Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is Doubt Okay?

"Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But...don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle."1 
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
       I think many of us believe it would be ideal to live our religious lives free of problems. We long for a picture-perfect world in which being a Mormon is a no-brainer. In this imaginary world there is not the tiniest reason to doubt. There are no confusing issues in Church history, nothing weird is ever said in testimony meeting, and at general conference time the streets are full of picketers carrying signs like "I Mormons," and "Joseph Smith Rocks!" 

       But that is not the world we live in. Sometimes the Mormon experience is anything but easy. Maybe your friend leaves the Church. Maybe you stumble upon a confusing issue in Church history. Maybe you just go through a really hard experience and it makes you question God's love or even His existence. Whatever it is, it probably causes you to doubt, if only for a moment. I think a lot of us tend to feel guilty in these moments. We beat ourselves up for being "weak" enough to doubt our testimonies. After all, there is no room for doubt in God's church. Others take the opposite approach. When they find out there are problems in the Church (maybe even big problems), their faith comes tumbling down. After all, how could the Church be true if there is so much room for doubt? Either way, it seems doubt has no place in a faithful person's life. But is that true? Doubt has its virtues, after all. It's a good defense mechanism. Doubt protects you from fanatics, phony politicians, and door-to-door salesmen trying to sell you watered-down cleaning solution for $39.99 a bottle. When you doubt it proves you can think critically. But not all doubt is good. Some people become so enamored with doubt that it robs them of the faith that has sustained them in times past and often leaves them bitter as a result. So is doubt okay, or isn't it? Well...maybe that's the wrong question. I think the real question is, how do you keep doubt in proper balance? How do you doubt enough to keep from being gullible, but at the same time allow yourself room for faith and a testimony? Here are a few thoughts to help answer this question.

Remember, Problems Are Part of the Plan
       Lehi told us there would be opposition in all things. Why then, should we want to be immune to the opposition of our faith? To refuse to engage problems and doubts is to rob our faith of progress. As Theodore Rubin famously said, "The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem."2  So when you have reason to doubt your faith, relax. Problems are all part of the plan.

       In the movie Life of Pi (a film I recommend to anyone), a young writer asks the deeply religious Pi Patel if there is any room in his life for doubt. Pi says yes. "Doubt is useful," he says. "It keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it has been tested."  That's what doubt does. It forces us to test our faith and shows us where that faith needs to be strengthened.

       Doubt provides resistance, and resistance is necessary for growth. No one wants to watch a football game where only one side shows up to play. A team might look nice running around the field by themselves in clean jerseys, but it's not a game until the opponents arrive. So it is with us. Sometimes you can go through the motions of Mormonism simply because that's the status quo. Everyone around you seems to be into it, so why not go with the flow? Doubt shakes you from that state. It keeps you honest. Suddenly you have to ask yourself why you live the way you do. Then you find out what your faith is really made of, and the result may surprise you. Our faith is often stronger than we think it is. Remember, "ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith" (Ether 12:6). Even if your testimony feels weak now, you may come out of your trial of faith with a stronger testimony than you started with.

Don't Be Afraid of Problems

       Probably the most frustrating thing we can do with doubts is try to shut them out. Feeling guilty about doubts or refusing to doubt altogether is not worth the headache that will inevitably follow. This is not to say we should go seeking out anti-Mormon material. It just means that when our faith is challenged, we should try not to be afraid. 

       Richard Bushman, author of the book Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, said, “My policy has been, as a scholar, to never evade problems. I think it’s a mistake to think we can circumvent them or bury them under the rug or hide them. That simply does not work. I think you have to confront them directly... If there’s something that really annoys you in Joseph Smith’s life you should state as clearly and exactly as possible what it is that’s troubling—even writing it down—because in the very process of understanding the problem you often go halfway towards finding a resolution.”3 This is true not only of Joseph Smith's life but of all aspects of the Church. Problems cannot be ignored forever. It's better to meet them head on with a heart full of faith than to ignore them out of fear. After all, who is more confident in his beliefs, the one who can acknowledge criticism and deal with it rationally, or the one who can't bear to entertain a single criticism without throwing up defenses? Problems should be dealt with carefully, and on fair ground, but they should be dealt with. 

Turn Doubts Into Questions
       Thomas Jefferson once wrote to a young man who had questions about religion. Mr. Jefferson said, "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear" (emphasis added).4 Surely this is true. A God whose glory is intelligence (D&C 93:36) would naturally want us to follow His teachings because we believe them, not just because we're "supposed to." That doesn't mean parents shouldn't make their seven-year-olds attend Primary, nor that investigators should postpone baptism until they know exactly how many wives Joseph Smith had. It means that when you're confronted with doubt, you shouldn't sit on it idly. Turn your doubt into a question and investigate it thoroughly. You'll likely learn something that will help strengthen your faith in the long run.

       Think of Nephi. Nephi was taught "in all the learning of [his] father" (1 Nephi 1:1), and he probably lived a pretty uneventful life in Jerusalem. Nephi probably didn't have many serious doubts about his faith while growing up. Then his father was called to take the family into the wilderness, and while we always think of Nephi as being stalwart and faithful, surely he doubted at this point. Suddenly his faith was not a casual matter. He had to decide if God had called his father to leave Jerusalem in order to go to a promised land, or if dear ol' dad really just wanted to skip town in order to save his own skin and avoid retribution for the things he'd been preaching. 

       Nephi was in a tough position. On the one hand, he had always believed his father and in his revelations, but on the other hand his father's actions now seemed radical and maybe even selfish. So what did Nephi do when faced with this dilemma? He did as all of us can do: he acknowledged his doubts and pushed forward with faith. In 1 Nephi 2 he says "I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers" (1 Nephi 2:16). Nephi doubted, but he didn't lose his testimony. He was faithful, but he didn't bury his head in the sand. Instead he acknowledged his doubts and proceeded to question, finding answers from God as he showed both faith and critical thinking. Had Nephi acted without faith he would not have had the help of the Spirit. Had he acted without critical thinking he would not have gained the knowledge needed to sustain him on his journey.

       Another (and maybe even the best) example is Joseph Smith. He wrestled with doubts, didn't he? He had doubts about all the different churches he attended. Even when his mother and siblings had joined up, Joseph remained unconvinced. He doubted each denomination's claims and turned his doubts into a question: "Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?" (JS - History 1:10) Joseph investigated this issue, and it eventually led him to the Sacred Grove and ultimately to his First Vision. This wouldn't have happened if Joseph had shut doubt out of his mind and joined the first church he went to. Nor would it have happened if he had just thrown up his hands and given up on religion altogether because he had doubts. Rather, Joseph turned doubts into questions and investigated them to the end.

Invite God In
       Neither Nephi nor Joseph Smith would have found such profound answers had they not made God a part of it. Too often people shut God out of their investigations and think they can find the truth only through careful research. But if you want to know about God and His Church then you have to let God take part in the investigation. That doesn't mean we should just ask God our question and expect Him to send us an explanation. It means "that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask [Him] if it be right, and if it is right [He] will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right" (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8). We have to study out the things that trouble us, but we are entitled to the help of the Holy Ghost as we strive to find answers.
Move On With Faith
       So is doubt okay? Yes, doubt is okay in that it's natural. It's not something to be feared or to feel guilty about. But eventually you have to move past it. In Life of Pi (the book this time), Yann Martel says, "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."5 We can't expect to get anywhere living in a state of perpetual doubt. God doesn't want us lingering on doubt too long. He expects us to move forward with faith, and after we have done this, then He is ready to shed light on our path. Maybe you feel like giving up. Maybe you have questions that cannot be fully answered in this life. You can still maintain a testimony. Alma taught, "even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words" (Alma 32:27). The first step to belief is a desire to believe. So hold on to that, and then see if the Lord won't help that faith to grow.

       That imaginary, doubt-free Mormon world does sound good sometimes. But we don't need a world like that in order to keep a testimony. An inquiring mind, coolness in the face of problems, and a reliance on the Spirit are what accomplish that. With a firm grasp on those things we can live with intelligence and testimony both, overcoming problems with the help of God as we move forward with faith. Will there be problems? Of course. Can they be overcome? No doubt about it. 

1. Holland, Jeffrey R. "Lord, I Believe." Ensign, May 2013.
2. Rubin, Theodore Isaac. One to One: Understanding Personal Relationships. New York, New York: Viking Press, 1983.
3. "Rough Stone Rolling- Interview with Richard Bushman-- Fair Mormon Podcast part 1 YouTube video, 8:19, an interview posted by “Fair Mormon,” February 15, 2014,
4. "Jefferson's Religious Beliefs." Accessed August 28, 2015.
5. Martel, Yann. "Chapter 7." In Life of Pi: A Novel, 36. New York, New York: Harcourt, 2001.


  1. Thank you so much for this article whoever you are! I am doing an english paper on Joseph Smith's history, and before that I was having doubts enough as it was! It has been really hard but I am determined to keep learning and keep believing!

    1. Thank you for reading it! I'm glad you found it helpful.