Starving Our Doubts and Feeding Our Faith
Starving Our Doubts and Feeding Our Faith
Robert L. Millet
Robert L. Millet (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
“Doubt is a perennial problem in the life of faith,” Oxford theologian Alister McGrath observed. “Doubt reflects our inability to be absolutely certain about what we believe. As Paul reminds us, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), which has the inevitable result that we cannot prove every aspect of our faith. This should not disturb us too much. After all, what is there in life that we can be absolutely certain about? We can be sure that 2 + 2 = 4, but that is hardly going to change our lives. The simple fact of life is that everything worth believing in goes beyond what we can be absolutely sure about.”
This is a topic worthy of an entire book at least, but in this article I would like to pursue two ways of dealing with doubt: learning to manage the seasons of unrest in our lives and taking the distant view as prerequisite to eventually seeing things as they really are.
Times of Darkness
The constant companionship. Constant! That word is a bit daunting. Why? Because I know by personal experience that I do not enjoy a constant flow of revelation, a constant effusion of discernment, a constant sense of comfort and confidence, or a constant outpouring of peace and joy. While I have miles and miles to go before I rest, at least in terms of cultivating the gift and gifts of the Spirit as I should, I know something about the precious privilege it is to have the Spirit’s direction and warmth. I know something about how vital it is to avoid ungodliness and worldly lusts and how diligently I have tried to be a dedicated disciple of the only perfect being to walk this earth. I guess you could say that I really do try to keep myself going in the commandment-keeping direction, knowing with a perfect certainty that the fulfillment I enjoy in this life and the eternal reward I hope to receive in the life to come are parts of the mercy and grace promised to the followers of the Christ.
Perhaps I am the only member of the Church of Jesus Christ to experience such a thing. But I do not think so. My guess is that each one of us has our spiritual highs and lows; but these are caused not by negligence or willful sin, not by a negative attitude or a critical or murmuring disposition, not by anything we have done wrong. So what’s going on? “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The word translated here as wind is the Greek word pneuma, which may also (as in Hebrew) be rendered as breath or spirit. It is as if Jesus had said, “The Spirit goes where it will, and you can hear the sound [also rendered as voice] but you cannot always tell where it came from or where it is going. So it is with each person who has been born again.” For one thing, the influence of the Spirit of God is not under our immediate direction or control. It cannot be called here or sent there according to human whim. It cannot be manufactured, elicited, or produced whenever we as humans desire it; however, we can certainly set the stage—we can prepare properly, listen to uplifting music, search the scriptures, pray, and ask humbly for the Spirit’s intervention or manifestation. But we cannot presume upon the motions or movement of this sacred spiritual endowment. “You cannot force spiritual things,” President Boyd K. Packer explained. “Such words as compel, coerce, constrain, pressure, demand do not describe our privileges with the Spirit. You can no more force the Spirit to respond than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before its time. You can create a climate to foster growth; you can nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: You must await the growth.”
In October of 2000, I experienced something I never had before—I went into a deep depression for several months. Oh, I’d had a bad day here and there before, had known frustration and disillusionment like everyone else, but I had never been trapped by the tentacles of clinical depression so severely that I simply could not be comforted and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. For days at a time I only wanted to sleep or gaze at the walls and be alone. For weeks I felt as though I was in a closed casket, a prison cell that allowed in no light or sound whatsoever. I prayed. Oh, how I prayed for deliverance! I sought for and received priesthood blessings. I counseled with my friends who had known such pain and alienation from firsthand experience. One physician described my condition as “depletion depression,” meaning my body, my emotions, and my mind had chosen—whether I liked it or not—to take a vacation from normalcy. I had been driven for too long and could no longer live on adrenaline. I clung to my wife and children. I read the Liberty Jail revelations from the Doctrine and Covenants over and over, holding tenaciously to the words, “Thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment” (121:7). Again and again I pleaded with my Heavenly Father, in the name of the Prince of Peace, to lift the pall, chase the darkness away, and bring me back into the light. It was so very dark and lonely out there!
That is to say, there is a mental or intellectual component to spiritual living that is in many ways just as important as the emotional component. Sometimes God tells us in our minds, sometimes in our hearts, and sometimes in both (see D&C 8:2–3; 128:1). To take another example, I found as a priesthood leader that it was not uncommon at all to work with a person who had been involved in serious transgression and then watch with sheer delight as changes took place in their bearing and their behavior as the light of the Holy Spirit returned to their countenances. They were forgiven. The sin was now behind them. And yet they themselves could not let it go, could not forgive themselves, and strangely, sought to respond more to some sense of personal inner justice than to the workings of the Spirit and the word of their ecclesiastical leader. In many interviews in which I counseled such individuals to not look back and to move on with their lives, I found myself reading the following profound lesson from the Apostle John: “If our heart condemn us”—that is, if our overactive conscience continues to plague us after a remission of sins has been granted—we should remember that “God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things” (1 John 3:20; emphasis added).
Seasons of Unrest
In 1948 she received permission from her local authorities and from Rome to assume a different role as a nun—to go out into the streets; to visit the homes of the poor, the starving and emaciated, the sick and the dying; and to deliver to them tenderness and food and love and a kind word, including the word of salvation found in and through Jesus Christ. She had felt a specific call from God to do this in 1946. After establishing the congregation or ministry known as the Missionaries of Charity in 1948 and being named as its overseer under her local bishop, Mother Teresa’s work expanded and grew to fill the earth, and the poorest of the poor in many lands received the comfort, peace, sustenance, and dignity to which each person is entitled as a child of God. She continued her work, driven and directed by that charity that flows from heaven, until her frail and spent body gave up the ghost in 1997, leaving behind a legacy of love that will forevermore be celebrated. That’s the story.
Her season of unrest of almost fifty years actually caught her off guard; it was something that she had never anticipated in her wildest imaginations. And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of the doubt and the pain and the agony of loneliness—in spite of what she did not feel—she knew in her mind that God loved her, was reinforcing and upholding her, and would stand by her. In time she came to realize that her sufferings were divinely orchestrated by God to allow her to more closely identify with those she served—the lonely, the confused, the starving, the downtrodden—to allow her to know something of their pain. And with greater maturity she also came to know that her torturous personal agonies had been put in place to humble her, to drive her to her knees, to cause her to trust implicitly in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to allow her a glimpse into the nature of her Redeemer’s passion, his alienation, his rejection, his emptiness during the hours of Gethsemane and Golgotha. She became a fellow traveler on the road of pain, one who participated in the fellowship of his suffering.
David C. Steinmetz has written:
From time to time everyone endures a barren period in the life of faith. Prayers bounce off the ceiling unanswered. Hymns stick in one’s throat, and whatever delight one once felt in the contemplation or worship of God withers away.
In such circumstances Christians should “do what is in them”—that is, they should keep on keeping on. They should keep on with their prayers, their hymns of praise and their daily round of duties. Even though it seems like they are walking through an immense and limitless desert, with oases few and far between, they plod on, knowing that obedience is more important than emotional satisfaction and a right spirit than a merry heart.
To such people, “God does not deny grace.” They live in hope, however, that sooner or later the band will strike up a polka and the laughter and the dancing will start all over again. But if it does not—and it did not in Mother Teresa’s case—the grace that was in the beginning will be at the end as well. Of that, one can be sure. . . .
She did not abandon the God who seemed to have abandoned her, as she very well might have done. By doubting vigorously but not surrendering to her doubts, she became a witness to a faith that did not fail and a hidden God who did not let her go. That is what sanctity is all about.
If a person received direct heavenly guidance in every aspect of their lives, Elder Orson Pratt asked, “Where would be his trials? This would lead us to ask, Is it not absolutely necessary that God should in some measure, withhold even from those who walk before him in purity and integrity, a portion of his Spirit, that they may prove to themselves, their families and neighbors, and to the heavens whether they are full of integrity even in times when they have not so much of the Spirit to guide and influence them? I think that this is really necessary, consequently I do not know that we have any reason to complain of the darkness which occasionally hovers over the mind.” Similarly, Elder Richard G. Scott stated that we should take heart when no answer comes after extended prayer. “Be thankful that sometimes God lets you struggle for a long time before that answer comes. Your character will grow; your faith will increase. . . . You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust.”
A Time of Decision
I decided when I was very young that I would observe the Word of Wisdom all my days, that I would abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and habit-forming drugs. My wife and I made a decision before we were married that our marriage would best be visualized as a triangle representing Shauna, Bob, and the Lord. Our individual lives and our marriage would belong to him. We decided that we would welcome children into our home, pay a full tithing, be active and involved in the Church, and accept and magnify callings. We have been married now for a little less than forty years and, despite the challenges and pain and vicissitudes of life that inevitably come to every marriage, ours has been a happy union. We have had our differences, our disagreements, our divergent views on things; but the idea of throwing in the towel and choosing to divorce has never been an option. We feel the influence of that Holy Spirit of Promise to whom it is given to bind and seal couples and families for eternity. We made an eternal decision. We have stuck with it. And that has made all the difference.
Not long ago I was in conversation with a friend of another faith. She began to ask about my impressions of some anti-Mormon videos on the Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham that had recently been released. I indicated that I had seen them and put them away. She asked, “Bob, this doesn’t cause you to wonder if you’re believing in a fairy tale?” “Of course not,” I replied. “This doesn’t make you doubt that Joseph Smith was a true prophet?” she inquired. “Not in the slightest,” I said. She then added, “I just don’t understand you!” Later that night as I laid in bed, I rehearsed that conversation, which reminded me of the one I had thirty years earlier. I asked myself: Why am I not unnerved by attacks on the Prophet Joseph, the Church, or its teachings? Why don’t these things challenge my mind or get to my heart? I wasn’t sure.
Elder Andersen continued:
The cause in which we are laboring is true. We respect the beliefs of our friends and neighbors. We are all sons and daughters of God. We can learn much from other men and women of faith and goodness. . . .
Yet we know that Jesus is the Christ. He is resurrected. In our day, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the priesthood of God has been restored. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Book of Mormon is what we claim it to be. The promises of the temple are certain. . . .
It’s true, isn’t it? Then what else matters? . . .
How do we find our way through the many things that matter? We simplify and purify our perspective. Some things are evil and must be avoided; some things are nice; some things are important; and some things are absolutely essential.
Then came the following words, words that have changed my life and provided answers to the question, Why doesn’t anti-Mormonism affect my faith? “Faith is not only a feeling,” Elder Andersen taught, “it is a decision. With prayer, study, obedience, and covenants, we build and fortify our faith. Our conviction of the Savior and His latter-day work becomes the powerful lens through which we judge all else. Then, as we find ourselves in the crucible of life, . . . we have the strength to take the right course.”
Now, I suppose some would respond that I am either living in denial or am simply naïve about troublesome problems. I assure you that I am neither. I am a religious educator, have been so for over thirty years, and am very much aware of seeming incongruities that pop up here and there. I spend a good portion of my time with people who are of different faiths, and some of them are ever so eager to bring to my attention questions intended to embarrass me or the Church. There are just too many things about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that bring joy and peace to my heart, light and knowledge to my mind, and a cementing and sanctifying influence into my family and my interpersonal relationships for me to choose to throw it all away because I am uncertain or unsettled about this or that dilemma. To put this another way, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Many years ago I attended a symposium where a number of presentations on Mormonism were made, some of which were fairly critical of our faith and way of life. One man, a convert to the Church, spent the first two-thirds of his talk quipping about all of the silly, nonsensical, embarrassing, and even bizarre things that had happened to him since becoming a Latter-day Saint. The crowd roared. The laughter over the Church and its programs was cruel, painful to hear, and continued nonstop for almost an hour. And then the speaker became very sober and said, in essence: “Now all of this is quite hilarious, isn’t it? There are really some dumb things that happen within Mormonism. There are matters that for me just don’t add up, un-Christian behaviors that really sting, and situations that need repair. I think we all agree on that. But now let me get to the meat of the matter: I have spent many years of my life studying religions, investigating Christian and non-Christian faiths, immersing myself in their literature, and participating in their worship. I have seen it all, from top to bottom and from back to front. And guess what: there’s nothing out there that will deal with your questions, solve your dilemmas, or satisfy your soul. This gospel is all there is. If there is a true church, this is it. And so you and I had better become comfortable with what we have.” He stepped down from the podium as silence reigned in the room. His message had struck a chord.
Some have wandered away from the Church because they did not exercise the kind of faith that required a decision. Consequently, when something went wrong or something else didn’t seem to make sense, they chose to avoid Church meetings and eventually the Church.
“Faith is basically the resolve to live our lives on the assumption that certain things are true and trustworthy,” Alister McGrath has written, “in the confident assurance that they are true and trustworthy. And that one day we will know with certainty that they are true and trustworthy.” Have you made a decision? Have you made the decision? Have you sought for and obtained a witness from God that the work in which we are engaged is heaven-sent and thus true? If you have not, remember that such a quest is foundational to your future happiness and peace. Pursue it with fidelity and devotion. If you have received such a testimony, cherish it, cultivate it, and ask the Father in the name of the Son to broaden and deepen it. Then make the decision. Such a decision is a surrender to what you know in your heart of hearts to be true, even though you cannot necessarily see the end from the beginning.
 John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 31–33.
 Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ (New York: Doubleday Galilee, 2002), 79.
 Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie: Doctrines of the Restoration, ed. Mark L. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 125.
 Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946), 5. See also Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:44.
 Boyd K. Packer, “That All May Be Edified” (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 338; emphasis in original.
 Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 139.
 Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1–2.
 St. John of the Cross (1542–91) spoke of “the dark night of the soul” through which one passes as a part of the divine purification that brings about a union with the Lord; see his Dark Night of the Soul, trans. and ed. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1959).
 Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa, 33.
 David C. Steinmetz, “Growing in Grace,” The Christian Century 124, no. 22 (October 30 2007), 10–11; emphasis added.
 Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 15:233.
 Richard G. Scott, “Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” Ensign, November 2007, 8–11.
 Neil L. Andersen, “It’s True, Isn’t It? Then What Else Matters?” Ensign, May 2007, 74–75.
 See, for example, Neal A Maxwell, “Why Not Now?” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 12.
 See Boyd K. Packer, in Conference Report, October 1977, 89–92; October 1987, 17–21.
 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 149–50.
 Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing through the Uncertainties of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 27.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.