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I Don't Know

Brothers and Sisters, Aloha! Soon after I was invited to speak at devotional, my wife asked me if I knew what I would speak on. I replied, “Yes, I do.” She then asked me what the topic would be. I replied, “I don’t know.” She gave me a look, shook her head, and muttered something about me being like one of our teenagers. I quickly explained that I felt to speak on not knowing, that the topic itself was “I don’t know.” I then shared some thoughts and scriptures that had come to mind. It may be weird to think about someone from our library talking about “I don’t know” since libraries are generally the antidote for not knowing. But I think my background in libraries and information make me quite knowledgeable and well experienced in not knowing. For each of us, libraries contain the not known and the known. As I have reflected on not knowing, I’ve felt that the journey from not knowing to knowing is often more important than the destination, that it is a journey of faith. Let’s look at some of those journeys.


In 1994, while a young married couple in Provo, our first child was born, our daughter Carina. She was 7 pounds, 11 ounces, and 19 ½ inches long. My wife and I watched Carina grow those first few months, amazed as new parents often are with every new milestone and change. Carina was constantly in the 95th percentile for height and weight was developing normally and was a happy baby.

At her four-month checkup, I also participated in a first: I went alone with her to her pediatrician. I don’t remember why my wife couldn’t be with us that day, but I was finally old enough and mature enough to be trusted to take her on my own. We went to the doctor and did all the normal stuff at check-in: take temperature, measure height, and weight. Then the doctor came, looked at her chart, gave a little “Hmm” sound, and asked about her eating habits. I said she was nursing fine, supplemented with a bottle. I was told that while her height remained in the 95th percentile, her weight had dropped to below the 25th percentile. He then began listening to her heart. After a moment, he looked up and told me to take her directly to the hospital, not to our local hospital but straight up to Primary Children’s in Salt Lake.

The normal heart rate for a four-month-old baby is 80-160 beats per minute. Carina’s was over 250 beats per minute. I took my daughter, picked up my wife, and headed out. We stopped on the way at the home of my former Branch President, Rob Vogelsburg, in American Fork, to give Carina a blessing. Then we left to complete the drive up to Primary Children’s Hospital.

That drive was probably the hardest drive of my life. I don’t remember much of the drive itself, but I remember the feelings I had inside. Anxiety. Confusion. Uncertainty. We had no idea what was happening, and that was the worst part of it.

We don’t like not knowing. When COVID-19 hit a little over a year ago, I tried to meet with all of our student workers in the Library (before we were told not to gather in groups). I wanted to be as transparent as I could with them, to hear their questions, and help them understand what was going on. They were frustrated not so much with COVID-19 but with the uncertainty surrounding it. Will they be sent home or not? What about their jobs? I tried to answer their questions as best I could, but plans and such were changing almost hourly. Their anxiety and stress seemed to come more from not knowing than from COVID-19.

We also don’t like to say “I don’t know” - it’s like admitting a weakness. And yet, “I don’t know” is our default condition here in mortality. We are sent here from our premortal life, not knowing or remembering what occurred before our birth. This is necessary for us to be able to use our agency and to develop our faith. In order for us to progress, we need to be able to recognize what we don’t know, and we need to be able to act when we don’t know.

Adam’s Altar

After Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, they went, tilled the earth, had children, and basically worked so they could survive. But they did not forget their relationship with the Lord. We read:

"And Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord, and they heard the voice of the Lord from the way toward the Garden of Eden....

And he gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord." (Moses 5: 4-5)

So Adam went and built an altar and offered sacrifices to the Lord as instructed.

"And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me." (Moses 5: 6)

“I know not” - Adam was admitting that he did not know why that he was only being obedient. This wasn’t blind obedience that motivated Adam. He was able to function while not knowing because of his faith in the Lord. He knew the Lord’s voice. He trusted that voice. So, he went forth, knowing not.

Nephi’s Vision

After hearing his father Lehi’s account of the vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi wanted to know for himself the things his father saw. He sat pondering and was caught away in the Spirit and was taken to a high mountain. He affirmed he believed all the words of his father and was shown the Tree and a vision of his own. And then an angel asks him:

"... Knowest thou the condescension of God?

And [Nephi]I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (1 Nep 11: 16-17)

I love Nephi’s answer: I know some, but I don’t know everything. He acknowledges his foundation, what he does know (that God loves His children), and admits what he doesn’t know (the condescension of God).

Nephi and the Plates

This wasn’t Nephi’s only experience with not knowing. Prior to his father’s vision, Nephi and his brothers were asked to return to Jerusalem to obtain the plates of brass that were in possession of Laban.

Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi tried twice to obtain the plates and failed. On the third try, Nephi left his brothers to go into the city on his own. At this point Nephi records:

"And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do." (1 Nep 4: 6)

Adam performed specific actions (sacrifices) without knowing why. Nephi knows the overall goal but doesn’t know how he will do it. Both were acting in faith, trusting that despite not knowing they would be able to do the will of the Lord. Both moved forward in faith, trusting that the knowledge will come.

Joseph Smith’s Confusion

In more recent times, Joseph Smith was coming of age in a time of religious revival. He wanted to find God’s word and join his Church. He read the Bible, listened to sermons, talked with family and others. And yet despite all that, he found no answer to his question of which church to join. Joseph recalls:

"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?" (Joseph Smith History 1: 10)

He found a partial answer reading the Bible:

"... I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it, again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know…"(Joseph Smith - History 1: 11-12)

“For how to act I did not know” - Joseph realized that his progress was halted until he received an answer. He tried, he searched, he queried, but was still unable to know on his own which was right. When he reached that point of not knowing, of going through the struggle as far as he could, he found a path to get the answer of how to know: ask God. Joseph may not have the answer, but he now knew how to get the answer.

Three Men and a King

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden image and commanded all to worship it or be cast into a burning fiery furnace. Three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, would not worship the image. They were brought before the king who challenged them, threatening them with the fiery furnace. They answered:

"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.

But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." (Daniel 3: 17-18)

In their response, the “I don’t know” is more subtle. You find it in the phrase “But if not” - they admit that they did not know what was to happen. Yet, their faith was in God no matter what happened. Their “I don’t know” did not diminish that faith. It provided a way for that faith to be made manifest.

Disciples and a Blind Man

Then there is how we apply “I don’t know” in how we view others. It is human nature to assume motives and reasons when we don’t know. We are often like the disciples of Jesus when they saw a blind man, and assuming what they didn’t know they asked the Master

"...who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9: 2)

They looked at the man’s current state and projected reasons why he was blind. This was not a seeking “I don’t know” but rather a justifying “I don’t know.” “Master, we don’t know why this man is blind, but it is probably because he or his parents did something bad, right?”

We do that often. I do that often. “We don’t know why this family is homeless, but it's likely bad decisions on their part.” “Students who do not do their work are lazy.” “People who leave the Church are sinners.” We phrase it in different ways, but the underlying assumptions are the same. We use not knowing not to seek out the truth but rather to justify the answer we have already settled on. And that is a betrayal of the gift of not knowing.

Faith and Not Knowing

And that is the thing about not knowing - it is not a deficiency, not a lack but a gift and a prerequisite to faith. Alma taught:

"...for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it." (Alma 32: 18)

If we know, there is no cause to believe, to have faith. We often know something and do not act on it. But not knowing, that is where we walk by faith. That is where we hope and step forward, not knowing beforehand the things which we should do. We act with faith because while we may not know, our Father in Heaven does know. And our faith in His knowledge and understanding covers our own lack.

There are many different types of not knowing, and faith can help us with each. There is not knowing of facts, such as “what is the condescension of God?” There is not knowing of actions, such as “not knowing beforehand what I should do.” There is not knowing of reasons, such as not knowing why I am asked to sacrifice or why this person is blind. And there is not knowing of what will happen in the future, such as not knowing what will happen to our daughter or if we will survive the fiery furnace. Yet in each of these “not knowings” we can lean on what we do know, that providing the foundation for faith that moves us forward.

Savior and the Blind Man

In response to his disciples' question about the blind man, Jesus said:

"...Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." (John 9: 3)

The answer to the disciples’ “I don’t know” was not found in the blind man’s past but in his future. Instead of seeing someone who was being punished for sin, they now saw a man who was part of God’s work. As we have faith to view others that way, as we refrain from assuming and justifying when we do not know, our not knowing can then lead us to see others as children of God and part of His work and His glory and know them as our sisters and brothers.

Three Men and a Furnace

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego would not let what they didn’t know override what they did know. They held firm to their faith. Nebuchadnezzar the king was furious. He ordered the furnace to be heated seven times its normal level. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were bound and cast in the furnace. When the King looked into the furnace, he saw:

"... four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God." (Daniel 3: 25)

The King called them forth from the furnace, and they came out unharmed, with not even the smell of fire upon them. They passed from not knowing, to knowing. This trial of their faith was over.

We go through our own furnaces, sometimes emerging unscathed, sometimes not, but if not, we are blessed from being faithful and not letting what we do not know control us.

Joseph Smith’s Vision

Joseph acted on the small answer he received. He went in faith and asked God. In response, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him. He asked them his question, and the answer was not one he expected: He must join none of them. Joseph’s journey of not knowing was concluded in the most wondrous way possible: knowledge gained directly from God. He used the phrase afterwards, “I have learned for myself…” His faith had been rewarded and his lack of knowledge was corrected.

What Joseph then began was a lifetime of going from not knowing to knowing. Much of the Doctrine and Covenants that we are studying this year in “Come, Follow Me” is Joseph recognizing he didn’t know and then going to God for answers, counsel, and help.

Sometimes it is not just the answers themselves that help us progress, but the struggle we go through to get them. We have to change in order to understand the answer more fully, to prepare us for more things we do not know, and sometimes to ask the right questions. We have to become humble enough to ask and then receive knowledge.

Nephi in the City

Nephi went forth and was led by the Spirit to Laban, and then had a serious discussion (even a struggle) with the Spirit on what to do next. Through that discussion, Nephi’s relationship with the Spirit deepened and he gained a better understanding of the consequences of acting and not acting. He did get the plates and gained a new ally in Zoram, the servant of Laban. They all returned to their father’s tent having been successful, with Nephi’s faith increasing such that he was eager to continue learning from the Spirit.

Each time we gain new knowledge, it prepares us for the next time we don’t know. Nephi’s experience in Jerusalem prepared him to learn more about his father’s vision. As we go from not knowing to knowing, we receive grace for grace and we continue from grace to grace so we can receive of the fulness as our Savior did before us. (see D&C 93: 12-13)

Angel’s Answer to Nephi

When Nephi admitted that he did not know the meaning of all things, the angel didn’t berate him but began showing him scenes from the birth and early life of Christ, connected to the vision his father saw and related to him. Then the angel told him to “Look and behold the condescension of God!” Nephi was then shown the answer to the question he was asked, through the ministry and death of Christ.

Through his honest admission about his limits, Nephi was able to expand his knowledge. By building on the foundation the Nephi already had, the angel was able to teach him about the condescension of God, which connected to Nephi’s desire to know for himself what his father saw. In fact, he not only saw for himself what his father saw, he was rewarded with a deeper understanding of the vision.

Response to Adam

A deeper understanding was also a product of the angel’s response to Adam’s “I know not”:

And then the angel spake, saying: "This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth. Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore." (Moses 5: 7-8)

Adam gained a deeper understanding of this answer because he acted in faith earlier. He built the altar with his hands, carrying the stone, cutting and fitting them together. He felt the weight of every rock, the stone chips that dug into his palms and fingers, soreness in his muscles. How often while he was building the altar did he wonder on the purpose of it? Why was the Lord having him do this? And raising the firstlings for his sacrifices - the love and care that goes into nurturing them. Then comes the moment of sacrifice - not just once, but over many days, many sacrifices. Why was he commanded to do this?

Then the angel told him it was in similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father. Because of the work and love Adam put into obeying the Lord, he had a greater understanding of the sacrifice, of the price of the atonement, than he would have had otherwise. While he began knowing not, he after knew deeper than he could have otherwise.

Carina’s Diagnosis

My wife, daughter, and I arrived at the hospital, and by then the episode had passed. We met with some specialists, and after testing, were told Carina suffered from Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). We finally knew, but the journey was not over. SVT is not normally a life-threatening diagnosis, but for a four-month-old, it necessitated close monitoring. Older children and adults can communicate when their heart is racing. Infants, not so much. So, Carina spent much of her infancy attached to a heart monitor. We always had stethoscopes on hand. She took medication to help control her condition. The medication had to be closely monitored since too much would not just slow but stop her heart. No pressure. We learned how to intervene when she was going through an episode, shocking her system back to normal. Our doctor recommended holding a bag of frozen peas over her face which worked great, though it was interesting to explain to others if you were out in public. We learned and adapted, continued moving from not knowing to knowing, and eventually our daughter grew out of it and now has two daughters of her own.

The journey from not knowing to knowing takes time. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes many days, and sometimes it takes a lifetime. It is different for each of us. And that is something vital to remember. Each of us is on a path from not knowing to knowing, and each path is unique. Don’t judge others by where you feel they should be, rather celebrate where they are and how far they have come. The timeline is not ours, but our Heavenly Fathers.

I love libraries as a representation of all that I know and do not know - the books that I have and haven’t read. A physical manifestation of where I am on my path. For each of us, our journey through the libraries of our lives is an individual experience guided by faith.

This weekend is General Conference - I will hear things this weekend that I do not know, things that acted upon will help me move further along the path from not knowing to knowing. This weekend you can hear things that you do not know. I challenge you to write down some questions you have. Then listen this weekend. Come, listen to a prophet's voice and hear and feel the answers to your questions. Exercise your faith by allowing the Lord to help you along the path through the words and spirit of His servants. He loves you. He will provide answers for you. This I do know. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.