By Thomas B. Griffith
For the past year, I have been involved in a project that brings together believing LDS scholars and those whose faith in the Restoration is wavering. The Temple and Observatory Group, whose name reflects the complementary means of approaching truth provided by faith and reason, has sponsored small-group gatherings where those with questions can discuss their concerns with faithful scholars like Richard L. and Claudia L. Bushman, Terryl L. and Fiona Givens, and others.1 As more of an observer than a participant in these gatherings, I have detected a commonality among many of those whose faith has been shaken. Somewhere along the way, they adopted the view—and it became part of the foundation of their faith in the Restoration—that Church leaders are infallible in their teaching and administration and near perfect in their discipleship. Of course, the problem with such a view is that it is simply not true. The most cursory study of Church history shows that the Lord has always used mere mortals to carry out His work, and mortals make mistakes (as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf,2 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland,3 and Elder D. Todd Christofferson4 have each stressed in recent general conference addresses).
In our spring issue, I tried to make the case that holding to the values of the U.S. Constitution calls for a close reading of its text: the type of reading learned in the study of the humanities.5 That skill is also vital to discipleship, especially in a time coming to be known as the Secular Age.6 A close reading of the scriptures confirms that the Lord works through imperfect people and also puts us on notice to avoid the trap of resting our faith solely on them. For example, the first commandment the Lord directed to the restored Church, given on the day the Church was organized, is familiar to Latter-day Saints: “Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all [the prophet’s] words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth” (D&C 21:4–5). We have been effective in teaching this fundamental command, which is simply stated in the words of the popular Primary song “Follow the Prophet.”
But there is more to what the Lord said. A close read of the revelation shows that the concluding clause to the Lord’s command to follow the prophet contains a cautionary note that to do so takes “all patience and faith” (D&C 21:5). Why would the Lord counsel us that it takes “all patience and faith” to follow a leader He has called? Perhaps because He knows that it is hard to hear His perfect voice through an imperfect human. “All patience and faith” is a mark of the spiritual maturity needed to see past leaders’ shortcomings and find in their words the Lord’s direction for us. Yet frequently we teach lessons about following the prophet without including this part of the revelation. But how the Lord works with and through His leaders—and us—is rarely as simple and never as tidy as we may want it to be: His pattern is to use “the weak things of the earth” (D&C 124:1).
It is natural to want an easy path to belief, to yearn for the certitude that would come were the Lord to speak to us through perfect leaders. But offering an easy path has never been the Lord’s way. Seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) is the nature of our human condition for a reason. BYU humanities professor George B. Handley put it this way: “The real challenge is . . . to hear transcendent truth expressed through a human. . . . I am much more interested in learning how God works through frail, weak, particularized human agents, through the limitations of their time, place, language, and understanding. That is the miracle of revelation. . . . It is challenging and fulfilling work to see and even love the human and weak vessels through whom inspiration comes.”7 It takes patience and faith to develop the attributes mortality is intended to provide. Patience and faith take hard work, but as former Young Women general president Susan W. Tanner taught us so well, we can do hard things.8
Thomas B. Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He previously served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel for the U.S. Senate.
1. M. Sue Bergin’s excellent article in the spring 2014 BYU Magazine, “Keeping the Faith?” (pp. 22–23), describes positive ways to approach honest and sincere doubt. The Givenses’ recently published book The Crucible of Doubt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014) is an extraordinary discussion of the role of doubt in the life of a believer.
2. “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013.
3. “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013.
4. “ The Doctrine of Christ,” Ensign, May 2012.
5. “A Close Read,” Humanities, Spring 2014, p. 23.
6. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 2007).
7. “Balancing Intellect and Faith,” Home Waters (blog), June 6, 2013, patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/06/balancing-intellect-and-faith
8. See “For the Strength of You,” Ensign, October 2007.