What seminary teachers need to do to foster faith in the classroom

Teachers must help their students “be believing” as they address questions of faith and doubt in their classrooms, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught during a broadcast for seminary and institute instructors held on June 12.

“The message that we have is ‘doubt not, but be believing,’” said Elder Renlund.

Speaking with his wife, Sister Ruth L. Renlund, in the Conference Center Little Theater in downtown Salt Lake City — and to thousands of instructors around the world after the talks were translated into 40 languages — the couple explored how choosing faith, rather than doubt, is how individuals — and those they teach — are able to come unto the Savior.

The annual broadcast was for the more than 50,000 seminary and institute teachers in 140 countries throughout the world responsible for teaching 262,778 stake seminary students, 138,956 released-time seminary students, and more than 335,000 institute students. Other speakers included Elder Kim B. Clark, General Authority Seventy and commissioner of Church education, and Chad H Webb, administrator in the Church Educational System.

The topic of “faith and doubt” is something teachers face in their classrooms daily.

Starting with a parable of a person who has been capsized at sea, the Renlunds compared the stranded swimmer to a student navigating his or her way today.

“You are wearing a life preserver and have been swimming for hours toward what you believe is the nearest shore, but you can’t be sure,” said Elder Renlund. “You have become extremely dehydrated, so that every time you start swimming, you become light-headed. By your best estimates, the shore is 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, away. You fear for your life. In the distance you hear a small engine. The sound seems to be coming toward you; your hope of rescue soars. As you look you see a fishing boat approaching.”

The boat stops, and a kind, weather-beaten fisherman helps the stranded person on board. The man accepts water from a canteen and some soda crackers.

“Gratefully you crawl to a seat in the boat, breathing a sigh of relief,” Sister Renlund said. “The fisherman gives you a canteen of water and some soda crackers. The water and soda crackers provide the necessary nourishment for you to recover. You are so relieved and so happy. You are on your way home.”

As the rescued person starts to feel better, he starts to pay attention to things he had not seen before — the water from the canteen was a bit stale, the nourishment was small, the fisherman is old and hard of hearing and wears worn boots and jeans, and even the boat has dents and chipped paint. When the fisherman relaxes his grip on the rudder, the boat pulls to the right.

“You begin to worry that this boat and this captain cannot provide the rescue you need,” said Elder Renlund.

The fisherman is not concerned, since he had traveled the same route in the same boat for decades.

“You ask the old fisherman about the dents and the rudder. He says he hasn't worried much about those things because he has steered the boat to and from fishing grounds, over the same route, day in and day out for decades. The boat has always gotten him safely and reliably where he wanted to go.”

Elder Renlund then added, “The more you focus on the boat and the fisherman, the more concerned you become,” Elder Renlund said. “You question your decision to get on board in the first place.”

Then, Elder Renlund explained, the rescued lets his anxiety grow just enough to demand that the fisherman stop the boat to let him back in the water, even though they are still more than 12 miles away from the shore.

“With a little sadness, the fisherman helps you back into the ocean,” he said.

In the parable, the boat represents the Church and the fisherman represents those who serve in the Church.

“What do the boat and the fisherman teach us about the Church?” Sister Renlund asked. “Do dents and peeling paint on the Church change its ability to provide authorized saving and exalting ordinances to help us become like our Father in Heaven? If the fisherman must hold on to the rudder with both hands to keep it on course, does that negate his and the boat’s ability to get us safely and reliably where we want to go?”

Every member of the Church needs his or her own witness of the truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for without conversion, it is too easy to focus on the “metaphorical soda crackers and chipped paint,” Sister Renlund said.

Sharing the beginning of his testimony, Elder Renlund spoke of when he was 11 years old living in Göteborg, Sweden. The mission president at the time had invited all of the youth to read the Book of Mormon. Elder Renlund's older brother accepted the challenge, and since he wanted to be like his older brother, he decided to read as well. At one point, a counselor in the mission presidency invited the youth to pray about what they had been reading. Elder Renlund responded to that invitation.

“I did not hear a voice, but it was if God told me, 'I have been telling you all along that it is true,'” he said. “That experience changed me. It changed my life. It began a process of belief, a process of being on the covenant path and trying to do more and trying to do better.”

Like Elder Renlund's experience, All must come to the knowledge of having a Savior, and then each person must choose faith, the couple taught.

“Faith is a choice that each person must make,” Sister Renlund said. “Faith is not just whimsically wanting something to be true and fancifully convincing yourself it is.”

Faith is an assurance of the existence of things not seen in the flesh, and it is a principle of action.

“For faith to grow, one must choose to have faith,” Elder Renlund said. “One must desire to have faith. One must act in faith.”

Rather than focusing on the improbable, or questioning if something is impossible, it is important to think things “may be possible.”

“When you start with the question, ‘Could these things not be true?’ it leads to faith,” Sister Renlund said. “If you start with the question, ‘Could this not be false?’ it leads to doubt. And doubt never leads to faith.”

Sharing the experience of a man who was a “perpetual doubter,” the Renlunds spoke of how he went from one topic to the next, resolving one issue and then doubting another topic.

“What [this man] was doing was an ecclesiastical form of whack-a-mole,” Sister Renlund said. “You know the children’s game where a mole pops up from a board and as soon as you hit it another mole pops up in another place.”

“Doubt is not the precursor of faith,” Elder Renlund said. “Light does not depend on darkness for its creation.”

To have a question about the Church and its doctrines is not a problem, the Renlunds taught.

“Choosing to be a perpetual doubter is the problem,” said Sister Renlund.

That is why a believing heart and a mind desiring revelation from God are necessary to receive answers from God.

“We can come to know the truthfulness of this latter-day work, but it requires that we choose faith, not doubt, and that we go to the right sources for our answers,” Elder Renlund said. “It requires that we recognize that the choice is ours. It is not an external force imposed on us as to whether we accept the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the saving ordinances in our lives. We choose to trust God.”

It is important for instructors to not only choose faith themselves, but also help their students to choose faith as well.

“What we consider dents and peeling paint on the well-used boat may turn out to be divinely sanctioned and divinely directed from an eternal perspective,” Elder Renlund said. “The Lord has either had a hand in the dents and the peeling paint or He uses them for His own purposes. I know of myself that the Lord, Jesus Christ, directs His work on the earth today.”

Elder Clark’s remarks focused on the plan of salvation, and the need for students to understand it as something more than just a drawn out diagram of circles and lines.

“If they understand the plan in their hearts, the plan will become the way they see themselves and the world around them,” he said. “The plan will become their view. Our students will see the plan, and the plan will help them see.”

The plan will become the framework an individual uses to understand the issues, problems and challenges they face.

“If our students follow this pattern, the plan of salvation will be the way they understand themselves and their responsibilities, opportunities and blessings,” said Elder Clark. “It is how they will find meaning and purpose in their lives.”

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