On Dealing with Uncertainty


A Brigham Young University devotional address, delivered 9 January 1979

On Dealing with Uncertainty

Early in life, most of us think of things in terms of black or white—there is very little gray in either the intellectual or the spiritual dimension of our perspective. Thus, most of the freshmen at places like Brigham Young University and Ricks College have a childlike optimism and loyalty that may make them wonderfully teachable and pleasant. I consider it one of the great blessings of my life to be associated with so many young people at this point in their lives at Ricks. It is typical of these young men and women to trust their teachers, to believe what they read, and to respond with boundless enthusiasm to invitations for Church service.

Where else but in a student ward comprised mostly of freshmen would you find a Church member so thrilled to be called by the bishop as song book coordinator, sacrament bread coordinator, or Relief Society Sunday morning orange juice specialist? As one returned missionary recently told me, one thing he likes best about being in a ward of freshmen and sophomores is that when topics like faith and repentance are raised for discussion, nobody yawns.

As time goes on, however, experiences often accumulate that introduce a new dimension to a student’s perspective. In general, I would characterize this new dimension as a growing awareness that there is a kind of gap between the real and ideal, between what is and what ought to be. To illustrate, I ask you to imagine in your minds two circles, one inside the other. The inner boundary is the real, or what is. The outer boundary is the ideal, or what ought to be. We stand at the inner boundary, reaching out, trying to pull reality closer to the inspired ideals to which we have committed ourselves. When we sense that some things about ourselves or the circumstances we witness are not all we wish they were, we become aware of the distance between these two boundaries. At that point some frustrations can arise. Let me offer some examples.

Students at a large Church college may become disillusioned when they lose some battle with the great red-tape machine, when they remain unknown and nameless to their student ward bishop for weeks or even months, or when they brush up against a faculty member whose Church commitments seem to them to be in doubt. At a more personal and spiritual level, perhaps an important prayer seemingly goes too long unanswered or one suffers some devastating setback with grades, with good health, with the prospects for marriage, and the heavens seem closed in a time of great need. One may also become increasingly conscious of the imperfections of others, including parents, other Church members, or even a bishop or a stake president. When we become more familiar with those who have been our heroes, we may begin to see their human limitations. One may also begin to confront controversial topics, such as the role of women or differing political philosophies among Church members.

It is also not uncommon for missionaries to encounter the gap between the real and the ideal because new missionaries often make more idealistic commitments than they have ever made before. And yet, in spite of their most valiant efforts, they may find themselves more than once fighting back the tears of disappointment when the promised fruits of a positive mental attitude somehow elude them. There is a kind of poignancy in those moments when we first discover that there might be some limitations to the idea that you can do anything you make up your mind to do. I once gave everything I had to that proposition, in my determination to be the greatest shot putter in the history of my junior high school. But I simply was not big enough—it really was hopeless.

Experiences such as these 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. There may be the beginnings of skepticism, of criticism, and unwillingness to respond to authority or to invitations to reach for ideals that seem beyond our 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. However, it is possible on occasion to encounter some ambiguity even in studying the scriptures. Consider, for example, the case of Nephi, who slew Laban in order to obtain the scriptural record. That situation is not free from ambiguity until the reader realizes that God himself, who gave the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” 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. Some of us commonly regard Peter as something of a weakling, 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 behavior. In a talk to a BYU audience 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 just 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 could doubt Peter’s willingness to stand up and be counted when you think of his boldness in striking off the ear of the guard with his sword when the Savior was arrested in Gethsemane. President Kimball did not offer this view as the only interpretation, but he did suggest there is enough justification for it that it should be considered. So what is the answer—was Peter a coward, 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 (see D&C 1:31). Yet elsewhere he said to the adulteress, “Where are those 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.

Another example: The Savior said, “Do not your alms before men, to be seen of them” (Matt. 6:1). But he also said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matt. 5:16).

One more illustration. He once said, “In me ye might have peace” (John 16:33). And the angels, in announcing his coming, sang “On earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). “For unto us a child is born … the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Yet elsewhere he said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

These passages illustrate that 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.

We face concrete examples of that process every day as we attempt to fulfill our duties to family, church, community, and professional concerns. I remember hearing a young mother of several children who has a responsible Church position and a busy, faithful husband express her dismay as she tried to decide what should come first in her life and when. She was told, “Well, just be sure you put the Lord’s work first.” Her reply was, “But what if it is all the Lord’s work?” Similarly, my wife and I often wonder how we should deal with our children in one of the four thousand incidents that were not anticipated by any of the books on child rearing. Sometimes one of us has a clear feeling about what should be done, but often I simply have to tell her with great conviction, “Well, dear, just be sure you do the right thing.”

Church and family life are not the only places where the right answer is not always on the tip of our tongues. If you would stretch your mind about the implications of ambiguity, you might think once again of the Viet Nam war—should our nation have tried to do more than it did? or less than it did? or perhaps you could consider whether we should sell all we have and donate our surplus to the millions of people who are starving. You might also ask yourself how much governmental intervention into the regulation of business and private life is too much. The people on the extreme sides of these questions convey great certainty about what should be done. However, I think some of these people would rather be certain than right.

Turning to one more fertile field to illustrate the naturalness of ambiguity, I remember Arthur Henry King’s statement that most truly great literary works will raise some profound question about a human problem, explore the question skillfully and in depth, and then leave the matter for the reader to resolve. He added that if the resolution seems too clear or too easy, the literature is perhaps not very good or else those reading it have missed its point. Take, for example, Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, where the question is seriously raised whether it is possible for a true Christian to love unselfishly. The main character of the story is a pure and good person who loves two different women in two very different ways. One he loves as most men love women—she cares for him, she helps him, he is attracted to her romantically, and she could make his life very happy. The other woman—a pathetically inadequate person—he loves primarily because she needs him desperately and he has a compassionate heart. Posing the dilemma of which of these two the man should marry, Dostoevsky seems to ask if it is possible for mortal men to be totally devoted to the unselfish ideals of Christianity. As you might expect, he leaves that huge question unresolved, forcing the reader to ponder it for himself.

I have intentionally tried to suggest a wide variety of instances in which the answers we may seek are not as quickly apparent as we might have expected. My suggestion is that some uncertainty is characteristic of mortal experience. The mists of darkness in Lehi’s dream are, for that very reason, a strong symbolic representation of life as we face it on this planet. There are, of course, many things very certain and very clear, as so beautifully represented by the iron rod in Lehi’s dream; but there is enough complexity to make the topic of ambiguity worthy of discussion.

Given, then, the existence of a gap for most of us between where we stand and where we would like to be, and given that we will have at least some experiences that make us wonder, what are we to do? I think there are three different levels of dealing with ambiguity.

At level one, there are two typical attitudes, one of which is that we simply do not—perhaps cannot—even see the problems that exist. Some seem almost consciously to filter out any perception of a gap between the real and the ideal. Those in this category are they for whom the gospel at its best is a firm handshake, an enthusiastic greeting, and a smiley button. Their mission was the best, their student ward is the best, and every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose. They are able to weather many storms that would seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if the reason is often that they have somehow missed hearing that a storm was going on.

A second group at level one has quite a different problem with the gap between what is and what ought to be. Those in this category eliminate the frustrations created by sensing a distance between the real and the ideal by, in effect, erasing the inner circle of reality. They cling to the ideal so single-mindedly that they are able to avoid feeling the pain that would come from facing the truth about themselves, about others, or about the world around them. I suppose it is this category that is so frequently represented in the letters to the editor of the school papers at BYU and Ricks, where such shock is occasionally expressed that some person or some part of the institution has fallen short of perfection and the writer is aghast—“surely not at the Lord’s university.” One of the problems experienced by those in this group is that they seem unable to distinguish between imperfections that matter a great deal and those that may not matter so much. I think Hugh Nibley must have had them in mind when he spoke of those who find it more commendable to get up at 5 A.M. to write a bad book than it is to get up at 9 A.M. to write a good book. While self-discipline is a virtue, it is obvious to Brother Nibley that the exact hour when we arise is not as important as what we do once we are up.

I recall a group of students I knew who once discussed which of the two types of people I have just described offered the most appropriate model for their emulation. They felt they had to choose between being relaxed and happy about the gospel or being an intense perfectionist. After listening to the discussion, I felt that both of these categories suffer from the same limitation. It is not much of a choice to select between a frantic concern with perfection and a forced superficial happiness. Both perspectives lack depth; they understand things too quickly, and they may draw conclusions from their experience too easily. Neither is well prepared for adversity, and I fear that the first strong wind that comes along will blow them over. I believe this is primarily because their roots have not sunk enough into the soil of experience to establish a firm foundation. Both also reflect the thinness of a philosophy that is untempered by common sense. In both cases, it would be helpful simply to be more realistic about life’s experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave us a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can motivate us toward real growth. As President Harold B. Lee said, the true Church is intended not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.

I invite you then to step up to level two, where you see things for what they are, for only then can you deal with them in a meaningful and constructive way.

If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations. Heber C. Kimball once said that the Church had yet to pass through some very close places and that those who were living on borrowed light would not be able to stand when those days came. Thus, we need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives. We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas just don’t always come along with little tags attached to them saying whether the Church has given them the stamp of approval. Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report and praiseworthy, that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals or courses of instruction. Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction as they come to us. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear. Our encounters with reality and disappointment are, in fact, vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding.

Despite the value of a level-two awareness, however, there are some serious hazards at this level. One’s acceptance of the clouds of uncertainty may be so complete that the iron rod fades into the receding mist and skepticism becomes a guiding philosophy. Often, this perspective comes from erasing the outer circle representing the ideal, or what ought to be, and focusing excessively on the inner circle of reality.

As a teacher in the BYU Law School, I noticed how common it was among first-year law students to experience great frustration as they discovered how much our legal system is characterized not by hard, fast rules, but by legal principles that often appear to contradict each other. I think, for example, of one new student who approached me after class expressing the confusion he was encountering in his study of the law. He said he had what he called “a low tolerance for ambiguity” and had been wondering if part of his problem was that he had only weeks before returned from a mission, where everything was crisp and clear, where even the words he was to speak were provided for him. To feel successful, all he had to do was follow the step-by-step plan given him for each day and each task on his mission. Law school was making him feel totally at sea as he groped for simple guidelines that would tell him what to do. His circumstance was only another example of what I have previously tried to describe as typical of college and university students in the early years of their experience. However, by the time our law students reached their third year of study, it was not at all uncommon for them to develop such a high tolerance for ambiguity that they were skeptical about everything, including some dimensions of their religious faith. Where formerly they felt they had all the answers, but just did not know what the questions were, they now seemed to have all the questions but few of the answers.

I found myself wanting to tell our third-year law students that those who take too much delight in their finely honed tools of skepticism and dispassionate analysis will limit their effectiveness, in the church and elsewhere, because they can become contentious, standoffish, arrogant, and unwilling to commit themselves. I have seen some of these try out their new intellectual tools in some context like a priesthood quorum or a Sunday School class. A well-meaning teacher will make a point they think is a little silly, and they will feel an irresistible urge to leap to their feet and pop the teacher’s bubble. If they are successful, they begin looking for other opportunities to point out the exception to any rule anybody can state. They begin to delight in cross-examination of the unsuspecting, just looking for somebody’s bubble up there floating around so that they can pop it with their shiny new pin of skepticism. And in all that, they fail to realize that when some of those bubbles pop, out goes the air, and with it goes much of the feeling of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord.

If that begins to happen in your ward, in your home, or in your marriage, you will have begun to destroy the fragile fabric of trust that binds us together in all loving relationships. People may come away from some of their encounters with you wondering how you can possibly have a deep commitment to the Church and do some of the things you do.

I am not suggesting that we should always just smile and nod our approval, implying that everything is wonderful and that our highest hope is that everybody have a nice day. That is level one. I am suggesting that you realize the potential for evil as well as good that may come with what a college education can do to your mind and your way of dealing with other people.

The dangers of which I speak are not limited to our relations with others. They can become very personal, prying into our own hearts in unhealthy ways. The ability to acknowledge ambiguity is not a final form of enlightenment. Having admitted to a willingness temporarily to suspend judgment on questions that seem hard to answer, having developed greater tolerance and more patience, our basic posture toward the Church can, if we are not careful, gradually shift from being committed to being noncommittal. That is not a healthy posture. Indeed, in many ways, a Church member who moves from a stage of commitment to a stage of being tentative and noncommittal is in a worse position than one who has never experienced a basic commitment. The previously committed person may too easily assume that he has already been through the “positive-mental-attitude” routine and “knows better” now, as he judges things. He may assume that being submissive, meek, obedient, and humble are matters with which he is already familiar, and that he has finally outgrown the need to work very hard at being that way again. Those are the assumptions of a hardened heart.

I once had an experience that taught me a great lesson about the way a highly developed tolerance for “being realistic” can inhibit the workings of the Spirit in our lives. When I had been on my mission in Germany about a year, I was assigned to work with a brand new missionary named Elder Keeler, who had just arrived fresh from converting, so he thought, all the stewardesses on the plane from New York to Frankfurt. Within a few days of his arrival, I was called to a meeting in another city and had to leave him to work in our city with another inexperienced missionary whose companion went with me. I returned late that night. The next morning I asked him how his day had gone. He broke into an enthusiastic smile and said he had found a family who would surely join the Church. In our mission, it was rare to see anyone join the Church, let alone a whole family. I asked for more details, but he had forgotten to write down either the name or the address. All he could remember was that the family lived on the top floor of a big apartment house. “Oh, that’s great,” I thought to myself as I contemplated all those flights of stairs. He also explained that he knew so little German that he had exchanged but a few words with the woman who answered the door. But he did think she wanted us to come back—and he wanted to go find her and have me talk to her that very minute. I explained that all the people who don’t slam the door in our faces did not intend to join the Church. But off we went to find her, mostly to humor him. He couldn’t remember the right street either, so we picked a likely spot and began climbing up and down those endless polished staircases.

After a frustrating hour, I decided I had to level with him. Based on my many months of experience, I said, it was simply not worth our time to try any longer to find her. I had developed a tolerance for the realities of missionary work and simply knew more than he did about it. His eyes filled with tears and his lower lip began to tremble. “Elder Hafen,” he said, “I came on my mission to find the honest in heart. The Spirit told me that that woman will someday be a member of the Church.” So I decided to teach him a lesson. I raced him up one staircase after another, until he was ready to drop, and so was I. “Elder Keeler,” I asked, “had enough?” “No,” he said. “We’ve got to find her.” I began to smolder. I decided to work him until he begged to stop—then maybe he would get the message.

Finally at the top of a long flight of stairs, we found the apartment. She came to the door. He thrashed my ribs with his elbows, and whispered loudly, “That’s her, elder. That’s the one. Talk to her!”

Brothers and sisters, not long ago that woman’s husband sat in my living room. He was in Utah for general conference. He is the bishop of the Mannheim Ward. His two boys are preparing for missions. His wife and daughter are pillars of the Church. That is a lesson I can never forget about the limitations of the skepticism and the tolerance for ambiguity that come with learning and experience. I hope that I will never be so aware of “reality” that I am unresponsive to the whisperings of heaven.

It seems to me that the most productive response to ambiguity is at level three, where we not only view things with our eyes wide open, but with our hearts wide open as well. When we do that, there will be many times when we are called upon to take some action at a point where we think we need more evidence before knowing what to do. Such occasions may range from following the counsel of the Brethren on birth control to accepting a home teaching assignment. My experience has taught me always to give the Lord and his church the benefit of any doubts I may have when some such case seems too close to call. I stress that the willingness to be believing and accepting in these cases is a very different matter from blind obedience. It is rather, a loving and knowing kind of obedience.

The English writer G. K. Chesterton once addressed questions similar to those I have raised today. He distinguished among “optimists,” “pessimists,” and “improvers,” which roughly correspond to my three levels of dealing with ambiguity. He concluded that both the optimists and the pessimists looked too much at only one side of things. He observed that neither the extreme optimist nor the extreme pessimist would ever be of much help in improving the human condition, because people can’t solve problems unless they are willing to acknowledge that a problem exists and yet also retain enough genuine loyalty to do something about it. More specifically, Chesterton wrote that the evil of the excessive optimist (level one) is that he will “defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, ‘My cosmos, right or wrong.’ He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing everyone with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.”

On the other hand, the evil of the pessimist (level two), wrote Chesterton, is “not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises.” In being the so-called “candid friend,” the pessimist is not really candid. Chesterton continued: “He is keeping something back—his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. … He is using the ugly knowledge which was allowed him [in order] to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it.” (Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Garden City, N.Y.: Image Book, 1959, pp. 69–70).

In going on to describe the “improvers,” or level three, Chesterton illustrates by referring to women, who tend to be so loyal to those who need them. “Some stupid people started the idea that because women obviously back up their own people through everything, therefore women are blind and do not see anything. They can hardly have known any women. The same women who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin … are almost morbidly lucid about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head. … Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 71.)

Perhaps President Harold B. Lee was thinking of Chesterton’s point about women when he used to say, “Behind every great man, there is an amazed woman.”

Chesterton’s arranging of these categories makes me think of one other way to compare the differing levels of perspective that people bring to the way they cope with ambiguity. Consider the metaphorical image of “lead, kindly light.” At level one, people either do not or cannot see that there are both a kindly light and an encircling gloom, or that if there are both, that there is no real difference between the two. At level two, the difference is acutely apparent, but one’s acceptance of the ambiguity may be so wholeheartedly pessimistic as to say, “Remember that the hour is darkest just before everything goes completely black.”

How different are these responses from that calm but honest prayer at level three,

“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
lead thou me on. …
I do not ask to see
the distant scene—one step enough for me.”

(Hymns, no. 112.)

All I ask, then, is that we may be honest enough and courageous enough to face whatever uncertainties we may encounter, try to understand them, and then do something about them. Perhaps then we will not be living on borrowed light. “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Bruce C. Hafen, president of Ricks College, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Rexburg Idaho Tenth Ward.