What to Do When "I Don't Know" Is the Only Answer

Brent D. Fillmore and Joan W. Fillmore

Brent D. Fillmore and Joan W. Fillmore, "What to Do When 'I Don't Know' Is the Only Answer," Religious Educator 24, no. 3 (2023): 149–65.

Brent D. Fillmore (fillmorebd@ChurchofJesusChrist.org) has served as a teacher in Seminaries and Institutes since 1992. He and his wife, Joan W. Fillmore, served as mission leaders from 2018 to 2021.

photo of a man in front of a windowWhat can we do when the only answer we can give is “I don’t know”? We can inquire, study, work, and be patient. We can trust in the Lord and keep going. Photo by Sasha Freemind, Unsplash.com

Keywords: Book of Mormon, adversity, faith in Jesus Christ, patience

About seven months into our service as mission leaders, we attended a district conference on one of the islands in our mission. We flew in on Friday and intended to spend some time with the missionaries after the conference ended. At about ten thirty on Monday morning, one of our assistants called from the mainland. He was very emotional. He told us that while four elders had been playing soccer at the church, suddenly and for no apparent reason, one of them had collapsed. We got a few more details, and we asked him to call an ambulance, get over there, and keep us informed. Feeling helpless being so far away ourselves, we called a senior couple and asked them to go quickly to see if they could help. Twenty minutes later, our assistant called back and through his tears said, “President, Elder ——— is dead. How could this happen?” We were stunned. We looked at each other and just cried. This was a young man we had come to love and respect. He was a leader among the missionaries and had a very bright future. Our assistant’s words rang true: “How could this happen?” We did not know what to do.

We contacted our leaders and moved forward notifying the elder’s stake president. We were on the video call when he notified the elder’s parents. They were shocked and inconsolable. Four other missionaries in the mission had been good friends with the deceased elder before their missions. As they each found out, they were devastated. As word of his passing spread, grief ran through our mission, especially for the missionaries and members that knew the elder well. All kinds of questions arose in our minds and the minds of the missionaries. How could such a thing happen to such a fine missionary? Why did this happen? Could this happen to me?

We did not know the answers to these questions. In the face of these unknowns, we began to pray and seek understanding about how we might help this missionary’s family, his companion and former companions, his close friends, and the rest of our missionaries.

In the months leading up to that tragedy, we had been noticing a repeated idea in the Book of Mormon that now seemed especially pertinent. Book of Mormon writers often used phrases like “I do not know” or “we know not” when something was unknown to them. But frequently following these phrases was a course of action.[1] Various writers included what they did in the face of a difficult unknown. As we sought comfort and to comfort our missionaries, this pattern found throughout the Book of Mormon aided us in knowing how to move forward in our own difficult unknown. We began to search for references of this kind.

This article organizes such references into one of three different themes that describe what to do when something is unknown:

Theme 1: Inquire, study, work, and be patient.
Theme 2: Remember and state what you do know.
Theme 3: Trust in the Lord and keep going.

For each theme, we have placed our wording of each unknown and the references from which it comes into a table. For each unknown, we provide a brief review of the context together with the course of action included by the Book of Mormon writer. In each case, we bold the words relating to the unknown and italicize the words from which the themes stem.

How to do what the Lord commands1 Nephi 17:8–10, 16; 18:1–3
How to help those who do not repentMosiah 26
Where to goAlma 16:4–8 and 43:23–24
How to “know of a surety”Alma 32–33
The cause of neglect and the “thoughtless state” of othersAlma 60:6, 18
How to obtain means to fulfill God’s commandsEther 2:16–25, 6:5–11

Theme 1: Inquire, Study, Work, and Be Patient

UNKNOWN: How to do what the Lord commands (1 Nephi 17:8–10, 16; 18:1–3)

The Lord told Nephi, “Thou shalt construct a ship after the manner which I shall show thee.” Nephi’s response was, “Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship.” The Lord replied to Nephi’s question and showed him how to proceed to find the needed ore. Nephi then went to work and made “tools of the ore which [he] did molten out of the rock” (see 1 Nephi 17:8–10, 16).

Nephi narrates that over time, due to his continued prayerful inquiry and work, “the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship. . . . I did build [the ship] after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; . . . And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things” (see 1 Nephi 18:1–3).

UNKNOWN: How to help those who do not repent (Mosiah 26)

In Mosiah 26, Mormon wrote about an unknown of Alma the Elder. He did not know how to proceed with “many of the rising generation” who “did not believe . . . concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.” Due to their lack of belief, “they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.” They “would not be baptized; neither would they join the church,” and they lived “in their carnal and sinful state” and “would not call upon the Lord their God” (see Mosiah 26:1–4).

Not knowing how to proceed, “Alma was troubled in his spirit . . . and he went and inquired of the Lord what he should do concerning this matter, for he feared that he should do wrong in the sight of God. . . . [Therefore,] he . . . poured out his whole soul to God” (see Mosiah 26:10, 13–14; emphasis added). The Lord taught him what to do with his unknown, and “when Alma had heard these words he wrote them down that he might have them, and that he might judge the people of that church according to the commandments of God” (v. 33).

Alma’s unknown fueled a fear thathe should do wrong.” So, in his not knowing, he counseled with King Mosiah, received the assignment to judge the people (v. 12), and then was blessed with answers and understanding (v. 15). Alma sought, received, recorded, and implemented the answers obtained.

UNKNOWN: Where to go (Alma 16:4–8 and 43:23–24)

Mormon recorded two similar events where two different men needed to know where to go.

Desiring to know how to “obtain those who had been carried away captive” (Alma 16:4), chief captain Zoram inquired “of [Alma] to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites” (v. 5). Alma asked the Lord, then told Zoram where to go and said, “The Lord will deliver unto thee thy brethren” (v. 6). “And they took their brethren who had been taken captive by the Lamanites, and there was not one soul of them had been lost” (v. 8).

Similarly, in Alma 43, “Moroni, also, knowing of the prophecies of Alma, sent certain men unto him, desiring him that he should inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves” (v. 23). Alma “informed the messengers of Moroni” (v. 24) where to go. Moroni’s work following his inquiry to Alma led the Nephite armies to a victory (see vv. 25–54 and chapter 44).

Captains Zoram and Moroni inquired of Alma, studied out how to apply what Alma revealed to them, and went to work to bring back captives and to win a victory over their enemies.

UNKNOWN: How to “know of a surety” (Alma 32–33)

Among the principles he shared with the poor among the Zoramites, Alma taught that chosen and uncompelled humility, repentance, and continued effort over time could yield greater knowledge, but “ye cannot know of their surety at first” (Alma 32:26). He taught that such knowledge could grow like a seed until it becomes a tree (see Alma 33:23). Alma promised that nourished seeds would become in them trees, “springing up in you unto everlasting life” (v. 23).

Over time, they would come to know by inquiring, studying, working, and being patient. In their lack of knowing, these believing and humble people planted seeds in their hearts by believing and acting on those beliefs. They were cast out and eventually joined the people of Ammon, who received, nourished, clothed, gave lands, and administered unto them according to their wants (see Alma 35:6–9). “Alma and his brethren did minister unto them” (v. 7), teaching them to seek, study, and be patient. “Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you” (Alma 32:43).

UNKNOWN: The cause of neglect and the “thoughtless state” of others (Alma 60:6, 18)

Much was unknown to Captain Moroni as he wrote an inquiry to Pahoran. Moroni boldly laid out his perspective and the suffering of the people. He wrote, “we desire to know the cause of this exceedingly great neglect; yea, we desire to know the cause of your thoughtless state” (Alma 60:6). Threateningly, he accused Pahoran, “For we know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority. We know not but what ye are also traitors to your country” (v. 18). Exercising strong self-restraint, Pahoran meekly explained his circumstances, commended Moroni, and asked for his help. After learning the answers to his unknowns, Moroni acted quickly and decisively and worked with Pahoran to establish freedom.

UNKNOWN: How to obtain means to fulfill God’s commands (Ether 2:16–25, 6:5–11)

Moroni wrote of how the Lord helped Jared and his brother and their friends and families to obtain means and fulfill his commands. After four years on the seashore, the Lord chastened them, and they repented and were forgiven. Instructed by the Lord to build barges, they went to work “according to the instructions of the Lord” (Ether 2:16). Having completed this work, several unknowns became evident: lack of light, whither to steer, and lack of air (see v. 19). In the face of these unknowns, he inquired of the Lord what to do and then obediently went to work.

The Lord resolved the unknown of lack of air by providing specific instructions that were implemented. He resolved the unknown of wither to steer, promising, “I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth” (2:24). The Lord then left the unknown of lack of light for the brother of Jared’s consideration, “what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light?” (v. 25).

In great faith, he “did molten out of the rock sixteen small stones” (3:1) and asked the Lord to “touch these stones . . . and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness . . . that we may have light while we shall cross the sea” (v. 4). The unknown of the lack of light was resolved by the brother of Jared’s inquiry, work, and patience. The prepared stones provided light for the people in the barges as they were blown across the sea until they arrived in the promised land.

In summary, these teachings demonstrate the need to “inquire, study, work, and be patient.” The lack of knowing or lack of understanding need not paralyze us, but can be satisfied over time through inquiry, careful study, work, and patient pondering (see 1 Nephi 10:17, 19). When we do not know, our persistence can keep us engaged in ongoing learning and help us hope for answers as we work toward acquiring the knowledge we lack.[2]

The “when” of an important future eventAlma 7:7–8
A wayward son’s doctrinal misunderstandingAlma 40:1–11
The specific details of an eventAlma 45:18–19
The answer to a doctrinal question3 Nephi 28:15–18, 37

Theme 2: Remember and State What You Do Know

As an introduction to this theme of “remember and state what you do know,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught students at BYU–Idaho what to do when one does not know something:

Some persons write General Authorities asking when we will be returning to Missouri or how we should plan to build up the New Jerusalem. Others want to know details about the celestial kingdom, such as the position of a person who lives a good life but never ever marries.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. What I do know is that persons worrying about such things are probably neglecting to seek a firmer understanding and a better practice of the basic principles of the gospel that have been given to them with words of plainness by the scriptures and by the servants of the Lord.[3]

He then shared a lesson he learned from President Gordon B. Hinckley. “When you are faced with a difficult question and you don’t know the answer, be positive and tell what you do know. . . . When you are asked a difficult question, such as a puzzler about Church history, be honest and, if necessary, say you don’t know. But then be sure to say what you do know: ‘I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.’”[4]

From this and similar teachings,[5] modern prophets have modeled for us this pattern from the Book of Mormon: When we don’t know, we can acknowledge the unknown, but we must not leave it there. Respond with what we do know.

UNKNOWN: The “when” of an important future event (Alma 7:7–8)

Alma’s gratitude and joy were great as he arrived in Gideon and began to teach of the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet he did not know when this would occur. “Now as to this thing I do not know; but this much I do know” (Alma 7:7–8). Even though he did not know the “when” of Christ’s coming, Alma taught what he knew: that “the Lord God hath power to do all things which are according to his word” (v. 8). He then went on to teach what he knew about Jesus Christ to the people of Gideon.

UNKNOWN: A wayward son’s doctrinal misunderstanding (Alma 40:1–22)

Perceiving Corianton’s worry about the resurrection of the dead, Alma acknowledged that he did not know all things, “there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself” (Alma 40:3). Nevertheless, Alma “inquired diligently[6] (vv. 3, 9) that he could know “concerning the resurrection” (v. 3). He then told Corianton what he did know: “There is a time appointed that all shall come forth” but admitted that “no one knows” exactly when (v. 4).

Alma told Corianton that not knowing the “when” of the resurrection “mattereth not; for God knoweth all these things; and it sufficeth me to know that this is the case . . . all shall rise from the dead” (v. 5). He went on to help Corianton learn about knowing, specifically that he (Alma) had “inquired diligently of the Lord to know; and this is the thing of which I do know . . . that God knoweth all the times which are appointed,” and that this had “been made known unto me by an angel” (vv. 9–11).

Even though there were still things that he did not know, Alma taught Corianton by example that when something was unknown, he should inquire diligently and then rely on what he did know: that God did know the “when,” and that it was sufficient. Alma was then able to help his son learn more of what was known: much about justice, mercy, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

UNKNOWN: The specific details of an event (Alma 45:18–19)

Mormon wrote that ten years after his experience in Gideon, Alma “departed out of the land” and was never heard of more. Mormon did not know the details: “As to his death or burial we know not of” (Alma 45:18). But he then told what he did know: “Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man.” Mormon then supposed that Alma had been taken up like Moses and that was why “we know nothing concerning his death and burial” (v. 19). Even not knowing something, Mormon stated what he did know.

UNKNOWN: The answer to a doctrinal question (3 Nephi 28:15–18)

Mormon emphasized this theme again as he wrote of the ministries of Jesus’s three Nephite disciples and the change that took place in their bodies. A question arose, “whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration.” Mormon’s response was, “I know not” (3 Nephi 28:17). But again, he did not leave it there. He taught, “But this much I know, according to the record which hath been given they did go forth” (v. 18). He then described what he did know of the outcomes of their efforts: they “did preach the gospel of Christ unto all people upon the face of the land; and they were converted unto the Lord and were united unto the church of Christ” (v. 23).

Mormon admitted not knowing, but then testified of what he did know. He then continued to expound truth based on what he did know “according to the record” (v. 18). Later in the chapter, Mormon wrote of his continual questioning, “that I knew not whether they were cleansed from mortality to immortality since I wrote, I have inquired of the Lord, and he hath made it manifest unto me” (vv. 36–37).[7]

Even though he did not know the answer to this doctrinal question, based on the records in his possession, Mormon focused on and taught what he did know.

Sheri Dew provided a fitting summary of this theme. She wrote of a conversation she had with President Russell M. Nelson in the temple. “I asked President Nelson one of the questions I’d been pondering. He answered quickly and without apology. ‘I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that what the Lord has in store for those who make and keep these covenants with Him goes far beyond what we can comprehend right now.’”[8]

What else to do to fulfill an assignment1 Nephi 4:5–7 
Why the Lord commands some things1 Nephi 9:5–6, 19:2; Words of Mormon 1:6–9; Alma 37:2, 12, 14, 18
The meaning of new doctrinal concepts1 Nephi 11:16–17; 13:21–23, 34–42 
The “when” of an important eventAlma 13:25–26
The strategies of enemiesAlma 56:30–46; 58:9, 34–37
How long to hope for someone’s repentance3 Nephi 18:32 
The futureMormon 8:3–5

Theme 3: Trust in the Lord and Keep Going

UNKNOWN: What else to do to fulfill an assignment (1 Nephi 4:5–7)

After two frustrated attempts to obtain the brass plates, Nephi went ahead again. “I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban. And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). Even realizing he did not know what to do, Nephi proceeded forward, “nevertheless, I went forth” (v. 7) and as he went forward even with this unknown, “obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us” (1 Nephi 5:21).

UNKNOWN: Why the Lord commands some things (1 Nephi 9:5–6, 19:2; Words of Mormon 1:6–9; Alma 37:2, 12, 14, 18)

Throughout his writings, Nephi was deliberate to include reasoning about the different sets of plates. Writing of the small plates, he explained, “Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not. But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words” (1 Nephi 9:5–6). Further, “I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. . . . And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these [small] plates . . . and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people . . . and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord” (see 1 Nephi 19:1–3).

Later, we read of Alma assigning the keeping of the plates to his son Helaman using similar language.

And I also command you that ye keep a record of this people, according as I have done, upon the plates of Nephi . . . for it is for a wise purpose that they are kept . . . Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me . . . the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes . . . [these records] are preserved for a wise purpose, which purpose is known unto God; God has entrusted you with these [records] . . . which he will keep and preserve for a wise purpose in him. . . . For he promised . . . that he would preserve these things for a wise purpose in him. (Alma 37:2–18)

Hundreds of years later, Mormon saw the benefit of the previous efforts of Nephi and Alma who, even not knowing, had relied on the Lord’s wise purpose. He “put the small plates with the remainder of my record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren. And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will. . . . And now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record” (Words of Mormon 1:6–9).

When the Lord’s purpose with the plates was unknown to them, Nephi, Alma, and Mormon proceeded to create, write, and preserve their records trusting that God had a wise purpose.

UNKNOWN: The meaning of new doctrinal concepts (1 Nephi 11:16–17; 13:21–23, 34–42)

Nephi sought to understand the vision his father had received. As part of the response to his pondering and prayer, the Spirit asked him, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi’s response was “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16–17).[9]

Similarly, and further into his vision, Nephi saw a book and was asked another question by an angel: “Knowest thou the meaning of the book? And I said unto him: I know not” (1 Nephi 13:21–22). The angel then explained about the Bible and other additional records. The role of these records was to “make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved. . . . And the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth” (vv. 40–41).

Nephi’s then-present lack of understanding of concepts new to him was resolved as he trusted in the Lord’s wisdom and love for his children.[10]

UNKNOWN: The “when” of an important future event (Alma 13:25–26)[11]

During his visit to Ammonihah, and after his doctrinal teachings,[12] Alma said, “And now we only wait to hear the joyful news declared unto us by the mouth of angels, of his coming; for the time cometh, we know not how soon. Would to God that it might be in my day; but let it be sooner or later, in it I will rejoice” (Alma 13:25). He knew that “it shall be made known unto just and holy men . . . at the time of his coming” (v. 26). Alma’s trust in the Lord allowed him to rejoice and continue in his faith, even though he did not know when Christ would come.

UNKNOWN: The strategies of enemies (Alma 56:30–46)

Helaman wrote to Moroni about the stratagem of Antipus, who had ordered Helaman and his “little army” to draw the main Lamanite army out of their stronghold. With the Lamanite army in pursuit of Helaman’s, Antipus would attack with his army from behind. Helaman knew that his own army was not “sufficiently strong” to withstand the Lamanite attack alone. When the Lamanite army halted suddenly, Helaman did not know if they had been attacked from behind or if he was being drawn into a battle he would surely lose. “And now, whether they were overtaken by Antipus we knew not, but I said unto my men: Behold, we know not but they have halted for the purpose that we should come against them, that they might catch us in their snare” (Alma 56:43).

Helaman told Moroni about a conversation with his young soldiers. “Therefore, what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle? . . . They said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth . . . let us go” (Alma 56:44–47). Even not knowing the tactics or whereabouts of their enemy, Helaman and his young men went forth with trust, “[knowing] our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall . . . let us go” (v. 46).

Later in the same epistle, Helaman wrote, “We trust in our God” even though “we do not know the cause that the government does not grant us more strength . . . we do not know but what ye are unsuccessful. . . . But, behold, it mattereth not—we trust God will deliver us” (Alma 58:33–37).

Helaman’s host of unknowns did not diminish his trust in the Lord, which led to their eventual deliverance from their enemies.

UNKNOWN: How long to hope for someone’s repentance (3 Nephi 18:30–32)

After instituting the sacrament among the Nephites, Jesus spoke of what to do if someone was unworthy. He counseled that the people should “not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him” (3 Nephi 18:30). He said, “I know my sheep and they are numbered” (v. 31). He taught a “why” of continuing to minister: “For ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them” (v. 32).

Even not knowing the eventual outcome of someone’s use of their agency, Jesus taught that we should continue to minister, for there is long term hope for persons who are potentially penitent.

UNKNOWN: The future (Mormon 8:3–5)

image of a graffiti question mark on a brick wallBook of Mormon passages teach that when something is unknown, there is a need to “trust in the Lord and keep going.” Even though we may not know something, the Lord does and can work with us according to his will. Photo by Matt Walsh, Unsplash.com

After the “tremendous battle at Cumorah,” Moroni wrote, “whether they will slay me, I know not” (Mormon 8:3). He emphasized that he was isolated and without friends, family, or “wither to go . . . [and] how long the Lord will suffer that I may live I know not” (v. 5). Though terribly alone and in such difficult circumstances, and even though he didn’t know his future, he kept going, expressing his confidence in God, and completed his work.

To summarize this theme, these Book of Mormon passages teach that when something is unknown, there is a need to “trust in the Lord and keep going.” We learn that even though we may not know something, the Lord does and can work with us according to his will. When we do not understand or know something, we can trust and rely on the fact that God loves his children (us and others).[13] This can pacify us and give us patience as we continue to learn and as our understanding deepens. When we do not know the meaning of something, we can know that God prepares records to facilitate our learning and our knowing him. He “shall manifest himself unto all nations” (1 Nephi 13:42) and even when we do not know, we do know that God hath power to do all things according to his word. Trusting that he knows can give us the courage to move forward.[14]


We began this article with the story of our missionary’s death. It is one example of the difficulty we face when we don’t have answers—when we don’t know why things happen or how to proceed when they do happen (this applies to many types of unknowns, including untimely death as well as historical, social, doctrinal, and familial challenges).[15] For us, it was a blessing to be able to learn from the Book of Mormon leading up to and after the unexpected death of our missionary. We used many of these passages at the various “funeral zone conferences” throughout our mission and in many subsequent personal interviews and teachings. Our missionaries found these teachings helpful and hopeful as together we faced the associated unknowns.

In his 2022 talk to new mission leaders, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke of questions and the process of getting answers to those questions.

We all want answers. You do. I do. Your missionaries do. Your investigators and members of the Church want answers as well. And it is frustrating when those answers seem not to be available right away or are not satisfying. It is in the wrestling that we emerge from darkness into the light—that we receive divine inspiration and revelation. Our growth and increase often come because of the struggle. The journey is part of the goal. . . . Not having all the answers at all times can be a healthy stimulus to creativity, innovation, inspiration, and revelation. . . . I thank God that we do not have every answer. I rejoice that God has entrusted us, his servants, with an opportunity to seek for answers and to offer our sweat, toil and talents in building and advancing the Kingdom of God in any region and culture in this work.[16]

Ambiguity, consternation, and perplexity have always been a prominent part of mortality. Not knowing provides fertile ground for seeds of faith to be planted and to grow. It provides us a means to develop faith in Jesus Christ. Such unknowns are part of Heavenly Father’s divine design for his children to learn to walk by faith. President Howard W. Hunter taught that young men and women can “emerge from the [process of resolving doubts] into a firmer, stronger, larger faith because of the struggle. They have gone from a simple, trusting faith, through doubt and conflict, into a solid substantial faith.”[17] God’s plan for our lives includes unknowns for that reason—the development of such faith.

President Harold B. Lee taught about the complicated nature of our lives and our opportunity and need to develop faith. “It is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give one courage, through faith, to go on in the face of questions he never finds the answer to in his present status. It was the wise counsel of a thinker who said: ‘If the time comes when you can no longer hold to your faith, then hold to it anyway. You cannot go into tomorrow’s uncertainty and dangers without faith.’”[18]

So what can we do when the only answer we can give is “I don’t know?” We can inquire, study, work, and be patient. We can remember and state what we do know. We can trust in the Lord and keep going. Taken together, these three Book of Mormon themes provide excellent examples to help us as we and those we serve move forward, seeking for assurance in ambiguity, calm in consternation, and peace in the perplexity of our lives.


[1] Not all phrases like this are accompanied by a process for resolving an unknown. A search in the Gospel Library for such phrases shows that some deal with not knowing God, Christ, the Spirit, the gospel, or the plan (see, for example, 1 Nephi 2:12; 10:8, Mosiah 3:11; 5:14; 24:5, Alma 6:6; 17:35; 18:3, 24–28; 29:5; 30:48; 54:21; 3 Nephi 9:20; Mormon 9:8; and Ether 3:8), while others deal with not knowing a past, present, of future fact of some kind (see, for example, 1 Nephi 8:14; 15:7–11; 17:43; 18:13; 22:4; 2 Nephi 25:1; Mosiah 7:4; 8:17; 21:31; 25:8; Alma 3:18; 5:29; 9:18; 10:17; 18:14; 37:8–12; 49:13; 52:29, 36; 63:8; Helaman 2:3; 16:20; 3 Nephi 15:19–20; 16:4).

[2] Jesus understood the need for inquiry, study, work, and patience. He perceived the weakness and consequent inability to understand of the people at Bountiful. He sent them to their homes to ponder and pray “that ye may understand” and prepare for his visit the next day (3 Nephi 17:2–3). “Every man did take his wife and his children and did return to his own home” (3 Nephi 19:1). The Nephites pondered, prayed, and prepared. They were placed on a path to learn. The result of their work to inquire brought them nearer to the Lord, and their understanding increased.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Be Wise” (BYU–Idaho devotional, November 7, 2006); emphasis added.

[4] Oaks, “Be Wise.”

[5] To new mission presidents in 1992, Elder Oaks emphasized the importance of stating what we do know even when we do not know something: “There is much we do not know. . . . But this much we do know, we all have our agency, and God holds us accountable for the way we use it in thought and deed.” Oaks, “Agency and Freedom,” in A Book of Mormon Treasury: Gospel Insights from General Authorities and Religious Educators (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 46. Similarly, “Baptism is a requirement, but why? Why is it necessary to be baptized in this way and by one holding particular authority? I do not know. But what I do know is that the remission of sins is made possible only by the atoning sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and that He has prescribed that condition, again and again. . . . That is reason enough for me.” Oaks, “Why Do We Do Missionary Work?,” Liahona, September 2009, 27; emphasis added. In a speech to the Harvard Law School, Elder Oaks taught, “Why is Christ the only way? How could He break the bands of death? How was it possible for Him to take upon himself the sins of all mankind? How can our soiled and sinful selves be cleansed and our bodies be resurrected by His atonement? These are mysteries I do not fully understand. To me, the miracle of the atonement of Jesus Christ is incomprehensible, but the Holy Ghost has given me a witness of its truthfulness, and I rejoice that I can spend my life in proclaiming it.” Oaks, “Fundamental Premises of Our Faith” (Harvard Law School speech, February 26, 2010); emphasis added. To Seminary and Institute personnel, Elder Neil L. Andersen emphasized this same idea from a lesson he learned from President Oaks: “I like the lesson taught by President Dallin H. Oaks to his son when his son asked a question that was not clearly explained in the doctrine of Christ. His answer: ‘Son, I don’t know the answer to that question, but let me answer a question that I do know.’ He then bore witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the First Vision. Let’s be willing to say, “I don’t know about that, but this is what I do know.” Andersen, “The Power of Jesus Christ and Pure Doctrine” (youth and young adult broadcast, June 11, 2023); emphasis added. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland expressed a similar sentiment: “When there is something you do not know, testify of what you do know.” Holland, “Our Consuming Mission” (address to CES religious educators, Salt Lake Tabernacle, February 5, 1999), cited in John Hilton III, “I Know Not,” Religious Educator 13, no. 1 (2012): 122.

[6] This action could also fit into Theme 1: Inquire, Study, Work, and Be Patient.

[7] Because Mormon continued to inquire, study and work, this action could also be placed into Theme 1.

[8] Sheri Dew, Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018), 429; emphasis added.

[9] Commenting on these verses, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Of course we cannot fully comprehend all this right now! Of course, we cannot know the meaning of all things right now. But we can know, right now, that God knows us and loves us individually.” Maxwell, “Encircled in the Arms of His Love,” Ensign or Liahona, November 2002, 18; emphasis added.

[10] Elder Neil L. Andersen likely felt like Nephi as he prepared for his mission as a young man. “I felt very inadequate and unprepared. I remember praying, ‘Heavenly Father, how can I serve a mission when I know so little?’ I believed in the Church, but I felt my spiritual knowledge was very limited. As I prayed, the feeling came: ‘You don’t know everything, but you know enough!’ That reassurance gave me the courage to take the next step into the mission field.” Andersen, “You Know Enough,” Ensign or Liahona, November 2008, 13; emphasis added.

[11] The unknown in this reference is the same (the “when” of Christ’s coming) as in Alma 7:7–8 that we place in Theme 2: Remember and State What You Do Know. But the wording used is different. Alma’s choice of words in Alma 13, “Let it be sooner or later, in it I will rejoice” (v. 25), emphasizes trust in the Lord. In contrast, in Alma 7, his wording emphasizes the need to teach what we do know (Theme 3). This is a minor but important distinction.

[12] In these doctrinal teachings, Alma taught of priesthood, the foundation of the world, the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, Melchizedek, and repentance.

[13] Elder Quentin L. Cook’s teaching about some of the unknowns about plural marriage is valuable. “Now, there are unanswered questions. But I want you to know that we have a loving Heavenly Father who has a perfect plan, that His plan is one of happiness, and that we have a Savior who did everything for us. We can trust in Them.” Quentin L. Cook, “Church History: A Source of Strength and Inspiration” (worldwide devotional in Nauvoo, Illinois, September 9, 2018), cited in Ensign, July 2020, 16.

[14] Elder Richard G. Scott’s teaching about trust supports this theme from the Book of Mormon: “This life is an experience in profound trust—trust in Jesus Christ, trust in His teachings, trust in our capacity as led by the Holy Spirit to obey. . . . To trust means to obey willingly without knowing the end from the beginning (see Prov. 3:5–7). . . . To exercise faith is to trust that the Lord knows what He is doing with you and that He can accomplish it for your eternal good even though you cannot understand how He can possibly do it.” Scott, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, November 1995, 17.

[15] See “Tragedy or Destiny?,” in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006), 11–22.

[16] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Mission Leaders Seminar, 2022. The second edition of Preach My Gospel further emphasizes this point: “Realize that not all questions and concerns can be completely answered. Some answers become clearer with time. Others have not yet been revealed.” “Help People Find Answers to Their Questions and Concerns” in Preach My Gospel, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2023), 194.

[17] Howard W. Hunter, “Secretly a Disciple?,” Improvement Era, December 1960, 948.

[18] Harold B. Lee, in Conference Report, October 1963, 108.