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Bonus Chapter 7

Gaining Light through Questioning

See for a recording of the original discourse.


Brigham Young University–Idaho Center Auditorium, Rexburg, Idaho

July 1, 2014

Julie Barrott Willis (b. 1957) has been passionate about the earth since childhood. On adventures with her dad, while he hunted for birds, she would draw sketches of the road cuts and trails they traversed. She was always thinking about the earth and how it was formed. She was also enthralled by the Teton Mountains, which she could see at a distance while growing up in Idaho.1 When she was a missionary in New Zealand, her companions convinced her to change her major from geology to something that ostensibly would help more people. She thought she might study social work. But she had a pivotal moment on the plane ride home. As she regarded the landscape of the western United States through her window, she again felt her love for the earth and knew that she was a geologist.2

As a child, Willis asked questions. She had to be patient and diligent to find answers, searching books and talking with the people around her. She suspects she was not different from other inquisitive children, but she wonders whether her parents were different from other parents. “They helped me know that asking questions is good—it is how we progress and learn.” She learned that asking questions does not always mean doubt or controversy and that questions have answers.3 As a scientist she has learned the value of questions that a quick internet search cannot answer.

One Saturday during Willis’s first year of high school, she stayed home alone to catch up on homework. As one of ten children, the solitude felt unfamiliar and memorable. She began with seminary homework. Weeks behind, she read from the beginning of the book of Matthew to the end of John. She reports that when she finished reading that day, she had the “taproot” of her testimony: “a firm conviction of the Savior’s life, miracles, and love” that stays with her during times of “doubt, frustration, and controversy.”4

Willis married fellow geologist Grant Curtis Willis in 1984 and completed a master’s degree at Brigham Young University in 1985.5 In 2003, she began a PhD program at the University of Utah, feeling it was time to earn the geology PhD she had postponed to be home while her three children were young.6 After accepting a job at BYU–Idaho in 2008,7 Willis found her questions growing to include how better to teach and mentor students. She teaches them to take ownership of their research questions so they can become adept and independent scholars.8

Willis gave this talk at the BYU–Idaho Center Auditorium the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Because of the holiday, only a few thousand students attended, but she felt that those who needed to hear her message would find it.9 She says, “Not enough people understand … that questions are good. … They can bring light and understanding.”10

Like many of you, I collected pretty rocks as a child. I not only collected them, but I asked questions about each one—What kind is it? How did it get those colors? Why isn’t it sparkly? My questions must have nearly driven my parents crazy, because my Christmas gifts soon evolved from dolls to a rock identification kit and books about the earth.11

Mt. Moran in the Teton Mountains

Teton Mountains. Circa 2014. Mt. Moran. Photograph by John W. Barrott. (Used with permission.)

This beautiful picture of Mt. Moran in the Tetons, photographed by my brother John, reflects a fundamental question that helped shape my academic studies. The actual question is immaterial; what’s important is that I left the serenity of the landscape and asked a question. What question would you ask about this scene? It likely depends on your background and interests. An outdoor enthusiast may ask about climbing routes, a botanist may wonder about the effects of glaciation on conifers, an artist might want to know how to best capture the reflections in the lake, and a geologist may ask about the tectonic forces that built the mountains. The variety and depth of questions that can be asked about a simple mountain scene can be as numerous as the people who view it.

The ability and desire to ask questions and search for answers is a uniquely human attribute that is vital to the scientific, artistic, and religious advancements of humanity. We start asking questions at a very young age, as any parent of a precocious three-year-old knows. This suggests that we bring a questioning spirit with us to earth, and that learning by asking and seeking is one reason that our Heavenly Parents have given us the gift of mortal life.

Brother Michael Otterson stated in a BYU–Idaho devotional that “questioning, probing, searching, and exploring when accompanied by an attitude of personal growth and spiritual enrichment is not only one of the joys in life, it is absolutely essential to our continued progression.”12 In other words, questions are the key to progress.

The role of asking questions in the church has received recent media attention, which may make you wonder why I would choose a topic that some might view as controversial.13 Let me explain. Several months ago, when I was asked to speak in devotional, I generated a long list of topics, which I gradually narrowed to two. Just before my deadline to submit the title of my talk—yes, devotional speakers have deadlines too—I knelt in prayer and asked which topic would be most useful to you. I fully expected the answer to be “just pick one, they are both great.” But I woke with the distinct impression that neither topic was right. I was to speak about questions. The recent controversy over questioning may have left some of you with unanswered questions; I believe this is one reason I was prompted to speak on this timely topic.

There are three primary points about questions and questioning that I would like to establish today:

  1. Asking questions is part of our religious heritage.

  2. Questions of different types can be sources of intellectual stimulation and light.

  3. Challenging questions are not forbidden and can be embraced with faith and light.

My prayer is that you will leave today with an increased desire and confidence to actively engage in asking questions and seeking answers in your own life.

History suggests that questions have been, and continue to be, important in the Church of Jesus Christ. The scriptures as well as early and current church leaders assert that we should be actively engaged in asking questions. Nephi points out that if we don’t ask questions about matters we don’t understand, then we will be left in the dark:

“Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.”14

Nephi’s words suggest that asking questions is vital to letting in spiritual light and is the first step to opening the shutters of our mind to the possibility of an answer. If we never open the shutters, we reject the opportunity to experience learning and light.

Joseph Smith, prompted by what he read in James, chapter 1, moved into the light spoken of by Nephi when he asked the pivotal question: “Which of all the [churches] … should [I] join[?]”15 And significantly, after he received the answer to that question, Joseph continued to actively ask and seek. Had he stopped with the answer to his first question, we would know little of such truths as the power of the atonement, the need for temples, and the purpose of life.

Your testimony, like the prophet Joseph’s, likely started by seeking the answer to a question; and like him you can continue to receive light and knowledge by asking questions about gospel topics.

The Prophet Joseph’s pattern of asking and seeking was foundational to restoring the Church of Jesus Christ and continues to be encouraged by church leaders today. As an example, I was in the BYU–Idaho Center a few years ago when Sister Julie B. Beck, former General Relief Society President, conducted a meeting in which she encouraged us to formulate questions about life and the gospel.16 She then invited a few to share their questions. Rather than just answering them, Sister Beck opened her scriptures and helped us discover the answers together. At first I wondered why she didn’t just give a general-conference-type address, but as I became engaged in actively seeking answers with her, I saw her wisdom. She was helping individuals learn to move from the darkness of ignorance into the light of understanding, just as Nephi suggested. Elder David A. Bednar taught that parents can replicate that experience in their homes.17 He said:

“Imagine … a family home evening in which children are invited and expected to come prepared to ask questions about what they are reading and learning in the Book of Mormon—or about an issue that recently was emphasized in a gospel discussion. … And imagine further that the children ask questions the parents are not prepared adequately to answer. … What a glorious opportunity for family members to search the scriptures together and to be tutored by the Holy Ghost.”18

The process of asking and searching isn’t limited to a home with children. Any individual can do as Elder Bednar suggests and ask questions about the scriptures they read or a gospel discussion they heard; any individual can then search for answers and request tutoring by the Holy Ghost. That’s a powerful concept. Are you applying it in your life?

What are your questions about spiritual matters? They likely will differ from the questions of your friends and family because your interests, depth of spiritual understanding, and life experiences vary. As an example, Nephi’s spiritual maturity was greater than that of his brothers; he had the faith to ask deep gospel questions and the knowledge base to understand the answers, while his brothers had neither. But according to Nephi, all was not lost; his brothers could develop their abilities if they would keep the commandments, believe they could receive, and not harden their hearts.19 The choice to ask and receive was in their control.

Today I’d like to discuss four categories of questions that can bring light and understanding:

  1. Questions on gospel doctrine

  2. Questions that require personal reflection

  3. Requests for guidance

  4. Questions about human suffering.

Questions on Gospel Doctrine

These questions focus on doctrine of the church, and answering them is facilitated by purposeful scriptural analysis. Doctrinal questions range from a simple search to understand a single word to complex, lifelong searches on deeper doctrinal topics. And one can lead to the other.

For example, Brother Chris M. Wilson defined light in devotional last week, but a quest to understand the power of spiritual light can lead to insights whenever the scriptures are read.20 I have learned that when a doctrinal question reflects a sincere desire to know, seeking its answer can be intellectually as well as spiritually engaging, and can transform gospel study from passive reading to active seeking; from a chore on a to-do list to a compelling, anticipated pursuit; from repetition to revelation.

Brother Hugh Nibley, one of the most prolific researchers of LDS Church doctrine and a deeply spiritual man, wrote:

“If I went to the temple five times and nothing happened, I would [have] stop[ped] going. But I’ve gone hundreds of times, and the high hopes of new knowledge with which I go up the hill every week are never disappointed.”21

When I first read Brother Nibley’s words, I questioned how he was able to do this, because to be honest, my temple experiences, though enjoyable, were not usually a time of spiritual tutoring. One day while contemplating this in the temple, I had a flash of inspiration. Brother Nibley came to the temple with a specific gospel question, while I usually came seeking peace or direction on a decision. If I want to be tutored, I must bring a question, for as Nephi taught, the mysteries of God are unfolded only to those who diligently seek.22

I testify that if we don’t ask doctrinal questions in our temple attendance and scripture study, we miss an essential key to progress and the joy of receiving revelatory light.

Questions That Require Personal Reflection

A second type of question that can help increase spiritual light is that which triggers personal reflection. Our son, Elder Jacob Willis, who is currently serving in the Virginia Chesapeake Mission, is very good at asking our family reflective questions in his weekly e-mails home. These questions require us to evaluate our testimonies, deepen our faith, and sometimes make changes in our lives.

Recently Elder Willis asked, “Which passage in the Book of Mormon has helped you the most in your life?” This simple question guided my scripture study for several days. It caused me to think deeply about both the Book of Mormon and my life, as I reread marked scriptures and pondered their influence. One such passage is one of my favorite reflective questions; it is directed by Alma to members of the church: “And now behold, I say unto you … if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?”23 Essentially Alma is asking, are you in the light or in the dark?

Personal reflection such as that prompted by Alma can help us make difficult but necessary changes in direction in our lives. To illustrate, I would like to share a story about our oldest son, Tyler, who recently climbed Mt. Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico and the third-highest in North America.

Tyler and a friend started their grueling climb at 2:00 a.m. on a cold, clear April night. Navigating huge, unanticipated ice crystals growing on the glacier slowed their progress enough that they were climbing at a time of day when dangerous lightning storms might develop. As Tyler neared the summit he learned of a threatening, massive thunderhead that had been hidden from view by the mountain. So one hundred yards from the top, he had to make a decision: “Do I finish the climb and risk the storm, or do I turn back now?” He later shared the self-reflection that helped him make the difficult decision to turn around: “If I die on this mountain,” he thought, “someone else will raise my daughter.” As you ponder this story, you may want to reflect on your path. Will it lead to spiritual security? Are you willing to make the hard decision to turn around if a friend warns that you are headed towards a spiritual storm?

Questions That Lead to Guidance

Requests for guidance from Heavenly Father represent my third category of questions. Guidance questions vary significantly by your stage in life and can include “Where should I live?” “What should I major in?” or, for married students, “How can we both finish college?” You likely have heard about people who receive a direct answer to such questions and simply need to follow the well-lit path. While faith-promoting, I have observed that this level of guidance is more rare than common; a more typical answer is silence.

This silence can be daunting and can lead to bitterness or a fear that Heavenly Father doesn’t care for you as much as he cares for someone who received a direct answer. I testify that this is not so, and I’d like to suggest a different perspective. Silence is actually a strong vote of confidence. It is Heavenly Father’s way of saying, “I know you can make this decision on your own, you really can, and you will grow more Godlike in the process.”

Our daughter, Emily, describes the darkness of an unanswered request for guidance as being in the middle of a room where there is no glimmer of light. She knows there is a light switch, but its whereabouts are a mystery. She is tempted to stay safely rooted where she is, but choosing safety means never finding the light. So she moves tentatively forward, feeling carefully for each step, determined to find a wall, because light switches are usually on walls.

I watched Emily apply this metaphor when she neared college graduation; interestingly as she felt her way in the dark, she seemed to develop an internal flashlight whose beam was just bright enough to illuminate her next step. She learned to trust, not just in Heavenly Father, but in her own tuition. This type of strength could not occur if Heavenly Father had laid out her steps in bright LED lights.

Questions about Human Suffering

The process of seeking answers is no more poignant than when asking questions about human suffering, the last category I will discuss before moving to the topic of embracing challenging questions. Questions about human suffering often start with the word “why.” Some focus on world tragedies: “Why are there tsunamis and typhoons that kill tens of thousands of people?” Others focus on the misfortune of those close to you: “Why did that car hit and kill my niece?” And yet others focus on personal hardship: “Why was my prayer to find my lost car keys answered, but my prayers to find a spouse are not?”24

Such questions often arise from heart-wrenching situations that result from sharing earth with natural disasters, disease, and other people. In other words, trials are part of life, and their presence is not a litmus test for personal righteousness. President James E. Faust stated:

“Into every life there come the painful, despairing days of adversity and buffeting. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful.”25

Finding an answer to a personal “why” question can be a difficult and lengthy process. Jessica George, my nephew’s wife who suffers from a debilitating illness that leaves her mostly bedridden, relates in the current Ensign, “Through the years, … I began to see that while this was not the future I had anticipated, it was exactly the life God had planned for me.”26

Her answer rings true. Because it was revealed to her for her life. It was not stated by a well-meaning friend who does not have revelatory stewardship. My dad, a physician who saw the suffering of many, thought it was best not to tell others that their particular trial was part of God’s plan for them. Why? Because it may not be true, it may “just be life.” The best answer to a “why” question is sometimes a simple “I don’t know.” I testify that God will comfort us in life, even when he doesn’t protect us from life, and that his comfort can bring light to the darkness of tragedy.

I have briefly suggested ways that four categories of questions can bring light into your life. Some questions, like unanswered requests for guidance and questions about human suffering, may require time, faith, and a willingness to accept silence or “I don’t know” as an answer. This is not easy.

Similarly, seeking answers to tough doctrinal questions may be a prolonged, difficult process that feels devoid of light. In fact, some of you might be thinking right now, “I, or a friend, have gospel questions that don’t feel like they bring light—in fact they seem to bring just the opposite.” Asking and seeking answers to these difficult questions can be an important part of some, though not all, people’s spiritual development. For those who have such questions, not seeking an answer is akin to perishing in darkness, while embracing the question can bring the joy of searching and the possibility of resolution.

When faced with a troubling doctrinal question, you may feel that darkness and confusion dominate your life and that you are alone in your struggles. President Uchtdorf implied that many faithful members of the church can relate with these feelings when he stated, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”27

I want to share a few insights that have helped me deal with difficult questions; these insights are not meant to answer your questions, nor are they meant to diminish the complexity of your struggles; they are shared to help you maintain light as you seek resolution.

I will start with a story related by M. Sue Bergin in a recent BYU Magazine. I quote:

“When Tom Puzey was a teenager, he became perplexed by arguments challenging his religious beliefs. He went to his dad … in emotional anguish, doubting all he had been taught. His father smiled, hugged him, and said, ‘This is wonderful.’ Then his father told him, ‘It’s okay to question. … You’ll figure it out. And Tommy … you’re going to be okay.’”28

Tom later noted that he believed his father, which gave him added confidence to resolve his doubts.

This story contains three key points: First, it’s okay to ask the questions; questioning does not a rebel make. Second, if someone comes to you with doubts, try not to react in shock or dismay; rather, do as Tom’s dad did, and let them know that you have confidence in their ability to work through their questions. Encourage open heartfelt conversation and inquiry, as actively supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an official statement made on June 11, 2014: “The Church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions. There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations.”29 Third, if you struggle with difficult questions, have confidence in yourself, like Tom did, that you can, if you choose, maintain your spiritual base. I take comfort in knowing that.

Brother Michael Otterson, a convert to the church and the current managing director of Church Public Affairs, has unanswered questions:

“There were two big questions with which I had greatly wrestled and which the missionaries had not been able to answer satisfactorily. Neither could I find answers in Church literature. … Since I could not resolve them, I decided to put them on the shelf for some future resolution.”30

Despite his unresolved questions, Brother Otterson was baptized and has served in the church for many years. His example suggests that you can continue to attend church meetings and fulfill your church callings, even as you seek answers to your questions. Doing so does not make you a hypocrite or devalue your service. In fact, President Uchtdorf suggests that one purpose of the church is to provide a safe place where all, even those with challenges, can “nurture and cultivate the seed of faith.”31

One principle that I have learned about asking difficult questions is found in the poem “All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Lord of the Rings:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”32

I read this poem first as a young adult and the last line, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost,” helped me realize early in life that if I want to maintain my spiritual light, then I need to develop a deep root that is protected from the frost of doubt. My root is my love for and belief in the Savior. I believe in the wonder of his birth and miracles; I feel of his love as I study his words; I anguish with Mary at his tomb; and I rejoice in his ultimate triumph over death and sin.33 I declare with Peter that “[he is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God”34 and with Joseph Smith “that he lives!”35

My testimony of the Savior has helped me through many difficult experiences, including resolving questions about sensitive issues. I would like to share one such experience; I will not share the specifics of my question or my answer, because I want you to feel the joy of discovering and resolving your own questions. As I share my experience, listen for when I learned or applied these principles:

  • Be mature (tantrums close doors).

  • Set the question, not the gospel, on a shelf.

  • Don’t set time limits.

  • Recognize that insights can come from both church and non-church resources.

  • Cross-check insights with gospel doctrine.

When I was a teenager I was troubled with questions about a particular gospel issue. Early in my questioning I ranted to myself in a demanding voice, wanting to know the answer “why, why is it this way; I just don’t get it.” Not surprisingly, no answers came while I was in that stage. Just as a parent may let a child storm in private about a family issue, Heavenly Father let me storm alone. He was not going to try to communicate with me, because I was not ready to hear or understand the answers. Rather than abandon my faith over an unresolved issue, I set my question aside for a few years. In the meantime I served a mission, read and studied my scriptures, and spiritually matured. The question never really went away, but I chose to be temporarily satisfied with “I don’t know.”

Later, when I took the question off the shelf, I was more receptive. I no longer demanded an answer, and I didn’t limit the timeframe, or how or where I would receive insights. The answer didn’t come all at once. Insights came at odd times and in odd places: while reading an article in a non-LDS magazine, left on an airplane; evaluating a statistical analysis in a newspaper; listening to a discussion in ward council; or doing the dishes. I found it surprising that many of my insights did not come while listening to general conference or during scripture study; but when I received an insight I could see how it fit directly with those sources.

Over a period of several years, my answer was built “line upon line.”36 It was as if a dimmer switch in my brain was gradually increasing the light. A few years ago I thought I had received all the answers that I would get on this issue even though there was still one unresolved aspect. But I am happy to report that while I was preparing this talk, my daughter shared with me an article written by a faithful LDS scholar that provided a new perspective. I am now analyzing how it fits with my earlier insights and with church doctrine. And the light has grown brighter yet; in fact, it is brilliant.

What if I never had asked the question, or what if I had asked and not sought to resolve it beyond that which I could find on Google or in the first few pages of the Book of Mormon? My life probably would still be okay, but I believe it is richer because I asked and I patiently struggled for years to be brought, as Nephi suggests, “into the light.”37

The Savior, speaking to Joseph Smith, verifies that questioning is one way to find joy and light in the gospel:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; And then shall ye know … all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive.”38

I affirm that questioning is part of our religious heritage, that there are many types of questions that can bring light into our lives, and that asking questions—even about difficult subjects—is not taboo. Open dialogue and sharing insights on similar struggles are part of building a community of Saints. As you leave today, I hope you will have the courage and insight to ask the questions that will best help you gain spiritual light. Perhaps you can start with one of these:

  • What question will stimulate my gospel study?

  • Which scripture has most influenced my life?

  • Will my current path lead to a spiritual storm?

  • Is my root of faith deep enough to resist the frost of doubt?

  • Do I have unresolved questions that I should temporarily set on a shelf?

In closing I would like to express my love to those who struggle and whose questions have not yet been answered. I pray that you will find peace and feel of the Savior’s love. I express thanks to those who made this devotional possible, especially my family for sharing their insights and stories. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Cite this page

Gaining Light through Questioning, At the Pulpit, accessed June 20, 2024