God’s Dilemma

Andrew Mormon, mormon, Mormons, prayer, questioning, testimony 30 Comments

“We thought that we had the answers.
It was the questions we had wrong.”
-U2, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the dilemmas God must encounter on an almost daily basis when His children ask Him questions that are based on a host of false assumptions and man-made concepts. I’m sure God wants to answer everyone’s prayers, but what’s a good Father to do when He’s constantly being asked the wrong questions?

The questions we ask God are necessarily based on our own perceptions and understandings of the world around us. Of course, being that our perceptions and understandings are hopelessly limited and therefore hopelessly flawed, we inevitably formulate questions that, from the perspective of an omnipresent and omniscient God, range from childish to foolish to utterly nonsensical.

To illustrate my point, let’s use a hypothetical example. Imagine that Sam lives in what is now Kazakhstan in the year 600 B.C. His whole life, Sam has been taught by everyone that Zorg is the true Grand Mufti of Korm, the one legitimate heir to that highest of spiritual offices first held by Zorma the Blessed (blessed be his name), and is therefore the only genuine possessor of the Oracle of Yurt, which, as everyone knows, gives its possessor alone the power to discern God’s will for all mankind. (The one catch is that the Oracle of Yurt is not a physical object that the purported Grand Mufti can just show the world to prove his claim; the Oracle is supposedly an unseen spiritual device whose true possessor can be discerned only by the pure in heart through prayer.)

So far the hypothetical sounds ridiculous, I know, but that’s exactly the point. Imagine a scenario where someone’s entire perception and understanding of reality is based on concepts, doctrines, ideas, terms, phrases, and titles that seem completely normal to him because they’ve been taught to him his entire life but that, from God’s perspective, are just way out in left field.

Now imagine one day our friend Sam decides to gain a testimony for himself about whether Zorg is indeed the true Grand Mufti of Korm. So Sam fasts for a week, gives all his surplus to the poor, ritually shaves and washes himself, and climbs to the top of Mount Zuru to pray. As he kneels on a ritual bed of obsidian shards, he utters the following prayer from the depths of his soul: “Dear God, please tell me whether Zorg is indeed the true Grand Mufti of Korm, the one legitimate heir of Zorma the Blessed, the only genuine possessor of the sacred Oracle of Yurt.”

Before discussing God’s possible answers to Sam’s prayers, let’s first consider what God actually hears when Sam utters his prayer. It would seem that Sam, like us, has actually offered two prayers: (1) the spoken prayer that was based on erroneous man-made concepts; and (2) the unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart, i.e., for God to show him how to live a good and happy life, and to “do the right thing.” It was those sincere, well-motivated unspoken desires of Sam’s heart that caused him to climb the mountain to pray. But when he knelt down and opened his mouth to pray, those unspoken desires were filtered through the lens of Sam’s time, place, and culture, and in that process, Sam’s pure unspoken desires were translated into the erroneous man-made language and concepts he’d been taught to use his entire life, resulting in a sincere but utterly misguided spoken prayer.

Now let’s evaluate God’s options for answering Sam’s sincere but misguided prayer. But first, a caveat. I realize there are is a wide range of possible nuanced answers that God could give Sam. But for the sake of time and space, I think it’s fair to say that all the possible responses could be summarized as either leading Sam toward or away from Zorg, the purported Grand Mufti. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the former as a “Yes” answer and the latter as a “No” answer.

1. The “No” answer. Since there is no such thing as a true Grand Mufti of Korm, etc., etc., God would be perfectly justified in giving a simple, direct “No” answer in response to Sam’s sincere but misguided spoken prayer. The upside to this approach is that it’s the most honest and truthful. But there could be significant downsides to revealing the “truth” about the Grand Mufti to Sam. What if God knows that leading Sam away from the Grand Mufti would cause him to pursue a lifestyle that will ultimately bring great sadness to Sam, his family, and his friends? What if there are no other belief systems/religions/churches that can lead Sam to a better life? What if God knows that Sam’s rejection of the Grand Mufti could lead to his being shunned by his community, or imprisoned, or even killed? In short, giving a direct, honest “No” answer to Sam’s sincere but misguided spoken question may actually lead Sam farther away from what God knows to be the righteous unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart (i.e., to live a good life and be happy).

2. The “Yes” answer. God can choose to look past the erroneous assumptions in Sam’s spoken question and focus instead on the unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart, i.e., for God to show him the path toward a good and happy life. Assuming the Grand Mufti is a pretty good guy who dispenses a lot of pearls of wisdom, and there are no superior belief systems available to Sam, then giving Sam a “Yes” answer will point him to the path that is most likely to fulfill the righteous unspoken desires of his heart. The upside to this approach is that it seems more loving and merciful. I know I’d rather have God give me what I meant to ask for rather than responding to what I literally asked him. I don’t like the idea of a God who would lead me away from a path that he knows will fulfill the unspoken righteous desires of my heart because of technical errors in my spoken questions. But the downside is that a “Yes” answer will likely validate and reinforce erroneous, man-made concepts in Sam’s mind (i.e., it will cause him to believe there is actually such a thing as a true Grand Mufti, an Oracle of Yurt, etc.). In that respect, a “Yes” answer, although compassionate and merciful in a certain sense, could also be considered deceptive and misleading.

To be clear, my purpose here is simply to illustrate how our flawed conceptions of reality may cause us to formulate flawed questions in our spoken prayers, which may present God with the dilemma of either (1) giving us technically “misleading” answers to our spoken prayers that paradoxically lead us closer to the unspoken prayers in our hearts, or (2) giving us “honest” answers to our spoken prayers that paradoxically may actually lead us away from the unspoken prayers in our hearts.

One final thought: substitute the words “Zorg” and “Grand Mufti of Korm” and “Zorma the Blessed” and the “Oracle of Yurt” with the names and official titles of the leaders, both past and present, of the various religions and churches in the world, along with their claims to authority. Might this dilemma help explain why the devout adherents to all the world’s different faiths all feel so strongly that God has confirmed their beliefs?

Comments

comments

Comments 30

  1. I often see an instance of this in the context of funerals, even LDS funerals. Loved ones of the deceased express the peace that they feel because of the spiritual confirmation and knowledge they have that the deceased in now home with God, or in the arms of Jesus. These feelings certainly are legitimate, and may very well have come as an answer to prayer.

    However, from a strict LDS doctrinal perspective, entering in into God’s presence does not occur until after the spirit-world phase, when the person is celestially resurrected.

    But like you pointed out, the unspoken prayers may be, at their core, requesting confirmation that the deceased is in a happy place, and is at peace. Doctrinally, the spirit world is indeed defined as such. (see Alma 42:2) So it seems reasonable that, although the post-mortal spirit world does not enjoy the presence of deity, someone may have a spiritual conviction that those who have passed on are “home with God.”—an answer not to the spoken prayer, but to the unspoken one.

  2. I don’t know, it seems a false dichotomy to me. I think God capable of far more nuanced answers than simple “yes” and “no”.

    I suspect this is partly why so many prayers seem unanswered.

  3. Andrew, thanks for another amazing post. Let me try to respond initially with the following experience:

    I interviewed for a teaching position shortly before graduating from college at a Quaker school. I absolutley loved the place, the people and the philosophy and wanted to teach there. In my prayer that night, I asked a very simple question: “Is this the best place for me?” My answer was immediate and unmistakable. “YES.”

    I was crushed, therefore, when I was told the next day that I would not be offered the position – that I was their first choice, but that they needed someone who could live in the dorms with the students. I was married with three children, and, although they had a house on campus that was empty and available, they simply couldn’t hire me at that time.

    I eventually was hired to teach at a school in a different state, and to this day I am sure it was not as good for me personally as the other one would have been (which was the very narrow focus of my prayer). However, working there put me in a position to teach the children of a speech therapist – who would offer to work with my son at no cost. That was invaluable and desperately needed. It also put me in a position a few years later to be in the right place to see the ad that brought me to where I am now – and being where I am now has provided some very specific blessings for at least two of my children that would not have been available had I been offered and taken the first job that would have been better for ME. In my mind, I asked the wrong question (“ME”) to receive the answer that would have addressed my actual need (“my family”), but the Lord answered that question directly and honestly – I think to teach me a lesson about the questions I need to ask as a husband and father, not an independent individual. Life wasn’t about me once I married, and I needed to realize that.

    So, I believe there are cases where God answers prayers directly, even though we are going to totally misunderstand those answers. I also believe strongly that He answers many prayers in ways that will place us in position for growth that we will need in the future. Other times, I think he smiles, shrugs his shoulders and says, “Whatever.” In a nutshell, I like the construct that says He will answer prayers in whatever way has the most likelihood to further His own purposes and allow us to grow toward ultimate perfection. What we do with those answers, however, is up to us – and it often is only in hindsight that we are able to realize the purpose behind the answer.

    Finally, I really do believe we judge Laman and Lemuel too harshly for one statement attributed to them. (others, also, but one in particular) “God maketh no such thing known unto us.” We assume that was due to unrighteousness, but I wonder sometimes if they simply lacked that particular gift – to understand answers to prayer. I know quite a few faithful members who don’t experience obvious and unmistakable answers to prayers – who are left to struggle on without such confirmation. I wonder if Nephi had been more gentle and less absolutist if they might have been willing to “believe on those who know”. That is specualtion of the highest order, but I still wonder.

  4. I generally agree with you, but it raises other questions… if Sam gets his #2 answer, what happens when the Grand Mufti asks him to do something that violates his conscience? Or what if the Grand Mufti gives 80% good advice but the last 20% is damaging to others?

  5. Actually, if I may share a recent experience with you folks. My wife had been praying about something. She had been asking whether or not she should get a part time job to help supplement our income (as things are rather tight at the moment). She had asked my advice on the matter, and after praying about the matter, and going to the temple, my feeling was the she needed to get her own answer on the subject (which, by the way, was not the advice she wanted…).

    So she went to the temple and prayed about it. And came back having received a clear answer. No, she should not get a part time job, and yes trying to supplement our income through some of the crafts that she’s been trying to sell might be okay. She felt really good about this. For a whole day. Then the person whose child she’d been babysitting told her that she really felt like she should be spending more time with her son, and wouldn’t be asking my wife to baby sit anymore. So my wife starts asking the same questions again. That’s when I had to confront this sort of question–what is a valid answer to prayer?

    We all too often ask questions with a set of assumptions, and assume that God is answering the prayer with the same assumptions–but when our assumptions are challenged (like my wife’s were so quickly), we then question the answer to the prayer. This is especially true in stressful scenarios. The evidence, however, is that this is exactly the opposite of what it means to have faith. Having faith means relying on the answer, knowing that God does not share our mortal assumptions when a prayer is given. Knowing that if we want him to, he’ll answer the questions we should be asking instead of the ones we are asking. I know that if God only answers the prayers I verbalize and ask directly, I’m in trouble, because my verbalized prayers are fairly infrequent. But I spend a lot of time thinking and pondering. I ponder best when I write or teach. That’s just me.

    So there.

  6. People are pointing out some poignant stuff re: answers.

    I’ll go with Ray in assuming that God will do what he thinks will help us – and our loved ones – most in the long run. Meanwhile, we interpret our own emotions the best way we can and do our best with what we have. So often we don’t understand what it is we need.

    Then at times we are motivated by pure love and desire to come closer to God, and feel his love and guidance in our life.

  7. I think God capable of far more nuanced answers than simple “yes” and “no”. — yes, but many people are unable to hear the nuance.

    Ray, I’ve had similar experiences, and it is interesting to reflect and attempt to make better sense out of them.

    We all too often ask questions with a set of assumptions, and assume that God is answering the prayer with the same assumptions–but … ah, but … I’ll go with Ray in assuming that God will do what he thinks will help us – and our loved ones – most in the long run. Meanwhile, we interpret our own emotions the best way we can and do our best with what we have. So often we don’t understand what it is we need.

    I think it is a learning experience.

    This post came out at the same time as: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2008/12/17/trusting-god-part-2/

    Interesting how the two go together.

  8. However, from a strict LDS doctrinal perspective, entering in into God’s presence does not occur until after the spirit-world phase, when the person is celestially resurrected.

    Not to thread-jack, but:

    Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil. (Alma 40:11-13)

    ..bruce..

  9. Andrew,

    Excellent questions. I don’t have the answers, but the questions are important to consider.

    Some other questions that come to mind include:

    How do we know that the “answers” we have received are actually God answering and not the result of our subconscious minds reinforcing the things we want most? I don’t mean in a universal sense. I am talking about on a case-by-case basis. We often think of prayer as a decoder for difficult principles and choices, but what is the decoder for the answers to prayer?

  10. Andrew – great post. I think the real crux is what is his intent. The admonition in Moroni to pray “with real intent” comes to mind. What does he intend to do with the answer? What will he personally at this time in his life do with a “yes” and what will he personally do at this time in his life with a “no.” I often think we ask the wrong questions, but we ask the only ones we really can. We should forget what we say and remember what we meant and what our intentions were when we evaluate answers to prayer. There’s a really interesting story in “A Thoughtful Faith” about a guy who has an after-death experience, and he is angry that he didn’t get a solid answer to whether the church was true. He wants to confront God and demand answers. He can no longer hide his true intentions, though, and he realizes that if he had an answer of certainty, he would have been a total douche about it because he was really hung up on “being right.” It was an interesting nuance to the story.

    Ray: “I really do believe we judge Laman and Lemuel too harshly for one statement attributed to them. (others, also, but one in particular) “God maketh no such thing known unto us.” We assume that was due to unrighteousness, but I wonder sometimes if they simply lacked that particular gift – to understand answers to prayer.” This is a great perspective.

  11. c.biden (11)

    “dilemma: a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.”

    -Random House Unabridged Dictionary

    I think often the word “dilemma” is used to indicate a decision that is challenging, difficult, or perplexing. In that sense, I don’t think God has many dilemmas. But if you’re asking whether God has to ever choose between equally undesirable alternatives, I can’t see why God wouldn’t have those kinds of dilemmas if he’s working through human beings.

  12. King (13), that’s certainly an optimistic point of view. If that is the case, what do you make of the fact that less than 1% of the world’s population is LDS?

    “If you pray in the spirit; you will ask the right question and get an answer.”

    Does this mean less than 1% of the world’s population actually “pray[s] in the spirit”?

  13. Frankly, I think we are all more or less 7th-century Sams. When we finally wake up for the last time, we will see how abysmally wrong we were in our notions about just about everything. God tries his best to explain Celestial concepts to a Telestial world, but the language just doesn’t exist.

    And (14) Andrew- you don’t need hands laid upon your head to “pray in the spirit”: otherwise, no one would ever, for example, join the Church; indeed, the restoration of the gospel would have been impossible. I am sure that billions of people throughout the world are receiving all the light they are prepared to handle.

  14. I still don’t understand how God can have dilemmas. It would seem that dilemmas would only apply to human beings, who are not omniscient and omnipotent.

  15. Matt (15), I agree with you completely. I’m not sure you understood my comment to King, or perhaps I was not clear enough. I didn’t mean to suggest you need to have hands laid on your head to pray in the spirit. I was responding to what appeared to be King’s suggestion that as long as you pray in the Spirit, you will ask the right question and get an answer. I believe the logical implication of such a statement is that (from King’s perspective, not mine) that means less than 1% of the world’s population have prayed in the spirit; otherwise, far more people would have “seen the light” and joined the Church by now.

    c.biden (16), I don’t know what more to say, my friend. I’m not sure why a belief in an omniscient and omnipotent God would preclude the possibility that sometimes God has to choose between two equally undesirable options. The equally undesirable part isn’t a negative reflection on God; it’s a negative reflection on mankind and our thoroughly flawed natures as individuals and organizations.

  16. Great concept to think about Andrew! Thanks for the post.

    This is a great example of why people get frustrated when God doesn’t seem to behave as they expect. It isn’t God that gets it wrong. We do. I choose to believe that God has our best interest in mind. The difficult task is to patiently watch, listen and ponder — why?

    All hail Zorg! The one and only true Grand Mufti of Korm. He is second in greatness only to Zorma the Blessed. I know this from the depths of my soul by the power of the Orable of Yurt.

  17. And by the way, I agree with the various comments above — this is an excellent post. God dealing with us is like a wise, loving super-genius dealing with a bunch of Sunbeam-age kids — except the gap between us and God is infinitely wider. ..bruce..

  18. For myself,I no longer ask God yes/no questions,since I think that I have responsibilty for the outcome and that all questions hinge on the agency of so many.I just walk through each day having prayed to consecrate my performance to the Lord for the benefit of all of us,and try to focus on keeping my intentions pure which is quite a tall order.I came across a definition of prayer in Marilynne Robinson’s book,’Home’which I have been thinking about,which was something along the lines of prayer being a process of opening our thoughts up to God.I’m still thinking.

  19. “prayer being a process of opening our thoughts up to God”

    I like that, wayfarer.

    In my own mind, I separate “prayer” from “receiving God’s word” – since I hope to receive His word even when I’m not “praying”. I think the second is more of “keeping a prayer in my heart”, as opposed to “actively praying”. Of course, I believe I can receive His word while I am praying, but separating out when I am talking and when He is talking (or allowing Him to talk even when I’m not) is important, I think.

    Perhaps that’s a fine distinction, but it helps me.

  20. The catch 22 of prayer is that if you don’t recieve an answer it’s because you’re not faithful enough or asking the right questions or asking the right questions right, etc.. For some, prayer is a one way conversation that goes beyond “the long dark night of the soul”. Never getting an anwer in time becomes the answer.

  21. So tell me, what does a person experience or not experience that makes him or her as the case may be feel that God is answering, communicating, prompting, influencing them. I remember praying to find a lost pocket knife, who to marry, what profession to follow, whether or not to stay in the military, how to deal with a troubled child, a difficult matter of history or doctrine and the answer was always the same. Was it my difficulty with English and the spoken word, my lack of knowledge of the scriptures and theology, my lack of experience with things spiritual? Why is it that one person senses the reality of God and His hand in his life and another doesn’t? Why is it that someone will feel guided in all they do by the Spirit and someone like Mother Theresa will for years feel totally abandoned by God? Those of you who write so easily of how your prayers are answered and how you feel guided need to consider that you may have a gift that hasn’t been given to every one or have earned something that others have not. To be able to kneel and know that someone is listening is not something that everyone feels and I for one would like to know why some do and some don’t.

  22. “Those of you who write so easily of how your prayers are answered and how you feel guided need to consider that you may have a gift that hasn’t been given to every one or have earned something that others have not. To be able to kneel and know that someone is listening is not something that everyone feels and I for one would like to know why some do and some don’t.”

    GB, that is exactly what I was addressing in the last paragraph of #3. I agree totally with what you are saying in your comment.

  23. What if God knows that leading Sam away from the Grand Mufti would cause him to pursue a lifestyle that will ultimately bring great sadness to Sam, his family, and his friends?

    “God might know that it will bring Sam his family and friends sadness at first because they are being taught by a charlatan the Grand Mufti. They will all have to at some time just look at the principles , morals and values that he taught and see if they are worth salvaging and living.”

    Juanita Brooks was shunned for writing Mountain Meadow Massacre , Fawn Broddie the same. Integrity is painful you can’t live a good life and be happy with out it. You have to decide is it worth living for and teaching your progenitors to live a life based on fiction just because they will get a few good values and principles out of it.

    Or is it better to be in the dark and sad for a while but live an honest life true to what you at least know is true, but also possibly a sad life because your whole belief system in Grand Mufti is over.

  24. GB,hope you’re still around.What you’ve said really resonates with me and I know takes great courage to say.We have struggled with severe sickness in three family members for 15 years now and have been promised in blessings right from the start that they we would be healed.Many long dark nights of the soul have followed.We are seeing improvements in one family member,and there are no words for my gratitiude for that,but each day I wonder if it will stick-does that make me faithless?Nevertheless,I know in whom I have trusted,and I guess I can hardly hope to trump mother teresa-good to know she’s there,huh?I’m angry with God that He has not yet seen fit to give me a cookie,but I guess this is hardly uncommon to man,and I can be OK until I read about happy endings and miraculous cures-my daughter has learnt to think of hope as a cruel joke and has learnt to fear it.I often wonder what I should be teaching them about faith and hope,but try to focus on loving God for who He is,not who we want him to be and what we want him to give us.I do find scripture sustaining,and see my experiences reflected there far more than the discourse with church would have me believe-it has frequently been said to us over the years that if we would only extend our faith to attend church we would be healed-too sick to hear,see,or keep our eyes open. A failure of compassion,but I know that God mourns with us and knows the desires of our hearts,and that nothing is achieved in bitterness.GB,know that there are others of us,and that for some of us this is just how it is,and that you probably share this expereince with your ancestors.You certainly share it with Job,who will be proud to call us his.

  25. I have the solutions for Sam’s problem.

    A.
    “1. The “No” answer. Since there is no such thing as a true Grand Mufti of Korm, etc., etc., God would be perfectly justified in giving a simple, direct “No” answer in response to Sam’s sincere but misguided spoken prayer.”

    Sam should fast for another week(s) and climb to the top of Mount Zuru to pray again and again, until he get the “Yes” answer. If he get always the “No”, then he didn’t pray correctly and will be damned forever.

    B.
    “2. The “Yes” answer.”
    Problem solved. All is well in Kazakhstan in the year 600 Before Oracle of Yurt.

    C.
    No answer. No such thing as god, nobody can answer.
    Sam should live in the real world of “Kazakhstan in the year soandso” . It was not a bad place, compared to Iraq or US today.

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