“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” — Dostoevsky
Many of the questions we receive at Normons deal with the tension between faith and doubt: if we ever doubt and to what degree, why we doubt, if ever talk about our doubts, and how those doubts can be overcome. These are important questions, in no small part because of how personal they are to those that voice them. And as someone who has also seriously grappled with this very topic, rest assured: practicing Mormons are no exception.
It’s true: faith is hard. Faith is hard because life is hard.
Faith asks us to trust in things we don’t fully understand. It invites us to walk a path through darkness with the promise of eventual light. In many cases, this journey begins with bright resolve: torch in hand, we march boldly down our dimly lit road, positive that our next guidepost lies just around the bend.
But the journey is rarely so simple. Darkness is an unnatural setting for us. Testing winds may cause the confident flame that illuminated our path to flicker. Sometimes our flame goes out, and we must inch our way forward with our hands and feet, unsure of what lies ahead, when the next spark of light will come, or where it will ask us to go. Falling and scraping, we soon realize that this road of “faith” is fraught with more difficulty than we signed up for. Our once bright resolve dims without the nurturing light we believed we were promised. We may even question if we’re on the right road at all.
At times, a flash of light so clear and unmistakable makes our route obvious, and its kind afterglow propels us onward with renewed courage. Most of the time, though, the light is just bright enough to see a step or two ahead. After all, faith is “not to have a perfect knowledge of things” . Its promises are “hoped for … not seen” . At its core, faith is an exercise in trust. And in order for us to reach our destination, we must devote ourselves wholly to accepting faith’s terms.
Doubt, on the other hand, is easy. Doubt is easy because life tends to complicate many of the things we once thought were certain.
Some doubts, like when we doubt ourselves, are there simply to cause trouble. We feel uncertain, and this uncertainty leads to insecurity — a mentality based less in reality and more in fear. Sometimes we feed and water and nurture these doubts to the point where they become real. We give them root in our minds, and eventually the roots reach so deep with their hooks and barbs that they keep us from moving forward and living our lives. These doubts act as a distraction from the simple truths right in front of us. They take over our thoughts, casting a dark shadow over the plain and precious things we know we can rely on, and drowning out the feelings of peace they once provided.
Yet many doubts are of a different nature altogether: they are honest and reasonable questions brought about by new information. These doubts are built on valid inferences drawn from raw, sometimes unsettling data. Perhaps we’d never really looked closely at something before, and our first careful analysis reveals deeply troubling truths that we’re scared to face. Perhaps these facts simply blindside us when we’re not looking. But the facts are there, and they are true whether or not we want to believe them, and they can make us feel uncomfortable. They lay demanding issues at our feet. And whether they result in dozens of individual questions or culminate in one giant question mark, they challenge the trust that we had so tightly clung to, standing defiantly at odds with some aspect of a foundation we thought was sure.
Such was my experience. Years ago, I underwent a prolonged and deeply agonizing “dark night of the soul”—a time in my life when the house of testimony I had labored so diligently to build began to suddenly and frighteningly collapse. Brick by brick, things I had “known” for years started to crumble, leaving only a musty powder of sadness and confusion. I felt like a powerless observer, a defeated witness to the mechanical disassembly of something I once held so dear but could never get back. I ruthlessly scrutinized the veracity of literally everything I had ever believed or been taught. Doubt had not only reared its head, it had consumed and paralyzed me.
In the words of Alma, my soul was racked with eternal torment. And sadly, this strain between between my faith and my doubt was only intensified by the way we sometimes view the two. In the Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith taught, “Where doubt and uncertainty is, there faith is not … for doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time.” Taken at face value, these words seem to paint faith and doubt as utterly incompatible, as if we can only have one or the other but never both. We may feel that if we doubt, we are doing something wrong, or that something is wrong with us. We see our questions as a sign of weakness—as if they would magically disappear if we could simply muster stronger faith.
But such an interpretation ignores the real nature of doubt, and it cheapens the real strength required by faith. In his moving article, “Arriving Where I Started,” author Boyd Peterson comes to a startling realization that reshapes his entire view on faith and doubt — the same realization I came to during my time of deepest despair: that the true beating heart of faith is the same beating heart of love. He writes:
“I came to understand that if I employed the same qualifications I was using to think about my testimony of the Church to think about my relationship with my wife, our relationship would fizzle. In fact, I would have no relationships at all.”
“Like the Church, my wife has changed over the years. She is not the same woman I married, and, frankly, I would be bored and unfulfilled if she were. I certainly don’t feel that she deceived me because I didn’t know everything about her when I married her, and I have never felt betrayed when I discovered more about her. Some of the things I have discovered might have been apparent had I known to look, other things she may have purposefully kept from me, and still others she may not have even been aware of yet herself. Yet it has never bothered me that my understanding of her continues to evolve. So should I feel betrayed when I discover new things about the Church or start to understand how it has evolved?”
“I had to admit that I didn’t really know who she is any more than I know who I am. In fact, part of what I love about her is the very mystery of her self—the fact that, even after almost thirty years of marriage, I cannot completely predict what she will do or say. I am quite frequently awestruck by the many dimensions of [her] that I continue to discover.”
“There have been times when, like the Church, [my wife] has disappointed or even hurt me. But if I’m honest, I must admit that there have been even more times I have disappointed or hurt her. I know my commitment to the Church—to fulfill my callings and live righteously—has also been less than perfect. Nevertheless … I have developed into a better person not simply because of the joy both relationships have engendered but also because of the pain of self-revelation and repentance they have forced me to confront … My love for my wife not only remains but deepens over time. In fact, the very trials of our relationship over the past almost-thirty years have, I believe, deepened and purified that love.”
My doubts were piercing and they were significant. But despite this raging inner storm, I didn’t stop attending church. I didn’t leave or give up on the path I had set out on. I stayed. My doubts didn’t disappear, but I continued to give the gospel a chance because I really, truly loved it. Although I could no longer say the words “I know” as I had before, there were still things I believed in, and things I hoped for. I still loved the person the gospel made me, and how it transformed me, deep down in my bones. I loved that it made me feel full in a world where so much left me feeling empty. I loved so many things about it, even though there were a lot of things I was unsure of. Certainly, loving something doesn’t affect its truthfulness. But for me, this love was reason enough to keep pressing on, despite my lack of understanding. It was reason enough to take up my torch and seek to understand.
“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” Real love is patient. It acknowledges doubts, risks, misunderstandings, flaws, and mistakes, and it does not run when they come. In the words of Adam Miller, “it invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet … You may fall in love with someone because of how well they complement your story, but you’ll prove yourself faithful to them only when you care more for the flawed, difficult, and unplotted life you end up sharing with them.”
A Journey Worth Taking
As it is with love, so it is with faith. Doubts will find a way in, after 20 years of testimony or after 30 years of marriage. You will be disappointed. You will question. You will wonder. You will crawl in the dark and you will stumble, often through no fault of your own. You will be wrong, and in being wrong you will ask yourself what else you could be wrong about. Doubt is not a sign that you are weak; it is a sign that you are human. And to be sure, many of your doubts will carry real substance: they will act as a signal that something in your life or faith needs to be adjusted. It can be difficult to discern exactly what that adjustment should be or how to go about it. In such cases, you must remain flexible. That way doubt can mold your faith by perpetually grounding it in the pursuit of what is true.
But as in real committed love, real committed faith recognizes that there are very few truly irreconcilable differences. This type of faith teaches you which doubts to confront and which to set free. It focuses not on the changing sights along the path, but on the path itself, and where it leads. It reminds you why you set out on the path in the first place. Eventually, it will provide you with the light you need to keep going. And in those brilliant, fiery moments of light, faith becomes easy.
Over time, I have rebuilt my house of testimony. Many of the old bricks have been discarded, and with good reason. New ones have been fashioned in their place. And many of the house’s details are markedly different than before. But in all honestly, the foundation of my faith has never felt more authentic or secure — thanks, strangely, to what I learned from having to rebuild it.
So no matter where you are along your path — wondering whether to continue on or whether to even get on in the first place — understand that every worthwhile journey leads directly through doubt’s shadow, and do not shy away when the difficult moments come. When necessary, let your doubts file down the edges of your faith that need refinement, then resume your course with an improved perspective. And let love and truth be your guides.
At times your journey will feel effortless, and at others it will feel impossible. But above all, if the seed is good, your journey will be worth it.