Of Doubt, Faith, Questions, and Choices
By Ken K. Gourdin
Many of those who lose their faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in his gospel would have us believe that they had no choice in the matter: confronted with this or that factoid about history or doctrine which didn’t match their perception of the gospel, they had no choice but to leave. To the contrary, however, however sound the proffered reasons, they leave not because forces outside themselves propel them out, but rather because they choose to do so. Little (if anything) else can explain why so many others who have confronted such factoids choose, instead, to stay.
Indeed, doubt and faith do not simply creep up on one who is unaware and snatch him away like a thief in the night. They are choices. I believe, not because my parents or my teachers or my friends believe, but because I have chosen to believe. And, along with anyone else who has made that choice, must make it again and again when confronted with any new information (whether positive or, purportedly, negative) about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While some may withhold their commitment because of unanswered questions, I’m not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ because I have had all of my questions answered about it. Are there incidents in the Church’s history, or doctrines, or practices, about which I wonder—about which I have questions? Sure there are! I don’t know how one could be a member of the Church and have a reasonably-well-functioning brain and not have questions about it, no matter the state of one’s conversion. Perhaps I was simply blessed with an especially gullible, believing heart. The Doctrine and Covenants calls such a believing heart a spiritual gift, and perhaps I was simply given the gift described in section 46, verse 14:
13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
This is not to say that one should lay all of one’s questions aside and join the Church irrespective of whatever doubts may linger. I do believe that oftentimes, the best converts are the hardest ones. I recently attended the baptisms of the parents of a friend of mine who had joined the Church some years before. His parents had been through the discussions no less than eight times! I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s much of anything in the way of negative information about the Church which they possibly could encounter as members that they hadn’t already encountered in the course of such a long conversion process.
On the other hand, The Book of Mormon prophet Alma recognized that remaining converted is an active process rather than a passive one when he asked, “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26). Further, Alma said that it is better for one to choose to be humble rather than being compelled to be humble. (See Alma 32:16). In a similar vein, while I was on my mission, I met a lot of people who fit the description of the Apostle Paul, who, he said, are “ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:7). Rather than accepting answers and proceeding in the light of what truth they have received until they receive more light, they seek out still more questions.
In contrast to those who are “ever learning” without coming to a knowledge of the truth, there aren’t many more righteous, faithful, obedient examples in the scriptures than Nephi in the Book of Mormon, yet even he told the angel who showed him a vision, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). We believe in a Restored Church, with Revealed Truth. Yet even such restoration and revelation are ongoing processes rather than finished ones. We learn in the Articles of Faith that “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to [His Kingdom]” (Articles of Faith 1:9).
In these latter days, the brethren, too, have reminded us that remaining converted is an active process rather than a passive one, that faith is an active choice rather than a mere passive condition. Elder Neil L. Andersen, then of the Presidency of the Seventy and now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, related the following experience:
Several years ago a friend of mine had a young daughter die in a tragic accident. Hopes and dreams were shattered. My friend felt unbearable sorrow. He began to question what he had been taught and what he had taught as a missionary. The mother of my friend wrote me a letter and asked if I would give him a blessing. As I laid my hands upon his head, I felt to tell him something that I had not thought about in exactly the same way before. The impression that came to me was: Faith is not only a feeling; it is a decision. He would need to choose faith.
In that same address, Elder Andersen shares his own crisis of faith before embarking upon his mission to remind us that true conversion is less dependent upon knowledge than it is upon a spiritual witness of the truth:
Nearly 40 years ago as I contemplated the challenge of a mission, I felt very inadequate and unprepared. I remember praying, “Heavenly Father, how can I serve a mission when I know so little?” I believed in the Church, but I felt my spiritual knowledge was very limited. As I prayed, the feeling came: “You don’t know everything, but you know enough!” That reassurance gave me the courage to take the next step into the mission field.
Like Elder Andersen and his friend, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I choose faith—because it bears good fruit in my life (see Matthew 7:16-20). There are some in the Church for whom the choice is much more difficult. Perhaps they have been called to walk a harder path; or perhaps they needlessly make the choice much more difficult. They hold back their faith (and they fail to recognize much good fruit that the Church has borne in their lives) because they lack satisfying answers to questions about history or doctrine.
Unlike Nephi, who had faith despite not knowing the meaning of all things, they seemingly demand answers, not only to the questions they have, but also to any question they conceivably could have. Seemingly, they trade the valuable, ore-containing rocks of the gospel for all the clods of dirt they had to remove in order to get to the rocks. Like Esau, amid a bout of fleeting hunger provoked by a question about history or doctrine, they trade their birthright for a mess of pottage. Momentarily satisfied (until the another question about yet another historical or doctrinal factoid surfaces), only later will they learn that they could have “feasted on [the] milk and honey” of the Gospel “without money and without price” (see 2 Nephi 25:26).
I choose faith. I see no reason to make a different choice, whatever historical or doctrinal factoids might surface. I feel, given the good fruit that the Gospel has borne in migh life, that if I were to do so, I would be trading the thing of most value in my life for things of much lesser value.
 Elder Neil L. Anderson, “You Know Enough,” Ensign, November 2008, accessed on line on October 9, 2012 at the following address: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/you-know-enough?lang=eng.
 Id. While my uncertainty regarding a mission was borne of questioning whether I would be able to meet the physical demands of a mission given my disability rather than questioning whether I knew enough to serve effectively, I had a similar experience while preparing to go on a mission. See https://www.lds.org/new-era/1993/02/we-did-it?lang=eng&query=”we+did+it”+gourdin While I know I would not be eligible to serve a full-time proselyting misssion under today’s “Raised Bar” standards, I’m glad I was able to serve successfully under the standards then in existence.
Update — November 4, 2013: Some Say, “Just Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Has Borne Good Fruit in My Life, That Has Nothing to Do With the Spirit (Which I Believe I Have Never Felt)”; As Much as I Feel for Their Asserted Failure to Receive a Spiritual Witness, Are They Looking Beyond the Mark? I Believe They Are
By Ken K. Gourdin
The following exchange occurred between another poster and me at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board on July 3, 2012. He now has left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of a failure (at least perceived) on his part to receive a spiritual witness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ as promulgated by His Church. In response to his declaration that he never felt the Holy Spirit witness to him of the Church’s truth claims, I said:
I’m sorry (and, to be quite frank, absolutely baffled) that you feel that the Gospel apparently has borne absolutely no good fruit in your life, and yes, like most who strive to be faithful, I wonder how that could possibly be so. To compare it with something I know something about (though I often wish I didn’t) it’s like the deeply depressed person who is thoroughly convinced that there’s absolutely nothing worth living for: no family, no friends, no associates, no talents, no interests, no simple things capable of penetrating the gloom and bringing at least momentary joy, et cetera, ad infinitum.
No redeeming value in the Church or in the Gospel whatsoever? It doesn’t even do any good for your wife, your children, or your extended family, even if it’s not necessarily for you? Wow. I’ll take “cultural Mormonism” over that state of affairs any day! (By the way [and this is a sincere question], if we’re so odious to hang out with in person, why do you hang out with us on line? [Wink!])
I wish you well.
This poster then attempted to draw a dichotomy (which I believe is false) between truth bearing good fruit in one’s life and feeling the spirit: “People in [the C]hurch [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] say, ‘I feel the [Holy] Spirit,’ all the time. Well, I never did. That has nothing to do with good fruits.” I responded, “I disagree, and so, I think, would the Apostle Paul. See Galatians 5:22-23 [a scripture which describes the good fruits of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, and so on].” I could, and should, have referred him to Alma 32, as well. Alma’s description in Alma 32:28 of what happens when someone feels the Holy Spirit dovetails nicely with the Apostle Paul’s:
It must needs be that this [the seed one plants in one’s heart to determine whether it is good or not] is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. This poster pointed out that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no monopoly on “good fruits,” to which I responded, “No, it doesn’t. If someone is content with thirtyfold or sixtyfold rather than an hundredfold, more power to him or her.”
The poster said that The Church of Jesus Christ has no monopoly on running worthwhile programs or on espousing wholesome values, implying that many churches and other organizations do the same thing. He said that “what matters is whether the Church is true,” and said that a determination of the Church’s truthfulness requires a spiritual witness to which I replied:
It’s possible to feel the Spirit and not recognize it. See 3 Nephi 9:20. I don’t know that there’s all that much difference between you and the average rank-and-file member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints except that … and I mean no offense … you’ve given up, and [he hasn’t]. To each, his … own. I wish you well.
Also, I believe my suggested approach is consistent with what the Lord told Oliver Cowdery in Doctrine and Covenants Section 6, verses 22-23:
22 Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
23 Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
Update: January 23, 2014 – On God as Santa Claus, and on “Quid Pro Quo” Obedience
By Ken K. Gourdin
This is an adaptation of something I posted at Mormon Dialogue & Discussion on December 17, 2012:
[We] need to stop treating living the Gospel like a checklist or a quid-pro-quo exercise: “Yep, got that one checked off! What’s next?” and “[I] need to do [x] or [I] won’t get [y].” The Lord isn’t Santa Claus. In my own case, if I treated living the Gospel as though it were a simple list of things to be checked off sequentially, I got stuck in the middle of the checklist 20-plus years ago: (1) Go on a mission; (2) Get a degree; (3) (or while checking off #2) Get married; (4) (before checking off #3) get a job … et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I got stuck on number two. Repeatedly. If I wanted to, I have a great excuse to tell God (aka Santa Claus), “Heavenly Father, you promised that if I did [x], you would do [y]. You haven’t done [y], so I’m starting to think this whole ‘living-the-Gospel’ thing isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”
[We should] . . . (try to) live the Gospel because [we] love it and because it bears good fruit (fruit which is not included on the checklist) in [our lives]. This is much easier said than done, I realize, but [we] need to do the best [we] can to lead [others] to Christ using the formula outlined in Doctrine and Covenants 121: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained . . . but by gentleness, and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge which will greatly enlarge the soul.” We don’t live the Gospel because we have to; we don’t live the Gospel because Santa Claus won’t give us presents if we’re not good. We live the Gospel because we love it and because it fills our souls. [We cannot] change [anyone’s] attitude or behavior by telling [him] what the Gospel says we should do. If that happens, it will happen because [we] show [others] that living the Gospel bears good fruit in [our lives], because it fills [ ]our soul[s] and makes [us] happy. If [we] don’t live the Gospel because it fills [ ]our soul[s] and makes [us] happy, the time eventually will come when any other reason [we] live the Gospel won’t be enough.
Update, February 8, 2014: More on God as Santa Claus – At the risk of redundantly repeating myself ;-D, this is an excerpt of something I wrote to a disaffected member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Mormon Dialogue & Discussion. While I can’t say I doubt the Church’s foundational claims, I do suffer from my own form of “disaffection.” I wrote:
I can’t say I know what you’re going through, because I don’t; there’s no way I could. My frame of reference is completely different. It’s like hearing someone describe the pain of childbirth versus actually going through it. I don’t have very many questions regarding the Church’s foundational claims: like most anyone else with a brain who also believes, on some level, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be, however, that is not to say that I don’t have questions about peripheral issues. I look forward to some fascinating firesides in the hereafter or during the millennium, e.g., “Brother Joseph, What Were You Thinking?; Brother Brigham, What Were You Thinking?; and so on.
That said, the “Gospel” doesn’t “work” for me like some people (including, frustratingly, me, sometimes) think it ought to or say it should. Some people envision that God is simply roughly analogous to Santa Claus: If we’re “good,” he gives us presents, and if we’re not, he doesn’t. Well, I haven’t gotten a lot of “presents” I’d really like: a decent job; the ability to support myself; at least modest material means; a family of my own, perhaps; for certain decisions I made with respect to my education (that I felt inspired to make at the time) to pay off (however modestly). I’m far from perfect, but I do at least as good a job living the Gospel as someone for whom all of those things came far, far easier. On some level, I’d like to tell God/Santa Claus, “You know what? This whole ‘living the Gospel’ thing just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Why try?” It doesn’t seem as though I’m getting everything I bargained for in the deal. But on the other hand, I can’t deny the good fruit the Gospel has borne in my life. I can’t deny the clear witnesses I’ve received. I can’t deny the ways I have been blessed.
Many might say, “Well, how do you know you wouldn’t have gotten many of those things without the Gospel?” You know what? I don’t. Materially modest circumstances (and seemingly “denied blessings”) notwithstanding, I don’t do the things I do because I want Santa Claus to give me presents. I do them because they fill my soul. Christ said, “God sends rain on both the just and on the unjust, and causeth His sun to shine on both the evil and the good.” After he lost everything Job (whether his story an allegory or not, it has things to teach us) said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Buddhists say that the key to contentment is in not wanting. There’s something to that. There’s a lot I don’t know. According to Isaiah, “[The Lord’s] thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [His] ways [our] ways; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [His] thoughts higher than [our] thoughts, and [His] ways higher than [our] ways.” Nephi said, “I know not the meaning of all things; nevertheless, I know that [God] loveth His children.”
Why do I stay? Why do I keep trying? I feel like Peter, when Christ asked him, “Will ye also go away?” He said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
Update, March 9, 2014: When it Comes to Religious Truth Claims, We Are Our Own “Triers of Fact” – I posted the following today at Mormon Dialogue & Discussion:
The thing is, evaluating Mormonism (or religious truth claims in general, for that matter) isn’t like a lab experiment: “Add two drops of this reagent, and three drops of that reagent, and you can replicate what Professor X, D.Chem., did.” Rather, it’s more like being on a jury. The process may well lead to different (perhaps inconsistent) results for different parties hearing the same evidence, but when it comes right down to it, we’re all our own “triers of fact” (jurors/juries or judges) when it comes to religious truth claims: we have to decide for ourselves what evidence we think is significant, how much weight we’re going to give to any particular piece of evidence (if any), what evidence we’re going to discount or discard, and so on. Evidence which may “seal the deal” (my phrase) for me, you may not find all that persuasive, and vice-versa. And, just like in law, there’s really no such thing as a “slam-dunk case.”
My father was a police officer for 43 years. He had a DUI trial in which his arrestee, between the time my father arrested him and the time that case went to trial, was involved in yet another DUI, in which our “poor, unfortunate arrestee” was injured. He came to court all bandaged and casted up. The jury never heard a word about why the guy came to court in that condition (because the judge ruled that such information would be unduly prejudicial), and even though all of the elements of DUI in my father’s case were firmly established at trial (e.g., actual physical control of the vehicle, intoxication, impairment such that the arrestee was not able safely to operate the vehicle, and so on), the jury acquitted him. Why? Because they (1) felt sorry for him, and (2) doubted that he could operate a vehicle at all … in his current condition!
In extreme cases, judges can compel a directed verdict, but God doesn’t work that way.