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Good Thinking | 

Episode 6

Why Mental Flexibility is So Crucial for Durable Discipleship

51 min

A fundamental moment in all good learning is that moment where we modify our assumptions about the world as a result of acquiring new and more accurate knowledge. This, in turn, primes us to make better decisions. On one level, it’s what learning is all about. Sounds pretty basic, right? Well, it is. But it isn’t always easy. Church history can teach us that modifying one’s assumptions can be a challenge for some when it requires them to rethink their ideas about God, prophets, and the church. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, Scott and Casey carefully look at this skill of humbly revising our assumptions in light of better or more accurate information, a skill we’re calling mental flexibility, and then take a look at key moments in the lives of a few people in our church’s history that show us why this skill is so crucial for durable discipleship.

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Scott Woodward:
A fundamental moment in all good learning is that moment where we modify our assumptions about the world as a result of acquiring new and more accurate knowledge. This, in turn, primes us to make better decisions. On one level, it’s what learning is all about. Sounds pretty basic, right? Well, it is. But it isn’t always easy. Church history can teach us that modifying one’s assumptions can be a challenge for some when it requires them to rethink their ideas about God, prophets, and the church. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we’re going to carefully look at this skill of humbly revising our assumptions in light of better or more accurate information, a skill we’re calling mental flexibility, and then take a look at key moments in the lives of a few people in our church’s history that show us why this skill is so crucial for durable discipleship. I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our sixth episode of this series dealing with truth seeking and good thinking. Now, let’s get into it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Hi, Scott. How you doing?

Scott Woodward:
Good. How you doing, Casey?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Good. I’m excited to get to our topic today. We’re continuing—what did we decide to call this? We haven’t settled on a name yet, have we?

Scott Woodward:
Listen, yeah, our listeners will just laugh at us because this is episode six in this series. So it has already gone out there. It’s been named, but please know, everybody, that at this point we still don’t know what to call it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’ve been consistent in my advocacy for Toolbox of Truth.

Scott Woodward:
Epistemological tool belt. I don’t know.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s been really enjoyable so far to get a chance to talk about this.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
This is usually what we do kind of near the beginning of our church history courses before we dive into the history.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
This is sort of setting the table, basically, to understand how we talk about history, how we know if it’s good history or bad history, and how you can use history as a tool to strengthen your testimony if you have the right kind of mindset as you approach it.

Scott Woodward:
Our burning question of the series has been, what mental moves are made by intelligent, critically thinking Latter-day Saints whose faith is strengthened rather than damaged by diving deeply into our church’s history and doctrine, right? Or, in other words, what frameworks of thinking do they use when approaching scripture and history? Some people seem to have their faith rocked, and other people, their faith is affirmed and strengthened. What’s the difference? What’s going on inside, mentally? And so that’s what we’ve been trying to do. And so far, I think it’s been fun, hopefully productive, and helpful for our listeners.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I think if we have a theme scripture that we base this around, Doctrine and Covenants 88 verses 118, which we’ve read before—I’ll read again: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently. Teach one another words of wisdom. Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom. Seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” Seek learning. The Lord wants us to be inquisitive and curious and search out the truth and do a deep dive into things like church history, but also do so in a wise way.

Scott Woodward:
And it’s awesome that that verse highlights that the Lord’s solution to not having faith is to seek learning. Like, dig deeper with other seekers, out of the best books, by study and faith. Like, what an awesome solution, right? We don’t need to be afraid of knowledge. We need to go deeper into it as part of the Lord’s remedy for those who have not faith.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Absolutely. And just to use modern prophets to affirm what the scriptures have already taught, we’ve also mentioned this quote from Dieter F. Uchtdorf. He said, “Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We’re expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth.” I went to the Education Week devotional this year where Elder Renlund said we learn through reason, observation, and faith, that all these skills come together.

Scott Woodward:
Such a good talk. We should put that in the show notes. That talk was amazing.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That was a great talk and highlights what is great about Latter-day Saint epistemology, which is this idea that truth is truth where’er ’tis found, on heathen or on Christian ground.

Scott Woodward:
Did you just write that?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
No! That was—I wrote a book about a guy named Joseph Merrill, and that was his theme. He would quote that all the time. He was a physicist and an apostle.

Scott Woodward:
I thought you were just busting into, like, limerick or something there. That was—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’ve got all this—I’m a regular Thomas S. Monson. I’ve got all these poems memorized that I can just break out whenever I need to. Let’s review really quick what we’ve already done—

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—so that we can get to what we’re doing today. So first we just introduced this idea of, hey, it’s good to be a seeker, good to find these things. Our second episode, I think we talked a little bit about evaluating what is church teaching. We used three lenses. The lenses are scripture and prophets and the guidance of the Holy Spirit used together as checks and balances on each other to find out what the truth is and how reliable a source is in saying, hey, this is actually what the church teaches. This is church doctrine.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And then we did a practice.

Scott Woodward:
We played a little doctrinal pickleball in episode three.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. And I don’t know who won, but we got a good workout, and that was the whole point.

Scott Woodward:
That was fun. Yeah. That was the point. It was all about the exercise.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Absolutely. And then in our fourth episode, we talked about history, historicity, how do you tell good history from bad history, and ran through a couple examples of that using five questions historians use to discern reliable historical claims from less reliable. And then we practiced a couple of claims linked to Book of Mormon witnesses.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. That was our last episode. That was fun. Good time.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That was fun. So, tell us what we’re doing today, Scott. What’s the plan?

Scott Woodward:
Okay. So today we’re introducing a new skill or mindset that we’re calling mental flexibility, all right? So mental flexibility, I believe, is crucial to maintaining and building true faith, like rock-ribbed faith, the kind that endures. Durable discipleship must have in the tool kit mental flexibility. It pushes against fixed thinking, which can be quite detrimental in many areas of life, but particularly to a life of faith. So let me define the term here. So mental flexibility is the ability to identify, challenge, and modify one’s own assumptions in light of new information after humble and honest analysis. Do we have the ability to identify our assumptions, challenge those assumptions, and modify those assumptions in light of new information? And if we can do that, we are well on our way to the path of durable discipleship. If we cannot do that, then our beliefs become brittle, and they can break under pressure, is how I would summarize it briefly.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
A book that you and I both read in the last couple weeks, and I don’t think we planned this, did we? We just—

Scott Woodward:
No, we didn’t talk about it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s not a book by an apostle.

Scott Woodward:
No.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But it’s a great book that we’re going to give a little shout out to. It’s by a guy named Adam Grant.

Scott Woodward:
Yes.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The name of the book is Think Again, where it’s basically about being mentally flexible.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. I’d call it one of the best books. You know, when you drill down to a particular topic, the best book on that topic may not be by a Latter-day Saint, and that’s okay. As Joseph Smith says, we’ll take truth from wherever it comes, right? Truth is truth, where’er ’tis found. Go ahead, Casey. What’s the . . .?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
“On heathen or on Christian ground.” And we’re not saying Adam Grant is a heathen.

Scott Woodward:
No, he’s awesome.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But—

Scott Woodward:
I love Adam Grant.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
We admire the flexibility that he’s shown.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, when it comes to the topic of rethinking your assumptions or to dig into this skill set of mental flexibility. I can’t think of a better book than Think Again by Adam Grant. So there you go.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Amen. And so a couple quotes from the book. He says, “Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

Scott Woodward:
Ah, shoot. Now that’s a great quote spiritually as well. Like, if you want to maintain your testimony in a turbulent world, it is crucial to have this skill set. Can you rethink, and can you unlearn? What else? Any other good quotes?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Ah, I like this one. He says, “When it comes to our knowledge and opinions, we tend to stick to our guns. Psychologists call this seizing and freezing. We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. We listen to views that make us feel good instead of ideas that make us think hard.” I’m guessing, you know, sometimes a person that wants to tear down faith is also trying to sort of convince you that, you know what? You come across something that you haven’t heard before, that means everything is wrong. What Adam Grant is suggesting is you come across something that you haven’t heard before, that doesn’t necessarily mean what you believe is wrong, but you might need to re-examine your assumptions about those things and wonder if your thinking has been right along the way and if you need to change your thinking a little bit.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. You know, Elder Uchtdorf, in another talk he gave, it’s a little phrase that’s made some headway in the church, which is, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” We could even use the word assumptions. Doubt your assumptions before you doubt your faith. Like, you might have some blind spots. And that’s okay. That’s what this skill is all about, is rethinking your blind spots: Rethinking what you thought you knew, but in light of new information, being able to adjust. Being nimble and having some dexterity there with your thinking. Okay, here’s another quote from Adam Grant that goes along that. He said, “We all have blind spots in our knowledge and opinion. The bad news is that they can leave us blind to our blindness, which gives us false confidence in our judgment and prevents us from rethinking. The good news is that with the right kind of confidence we can learn to see ourselves more clearly and update our views. In driver’s training we were taught to identify our visual blind spots and eliminate them with the help of mirrors and sensors. In life, since our minds don’t come equipped with those tools, we need to learn to recognize our cognitive blind spots and revise our thinking accordingly.” So good. So good.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
That’s what we need to do. That’s what we want to talk about today. How do you do that, especially in a context of learning church history, studying this topic, which frankly some people are a little bit nervous about, right? Some people are afraid what they might learn in church history and what might challenge their thinking, maybe even cause doubts in their testimony, right? I guess we’re here to say today that if you can develop this skill, that’s going to be a much less likely outcome, right? That you’re going to somehow be blindsided by some fact in church history that’s going to cause your testimony to crumble. That doesn’t happen when you come at it with the right mindset, the right skill set, I would say.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. This is an interesting word that Adam Grant uses is humility.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. I like that word.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Here’s another quote. He says, “As we gain experience, we lose some of our humility and have a false sense of mastery. We get trapped in a beginner’s bubble of flawed assumptions, and we’re ignorant of our own ignorance.” Then he introduces this phrase: he says, “Confident humility,” which sounds like an oxymoron, right, “gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights.” And so we’re saying have the humility to say, I could have been wrong in the way I saw this, but be confident to say, I think if I re-examine this, it’s going to help me. It’s going to make me a better person. We’re all seeking the truth here. And every once in a while a good reevaluation of how we see things can be really helpful. It makes us be more flexible.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Okay. Should we practice? Should we dive in and should we try to use this skill with some church history and kind of show how it can play out? Maybe use examples of people in church history who either did a good job or a bad job at being mentally flexible?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, so here’s some case scenarios. We’re going to start with a guy named Joseph Wakefield.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. Who’s Joseph Wakefield?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Joseph Wakefield is an elder in the early church. He’s briefly mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 52 verse 35, and he was called to accompany a whole group of missionaries that were going to travel from Ohio to Missouri. Now, one of the people he converts is actually George A. Smith. This is grandfather of the prophet George Albert Smith.

Scott Woodward:
He’s the namesake of St. George, isn’t he? St. George, Utah is—this is George A. Smith.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He is, yeah. He’s all over southern Utah, and he becomes the church historian. And George A. Smith was a brilliant historian because he was great at picking out these little nuggets that kind of taught principles. Again, this is the guy that converted him, but I’ll spoil the end of the story for you. Joseph Wakefield leaves the church. But here’s what George A. Smith says is the reason why he left. Okay, this is in the Journal of Discourses, volume 7, page 112. He said, “Joseph H. Wakefield, who baptized me, after having apostatized from the church announced to the astonished world the fact that, while he was a guest in the house of Joseph Smith, he had absolutely seen the prophet come down from the room where he was engaged in translating the word of God,” this is the Bible translation, “and actually go to playing with the children. This convinced him the prophet was not a man of God and that the work was false which to me, and hundreds of others, he had testified that he knew came from God. He afterwards headed a mob meeting and took the lead in bringing about a persecution against the saints in Kirtland and the regions round about.”

Scott Woodward:
Wow.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So Joseph Wakefield apostatized because he saw Joseph Smith playing with some children.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. So, alright. So he left the church because he saw the prophet playing with children. And he’s going to lead mobs against the church as a result of his apostasy.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, so let’s walk through. What are the mental moves you would make if you’re applying this skill set or mindset of mental flexibility? So mental move number one here is first, real simply, just identify the assumptions, all right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
All right, Casey, what are Joseph Wakefield’s assumptions about prophets here?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I mean, it seems like the guy thinks that prophets can’t play with children.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That prophets are always serious and sober and . . .

Scott Woodward:
Solemn.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Solemn. Because this one mystifies me a little bit. Like, what, what’s the big deal? You know?

Scott Woodward:
What’s the big deal?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But I guess, yeah, that’s his assumption: that a prophet has to be a solemn, distant figure and doesn’t do stuff like wrestle with kids or, you know, play games or something like that.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. God’s work will not be led by men who play with children. And since Joseph plays with children, he must not be a prophet of God, and therefore this isn’t the work of God. Or something like that, right? Okay, okay, so that’s mental move number one. You’ve got to—let’s be really clear about assumptions. So mental move number two now is now challenge the assumption, usually against one of the best books. I always start with scripture. Let’s challenge the assumption. The way that Adam Grant asks it, he says, “How do you know? It’s a question we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s non-judgmental, a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive, right? So ask yourself, ask others, like, how do you know? Let’s challenge the assumption. Are these assumptions true, Joseph Wakefield, or not? And I don’t know, as I think about it, as I look at the best books, Casey, I can’t find anything in scripture or anywhere else that would disqualify a man from being a true prophet of God because he plays with children, especially his own children, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, this is weird because, I mean, I can’t find any place where it says the Savior played games with children, but the Savior loved children and blessed children and didn’t seem to have any problem being in their presence.

Scott Woodward:
“Suffer the children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of God.” Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. It feels like Joseph Wakefield’s assumptions may have been opposed to scripture. At the very least, scripture doesn’t say that they can’t play with children. The prophets can’t let loose and do a little stickpull or something like that.

Scott Woodward:
Right? Yeah, certainly not. Okay, so that then leads to mental move number three, which is modify your assumption in light of the new information after a humble and honest analysis, right? You go to the scriptures, start with the best books—scripture. Is there anything there that would prevent a prophet of God from wrestling with children? You know what? Upon humble analysis, no, there’s not. So Joseph Wakefield would have been helped by looking maybe at the humanity of prophets in scripture. Again, there’s nothing that disqualifies a prophet from doing normal, human things like Joseph was doing. The sad news in this case is Wakefield did not modify his assumption, and so he apostatized and then turns to fight against the work. So here’s the thing: When your assumptions about God, prophets, or the church are violated by reality, now your faith is in jeopardy. In this case, the reality was Joseph plays with his children. At that moment, Joseph Wakefield’s faith was in jeopardy because his assumption was violated. So now this puts you at a crossroads, and you now have essentially two choices: Number one, throw out everything you believe about God, prophets, and the church, or, number two, recognize that you could be wrong. You might have a blind spot. And now, be a seeker, and go back to sources of truth, go back to the best books, and reexamine your expectations against the truth of the Word of God, and then modify your assumptions accordingly. And now you’re in a place where when a prophet plays with his children, that does nothing to your faith. In fact, that actually is kind of endearing, right? The way that Jesus in 3 Nephi 17 and other places, when he’s tender with children, rather than being faith damaging, it kind of becomes faith strengthening.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Agreed. This is maybe the extreme example of mental inflexibility, right? Who was this guy, and what’s his deal? Let’s try maybe a harder one.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So example number two. Scott, tell us about Ezra Booth.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, Ezra Booth. This man joined the church in May of 1831 when he saw, with his own eyes, the prophet Joseph Smith heal the lame arm of a woman named Elsa Johnson. This is John Johnson’s wife. They’ll have a couple kids who become apostles, Luke and Lyman Johnson. Like, great family up in Hiram, Ohio. So after his conversion, Booth, along with other missionaries, were called and sent to Missouri in the summer of 1831. Now, Booth becomes upset about having to walk and preach the entire journey from Ohio to Missouri. And he began to criticize and find fault with the leadership of the church, especially Joseph Smith. And then when he actually arrives in Missouri, he’s disappointed at not experiencing miraculous manifestations of the spirit of Zion. Instead he only saw church leaders unimpressively lay a small stone and a shrub oak as the cornerstone and foundation of Zion. Ezra was not impressed. This little cornerstone ceremony was done in a little dedicatory service of the land in a spot for the temple. And then the church leaders announced that it was time to turn around and return back to Ohio. So shortly after his return to Ohio, Elder Booth came out as an apostate, Joseph Smith recorded. I’ll continue to quote Joseph Smith here: he said, “He came into the church upon seeing a person healed of an infirmity of many years standing. He went up to Missouri as a missionary, but when he actually learned that faith, humility, patience, and tribulation go before blessing, and that God brings low before He exalts, that instead of the Savior’s granting him power to smite men and make them believe, as he said he wanted God to do in his own case, then he was disappointed and turned away and became an apostate.” So there you go. That’s Ezra’s sad story. And he’ll actually continue to fight against the church. He’ll write several news articles which tear down confidence in Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others. Sidney Rigdon will actually challenge him to a public debate, to which Ezra does not show up, but he continues to be a little bit of a thorn in the side of church leaders there for a short amount of time after his apostasy through publishing. In fact, I think he publishes the first anti-Mormon material, doesn’t he, Casey?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He publishes some of the first anti-Mormon material, and here’s a unique thing about Ezra Booth. There’s actually a section of the Doctrine and Covenants dedicated to Ezra Booth telling them basically to go out and rebuke him.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And so that’s got to be a little special, you know, to be the first person who the Lord publicly says, you’ve got to go out and rebuke this guy. This is section 71—

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Lord says, “Confound your enemies.” He’s talking about Ezra Booth. “Call upon them to meet you, both in public and in private. Inasmuch as you’re faithful, their shame shall be made manifest. Wherefore, let them bring their strong reasons against the Lord. Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, there is no weapon formed against you that shall prosper.”

Scott Woodward:
That’s what led Sidney to calling him out, right? He actually gives a public notice, like, I hereby call Ezra Booth and Symonds Rider was the other guy—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
—to come and answer their claims against Joseph and the Book of Mormon and the church, especially the Book of Mormon, and Sidney wants to go toe to toe and debate that, but it’s because the Lord backed him up and said, yeah, let them bring forth their strong reasons. Let’s do this.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yep. Bring it on. So let’s talk about—boy, there’s a lot to unpack here, and Ezra Booth is a fascinating figure, but—

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—a couple things: He’s converted via miracle—

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—which the Lord warns against several times in the Doctrine and Covenants, you know, he that seeketh a sign. But it seems like one of Ezra’s assumptions was that there would be stuff like Elsa Johnson’s healing happening all the time in the church. And actually, there was a lot of stuff that happened in the early church, but to assume that it was going to be stuff like that every day might be a wrong assumption.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. He seemed to believe that prophets were supposed to be, like, constantly impressive, right? That when he gets to Zion and sees Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon laying a very unimpressive cornerstone in Zion and having a shrub oak as part of the ceremony, he’s like, okay, this is not impressive. So his assumption’s violated there, it looks like.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. And he must have assumed that Zion was going to, you know, magically appear without any—one of the things Ezra Booth writes about is that Joseph Smith and Edward Partridge got into an argument over the right plot of land. He must have assumed that there wouldn’t be any intense discussions about the location of Zion.

Scott Woodward:
Edward Partridge thought the land wasn’t very impressive, right? If I remember the argument, Joseph says. No, this is the spot. You need a little more faith, brother. Ezra didn’t like that.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It also seems like he just complained a lot. He thought the missionary work would be easier. And to his credit, he travels all the way from Ohio to Missouri. That’s a long journey and a tough journey, but it seems like Ezra just wasn’t really—this wasn’t what he signed up for, right? He’s feeling like it would be easy to teach people, it wouldn’t require a lot of work, and that’s kind of what causes him to become disillusioned.

Scott Woodward:
You should be able to smite men and make them believe. That’s what Joseph said that Ezra said, right? He wanted to be able to do a miracle and make people believe. Kind of makes sense, considering how he came into the church, but he wanted to be, again, impressive. He wanted to be really impressive and miraculous as a missionary, but most missionary work, as most of us know who serve missions, is not glorious. It’s kind of tedious, with the occasional breakthrough, and other than that, it’s a lot of sweat and a lot of hard work and a lot of normal, mundane, difficult days, right? That’s the reality.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s a lot less glorious than we sometimes assume it will be.

Scott Woodward:
Than Ezra thought it would be. Yeah. Sometimes we have that same assumption.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Right.

Scott Woodward:
So you just did mental move number one. We identified his assumptions, right? So, okay, so mental move number two with this skill set is, okay, now challenge the assumption, usually against scripture here. What do you think, Casey? Are those assumptions true in any degree, and why or why not?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, I mean, we just already talked about one. It’s not easy, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And secondly, there’s a kind of down to earth, when it comes to building Zion, mental leap that we have to make. Building Zion happens in a thousand little ways every single day. It can be something as mundane as rolling a rock up against a scrub oak. You have to start somewhere, right? But it seems like the big issue Ezra was having was he just expected stuff like Elsa Johnson’s healing to happen every day. The scriptures seem to identify miracles as being the exception and not the rule. Several sections in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Savior warns against seeking signs, that signs come after we’ve demonstrated faith, and not before. And it seems in Ezra’s case that he mixed up the process, that his faith came from seeing something miraculous, and it’s not supposed to work that way. You’re supposed to demonstrate faith, and then the miracles come. So I would say a lot of his assumptions don’t really line up with the scriptures or the way things work as we understand them.

Scott Woodward:
So then mental move number three, modify the assumption in light of new information after humble and honest analysis. Yeah, for Ezra Booth to have gone to the scriptures and looking at, okay, what do we learn about missionary work from scripture, right? Let’s just take Paul as an example in scripture as a missionary. Like, what do we learn? What assumptions could we build out about missionary work from looking at Paul’s own efforts, right? One of the greatest missionaries in scripture. I’m reminded of what Paul himself says about his own missionary efforts in 2nd Corinthians 11, for instance, where he said, “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.” Five times I was beaten thirty-nine times on my back. “Thrice was I beaten with rods. Once was I stoned. Thrice I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day have I been in the deep, in the ocean, in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, in weariness and painfulness and watchings often and hunger and thirst, fasting often and cold and nakedness.” I’m getting the vibe from Paul that sometimes missionary work is hard.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And sometimes it’s—people don’t like you, and sometimes it’s going to be unglorious.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
So if Ezra Booth could have reexamined his assumptions in light of scripture, could have gone to the Book of Mormon, looked at the sons of Mosiah, missionary work there, not always glorious. Some moments, yes. Some moments. But not generally. It’s not just filled with miracle after miracle, right? It’s not an unbroken chain of miracles.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
It’s often hard with moments of breakthrough.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The other thing I would add there, too, is from the life of Paul, we’d also learn that prophets get into arguments, you know? Paul and Barnabas have a big ol’ argument over whether or not Mark should come with them. And it’s apparently so severe that they part ways, that these two mission companions just can’t even with each other.

Scott Woodward:
Or Galatians 2, where Paul calls out Peter for fraternizing too much with the Jews instead of the Gentiles.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The Judaizers.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So, I mean, it seems like Ezra had sort of, I’m not going to say deified, but maybe glorified the idea of a prophet too much. And when he saw the prophet acting as a human, you know, getting into arguments with his friends or traveling under unpleasant circumstances, it just didn’t work for him.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And so he’s confronted with two choices. Throw out everything you believe about God, prophets, and the church, or recognize you could be wrong and update your assumptions. Prophets are human.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Building Zion is a process. Missionary work is hard. You adjust all those things, and you’re going to be okay, but it seems like he just really couldn’t make the adjustment.

Scott Woodward:
Of the two choices that you’re basically confronted with when your assumptions are violated, he chose to throw out everything he believed about God, prophets, and the church rather than, as you said, recognizing that he could be wrong. Rather than being a seeker. Rather than going back to sources of truth, the best books, to reexamine his expectations against the truth of the word of God and modifying his assumptions accordingly. So Ezra Booth is a sad tale of what happens when you don’t employ the skill set of mental flexibility and you’re caught in the trap of fixed thinking. He’s a victim of fixed thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
All right. For example number three, this is a hypothetical example. This is not a real person.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Modern example. Okay. So this person, we’re going to call him Ryan.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
This isn’t based on any person we know, okay? I know you have a brother named Ryan. This isn’t him.

Scott Woodward:
I have a brother named Ryan. Yeah. Ryan, this is not about you. Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Ryan stumbled across a website critical of the church, which pointed out that when modern Egyptologists examine facsimiles one, two, and three in our Book of Abraham, they interpret them very differently than Joseph Smith did. The facsimiles, they say, really have nothing to do with Abraham, but are an ancient embalming scene, facsimile 1; a buried hypocephalus, facsimile 2; and a judgment scene from the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead, facsimile 3. The website points out that this is solid evidence that Joseph Smith was wrong about the facsimiles and is therefore a fraud. Ryan is floored by this information and unable to reconcile how Joseph could be wrong about this and still be a true prophet. He feels his testimony is disintegrating.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, so you said this is a hypothetical example.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
But honestly this, like, totally happens, like, all the time to people, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Coming across information online, your assumptions are violated, now what are you going to do? What are you going to do? Right. Should we break it down?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Let’s break it down.

Scott Woodward:
Mental move number one. Let’s identify the assumptions. I feel like there’s a lot in here. I feel like Ryan has some assumptions about Joseph Smith in here, Joseph’s translation process. What else? Modern Egyptologists’ conclusions—how about the conclusions of the website he’s reading from? So maybe let’s break down all of those. So let’s start with Joseph Smith. What are his assumptions about Joseph Smith? Ryan seems to think that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the Book of Abraham must agree with those of modern Egyptologists in order for his translation to be considered valid. Maybe that’s one assumption. His assumption about Joseph’s translation process? He seems to think that Joseph either translated the papyri using the same process modern Egyptologists use today, or at least he should have arrived at the same conclusions that modern Egyptologists come to, regardless of his translation process. What else? Ryan seems to think that modern Egyptologists’ literal interpretation should be considered the final word on the meaning of the papyri, maybe, and should be the standard against which Joseph Smith’s translations are measured. At one level seems very reasonable, very rational. I don’t have a ton of problems with that, but that can be dangerous. We’ll talk about why here in a second. And then Ryan seems to think that the website he’s reading from is giving him the unfiltered, untarnished truth and that there’s no other way to responsibly interpret the evidence. Anything you’d add?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
No, that’s a pretty good summary of the assumptions a person might make in this situation. If that’s the case, then let’s challenge Ryan’s assumptions here.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Are they too rigid? Are they too narrow?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, we did a series about this, didn’t we?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, we did.

Scott Woodward:
This was in our Translations and Revelations series. We went through, I think, two episodes talking about this very point that, yeah, when you actually look in the best books written by those who are Egyptologists—we highlighted Kerry Muhlestein, his little book, Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham. He does a great job talking about what eyewitnesses say the sources were that Joseph was translating from, and it always seems to be consistent that it was a long roll which we no longer have, destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871, most likely. And all we have left are eleven little fragments that were sent a different way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and came to our knowledge in the 1960s. And so according to eyewitness accounts Joseph isn’t translating from those fragments, as far as we know.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
But what we did point out is, the thing that is challenging, though, is it does seem like Joseph translates a little. Like on facsimile one, you have little numbers, facsimile two, there’s little numbers, facsimile three, there’s little numbers, and when you look at those numbers and there’s a little explanation, at least, in English underneath them, which seems to be an effort at translation, and when modern Egyptologists look at those facsimiles, they say, that’s not what those are about, right? So, let’s go to mental move number three on this, then. So how would you modify your assumption in light of new information here after a humble and honest analysis? If you go to the best books on this, which might not, in this case, be scripture: It might be scholarship by someone like Kerry Muhlestein or John Gee or Stephen Smoot or John Thompson. Like, what information might be helpful here for Ryan to think more clearly through this issue and then adjust his assumptions?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So, first, I mean, we talked about all of this on our Book of Abraham podcast, but one assumption that we make is that the drawings can only mean one thing.

Scott Woodward:
Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Egyptian Jews, Jewish people living in Egypt, sometimes repurposed Egyptian symbology for their own purposes. So the facsimiles in the book of Abraham are an example of visual iconography that can sometimes be used for different reasons. And when you think about that for a minute, we use different symbols to represent different things all the time. Is that the case, when Joseph Smith interpreted the facsimiles, that he was giving the way one group may have used the symbols and not worrying about another group, how they might’ve used the symbols.

Scott Woodward:
And what’s particularly convincing in this case is that the area that these papyri were discovered is a place called Thebes, Egypt, right? About second century BC. And what modern Egyptologists have found is that some Jews living in that area would repurpose Egyptian drawings like the facsimiles to tell stories about the Old Testament people such as Abraham. We’ve actually found evidence of them using facsimiles that were not originally intended to talk about Abraham, like lion couch scene, right, of Facsimile 1, and using those to actually tell stories about Abraham. There’s actually a cool example of that that has been found. And so, on that level, Joseph Smith’s interpretation is spot on. It’s a booyah. So this borrowing from each other and giving secondary meanings to Egyptian hieroglyphics can easily account for the disagreement between what modern Egyptologists say the fragments mean, which is the original Egyptian meaning, and then what Joseph Smith interpreted them to mean, which is that secondary meaning that was applied to hieroglyphs at that time where those scrolls were found in the second century B. C., right, to tell Abraham’s story. That’s actually a really cool find that was discovered after Joseph Smith’s death, which is all the more cool, actually.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
What else? What else might help Ryan?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oh, Ryan might make some assumptions about the website he’s reading from, too. If you’re assuming that everything you read on the internet is accurate, you could run into some bad roads. And we talked about this when we talked about historicity, but consider the motives behind the people that write it. You know, if someone writes too definitively, if someone is basically saying this is the way it is and there’s no other way to look at this and interpret it, that’s sometimes a sign of bad thinking, I guess you’d say.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Rigid thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Rigid thinking, right? That it has to be this way, and therefore you have to do this. So that could be a problem as well. It’s just assuming that something you’ve read on the internet without checking it out a little bit is good information.

Scott Woodward:
And we talked about, too, the difference between a fact and an inference on a fact. Like, the facts of the case here are, let’s just review, that, yes, modern Egyptologists interpret the facsimiles different than Joseph Smith. That is a fact. But the website that Ryan ran into then inferred from that fact that Joseph Smith was therefore a fraud and a false prophet. That’s an inference. That’s not the fact. And what we’re trying to do here with looking deeper into some of the best books is see if there’s not more information, better information that can help us make sense of those facts. We’ve just given an example of how that is the case. The repurposing of facsimiles is actually super cool and very helpful. That does not lead you to the necessary conclusion that Joseph is a fraud here, but actually leads you to a conclusion that’s, like, how on earth could Joseph have known that facsimiles like that were repurposed to tell Abraham’s stories when nobody knew that until after he died? Like, suddenly that becomes something that is faith strengthening rather than faith destroying, right? Just keep digging. Keep seeking into the best books, the best scholars. Like, people have wrestled with this. What have they found? What have they learned, right? So, Ryan would be very well served, like we all would, of recognizing the difference between the facts of the matter and then inference about those facts based on one’s assumptions and your hermeneutic, right? The hermeneutic of suspicion here is Egyptologists disagree with Joseph, therefore, boom. Joseph is false prophet. Like, that’s a hermeneutic of suspicion that’s not challenging their own assumptions.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
The mindset of mental flexibility here is so crucial to keep the options open and dig deeper, especially on this particular one, because the answer is not obvious here, right? The answer is not obvious. You’re not just going to be like, oh, that’s easy. The answer’s actually super cool once you get into it, but Ryan, hold on your way. All the Ryans out there, when you come across something like that that just seems irreconcilable, just know that that’s an opportunity for deeper seeking, deeper learning. Keep your mind open and flexible, and resolution almost always comes in those cases.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
In this situation, I would hope Ryan also wouldn’t panic, basically. You know, sometimes when we’re presented with new material that we haven’t heard of before, the impulse is to immediately act on it, to throw everything out, when in reality, when you come across something, you can just say, I haven’t encountered that before. Let me look into it a little bit, and usually, after a little bit of searching, you’ll find out that it wasn’t—it’s new to you; it wasn’t new to everybody. And there are answers and way to reconcile it. The facsimiles in the book of Abraham are a great example, because it’s always used as a gotcha by people that want to destroy faith, but when you start looking into it deeper, and you start to understand the cultural context and everything that’s happening, like you mentioned, it actually can become something that deepens your faith rather than harming your faith. So I would say, you know, don’t panic. Realize you’re at a crossroads, and it might change the way that you think about prophets and how prophets carry out their work, but it doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything that’s been meaningful and powerful and beautiful to you.

Scott Woodward:
Ryan, here you are. You’re at the crossroads, right? When your assumptions are being violated by reality here, your faith is in jeopardy. What are you going to do, brother? You got two choices. Throw out everything you believe about God, prophets, and the church, or recognize you could be wrong. The website could be wrong that you’re reading. Be a seeker. Go to sources of truth, the best books, whatever is the best source to get real, solid answers to this particular issue, then re-examine your expectations against the truth that you’re finding, and then modify your assumptions accordingly. And like you said, you might come out of that experience thinking of prophets differently. That’s okay, as long as that matches reality better, right? I don’t think of prophets the same as I thought about them when I was 10, or when I was 20, or when I was 30. Like, I continue to modify my assumptions about prophets, but I can boldly stand up and testify that they actually are prophets of God. Totally believe Joseph is a prophet of God. That means something different to me now than it did when I was 17, but it’s sweet, and it’s rich, and to me it’s beautiful.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And that’s a good thing. That shows that you’re mentally flexible enough that you can grow. You haven’t locked yourself into one way of thinking, so when new information comes along, it’s not going to totally break your framework that you exist within.

Scott Woodward:
I hope so.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, we used two negative examples and then one hypothetical, I hope this turns out okay for Ryan, kind of example.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Good luck, Ryan.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Is there a good example of flexible thinking that we could model here, too? Like, someone from church history who came across a difficult problem and did okay, and who is that?

Scott Woodward:
Yes. Let me set the scene here. In Kirtland, Ohio, 1837, Joseph Smith and other church leaders, but especially Joseph, endorsed a bank. They called it the Kirtland Safety Society, which a lot of members invested in. Then, in what’s known as the Panic of 1837 in the U. S., about 40 percent of banks across America failed, including the Kirtland Safety Society, and a lot of church members lost a lot of money. A lot of people looked at Joseph Smith as the failure there, that he was the one who was to blame. Just to empathize a little bit, can you imagine the prophet of God stands up in general conference and says, hey, we’re going to endorse a bank, and we’d invite you to invest your money in this bank. And, I mean, I think a lot of church members would do it. And then imagine that that bank failed a year later and you lost all your money.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Hmm.

Scott Woodward:
How would that make you view the president of the church? You might pause and say, hold on a second, right? And I bet you’ll find an assumption buried in your heart. I think your assumption would go something like this: True prophets don’t make financial errors like that that hurt people. True prophets don’t endorse banks that fail. There might be an assumption in your heart like that, right? So our good example today is a man by the name of Brigham Young. Maybe you’ve heard of him. And here’s what’s cool about Brigham Young. Watch what he does here: Let me read a quote from him. He told this story later. It’s Journal of Discourses, volume 4, page 297-298. He said this, “I can tell the people that once in my life I felt a want of confidence, a lack of confidence in brother Joseph Smith soon after I became acquainted with him. It was not concerning religious matters. It was not about his revelations, but it was in relation to his financiering, to his managing the temporal affairs which he undertook.” Now, I’m not sure, by the way, if this is about the Kirtland bank failing or not, or some other financial issue. This could be about that, but I’m not sure. He’s a little vague, but what he saw was Joseph is not great at managing finances. That was the reality that Brigham Young was now confronted with. I’ll continue to quote him, “A feeling came over me that Joseph was not right in his financial management, though I presume the feeling did not last sixty seconds and perhaps not thirty, but that feeling came on me once and once only from the time I first knew him to the day of his death.” So let’s slow down here. Here’s an assumption that might have been in Brigham Young’s heart: True prophets don’t make financial errors. The reality he was confronted with was, I see Joseph Smith making some financial errors. Brigham Young is now confronted with a choice. He can either throw out everything he believes about God, prophets, and the church, or, watch what he does. He says, “I repented of my unbelief, and that too very suddenly. I repented about as quickly as I committed the error.” And here’s why: He said, “It was not for me to question whether Joseph was dictated by the Lord at all times and under all circumstances or not. He was called of God. God dictated him. And if God had a mind to leave Joseph to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God’s servant, not mine.” Whoo. So good, right? Brigham Young’s saying, listen, the reality I’m confronted with here is Joseph Smith’s making financial errors. Now, what do I want to do about that? Well, why can’t God let his prophet make financial errors?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
See what he did there really quick? What’d he say? 60 seconds, maybe 30 seconds he was wrestling with that, and then he came to that conclusion.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
God can let him make financial errors if he wants to. It’s up to God whether he’s going to correct Joseph on this or not. So there you go. Maybe my assumption was wrong. Prophets don’t make financial errors. You know what? Why can’t they make financial errors? Of course they can. It’s God’s prophet, not mine. God can let them do that if He wants. So good to just watch Brigham Young just kind of wrestle with that in 30 seconds or maybe 60.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Others were not so fortunate. Others got super angry at Joseph. Some left for a while and came back, and others left and never come back during this season of this fallout with the bank, which precipitates the Kirtland apostasy, we call it, because so many people left the church over dissatisfaction with Joseph Smith, but not Brigham Young. Not Brigham Young. And that’s a little glimpse into his soul, a little glimpse into his mind, his mental flexibility as he kind of wrestled with Joseph making financial errors. So, super cool.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Very cool. It kind of shows, you know, how he approached it with the hermeneutic of faith. He didn’t go in looking for anything wrong. When he sees something wrong, he adjusts his thinking to say, is this really part of being a prophet? Is financiering always part of the prophetic office?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And even if he was wrong in how he did his finance, he’s still a prophet.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
This really isn’t my business. This isn’t something I have to expend a lot of mental energy worrying about. So it’s a great model of how you can confront a problem and rather than having your whole world shatter, you just pause and say, well, let me think about this for a second. Maybe my thinking was wrong, and if I adjust, I can find a way to reconcile this, and most of the time you will find a way to reconcile it.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. And he didn’t go to the other extreme, trying to be like, nope, Joseph didn’t make any mistakes, you know, try to defend the prophet tooth and nail, like try to uphold some false standard of prophetic infallibility, right? He’s just like, oh, prophets can make mistakes. That’s fine. If this is one of them, cool. I’ll let God deal with it. Not my bag. So just a nice sweet spot of faith, but not fanaticism. He didn’t run to any extreme to defend Joseph. He just kind of said, I’m going to let God handle that one. So super cool. Great example.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Well, Casey, that’s a brief run through of this skill of mental flexibility. We think it’s super crucial to a life of durable discipleship. Anything else you want to say about this as we kind of wrap all this up today?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Just repeating the same points, that when you come across something that maybe changes your paradigm or shifts you a little bit, it doesn’t mean it has to destroy everything that you believe. You change your assumptions, you move, and you’re a little bit mentally nimble. Like, we always talk about a person staying consistent, and that’s important, right?

Scott Woodward:
Some ways.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
In some ways. But It’s also important to be flexible, too, in order to adjust things when new evidence comes around so that you see things and it doesn’t break your worldview of what’s going on around. So, yeah, I hope this has been helpful, and hopefully you’ve seen some good examples from church history where people get confronted with new facts and they respond in good ways and positive ways. We’re not making any summary judgments about the people that we know here. No final judgments. We’re just basically saying, hey, here’s an example of someone who is mentally flexible. Here’s an example of someone who wasn’t. And here’s why this will bless and benefit you in your life and in your faith.

Scott Woodward:
Awesome. Well, thanks for joining us, everybody. Stay tuned next time. We’ll tackle our next skill. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. Join us next time as we introduce the next skill we believe to be vital to seeking truth and preserving faith: the skill of putting facts, especially shocking or uncomfortable facts, into their historical, theological, or cultural contexts. This skill of contextualizing facts is essential in helping us know what assumptions to bring to those facts so we know what meaning to give them. If you’re enjoying Church History Matters, we’d appreciate it if you could take a moment to subscribe, rate, review, and comment on the podcast. That makes us easier to find. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter-day Saint scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. And while we try very hard to be historically and doctrinally accurate in what we say on this podcast, please remember that all views expressed in this and every episode are our views alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Scripture Central or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us. 

Show produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes by Gabe Davis.

Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central. For more resources to enhance your gospel study go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you.