I Have a Question

Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

When there is no set Church policy on an issue or practice that Church members find troublesome, how should they resolve their concern?

Philip F. Low, Regional Representative, Indiana North and Indianapolis Indiana Regions. The answer to your question can be found in the following principles: (1) Free agency is ordained by God. (2) Free agency cannot be exercised unless choices are available. (3) An intelligent choice cannot be made without knowledge of the truth. (4) In making a choice, we are expected to be as self-reliant as possible. (5) Any important decision should be regarded as provisional until it is ratified by our Father in Heaven. (6) We are ultimately responsible for the decision we make.

Let us discuss these principles briefly.

The fundamental importance of agency is demonstrated by the fact that a war in heaven was fought to preserve it (see Moses 4:1–3; Rev. 12:7–9), that the plan for the earth’s creation emphasized it (see Abr. 3:25), and that it was in effect when our first parents lived in the Garden of Eden (see Moses 7:32). Indeed, the principle of agency is so strongly upheld by God that he allows Satan the freedom to tempt His children despite His great love for them and the risk of losing them.

The scriptures teach that agency is a necessary aspect of intelligence (see D&C 93:30–31) and that it would be nullified if different choices or options were not available. Lehi taught his son Jacob: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. … If not so, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore … it must needs have been created for a thing of naught.” (2 Ne. 2:11–12.) Hence, it is essential that we be confronted with things that are ugly in opposition to things that are beautiful, with things that sadden in opposition to things that gladden, with things that we are commanded to do in opposition to things that we are commanded not to do.

Moreover, between opposites, there are numerous intermediate things. Accordingly, there is a wide spectrum of choices that can be made and an equally wide spectrum of consequences that follow. If it were not so, we would neither gain experience nor develop character. Consequently, there would be no eternal progression, and we would have been created for naught.

The Savior said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32.) Truth can free us from transgressing the law unknowingly or from making choices ignorantly.

For example, consider a man standing at an intersection of roads. He may have the freedom to follow any road he chooses, but he cannot make an intelligent choice unless he knows where each road leads. It is the same with us. In order to benefit fully from the use of our agency, we must have a knowledge of the truth—a knowledge of things as they are, and as they were and as they are to come. (See D&C 93:24.) It should be borne in mind that “the Glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36), and if we are to become like Him, we must gain a knowledge of truth and then use this truth wisely in the exercise of our agency.

A fundamental principle of the gospel is that even after the Savior’s matchless grace and love are proffered so willingly in our behalf, under the terms of his atonement we still must work out our own salvation. In section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord told Oliver Cowdery: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.” [D&C 9:7]

Are we any different from Oliver Cowdery? Can we expect inspiration in making choices or resolving issues if we take no thought but to ask? And if inspiration is not forthcoming under such circumstances, are we always justified in seeking the counsel of the bishop with the expectation that he will receive the inspiration that we have failed to obtain?

Consistent with these thoughts are the words of Elder Boyd K. Packer: “The principle of self-reliance or personal independence is fundamental to the happy life. …

“Can we not see that the same principle [of economic self-reliance] applies to inspiration and revelation, the solving of problems, to counsel, and to guidance?” (Ensign, May 1978, pp. 91–92.)

The philosophy of self-reliance is embodied in the Lord’s admonition “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things” (D&C 58:26), and in Joseph Smith’s response to the question of how he governed his people: “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” Evidently, the Lord does not expect us to surrender the decision-making process or other individual responsibilities to Him or to the leaders of His church.

Of course, the principle of self-reliance must not be construed to mean that we should be independent of our Father in Heaven. On the contrary, we should prayerfully seek his counsel and guidance at all times. Furthermore, after a person has considered the various alternatives to a problem, gathered the pertinent facts from the scriptures and best books (see D&C 109:7), studied them out in his mind and reached a tentative decision, he should ask our Heavenly Father if that decision is right.

Often, if our decision is right, we will feel the burning in our bosom described in Doctrine and Covenants 9 or a peace of mind that assures us our decision is ratified. [D&C 9] Sometimes, however, we may have to wait for an answer—for his own purposes, God sometimes does not answer our prayers immediately or in the ways we expect.

Although our Heavenly Father may or may not ratify our decisions, we alone are responsible for them. And we either enjoy or suffer the consequences thereof. Logic dictates that if, by ratifying or not ratifying a decision, our Father in Heaven assumed responsibility for it, we would be relieved of any accountability. Hence, there could be no reward or punishment and, ultimately, no justice. The truth is that, in scriptural terms, we are agents unto ourselves. (See D&C 29:35.)

How does one use these principles in reaching decisions on issues or practices for which there is no established Church policy? As a case study, let us consider one problem that sometimes troubles Church members: family size. Many years ago, my wife and I were confronted with this problem. My wife had experienced trouble with her back that was aggravated by the carrying and bearing of children and, following the cesarean birth of a fourth child, she was obliged to undergo surgery on her spinal column. The surgery was largely successful in removing the cause of the trouble, but some irreparable damage had already been done and so she was strongly advised by the physicians involved not to have any more children. This advice troubled us greatly because we wanted to have more children. Therefore, we decided to follow the procedure described heretofore.

We first examined the scriptures and the words of modern prophets for relevant principles of truth. Among the scriptures we read were the following: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28) and “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.” (Ps. 127:3–5.)

We found that these scriptures were reinforced by President Joseph F. Smith, who stated: “I regret … that there should exist a sentiment or a feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. … I believe that where people undertake to curtail or prevent the birth of their children that they are going to reap disappointment by and by.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, pp. 278–79.)

We also read President David O. McKay’s statement: “Love realizes his sweetest happiness and his most divine consummation in the home where the coming of children [is] made most welcome, and where the duties of parenthood are accepted as a co-partner-ship with the eternal Creator.

“In all this, however, the mother’s health should be guarded. In the realm of wifehood, the woman should reign supreme.” (Gospel Ideals, 2nd printing, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1954.)

Having read what the Lord and his prophets have said on the subject, we next studied all the literature we could find on the kind of back trouble that my wife suffered. For seven years we studied and prayed and fasted for inspiration in deciding what to do. Finally, we decided to have a fifth child. This decision was confirmed by a peaceful assurance from our Father in Heaven.

When our fifth child was born, we wondered about having a sixth. My wife felt that there was still another child, a boy, waiting to come into our home. So we followed the same procedure again and, as a result, that boy is now part of our family and has returned from a mission to Germany. Once he was born, we felt content. We felt no motivation to further expand our family. Our quiver was full.

In the economy of heaven, all the answers are not given. We have the opportunity to exercise our agency and God-given faculties to seek and find our own answers to many questions. In the process, if we follow correct principles and are sensitive to the whisperings of the Spirit, we will grow and develop toward godhood.

Is it true that the Brazen Serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness symbolized Christ? Why would the image of a serpent be used to represent the Savior?

Ermel J. Morton, patriarch in the Rexburg Idaho East Stake and retired instructor at Ricks College. The use of the serpent as a symbol of divinity was used by many ancient cultures, including the descendents of the Book of Mormon people. In Mesoamerica, the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl (coatl meaning serpent), was for centuries used as a symbol of a great white God who visited their ancestors.

However, I believe that the comparison in Numbers 21:5–9 is a simile; and like all similes that are correctly constructed, it has only one point of comparison. [Num. 21:5–9] The point of similarity here is the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of Christ, both for the purpose of healing the people. That this is the point of comparison is seen from a statement of the Savior in the Gospel of John:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15.)

The correlative conjunctions as and so join the verbs lifted up, in the case of the serpent, and must be lifted up, in the case of the Savior. It is the two actions of lifting up that are being compared, together with the purpose of the lifting up—that of healing, the one for the healing of the Israelites from poisonous snake bites and the other for the healing of mankind from sin.

Moses raised up the image of a serpent on the pole because the Lord commanded him to do so. (See Num. 21:8.) It may be that the Lord used this symbol to point their minds toward faith in him as a means of healing them. If they would but look up at the serpent and exercise faith in the words of Moses, they would be healed. In the same way, a person who will look up to Christ and his atoning sacrifice, as culminated on the cross, and will exercise faith in Christ will be healed. Nephi, the son of Lehi, states that the Lord gave Moses the power to heal the people. The power of healing, therefore, was not in the Brazen Serpent but in obedience to the instructions of Moses. Note Nephi’s explanation:

“And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave Moses power that he should heal the nations [tribes of Israel] after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them …” (2 Ne. 25:20; italics added).

Similarly, Alma describes the Brazen Serpent as a type or symbol for the healing of the people, not the source of the healing.

“Behold, he [Christ] was spoken of by Moses; yea, and behold a type [symbol] was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.

“But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them.” (Alma 33:19–20.)

The evident meaning of Alma’s statement is that obedience to the command given through Moses to look on the serpent brought healing just as obedience to the command of God to look on His Son for a remission of sins brings healing. Here again the source of the healing of the Israelites was not the serpent but rather their obedience to the command of God through Moses.

Nephi, the son of Helaman, also made some interesting comments on the comparison:

“Yea, did he [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come.

And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.” (Hel. 8:14–15; italics added.)

It is evident that Moses used the lifting up of the serpent as a symbol to represent healing through Christ. He bore testimony of Christ’s atonement and used the Brazen Serpent as a teaching cerning salvation and the forgiveness of sins through the atonement of the Savior.