How we deal with our brothers’ and sisters’ questions and doubts in the Church today is one of the most pressing tests of our collective discipleship.
Hans Mattsson was a third-generation Latter-day Saint, a senior priesthood leader who spent decades serving and defending the church. He and his wife raised their five children in the gospel, and the family was a pillar of the church in Europe. Because of his leadership position, other members would often come to Mattsson with questions. Some of their concerns were based on troubling information they found on the Internet that seemed to contradict what they had heard about church history and doctrine.
Mattsson originally dismissed the online material as lies. He reached out to other church leaders for their assistance in responding to the members’ doubts but did not receive any answers that satisfied him. So he began his own investigation. He realized that some of the claims he had previously dismissed as baseless propaganda were supported by credible historical evidence he had been unfamiliar with. The doubt that he had worked to dispel in others now began to overcome him.
“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” he said. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.” Repeated efforts by other church leaders and historians did not assuage his sense of betrayal, and he soon left church activity.1
Half a world away, in Utah, another member was similarly struggling with his faith after learning about certain events in church history that he had never heard about despite a lifetime of church activity. At a priesthood leader’s suggestion, he called a scholar who was also serving as a bishop and complained, “How could I be a high priest and serve all these years and never know this?” The two talked for a long time that day.
At the end of the experience, the questioner chose to remain in the church. His questions were not fully resolved. The bishop-scholar didn’t have any magic words that made his concerns immediately disappear. But the bristling sense of betrayal the man harbored at the beginning of the conversation was gone. He felt valued. He felt like he was heard. He felt like he had a place to go, a place to stay.2
Experiences like this have been repeated numerous times throughout the church in recent years. Although the experiences are as unique as the individuals who have them, there are enough recurring patterns that people have come to describe and understand the phenomena in terms of “faith crisis.” That umbrella term is certainly too broad to fit every case, but it is an unavoidable fact that the language—and for many the experience—of faith crisis has become a recent fixture not just for Latter-day Saints but also in the broader American and European spiritual landscape.3
After having spent time in the scholarly trenches with many if not all of the issues that typically trouble people, and as one who has had countless conversations with those who feel their faith is teetering on the edge, I can strongly assert that the challenges are real and that most of the people who face them are earnest. I also affirm that there are good answers to be found, and the conversations are worth having. How we deal with our brothers’ and sisters’ questions and doubts in the church today is one of the most pressing tests of our collective discipleship.
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Anatomy of a Faith Crisis
For much of its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was fairly parochial. Isolated primarily in the American Intermountain West, church members got most of their religious information from materials published and distributed by the church and its leaders. Divergent views were easily dismissed as “anti-Mormon.”
All that has changed in the past two decades. The online information explosion has exposed the now-global community of Latter-day Saints to a wider range of available facts about their religion and its past. For some, this has been exhilarating, since it has provided enhanced access, with incredible speed, to an avalanche of information about the restored church’s history and scripture. For many, though, this improved access has proven to be destabilizing, disorienting, or even corrosive to their faith.
Every person’s set of troubling questions is different, but many of the same difficult historical and doctrinal topics come up over and over again. These include polygamy, the race-based priesthood-temple restriction before 1978, women and the priesthood, the translation or historicity of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, the existence of multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, and the church’s policies and teachings about our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
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Especially when it comes to novel historical information, at first it is common for faithful church members to deny what they have read. But when they start doing more research they learn that some of the claims they have newly learned are indeed based in fact, not just scurrilous lies made up by the church’s critics. Now they’re confused and not quite sure where to go or whom to talk to in order to make sense of their troubling discovery. They might approach their bishop, another priesthood or Relief Society leader, or perhaps an Institute teacher. These trusted leaders and friends will often validate the questioner’s uncertainties as sincere. In many instances they provide answers or frameworks that reassuringly resolve the stated concerns.
In too many other cases, however, the questioner is met with searching questions about his or her worthiness, with the not-so-subtle suggestion that their doubts are really a cover for or symptom of immoral behavior. Honest questions and sincere doubts are thus equated with a lack of faithfulness. Some members have been told by well-meaning individuals that even their very questions are sinful. The questioner is counseled simply to study their scriptures more, pray harder, serve more diligently, and put their doubts out of their mind.
But it’s not that simple. Remember, most of these searchers are already active Latter-day Saints who have spent countless hours reading their scriptures, praying, and serving. They are returned missionaries, Gospel Doctrine teachers, Relief Society presidents, bishopric members. They have predicated their lives on the belief that the church is true and that it has the answers to eternity’s grandest questions. So when their church leaders and teachers don’t have good answers to their historical and doctrinal questions, it feels to them like evasive action. The questioner feels unacknowledged, unheard, dismissed.
Throughout this process, new feelings have arisen in the questioner’s heart—sometimes emerging gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes hitting immediately and like a ton of bricks. In a word, they feel betrayed by the church that they have served so faithfully for so many years. The most common question is, why was I never told any of this? They feel that the church has lied to them. Feeling that they can’t get straight answers—or worse, that there aren’t good answers to be had—they decide they can no longer trust the church or its leaders, past or present. The cords of confidence that connected them to the church have become frayed, even severed.
Understandably, family members and friends, particularly those who remain active members of the church, are concerned about the person and what his or her doubts mean for their enduring relationships. At the most basic level, friends and family members wonder what to do and say. They feel at a loss, having been rebuffed when they suggested to the person in crisis that they might consider reading their scriptures more, praying harder, and serving more diligently. What else is there?
What Not to Do
1. Don’t assume the questioner is unworthy
We must recognize at the outset that in the majority of these cases, not only is the pain and struggle real, but so are the issues. Because spiritual knowledge is prized as such a virtue in Latter-day Saint culture, doubt seems deviant, and the people who struggle with doubt are suspected of actually covering up some deeper sin or preferring to indulge some kind of lifestyle not approved by the church.
To simply assume that someone with doubts is guilty of some grave moral transgression or to cause that person to feel in any way unfaithful or unworthy merely because of his or her questions displays a lack of charity. If someone gathers enough courage to raise a question with a parent, spouse, bishop, seminary teacher, or friend and then is met with judgment or scorn, he or she will likely be left feeling isolated and alienated, with nowhere to turn other than back to the Internet.
2. Don’t dismiss concerns with overly simplistic answers
Perhaps not quite as immediately damaging, but usually just as unconstructive, is for people to take evasive action when confronted with a friend’s or family member’s doubts. A response of “read your scriptures and pray,” while certainly excellent general advice, is often unhelpful in such cases for two reasons. For one thing, chances are the person has already tried reading her scriptures and praying about her questions. For another, a formulaic answer demonstrates a lack of concern for the person and her or his actual problems.
While reading scriptures and praying are always necessary, they are rarely sufficient for the range of profound human dilemmas, whether it be financial disaster, a failing marriage, death or chronic illness, or a crisis of faith. To love others, to be in a true relationship with them, is to mourn with them when and how and where they are mourning, to comfort them when and how and where they need comfort, to know in depth and detail what their burdens are so you can help lighten them (see Mosiah 18:8–9).
Avoiding tough situations, dismissing concerns as insignificant, or giving prepackaged answers without thought or care all come off as naïve, insensitive, or uncaring. When the people we love are in pain, our first response is not to blame them or dismiss them or trivialize their hurt. We go to them. We embrace them. If words fail us, we simply sit with them, as did Job’s friends. Mostly, we love them regardless of their beliefs or place in the church.4
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Seeking the Truth, Together
Online discussions of the Church often feature many of the same falsehoods, half-truths, and statements taken out of context that have fueled the church’s critics since Joseph Smith’s time. But not everything critical of the church or its history and doctrine is a lie. Neither is it always posted with malicious intent. There are in fact troubling episodes in our past. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has noted, “There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. Theremay have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”5 There are inconsistencies and missing information and injustices that we have yet to fully grapple with, let alone reconcile. Certainly, it is important to counter misrepresentations and outright lies. But in this information generation it more commonly falls to us to come to grips with the complex realities of our past, of “things as they really are” and were (Jacob 4:13).
If you or someone you know has doubts or questions about historical or doctrinal issues in the church, there are answers to be found. Unfortunately, too many of our past answers, for instance on the priesthood-temple restriction, have been inadequate and even wrong, despite often being well-intentioned.6 But there are in fact good answers, intellectually rigorous and honest answers, faithful answers. They can be found in the Gospel Topics essays on the church’s website, in dozens of podcasts and websites and blogs produced by devoted members, and in the many books published by Deseret Book, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute and Religious Studies Center at BYU, and by a host of other faithful scholars too numerous to name here. If we live in an age of seemingly unending questions, we are also blessed to live at a time when there have never been so many good and faithful answers.
Because our knowledge is always incomplete, the answers we have will not satisfy everyone nor will they solve every problem. In the ongoing Restoration, we are learning and will continue to learn. But there are ways we can talk faithfully, constructively, and honestly about difficult things, even when our knowledge is imperfect. We can live with loose ends. We can have hard conversations. Indeed, for the sake of our sisters and brothers whose earnest desire is to find a way to remain faithful, we must have them.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from chapter 1 of Patrick Mason’s book Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. Find more information below.
- Laurie Goodstein, “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt,” New York Times, July 20, 2013. Because Hans Mattsson’s story was published with his knowledge and permission, I have not changed his name or tried to hide his identity here.
- This story is recounted in M. Sue Bergin, “Keeping the Faith,” BYU Magazine, Spring 2014.
- In my opinion, faith crisis is an inexact and inelegant term at best. I agree with Rosalynde Welch’s critique of the term: “The encounter with uncertainty is a complex experience, and we should resist the impulse to triage and label. I know that there are many Saints … who experience genuine rupture and transformation in their faith, and for them the faith crisis paradigm is a lifeline. I suspect there are others like me for whom the paradigm does not precisely fit, but who nevertheless begin to interpret their experience in terms of crisis simply because that is the available language. The language of faith crisis thus ‘overdetermines’ the experience of uncertainty, to borrow a term from critical theory: the crisis is prompted partly by an authentic personal turmoil, yes, but also by the available rhetorical frame and by the circulation of that frame in personal narrative. Ironically, the crisis formulation, in casting uncertainty as an acute episode to be resolved rather than as a long-term condition to be lived in, may best serve the perspective of those who have already found certainty, in or out of the church, and who naturally want others to cast their lot with them.” Rosalynde Welch, “Disenchanted Mormonism: Practicing a Rooted Religion,” address at 2013 FairMormon conference, Provo, Utah. Acknowledging the problems inherent in the term, then, I use it here as a convenient shorthand, not as an ideal type.
- For a powerful illustration of how these principles apply in the situation of a family member who has left the church, see Brent H. Nielson, “Waiting for the Prodigal,” Ensign, May 2015, 101–3.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013, 21–24.
In a 2007 interview for the PBS documentary The Mormons, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said that a number of explanations for the priesthood-temple ban “had been given for a lot of years,” and that “however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.” The transcript is available at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html.
The Gospel Topics essay on “Race and the Priesthood” states that “the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past” to justify the restriction, and furthermore that “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” See https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood. An earlier official church statement also condemned racism, “including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” See “Church Statement Regarding ‘Washington Post’ Article on Race and the Church,” February 29, 2012, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article (emphasis mine).