In recent years, news headlines have trumpeted those who, for one reason or another, have criticized their Mormon faith or have abandoned it altogether. Some of these stories, filled with contentious sensationalism, have become fodder for skeptics and critics of the Church. Using either loud, bombastic language, or an alluring voice that poses as intellectual superiority, these cynics all suggest, in one way or another, that either the Mormon Church, its leadership, its teachings, or its culture—or all four—are false.
Whatever their method of communication, the overarching theme is not news. The battle between faith and doubt is one that has raged for as long as man has had the agency to choose. It is a story as old as time. In fact, the battle between faith and doubt is the story upon which Mormonism is founded.
If you’re struggling to have faith, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Most people—if not all—will struggle to know what is right and what is wrong. Furthermore, finding faith is not a one-time event, but a journey that requires us to constantly be willing to move forward—and moving forward in the absence of certainty is not the easiest thing to do.
Before we get into Joseph Smith’s personal journey, we must first understand a few things about faith itself. In the Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith said:
“…faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen, and the principle of action in all intelligent beings. If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thought and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them; that without it both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.”
Whether you know it or not, you exercise faith every minute, of every hour, of every day. When you flip on a light switch, you exercise faith that a light will come on. When you drive a car, you exercise faith that you will not get into an accident. Eating, breathing, and moving forward in life all require some degree of faith.
To put it bluntly, faith doesn’t just precede the miracle—faith precedes LIFE! James Stephen noted that “in nearly all the important transactions in life, indeed in all transactions whatever which have relation to the future, we have to take a leap in the dark,…to act upon very imperfect evidence…I believe it to be the same with religious belief” (From The God Who Weeps, pg. 3).
But in order for faith to even exist there “must needs be…an opposition” (2 Nephi 2:11)—namely doubt. The ability to exercise faith would not be possible without an equal measure of doubt. Anyone who has lifted weights knows the value of opposition: the more you exercise your muscles against resistance, the stronger you become. And just as you can’t become strong in the absence of opposition, you cannot grow faith in the presence of overwhelming evidence. Terryl Givens put it this way:
“There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with 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” (From The God Who Weeps, pg. 4).
Doubt—opposition to our faith—actually gives us the ability to strengthen our faith. So keep in mind that if Lehi’s formula of opposition is true, then opposition will grow in proportion to our faith. Ironically, the more we increase in faith, the more our faith will be tested and opposed. It’s a law of nature that must be observed.
Please understand that doubts are NORMAL. Faith would be meaningless without the existence of doubt. If you feel like you’re the only one that has doubts, don’t. Everyone has doubts. Even the prophets.
Abraham doubted God’s promise that he and Sarah would have children (Genesis 17:17), and questioned God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). Moses doubted that God could help his “slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10-16) and Enoch had similar feelings (Moses 6:31). Mary and Martha had seen many miracles but doubted that their brother could be raised from the dead (John 11:39). Peter walked on the water, only to give in to the waves (Matthew 14:30-31). Thomas doubted the words of his fellow apostles and required evidence before he could believe (John 20:24-29). Nephi doubted God’s command to slay Laban (1 Nephi 4:10). Joseph Smith lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon because he feared man more than God (D&C 3:7-8).
No one is exempt from doubts, questions, or even a crisis of faith. Everyone experiences moments that test their faith; moments when the reason of the world is seemingly incompatible with faith in God (The Infinite Atonement, pg. 110). But our moments of darkness and doubt are the very things that make our journey of faith all the more valuable and meaningful. We do not truly love something unless we sacrifice for it.
Perhaps, no one knows more about the struggle of faith than Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith. His own doubts about religion led him on a spiritual journey—a journey that we all, in one way or another, must eventually confront.
I. Know the Desires of Your Heart
“I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God” (Joseph Smith History 1:15).
First and foremost, the journey of faith requires you to honestly ask yourself the desires of your heart—if you even want to believe. If you don’t want to believe, then nothing that you read from this point on will be useful to you. Your desire to disbelieve will crowd out any reasons to believe. Your skepticism will arrest anything to do with faith and interrogate it with extreme bias, searching for lies and ulterior motives. The ability to believe is often halted by the desire to disbelieve.
So ask yourself if you really want to believe. Honestly consider the value of doubt over the value of faith. Do you really want to know the truth of all things, or are you secretly hoping to prove something false for some kind of personal victory?
II. What Are You Listening To?
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they wrong all together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (Joseph Smith History 1:10)
Ultimately, my own struggles with faith came down to the voices I listened to; the voices to which I subscribed. While contending with my doubts, I searched for answers in both extremes of Mormonism (the far right and the far left). In one instance, I attended classes offered by a man who claimed to teach things that “the Brethren couldn’t teach because they’re too busy with other things.” With vigor and a tear-stained testimony, he denounced certain “movements” within the Church and loosely backed up all of his claims using various quotes which had been given by the Brethren under wildly different circumstances. He concluded his classes by asking for “donations” to help further his cause (that’s called “priestcraft,” by the way). These classes did not increase my faith, they doubled my doubts and increased my questions.
At another time, I listened to a group of people who “intellectually explored” the various facets of Mormonism. Using inquiry laced with cynicism, they dug up and examined many issues concerning Church history and culture, under the pretense that they wanted to hear both sides of these issues. Most of their conclusions were rooted in the idea that hopefully, the Church would start doing things the right way (which translated into “Doing things the way we think they should be done.”). Interestingly enough, this group also asked for donations.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to matters of faith, it’s always good to study things out and learn as much as you can from different people. Thomas Jefferson once said: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
But as you question “with boldness,” always check the voices to which you are listening. Check them for a bias, check them for an agenda, and check them for lies. Do they preach love and harmony? Or are they stirring up contention? What is their motivation? Are they trying to build Zion by building others up, or are they trying to build their own kingdom and influence by tearing others down? Do they inspire you to love God and serve him?
“…wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God” (Moroni 7:13).
In the midst of my doubt, I realized that I had been paying more attention to the loud and contentious voices of men, instead of listening for the quiet, loving voice of God.
III. The Answers Are Found in Simple Things
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James…It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.” (Joseph Smith History 1:11).
For some reason, the nature of mankind is to make things more complicated (just look to government as an example of this). We think that the answers are found in seminars, discourses, lengthy books, programs, laws, scholarly studies, or in political movements. The truth is that the answers to the most complex questions can be found in very simple things: being honest, forgiving each other, spending time with family, serving our neighbor, or peacefully reading and reflecting upon the ancient wisdom of the scriptures.
When the noise of the world fades, and you find a quiet moment to yourself, read the words of Christ and honestly ask yourself if His teachings make more sense. Ask yourself if the world would be a better place if the people in it embraced the gospel of peace taught by Christ. I guarantee that an hour of sincere, scripture study will yield more answers and greater peace than an hour spent debating doctrines, quarreling over culture, or procuring problems that never were.
IV. Ask of God, Not of Google
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).
In my interview of Al Fox (the Tattooed Mormon), she said something so simple, and yet so completely profound that I can honestly point to it as the reason my faith was reignited. She said that when problems, doubts, and questions arise, “don’t go to the internet,” she then pointed up. “Ask Him.”
It’s true. Throughout scripture, God has repeatedly requested that we ask Him—that we bring our questions and our concerns to him. Our entire religion is founded on the account of a boy that asked of God. After listening to “the war of words and tumult of opinions,” Joseph Smith went into a quiet grove and prayed to learn the truth from God. President Uchtdorf said it this way:
“What about doubts and questions? How do you find out that the gospel is true? Is it all right to have questions about the Church or its doctrine? My dear young friends, we are a question-asking people because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is the way the Church got its start—from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question. Whenever a question arose and Joseph Smith wasn’t sure of the answer, he approached the Lord, and the results are the wonderful revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. Often the knowledge Joseph received extended far beyond the original question. That is because not only can the Lord answer the questions we ask but, even more importantly, He can give us answers to questions we should have asked. Let us listen to those answers” (Source: Reflection in the Water).
The most important part of our spiritual inquiry is to whom we submit our questions. Joseph Smith learned it early on. Ask of God.
V. What Should We Have Faith In?
“One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith History 1:17)
When Joseph Smith had his First Vision he was immediately directed to the Savior to receive the answers for which he was looking. My favorite quote on faith comes from President Boyd K. Packer:
“You exercise faith by causing, or by making, your mind accept or believe as truth that which you cannot, by reason alone, prove for certainty. The first exercising of your faith should be your acceptance of Christ and His atonement” (Source: Personal Revelation: The Gift, The Test, and the Promise).
As Mormons, we have been taught “that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (Articles of Faith).
That very phrase was written by the Prophet Joseph Smith. I want you to process that for a moment, because the point I want to make is very important: We are asked to have full faith and confidence in Jesus Christ, his atonement and his teachings. We are not asked to have the same level of faith in another person, cultural establishments, political movements or causes, or even parts of Church History. I have a testimony of many of the events that occurred in Church History (the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, the Restoration of the Priesthood, the Kirtland Temple, ect.) but I don’t base my faith on my personal understanding of those historical events, nor do I base my faith on others’ interpretations of those events.
Because history—or our society’s understanding of historical events—can, and often does, change. Men and women are always rewriting history to make it fit the story they want to tell (just look at how politicians can take a current event and twist it to support a cornucopia of contradictory viewpoints).
No. What I know, I know from careful, personal study and from asking God to help me understand the things I don’t know.
This aspect of our journey of faith is very similar to Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. In it, followers of Jesus Christ are led to the Tree of Life (the Salvation of God) by holding fast to a rod of iron (a symbolic representation of the word of God/doctrines and principles we are to live by). True followers of Christ cannot cling to anything else for salvation; they cannot cling to Church History, political movements, social movements, or even another person. Though we may help each other along the road, the pathway to the Tree of Life is a deeply personal experience. And those who let go of the rod of iron—in order to latch on to something else—will become lost in mists of darkness.
VI. A Pillar of Light
“Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me…I saw a pillar of light.” (Joseph Smith 1:20).
True conversion, or enlightenment, is as a pillar of light that dispels darkness, confusion and doubt. This fact is attested to in one of the most beautiful conversion stories in all of scripture. Overcome by the spirit, the once wicked King Lamoni collapsed to the ground “as if he were dead” for three days (Alma 18:43). The missionary Ammon (who had a powerful conversion of his own) testified that:
“…the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from [King Lamoni’s] mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul” (Alma 18:6).
King Lamoni awoke from this experience a converted man, now fully knowing the difference between darkness and light. But the illumination that he experienced is not something that is unique to Mormons.
C. S. Lewis, the great Christian theologian, was one who also experienced this “marvelous light.” He describes his conversion as feeling as though he had “passed from dream to waking.” He later added, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (Source: “Is Theology Poetry?” 1945).
After the death of his mother, C. S. Lewis had become an embittered atheist and an ardent critic of Christianity, struggling with complex questions about the existence of God. With the passage of time (and with the gentle prodding of his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien), Lewis’s atheism evolved into agnosticism. One night, Lewis finally “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
But the real turn in his faith came during an obscure moment, while on a trip to the zoo:
“I know very well when but hardly how the final step was taken. I went with my brother to have a picnic at Whipsnade Zoo. We started in fog, but by the end of our journey the sun was shining. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is now awake” (Source: The Question of God).
VIII. Learning for Ourselves
“I then said to my mother, ‘I have learned for myself’ (Joseph Smith History 1:20).
So to those of you that are struggling with your crisis of faith, I commend you for having doubts and questions—it means you’ve started on the journey of faith. As with Joseph Smith, each of us must learn for ourselves. Your questions are more likely to lead you to your own “pillar of light” than is passive reliance on another’s testimony.
But like Joseph Smith, we must also learn that ultimately, the answers to our deepest questions do not come from another person, but from God. Whatever questions and doubts you may have, I invite you to learn for yourselves and do as James and Joseph Smith direct.
That is, ask of God.
- Lord, I Believe: Help Thou My Unbelief – In April 2013, Elder Holland gave a masterful sermon on holding true to what we know in the face of everything we don’t know. Absolutely beautiful.
- Holding Fast: Dealing with Doubt in the Latter Days – This book by Robert Millet (a fantastic speaker and writer) was recommended to me by one of my best friends. It’s been very helpful.
- Becometh As A Little Child – In April 1996, Elder Maxwell (one of my favorite authors) gave a talk on maintaining faith in a world of increasing secularism.
- When He Stopped Believing – A woman talks about how she lovingly dealt with her husband’s loss of faith.
- Mormons Seek the Truth of Their Faith Through Christ – In a simple and succinct blog post, Jesse Stay writes about how our faith is comparable to a seed and how we should test that seed to sample its fruits (whether they be good or bad).
- Mormon and Modern – In a press release, the Church describes how Mormons can be faithful in the secular age. Within that article is this little gem: “All understanding, whether spiritual or rational, is worked out in constant questioning and discovery.”
- The Reflection in the Water – In this wonderful talk, President Uchtdorf covers a lot of ground. Towards the bottom of the article are two bullet points (“Can I Remain Faithful” and “Is it True?”) that I’ve found particularly helpful.
- I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church – The title of this article sounds controversial, but it’s really not. It makes total sense. We are not asked to have a testimony of the History of the Church—we are asked to have a testimony of the Restored Gospel. Very enlightening article.
- To the 78 Percent – In a magnificent, authentic sermon (given at a ward in Oregon), Heidi Harris speaks directly to the likely 78% of those that are struggling with faith. Such a beautiful read.
- If you have any more positive, LDS resources on faith and doubt, please let me know and I will add them to this list!