Speculating? Take a Seat

While working through our Come Follow Me material this week, a very small thing reminded me of something that I think can be a very large thing:

Why do we, as Latter-day Saints, enjoy speculating so much about the gospel?

Case in point: This week we are studying about the Savior’s childhood and youth. It is a process that takes about 20 seconds, because there is precious little revealed about his life as a child. We know the “whens” and “wheres” like his being taken to Egypt and Nazareth to protect his life.We know he had brothers and sisters, but we don’t have much info about him.

Here are the two references I am aware of:

  1. He went to the Feast of the Passover with his family at age 12, and ended up in the temple, speaking with the Elders. (Luke 2: 41-50)
  2. And a great summation of his youth by Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)

That’s pretty much sums up all of what we know about his childhood, that and that he learned the trade of a carpenter – which isn’t a lot.

What do we actually learn from these two examples? The only story from his youth was that he ditched the family without telling his folks, and then, when confronted, talked back to his mom. (Sorry, but that IS what it says.)

The other summation lets us know that his development was a process. He grew in four key areas: Mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially. The fact that he grew tells us he, like all of us, was a “work in progress” as he grew up. He didn’t start out perfect, or perfectly knowledgeable.

All of this is great! I actually like the fact that he had to deal with a mom and dad and brothers and sisters. I like the fact that he had to learn and grow in his childhood and youth. It makes him more approachable and more…real.

So here is what stuck out to me this week as I studied about his childhood this week: There are many who like to speculate and draw conclusions that don’t really have a basis in any kind of doctrine or scripture.

For example, let’s sing!

Jesus once was a little child, a little child like me; And he was pure and meek and mild, as a little child should be. So, little children, let’s you and I try to be like him, Try, try, try.

He played as little children play, the pleasant games of youth; But he never got vexed if the game went wrong, and he always spoke the truth.

So, little children, let’s you and I try to be like him, try, try, try. (link)

Well…. most of those lyrics are total conjecture. Was young Jesus meek and mild? Did he never lose his temper when he lost at games – or did he never lose because, because he’s Jesus? We have no idea. I can assure you of one thing – if he was a little child like ME, the description in the song is way off-base!

(No, the purpose of this post is not to call out a 100 year-old cherished children’s hymn. There’s more to it than that.)

Back in the day….when I was a younger man and teaching the Elder’s Quorum, I grew tired of the endless speculation that would enter quorum discussions. Speculation on doctrine, history, motives, policies, etc. So I figured out a way to combat it:

The Speculation Chair.

At the beginning of every lesson, I would put a folding chair up front next to me, and extend this invitation: “If you have something you would like to add to the discussion, but you can’t support it with scripture or teachings from the Brethren, I would invite you to come sit in The Speculation Chair while you share your thoughts.”

Yes, it sounds harsh, and there was an initial chilling effect, but gradually, the quality of our discussions improved. More truth was taught, rather than going off into the weeds with some bizarro theories or rumors from a friend of the prophet’s third-cousin’s paperboy.

Enter the now defunct High Priest Group of yore. In my experience, this was the place where the most egregious speculation took place. Thankfully, most High Priests were savvy enough to discern the truth from the speculation, but there were times where things got, well, weird.

Why do we do that? Why do we like to gossip about stuff, and share ideas and thoughts that might not actually be supported by anything legit? Worse yet, why do we feel the need to come up with something “new” – even if it isn’t necessarily accurate?

This past week I have seen some articles discussing Jesus youth which were interesting, but mostly interesting precisely because of the author’s speculation. It is prevalent. I have seen essays written enlightening us with lots of details regarding Heavenly Mother, when all the details that aren’t speculation would fit nicely in one small paragraph. Other speculation regarding Church policies seem to be floating around all the time.

Whenever new policy or program changes are rumored or announced, many of us spend a lot of time speculating as to the “whys,” but usually end up with ideas that are just opinions without any foundation. (Or, just as bad, gossip with foundation)

I am guilty of this at times as well. It is fun sharing “new” stuff. For example: One of my favorite stories about Christ’s youth is when he travelled the world extensively with his rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, and even spent some time in Britaiin.

— See what I did there? I just shared some non-doctrinal speculation. What happened? Did you perk up? Are you curious now about Jesus in Britain? Sounds interesting, and fun, and….new! See how easy it is to hijack a lesson with speculation?

Sometimes, when teaching a concept or talking about an issue, I have a natural tendency to voice my opinions, theories, or conjectures – even though they are not always based in truth or fact. I try and resist that temptation. (Those of you who follow me online know that I do make an effort to qualify everything I say with scripture or prophetic support. Occasionally I will write something and then decide that I need to delete it, simply because I can’t find the support I need.)

Why do we do it? Why do we speculate instead of focusing on teaching truth, in all its simplicity?

I have some ideas – but I’m not going to speculate on it. (wink)

I will add a few quotes by the Brethren that seem to have a better idea on it than I do. Overall, they aren’t fans of speculation:

President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke about magnifying callings and said this: “We diminish that calling, we shrink that mission when we spend our time speculating about or advocating that which is not set forth in the scripture or that which is not espoused by the prophet of the Lord.” (link)

Presiden Henry B. Eyring gave a great talk called “The Power of Teaching Doctrine” that reinforced this point:

“Because we need the Holy Ghost, we must be cautious and careful not to go beyond teaching true doctrine. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. His confirmation is invited by our avoiding speculation or personal interpretation. That can be hard to do. You love the person you are trying to influence. He or she may have ignored the doctrine they have been taught. It is tempting to try something new or sensational. But we invite the Holy Ghost as our companion when we are careful to teach only true doctrine.”

As we are teaching our classes, are we fixated on the truth? Or do we bring in a little dash of speculation or unsupported opinion to spice things up and make the lesson more “interesting” or “entertaining.” (I know this is a real temptation when we are teaching concepts we have heard a million times – and the more well-read you are, the harder it is!) There are a lot of resources out there in the world that like to expand beyond what we consider to be accepted truth. Be careful!

As we are teaching our families, are we teaching them truth, so that they can learn to recognize it? It is a commandment after all:

“But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.” (D&C 93:40)

The recent Church curriculum changes, and renewed emphasis in teaching the gospel in our homes makes our own discipline even more important: Are we disciplined enough to teach only truth, and let the other stuff go?

One final thought: One of the most worthy answers when asked a tough doctrinal question is this: “I don’t know!” Many times speculation comes from trying to act like we know the answer when we don’t. It is better to not know, than to pretend to know and spread disinformation. As Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

As Jacob teaches, “…I know that the words of truth are hard against all uncleanness; but the righteous fear them not, for they love the truth and are not shaken.” (2 Nephi 9:40)

Great talk from last General Conference by President Oaks: “Truth and the Plan.”


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  1. My 2 cents: I like your idea of keeping the discussion to things you can back up by scripture and/or church leaders. I can think of a few lessons I would have enjoyed a lot more and stayed more on topic if my classmates hadn’t taken a runaway speculation train. My issues actually come from how you introduced your point of speculation. On lds.org in the guide to the scriptures it reads “He was born to Mary at Bethlehem, lived a sinless life, and made a perfect atonement for the sins of all mankind by the shedding of His blood and giving His life on the cross (Matt. 2:1; 1 Ne. 11:13–33; 3 Ne. 27:13–16; D&C 76:40–42).” In this statement it states Jesus lived a sinless life, not part of a life or just when he was an adult or just during his ministry. His whole life, even as a child. You mentioned the song about Jesus as a little child was all speculation, but to me, if Jesus was sinless his whole life, it probably means he did not get angry at people around him like other children would because that would make him imperfect. To me it’s more like a logical conclusion that Jesus would act better than children who weren’t part God, but maybe that’s speculation too. I just don’t think we should go around implying that Jesus wasn’t perfect as a little child just to prove a point, because that seems like speculation to me as well. The other thing I didn’t love was that you speculated Jesus ditched his parents and then talked back to his mother. I do not believe this at all, again because of the perfect life thing. Even if he made mistakes as a small child, he would eventually reach an age of accountability (maybe 8, but that’s speculation) and by age 12 he knew he was God’s son and was already on the path that led to his ministry. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus loved his mother and would not treat her disrespectfully. I read his statement as a completely humble apology to his mother. It’s kind of like a text message, where the intent of what is being written is determined by the tone in our head in which we read it, but to me Jesus was nothing but kind and loving towards his parents because he was perfect, how could he be anything else. Anyway, not that it matters but I just thought I’d point out what I see as speculation in your article. I do appreciate your boldness in pointing out an all too common error in our culture of the LDS religion, so thank you.

  2. When teaching my young men, I constantly ask them “why” when it comes to commandments from the Lord. . “Why” does he command us in A, B, or C? and “Why” should we do what He says about A, B or C? Initially they would rationalize an answer if there was not an obvious one.
    Eventually they discovered Moses 5:6 and Abraham 3:25 and then realized that if there is no answer, the obvious one is that it is for our good, even if we don’t know what it is.
    As a young Melchizedek priesthood holder , I was guilty of speculation. Then, and still today, I love “the mysteries” of the gospel. I have learned, however, that studying the mysteries and learning the “deep, deep, deep doctrine” does not necessarily mean that you have learned or know anything. You simply have an idea of what may, or may not be true. Until we have an eternal perspective, we are only guessing. For most of us, excluding only 15 specific people that come to mind, if a “deep truth” is revealed to us, it is for us, and us alone, and not to be shared indiscriminately.

  3. Two scriptures come to mind that seem relevant to me.

    5 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. (New Testament | James 1:5) and

    23 And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.
    24 That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 50:23 – 24)

    I would gladly take my place in your chair if I had a speculation that i thought edified. After all a speculation is essentially a question. And wasn’t it a question that got the whole restoration started?

    But to present a speculation as doctrine or even truth is a whole nother matter.

  4. From a footnote in Elder Anderson’s talk, The Prophet of God –
    President Dallin H. Oaks once said:

    “In a 1988 interview … I explained my attitude toward attempts to supply mortal reasons for divine revelation:

    “‘If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, “Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,” you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We [mortals] can put reasons to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to the [revelation] … , and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that. … I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.’ …

    “‘… The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. … Let’s don’t make the mistake that’s been made in the past, … trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies’” (Life’s Lessons Learned [2011], 68–69).

  5. My daughter had an awesome seminary teacher who while teaching doctrine would also add the doctrine of Brother…Who ever(him) If he was sharing a personal thought he’d throw his tie over his shoulder, give the thought and fix his tie. It was good. Good thoughts and he’d separate his opinion from doctrine. I feel I should mention that his opinions were interesting.
    Also, once my husband and I were in Elder Hales office and I asked a question to which he replied “I don’t know…but if you asked in the high priest group you’d get lots of ppl who knew”. He said it with a smile as he was not being rude.
    I like the chair idea!

  6. Talking about speculating, I found a link for an ancestor who married late in life. When I added her name it linked right back to Jesus! It has him married to Mary Magdalene. As the lead for our small Family History Centre, I now have an abundance af material to share on checking sources, dates, etc.

  7. Sometimes my Dad asks odd questions that can’t be answered, like the meaning of Eve’s name. So we sat and talked about what “the mother of all living” might mean (see Genesis 3:20). Instead of this kind of discussion, our new study manual has us think about the verses we’ve read and write down what the Spirit teaches. These last two weeks I’ve learned from the spirit that the star was a sign of light and we find Christ when we seek for light and truth. I also learned that when Mary says, “my soul doth magnify the Lord,” she’s talking about the same kind of thing that happens to me when I feel the burning of the spirit. When I feel the spirit very strong like that, I’m magnifying the Lord. It’s a holy experience to have the spirit witness truth and love like that. I’m glad Mary had a witness of the spirit to say to her mind and heart that this was all good and right, and she would be okay. Now when I feel the spirit with joy, I will think, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.”

  8. Our Stake President pointed us to the Joseph Translation of Matthew 3:24-26. I loved the additional scriptural insight into the youth phase of the Savior’s life.

  9. In my lifetime, I have taught gospel doctrine 10 years, in addition to teaching YW, Sunday School, seminary, primary many more years. I am always careful to try to avoid speculation and/or point out anything that may be just that. I remember another gospel doctrine teacher, probably 30 years ago, who would say, “occasionally I will put something in that is not doctrinal, to keep you on your toes”. What a disservice to the responsibility of teaching the gospel, in any setting.

  10. I suspect that our speculation arises out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not having a theology, instead, we are to seek revelation to our concerns, questions, and challenges. A living response to the Spirit’s guidance instead of following a theology written down and followed.

    1. I partially agree with this. We do have a written theology, through scripture and prophetic writings. Much of our specific doctrine and our commandments are written down. I agree with you about it being enhanced by personal revelation for our concerns and questions, but without the underpinnings of established doctrine, we end up where Joseph Smith started in 1820 – a free-for-all.

Add your 2¢. (Be nice.)