A few weeks ago I met with a high-ranking member of the Church. He gave an example attempting to illustrate how I might solve the problem of not believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Our discussion was very interesting, and I would like to share some of the content.
Martin Luther was a reformist who had decided early on that it was his job on Earth to reform the Catholic church. He felt that it had fallen from the correct and godly ways upon which it was originally founded. What he essentially did was say, "God, I'm going to reform the Church. Help me do that." That is, he had set his mind to something, and then did whatever it took to bring it about. Rather than explore what God wanted him to do, he decided what God wanted him to do.
He contrasted Martin Luther with Joseph Smith, Jr. who, we are told, went into the woods one Spring morning with no preconceived notions. He merely wanted to know God's will for him. He apparently asked, "Which church is true?" (source).
While not the speaker's intention, I thought that was a great example of the difference between what I have done and what believers want me to do. What I feel that I have done is exactly what Joseph Smith says he did; I merely wanted to know whether the Church is true or not. I wanted the answer for what I should do. I did not simply want confirmation that what I had decided to do on my own was okay with Him, but to know what was right. I felt that honest, intense investigation would lead me to the appropriate conclusion.
Yet the message I get from those who think I have erred is that I need to take Martin Luther's approach; I need to say, "God, tell me what's true, so long as it's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." The message seems to be, "We want you to get to know God, as long as it's the god we know," or "God will answer you, but only if it's the answer we say He will give you. Anything else must not be God answering you."
A few people have suggested that I just need to try harder - I need to decide that the Church must be true, then start my investigation and not vice versa. The problem I see with that is that one could use it to reach any conclusion at all. If I decided that Muhammad was a prophet and then prayed for days and days, I would probably eventually come to believe it. If I tried hard enough to believe that I was a member of the French Legion, eventually I could actually believe it. But that doesn't make it any truer.
How influential is a predisposition then? And how strong of a predisposition is healthy? Certainly it would not be healthy for me to say, "I know the Church is man-made" and then seek evidence to confirm that and only that. By the same token, it would not be healthy for me to say, "I want to believe Joseph Smith was a prophet" and then pray until I believed it.
Rather, what I feel is most healthy is to learn as much as one can and then say, "Is it true?"
To use an analogy; if I spent my whole life reading books by John Steinbeck and never read another author, I would probably feel that Steinbeck was the best author who ever lived. But if I read books by Steinbeck, Updike, Crichton, Orwell, Locke, Dickens, and dozens of others, I would probably be in a better position to say who was the best author of all time. That doesn't mean Steinbeck was a mediocre writer, but it gives me more by which to judge his works. If Steinbeck truly was the greatest writer in history, reading the other authors would only confirm that.
And so, if I grow up under the assumption that Joseph Smith was God's instrument, never really questioning that, never facing the possibility that he wasn't, am I really in a position to say he was?