A relational approach to answering difficult gospel questions

J. Spencer Fluhman delivered the following address at BYU Women's Conference on May 2, 2019. Transcript provided here by permission of the author.

We’re here today to wrestle together with a task that will likely fall to each of us at some point in our lives, that of answering difficult gospel questions. You noticed, perhaps, that the word “sincere” was included in our session title. I’ll be addressing the sincere questions today and Liz Darger has offered to answer the sarcastic or snarky ones—just kidding. We’re both speaking about answering questions of the sincere variety, presumably those difficult ones that come from a place of searching, or pain, or doubt, or crisis, or loss. The ones that often stop us in our tracks.

I’ve been answering gospel questions for a very long time. In over twenty years of BYU teaching in religion and history, I’ve answered more than a few. As a Church leader and parent, I’ve answered a few more. Even with all that experience, though, I am fully intimidated by this topic. I’ve actually grown more cautious and felt more pressure as I’ve, ahem, matured. (The gray hair tells the tale. Gwen, who cuts my hair here at BYU, calls these “platinum blonde highlights” but, sisters, these are the kind you get for free, am I right?) The truth is, I have been mightily humbled over the years. Where I used to charge in, I now pause a bit. I want to talk about those pauses today.

If you received that calling to teach Gospel Doctrine and thought, “Finally! Now I can impart my vast knowledge to these good people,” you’re not going to like my talk. If, on the other hand, you’re terrified at the thought of answering difficult gospel questions, the next nineteen minutes are for you. If you feel like a fraud just about every time you try to teach anything about the gospel, this one’s for you.

So let’s start with that terror at the thought of representing the gospel or the Church or its leaders. I felt it keenly as a full-time missionary more than a quarter century ago and back then I believed a myth about answering difficult questions that held me back for some time. The myth was this: If I could just find the right words… If I could just find the perfect scripture… If I could just bear that flawless testimony… That mythic search for the perfect antidote to skepticism or criticism or despair kept me on a fool’s quest for months. The truth is, there is no perfect response or formula. Notice, too, a problem at the root of my missionary myth: if I could, if I, I, I, I.

While preparation is important, and while focused gospel study should be a lifelong passion for every one of us, my concerns back then were unquestionably centered primarily on myself. Well intentioned or not, it was about me.

I propose today that we reorient our topic away from ourselves a bit. We might think together this afternoon about answers that are questioner-focused. I’m interested, in other words, in making our exchanges with those questioners less defensive, less pressure-packed, less consumed with our needs and responsibilities, and more about them. I suspect this will change just about everything.
For instance, where we might have charged in with answers or a testimony before, if we’re questioner-focused we might hold back just a little. That is, before responding, I may find myself wanting to know more about the question or the questioner. What sits behind the question? Does it come from a place of curiosity or a place of pain? Does it come as testimony is just coming to life or as it’s withering on the vine? Can you sense how important it is to focus on the questioner rather than our insecurities or responsibilities?

It’s natural to want to help or to be heard, I’ll admit. Our desire to respond quickly can certainly spring from those noble places. In fact, that desire to be heard and understood is no extravagance. It’s a universal human need. We need not deny it or dismiss it. Your voice matters and I hope it will be heard. And, for heaven’s sake, each of us is obligated by covenant to be a witness, always. It’s what we’re called to be. So I’m not saying “be silent.” What I’m asking is this: what ultimately do we want from that exchange with the questioner? I’m asking us to assess our motivations.

If, for instance, we simply want to fulfill our responsibility to be a witness, period, then we need not care for the questioner at all. If that’s the extent of our interest, then we can bear our testimony and walk away. We’ve done our part. Check. And, as an aside, I hope it goes without saying that using a testimony like Thor’s hammer to smash a doubt or a skeptic is likely to end badly. If you’ve ever given into that temptation, you’ve found as I have that it leaves you feeling more than a little hollow. Boldness is sometimes called for, yes, but the overbearance the Book of Mormon warns against surely has something to do with our lack of love for a questioner (see Alma 38:12). So let’s admit in those cases that the exchange was about us, it was about meeting our needs and checking our boxes. If, on the other hand, there’s a deeper motivation to be had in these exchanges, such as unfeigned love for the questioner, then our boxes matter less and theirs matter more.

A recent experience drove this point home for me. A young woman in my life stopped me in my tracks with an exceptionally difficult question not long ago. She struggles with feelings of hopelessness. She can hardly see good in herself most days. It’s a victory to even get through the Church doors on any given Sunday. She’s always been attracted to women rather than men. She served a mission in hopes God would take those feelings away, but that’s not what happened. She loves the Lord and can’t imagine not having the Church in her life, but she wonders if she can belong at all. Her deep question to me came with tremendous force. “The Church has taught me that family is the highest ideal in time and eternity,” she started, “but that is not an option for me, and because of something I did not choose.” Then came the question: “What do I do with the almost-suffocating loneliness?”

Are you ready for that question? I wasn’t. What would you have said? My mind started racing for an answer but the spirit constrained me. I sat in silence for some time and the words of a covenant came into my mind with force equal to the pain in her question. Finally, I spoke, albeit cautiously. “It seems to me that you’re in mourning. You’re mourning loss. And I’m covenantally bound to mourn with you so that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t have an answer right now. I’m just going to mourn with you and we’ll go from there.” It wasn’t an answer, per se, but the God of heaven, who’s love for this beloved daughter I can somehow feel even now, seemed to lead me there. She and I are still talking and I’m still listening. The beginnings of answers have come to both of us, but not without tears and time. And we have questions still.

Sisters, have you noticed the bait and switch I’m perpetrating here? You came wanting to know how to better answer gospel questions and I’m asking all of us to listen more meaningfully instead! I’m claiming here, sisters, that if we want to have our testimonies matter, if we want truly to be heard, we must have that question/answer exchange take place in a deeper relationship. I’ll call this “relational” answering. This is what the Lord directs, I think, in that transcendent verse on teaching in the Doctrine & Covenants. (If you listen carefully, the verse echoes in every BYU hallway, in every BYU classroom.)

“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:118, emphasis added).

The Lord’s prescription for sagging faith in the world is study, yes, and to “teach one another.” Questions, especially tough ones, belong in community, in other words. They belong ideally in a relationship where hearts are “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2).
That’s not always easy or possible but it’s an ideal worth striving for. With that as an ideal, a question that might at first have us scrambling for scriptures, or conference talks, or testimony might actually call for some questions back to the questioner:

Tell me what prompts your question? I’m fascinated by it.

Or, Interesting. I’ve got some thoughts but, before I respond, tell me more about you and your experience.

Or, That’s a complex question and an important one. While I’m thinking here, tell me your initial thoughts. You’ve obviously been thinking deeply about it. What are you thinking?

It takes some restraint to focus on the questioner, especially when we’re panicking over a loved one, or we’re intimidated by our lack of knowledge, or if we’re feeling defensive about the Church or its leaders. But that restraint can be essential. Doing so slows us down enough to begin to comprehend the questioner as a daughter or son of God, not a problem to be solved or a box to check. When we hear more of their heart, more of their struggle, we’re in a better position to know what to do or say. Ultimately, love for the questioner opens up the channels of revelation.

I’ve already exposed the myth of the perfect answer, but I’ll add that, often, your best answer won’t simply consist of helpful intellectual or scriptural content. Often, it will be how you offer it and, even more importantly, how it fits into the broader story of you. That’s why relational answering is so important. The questioner not only benefits from your thinking on a given topic, they benefit from the net effect of the topic’s influence on you. They get to see the answers, not in the abstract, but in the lived reality that is you. That’s a powerful sermon, sisters.

Note, for instance, two kinds of responses to a hypothetical question about following a living prophet. In one of kind of response, we offer an immediate, strong, and formal testimony about our unquestioning certainty that President Russell M. Nelson is God’s prophet on the earth and that he alone is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys. In some cases, this might be the perfect response. In other cases, however, a more relational exchange, focused on the questioner, will be better.

What if, for instance, after listening we learn that her deepest question relates to a concern that one would be essentially giving up her or his agency to live a Latter-day Saint life? She worries about the perils of blind obedience. With that knowledge in hand, your own story would surely have more force, especially if you’ve wrestled with the same question or had a similar concern. Perhaps you haven’t. Many of you have, however. I certainly have. Note President Henry B. Eyring’s candid admission that he has, offered in General Conference no less, some two decades ago.

Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel, but hold it close. If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear and I have been grateful. (President Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, April 1997; emphasis added; accessed 17 January 2015).
Did you notice there his description of the process of wrestling with prophetic counsel did not weaken his witness, but strengthened it? In this second scenario, as you discuss your own wrestle with prophetic authority, you end up with your own life demonstrating the blessings of acting in faith. You exemplify why it’s worth giving prophets and apostles the benefit of the doubt. You reveal that your willingness to follow a living prophet is not a negation of your agency but an informed expression of it. Your wrestle is not a weakness, it is a strength. As that questioner hears of your struggle and growth, they can potentially see themselves in your story, wrestling as they are with the weighty prospect of prophetic leadership.

If our question/answer exchanges aren’t relational, in other words, we may not have the time or space to truly hear and be heard. We may not have sufficient time to teach and learn. Moreover, if you’re successful you’ll go in expecting to teach something to a questioner and, if it's a truly relational exchange, you’ll come away of having learned something. You came eager to give and you’ve both received. In the end, you and your questioner will have understood one another, you’ll both be edified, and you will rejoice together. Again, that’s not always possible, but it’s the scriptural ideal (see Doctrine & Covenants 50:22).

Sisters, I acknowledge that some here feel exceptionally weak in testimony or gospel knowledge. Does that describe you? Do you feel broken? Are you perpetually “working on” your spirituality? Are you constantly “in process?” Good! God can use that. If you fit those descriptions, we have a name for that: faith! With all you’ve been through—your doubts, your disappointments, your questions, your failures—you’re still here. I can’t underscore that with enough ink. You’re still here. That is the definition of faith. You are the definition of faith. What if someone, knowing all you’ve been through and knowing all the burdens you carry, were to ask why you’re still here, why you’re still trying? What would you say? Please understand that whatever you might say in response is your sacred gift to the world. Can you see that your life is a sacred story? Let it ring. As you do, you’ll be providing answers to questions but, as importantly, you’ll be sharing hard-earned insights about your spiritual process. Those insights will end up mattering as much as the answers themselves, perhaps. How have you come through disappointment? How have you navigated those valleys of faith? How have you pressed on in the dark night of apparent divine absence? 

In case it hasn’t come through yet, let me conclude with the bottom line of this address: the most profound answer to the most difficult gospel questions … is you. You are our best chance and our best argument. Your life, in all its messiness, still shouts “God is good” and “Jesus saves.” In fact, it shouts it all the more loudly because of the messiness. It isn’t the perfection of your answer or the perfection of your life that is needed. It’s simply you. Through the brokenness of your journey, your story’s true Author is revealed. To paraphrase what a former bishop told me as a young bishop many years ago, “You’re not there to solve their problems. You’re there to point them to Christ.” Sisters, your lives and your stories do just that, just as you are. The Author and Finisher of our faith surely must rejoice in a sight like this and stories like yours.

My prayer is that we’ll take each questioner as the beloved daughter or son of God that they are. I pray we’ll take each sincere question as a threshold of love to walk through in humility and faith. I pray that each of you will see with an eye of faith to the gift that you are for a world that needs you. I pray that each of us will more fully find the Author and Finisher of faith at the center of life’s sacred story.


New book series offers "Brief Theological Introductions" to the Book of Mormon 

Just in time for the Church’s 2020 Sunday school curriculum focused on the Book of Mormon, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is delighted to announce The Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions. Twelve volumes—one for each book in the Book of Mormon (with a few books combined and one divided into two volumes)—written by twelve different Latter-day Saint scholars, each of whom bring their personal and institutional faith commitments to bear on the scripture from a wide range of academic disciplines.
1 Nephi—Joseph M. Spencer, Brigham Young University
2 Nephi—Terryl L. Givens, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Jacob—Deidre Nicole Green, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Enos/Jarom/Omni—Sharon J. Harris, Brigham Young University
Mosiah—James E. Faulconer, Brigham Young University
Alma (1-29)—Kylie Turley, Brigham Young University
Alma (30-63)—Mark Wrathall, University of Oxford
Helaman—Kimberly Berkey, Loyola University Chicago
3 Nephi/4 Nephi—Daniel Becerra, Brigham Young University
Words of Mormon/Mormon—Adam S. Miller, Collin College
Ether—Rosalynde Welch, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Moroni—David F. Holland, Harvard Divinity School

We anticipate the first few volumes to be in your hands by December 2019 to January 2020. More information about the series at

Learn More

Upcoming Events

  • September 18, 25  |  Noon
    Brown Bag Wednesday
  • September 22  |  7 PM to 8:30 PM (MST)
    Explorations in the Book of Mormon II

    A special live event featuring authors in the Institute's forthcoming book series "Brief Theological Introductions." Watch online HERE
MIPodcast #96
The untold story of Lin Zhao, a martyr in Mao’s China, with Xi Lian

One of the most outspoken critics of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution was a young poet and journalist named Lin Zhao. She was a Christian convert, then a member of the Communist Party, then an enemy of the state who paid for her opposition with her life.

Her story would have vanished—along with the lives of some two million other Chinese who were killed during the cultural revolution—but she left a record written in her own blood. In this episode you’ll encounter one of Christianity’s most remarkable martyrs of the twentieth century.

Professor Xi Lian discusses his book, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China.

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute
gathers and nurtures
Copyright © 2019 Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp