A few weeks ago, a brother stood at the pulpit in my ward in Arkansas and humbly shared his testimony. He spoke about his journey toward faith, his struggles with doubt, and his hope to keep moving forward. A feeling of love and gratitude arose from the congregation because many of us had gone through similar experiences.
A lot of us worry about doubt—what it is, what it does, and what it means in regards to our faithfulness. But perhaps the fact that we care enough about our faith to ask these questions is an indication that we are stronger than we think. In any case, if we feel that we have doubts, but that we are also trying to be faithful, we are not alone.
How can we live with doubt in faithful ways, and support others in doing the same? Everyone’s journey is different, but here are some ideas.
Respect the varying meanings of doubt.
The word doubt means different things to different people. For some individuals doubt has negative connotations, and feeling doubt is accompanied by loneliness, confusion, or fear. For others, having doubt is simply having questions, not being certain, or exploring new ideas. Perhaps we would benefit by taking the time to acknowledge our own interpretations of the word doubt. Likewise, we can allow for variety in other people’s definitions.
Here’s an interesting example: In some languages, missionaries ask the people they are teaching, “Do you have any doubts?” as a way of saying “Do you have any questions or concerns?” They aren’t asking if people believe everything they have said. Rather, they are asking if there is anything they need to clarify.
Being aware that people feel and interpret doubt in different ways can help us be more effective in our conversations, and will be reflected in our tone of voice, our reactions, and our willingness to listen.
Develop an attitude of trust in God.
Whether or not we feel like doubt is a choice, cultivating an attitude of trust in God is something we can be deliberate about. This is where doubt and faith intersect—at the juncture of not knowing or not being certain and still choosing to make the next move in the direction of God. This is Peter sinking in uncertainty but also reaching up toward the Lord (Matthew 14:28–31). This is Nephi not understanding the Spirit’s words but also recognizing that God loves His children (1 Nephi 11:17). This is Enoch feeling incapable of doing God’s work but also “standing upon the hills” and testifying “with a loud voice" (Moses 6:31–39).
An attitude of trust in God makes the difference between a paralyzing faith crisis and a progressive faith journey. Trusting God enough to move forward is acknowledging that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9) and letting that be okay for now. As Biblical scholar Peter Enns penned in his book The Sin of Certainty,
When we reach the point where things simply make no sense, when our thinking about God and life no longer line up, when any sense of certainty is gone, and when we can find no reason to trust God but we still do, well that is what trust looks like at its brightest—when all else is dark.
Similarly, in the scriptures we read, “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not" (Doctrine & Covenants 6:36). We can develop an attitude of trust by making a conscious effort to look to God—to pray and acknowledge Him, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. As this act of looking becomes part of who we are, we may discover new levels of confidence in place of doubt, and courage in place of fear.
Set gracious expectations.
Here in Arkansas, it’s common to hear friends and neighbors talk about “giving grace” to people, or in other words being gentle and compassionate in our expectations of others. In matters of doubt, give some grace to yourself and to others. Certainty is a beautiful goal, but it isn’t a requirement for faith.
Imperfect faith is still faith. By very definition, faith is incomplete, so if you feel you lack clarity and a sure knowledge, that is okay. That is faith . . . Faith is a choice to believe based on an incomplete and ever-changing body of data. Faith is saying, “Even though I am in pain, even though I am confused, even though I don’t hear God’s voice clearly, I still choose to believe.”
Sheri Dew tells the story of a friend who was questioning her faith. Sister Dew asked her friend if she was “willing to engage in the wrestle,” or in effect, to go on a faith journey. Together they studied, and gradually the friend made some meaningful discoveries. Years later, the friend said the most helpful part of the journey was the realization that having questions and seeking answers was a good thing.
Labeling ourselves (and others) as doubters is alienating, but being a seeker is empowering and hopeful. Latter-day Saint philosopher and author Adam Miller has said,
Not knowing is part of what it means to be a human being, and it’s part and parcel of being a religious person . . . To the degree that we’re compelled to search for understanding, [we will become] acquainted with all that we don’t know and learn how to trust the Lord in light of that . . . You can take that moment of not knowing as an indication that your religious experience has failed, or you can take that moment of not knowing as an indication that you are making genuine spiritual progress.
If you or those you know are among those who are examining their testimonies, it doesn’t have to be a scary experience. If we can see ourselves and others as seekers, then we can have hope that “he that seeketh findeth” (Luke 11:10) and that the result will be a more intentional, more weathered, and more personal faith.
Learn to sit with uncertainty . . . and with faith.
Building and maintaining a testimony about any aspect of the gospel can be uncomfortable during periods of questioning and seeking. Although we want the struggle to end quickly, sometimes we need to “sit with the discomfort” (to borrow a yoga phrase) in order to fully stretch to new levels of understanding. Likewise, we can “sit” with others in their discomfort by listening without judging and witnessing their struggle without trying to stop it.
It’s natural to avoid discomfort. This tendency is sometimes called “harmony addiction.” We want everything to feel good and peaceful to the point where we resist feeling otherwise, or we try to force a quick resolution. J. Scott Miller explained this in his excellent talk on doubt, “Humble Uncertainty”:
Our bias for certain [sure] knowledge can blind us to our own spiritual weaknesses as well to others’ struggles. Staring into the unknown, we may fear vulnerability so much that we ignore or even try to hide our weaknesses, restrict the range of our beliefs, and distance ourselves from those whose lives are complicated by trials and tribulations . . . we allow fear to block our progress.
Sitting with uncertainty is different from clinging to doubts. Elder Uchtdorf has taught that “we must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from … divine love [and] peace.” Indeed, we can acknowledge our uncertainties and concerns as what they are without devoting ourselves to them.
When we learn to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty for a time—to see it, study it, and work on it—then there is an opportunity for growth. Likewise, we let others stretch and grow when we allow them time and space to be unsure.
However, if we are willing to sit with uncertainty, we ought to be willing to sit with our faith as well. We can keep a strong grip on what we do know, however small that is. Jeffrey R. Holland taught,
In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited . . . The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue–it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.
If the mandate to “Doubt not, but be believing” (Mormon 9:27) feels overwhelming or downright impossible, try specifying something from your experiences with faith that you feel you can believe; for example, “Doubt not, but be believing in (fill in the blank).” It can be encouraging to write down what we know, or what we believe, or even what we desire to believe (Alma 32:27), and review it often. In so doing, we can stay focused on faith, and maintain a stronger foothold from which to manage our doubts.
Change your relationship with doubt by focusing on love.
Finally, in matters of faith and doubt, remember that love wins. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ extend their love down to us by providing comfort (and sometimes answers) in due time. We extend our reach upward by trusting in Them, and the love of others can be the glue that holds us together. We need to support each other. Church and home need to be safe places to talk about our faith. It seems obvious, but unfortunately, there isn’t always space to be uncertain without also being labeled as a doubter. As we try to see ourselves as seekers, we need to see others in the same way. “Be patient with the imperfection of your faith” and with the imperfection of other people’s faith.
For many seekers, love makes all the difference. BYU Professor George Handley has taught,
Doubts sometimes benefit from answers but most often doubt springs from fear, anxiety, abandonment, or from lack of self-confidence. For this reason, doubt is best resolved, not with knowledge per se, but in loving relationships and with experiences of God’s pure love. Enough experiences with God’s love, then, and you will realize something fundamentally good and true about the church and the gospel and also something fundamentally good and true about yourself and your life . . . God’s love increases our ability to bear contradictions, to withstand doubts, to endure suffering, and to embrace life with all of our heart.
Living with questions, uncertainties, and even doubts seems to be ubiquitous these days. Perhaps it always has been. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it signify a lack of faithfulness. Working on our testimonies—like most forms of work—is uncomfortable, time-consuming, and humbling, but a willingness to try is itself a manifestation of faith. We can live with doubt in faithful ways, graciously allowing ourselves to seek and keeping ourselves grounded in love. And we can help others to do the same.