Questions? You’ve got questions??

[ 3 ] Comments

by Paul

A number of years ago when I taught a stake institute class, I began each week by soliciting written gospel questions from class members. I would select a few for discussion in the class. Some we’d tackle right away and others I took away to do a little research (and, truth be told, I ignored a few).

My mantra was this: You can ask any question you have about the church and about the gospel. There is an answer to every question, but those answers may not always come easily. It gave us a chance to talk about how to approach gospel questions and where to look for answers.

Consider these two examples from the New Testament:

When he learned from Gabriel that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son who was to be named John, “Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” (The NIV renders the question, “How can I be sure of this?”)

So, Zacharias is serving in the temple and an angel appears. I assume an angelic appearance was unusual, since when he saw the angel, Zacharias was afraid.

And yet, given an appearance by an angel who identifies himself as Gabriel, who tells Zacharias not only of the coming of John, but also of his mission, Zacharias’ first response is, How can I be so sure you’re telling me the truth?

We know what happens next: Zacharias is struck dumb until John is born and named.

Now, let’s consider Mary. Gabriel also appears to her, after she is engaged to Joseph but before they are married. Gabriel utters those famous words, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”

Mary says nothing, but apparently her state of mind is known to Gabriel (and later to Luke who records it). Her mind is troubled and she’s trying to sort out what she’s heard, so Gabriel says, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God,” and then he tells her about the coming of Jesus.

Mary then asks a question: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”  Gabriel does not strike her dumb, but instead answers her question and tells her that the Holy Ghost will overshadow her. He also tells her about her cousin Elisabeth who has also conceived: with God nothing is impossible.

Why did Zacharias get punished for his question and Mary was blessed for hers?

The text only gives us small clues. First, I assume that Gabriel was not arbitrary in his responses. I do not believe he simply liked Mary more than he liked Zacharias, but I think he took issue with Zacharias’ response and clearly he did not have the same issue with Mary’s.  Why?

Zacharias, an experienced priest, had a miraculous appearance of an angel in the temple, and the question he asked was, “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”  Yes, there were some mitigating circumstances, but it’s hard for me to read his question without thinking of it as a challenge, as if to say, “I know better than you; my wife and I are old and we know this can’t happen!”

Mary, on the other hand, is a young girl without a great deal of experience.  She also asks for clarification because she does not understand, but she is not challenging the veracity of what Gabriel tells her. She simply wants to know more. He had already perceived her concern before she asked the question. And when she asked, she didn’t say, “Prove it,” but rather she asked how it would happen because she was still a virgin.

For me the clincher in understanding Mary’s frame of mind (or frame of heart, if you will) is in these lovely words from verse 38: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Mary was ready to be submissive to her Father in Heaven’s will. She was willing to serve as she was called.

King Benjamin teaches that the natural man is an enemy to God. That natural man thinks he knows what’s what. He is sure of himself.  But God is looking for us to overcome the natural man, to be meek and submissive to His will as a child is submissive to his parent. To overcome the natural man, we must be humble enough to receive the answer.

I think about those two models when I ask questions. Often my first questions are more like Zacharias’ questions: “No way! Are you nuts? That’s not the way I see it!” And I may even set out to prove why I’m right.  In my better moments, my questions are more like Mary’s: “Tell me more. I’d like to understand, but I’m willing to do what You want me to do.”

  • How about you? How do you frame your questions?  
  • When you find you are more Zacharias and less Mary, how do you move to Mary’s side of the table?
Biblical images:

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

3 Responses to Questions? You’ve got questions??

  1. Whitney Brown says:

    I really enjoyed this post today. I find myself asking the same types of questions while we go through the process and appointments involved with infertility. Our doctor has said IVF is the only way, but we have been to the temple and feel we are getting different answers. I only want to understand why or how this is to be and some days yes I do challenge the how or why. Thank you for this topic.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I’ve thought about this quite a bit, especially lately as I’ve considered the type of discourse between us that brings either growth or something else. When I wrote, I concluded that there is pride or not in our questioning, very simply. Nothing of worth is accomplished when we have a vision of the way things should be and wish to push that on others, sure that those in authority aren’t seeing the full big picture and need our help to enlarge their perspective. Enjoyed reading about how Gabriel’s visits to Mary and Zacharias compare and contrast nicely. As for how I frame my questions, I’m more likely to ask for further light. It tends to bring quieter insights.

  3. Paul says:

    Whitney, thanks for reading and sharing your personal perspective. It can be particularly challenging when we struggle to learn why. All the best to you.
    Bonnie, you raise an excellent point about how this same attitude influences discussions among people, not just our conversations with God.

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