Editor’s note: Dr. Debra Theobald McClendon is a clinical psychologist who specializes in scrupulosity, a religiously themed subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is the first in a series of three articles discussing McClendon’s thoughts on how anxiety impacts a personal faith crisis and how individuals can navigate their anxiety with faith. McClendon was also a guest on LDS Living’s All In podcast. You can listen to the podcast and find more resources on the topic here.
Through my professional experiences, I am intimately involved with the many types of anxiety that plague some stalwart, dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ. I have found that when someone uses the term “faith crisis,” two things are generally true. First, someone is questioning their religious belief. Second, they are experiencing intense emotional distress and anxiety over their questioning. By discussing anxiety’s role in a “faith crisis,” my hope is that readers may gain insight to help themselves and their loved ones on their journey through faith.
Not all faith questions need constitute a “faith crisis.” We need not be afraid of our questions, but can journey with them as we seek to address them with honest intent. In this article, I discuss five points to consider when exploring doubts from a faith-based perspective.
1. Faith Is the First Principle of the Gospel
Faith is foundational to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. Faith means you don’t know everything right now, but you choose to believe (Mark 9:24). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the plan of salvation is “a system of faith—it begins with faith, it continues by faith, and every blessing which is obtained in relation to it is the effect of faith, whether it pertains to this life or that which is to come. All the revelations of God bear witness to this.”1
In other words, you not only have God’s permission to live by faith, He requires it! Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated: “In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited. ... When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.2
2. Faith Is a Principle of Action
Faith is not only the first principle of the gospel, it is the first principle of life. Lectures on Faith states: “Faith is the moving cause of all action.” 3
In working through concerns of faith, keep in mind that you cannot avoid living by faith. You simply choose where to place your faith. It takes faith to live the gospel every day. What may not be as clearly recognized is that it takes just as much faith to walk away and choose to go down another path. You cannot escape acting in faith, for every act is an act of faith. President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand.”4
3. It’s Natural to Ask Questions
It is natural and healthy to ask questions and explore doctrines, principles, and concerns in the process of discipleship as a believer in Jesus Christ and as a member of His Church. As a section in the Gospel Topics reminds us, “the Restoration of the gospel began with Joseph Smith asking a sincere question in faith.” To be thoughtful about our discipleship is not only okay, it is critical in the day in which we live. We cannot be passive.
Church leaders have assured Church members that their questions are welcome. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have stated: “We understand from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding.”5 Elder Holland has stated: “Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.”6
4. Patience and Acceptance of the Journey
Allow your faith journey to be exactly what it is at any given moment, honestly and openly. This will work to quiet anxiety and will be more productive in the long run as you work to find solutions to your concerns.
For example, musician Michael McClean shared his story of what he called a 9-year “faith crisis.” The pivot point in his story is the moment when he gave up trying to force himself to feel a certain way:
So I got on my knees ... and I said, “I don’t know if you’re hearing this. I’m going to quit whining and moaning about this. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to trust that there’s a reason that I can’t feel your presence. There’s a reason that I feel so abandoned. I’m going to trust that you’re smarter than I am, that you get this better than I do, and ... at some point you’ll communicate with me and I’ll feel your love, and I won’t feel so lost.” I hadn’t given up hope, but I’d given up trying to make myself feel something or to say what’s wrong with me.
After this moment, his healing began. This story illustrates how giving up efforts to control or force one’s feelings and instead allowing them to be what they genuinely are in the moment helps create an open-heartedness that can allow the Spirit to work with us. Trying “too hard” to generate certain feelings generally serves to shut them down.
5. Explore Faith with Faith
In 2013, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then a member of the First Presidency, taught:
There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.7
I remember experiencing a deeply significant gospel concern in my teenage years. I felt a ton of negativity about the issue—I felt bitterness and anger; I felt betrayed and marginalized; I was cynical and sarcastic. I fantasized about leaving the Church and wondered if I would choose to do so when I was older. Yet, I continued to live the gospel and hold to my covenants, eventually serving a full-time mission while I sought to find the answers to my concerns. Even though I felt frustrated that the answers I wanted were not readily apparent, I decided to be patient and thoughtful about how to address my concerns.
Being the “nerd” (said with pride!) that I have always been, I was driven to do research to try to find answers. This was before the days of easy access to data on the internet. I had to do it the hard way. In the Book of Mormon, Moroni exhorts us to “search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil” (Moroni 7:19). I did just that. I read every Church publication that I could find that had any (even tangential) relationship to my concern. During my college years, I ended up in some very obscure locations in the basement of the Brigham Young University library looking up some very obscure references.
I allowed the process to be what it was naturally, rather than trying to force the issue. However, that doesn’t mean I was passive; I worked hard! I pondered, explored, read, questioned, and worked on this issue for months at a time. I discussed my thoughts and findings with those I trusted. I wrote about it. I read what I had written and pondered some more. Then I would leave it for a bit to simmer on the back burner of my mind. Months later, I would pick the issue up and start working on it again. I did this off and on again for a period of eight years!
What I learned not only taught me that my particular concerns were misguided, it helped convert me to the very depths of my soul and deepen my loyalty to my Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
I paid the price and I came to know for myself. President Russell M. Nelson recently said: “the Lord loves effort, because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it.”8 You, too, can have this type of soul-expanding, faith building experience as you explore and journey through your questions of belief.
We’ll explore more about anxiety in my article, “Are you experiencing a faith crisis? Here’s what may actually be playing a role,” where I’ll be discussing how to recognize and resist the presence of anxiety in one’s faith journey.
- Joseph Smith, Jr. Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 97–80.
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013, 93–94, italics in original.
- Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, p. 8.
- President Spencer W. Kimball, “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1988.
- First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles letter, June 28, 2014, from “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!” President M. Russell Ballard, October 2014.
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2013, 93–94.
- President Dieter F. Uchtdorf,“Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013.
- President Joy D. Jones, “An Especially Noble Calling,” Ensign, May 2020.