questions we should have asked. Let us listen to those answers.

    “The missionary effort of the Church is founded upon honest investigators asking heartfelt questions. Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a precursor of growth.”

    But then I think Pres. Uchtdorf gives some keys to *how* to ask and seek.

    “God commands us to seek answers to our questions (see James 1:5–6) and asks only that we seek “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ” (Moroni 10:4). When we do so, the truth of all things can be manifested to us “by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:5).

    “Fear not; ask questions. Be curious, but doubt not! Always hold fast to faith and to the light you have already received. Because we see imperfectly in mortality, not everything is going to make sense right now. In fact, I should think that if everything did make sense to us, it would be evidence that it had all been made up by a mortal mind. ”

    To me, that is the acid test. If questions are feeding doubts and causing one to deny or question answers already received from heaven, then I think it’s probably time to back away from those questions, at least for a while. I think God can guide us with our seeking and help us know what questions to ask as we look to the fruits of that process for us individually.

    • Brenda says:

      “Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a precursor of growth.” Unfortunately the link provided isn’t working for me but I recognize the quotes from the CES Devotional President Uchdorf gave in January called “What Is Truth”. That incredible talk was one of the main things that really got me thinking about this topic.

      “If questions are feeding doubts and causing one to deny or question answers already received from heaven, then I think it’s probably time to back away from those questions, at least for a while. I think God can guide us with our seeking and help us know what questions to ask.” -Love that comment. Faith, making sure we are keeping the commandments, and being in tune with the correct Spirit have to be our top priorities before we can even begin the search. It seems when I have had questions that led to doubts I needed to re-evaluate my personal diligence in keeping the commandments. Once I had corrected whatever was holding me back (usually my laziness) the lights came back on.

  5. Ray says:

    It’s interesting that most people find and use the quotes that make the most sense to them and fit their personal paradigm the best. Yes, there are quotes that appear to encourage the avoidance of questioning and stress sticking to the basics, but there also are as many, if not more, quotes that stress the importance of asking and searching – and embracing truth no matter its source.

    My favorite analogy is that of a kite. I wrote the following post about it last summer on my personal blog:

    “Being Open-Minded: I Value My Wife-String as Much as My Me-Kite”

    • Brenda says:

      I really like the settler and explorer analogy, I hadn’t thought of the differences in people that way.

      And by the way, I love that you read Louis L’Amour. My grandfather had his entire collection and shared several of them with me as a teen. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  6. Paul says:

    Great post, Brenda! And great comments, too.

    When I have taught youth, I have actively taught them to ask any question they have… I have not always had answers but I’ve tried to help them know whereto look. I have taught (and experienced) that there is an answer to every question, but answers may not come instantly or to everyone at gather same time. As a result what the Lord has revealed to me may be just for me; it may not be necessary for your salvation but it may be for mine.

    • Brenda says:

      Thanks Paul. When we don’t know the answers or it really isn’t the time to discuss, we try to help them know where to look and encourage them to have faith that the answers will come in the Lord’s way and time. 🙂

  7. Ashley Case says:

    My husband and I teach the 16/17 year old Sunday school class in our ward. They teach every third or forth Sunday. My husband teaches out of the manual, and I teach their questions. When we run out, I provide a way for them to anonymously ask more questions. (Everyone gets a slip of paper and everyone has to write something on that slip of paper. We get the “I’m wish I was sleeping” paper or the “Thanks for the lesson” paper sometimes, but mostly we get pertinent questions.)

    Not every question is a need-to-know for entering Heaven, but I teach it anyway because it was obviously important to someone if they wrote it down. It has given me an opportunity to teach things like HOW to ask questions and WHERE and WHEN and TO WHOM, etc. It has been challenging and exciting, and it has expanded my outlook (and hopefully the outlook of my students!)

  8. Liz C says:

    Excellent comments so far!

    I have one under #3: I’ve heard multiple people repeat the idea of “When the prophet speaks, the thinking is over,” and I find that a really unfortunate attitude to take. When the prophet speaks, that’s my cue to START thinking, and study things out, and pray for confirmation and inspiration in how I am to carry out and apply what the prophet has said! There’s a LOT of thinking to be done.

    I wonder if some of the reliance on “Don’t ask that… it’s not really vital, anyway” has to do with a reluctance to admit we just don’t know an answer yet? I’ve never really struggled with a simple, “You know, I don’t know the answer to that,” but I do know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing things, or with questions. (The settler versus the explorer, definitely!)

    Now, I have helped re-direct a discussion back to core concepts with a (hopefully) gentle comment to the effect of that particular thing not being required for salvation, but definitely interesting to contemplate, and one to look forward to getting answered. Acknowledging the curiosity, the conundrum, and the conflict seems to answer a lot by validating the question, even if there is no firm, factual gospel answer right this moment.

    • Ray says:

      Fwiw, the actual, original quote was that when the Prophet has spoken the “debate” is over. That’s very, very different than “thinking”.

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