“Are You There?” New Era, Apr. 1990, 47
“Could I … uh …” The dark-haired elder in front of me shifted awkwardly. “I mean, I was wondering … if we could talk.” I had been teaching Sunday classes at the Provo Missionary Training Center for several months and had just finished my weekly lesson.
“No problem,” I assured him as we walked down the hall, away from classroom and companions. I had noticed this elder for the first time the previous Sunday. His eyes had been as shiny as his new Swedish knit suit. Now, both suit and eyes were showing the week’s wear.
“It’s what you said in class,” he began quietly. “You know, about faith. Well …” he hesitated. “Well, I …” he paused again. His averted eyes did little to disguise the tears that were welling.
“I always thought I knew the Church was true till now.” He shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “I came on this mission to tell people that I know.” His voice was husky with suppressed emotion. “But now I’m not sure. I’m just not sure.”
“You’re not sure you know?”
He nodded. The tears glistening on his lashes brimmed over. Suddenly our communication went beyond the foreign language he was studying and the English language we shared. As I watched him I remembered when I, too, wondered if God was there and what on earth I was doing, literally.
I was about three or four months into my own mission, thrusting in my sickle with energy and diligence, when all at once—and I mean it was all at once—I thought, “Why am I doing this?”
“For God, of course,” I knew the answers. God had called me, God needed me, and there I was.
Then, as suddenly as before, I wondered, “Where is God?”
“Wait!” I felt guilty at the thought. “I’m an elder; I’m on a mission. I’m a witness. I have faith. I know … I’m supposed to know …”
Since childhood I had heard the phrase “without a shadow of a doubt.” Now, not only did I have a shadow of a doubt, I had a whole eclipse. I groped through the rest of the morning.
By lunch my companion had noticed my depression. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Well,” I spoke solemnly, “I think I lost my testimony today.”
He laughed, “Elder, you’re the best, always joking around. Go wash up so we can eat.” I smiled accommodatingly. I exited calmly. I entered the bathroom tranquilly. Then I panicked completely!
“Now what?” I turned on the faucet and splashed my face with cold water. “Moroni’s promise!” I buried my face in the towel. “Read, meditate, pray.” But I had already done that and apparently it wasn’t enough. “This doubt is definitely a job for an angel,” I decided. “I’ll just have to have a visitation.” It was settled. I tossed the towel in the washbowl and went to eat lunch.
That night after we arrived home, I prepared for bed quickly. We had companionship prayer as always. Then I climbed up to my top bunk and began my personal petition.
“Please,” I prayed. “I have to know. Are you real? Are you there?”
Suddenly my room was filled with light. I opened my believing eyes, and then the car passed. I was alone again in the dark.
That very afternoon we had told our investigators in a discussion that to know the truth they needed to read, meditate, and pray. I had read the promise to them myself. But had I done what I was asking them to do? I thought so, but maybe I hadn’t done enough. Sure, I had skimmed through the scriptures to get through seminary. And I hadn’t even skipped the Isaiah passages in 2 Nephi when I plowed through the Book of Mormon just before my mission. But still, had I done enough? Meditate? The most pondering I had done was on whatever good TV show I might miss while I studied. Suddenly very aware that I had not fully completed what was required of me, I could hardly wait until morning and a chance to begin.
At 6:00 A.M. my companion rolled out of bed for morning prayer. Nearly before his amen, I was showered, shaved, and seated at our desk. Until that day, my biggest challenge in the mission had been trying to stay awake during study time. From then on, the challenge became trying to find more personal study time.
Weeks passed and still, behind the missionary routine, the uneasiness lingered. Once again I felt an urgency to go before Heavenly Father and demand my testimony. “Now you have to tell me,” I prayed, over and over. It felt as though I were hollering down the hose of a vacuum cleaner. I wanted an answer to my prayer, but the only thing I heard was the echo of my own demanding voice.
“You can no more force the Spirit to respond,” states Elder Boyd K. Packer, “than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before its time. You can create a climate to foster growth, nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: you must await the growth” (“The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, p. 53).
Exhausted from the attempt, I crawled under my sheet. “If God is there,” I thought, clasping my hands behind my head, “he’s probably so busy with all the millions of people on all his numberless worlds that he just doesn’t have time for me.” I turned on my side. I felt smaller and smaller. My questions were many; my doubts were real and frightening. I missed home. I needed someone to care about me. “Heavenly Father, are you there?” I tried again. I had long since cancelled the angel order. A simple answer would do.
I waited for the burning in my bosom. Nothing happened.
The next day I began all over again. Like a gold miner I did not know where the reward might come or how much the reward might be. But the fact that it might come was enough motivation to keep me digging.
“How are you, Elder?” President Day asked. It was zone conference and time for my personal interview.
“How’s your companion?”
Seven questions, and seven “Fine, Presidents” later, we were finished. I stood to leave.
“Now, Elder,” President Day called me back. “Are you sure you don’t have any questions?” His eyes searched mine. I bit the inside of my cheek.
I had graduated from seminary, I had attended church every Sunday and earned my Eagle Scout Award. I had never even touched a cigarette or had a beer. I shouldn’t have questions. “No, President,” I shrugged. “No questions.”
Soon after that I was transferred. I packed my clothes in one suitcase and my books in another. There was hardly room for doubts, but deep inside I packed them, also.
In my new area I worked overtime; double time and triple time. I finished the Book of Mormon, Jesus the Christ, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. This gold miner still couldn’t see the end of the tunnel but somehow always had enough light where he stood to keep digging.
Finally, another zone conference. Another interview.
“How are you, Elder?”
“How’s your companion?”
I couldn’t bring myself to expose my weakness. “Any questions?” President Day repeated. For a moment the small office seemed as large and frightening as a European cathedral. I wanted to tell him of my discouragement and doubt, but what would he think of me?
“Elder,” President Day broke our silence, “if you ever do have any questions I’m here.” In my mind the room shrank back to normal. Formalities disappeared. He was my friend, and I could trust him.
“Is there a God?” I implored.
“Yes,” he answered.
That’s all he said. No judgmental look, no scriptural references—just “yes.”
I ventured again, “Does he know me?”
President Day leaned forward. His eyes sought mine. He spoke intensely, “He knows your first name.”
“President,” I had one question left. “Does he love me?”
I listened. When he said yes, the Spirit washed over me, dissolving my anxiety in a flood of certainty. My mission president’s words had been confirmed. I felt it.
That night as I prayed again, my supplication soared. I spoke directly to a Heavenly Father I was beginning to love, through a Mediator I was at least beginning to comprehend. There were no doubts that night. There was only a peace which surpassed all understanding. God was there. He had been close to me all along, so why hadn’t he answered me months before?
Perhaps there were certain things I had to learn for myself. If he had answered the moment I called, would I have studied as hard as I did? Would I have pondered or prayed with such desire? Would I have strived to live as worthily or dedicated my time and talents in service as diligently? Would I have learned to swim if God were still holding my head above water? God’s delays are not always denials.
It was late. My companion was asleep. I stepped to the window of our room. Outside the South American night was warm. The earth seemed fresh and beautiful. The moon shone bright and full from a heaven that didn’t seem so far away anymore.
“I know that he loveth his children,” said Nephi; “nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:17). My testimony had come slowly and would still have to grow. I did not know the answers to every question, but I, like Nephi, knew God loved me.
My mind returned to the MTC and the young missionary before me. “I know you’ll think I’m a terrible elder,” he said. “I know you’ll think I’m wrong and weak …” His words shocked me. Wrong? Weak? Are doubts wrong? Are questions a sign of weakness? Didn’t Joseph Smith himself doubt and question as he learned?
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: ‘What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?’” (JS—H 1:10).
The Church’s missionary effort is an invitation to the world to escape tradition’s chains and test present beliefs against revealed truth. The scriptures themselves command, “Prove all things” (1 Thes. 5:21).
Doubts are not wrong; they can be a step toward right. Questions are not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth. Men are not wrong when they doubt but when they fail to do something about their doubts.
“Prove all things,” the scriptures say. But the learning process is not complete until the test is done, the experiments finished, and the conclusions drawn. “Prove all things,” and “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21).
How could I tell my young missionary brother the joy of having a testimony? How could I convince him that instead of a source of discouragement, his doubts could motivate him to new learning? Could I express the overwhelming satisfaction of finally finding an answer? I could try.
For 30 minutes we talked about faith and testimony. “Someday, Elder,” I said at the close of our conversation, “when you hit the vein of gold we talked about, send me a postcard.” And not too long after our discussion, he did just that.