59306

Elder Bruce C. Hafen: Dealing with questions and doubts about faith

by | Nov. 23, 2020

This is the first part of a four-part series from Elder Bruce C. Hafen about helping those who may be dealing with questions or doubts based on Faith Is Not Blind, the book he and his wife, Marie, co-authored. This series is adapted from an address Elder Hafen gave to religious educators. 

The Church Board of Education’s 2019 “Guidelines for Strengthening Religious Education” include the following new language among the “purposes” of religious education: to “strengthen [students’] ability to find answers, resolve doubts, respond with faith, and give reason for the hope within them in whatever challenges they may face.”1 

Why do the Brethren feel we need this new guideline? President M. Russell Ballard told us why in his candid 2016 talk about teaching Latter-day Saint students in the internet age—a savvy, loving, and helpful message that deserves rereading. A key sample: “Today, what [our students] see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting. Many of our young people are more familiar with Google than they are with the gospel.” Therefore, “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.”  

We do need to help each other with this important but sensitive subject. Although Latter-day Saint young people show higher levels of Church activity than those in other religions, we still lose a significant share.2 One large survey of local Church leaders found recently that nearly all of those leaders have family members or friends who have experienced some kind of faith crisis—and most of them think we haven’t provided adequate information and training to help each other address such challenges.3  

Marie and I share your passion for the youth of Zion. That’s why we, like you, have been so distressed to watch at close range as the internet culture, despite its enormous blessings, has become a carrier of a kind of spiritual virus, infecting and disorienting too many younger—and older—Latter-day Saints.

Given that common concern, we'd like to share some of what we’ve learned from these projects about how to mentor students in “looking forward with an eye of faith” (Alma 32:40) when they confront unsettling questions.

Faith Is Not Blind: Origins and Approach

Origins

The perspective reflected in Faith Is Not Blind and its related projects had its genesis in a 1963 BYU religion class called “Your Religious Problems,” which was taught by West Belnap, then BYU’s dean of Religious Education. I met my wife, Marie, in that class. (Can you imagine your students in half a century still drawing actively on what they learned in your classroom? They just might.) Brother Belnap took the first class hour to share his own personal religious problem: “How can I obtain the gift of charity?” He was surprisingly frank, and what he shared about his search for charity was truly moving. Then he asked each of us to submit a short paper saying how we would resolve his question. That format became the pattern for each of us: pick a question that matters to you, do research on it, then lead a class discussion about it. Then we all wrote about how we’d resolve the concern. 

The class was always open, compassionate, and faith-affirming—an edifying combination—even though the discussions included such mind-stretching topics as plural marriage, race and the priesthood, criticisms of the Book of Mormon, Church history, Joseph’s teachings, Brigham’s teachings, and how to live the gospel more fully. Brother Belnap wanted us to find our own answers, but he knew just when to give us a helpful nudge. 

Often after class, a few of us would keep talking out into the hallway and across the quad. Marie and I were both in that spontaneous little group, and our gospel conversations have continued ever since—culminating with our decision to write Faith Is Not Blind together.

If we could have lunch with each of you about today’s typical faith-crisis issues (which we would enjoy doing, because we actually would like to hear your thoughts; and we wouldn’t ask you to submit a paper; well . . . maybe we would!) and if you were to ask what we have learned in the last 57 years that might help your students with this topic, we would probably hand you a copy of Faith Is Not Blind. Then we’d explain that after prayerfully wrestling with various approaches to the book, we consciously chose not to probe much into the debates about specific Church history or other issues. We decided that the best we could offer those who are struggling and those who want to help them is a fresh overall perspective and a pattern for working through their own faith challenges. In that sense, the perspective you convey and your attitude about what happens in your classroom and in your counseling about these issues is probably more important than the details of what you say. 

One reader of Faith Is Not Blind said the book isn’t primarily an apologetic attempt to defend faith, even though our bedrock commitment to the Restoration is clear throughout it. This is because, as Clayton Christensen wrote in his review, Faith Is Not Blind is similar to what he did in his classroom teaching: “Instead of telling students what to think, I try to teach them how to think [so they] can come up with solutions on their own.” So, he said, Faith Is Not Blind provides “a simple but powerful three-stage framework that you can apply on your own as you come across unexpected [faith] challenges.”  

As I share the book’s basic principles with you here, I hope to show how the process of working through questions and doubts can help us to develop our faith. However, we don’t celebrate doubts in and of themselves; the end goal of discipleship is not to become a doubting Thomas. As Jacob Hess put it, some writers today try to “valorize doubt as a higher state of enlightenment compared to Church members who are supposedly not insightful enough to confront the truth with integrity.” But, Hess writes, Faith Is Not Blind goes a different direction. It “gently but firmly” points the way through doubt “and beyond it” to “a clearing where the mountain pass opens up into a beautiful valley.” It does this by creating a context where people can “navigate their complexities with wisdom and calm”—a place where “questions may be metabolized—digested, processed enough to move forward, if not with their questions all resolved, then no longer weighing on their back heavily.”4 

The book also has an autobiographical feel to it, beginning with my own early navigations through uncertainty. When I was 19 and about to leave on a mission, I was stuck on the difference between knowing and believing. I couldn’t honestly say, “I know the gospel is true.” I knew some people expected me to say those words. But, in good conscience, I could only say, “I believe it’s true.” Yet I also believed my faith would grow toward knowledge—which it eventually and surely did, in all the ways Alma 32 said it could.

I have since decided that, at that age, I didn’t have the words to express my faith adequately. The distinctions among knowing, believing, doubting, and wondering are not trivial. But those distinctions are often unclear because our experience is larger than our vocabulary. And when our once-untroubled faith abruptly confronts questions that leave us speechless, even temporarily, our faith can seem not only blind but dumb. Even our spiritual growing pains can make us wonder if something is wrong. But we probably just need more experience and a better vocabulary informed by that experience. 

As time went on, I found that “knowing” and “doubting” are not the only alternatives. Nor is it enough to just decide if one is a “conservative” or a “liberal.” Such polarizing contrasts not only don’t help us, they often interfere with genuine spiritual progress. They can also keep parents and children or leaders and Church members from listening to and understanding each other. Too often, young people and other members ask sincere but too-skeptical questions—while their parents and leaders give them sincere but too-vague or too-rigid answers. So the book’s purpose is to offer to anyone who has a faith challenge, but especially young people, some words, stories, and concepts that, we hope, describe a pattern that leads to confidence and trust in the Lord and His Church. 

Our hearts go out to those whose faith becomes unsettled by information, people, or experiences that seem to cast doubt on their beliefs. But encountering such surprises and uncertainties can actually be part of faith’s natural growth process. We have lived through many such surprises, and we’ve found that working through such opposition is the only way to develop authentic, well-tested spiritual maturity. That is why the English poet John Milton could not “prize a cloistered virtue”—an untested, untried virtue that “never sees her adversary.” True faith is not blind. Rather, true faith sees and overcomes her adversary.5 

So our focus in Faith Is Not Blind is on how we can learn from our experiences with uncertainty and opposition, rather than being upset or disillusioned by them. We do care a great deal about the historical and intellectual issues that trouble some Church members, but we believe it helps most to step back and see the process of working through those issues as part of a larger process of both intellectual and spiritual development.

Many of you already help your students see through the lenses of such long-term perspectives. You already know how to help them navigate the naturally rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood. And with the language and insight of your own spiritual growth experiences, you can mentor them to see with the eye of faith for the rest of their lives.

Approach

Now let’s look more specifically at the book’s three-stage process for dealing with uncertainty. This model, which is the book’s core concept, is described more fully in chapter 2, “The Simplicity beyond Complexity.”  

When we’re young, most of us tend to see life in idealistic terms. As we grow and gain experience, however, we begin to see that there’s a kind of “gap” between our idealistic assumptions and what often happens in real life—a natural tension between the ideals of the gospel and life’s realities. Think of it as a gap between what is and what ought to be. 

As time goes on, we tend to see more of the gap—perhaps we discover some human limitations in those who have been our heroes, like our parents or an admired friend or leader. Maybe an important prayer goes too long unanswered. Perhaps we run across puzzling new information about some unfamiliar incident in Church history. The MTC appropriately teaches a positive, idealistic vision of missionary work—but the reality of daily life in a strange country with a new language and an inexperienced companion can disappoint those high expectations. Because we are all human, nobody’s “real” is unfailingly consistent with one’s “ideal.” 

How can we deal with this “gap” in a productive way that helps us grow? The American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes gave us a framework for our three-stage pattern when he said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity. But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Holmes’s insight suggests to us that well-tested spiritual maturity naturally develops along these lines.

Stage one is the “simplicity before complexity,” when our faith is innocent and untested by experience. “Ye receive no witness,” wrote Moroni, “until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Stage two is “complexity,” when we encounter a trial of our faith and the gap between the real and the ideal. Here we may struggle with many forms of uncertainty and opposition. Stage three is the “simplicity beyond complexity,” when we learn from experience how to develop a settled, informed, “tried and true” perspective—a new simplicity more grounded and realistic than before. 

Consider three examples. We once attended a fast and testimony meeting in the women’s section of the Utah State Prison. One woman stood before her fellow inmates and said with tearful honesty, “When I was a little girl, I used to love to bear my testimony. I’d run up to the pulpit and say, ‘I love my mom and dad. I know the gospel’s true. Heavenly Father loves me. Jesus suffered for my sins.’ Then I’d run back to sit by my mom and life was good. But now, after all these years, I know in a very different way. The gospel is true. Heavenly Father loves me. Jesus suffered for my sins. And now I know what those words really mean.” She was discovering the simplicity beyond complexity. 

At age 18, Holly was extremely active in the Church. Then someone convinced her that a certain doctrine was wrong, and that threw her so far off course that she resigned her Church membership. A few years later, her college roommate was taking the missionary lessons. Holly sat in. Her heart was touched, and she decided to pray for the first time in years. As soon as she said, “Heavenly Father,” she began to cry, feeling a tender connection with the Lord that she came to call “the closeness.” As that close feeling kept growing, her stubbornness softened into trust; and eventually, Holly was rebaptized. She was finding the simplicity beyond complexity. 

Adam and Eve’s experiences follow this same pattern. In the Garden, they had agency, but their faith was innocent, not yet tested. They began to experience complexity as soon as they tasted the fruit—and the complexities mushroomed when they were cast into the thorns and tears of a sometimes brutal, mortal world. But eventually, they discovered the meaning of faithfully dealing with all that opposition. When the angel came to teach them the plan of redemption and the centerplace of Christ’s Atonement in that plan, Adam and Eve “got it”—they saw purpose in their Fall, in their anguish, and in their sacrifices. So Eve “heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption” (Moses 5:11; emphasis added). She was discovering the simplicity beyond complexity.

As these experiences teach, a life of faith amidst opposition is intended to help our students and all the rest of us navigate our complexities, discover inspired solutions to our own problems, and thereby build our trust and confidence in the Lord and His Church. When we thus learn how to keep our own faith, our faith will keep us—as we discover “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding [and] shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). 

Lead Image: Shutterstock

Image titleWe often encounter unexpected questions and complexities that can challenge our faith. Faith Is Not Blind offers fresh concepts and tools that will help readers learn from these experiences, rather than feeling disillusioned by them. Available now at DeseretBook.com




Notes

  1. Church Educational System, “Guidelines for Strengthening Religious Education in Institutions of Higher Education” (unpublished document, 12 June 2019).
  2. John Gee, Saving Faith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2020), 20–21, 289.
  3. David B. Ostler, Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question (Sale Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 14–16.
  4. Jacob Z. Hess, email to Bruce C. Hafen, 9 April 2020.
  5. John Milton, Areopagitica (1644).
Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com