An instructor's approach to students' doubts can be crucial in how they choose to respond, said Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Seventy during the Seminaries and Institutes August Broadcast on Aug. 7.
"Some of our best students will have doubts," said Elder Johnson, who serves as Commissioner of Church Educational System. "We want to help all of our students. We love them. We know the future rests on them, their abilities and strengths and their spiritual power."
Because of doubt — and the world today — individuals must protect themselves in order to stay strong.
"The real protection for us and our students is in having the powerful spiritual knowledge that comes from proper seeking and learning, and from past spiritual experiences," he said.
Elder Johnson spoke of some of the tools available to instructors — scriptures, living prophets, the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost, teachers, Church programs and strong students — that help in the important task of helping students dispel doubt.
"One way to help students is to help them realize that different types of knowledge are acquired using different methods," he said. "We love the truth. As Latter-day Saints we seek for truth, and accept it when we find it."
In the scientific world the scientific method is used to learn truth and advance knowledge, he said.
"Learning spiritual things, however, requires a different approach than learning scientific things," he said. "The scientific method and intellect are very helpful, but they alone will never bring spiritual knowledge. Learning spiritual things involves the intellect, but that is not enough. We learn spiritual things only by the Spirit."
Drawing from the example of Laman and Lemuel in the Book of Mormon when they wondered about the things Lehi had taught them, Elder Johnson spoke of the need to inquire of the Lord and be worthy of an answer.
"This pattern is crucial for our students to understand if they have questions about spiritual things," he said. "We can make the mistake of trying to resolve doubts about spiritual things by leaning exclusively on intellectual answers. Answers to spiritual questions are given to individuals who don't harden their hearts, who ask in faith, believing that they will receive and who diligently keep the commandments.
"Even when we follow this pattern we don't control the timing of getting answers. Sometimes answers come quickly and sometimes we must place questions on the shelf for a time and rely on our faith that has developed from the answers we do know."
Sometimes individuals can get sidetracked trying to determine the veracity of spiritual things by subjecting them to tests that were never designed for spiritual things, Elder Johnson taught.
"Debating spiritual things using only temporal evidence and methods doesn't settle the issues," he said. "And yet this seems to be part of some externally imposed set of rules people use to explore questions about the gospel and the Church. … If scientists tried to prove their hypotheses without following the scientific method they would have no credibility. It is just as strange to think of people trying to prove or disprove spiritual things without following the pattern of learning spiritual things."
Because an answer to every question is realistically not available, Elder Johnson told teachers that sometimes the best answer is, "I don't know."
"We may feel such a desire to help students who are struggling that we grasp at straws to give them any answer, even when there is no real answer available," he said.
Further, he explained, "No matter how difficult, we all need to learn to acknowledge we don't know the answer to every question. It is not unhealthy for a student to see that the teacher doesn't know the answer to everything, but does know the answer to the core questions and has a strong testimony."
Even if instructors don't know the answer to a specific question, they can remind their students of the things they do know.
"Another challenge we face, especially if we have taught for some time, is a tendency to hold on to old files and old explanations," he said. "We would be much better off keeping up with the current stance of the Church."
One of the best ways to do this is to be familiar with material in the newsroom at lds.org, Elder Johnson said. "Let's keep up to date with the light we have been given."
"Many of us have a difficult time dealing with ambiguity, especially in issues concerning the Church," he said. "In fact, we may be drawn to use quotes in our teaching that are definitive because they seem to dispel the ambiguity. But some quotes are definitive on issues where there is no official answer. People who are more tentative on a subject that hasn't been revealed or resolved don't get quoted as much, but may be more in line with where our current knowledge is. We plan to add helps to the curriculum for certain questions that are commonly raised."
The approach of an instructor can be very instrumental in how students choose to respond to doubt.
"Great teachers are so crucial in the lives of the students," he said. "When we fit this pattern our students will sense it. They will also be able to tell the difference between their teacher who fits this pattern and other sources that don't."