Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
The Gift of Doubt

The Gift of Doubt


Almost a decade ago, I was in Normandy.  I was three months into my mission, and I was feeling good about myself—my French was decent, the branch seemed to like me, and my mission president trusted me enough to let me train a new missionary. I also knew what I was doing as a missionary (bearing testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ) and why (because I knew it was true).

My new companion got really sick, and we couldn’t leave home for a couple of days.  Since I had just finished reading the Book of Mormon, I decided to test Moroni’s words and pray about the book’s authenticity. I had done this before—back in young women’s or primary—but I could not remember the details of what God had or had not given me in response.  Why not do it again?

I had complete confidence that Heavenly Father would affirm to me that the Book of Mormon contained the words of Jesus Christ. Perhaps my prayer was too nonchalant because of that. Much to my surprise, I felt nothing at all after my first request. So I prayed a little harder and with more earnest. Once again, I felt nothing. I started to panic.  I tried again and again, ultimately pleading for God to fulfill Moroni’s promise.

I never got a response.  And instantly, my happy missionary-world where I knew what I was doing and why began to crumble around me. If I was uncertain about whether the Book of Mormon was from God, perhaps there were other parts of our doctrine that I did not know were true either.

So I decided to start from the beginning.  Still on my knees and in tears, I asked if there was a God and if He or She was hearing my prayer. Immediately, I felt blanketed in warmth, as though there were actual arms surrounding me. In that moment, I knew God was my Heavenly Parent and that He (or She??) was listening.

In retrospect, I feel very fortunate to have had an undeniable, sensory encounter with the Holy Ghost. This doesn’t come to everyone. And it certainly does not happen in response to every question asked. It just isn’t God’s way. He wants us to appreciate our doubts and struggle with our questions. Not because he is mean. But because doubt can be the predecessor of our most meaningful beliefs.

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.”

In his book called, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” Eugene England points out that our universe is full of polarities: Justice vs. Mercy; Reason vs. Emotion; Freedom vs. Order; Individual Integrity vs. Community Responsibility; Achievement vs. Humility.  Similarly, the gospel is not a simple and clear set of unequivocal principles.  And he suggests that we are intended to grapple constructively with the oppositions of existence.

If God were to clear up all inconsistencies for us, we would make no meaningful choices for ourselves. England argues that the Church provides the context for “struggling with, working through, enduring, and being redeemed by our responses to those paradoxes and oppositions that give energy and meaning to the universe.”

In practice, the Church is not always the best place for expressing doubt or uncertainty about a seemingly inconsistent point of doctrine. You know the reaction: She must not be obedient enough.  His testimony is weak.  She has too little faith.  He is going down the wrong path.  Church members prefer to use rhetoric of certainty and thereby eliminate opposition “…with dogmatism or self-righteousness or a retreat into the innocence that is only ignorance, a return to the Garden of Eden where there is deceptive ease and clarity but no salvation.”

This attitude in the Church may have given rise to the “bloggernacle” where people can bring their questions and uncertainties and find refuge with others who are questioning. I appreciate these on-line forums—I am currently writing for one of them!—and yet I hope that the church itself will eventually replace or at least join them as a safe place to struggle.

The Gift of Doubt

We know from the Doctrine & Covenants that God has given each of us a gift by the Spirit of God. Some men and women are given the gift of knowing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Others are given the gift of believing on the words of those who know. This second group’s “gift” is a lack of capacity to know, or in other words, the gift of doubt.

I never would have considered this if not for Terryl Givens. He spoke with his wife, Fiona, at a small gathering last week here in Southern California.  He explained why doubt is an extremely valuable gift: it is a precondition of meaningful choice. After all, we are constantly faced with evidence that either does or does not support belief. Givens said that faith is to choose a reasonable belief in the face of reasonable doubt.

This was eye-opening.  It brought me back to that time on my mission when I prayed to no avail about the Book of Mormon. Naturally that experience created substantial doubt in my mind. And yet I also had substantial evidence that the book was from God. In that instance, I chose to believe.

A decade later, I still cannot say unequivocally that I know the Book of Mormon is true, cover-to-cover. But my belief has become stronger, as I have read and studied and worked for it over time, “fanning the flame of faith,” to use a phrase from Elder Holland. There are plenty of other questions that I am grappling with, many of which may only be resolved after this life. But I will not let this make me feel any less valuable a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead, I will hope that any increase in faith I do obtain will be more meaningful because of my doubt.


  1. Beautifully said. I appreciate your mentioning Eugene England’s “Why the Church is True as the Gospel”—I used to give out copies of that essay to members of my ward when I was a Bishop–timeless.
    I also believe the BOM is “true” but what it means to be “true” from my personal perspective has changed over the years. My father often said the BOM is like a Liahona –“it changes its meanings over a lifetime of living and pondering..”
    The picture of Normandy reminds me that I need to take my wife to France for a visit.
    thanks Sarah.

    1. Sarah Gubler

      Thanks, Ron. Great to hear feedback from not just any former employer, but one who I have increasing admiration for. I love your anti-war, pro-peace efforts (I’ve followed a little on Facebook). And yes, you should definitely take your wife to Normandy. Hope you’re doing well.

    1. Sarah Gubler

      I believe that God (who we pray to, who created heaven and earth, among other things) is my Heavenly Father. And yes, that makes Him a HE. I also believe that we have a Heavenly Mother. In the experience I recounted above, I felt a loving embrace that was impossible to attribute to one Heavenly Parent or the other. Regardless, it was wonderful.

      Thank you for your question.

    2. Steve In Millcreek (SIM)

      With age and wisdom, markey fingers’ question, (4/28/2013, 750am), about God’s gender has become progressively unimportant, obscure, nebulous. We mere mortals tend to think in black-white terms, wanting strict male or female polarity. I am confident that:

      1.) If God is male, He can also scrapbook, iron and sew, and bake quiche, crepes and all manner of fine culinary dishes; and
      2.) If God is female, She can also manage any motley construction crew while simultaneously running all manner of power tools to build dams, bridges, towers, homes and cities.

      In other words, He/She/They are awesome; and unencumbered by human’s myopic occupation with the dictates of America’s pop culture, product advertising, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, or any other limiting human construct.

  2. Steve In Millcreek (SIM)

    Thanks for your candor, Sarah.

    I feel that “the gift of believing” has been given second-class status to “the gift of knowing”; as too many people imply that knowing reins wholly supreme. Terryl and Fiona recently spoke in podcast to the larger Mormon audience; and, like you, their words gave me pause. I too was thoughtfully moved when Terryl said that faith is to choose a reasonable belief in the face of reasonable doubt; and my reflection continued through much of my gardening time last Saturday. Perhaps it was my college path in the physical sciences that revealed my “believe first” gifts amid growing academic wanting of physical evidence to knowing.

    I feel that “believing gifts” can stand above “knowing gifts”; and I see an example that illustrates that point within your last two paragraphs. You said, in part, “… I prayed to no avail about the Book of Mormon. Naturally that experience created substantial doubt in my mind. And yet I also had substantial evidence that the book was from God. In that instance, I chose to believe. – A decade later, I still cannot say unequivocally that I know the Book of Mormon is true, cover-to-cover. But my belief has become stronger, as I have read and studied and worked for it over time…”

    Sarah, as I consider the words of people who say they “know the Book is true”, I wonder what they really mean in their statement. On the most orthodox edge of the spectrum, are they saying that it is a historical record written by infallible scribes (i.e., Nephi, Alma, Mormon, Moroni,..) of the doings of rival factions (i.e., Nephites, Lamanites,..) overseen by a mix of faithful and unfaithful war generals and government magistrates; and that our modern world will unfold in the same way? And trending toward the less-orthodox edge of spectrum, do their ‘knowing gifts’ delineate if and where storied accounts speak metaphorically while teaching valued principles and life messages through fictional persons within the Book? Must a book be historical non-fiction in order to be true? When knowing-gifted persons says that they “..know it is true”, are they speaking of historical accuracy, its principled messages, or both? Expanding further, are they speaking of the Book’s 19th century arrival through Joseph Smith to us today? I further wonder if the telling of its arrival be accurately told by us and our full-time missionaries as an extension of “the truth of the Book itself?”

    I ask to enlighten, not confuse; and I sincerely want to know correct answers to those questions. However, like you, I am a believing-gifted person which allows me to cut through questions in the above paragraph and acknowledge that I feel good about core messages taught in the Book regardless of its literal or metaphorical origins. So, it that regard, I can tell my congregation that “I believe it is true” and that “I believe it is of God.”

    1. Sarah Gubler

      Thanks for your input, Steve. Like you, I definitely feel that the gift of BELIEVING (and not knowing) can stand above the gift of KNOWING. I think Alma, chapter 32 even suggests the same thing. A lack of knowledge motivates a person to continue the search for evidence to support belief, which is an extremely valuable process. Whereas knowing something outright may lead one to “neglect the tree,” so to speak, or to stop seeking enlightenment.

      Also, like you, I have always found that stating that the Church is TRUE, or the Book of Mormon is TRUE, or whatever else is TRUE, begs a lot of questions. (It is strange that in my post, I used the very wording that troubles me so often!) Because yes, there are many ways to interpret it. Personally, I have doubts about the most orthodox version of the book’s truth–that it is a historical record written by infallible scribes. The narrators of the book (Nephi, Mormon and Moroni) don’t feel totally trustworthy, especially in depictions of themselves. But I do believe that those same, fallible narrators have recorded true, saving principles of the Gospel. When I was a missionary, it felt like the truth that we were trying to convey was that the Book is of God. It seemed like a good, fundamental place to start. Anyway, I bet there are many people who don’t know exactly what they mean when they simplify something really complex and big, like the Church or the Book of Mormon, down to one adjective: TRUE. It would have made more sense in my post to articulate what still makes me uncomfortable about the Book rather than using such vague phrasing.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Erin

    Hi Sarah,
    I really enjoyed your thoughtful post. There was a talk about doubt in our stake conference the other week and it was so refreshing to hear something like that over the pulpit. I do think that church is becoming a safer place to talk about difficult issues. Also, I was glad to read something from an old friend from Vegas! Miss you and your family.

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