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.