“Where doubt is, there faith has no power.” Lectures on Faith
An unavoidable part of life is that we routinely experience doubt, confusion and uncertainty. These feelings are always troubling, but they can be especially disconcerting when they relate to our feelings about God. During those times, I like to think about two different episodes in the scriptures.
The first event involved Christ and a great number of his followers. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Christ gave what has become known as “The Bread of Life Sermon” in which he stated that He is the Bread of Life and that unless we eat of his flesh and drink his blood, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Most of those who were listening were so upset by the notion that we must eat the flesh and blood of Christ to go to Heaven that they stopped listening then and there and left the savior.
Only his most loyal disciples, the twelve, remained. Christ did not run after those who left to apologize for offending them, or to try and explain that it was merely a metaphor. He merely turned to the twelve and asked, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67.) It was Peter who replied. He did not say, “Of course we’re going to stay. We understand that you are only speaking metaphorically.” Instead, he said “to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6: 68.) Peter and the twelve may have experienced the same kinds of doubts, confusion and uncertainty that were felt by those who left, but the twelve set those feelings aside and stood by the Savior. Rather than act upon whatever doubts they may have had, they acted upon their faith. And because of this decision to act with faith, and continue following the savior, their faith was eventually transformed into knowledge.
The second story involves a great miracle and a man of imperfect faith. The anguished man had sought a blessing from the disciples of Christ for his son, who had been afflicted with convulsions since he was a child. When the disciples were unable to heal the son, the scribes, perhaps seeing an opportunity to embarrass the disciples of Christ, started arguing with the disciples. At this point, Christ entered the scene and asked what the argument was about. The man stepped forward and explained how he had brought his son to the disciples to be healed, but they had failed. Christ told the man that “all things are possible to him that believeth.” (Mark 9:23.) Of course, the man had just witnessed how Christ’s disciples had fallen short and were now being challenged by critics of the Church. The conclusion the man might have drawn was that not even the disciples had sufficient faith. Under these circumstances, it would be understandable if the man gave up and surrendered to doubt. Instead, the man gathered all the faith he could, and said “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24.) In other words, he was not certain that Christ could heal his son. But he would set aside what uncertainty he had and ask for a miracle. In doing so, his faith turned to knowledge once Christ healed the son.
Clearly, we can be blessed and even witness miracles even though we experience confusion and doubt. Nevertheless, we may become discouraged when we find that our leaders are imperfect. We may become upset at some difficult doctrine or find some Church historical events impossible to fathom. President Uchtdorf recently acknowledged that leaders of the Church have made mistakes and that with respect to the history of the Church, “there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.”[i] His counsel was to be patient while we gather more information, consider looking at things from a different perspective, and to “first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[ii]
Yet, one does not need to spend much time on the internet today to find people who speak of doubt as if it is something to be proud of. It seems that for some, a person is not truly thoughtful if that person does not regularly experience doubt about the Church and its leaders. For such people, doubt is a badge of honor and a symbol of intellectual maturity rather than a burden and trial to be overcome. As Elder Holland has observed, “Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not!”[iii]
Of course, as people speak of “doubt,” it is sometimes difficult to know what they mean. The word “doubt” may be used when all that is meant is mere confusion, uncertainty or a reservation of judgment. Other times the word “doubt” may be used to describe bitterness, cynicism and distrust. One can temporarily “doubt” certain things in the first sense, and still generally see with an “eye of faith.” (Alma 32:40.) However, “doubt” of the second kind erodes and undermines faith. And even when doubt begins as mere questioning or uncertainty, if left unresolved, it can eventually devolve into cynicism and bitterness.
Usually, when we speak of doubt in a religious context, it denotes a condition that is antithetical to faith. For example, when the scriptures or general authorities speak of doubt, it is almost always of the more negative variety.So we are understandably concerned when a friend or family member admits to having “doubts.” And it can be especially confusing lately to hear so many speak of doubt as something useful or even desirable.
Whether doubts end up as a positive or negative thing for us depends to a large degree upon how we look at them and what we do about them.[iv] Elder John A. Widstoe examined the different approaches to doubt as follows:
The strong man is not afraid to say, “I do not know”; the weak man simpers and answers, “I doubt.” Doubt, unless transmuted into inquiry, has no value or worth in the world…. To take pride in being a doubter, without earnestly seeking to remove the doubt, is to reveal shallowness of thought and purpose.
Doubt of the right kind—that is, honest questioning—leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry, which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees—these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn that some things are known, others are not. They cease to doubt….
On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor….
Doubt which immediately leads to honest inquiry, and thereby removes itself, is wholesome. But that doubt which reeds and grows upon itself, and, with stubborn indolence, breeds more doubt, is evil.[v]
Elder Holland has added: “Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.”[vi]
While it is possible, as Elder Holland suggests, to have questions, but still have faith, it is also becoming increasingly common for people to talk about doubt as being essential to faith in a way that might lead one to conclude that if one does not carefully preserve and cherish one’s doubts, one might just lose one’s faith. While it is true that experiencing and overcoming doubt can strengthen faith, God does not expect us to cling to our doubts. Ultimately, doubt is not the friend of faith, but rather its enemy. As we learn from the Lectures on Faith, “Where doubt is, there faith has no power.”[vii]
Last year, Terryl Givens gave a fireside presentation entitled “Letter to a Doubter.” This insightful piece has had a dramatic impact on the way in which many of us view doubt and doubters. Of course, as with many ideas that garner great enthusiasm, we can begin to carry an idea to an extreme that starts to undermine the very reason for communicating the original idea.
Obviously, Professor Givens did not intend to foster greater doubt. Rather, he hoped to help build faith. Yet, if we are not careful, we may mistakenly take his arguments as justification for not only defending, but encouraging doubt. Givens says that we should be grateful for our doubts. However, this is only true in the same sense that we should be grateful for our temptations, suffering and afflictions. There must be an opposition in all things. (2 Ne. 2:11.) It is in resisting temptation, enduring suffering and overcoming affliction that we progress and grow. It is through the test of our adversities that we manifest our true desires. We should no more seek out and celebrate doubt than we should seek out and celebrate temptation, suffering, or affliction. As Givens explains:
I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe.… There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads…. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.[viii]
So doubt is necessary for the way in which it helps to reveal our true desires. Doubt can also help us to grow, to gain experience, and to maintain our moral agency. But it is not a condition that we should seek after or complacently maintain. Just as we can choose to believe, we can also choose to doubt. Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed that for some, this is a serious temptation:
Why are a few members who somewhat resemble the ancient Athenians, so eager to hear some new doubt or criticism? (See Acts17:21.) Just as some weak members slip across a state line to gamble, a few go out of their way to have their doubts titillated. Instead of nourishing their faith, they are gambling “offshore” with their fragile faith. To the question “Will ye also go away?” these few would reply, “Oh, no, we merely want a weekend pass in order to go to a casino for critics or a clubhouse for cloakholders.” Such easily diverted members are not disciples but fair–weather followers.Instead, true disciples are rightly described as steadfast and immovable, pressing forward with “a perfect brightness of hope.” (2 Nephi 31:20; see also D&C 49:23.)[ix]
So, although we may experience feelings of doubt, and feel tempted to embrace doubt, we should vigorously resist that choice. Among our deepest desires should be one in which we long to move beyond doubt, through faith, and into the realm of knowledge.
Nowhere in the scriptures are we told that we should choose to doubt. In fact, we are repeatedly told that we should avoid doubt. Christ said to his disciples: “neither be ye of doubtful mind.” (Luke 12:29. See also Matt. 21:21 and Mark 11:23.) The Lord told Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:36.) And Moroni counsels all of us to “Doubt not, but be believing.” (Morm. 9:27.) More recently, President Monson said, “Do not yield to Satan’s enticements; rather, stand firm for truth. . . . Vice never leads to virtue. Hate never promotes love. Cowardice never gives courage. Doubt never inspires faith.”[x] In other words, as between doubt and faith, we should choose faith. (See also Hel. 5:49 and Morm. 9:21 & 25.)
That is not to say that we should not be inquisitive or that it is wrong to ask questions, or wonder about things. In fact, we are admonished to ask, seek and knock. (3 Ne. 14: 7 & 27:29; Matt. 7:7; D&C 6:5.) We are to worship God not only with our heart, but also with our minds. (Mark 12:30; 2 Nephi 25:29; Moroni 10:32.) We are told “with all thy getting, get understanding.” (Prov. 4:7.) President Uchtforf has said:
Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a precursor of growth.
. . . .
Fear not; ask questions. Be curious, but doubt not! Always hold fast to faith and to the light you have already received. Because we see imperfectly in mortality, not everything is going to make sense right now. In fact, I should think that if everything did make sense to us, it would be evidence that it had all been made up by a mortal mind. Remember that God has said:
We are also told that some kinds of revelation come only after we have studied things out in our minds. (See D&C 9:8) Alma taught us to use both our intellectual as well as spiritual faculties to experiment upon the word. (Alma 32:27.) John taught us to test the spirits to see if they are of God. (1 John 4:1.) Similarly, Paul taught us to “Prove all things.” (1 Thess. 5:21.) We are told to diligently teach and seek “out of the best books words of wisdom.” We are to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118; D&C 109:7 & 14.) So as we ask, seek and knock, we are to do so in a spirit of faith, not in a spirit of cynicism, bitterness or doubt. (James 1:5-6.)
Nevertheless, although we should try to avoid complacently accepting doubt, it is not a sin to be tempted by doubt. But thoughts and feelings of doubt do not need to be indulged. It has been said that a bird may land on your head, but you don’t need to let it build a nest there. So, like other temptations of the mind, thoughts of doubt about God and His Church may enter our heads, but there is no sin in that unless we choose to cultivate, embrace or act on those thoughts.
A helpful analogy in this regard is that of Alma’s garden in Alma 32:27-43.Alma teaches us to plant the seeds of faith in the garden of our hearts and nourish and cultivate the seeds to see if they will bear good fruit and prove themselves to be good seeds. We move from faith to knowledge as the seeds grow, enlarge our souls, enlighten our understanding and expand our minds. (Alma 32:33-34.)
However, bad seeds, seeds of doubt and apostasy, can also fall into our gardens. So, just as it is important to nourish the good seeds, we should avoid nourishing the bad seeds so they do not choke out the good seeds. If we cultivate seeds of faith, we will reap the fruits of faith: knowledge and eternal life. If we cultivate seeds of doubt, we will harvest the fruits of apostasy.
Elder Maxwell similarly applied this analogy: “Lack of intellectual humility is there among those who have deliberately cultivated their doubts in order, they think, to release themselves from their covenants. Some nurture their grievances assiduously. Were their grievances, instead, Alma’s seed of faith, they would have long ago nourished a mighty tree of testimony.”[xii]
Much of the work organizations such as FairMormon do are to provide ways for people to identify the bad seeds and to give people the tools they need to pull the weeds from the gardens of their hearts. Of course, it is not possible for FairMormon to destroy all the seeds of doubt. If it were, as Professor Givens points out, people would not be free to choose faith as they would have no options. Furthermore, while FairMormon can help give people the tools they need to remove the weeds from their gardens, a garden will still not bear fruit if no one has made an effort to plant good seeds and diligently nourish them. As Alma indicated, once the tree of testimony begins to grow, we must continue to exercise faith by nourishing the tree so that we may one day eat the fruit of the tree, which is everlasting life. (Alma 32:36-43.) Elder Neil L. Anderson discussed how we can strengthen our testimonies in the face of trials:
How do you remain “steadfast and immovable” during a trial of faith? You immerse yourself in the very things that helped build your core of faith: you exercise faith in Christ, you pray, you ponder the scriptures, you repent, you keep the commandments, and you serve others.
When faced with a trial of faith—whatever you do, you don’t step away from the Church! Distancing yourself from the kingdom of God during a trial of faith is like leaving the safety of a secure storm cellar just as the tornado comes into view.[xiii]
Elder Quentin L. Cook further taught us what to avoid:
Many who are in a spiritual drought and lack commitment have not necessarily been involved in major sins or transgressions, but they have made unwise choices. Some are casual in their observance of sacred covenants. Others spend most of their time giving first-class devotion to lesser causes. Some allow intense cultural or political views to weaken their allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some have immersed themselves in Internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and, in some cases, invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. Then they draw incorrect conclusions that can affect testimony. Any who have made these choices can repent and be spiritually renewed.[xiv]
Also, in trying to avoid doubt, it can be helpful to avoid those who sow the seeds of doubt. Excessive exposure to people who are bitter, cynical and angry is corrosive and has a tendency to erode faith. Elder Maxwell observed that
as we read in the Section 46 of the Doctrine and Covenants, “to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God… to others it is given to believe on their words…” The dark side of that coin, of course, is that doubts can be pooled, too, and anxieties shared with the wrong people so that this wilts such few tender sprouts of certitude as exist. The point is not that we should refuse to share our concerns, but that sincere doubters really seek for answers, while it is often the insincere doubter who wants to play “Can you top this?” in a frenzy of doubt for doubt’s sake.[xv]
Of course, as we try to cast the seeds of doubt out of our lives, we should not be too quick to cast out the doubters. Some, through no fault of their own, experience doubt and ask questions more than others. Elder Maxwell described different types of doubters in the following way:
You are quite right to be lovingly concerned about doubters, who come in such various shapes and attitudinal shadings. Some doubters truly seek answers. These give the Brethren the benefit of the doubt, and, for them, doubt becomes a useful spiritual spur. There are others who doubt and hold back simply because they are so afraid of being “taken in.” There are still others who are embarrassed because of their inability to defend their faith; for these, doubt is a refuge. Yet other doubters are stubborn, because they feel God has not responded to them on their terms. There are even doubters who come to enjoy their roles and the associated attention and who set themselves up “as a golden calf for the worship” of people in the Church (D&C 124:84). A variation of the latter is seen in those who are “professing and yet [are] not of God” (D&C 46:27; see also D&C 136:19). “He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29). These latter individuals have their own agendum and have apparently long since concluded that, if they can’t be a leader, then they will be a critic.
Absent sufficient meekness in the doubter, I am not sure that much can be done. Experience can either soften or harden doubts, depending on the person’s supply of meekness. Clearly, however, our love should include all doubters, whatever their motivation, “for ye know not but what they will… come unto me with full purpose of heart” (3 Nephi 18:32).[xvi]
As we strive to spread the gospel and build faith in others, patience and love are necessary if we are to reach those who are struggling, but have not yet surrendered to and embraced doubt. As Elder Maxwell has written:
The ability to create a climate around us in which people, as in the case of the man who approached Jesus, feel free enough to say the equivalent of “Lord, help Thou my unbelief,” is a critical skill. If we can deal with doubt effectively in its nascent stages, we can assist people by a warmth and love which frees them to share the worries that they may have, and increase the probability of dissolving their doubt. But, if we over–react to dissent or to doubt, we are apt, rather than inculcating confidence in those we serve, to exhibit what, in the eyes of the rebel, may seem to be a flaw in our inner confidence in what we say.
We need to relax to be effective in the process of helping people who are building testimonies.Over–reacting and pressing the panic button when doubt first makes its appearance can render us ineffective. This is one of the reasons why parents are often in a temporarily poorer tactical position to deal effectively with a rebellious son or daughter—the anxiety is too real to relax. In these circumstances, bishops, teachers, and friends can be helpful—not because they are clinically detached, for their love and concern should be honestly communicated—but rather because third parties sometimes can listen a little longer without reacting, can prescribe with a clear–headed assessment, and most of all, can be a fresh voice which conveys care and concern, a voice which has risen above similar challenges.[xvii]
Doubt is necessary, in the cosmic scheme of things, if we are to experience an authentic test of our true desires, retain our moral agency, and have the kind of full experience we need that will help us to become more like Christ. However, as we better come to appreciate the necessity of doubt, we should be careful to speak of doubt in its proper place. Doubt is a condition to be overcome and not a virtue to be embraced.
[i] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” General Conference, October, 2013.
[iv] For further elaboration upon this idea and an excellent discussion of how to overcome doubts, see Brent L. Top, “Have Ye Inquired of the Lord?” Meridian Magazine (2004).
[viii] Givens, Terryl L., “Letter to a Doubter.” See also Terryl L. Givens, “‘Lightning Out of Heaven’: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community“, BYU Speeches of the Year, 29 November 2005.
[ix] Neal A. Maxwell, “Answer Me,” in Conference Report (October 1988): 40.
[x] Monson, Thomas S., The World Needs Pioneers Today, Ensign, July 2013. See also Monson, Thomas S., The Call to Serve, Ensign, October 2000 (“Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Cast out doubt. Cultivate faith.”); Pearson, Kevin W., “Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” General Conference, April 2009 (“Doubt is not a principle of the gospel. It does not come from the Light of Christ or the influence of the Holy Ghost.”); The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), p. 462 (“Apostasy usually begins with question and doubt and criticism.”).
[xi] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Reflection in the Water,” CES Fireside for Young Adults, November 1, 2009 (quoting Isaiah 55:8).
[xiii] Neil L. Anderson, “Trial of Your Faith,” October 2012, General Conference. Furthermore, President Kimball added the following observations:
At a distant stake conference one Sunday I was approached after the meeting by a young man whose face was familiar. He identified himself as a returned missionary whom I had met out in the world a few years ago. He said he had not attended the conference but had come at its conclusion, wanting to say hello. Our greetings were pleasant and revived some choice memories. I asked him about himself. He was in college, still single, and fairly miserable.
I asked him about his service in the Church, and the light in his eyes went out and a dull, disappointed face fashioned itself as he said, “I am not very active in the Church now. I don’t feel the same as I used to feel in the mission field.What I used to think was a testimony has become something of a disillusionment. If there is a God, I am not sure any more. I must have been mistaken in my zeal and joy.”
I looked him through and through and asked him some questions: “What do you do in your leisure? What do you read? How much do you pray? What activity do you have? What are your associations?”
The answers were what I expected.He had turned loose his hold on the iron rod. He associated largely with unbelievers. He read, in addition to his college texts, works by atheists, apostates, and Bible critics. He had ceased to pray to his Heavenly Father. His communication poles were burned, and his lines were sagging terribly.
I asked him now, “How many times since your mission have you read the New Testament?”
“Not any time,” was the answer.
“How many times have you read the Book of Mormon through?”
The answer was, “None.”
“How many chapters of scripture have you read? How many verses?”
Not one single time had he opened the sacred books. He had been reading negative and critical and faith-destroying things and wondered why he could not smile.
He never prayed any more, yet wondered why he felt so abandoned and so alone in a tough world. For a long time he had not partaken of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and he wondered why his spirit was dead.
Not a penny of tithing had he paid, and he wondered why the windows of heaven seemed closed and locked and barred to him. He was not receiving all the things he could have had. And as he was thinking of his woes and his worn-down faith, his loneliness, and his failures, I was thinking of a burned-out pasture in northern Argentina and burned-off telephone posts and sagging wires and dragging posts.
President Kimball, “Keep the Lines of Communication Strong,” April 1972, General Conference.
[xiv] Quentin L. Cook, “Can Ye Feel So Now?” October 2012, General Conference.