MANY years ago, I was a foreign exchange student. I lived in Spain for a summer with a host family. I went through a training program before embarking on this adventure. I was not taught Spanish (that might have been helpful), but rather I was prepared for living in a new culture.
In this training, the following story was shared:
A young American woman was invited to visit a distant country. She did not know the language and was given no instruction before arriving. She was to make the trip alone. Upon her arrival, she was taken by a native of this foreign land to a dinner to welcome her.
She was escorted into a large room with dirt floor but pathways built up off the ground leading to tables and chairs. Her female escort took her over to a spot on the dirt and motioned for her to sit. She noticed that many other women were also seated on the ground while the tables and chairs remained empty.
After every woman was seated each pulled a veil over her head. The American was also handed a veil. She put it over her head but it was thin enough that she could see through it. She watched as a few moments later men began entering the room on the pathways. They walked on the pathways to the tables and chairs. Once seated they kept their feet on foot rests that were part of their chairs.
When the food was served, the men were all served first in double portions. The men began to eat. They ate some of everything they were served and then handed one of their two plates to the servers who then took the plate to one of the women. The women then ate what was left on the plate.
At the end of the ceremony the men left, their feet never touching the ground. Afterwards, the women removed their veils and exited.
The American woman was highly offended by the way women were treated in this society and promptly wanted to cut her visit short and go home. She called to make arrangements with the person who had arranged the visit. This person was surprised by her call. He was native to the foreign land.
She explained how she did not feel comfortable being in a society where women were treated so poorly. The man was shocked. After the woman explained her experience, the man explained his culture.
In our culture woman is the highest form of life. She is worshiped second only to the mother earth. No man is ever allowed to touch the mother earth with his skin. It is too sacred. Women on the other hand, eat all their meals on the earth and are allowed to touch the earth any time they want.
Because the woman is so sacred, men are not allowed to look upon any woman except his wife and children. Thus when in groups, women wear veils through which they can seen but not be seen. As a sign of respect, men are to taste everything a woman would like to eat before she eats it to ensure it is worthy of her palate and not poisoned. In all the man was shocked that in someone could so totally misjudge his people due to these cultural differences.
So that is the end of the story. Now -- why I am sharing it. First off, because I want to remind all my readers and commenters that we are all human with our own shortcomings. We don't always understand what others mean with their words or the background behind their comments. We all are often too quick to judge things or people we don't fully understand. I appreciate how protective so many are of me. And I appreciate others concerns, however misplaced, for my healthy healing. Luckily, I have been blessed with rather thick skin in some regards and I am doing very well and healing in the right way and at the right pace for me. Let's spread a little more love around for all shall we? ;) Even to those with whom or with whose comments we don't agree.
Additionally, I think this fictional analogy gives a nice lead in to how I view some of the questions asked about my church. I have learned over the years and from experience like my time in Spain that it is important to realize we just don't understand everything.
The world is filled with many different sets of cultures and values. Heaven has its own culture and its own values. We on Earth get glimpses of the values and some of the culture in heaven through reading the scriptures and listening to the prophets. Some of these values have become part of the values of our societies. But not being residents in heaven, and not remembering our life there before we were born, we are not experts in all of heaven's ways.
Taking that into consideration, I want to highlight my acute awareness that God is God -- all knowing, completely holy, all powerful -- and I am just Stephanie -- made of the dust of the Earth. I do consider myself a reasonably smart human, but I do not pretend to understand the tiniest fraction of what the Lord understands.
So, when the Lord speaks, I listen, believe, and try my best to obey. LOTS of times, I do not understand his direction. He doesn't always tell us the WHY. Actually, it seems most of the time He holds the Why to Himself. It seems He wants to see if we will be humble enough, even child like enough, to obey without having to know the why.
The point is -- who am I to question or challenge God's wisdom? Nobody. So I don't do it. If He is the author of it, I don't question it. Are you with me?
Okay, now is where it gets a little more tricky. How do we know when God is the author? He doesn't often appear to man or to us personally to give us direction. Heck, even having heavenly messengers or angels are rare events, at least for me seeing as I have never had one of those.
So how do we know? The answer is personal revelation, experimentation, and peace. This process is very personal. But God will let us know when He is giving direction to us through the peace of the Spirit. We can experiment with the direction and try it out. This shows faith. This faith is often rewarded with greater understanding of the direction and more surety of its source.
Now for my personal perspective and experience -- As a 14 year old girl, I spent a year studying the scriptures on my own. I had been raised in an LDS family and never really had huge doubts about what my parents taught me, still I couldn't say I knew the church was true. I wanted to know for myself. So I began praying during this period of study, that the Lord would let me know if it was true.
During this year, I realized I had made lots of mistakes in my life. I repented of those and had an incredible and powerful experience one night where I felt the full effects of the atonement of Jesus Christ in paying for my sins. I physically felt the burden of my sins lifted off my shoulders and knew without a doubt that I had been forgiven (that is another story for another time).
Later that year I took a trip to visit places of interest in my church's history. One of the last stops was at the Sacred Grove. This is the grove of trees where Joseph Smith first vocally prayed and where he was answered with a personal appearance by our Heavenly Father and the Savior giving instruction to him.
I spent a little time praying there myself. Honestly, I was too concerned about the mosquitos and mud to feel much. :) But directly afterward I went with our group to a meeting where we were invited to share our feelings about the place and our experience. Sitting there in the group I thought about how much I wanted to know for myself about whether or not all of this really happened and whether Joseph Smith really did have that experience, whether he was a true prophet, whether the Book of Mormon was truly scripture.
Suddenly, as if a veil were lifted off of my understanding, I realized that my heart felt like it was on fire. I felt a physical sensation of warmth inside of me that permeated my being. This was nothing like heartburn. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before or since. It felt so wonderful. I also realized that it had not just begun when I noticed it, but it had been burning there for who knows how long, and I had just now realized it.
I knew at that moment that this was my answer. There was question or doubt in my mind as to the source of this feeling. It felt so good and so happy and so loving. I just KNEW that this was the Lord telling me 1) Joseph Smith was a true prophet, 2) He did indeed have that vision in that grove, and 3) the Book of Mormon he translated was indeed true scripture.
What is more, I knew that God was very aware of my realization. I knew it. I knew God knew I knew it. And I could never deny it. A few minutes later I walked into the foyer of the visitor's center where we were and grabbed some paper comment cards. I wrote down on several of those cards a message to myself. I wrote down how I felt. I wrote what I knew. I committed myself to live all my life according to this knowledge. I still have those cards. They are in a closet 5 feet from me right now.
Now, I am a logical thinker. For me knowing those 3 truths also proved MANY other things true without me having to have a specific answer to each one. For example, if Joseph Smith is a true prophet, then logically, his prophetic teachings must also be truly from God, whether I understand them or not.
Additionally, I have since then gained a strong testimony of the prophetic callings of each of the prophets since Joseph Smith. I believe fully that each of them were prophets of the Lord. They were also men. They were not perfect men. Sometimes, in day to day life, they may have said or done things that were not "prophetic." But in their official capacity, when they gave direction to the church, I believe that was of God.
This brings me to one of the questions asked: "I do, however, wonder how Joseph Smith's beliefs concerning polygamy were abandoned while keeping his other beliefs." I should note that the question, in my view, should ask "why are some of the doctrines taught by Joseph Smith still followed while others like polygamy have been abandoned." A small difference but polygamy was not a "belief" of the prophet's. Joseph Smith testified that it was a direct commandment of the Lord that, according to his own account, was one he did not want to follow.
I do not believe there has ever been a doctrine of this church that has not been given us of God. I don't pretend to understand all of the directions or WHYs but I believe they are of God. Some of these doctrines have been very difficult for the members to live or understand. In changing times, God's directions have often changed. This does not make God a changing being. It makes Him a pragmatic Father to a very changing people with changing problems and changing needs.
It would have been a sin for Noah not to build the arc. For us, arc building is not in the list of commandments. God had never given direction about what we should watch on TV and in movies until our day and age. Joseph of old in Egypt was given direction to store wheat for the 7 years of famine. Moses was directed to lead the Israelites around in the wilderness for 40 years. God only gave those Israelites the amount of truth and law they were ready for -- the 10 commandments -- and did not give them the higher law at that time. When Jesus came, He gave the higher law and through His sacrifice ended the need for animal sacrifice.
Directions from God change according to the needs of His children in their current day and age. So on the question of why we LDS people follow some of Joseph Smith's teachings but not others, like polygamy -- it is because a latter prophet received direction from the Lord (in 1890) that no further plural marriages were to be performed. Whatever purpose the Lord had in commanding its commencement, had been fulfilled.
Now, I did not live in the days of polygamy. I am not asked to live it. It is not important that I understand the why. Personally, I am more concerned with following the directions the Lord has given to the people of my day. I want to be prepared with my 72 hour kits for my family and have a storage of food and water for my family in case of times of need or some disaster. I want to keep the influence of Satan that is rampant on the internet and on TV out of my home as much as possible. These are just a few of the directions specific to my day. People in the 1800s didn't have my worries and I don't have theirs.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matt 6:24.)