My understanding of testimony and faith has developed through both continual activities such as attending church and reading scriptures, but also crises of faith, some large and some small. Here are a few stories that highlight some realizations that have helped me better develop and understand my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
During the summer of 2008 I was on break in Provo while attending BYU. The previous semester I had taken almost exclusively science courses such as evolutionary biology, computer science classes, and I didn’t end up taking a religion class. I’ve always been a very scientifically minded person. In fact, my default mental position is one of skepticism, sometimes to the frustration of Alexia if she is telling me something that I find hard to believe. Snopes should probably be my homepage. So, this semester had gotten me even more in that frame of mind. This skepticism was contrasted with the fact that I was spending a lot of time with a friend who had recently returned from a church mission and was still on that spiritual high. Herein began my crisis of faith.
I struggled with how literal many people took old testament stories. I wondered if I wasn’t just considering positive experiences to answers to prayers, while discounting negative ones as trials to bear. Science felt like it was vying for the same real estate as my spiritual faith. Things began to progress. I felt that my doubts were a lack of faith. This made me feel uncomfortable dating people very comfortable in their testimonies. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to. Praying seemed to beg the question. I didn’t want to divulge my feelings to anyone I was dating for fear of their reaction. I didn’t feel like I had many friends scientifically-minded enough with whom I could satisfactorily discuss my doubts. My one friend whom I regarded as fairly intellectual and who had himself expressed concerns of potentially intellectualizing himself out of the church sometimes understood, but not fully. I was feeling like I had to fight this battle alone. I began to wonder if there was a place inside of the church for intellectualism, for me.
I ended up making it through this period testimony intact. Through some long discussions with a couple friends and some time pondering, I came to some realizations that helped me better understand what, at least to me personally, a testimony meant.
1. Keep in mind the core of gospel
Joseph Smith stated, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
There is a core set of doctrines in the gospel, such as having a Heavenly Father, that He loves us, that He sent his Son who atoned for our sins, and that the Church has been restored today after a period of apostasy. Whether the flood was global or local, whether people really lived 900 years, whether some old testament stories are to be taken more figuratively than literal, these should not be the basis of a testimony, nor should they be the basis for losing one.
2. Keep going straight, relying on the best information you know, rather than impulsive gut reactions when challenged with doubt
On once occasion during college I was driving to work on a long straight road. I was wearing a jacket I wanted off. Instead of trying to get my arms out of the sleeves and then wrestling it off behind me, I thought that it might work well if I quickly pulled it over my head and then worked my arms out in front of me. I pulled it over my head, and it got stuck in front of my face, while I was still driving. Though I’m sure it just seemed longer than it really was, I remember thinking about what to do as I was now speeding down a road with my face cloaked in complete blackness. I realized that the last time I could see the road, it was straight. So why would I turn now when I was cut off from visual cues? To do so would be reactionary and detrimental. I kept going straight, eventually worked the jacket off my head, and everything turned out fine, with the extra benefit that I now knew how not to take a jacket off while driving.
Similarly, during my crisis of faith, when I started to doubt my testimony, I kept going straight. The last reliable guidance I had was certainly better than reactionary shots in the dark. I kept praying, reading my scriptures, going to church, and when I worked through things and saw the light again, I was still on the road going in the right direction. Don’t become a spiritual day-trader, making quick gut reactions when new information may appear to challenge your faith. Sometimes that new information is false, sometimes misunderstood, other times true but requiring a shift in your spiritual paradigm rather than an abandonment of your faith. Remember that your spiritual retirement is a long-term investment. Nephi describes this in 2nd Nephi 31:20 by stating: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” When it comes to doubts, consider all that you don’t doubt. Make sure that you aren’t throwing out the 95% that does fit to accommodate the other 5% that doesn’t.
3. Faith is compared to hope for a reason
Hebrews 11:1 states “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” During my crisis of faith I was bothered by not feeling like I “knew” the gospel was true. I felt it was, I hoped it was, but I didn’t know it. Resolving my crisis involved a little bit of progression along the spectrum from hope towards knowing but a lot more understanding that, at least for me, this is exactly how faith works: hoping, feeling, but maybe not ever knowing. That is the test this life consists of. Didn’t Peter deny Christ three times? Didn’t he also fumble while walking towards Christ on the water? Didn’t Thomas doubt?
It seems to me that as a period of probation and progression, this life was built around seeing how I would act on imperfect knowledge. To be handed incontrovertible proof would defeat the purpose. And so, I’ve come to expect that there will always be doubts, and there will always be unanswered questions. Spiritual manifestations and confirmations will help us progress towards knowing, but I’m not sure that we will ever truly know while in this life. And I think that’s by design.
4. Lean on the testimony of others when needed
In Doctrine and Covenants 46 it discusses spiritual gifts:
11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.
12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.
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.
It’s interesting that some are given the gift of knowing, while others are to believe on their testimony. Yet the latter are still promised eternal life if they continue faithful. Just as it did that one semester in college, my spiritual strength ebbs and flows depending on what is going on in my life, how much attention I’ve paid to scripture pursuits, and other factors. Sometimes I feel spiritually strong and more independent. Other times I draw strength through others’ testimonies. In my case, I find strength seeing the testimonies of those who seem similarily scientifically-minded, knowing that there are others that may have had similar thoughts or doubts that I have, but have found satisfactory answers themselves. Just as our society is made up of individuals and businesses that fulfill certain niches, combining to achieve great things while alone they can accomplish very little; spiritually we should recognize that we were not given every spiritual gift nor every answer. Again, this is not a fault, but, as we see in the scriptures, is a divine design that brings us together as a spiritual family, encouraging us to rely on and strengthen each other.
5. Allow room for the mistakes of others
Along the lines of cutting ourselves slack, we need to do likewise for others. The gospel being true does not make the church flawless. Wilford Woodruff did state “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God.” However, the definition of “leading the church astray” is not given. I feel that it would require quite a lot to do so, and that we should not allow ourselves to be painted into the corner of thinking that every statement made my every church leader or prophet is doctrine. Not only does such a belief make it very difficult to reconcile history, it also isn’t fair to the individuals themselves. Remember that Moroni repeatedly cautions readers of the Book of Mormon not to discard its sacred message if there are mistakes, for he says they are the mistakes of men. There we have a prophet stating that he may be making mistakes in his account, but that they do not mean the book isn’t true.
While I think it is important to understand that church leaders are men, as well as men called of God, I think it is also important to be cautious in doing so. There lies a fine balance between accepting this idea and allowing church leaders the right to be human and at times make mistakes, while at the same time avoiding the temptation of extending this principle to selectively dismiss teachings or counsel that we personally find inconvenient.
6. Sometimes it helps to zoom out
When I served a mission, I wanted to be able to reconcile every statement said by every leader and scientifically map out our doctrine. But later I learned there was more value in seeing the larger picture. This is akin to certain paintings where you get so close because you want to see how each blade of grass is painted, but in doing so the grass no longer looks like grass, but rather abstract brush strokes. Sometimes only in stepping back and capturing the whole painting do you appreciate and understand the gospel.
Similarly to zooming out, it’s helpful to simplify things at times. While my brother and I were serving missions, we wrote each other on the topic of doubt. He shared that at times he broke things down to what he knew, that there are principles that are inherently true or good, like compassion, love, service, and sacrifice. Similarly there were inherently bad principles. This intrinsic duality or morality in life lead him, as it does me, to believe in a higher power. People may debate certain morals, but there are certain absolute goods and evils that transcend culture and leave one with no other explanation than the existence of a higher power.
7. Sometimes you have to believe two seemingly contradictory facts
Alfred North Whitehead wrote a chapter devoted to faith in one of his philosophy books on science. In it he asks if faith and science are mutually exclusive. He states they aren’t, but are sisters, working towards the same purpose, each with different personalities. He mentions how science can be a lot more graceful. When a theory is disproven, science rejoices, jumping at the opportunity to learn from it. Religion may take these advances less gracefully. For example, think about how religion resisted the Copernican model of the universe. Why? Perhaps we get ahead of ourselves and jump to conclusions. He relates an account about two scientists and a dilemma they faced. When the idea of molecular weight, the idea that materials are made up of molecules that each have a uniform weight, was being developed, there were two different scientists that came to a troubling impasse. One scientist had a method for producing a certain gas, the other had an alternative method. Yet at the end of the two processes, it seemed that they had different molecular weights, despite being the same gas. So at that point they had a very tempting choice to reject the idea that there is a uniform molecular weight. This seemed to be what the data proved. But sure enough, it was later discovered that one process developed a side product as well that threw off their calculations. How many times does this happen to us in our lives? We are positive we are right. We’ve rechecked the facts over and over. There is only one possible conclusion. Once in High School while doing calculus homework one night at my friend’s house we became convinced that we had disproven calculus, until we finally realized our mistake the next day. Sometimes we need to delay judgment until we gather more data. In the meantime we may feel like we are wrestling with contradictory data.
8. Don’t betray your past confirmations
Once in college I lost my wallet. I circled back to all the classrooms I had been in; I called lost and found; I was at a loss. After a day or two of searching, I decided to pray about it. I knelt down in my dorm room and prayed at my desk chair. As I got up, my wallet was lying on the carpet next to the chair. I remember how incredibly spiritual and moving that experience. However, when looking back after a few years, or even a few days, it was easier to focus less on the spiritual side and think more about how it must have been in my jacket that was resting on the back of the chair, and moving the chair probably caused it to fall out of the pocket.
For me, this experience serves as a good example to remind me that despite the fact that spiritual experiences may seem a dimmer as time goes on, this doesn’t change the fact that they were real, and they were powerful. It is important to hold on to these feelings as they are often a large part of our testimonies, and to correct for this dimming effect when considering our testimonies. I believe this is why the Book of Mormon focuses so much on the Nephites remembering what the Lord had done for their ancestors.
9. Don’t do it all by yourself
Finally, I realized while going through this crisis of faith, that I was trying to do it all on my own. I was expecting myself to resolve all doubts and have perfect faith without any help from Christ and his atonement. When Christ was petitioned to heal the man’s son in Mark 9, the Lord said that “All things are possible to him that believeth.” It says that “straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe;” but then perhaps the man realized what I realized, that we aren’t expected to do it alone and that we can bring our doubts to the table, and he added, “Help thou my unbelief.” We aren’t supposed to figure things out so we can accept Christ’s atonement. We are supposed to use the atonement to help along the way.
There is a song by Nickel Creek entitled “Doubting Thomas” that addresses the struggles inherent in faith and shows the progression of an individual as they accept these and press on in spite of them.
What will be left when I've drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I've met and the folks who've known me
Will I discover a soul-saving love
Or just the dirt above and below me
I'm a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
Oh me of little faith
Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared ‘cause I'm a coward
If there's a master of death I bet he's holding his breath
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power
I'm a doubting Thomas
I can't keep my promises
‘Cause I don't know what's safe
Oh me of little faith
Can I be used to help others find truth
When I'm scared I'll find proof that it's a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I'm not ready to die
Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I've wasted
I'm a doubting Thomas
I'll take your promise
Though I know nothin's safe
Oh me of little faith
The three chorus refrains outline this individual’s progression. The first and last lines of each chorus “I’m a doubting Thomas” and “Oh me of little faith” don’t change, signifying that faith is a continual and lifelong endeavor. The second line progresses from “I took a promise,” through “I can’t keep my promises”, to “I’ll take your promise.” This parallels my own realization that I can’t have faith on my own, but that it requires allowing the Lord into the formula. The third line progresses from “I do not feel safe” and “I don’t know what’s safe” to the acceptance of “I know nothin’s safe,” again signifying that having a testimony is not an elimination of doubt, but a process of accepting and balancing healthy doubt with faith and hope.
I made it through the crisis of faith that I had in 2008. I didn’t gain any incredible knowledge that made it all suddenly click. But I realized that everything good in my life was connected to my faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, and still is. I realized that faith, at least for me, isn’t an absolute, but is founded in hope. I am grateful for my testimony. I do believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ’s church restored, that it is guided by a prophet called of God. I know that living theis gospel brings peace and happiness, and I believe that it has the power to allow families to be an eternal unit. These are the fruits that fortify my testimony and are the reasons I continue in faith.