Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
I had a mixed emotional reaction this week when the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a second, stronger statement urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Here is an excerpt.
"We know that protection from the diseases [COVID-19 and its variants] cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population... To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective."
One part of me was grateful for clear direction and its offer of safety for people who've been on the fence, struggling to figure out what's true in a vortex of manipulative media.
But there's another group of people who were on my heart; the ones who heard the news and
felt their foundations shake. I'm talking about people who have deep testimonies of the Book of Mormon and have received a personal witness that Russell M. Nelson is a prophet of God, who walk in faith every day of their lives, and who now feel like the prophet is urging them to jump off a cliff into shallow water while everything inside of them screams "Unsafe!"
I am aware that their anguish is mystifying and suspect to many who trust vaccines. I didn't used to understand it myself and I've been part of conversations where the vaccine hesitant were compared to those who refused to gaze at the brass serpent when Moses promised them that if they would look, they'd live. But there's a difference between just looking at a serpent on a pole verses injecting chemicals into your body that you have been warned and personally sense will do you harm. And it's one thing to turn a deaf ear to the external voices that give counsel contrary to the prophet's. It's quite another to push down the inner voice, to tune out your own sense of truth and morality, to close your eyes and jump off the cliff while that inner voice is screaming "No!"
And here's what I believe: that is not what the Lord wants from any of us. He does not ask us to violate personal conscience in favour of a prophet's counsel. That wouldn't make any sense. Why would we be urged to get a personal witness that the prophet is called of God only to reject personal witnesses in favour of the prophet's counsel ever after? There are checks and balances built into Church structure -- councils and requirements of a united voice in order to canonize doctrines. I believe there are also checks and balances with regard to revelation, and that the Lord outlines them repeatedly in the standard works with the promise, "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (D&C 6:28; see also Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1; 2 Nephi 11:3).
I think 2 Nephi 11:3 is especially helpful. It says, "Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words."
Most times, the three sources I look to for confirmation are the counsel of the prophets, the scriptures, and the witness of the Holy Ghost. Because I already have a witness from the Holy Ghost about the veracity of the scriptures (even though they're not perfect) and President Nelson's prophetic calling (even though he's not perfect), checking personal promptings against those two sources helps me (also not perfect) to avoid deception.
And 2 Nephi 11:3 goes on to promise that the Lord "proveth all his words."
One of my favourite scriptural examples of this principle in practice is found in Helaman 8-9. There, the prophet Nephi says some extremely controversial things about a massive conspiracy. His claims appear outrageous as well as politically explosive. Then he offers a proof: "Go ye unto the judgment seat and search; and behold, your chief judge is murdered, and he lieth in his blood". There's an entire multitude gathered, hearing out Nephi's claims. Five of them choose to take him up on his proof. They go running to the judgment seat, while admitting to each other that they don't actually believe what Nephi has said, but they want to know. They find, contrary to expectation, that things are exactly as Nephi claimed. They are stunned to the point of fainting. Then, with their illusions dispelled, they receive a witness of the Spirit and are converted (Helaman 9:19).
One of my favourite Church history examples of this principle in practice is the story of Lucy Walker, taken from her own words. Trigger warning: this is a challenging story about plural marriage. There's a reason I'm using such a challenging example -- because I think it illustrates the sort of anguish some dear brothers and sisters are experiencing right now.
Lucy was 16 years old when the prophet Joseph Smith taught her the principle of plural marriage and called her to become his plural wife. She was indignant, but he promised her, "If you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle."
For months, Lucy prayed. She was as sincere as she knew how to be, but later wrote, "I was so unwilling to consider the matter favorably that I fear I did not ask in faith for light. Gross darkness instead of light took possession of my mind. I was tempted and tortured beyond endurance until life was not desirable." Joseph, seeing her distress, spoke with her again. He tried to give her comfort but also reiterated that this was a command of God to her.
Lucy "stood fearless before him, and looked him in the eye." She replied, “Although you are a prophet of God you could not induce me to take a step of so great importance, unless I knew that God approved my course. I would rather die." She forbade him to speak to her again about this revolting subject and added, “The same God who has sent this message is the Being I have worshipped from my early childhood and He must manifest His will to me.”
Joseph was delighted. “God Almighty bless you," he told her. "You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you; a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that joy and peace that you never knew.”
It was near dawn the next morning, after another sleepless night, that the promised witness came. Lucy recalls, "my room was lighted up by a heavenly influence. To me it was, in comparison, like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud...My soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that 'I never knew.' Supreme happiness took possession of me, and I received a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truth of plural marriage, which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life."
Unable to contain her joy, she descended the stairs to go outside. Joseph met her at the bottom, thanking God that she had received her witness. "I too have prayed," he said, then escorted her to a chair, placed hands on her head and "blessed me with every blessing my heart could possibly desire."
I think these two stories teach that faith in a prophet is not about pushing down our inner voice, discounting our own feelings and understanding, closing our eyes and just doing what we're told. Faith in a prophet is about finding the courage to open our eyes wider than we ever have, seeking more light and understanding, bringing our troubled or even revolted feelings and our shaken understanding to the throne of God and waiting on His light. It's about being willing to be corrected, listening and seeking until understanding comes. Then, when the Holy Ghost ratifies the prophet's counsel to our own hearts, we can move forward with peace and enduring joy.
I have one more thought.
I've been reminded of President Harold B. Lee's teaching:
We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; … as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’ (D&C 21:4–5.) There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.
I used to think that if I stayed faithful and close enough to the Lord, nothing that came from the prophet would really challenge me. Considering the example of Lucy Walker and watching people be challenged now even though their faith and goodness are an inspiration to me, I don't feel that security anymore. So, to you who are struggling right now, I want to say: I'm praying for you. And when it's my turn to struggle, I hope you'll pray for me.