Progression Through Doubt:
How can understanding the Atonement help us in times of doubt and faith crisis?
Today I would like to propose a radical idea: Doubt is not necessarily an evil, but something that can and should lead us to the Atonement.
The term “doubt” is one that is loaded with negative connotations in a religious environment. However, doubt is nothing more than questioning what we have known before. Doing so is always a challenge however, because we are made up of our past ideas. We are the aggregation of our past experiences, and the views we have both created and received from external sources. To question something we have always held as true is, in some measure, to question aspects of our own nature. A child may feel like the bottom has dropped out of his world when he reexamines the Santa Clause story: How much harder is it for an adult who is forced to reexamine some point or philosophy which has been a foundation of their belief system for, perhaps, their entire life?
So undoubtedly doubt is difficult, but often times we also consider it to be something bad, or outright evil. Where does this idea come from? I have found this idea to be one that has become part of our cultural heritage, but it does not seem to be doctrinal in origin. Growing up in the Church I often heard a phrase repeated: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.” This always made me feel uneasy, but I never questioned the veracity of the phrase. However, just because something is repeated often, it is not inherently doctrine, or even true.
The origin of that phrase is from an issue of the Improvement Era, June 1945, as the Ward Teaching Message: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan--it is God's plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.” (Edited by Lee A. Palmer).
However a few months latter, President George Albert Smith refuted this statement: “[This] was not ‘prepared’ by ‘one of our leaders.’ However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
“I am pleased to assure you that . . . . the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts.” (George A. Smith Papers [Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A], Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.)
Scriptures have also often been quoted, rather out of context, to urge us to “doubt not” (e.g. D&C 6:36 and Alma 56:47), but a careful reading of these scriptures show that doubt in this case refers matters of faith, and not belief. Faith and belief are most certainly not the same thing, and in my experience, attempting to maintain your faith while questioning certain beliefs, will almost always lead to a positive outcome. Brigham Young never suggested that the Saints should abandon their faith, but he often urged them to doubt and question specific points, teachings, instructions, and beliefs: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self–security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:150 - see also Journal of Discourses 9:295, 11:107, 18:72)
My wife, Jill, and I have many friends that have given themselves over to questioning, and almost all of them have felt the strange compulsion to leave the Church until they have solved their questions. As far as I know, none have them have either found answers that satisfy them, nor returned to the Church. This is a topic we have often mused upon: Why do doubters feel they must leave the Church? We have arrived at several conclusions:
First is that a doubter feels like he is out of place; a stranger from the Community of the Saints. This is mostly because of our perception of those around us. When we come to church, we look around and see that everyone looks perfect. They are perfectly dressed, perfectly coifed, and obviously their private lives are just as perfect. Even their testimonies are perfect: In the Church we customarily bare our testimony using words like “I know.” (Hearing such factual statements can be very distressing to those that don’t “know”). However, the truth is that you are not the only one. Statistics from a Church survey in the 80’s showed that a very large proportion of members had doubts or questions about one aspect of the Church or another. It is also evident that since the advent of the internet that proportion has significantly increased. So it is important to realize that our neighbors only show us what they want us see: The reality is that we are not alone. If we are brave enough to voice our concerns, we will most likely find that we are surrounded with brothers and sisters that have also been suffering in silence, but are only waiting for someone else to speak up first.
Second, if you are raised to feel that it is bad to question, any sort of questioning (and questioning is inevitable) raises feelings of guilt. Guilt is one of the most diabolic of all emotions, because the defense mechanism for dealing with guilt is to attempt to escape (Alma 12:14), so when you find something problematic your natural reaction is to assign blame and leave, without dealing with the emotions that distract you from honest questioning. We need to dive into the Church, not out of it. Find some aspect of the Church you are comfortable with, that you can dedicate yourself to, be it service, or family history, et cetera, and anchor yourself there while you deal with the parts that are difficult.
We must disabuse ourselves of the ingrained idea that it is somehow sinful to doubt. We are taught, and accept without question, that we should ask about the truth of positive gospel experiences (Moroni 10:4); why do we shy away from asking about difficult or negative things? Doubting truly is okay: Joseph Smith once responded to a situation in which a man named Elder Pelatiah Brown was criticized for speaking about his struggle to understand some of the symbols in the Revelation of John. He said: "I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine." (History of the Church 5:340)
“For Joseph Smith, then, settling a doctrine once and for all was not nearly as important as spiritual questing; each person united around certain principles, but then reaching and stretching toward God.” (Francis L. Menlove “The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-Day Saints”)
One of the most beautiful aspects of the Gospel is that it is better understood and lived through questions than through blind obedience to dogmas.
We need to begin looking at doubt as something positive. If we do so, our doubts cease to cripple us, and instead lead to questioning, studying and searching. Searching leads to mental and spiritual stimulation, and stimulation leads to growth. And growth is a sine qua non of salvation.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf said that “It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.” (“Come, Join With Us”, October 2013 Ensign)
Doubt spurs us from complacency to insight and growth, from child-like acceptance of the Gospel as we learn it in Primary and Seminary, to a mature salvific faith.
We often hear the phrase “milk before meat” (D&C 19:22) as an excuse to turn away from hard questions. However, it should be evident that as a child is weaned from milk as it grows, so too our experience in the Gospel must not remain in an infantile state if it is to lead us into a communion with God. Remember that church manuals are published with a target audience of members of one year only. This way they reach the lowest common denominator. Of course, in a world-wide church, this is both needed and wise, but it means that if we settle for the information in the manuals, we will be hard-pressed to reach spiritual maturity.
So if our doubts can lead to the spiritual growth necessary to unite us with our Heavenly Father, we can say that doubt is a gateway to the Atonement. Both positive doubt and the Atonement are principles of transformation and learning. The Atonement is much more than we often give it credit for. The common understanding is that the Atonement is something of a cleanser, designed to wash away the twin effects of physical and spiritual death. While this is true, it limits the full capacity of the Atonement. It does clean us, as hot soapy water scours a vessel clean, but being an empty vessel is not very useful. The vessel must be filled with good things. Our spiritual quest, and the learning and education earned thereby, are those good things. “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130 18-19) This is how we become like and one with God. (Moses 4:28)
Joseph Smith expanded on this idea: “Here, then, is eternal life--to know the only wise and true God. And you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves--to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done--by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” (King Follett Discourse, Times and Seasons, 5:612-17, emphasis added)
This kind of learning and growth come to us via the Holy Spirit. (John 14:26) The Holy Spirit quickens us (D&C 33:16), and no man can see God except he is quickened by the Spirit (D&C 67:11). Parley P. Pratt, in his book “Key to the Science of Theology” wrote that the Holy Spirit exerts a purifying influence on us, and this is how we become like God. We have access to the Holy Spirit through the Atonement. Without it we would be cut off forever, because our nature as sinful fallen beings cannot be entirely ameliorated without divine intercession. Atonement provides the way to Eternal Life. Since the glory of God is intelligence (D&C 93:36), and it is impossible to be saved in ignorance (D&C 131:6), we come to the conclusion that pursuing the questions our doubts raise is an essential aspect of the Atonement. In my experience and opinion, it is the pursuit, or quest for knowledge that opens our minds and spirits, and is actually more salvific than the actual answers we may or may not obtain.
I think it is obvious that we can approach doubting in either a positive or negative way. It may be useful to compare two stories from the New Testament. First is the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20. Thomas was absent when the risen Lord first showed himself to the Apostles. When they told him what had happened, he doubted what he was told, and refused to make a faith in something greater than him part of that doubting. Just as so many of us do, he put his faith only in his own poor flawed and easily deceived senses, saying he would only believe if he could not only see, but also touch the wounds of the resurrected Lord. Testimony earned this way is as weak as the physical senses needed to obtain it.
On the other hand we have the story of the two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. These two men also had their doubts about the Resurrection, but were willing to voice their concerns and try to reach an understanding through sharing and discussion. As they walked and talked they were joined by a third man who, after they told him their concerns, provided them with possible answers they had never considered. They were so excited that they persuaded him to stay and eat with them so that they could continue the discussion, which he did. But as they ate, they realized that the stranger was Jesus himself. Their faith-based pursuit for answers led them to sup with the Lord, and they afterward acknowledged that they had had a life-changing spiritual experience that went far beyond a simple answer to their doubts.
Too often, our primary reaction when doubts surface is to react in ways that hurt rather than help us. One reaction is to retrench, digging our heels in and refusing to look or admit that there might be a possibility that our former views or beliefs are wrong. This is like the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. Another reaction is to latch on to any new and controversial information without question, abandoning our former position for the novelty of the new. This is like throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
An example of these reactions could be seen with the appearance of the infamous Salamander Letter. There were some who were willing to spend large amounts of money in order to purchase it and hide it away. On the other side were those who cried “Everything we know about the beginnings of Mormonism is wrong!” Both sides looked rather foolish when it was revealed that the true author of the letter was not Martin Harris, but the master forger Mark Hofmann.
We must always use critical thinking skills when we approach a new problem. We must thoughtfully question all of our own biases that might be influencing our interpretations. We must examine all of our a priori assumptions, as these are the most deeply rooted, and therefor the ones least likely to be questioned. (Many of our views were established by philosophers and theologians thousands of years ago, that served their world view, but may not truly fit in ours). We must also try to understand the biases of the source of the problematic information. Always question, always study, and always be open to the possibility that your current paradigm may not be sufficient to solve the problem, but that there may be another paradigm that is. And all of that evaluation must be coupled with meditation and prayerful contemplation: If we are looking for spiritual information, we should be primed and in a position to receive it.
Above all, we must be patient, slow to claim we have an absolute answer, and be willing to accept that some answers may never arrive in this plane of existence. A common metaphor for a crisis of faith is the “Long Night of the Soul.” Just like staying up all night, waiting for the dawn, if we persevere, we will often be surprised with the appearance of the morning light that creeps up on us unaware. But that long night is just that: Long.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf said: “Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.
Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction. Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the “facts” really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.” (“Come, Join With Us”, October 2013 Ensign). Remember, as Paul said, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12), and it is perhaps somewhat foolhardy to trust to our own perceptions and intelligence as Thomas did.
We should put ourselves in a position where questioning can lead to revelation from a higher source than ourselves. “We are prone to say that we are waiting on the Lord to receive light and truth when, as a matter of fact, the Lord is waiting on us—waiting for us to get into condition so he can reveal the light we seek and so desperately need.” (Hartman Rector, Jr. “Ignorance is Expensive” June 1971 Ensign)
Questions lead to choices. Choosing to maintain faith while questioning takes courage, but it will be rewarded. If you will allow me, I would like to share a personal story: My job as a rare book conservator has continually placed me in an environment to be confronted with historical documents and collectors that raise the kind of doubts I have been talking about. For several years I worked with a friend who ran into the same doubts as I did, and at the same time. I saw how he stumbled on every hurdle, and his doubts led him further and further from first the Church, and then the Gospel, to eventually become entirely lost and confused, “tossed to and fro, . . . with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). I realized that if I didn’t want to end up in the same sad position, I would have to be proactive and deal with my doubts and concerns. And so I swallowed the bitter pill all at once: I began by doubting the Book of Mormon as a historical document, then the veracity of Joseph Smith as a prophet, through the existence of Jesus and the Atonement, the Creation, the Fall, and all the way to the nature of God. In the end, I said to myself that I was okay, and would survive if all of that were false, but there was one thing I could not deny: I had a personal relationship with deity (whatever that word meant), and that same deity had a relationship with me. From that point I slowly built back my testimony on each point. My understanding of each of these points is different - richer and more mature - than it was before, but I must admit that there are still questions I have not resolved, and I am still patiently searching for answers. I need to say, however, that I do not allow those gaps in my understanding to obfuscate my enjoyment of and participation in either the Church or the Gospel. Since that time, I think I have run into nearly every possible doubt out there, and, unlike my friend, each one of those doubts has driven me further into, not out of, my testimony and faith.
Historian Terryl L. Givens created an admirable essay called “A Letter to a Doubter” in which he writes: “Modern revelation, speaking of spiritual gifts, notes that while to some it is given to know the core truth of Christ and His mission, to others is given the means to persevere in the absence of certainty. The New Testament makes the point that those mortals who operate in the grey area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences.
“Peter’s tentative steps across the water capture the rhythm familiar to most seekers. He walks in faith, he stumbles, he sinks, but is embraced by the Christ before the waves swallow him. Many of us will live out our lives in doubt, like the unnamed father in the gospel of Mark. Coming to Jesus, distraught over the pain of his afflicted son, he said simply, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Though he walked through mists of doubt, caught between belief and unbelief, he made a choice, and the consequence was the healing of his child.”
I testify that if we actively and faithfully pursue our doubts, we too, as Peter, will end up embraced in the arms of the Christ, filled with His love, and thankful for the struggle that led us there.
Joseph & Jill Adams
April 27, 2014