By Dennis B. Horne (guest blogger)
You may have noticed that something of a trend has become fashionable in some circles regarding doubt and uncertainty being good and beneficial. Some voices have given their opinion that doubt, as it relates to gospel truths, should be celebrated. Some who feel this way have traveled around and given lectures and firesides to audiences filled with those, like you, who doubt. One purpose of such attention to doubt has been to ease and comfort the minds of those who doubt; to tell them that their doubts about doctrine and history can be helpful and assist them in their struggles. You should know, however, that such views and efforts are contrary to established gospel teachings. The only solution is to turn your doubt into conviction; only then will you find the peace, happiness and joy you seek.
While it is true that Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden light (meaning He helps us through trials), He also told us that in order to be worthy to return to live with Him, we must prove ourselves obedient to His gospel (Abraham 3:25). We must pass through tribulations and tests that stretch us to the very limit of what we can bear. It may be that doubt about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is one of your trials. Like other such trials that many people experience (addiction, same-sex attraction, the false philosophies of the world), it must be overcome if you desire Exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom. And yes, immortality and eternal life are real, whether doubted and disbelieved, or not.
Writing as one who knows the truth and reality of the gospel and the afterlife, I have some suggestions for you to consider:
First: Beware what information you take into your mind. Faulty and misleading information breeds doubt. Gospel truths, learned in context and with accurate explanation, increase faith and assurance. The Holy Spirit bears witness of it. Books and articles about church history and doctrine written by doubters often engender more doubt. Historical scholarship is far from sufficient to wager your eternal life upon. By the time you learn that something you trusted was false, deep doubt may already have taken residence. Illustrating this point, the late Professor Hugh Nibley wrote: “There are thousands of people outside of the Church today because of scientific teachings which have now been exploded, are now being exploded, and are yet to be exploded, while the gospel remains unscathed.” (Letter, Hugh Nibley to Lorin Wheelwright, unpublished, Sept. 16, 1965, 3) A marvelous principle worthy of careful consideration is here taught. Some of the Brethren have phrased the idea this way—“Don’t drink below the horses.”
Second: Go to sound, legitimate, and honest sources to learn Church history and doctrine. Much information found on the internet does not meet these standards. The doctrines of the Church come from the scriptures and modern prophets and apostles, not from academic theologians and scholars, and especially not from anti-Mormon websites. When you read the scriptures you drink from the fountain of truth and tune your soul to the Spirit of the Lord. This approach removes doubt and increases faith and assurance of gospel principles. Elder M. Russell Ballard related an experience with a friend, a doubter, that illustrates this principle:
Some years ago one of my missionaries came to see me. He said: “President, I am losing my testimony. I have some questions that no one will answer for me. My bishop and stake president just told me to forget them, and they had no answers.” I asked for his questions in writing and then suggested he come to see me in 10 days, and I would answer every one of his questions. A s he was leaving my office, I was prompted to ask him, “Elder, how long has it been since you have read from the scriptures?” He acknowledged that it had been a long time. I said: “You have given me an assignment; it’s only fair that I give you one. You read at least one hour from the scriptures each day until you come back for your answers.” He agreed to do this. When he came back, I was ready. He said: “President, I don’t need the answers. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet. I’m OK now.” ( http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=1929 )
The spirit of the devil is in anti-Mormon websites and literature and he specializes in magnifying doubt and uncertainty. I have a friend who began to read the wrong sources and eventually lost his faith and became atheist. While his former testimony came from the Holy Spirit testifying to his soul of the truthfulness of the scriptures, his loss of this pearl of great price came from his own human reasoning applied to the philosophies of men, mingled with the spirit of the Adversary. He has sent me many questions which he thinks are unanswerable and justify his position. Ironically, I now find myself in the unusual situation that I cannot read an article or talk, or spend time studying the scriptures, without being bombarded with satisfactory answers to his supposedly unanswerable questions. I find them everywhere and share them with him—but he has closed his mind to them and rejected the influence of the Spirit.
In contrast Elder Neal A. Maxwell shared a personal experience of his own when reading the scriptures: “On occasion, the pages of the New Testament come especially alive for me. A year ago, in the midst of certain Pauline pages, it was as if the cultures and centuries that stood between Paul and me were melted away by the warmth of the Spirit. Paul’s words flowed into my mind unimpeded, and I understood as never before. They seemed to fall upon my ear and soul, not printed words being processed by my brain, but communication, friend to friend. It was an experience lasting perhaps no more than twenty minutes, but it was one I shall never forget.” ( https://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/12/the-new-testament-a-matchless-portrait-of-the-savior?lang=eng ) How could anyone possibly doubt after such an experience?
Third: Remember that for some, testimony is harder to come by than for others. Testimony, meaning the witness of the Spirit that God lives and that the gospel is true, is a gift that is given only after seeking and working for it. The Holy Ghost does not dispense the same gifts equally to all in the same measure. There is no bill of rights making all equal in gifts of the Spirit (see D&C 46:11-12, esp. 14). Some must work harder for a testimony (the removal of doubt) than others. The devil interferes with such efforts as much as he can—for he is the real source of most doubt.
To doubt is to be unconverted, partially or fully, depending on the depth of your doubt. The remedy is to become converted, which as we have noted can be hard for some. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shared his own musings on this question:
Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t it go better? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? It is the truth. . . .
I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work [conversion, ridding ourselves of doubt] is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are The Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him? . . .
For that reason I don’t believe missionary work has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, nor that retention is, nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul. ( https://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/03/missionary-work-and-the-atonement?lang=eng )
So, it isn’t always easy to cast off uncertainties and become or remain converted; it isn’t easy for some to overcome doubt and replace it with fervent and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Again, that just might be their particular trial to pass and overcome before being marvelously blessed. Elder Bruce R. McConkie spoke candidly about this particular issue, and then gave the answer or solution, hard as it may seem.
What about people who say they have prayed for a testimony, but haven’t received one?
I don’t know why, except in principle, that somewhere along the line [a person] hasn’t fully complied with the law. I had a man come to me, and he was the president of his Seventies quorum…and he said “I have been active in the Church all my life; I have read the Book of Mormon; I have prayed about it and asked the Lord whether it is true—and I don’t know whether it is true or not.” He said, “I don’t get any feeling about this,” and he asked “why?”
I don’t know why in the sense of being able to pinpoint any specific thing, but I do know the general principle which is that it is just absolutely, immutably decreed, that if someone really abides the law, they do get the witness.
I have a letter on my desk now that if I was sufficiently diligent I ought to answer it. It came to President [Joseph Fielding] Smith and he sent it up to me to answer. It’s a very well written letter and this fellow is not in the Church (but he once was) and he explains intelligently that the promise is that if you join the Church you get the gift of the Holy Ghost and you’ll have power to do this and this; and why is it that we don’t have the power to do it? Why is it we don’t exercise this power?
The reason we don’t exercise the power to the extent we ought to is because we just don’t live the law; that’s all. If people do live the law fully, they will have the power and they will get the witness.
But the thing we have to remember in these situations is that everybody isn’t at the same level of spirituality. Some people have a small degree of spirituality, and some people have a large degree of spirituality. The talent of spirituality that people have is what they’ve inherited from preexistence. You have the degree of spirituality that you earned in preexistence. . . . It’s just a pure matter of preexistence. But anybody . . . has sufficient spiritual information, so that if they will, they can know that the work is true. . . .
So maybe if someone doesn’t seem to get the witness like they ought to get, they are lacking in some spiritual talent; I don’t know. But regardless of that, it’s possible—it’s expected, as a matter of fact—that they so live that they can get the witness. . . . (Bruce R. McConkie, “Teach by the Spirit,” UofU Institute Lecture transcript, May 20, 1968, n.p.)
If you keep the law, eventually, perhaps after long effort, you will get the witness; it is a law of God: “And whosoever shall believe in my name, doubting nothing, unto him will I confirm all my words, even unto the ends of the earth” (Mormon 9:25).
So—what might keep one from receiving the witness? Insufficient faith and sin are the usual suspects though there are exceptions. If a person is involved with pornography, drugs, sexual sins, drugs, rebellion against the Lord’s anointed, etc.—unless they repent they will have great difficulty generating the kind of faith necessary to receive an answer and gain a witness from the Spirit of the Lord.
Third: Do not be ensnared by the trending and popular arguments of the “intellectuals” and dissidents that your doubt is good or helpful somehow. Such philosophizing is false and misleading and will betray you. I have noted the following quotations in various formal online posts:
- “To have real faith is to acknowledge and accept doubt and ambiguity as a companion to faith and then to move forward.”
- “Doubt is a companion to faith and . . . the opposite of faith is certainty, something quite rare and foreign to the human experience.” [Ask anyone with a testimony that came by the power of the Holy Ghost if this statement is true, and how uncertain they felt under that influence.]
- “This also doesn’t mean that we should let our beliefs about what’s true govern our methodologies and conclusions. Religious conviction is and should always remain a personal, sacred, ineffable matter, which we should avoid reducing to some kind of self-constructed truth paradigm within which to fit the evidence. This, to my thinking, is completely wrong headed. To me this backwards approach only leads to strange mental gymnastics, feigned certitude, premature (and mostly false) conclusions, selective evidence, and a veneer of disingenuousness—not a real, lasting help to most members with serious doubts and questions.” [A witness of the truth is more than mere belief; Spirit-given knowledge is pure conviction for Latter-day Saints; it is not “ineffable” to the hundreds of thousands who have and do know. If the “evidence” doesn’t fit with revealed knowledge, then the evidence is in question, not the revelation.]
- “But my main purpose in writing this letter is not to resolve the uncertainties and perplexities in your mind. I want, rather, to endow them with the dignity and seriousness they deserve. And even to celebrate them. That may sound perverse, but I hope to show you it is not.” [While we do not belittle or judge those, like you, with doubts and uncertainties, we do strive to help them overcome them and leave them behind; instead moving forward with faith (to paraphrase the title of President Hinckley’s biography). This very capacity was in fact a special gift of the spirit given by God to an Old Testament prophet: “Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel. . . .” Notice that Daniel’s spiritual gift, among others, was to dissolve (resolve) doubt, not to congratulate the doubter and celebrate his uncertainty with him.]
- “I will not bore you or insult your spiritual maturity with injunctions to pray harder, to fast more, to read your scriptures. I know you have been traveling that route across a parched desert.” [Those with true spiritual maturity are not bored or insulted by prayer, fasting, and scripture study. On the contrary, it is their bread of life. These are the very foundational ingredients of the Divine recipe for finding and coming to know God, for obtaining a testimony (see Moroni 10:3-5), and for receiving Eternal Life. In the greatest of all events in all history, when the Savior was praying to His Father in agony of body and spirit as He paid the price for the sins of all mankind, “he prayed more earnestly”—or harder (Luke 22:44). Such is a lesson for all when faced with great trials, such as doubt and uncertainty about spiritual truths; I know it has been for me.]
- “Be grateful for your doubts. . . . I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe.” [This is the philosophies of men, not even bothering to mingle with scripture.]
- “The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.” [We do not look to science or philosophy—“the arm of flesh” (2 Nephi 4:34)—for certainty about the gospel of Jesus Christ; He has decreed another way. As the Bible Dictionary entry “God” states: “God can be known only by revelation. He must be revealed or remain forever unknown” (Mosiah 4:9); and that method brings absolute surety.]
- “There is profit to be found, and advantage to be gained, even—perhaps especially—in the absence of certainty.”
Contrary to these fallacious quotations, the scriptures never speak of doubt in a positive or desirable way. They are instead filled with counsel and commandment to strive to rid ourselves of doubt, uncertainty, and unbelief:
- “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
- “And there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things; and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt” (Helaman 5:49).
- “O then despise not, and wonder not, but hearken unto the words of the Lord, and ask the Father in the name of Jesus for what things soever ye shall stand in need. Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him” (Mormon 9:27).
- “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).
- “And now behold, there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites who did doubt in the least the words of all the holy prophets who had spoken; for they knew that it must needs be that they must be fulfilled” (3 Nephi 5:1).
- “And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (Acts 11:12).
Miracles and gifts of the Spirit function under similar principles; the more faith involved, the more likely the desired blessing will be received:
- “Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth” (Mormon 9:21).
- “For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.” (Mark 11:23).
- “Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done” (Matthew 21:21).
In fact, Jesus referred to doubters as those with little faith (see Matthew 14:31). Can anyone imagine the Lord God asking His children to doubt His existence or His gospel? Such is unthinkable and opposed to His plan and purposes. As Elder McConkie phrased it, “The Lord is finding out what we will believe in spite of the allurements of the world or the philosophies of men or the seemingly rational and logical explanations that astute people make” (Letter, Bruce R. McConkie to Eugene England, February 19, 1981).
President Gordon B. Hinckley became well-known as one who sought to help people overcome doubt and replace it with faith. His discourses and writings are filled with expressions seeking to build faith in others. A small sampling: “Love for the Church can also lift one above doubt.” And: “I have frequently reflected on how Joseph Smith must have felt at those times [the Kirtland period]. He was directly or indirectly responsible for all of the misery and suffering that occurred. Did doubt occasionally assail his mind? I find the exact opposite in the revelations that came through him during that period.” And further: “May our testimonies strengthen and become as anchors to which others may secure their faith in hours of doubt and concern.” (Quotations from Standing for Something). Scores of pages could be files with such quotations from his publications.
What can be said for those who promulgate such thinking, contrary to the revealed word? President Henry B. Eyring has spoken to the situation:
Persons with doubts often want to talk about what they think are the facts or the arguments that have caused their doubts, and about how much it hurts. They may well want to explore some scientific theory, some historical study, some political position, or some reported failures in the leaders of the Church or in its members, which they see as the source of their doubts.
Many good people have spent effort, and some have spent much of their lives, providing such exploration. Some have written scholarly books. Others have organized various meetings and other exchanges to allow those with questions and doubts to discuss them, with the hope that the doubts will be resolved. I admire their intent and their effort. But my observation is that the chance of success of such approaches, based on what scholars consider evidence and reason, is severely limited.
At the worst, exchanges between those who doubt will increase doubt. That will be true even if they are true seekers, simply because they will be introduced to new doubts. More than that, in any such group, if it is very large, there will be some impressive and sympathetic people who have made wrestling with doubts a major personal adventure. They will present it as sport, but exhilarating and noble. Staying with such a bold band of inquirers, fearlessly confronting hard questions, can seem more attractive than moving back to the apparently less colorful company of quiet believers.
But even at its best, the resolution of doubts by reason and appeal to evidence cannot take us far. It is helpful to meet a brilliant mind who defends gospel truth with fact and logic. There is comfort in finding that such a person has confronted the same questions with which you struggle and has retained his faith. But there is a hazard. Even the most brilliant and faithful person may defend with argument or fact that later proves false. The best scholarship has, at least, incompleteness in it. But even flawless argument has a weakness if you come to depend on it: what happens to the next doubt, or the next? What if no physical evidence or persuasive logic can be produced to dispel it? You will find then what I have found—that faithful scholar who reassured you with logic did not base his faith there. It was the other way around. His faith reassured him that someday, when God told him how it was all done, he would see all truth as perfectly logical, transparently reasonable. In the meantime he was enjoying discovering what he could with the logic he could muster. (To Draw Closer to God [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], 141-42.)
Making hobby or sport or activism of doubt and questions and uncertainty may be fun for some, but at what cost? Is not Eternal Life involved? So I say, do not heed those who preach this philosophy of “good doubt.”
Fourth: Remember that it is not yet too late to repent and change. Much more can be done in this mortal life to conform to gospel laws and prove obedience to God’s commandments than in the next post-mortal life. Do as Alma taught and simply cultivate a desire to believe (Alma 32). This means you must work to cast away doubt. If you do so, the rewards are sure and infinite and eternal.
Fifth: There is a big difference between having a “question,” and “questioning.” Gospel questions are often easily answered through faith and patience and seeking (see D&C 11:5, 7, 13-14). Constantly questioning things is something else. In this sense, questioning becomes a synonym for doubting. For example, if you are a doubter because women are not ordained to the priesthood, you are really only questioning whether or not Jesus is the head of His Church and running it how He wants to through His Prophet.
Our modern day prophets and apostles call all people, doubters or otherwise, to repent and sup at the table of the Lord with them. Elder James E. Faust spoke to you, a doubter:
For those who have honest doubts, let us hear what eyewitnesses had to say about Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient apostles were there. They saw it all. They participated. No one is more worthy of belief than they. Said Peter: “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16.) Said John: “For we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:42.) Modern-day witnesses, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, declared: “For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father.” (D&C 76:23.) . . .
Then he bore testimony by referring to his own difficult but immeasurably rewarding path of spiritual struggle to know God:
During the years of my life, and often in my present calling, and especially during a recent Gethsemane, I have gone to my knees with a humble spirit to the only place I could for help. I often went in agony of spirit, earnestly pleading with God to sustain me in the work I have come to appreciate more than life itself. I have, on occasion, felt the terrible aloneness of the wounds of the heart, of the sweet agony, the buffetings of Satan, and the encircling warm comfort of the Spirit of the Master.
I have also felt the crushing burden, the self-doubts of inadequacy and unworthiness, the fleeting feeling of being forsaken, then of being reinforced an hundredfold. I have climbed a spiritual Mount Sinai dozens of times seeking to communicate and to receive instructions. It has been as though I have struggled up an almost real Mount of Transfiguration and upon occasion felt great strength and power in the presence of the Divine. A special sacred feeling has been a sustaining influence and often a close companion.
It is my testimony that we are facing difficult times. We must be courageously obedient. My witness is that we will be called upon to prove our spiritual stamina, for the days ahead will be filled with affliction and difficulty. But with the assuring comfort of a personal relationship with the Savior, we will be given a calming courage. . . .
I recognize that I am a very ordinary man. Yet I gratefully acknowledge one special gift. I have a certain knowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is our Divine Savior. I know that He lives. From my earliest recollection I have had a sure perception of this. As long as I have lived, I have had a simple faith that has never doubted. I have not always understood, yet still I have known through a knowledge that is so sacred to me that I cannot give utterance to it.
While some say there is no such thing as certainty, or that the things of God are ineffable or beyond us, I think Brother Faust would beg to differ. So would all the prophets, apostles, patriarchs, and faithful disciples and saints of all dispensations who have paid the price to know. Yet a testimony can become stale or be lost if not nourished. All who possess them; all who have overcome doubt and filled their souls with the conviction and assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit of God, must keep that fire of faith alive within their souls.
Elder Loren C. Dunn, a past and now deceased member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, shared his experience with rejuvenating his testimony. He had not doubted, yet he needed the refreshing that becomes necessary after dealing with the cares and troubles of mortality:
A number of years ago . . . I had just finished a particularly bad week. . . . By the end of the week I was feeling down and a bit sorry for myself. Finally, one night, after my family had gone to bed, I decided to stay up longer and really go before the Lord in a more determined way than when I said my regular night and morning prayers. As I knelt in the downstairs study of the darkened house, my circumstances made it easy for me to approach the Lord in the depths of humility, and I poured out my heart. As I prayed I felt a need for a confirmation that he was there and that he cared. From past experiences I knew these things, but there are times when one needs the strength of reconfirmation.
As I prayed and made this specific request I had a most remarkable experience. I had had spiritual experiences before, but this, to me, was more. There was an outpouring of the Spirit so real that I could feel it. This Spirit filled my whole soul; and this was not just a single experience, but it came again and again in the space of just a minute or two. I came out of the room that night with a reconfirmed and absolute knowledge, borne of the Spirit, that not only does the Savior live but that he knows me and cares for me with a truly divine love.
The influence of that experience lingered with me for days and caused me to have a feeling of genuine concern and love for everyone, even people on the street whom I did not know. ( http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=1180 )
All must take the same course to be rid of doubt—humble sustained prayer to Father in Heaven with all the faith that can be mustered. Elder McConkie spoke candidly of the struggle of all believers to endure to the end: “All of us need all of the faith and strength and spiritual stability we can get to maintain our positions in the Church and to work out our salvation.” (Ibid, letter.)
May that be your course and an unshakable assurance your reward,