Celestial Navigation: Why Our Imperfect Guidance System is Perfect for God’s Purposes
Posted by Andrew on February 11, 2008
Imagine being an ancient mariner on an empty sea in the black of night with nothing more to guide you than a few distant lights in the heavens. Celestial navigation is an ancient skill that enables its practitioner to use the stars to determine where he is, where he wants to be, and which direction he needs to go. As a guidance system, it was woefully imperfect and had a high rate of error. Sometimes the heavens were obscured by clouds, and even when the skies were clear, the constellations were continually drifting. A sailor could easily misread the stars and end up hundreds of miles from his intended destination. Nowadays, modern mariners have GPS devices that make all the necessary calculations for them with virtually flawless precision at the push of a button. They always arrive at their intended destinations, but I wonder what would happen if one day the satellites and computers stopped telling them what to do and where to go. Would modern mariners have adequately learned in their previous voyages to guide themselves by the light of the stars?
I’ve been wrestling with the question of why God allows so much ambiguity and uncertainty to exist about him and his ways, and why he’s left us with such an imperfect guidance system to discover the answers to life’s most important questions. There are so many things that God could just come out and clearly say, so many questions he could easily answer, but he chooses not to. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the reason why has a lot to do with the above comparison of ancient and modern mariners. It has a lot to do with clouds, stars, moons, suns, and which of those heavenly bodies God wants us to become.
As mortals, our vision of God and his ways is clouded–even for prophets and apostles. The Apostle Paul wrote: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. . . For now we see through a glass, darkly . . . .” (1 Cor. 13:9-12.) Similarly, the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (HC 6:50.)
There are at least three possible reasons why God’s ways are shrouded from our view: (1) God doesn’t want us to know them; (2) we are incapable of understanding them; or (3) God wants us to have to search, ponder, pray, seek, knock, ask, and wrestle to understand them. Our belief about which of these three possibilities is correct determines how we respond when we have difficulty understanding one of life’s many questions, or a particular Church doctrine or policy. Those who believe God either doesn’t want us to know, or that we are incapable of understanding, will likely see no point in inquiring into the matter. In fact, they may even believe it to be arrogant, foolish, or dangerous to inquire into matters we do not understand. On the other hand, those who believe God wants us to ask questions and seek out the answers will likely do just that.
To me, the scriptures are filled with evidences that God wants us to have questions and to seek answers to them. As I spent the last year teaching the New Testament to my 11-12 year-old Primary boys, I was struck by how infrequently Jesus used clear and unambiguous language when he taught. Instead, he often spoke in parables that even his Apostles could not understand. His parables were susceptible to various interpretations, sparking discussions about which of the possible interpretations was correct. I also realized that Jesus let his Apostles figure out who he was for themselves, rather than just directly telling them, as evidenced by his asking Peter long into his ministry: “Whom say ye that I am?” Jesus was also willing to tolerate the various theories circulating around about who he was–some said he was John the Baptist, others Elias, others Jeremais, and others some other prophet. Jesus could have just come out and told them all directly who he was, but he didn’t. And when Pilate directly asked Jesus, “Art thou the King of the Jews?,” even with his life at stake, Jesus answered Pilate’s question with a question: “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?” So not only did Jesus tolerate people having questions about him and his Gospel; he seems to have intentionally taught in a way that created questions, and often answered questions with more questions.
God may allow or create these clouds of ambiguity and uncertainty that obscure our vision of Him, but as explained below, I believe He has a wise purpose for it.
Fortunately, God has not left us alone and lost in the clouds. He has called prophets to be our guiding stars that lead us toward him. Like the constellations that drift across the sky, prophets’ views change as they grow line upon line, and precept upon precept, in their understanding of God’s will and his ways. This should never come as a surprise to us because one of our Articles of Faith is that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (Ninth AF.) The prophets’ guidance is not fixed in stone; it is ever-changing like the position of the stars. But regardless of any imperfections we perceive in the prophets’ words, they remain a valuable source of light and knowledge. And it would be as foolish to for us to ignore the prophets’ guidance simply because it changes as it would be for a mariner to ignore the drifting stars in the sky.
By the same token, however, it is possible to go too far in “following the prophets” by turning off our brains and hearts and expecting the prophets to do all of the searching, pondering, praying, seeking, asking, and knocking for us. I have noticed an unfortunate tendency among some Church members to look disparagingly on the idea of questioning Church doctrines or policies, and I myself have previously been guilty of having the attitude that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” I sometimes see vehement, knee-jerk reactions against even the most innocent questions about the most natural subjects of inquiry about Church doctrine and policy. As if merely asking why a Church doctrine or policy is such-and-such displays an egregious lack of faith about whether it is inspired of God, or worse, is seen as an act of open rebellion against God’s servants. For some people, it is enough to simply know that a Church leader has said it, and they bristle at others’ attempts to discover why it has been said.
Not only is such defensiveness unnecessary, it is contrary to God’s design and impedes our spiritual development. As Brigham Young taught:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:150 [quoted by James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 8].)
What did Brigham Young mean when he referred to Church members having a “blind self-security” and a “reckless confidence” in their leaders? And why did he believe that “would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders”? That brings us to the difference between moons and suns.
Moons and Suns
The moon is incapable of generating its own light; it can only reflect light generated by another source. As a result, the moon’s brightness pales in comparison that that of the sun, and its visibility and influence greatly diminish with distance.
By contrast, the sun is a source of light; it does not rely on borrowed light from other celestial bodies. As a result, the sun remains visible even from trillions of light years away, and its influence extends light years into the blackness of space to create entire “solar systems.”
Familiar imagery from modern-day scripture teaches us that God’s ultimate design is for us to become suns (celestial bodies), rather than moons (terrestrial bodies). (D&C 76.) God does not want us to simply reflect light borrowed from other sources. He wants us to become sources of light ourselves. He does not want us to blindly obey the prophets, letting them do all the studying and praying for us. Rather, God wants each of us to become prophets as well. “[W]ould God that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29.)
As Elder Perry has taught: “We have never been encouraged to be blindly obedient; it is an intelligent obedience that characterizes members of the Church.” (L. Tom Perry, “We Believe All That God Has Revealed,” Ensign, Nov 2003, 85.) Although Elder Perry did not define what he meant by “intelligent obedience” as opposed to “blind obedience,” he seemed to be referring to what Brigham Young taught about the need for Church members to “learn by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” As we seek to learn whether our leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, we will inevitably have questions about Church doctrines and policies. We need not suppress or ignore such questions, nor regard them as forbidden or dangerous. Rather, the scriptures abound with examples of how questions can prompt honest truth seekers to seek answers that lead them to deeper levels of understanding about God’s mysterious ways.
But unfortunately, we sometimes forgo opportunities to receive greater light and knowledge by putting our questions about Church doctrine or policy on the shelf, either out of laziness or because of a misguided “reckless confidence” in our leaders. When our leaders tell us the Lord’s will, it is certainly wise to obey, but as Brigham Young pointed out, our responsibility to God and to ourselves does not end there.
God certainly wants us to develop obedience to learn how to act like him, but he has an even greater purpose for us. Life is not a just test to see whether we will strictly follow directions from a celestial GPS system that tells us exactly what to do. Rather, God wants us to master the imperfect-but-empowering art of celestial navigation by developing spiritual discernment and learning how to think like him. Borrowing Elder Oaks’ terminology from a recent General Conference address, it is good to know what God or his prophets have said, but it is best to also understand why they have said it. By asking the “why,” we open our minds to revelations from the Holy Spirit that, over time, can help us develop the “mind of the Lord,” and discover the fundamental principles by which God operates.
But, of course, we will never attain that fullness of light and knowledge unless we seek it.