Doubts and the Church
The topic of doubt, the church, and navigating their cross-section has been in the news a lot. With the NYT article about former Area Authority Hans Mattsson and his doubts, the bloggernacle exploded in discussion while other venues derided the “misinformed” article (see here, here, here, here, and here). The main question at hand is: how does the church deal with doubting members? Should doubters voice their doubts in church meetings? Should doubters stay silent in church in general? Do non-doubting members exclude, shame, or just give the cold shoulder to doubters?
I think that many members if asked directly about how they’d react/treat someone with such doubts would say they would be caring and understanding. I also think that the atmosphere of many wards is such that there is an unspoken bias which pressures members to not deviate from a script of usual answers lest they find themselves “on the road to apostasy.” We call the script the “Sunday School answers.” We also seem to call anything which doesn’t line up with church correlation as being something drawing us towards apostasy. I think it is healthy to remember that apostasy is ‘a defection or revolt’, from ἀπό, apo, ‘away, apart’, στάσις, stasis, ‘stand, standing.’ Defecting, or even standing away from the church seems to be something altogether different from doubting. Is doubting a ‘step towards apostasy’? Possibly yes, but overzealousness has led many to apostasy too.
So how do people with doubt interact in a church setting? How can we navigate this? I’d like to present an example as one of many possible ways to navigate discussing doubt in a church setting. The following is a transcript from an Elders’ Quorum meeting lesson, which I gave on the last day in my previous ward. I hope we can, as a community, find the good in this lesson and try to emulate it, while also finding the mediocre/bad in the lesson and find better ways. Please let me know your thoughts on the lesson.
(Instructor) I was asked to give the lesson this week on Elder Holland’s most recent conference talk. For those who don’t remember, it was about faith and doubt. I’d like to preface the lesson by reviewing a few things about faith itself. We list faith as the 1st principle of the gospel, or at least faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We also find faith in a few other lists we have in our scriptures, specifically listed as a spiritual gift which one can receive. I’m not sure how many of you were around about a year ago when President Hancock from our stake presidency spoke to our EQ about this topic. He shared that in the D&C where we read about spiritual gifts, the first two gifts listed are:
1 – Having a testimony of Jesus through the Holy Ghost, and
2 – Believing on the words of others to attain unto salvation.
So this pair of gifts is almost a dichotomy, in which some people receive the gift of a testimony through the Holy Ghost, while other people don’t receive such a gift immediately or in such a stark manner, but where they are blessed to believe, or desire to believe; perhaps through a long-term process they might also attain some form of testimony.
This is something that President Holland deals with in the conference talk, in taking this view of faith as a process, as opposed to being a gift. I think this happens different ways for different people. When President Hancock spoke with us, he laid this out as two different models of testimony. If you are one who has or will have the gift of a testimony through the Holy Ghost, then you are likely on the “Moroni 10” model of attaining a testimony; you pray and ask if it’s true and you receive this gift of the spirit giving you a testimony. Others may be on the “Alma 32” model of attaining a testimony, in which you have simply a desire to believe even while the belief isn’t there yet; if you continue faithful, doing good works, then slowly, over time it is able to develop and eventually you’re able to taste the fruits of this tree that you’ve been growing. Elder Holland also gets into that a little bit in the talk. Let me read a couple quotes from it. I won’t go through all of the text of the talk, though I would encourage you all to go read it. I’m just going to share some of the parts that really stood out to me as I listened to Elder Holland speaking.
Elder Holland started off with the story that I really feel I can relate to in the New Testament, in which a father is bringing his sick child to be healed. Jesus asks him if he believes that his son can be healed,
“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears,Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
So he gives this declaration of a real desire to believe, but also with an acknowledgement of the fact that he’s not there yet.
There were also some things Elder Holland said about faith that reminded me of some things I’ve heard in our ward over the last four years. Elder Holland said:
“The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.”
I think this a powerful idea. It is analogous to something Patriarch Finlayson said. I had talked about faith, doubt, and charity, and afterward he pulled me aside and said,
“Faith has more to do with faithfulness than belief.”
To me this seems to harmonize quite well with Elder Holland’s statement. We might even rephrase it as:
The size of your faith is not the issue—it is the faithfulness you show to the faith you do have.
This is something that can be very comforting if you are someone who has had major struggles of faith.
Elder Holland shared a personal story in which he was speaking to a 14-year-old. The 14-year-old was very honest with the apostle and said that he couldn’t say that he “knew” about the truthfulness of the church, but he believed. Elder Holland responded saying
“belief is a precious word, an even more precious act,” and he need never apologize for “only believing.”
I would even add to that the desire to believe.
There’s another observation I had about belief as I’ve struggled with it over the years and tried to get a handle on it. I really love the etymology of the word ‘belief.’ Typically as languages develop and diverge from each other, the first thing to change are the vowels. So if we look at ‘believe’ we can see that it is closely related to ‘belove’ or ‘love.’ If we include the German word for love ‘liebe’ then even the vowel is the same. This idea of a ‘belief’ being something which you love, or hold dear is something that for me was very powerful. It is something I can hold on to and say ‘Yes, I do hold these things dear.’ even if things like the literalness of the belief is in the air.
There were a couple additional things in Elder Holland’s talk which gave me, personally, a lot of hope. First, when talking about striving to have faith, he didn’t discount the struggle with doubts, questioning, and trying to figure things out. He said:
“Be as candid about your questions as you need to be”
and at the end of his talk he said:
“Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith”
Since this lesson is sort of a swan song, I thought I’d take a little bit of time to share some of my experiences as they pertain to this lesson. I’ve always been a person who is very prone to questioning, asking why, and figuring out how things work (which is probably why I found a career in science). This questioning spirit wasn’t confined only to the realm of science, I questioned and tried to understand a lot of things. Through a confluence of several factors, I ended up in the middle of some serious faith struggles. It was particularly bad even a few years ago when we were only recent members of this ward. It was tough. Typically speaking, church isn’t the most welcoming environment to voice your doubts and concerns, and with good reason. You don’t want to air out a whole bunch of things you’re struggling with, only to spread them to those who haven’t even considered them yet. At the same time, it is tough, you need some sort of support and help.
If my own experience is representative of what it is like for others experiencing similar struggles, I can describe what a struggle of faith is like. You’re frantically doing everything that you know you should do to get through it. You’re reading your scriptures daily, and I mean significantly studying, saying prayers, having family home evening. Basically you’re checking off all of these items on the checklist which we usually use. Yet you still feel like you’re in a free fall. It was not a pleasant experience. I now feel that I can relate to Jacob in the story in Genesis in which he wrestles with an angel all night long and ends up with a broken femur as a result. In the end, things work out for his benefit, but it’s a difficult struggle where you didn’t expect one.
Elder Holland also gives some advice when he says to look for help, and ask for it. This is something which people are definitely not inclined to do. You don’t want to go to your fellow ward members and say “hey, I’m having major doubts about X, Y, & Z.” That usually doesn’t go over super well. The bishop is someone you usually don’t want to talk to during such struggles. While he is there as a ‘counselor’ and the ‘father of the ward’ to whom you could go for advice, he’s also there in the capacity as a ‘judge in Israel’ who determines whether or not you get a temple recommend, whether you attend a sibling’s wedding, etc. So there is very little incentive to go to the bishop and voice your concerns and doubts when you have this fear that you’re going to lose all of these things that are so important to you.
To stop generalizing and get personal again, I’ll say that it was a difficult struggle. I feel like I’m still in the valley of the shadow of doubt, but I’m now on the incline going up the other side. Life is unpredictable, so perhaps I’ll have to go through another, and another. I’ve at least been able to carry through and remain faithful as much as possible.
(Person #1) You mentioned that in your own experience and in your studies that the desire to believe is the engine that pushes us forward. I was wondering from whence does that desire to believe come? Why even bother with a desire to believe if you’re having such a struggle to believe?
(Instructor) That is a big question. Often as people go through these struggles that ends up being the end result. “Why am I still trying so hard? I’m hitting all these roadblocks and it doesn’t seem to be working for me.” Another thing I wanted to mention, which is perhaps a little bit of my story, but doesn’t involve any of you and is primarily from hearing the struggles of others, is that all too often members are not helpful when it comes to this struggle. You’re treated much more like a leper than as a person to whom they could go minister.
(Person #2) We just moved from a ward which has a lot of people who fit the description you’ve given. At first in the ward I was shocked. It was just something I didn’t think would be in the church. It was always so easy for me to believe that I just thought “well, buck up and believe, what’s the problem?”
(Instructor) Well, to some degree it’s a defense mechanism, right? Or at least it seems that way to me because you have your world-view set up and you’re like “if I hit these checkmarks, then I’ll be fine” then you’re hearing from someone who’s saying “I’m hitting these checkmarks and I’m struggling” and it is jarring to think that the safety of the checkmarks might not be guaranteed. It threatens the world-view, and often the reaction is to say “well, maybe you’re not reading your scriptures enough, or maybe you’re not praying enough.” I got some of that. I know that it is a very common reaction that people will get. And to give these members saying this the benefit of the doubt, it is likely with the best of intentions. Sorry, I’ll let you finish your comment.
(Person #2) Well, there was a guy in our ward who was one of these people who was really open with his doubts. He was asked to give a talk, and he got up and shared the story of Thomas, when the resurrected Savior came to the apostles. He said something along the lines of “These were the Twelve Apostles, THE Twelve Apostles. When Thomas started to doubt, the Savior didn’t turn to him and say ‘What is wrong with you? I gave you so much’ which is what I would expect him to say to me ‘Shape up.’ But he recognized that in Thomas’s unique situation he had doubts. Maybe he didn’t have the gift of faith that some people have, not everybody gets that. Jesus said ‘Thomas has doubts, so I’m going to show him the marks in my hands and in my feet.’” The talk really hit me and I was like “Wow! The Savior, who knows us each individually, doesn’t even judge an apostle for expressing doubts. It was really nice in our ward in New York there were lots of people who also openly expressed doubts. It was amazing to see how, particularly in Elder’s Quorum, how people would rally around and have really amazing discussions. All of it really built up the quorum and gave a true sense of this brotherhood. The body of Christ is made of lots of parts, and not all have the same gifts of the spirit, and that’s why we have these gifts is to build each other up. It really helped me change my views and learn to be more empathetic to those who are struggling with doubts, and I saw that even someone sharing their doubts can help people grow closer together and even build up testimonies of everybody.
(Instructor) Thank you so much. You know, I have to say, this quorum was fantastic. I’d gone through the bulk of my struggles before, but I was certainly still struggling here, and the quorum was helpful. There are several of us in the quorum that still struggle, but the quorum has been very open, accepting, and supportive. It has been a great aid.
Often when people would find out about your struggles, they’d say “Oh, I’m sorry, are you doing this? Are you doing that? Maybe you should do this. Maybe you should do that.” The thought occurred to me that I’m guilty of the same thing on so many other issues. I think we forget how powerful the actions which we covenanted to do at baptism can be. It’s interested to remember them. We are supposed to mourn with those that mourn. Then after mourning with them, we comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Then I suppose after that you can start dishing out advice you have for them. Right? Interestingly, you’re much more likely to take advice from someone if they’re sympathizing, empathizing, and going along with you in your suffering and struggle, as opposed to being told “you should go do these things.” When that happens, and I’m sure it’s not intended at all, but what implicitly is said is “You are doing something wrong or it would be working for you. Do these things; it will fix it.” Right? and when you’re doing those things already, you just think “Well, what am I supposed to do with this?”
I thought about this more and as I said I know I’m guilty of this in many ways. I don’t think our primary inclination is to go mourn with people who are mourning. It’s something that I’m trying to do better at. And perhaps, like faith, it is one of those life-long things to work at and hopefully eventually get to. You know, if you think of any instance of the Savior, like what you shared about Thomas. The first thing Jesus does is mourn with people. Lazarus dies: He weeps with Lazarus’s sisters. He doesn’t say “Don’t cry, he’s going to live. It’s cool.” He mourns with them. I think that if we could find a way to do that more consistantly, I think that would inherently lead us to comforting, and lead to standing as a witness of Christ, in the true sense of acting as Christ would in that setting. That seems to me to be the most powerful way in which you can stand as a witness of Christ. Trying to be His hands, trying to act as He would in those situations. It’s pretty big shoes to fill, but I think that the more we attempt it, then slowly but surely (just like the seed of faith in Alma 32) we can grow little by little.
(Person #3) I feel like that’s Christ’s great lesson about strength and manhood. I feel like we have this idea that the weakest we can be is to just give in to everything that happens to you and collapse. Then there is this idea we have of strength (which is maybe where we land too often) where you’re unphased, or above it. You stand firm like a rock. Then we have Christ. He is so strong and so willing to trust in that strength, and trust in His Father, that He allows Himself to feel, to be vulnerable, to be hurt. He just trusts that He will not be broken. He will bend, but come back. I feel like that’s the example of strength that Christ left us, and we should grasp that vulnerable idea.
(Instructor) Thanks. You know, similar thoughts came to me recently. I read Terryl and Fiona Givens’ book “The God Who Weeps.” I would recommend it; I really enjoyed it. They picked 5 specific doctrines or teachings within Mormonism that they felt made Mormonism stand out amongst other Christian faiths. They also show how these weave with teachings of philosophers through history. One of the things they put forward as something unique to Mormonism is in the title, this idea of a weeping God. When we read in the Pearl of Great Price, in Moses, Enoch is approaching God and he sees God weeping. He thinks, perhaps with that same idea of what strength was “Wait a minute. You’re God. Why are you crying?” It is because He had so much emotion and mourning over his children and what they were going through. It’s this idea of a God who recognizes and highly values our agency. If you’re going to have a God who values free agency, that sort of opens up many implications.
(Person #1) To go back to my earlier question, because I’m not sure you answered it, about desire. Where does it come from? It seems to me that the take away from Elder Holland’s talk is that you need to at least have the desire to believe. If you have that desire everything else will fall into place. You’ll have your struggles, your ups and downs, but you can cling onto that. Where did you get it? How do we get it to others? Where can we point others to have it? What is the inspiration? What is the source? I know what it is for me, I’m just wondering what you think about all this.
(Instructor) That’s a good point. Along those same lines, I was thinking for a long time about belief itself. I’m speaking now about belief more in the abstract, not in the way of something you hold dear. By those standards of belief as love, my Mormon beliefs are doing great. In the way the word is typically used, I often wondered “To what degree do I even choose my beliefs? I feel like to some degree I’m just looking at things, and based on what I see my beliefs are determined. I might want to believe something, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t seem like something I can choose.” As far as choosing a desire, I don’t know what to say. It’s tricky. There are so many things that influence our desires. For me personally, family was very important. That was a big aspect of my desire. For a while, I was coming simply because my family was here and I didn’t want to cause them a whole bunch of pain and suffering needlessly. Especially when I’m in a state of being unsure; I don’t disbelieve. I think there is a big difference between disbelief and doubt. For a while it was family, both my immediate family (my wife and children), my extended family, and (while this doesn’t apply to everyone) my ancestry, which is VERY Mormon (30 of 32 3rd-great-grandparents were members in their lifetimes). Additionally, I love so many of the Mormon doctrines and teachings. They’re very beautiful and powerful. There are a lot of them, sometimes contradictory, but they’re used in different timepoints for different purposes. I see so much potential for good in the church. I believe that Richard Bushman once in an interview when talking about whether or not the church was true, sidestepped the question a bit by saying that he less concerned with ‘truth’ and more concerned about the church being ‘good.’ That the fruits of the church were good. It was based on this that he was devoted to the church. For me, this has been enough to keep the desire. I know for others it can be a struggle to keep that desire, particularly if you are someone who has experiencing significant suffering within the bounds of church. Whether because of abuse from some leader, or if you are part of a sub-group which finds it difficult to navigate a harmonious relationship with current church teachings and policy. For people in those groups, it is likely much more difficult to keep the desire to believe/to stay.
(Person #4) This just came to mind. If you remember in the New Testament when the Father whose son had palsy came to Christ and said “Please heal my son.” Christ said “If you believe, all things are possible” and he said “Oh, I believe.” But he knew that wasn’t true, and he knew that Christ knew that wasn’t true. So he said “Christ, help thou mine unbelief.” He desired to believe; he wanted to believe. He wanted Christ to help him with his belief. I think part of what Elder Holland message is in this talk is that the desire to believe keeps you in the game. It keeps you wrestling with these things. Over time you come to believe because you work at it. But if you put away this desire to believe, if you don’t work at it, you don’t navigate through some of the more challenging doctrines, if you don’t test them, then you don’t have a chance at belief. So even if you just have a desire, it is a seed that spring into a very strong large belief. But if you don’t have the desire, then it just becomes a seed on the wayside.
(Person #5) I’m also someone who has struggled with belief, has doubts and so forth. For me the desire to believe is the thread that is at times all you have. I had a recent epiphany. I decided to try to be more faithful about reading the scriptures with my children, and talk to them about the stories. We talked about Nephi going into the desert and doing these dangerous things. I had to take the story and simplify it. We’d read the text and then talk through what it means. It’s really put me in a position to not sit on the fence about things, in that I have to think “I struggle with that, what am I going to say about it?” Doing that is like taking little leaps of faith, and asking myself “Do I really believe Christ has the power to change my life?” With things I’ve done wrong, and maybe things I struggle with, do I have enough faith to put myself out there, on the line even on these small things I’m telling my children from the scriptures. That’s been a big strength to me. I think everyone’s struggles are different, and we deal with them in different ways. But for me it’s boiling down to “Do I still have faith that Christ can work the atonement for me?” If I believe that, then I’m able to stay.
(Instructor) Thank you, that was great. In wrapping things up, I want to thank you all for being here and for all you’ve done over the last few years. I’ll try to tie this all back to the beginning. Everyone has different struggles. Everyone has different gifts. When we talk about spiritual gifts, it is virtually always in the context of the ‘body of Christ.’ We say repeatedly that not everyone has the same gifts for a reason, it is so that all can be edified by each other. Everyone has different talents that they bring. So if faith is not your talent, if it is your struggle, I guarantee you have many other talents you can bring to the group, which will help the group grow stronger. As we all seek to minister to each other according to our needs, strengths, and weaknesses, I think we can grow so much closer towards finally achieving that ‘Zion.’ So thank you again, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.