Resolving Concerns

A couple of years ago, I asked a question in Sunday School about why we need the priesthood to do things like healings if such miracles can also be performed by faith. I brought it up because I think it’s an interesting issue, and I wanted to hear how other people thought about it. A few people shared their take on the subject, and then the discussion moved on. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the reason I remember this incident is because after class, the bishop came over to me and expressed his hope that my concern had been successfully resolved. I was a bit taken aback, as I hadn’t really expected to hear a definitive answer in the course of a five or ten minute discussion in Gospel Doctrine; I’d simply been curious about how other people saw the issue.

I’m not sure that “resolving concerns” is always the most helpful approach to take when people have questions and difficulties. For one thing, I think that when you’re out to resolve someone’s concern, it’s all too easy to jump the gun and not take the time to first really hear and understand the concern. More than once I’ve tentatively mentioned to someone that I wasn’t completely okay with the Church and gender, and before I could say much else they’ve responded with a barrage of GA quotes or anecdotes (which I’ve almost always already heard) about how special women are. This leaves me feeling frustrated and un-heard, and very unlikely to raise the issue again with that particular person.

Ziff (I think) once told me of a study which found that one difference between people who managed to remain in the Church despite difficulties and those who left was that the former group felt like they had someone to talk to. I suspect that it does more harm than good when people bring up questions that are seriously bothering them and our immediate response is to frantically search for ways to “fix” the problem. The question I asked in Sunday School that day wasn’t a life-and-death spiritual issue for me; I was just interested. But I find that especially when I’m struggling with questions which do seriously impact my faith, I need more than prepackaged answers aimed at neatly resolving things.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s ever helpful or important for others to share their views or how they’ve worked through their own difficulties. Quite the reverse; hearing how other people have made sense of various issues has often helped me a great deal. However, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that ultimately none of us can resolve the concerns of someone else–in the end, each person has to find her own way of making sense of things. We can certainly offer each other alternate perspectives, insights, and experinces. But perhaps the most valuable thing we have to give is simple companionship, and willingness to listen even when we don’t really understand. I’m immensely appreciative of those in my life who, rather than attempting to resolve my concerns, have been willing to join me in wrestling with them.


  1. Oftentimes the explanations that people provide when trying to resolve your concerns are as bad or worse than the situation/issue that caused the concern in the first place.

    Anyway, I think trying to understand someone else’s perspective (however messed up you may think it is) and being willing to make the journey together with them from that place to somewhere new is an amazing and radical process.

  2. As someone with a lot of “concerns,” I also find it unhelpful for people to try to resolve them. One thing that is hard for me is having people believe that they can swoop in and resolve an issue that I have thought about and researched for a long time. Usually this behavior only makes me realize how different I am from the general membership.

    Recently my home teachers were assigned to this particular task. I finally had to tell them that my issues were probably here to stay and rather than resolving them they can help me live with them. I am much more interested in the ways that people live with their concerns, accept the ambiguity and continue with unanswered questions.

  3. To me, it sounds like you’ve got a fairly friendly and open-minded Bishop. To ask about your concerns and then listen is not always the approach that local leaders take, you know.

  4. S, that’s a very good point that the explanations people offer are often worse than the original problem. Some of the reasons I’ve seen given for why women don’t hold the priesthood, for example, are more disturbing to me than the actual practice of female exclusion.

    Johnny, I’ve had that experience as well, and also felt frustrated by it. I think I’m in a similar place to you–with some things, at this point my aim is more to find a way to live with them than to completely resolve them.

    Dave, I certainly wasn’t intending to put down my (then) bishop; I actually thought it was nice of him to ask. I was just a bit surprised by how the question was framed, and it got me thinking about the issue more generally.

  5. Great post.

    I think there may be some people that feel a need for there to be a neat answer to everything, and somehow expect that there is one. Their responses to those of us who have far more questions than answers may be reflective of how they make sense of the world. They are probably not the people who will be willing or able to handle discussing issues.

    I have many unresolved issues, and have begun to recognize the fundamental tensions/paradoxes in religion and life. I love exploring the paradox and ambiguity, and for me the joy of the journey is in the searching and not necessarily in finding an answer. I don’t always respond very well when someone tells me they have the “right answer.”

  6. Good post.
    I think questioning is one of the greatest things to do in the Gospel. There are so many questions, with not-so-neat answers, or no answers at all. We are told that we can know the truth of all things, but that is not by someone answering our questions for us. It is through personal study and prayer. I also agree with Amy B–I love searching ambiguity too.
    Having said that, I love asking other people’s thoughts on subjects. Especially ones that don’t have answers yet. Speaking of which, you wrote,

    More than once I’ve tentatively mentioned to someone that I wasn’t completely okay with the Church and gender, and before I could say much else they’ve responded with a barrage of GA quotes or anecdotes (which I’ve almost always already heard) about how special women are. This leaves me feeling frustrated and un-heard, and very unlikely to raise the issue again with that particular person.

    I have recently posted on this topic, or something like it, on our site. I would love to hear what you think.

  7. AmyB, I’m with you in enjoying the process of exploring questions. (Of course, humanities students are notorious for engaging questions over the course of a semester and concluding . . . absolutely nothing. 😉 But it sure is fun!)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jilopa, and for the link; I’ve been reading the Rocky Shore with interest.

    A couple more thoughts on this. My guess is that at least some of the more troubling encounters I’ve had with people whom I felt like were too quick to try to fix everything have stemmed from a basic miscommunication. I’ve said, “I don’t understand this,” and they’ve heard it as “I’m losing my testimony–help!” I think I could sometimes do a better job of clarifying my own expectations when I raise concerns (e.g. “I’m not expecting definitive answers for this, because I’m not sure there are any, but I’d be interested in what you think.”)

    It does seem that some see the gospel more in terms of answers, and some see it more in terms of questions. (Though of course such categorizations are inevitably oversimplistic; I suspect that most people are somewhere in the middle. I would say that I’m fairly tolerant of ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when I am in fact out for a little more certainty, particularly when it comes to basic issues like “is God really loving?”) And doubtless a challenge for all of us is to be charitable toward those who have different approach to things, rather than labeling people as either “unthinking” because they don’t question enough, or “faithless” because they overdo it.

    However, I do think that more discussion of how people find ways to maintain commitment to the Church despite unresolved concerns and questions would be a good thing. I know that I always appreciate hearing the stories of people who’ve found ways to stay despite having difficulties.

  8. I know that I always appreciate hearing the stories of people who’ve found ways to stay despite having difficulties.

    Yeah, I agree. I think that sometimes the rush to give every question a tidy answer sends the message that good Mormons don’t have doubts or that those who question aren’t welcome.

    “Not all who wander are lost.”

  9. I’m enjoying this discussion very much. A large contributing factor to why I am still in the church right now is that I have heard stories of those who stay despite having difficulties. I’ve said it over at ExII several times, and the same goes for here, that these blogs have been my saving grace. It’s so comforting to know that there are other women (and men) who have similar issues and find a way to stay.

    When I read literature of other religions, or hear anecdotes from older religions like Catholicism and Judaism, they seem to be able to speak more freely about doubt. I have the impression that there is a pattern of a loss of faith, or “dark night of the soul” in which everything is called into question is often worked through before a deeper faith can be found.

    Sometimes I wish voicing our concerns was more allowed in the discourse, and that our stories of doubt, fear, pain, loneliness, and loss of faith could be spoken and accepted. I feel like those are unspeakables when I go to church on Sundays.

  10. Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at, Katya. I think the implicit message often conveyed in the way we talk about concerns–that good Mormons have resolved them–can leave people feeling like their church membership is contingent on working everything out and not having unresolved questions or doubts. (And nice use of an LOTR quote! ;))

    AmyB, that’s something I’ve enjoyed about blogging as well. Like you, I find it reassuring to know that other people who have similar concerns to mine have managed to nonetheless stay in the church; it both makes me feel less alone, and gives me hope. And I also find resonant the concept of the “dark night of the soul.”

    I think when I was younger, I had this idea that you went through a period of questioning, and then you got answers to those questions (e.g. “found out for yourself that the Church was true”), and then it was just a matter of staying committed. I heard those kinds of narratives over and over, and for a long time I wondered how everyone around me seemed to have achieved the second stage (where concerns were resolved), while I seemed to be stuck in the first one. It finally dawned on me that maybe my life wasn’t going to conform to that structure. Thus far, it’s been more zig-zaggy than anything else–I seem to alternate between periods of greater faith and those of greater doubt. But it’s helped to not see the two as necessarily mutually exclusive.

  11. Lynnette, I’ve heard those narratives over and over as well (and created a few of them myself). Your post immediately made me think of a section in the Missionary Guide entitled “Resolving Concerns”–a section which, like much of the rest of the Missionary Guide–I found pretty manipulative (how to hear others’ points of view with the ultimate end of getting them to agree to yours).

    I tend to think that a completely Stage 3 existence isn’t possible in this life and that faith is a matter of faithfulness, of trust in God, rather than a matter of having all of one’s concerns resolved.

    And I think part of the issue in the situation you describe with your bishop is, as you note, a culture clash. The humanities are all about questions, explorations, possibilities, ambiguity, and after a week of seminars it can be startling to encounter a Sunday school class in which questions and disagreement make everyone uncomfortable and are quickly squelched.

  12. I also find it frustrating when people feel the need to instantly resolve my concerns–mostly because they trot out the same lines over and over. Already heard those, thanks. Not so helpful. I think we as a culture–Mormon culture–are uncomfortable with doubt. Doubt doesn’t always lead to apostacy. If it weren’t for doubt, there’d be no need for faith. Respecting people’s doubts shows respect for the mysteries of God as well.

  13. I find that Mormon culture does offer a means of signaling that a question is not a plea for the Testimony Emergency Salvation Team (TEST). That is to preface it with something like “one question that I want to ask when I get to the other side is ….” or “during the Millennium I am sure going to be interested in finding out why ……”. While that may dilute somewhat the present import of the particular issue, it does tend to put Mormon listeners more at ease. Also, while it may still evoke the same pat answers (after all aren’t we the religion with the answers?), they will be pressed with less urgency, and sometimes, sometimes, it can even put the listeners themselves in a more open, speculative frame of mind to address the question.

  14. Eve, thanks for reminding me why the phrase “resolving concerns” sounds familiar. (As a non-RM, I’m only peripherally acquainted with all the lingo.) And that’s a really good point about a possible culture clash. It’s probably worth remembering that people go to church with sometimes drastically different expectations.

    Madhousewife, I very much know what you mean about hearing the same line over and over. (Though hmm, suddenly that has me wondering whether some might feel that I just bring up the same concern over and over. Oh dear. ;)) Anyway, I agree with you about wishing there were more space in our culture for doubt, which, like you, I don’t see as necessarily incompatible with faith.

    JWL, speaking as a frequent victim of the Testimony Emergency Salvation Team, that sounds like a very useful strategy to adopt. I’ll have to remember that one.

  15. On a side note, I think it would have been great if someone in that Sunday School class had brought up Joseph Smith’s teaching that if women have faith to heal by the laying on of hands, or if those being blessed have faith to be healed by their administration, then there can be no sin in it.

    But I suppose that might have given rise to more concerns in the minds of some attending that class.


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