A teenage boy sat outside on the campus of Bakersfield High School. He was a freshman, almost 15 years old, and was sitting alone on a sidewalk next to a field with scattered trees. It was winter in California: cold, but not that cold. Under-dressed for the weather, but not dangerously so, he tried to suppress a shiver while eating a sandwich that his mother made for his lunch. While he ate, his thoughts wandered through life’s deep questions.
“Is God really up there?” he wondered. This question occupied him a lot, because he could sense how fundamental it was. All of the moral code he had learned from his childhood seemed to depend on the answer to that question. “If there were no God,” he reasoned, “then what would be the point of keeping the commandments?”
Many of life’s important decisions won’t wait for you to feel entirely settled about them. This young man was faced with choices that could forever change the course of his life. Across the street he could see the punk crowd loitering at their hangout, and one or two of them were discreetly smoking. Some of the punk kids were his friends, and he was tempted to join them. But was he going to obey the Word of Wisdom? He also knew about boys and girls his age getting pretty serious with physical intimacy. Was he going to follow the law of chastity? Could he make a decision on these matters without really knowing God for himself?
The year was 1993, and that young teenager was me.
Medical doctors live with uncertainty every day. It is the water we swim in, the air we breathe. One of my colleagues, an emergency medicine specialist, once pointed to a poster displayed in a hospital conference room which said, “Do not proceed in the face of uncertainty.” (This was apparently intended as a message to improve patient safety.) My colleague concluded that if this were our prime directive then we would just close the hospital and give up trying to practice medicine.
During my first year in practice I took care of a young woman in the hospital who had a confusing presentation. There were several diagnostic possibilities, and all of them seemed likely, but each one had a different treatment with different associated risks. I struggled over what to do, and after a couple days of diagnostic testing I didn’t feel much closer to a decision. At the patient’s bedside I carefully described the situation to her and to her husband, and recommended a treatment course based on my best guess.
The patient’s husband, who was a mechanical engineer, was very frustrated by all of this. At one point in our conversation he said, “Look, if I’m not certain about something, then we just don’t build the thing.”
I replied simply, “You would hate my job.”
Important decisions must be made, and sometimes they won’t wait for us to gather all of the data we need to make them. So we move forward using the best data we have, trusting in our instincts and relying on our past experiences, knowing that sometimes we will make mistakes and have to change our course.
As I sat on the high school campus and pondered my dilemma at age 15, I realized that although I didn’t have a complete set of data, I probably had enough to move forward. I knew the Gospel of Jesus Christ, understood the Plan of Salvation, and had read The Book of Mormon cover to cover several times, by myself and with my family. At that point in my life I couldn’t really say that I knew it was all true, as I had not received anything that I recognized as a spiritual witness, but I did know that it was good. It was easy to see that living your life by the teachings of Jesus Christ would make you a happier person, getting along better with others and avoiding some of life’s worst pitfalls, and if everyone really followed his teachings then this world would be a paradise. Whether or not it was all true, I reasoned, it was worth following the program just because it would make my life better.
So I moved forward despite my uncertainty. Over the next few years I chose to believe, and to act on that belief, and the resulting benefits in my life were the same as if I had been acting on absolute knowledge. This approach prevented me from making some of the worst errors that could have derailed my progress and kept me from reaching my potential.
In time that spiritual witness did come, and today I can say that I know that Jesus Christ is my Savior, The Book of Mormon is the word of God, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s church. This knowledge came to me gradually, and was a direct consequence of the choices I had made to hold on to what I knew was good. This is an illustration of Christ’s teaching in John 7:17, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” In other words, knowledge of the truth comes through obedience to the truth.
Looking back on my life so far, I can say that I have had some degree of uncertainty in all of the important decisions. When I served a mission, got married, had children, pursued my education, and made career decisions, I could not foresee where all of my options would lead me, and I didn’t even always know exactly where I wanted to go. But I have tried to follow the same approach throughout, and it has worked well so far. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland described it in these words:
“When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. […] When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your ‘unbelief.’ That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have” (from “Lord, I Believe,” April 2013 General Conference).
Life is designed to require faith; this is a feature, not a bug! Medical doctors learn to work and even thrive in uncertainty, and so can you. When you don’t know everything you would like to know, at least be firm in what you do know. Don’t be paralyzed by your lack of knowledge, but have faith that God will help you along if you ask for his help. As Jesus said, “Be not afraid, only believe” (Mark 5:36).