Topic Study: Ambiguity


(October 2005)

Elder Bruce C. Hafen, and member of the Quorum of the Seventy, gave a speech at BYU while serving as President of Ricks College, now BYU Idaho entitled “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.”  Here are a couple of significant quotes:

One Sunday morning [while a law student], the Elders Quorum in our [student] ward held a special testimony meeting…. [A] fellow law student related a boyhood experience that had occurred just after he had been ordained a deacon. He lived on a farm and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born; and then, without warning, the mother suddenly rolled over the little calf. He could see that she was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless body of the calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, the tears running down his cheeks, he looked at it, wondering what had happened and what he could do. Then he remembered, he told us, that he now held the Priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. And so he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long the little animal began breathing again, and he knew that his prayer had been heard.

After relating the story, the tears welled up in his eyes and he said to us, “Brethren, I tell you that story because I don’t know that I would do now what I did then. I think I might not expect the Lord’s help in that kind of situation. I am not sure that I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf’s survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don’t understand what has happened to me since that incident, but I sense that something has gone a little bit wrong.”

My friend in the Elders Quorum was not saying that he had lost faith in the Lord; rather, he was simply being very honest with us, I think, in sharing both the childlike and the sophisticated dimensions of his experience. This story reflects the thoughts and feelings that many of us experience, in our own way, during the college years. These thoughts and feelings are an important part of growing toward spiritual and intellectual maturity, as well as an important part of understanding both the strengths and the limitations of a college education….

Elder Hafen continues:

[College] experiences…can produce confusion and uncertainty–in a word, ambiguity–and one may yearn with nostalgia for simpler, easier times when things seemed not only more clear but more under our control. Such experiences may bring about the beginnings of skepticism, of criticism, of unwillingness to respond to authority or to invitations to reach for ideals that now truly seem beyond one’s grasp. Not everybody will encounter what I have been describing, and I do not mean to suggest that everyone must encounter such experiences. But college students are probably more likely to encounter “ambiguity” than almost any other group.

The fundamental teachings of the restored gospel are potent, clear and unambiguous; but it is possible, on occasion, to encounter some ambiguity even in studying the scriptures. Consider for example the case–known to all of us–of Nephi, who slew Laban in order to obtain the scriptural record (see 1 Nephi 4:5­18). That situation is not free from ambiguity until the reader realizes that God himself, who gave the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), was also the origin of the instructions to Nephi in that exceptional case.

Consider also the case of Peter on the night he denied any knowledge of his Master three times in succession (see Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18). We commonly regard Peter as something of a coward whose commitment was not strong enough to make him rise to the Savior’s defense, but I once heard President Spencer W. Kimball offer an alternative interpretation of Peter’s situation. In a talk on this campus in 1971, President Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said that the Savior’s statement that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed might have been a request to Peter, not a prediction. Jesus just might have been instructing his chief apostle to deny any association with him in order to insure strong leadership for the Church after the Crucifixion. As President Kimball asked, who can doubt Peter’s boldness and willingness to stand up and be counted when he struck off the ear of the guard in the garden of Gethsemane. President Kimball did not offer this view as the only interpretation, but he did point out that there is enough justification for it that it ought to be considered. So what is the answer–was Peter a weakling, or was he so crucial to the survival of the Church that he was prohibited from risking his life? We are not sure. This is a scriptural incident in which there is some ambiguity inhibiting our total understanding.

Let us compare some other scriptural passages. The Lord has said that he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31), yet elsewhere he said to the adulteress, “Where are . . . thine accusers? . . . Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10, 11). There is indeed a principle of justice, but there is also a principle of mercy. At times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives.

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