Sacrament Meeting Talk: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt

For RMA, who doubts everything (just like me)

I gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting today that I wanted to share here: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt.

I’ve got a really scratchy audio recording, which has a few seconds of children fussing and crying at the very beginning (and, of course, throughout — it wouldn’t be a Mormon Sacrament Meeting otherwise!).  🙂

If you can’t stand the bad audio, I also created a PDF version you can download here: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt.

The full text is copied and pasted below…

I want to speak today about a topic that is near and dear to my heart: Choosing Faith in the Face of Doubt.

To speak with some candor, I believe if it were possible to earn such a thing, I would have a PhD in Doubt (though of course I can’t be certain).  I am very familiar with its contours and grooves, its hidden shadows and trap doors.  Today, I want to talk about how to live with faith anyway.  This is something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and working on in my life, and I wanted to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

First, I want to make a quick distinction.  I believe there are two kinds of doubt.  Now, doubt in general gets kind of a bad rap among believers, but I think it’s important to point out that there is a healthy doubt, or an intellect-based doubt, vs. an unhealthy, destructive doubt – or fear-based doubt.

Intellect-based doubt has brought us some of humanity’s most important theological, scientific, and social innovations.  It begins with a willingness to ask even difficult questions and accept whatever truths we discover.  The Restoration, for example, wouldn’t have taken place if Joseph Smith didn’t have the courage to go into the woods to pray and ask a question — and then accept whatever answer he was given.  The same thing holds true for us as we seek personal revelation.  If we don’t have at least some measure of intellect-based doubt we’re unable to progress and gain a deeper understanding of the world we’ve been given.

Now, an entire talk could be devoted to balancing the intellect and faith in a spiritual life, and it would be a great topic for a talk, but it’s not the talk I’m giving today.

What I want to talk about is what to do with fear-based doubt. And here are some of the characteristics of fear-based doubt:

  • It tends to be irrational
  • It is extreme, all-or-nothing
  • It is threatened by nuance or subtlety
  • It tends to be insatiable, because it’s not grounded on anything solid; it lingers

When we’re caught in doubt, we find ourselves asking hopeless, trap-door questions that often take a “what if” form; questions with no positive answer or definite resolution: what if God doesn’t love me?  What if I am not enough?  What if I can’t be forgiven?  What if I’m doing everything wrong?  What if I’ll never find the right path for myself and my family?  And even questions like, What if there’s no point to all of this?

These are NOT productive questions, but can lead us into an all-consuming wasteland of anxiety and fear — a place where most of us have probably spent some time.

But there is an antidote.

Faith.

 Or, termed differently, active belief.

 Now before we talk more about what faith is, I’d like to spend a couple of minutes talking about what faith isn’t.

First, faith is NOT the absence of doubt and fear.  It is the antidote, but not the absence.  After all, what is fear?  Fear is a physical response to the perception of a threat: adrenaline is released, and your stomach starts churning, your heart beating, your palms sweating.  The threat can be either physical or mental. Either way, you cannot always control the situations you’re in, the thoughts that you have, nor the signals your body sends you.  But you can choose the way you respond to them – and when you respond productively, that is faith.  We’ll talk more about this later.

Second, faith is NOT a FEELING.  It often produces positive feelings when exercised, but in and of itself it is a way of responding and living – a choice.  I can’t tell you how many times I have felt afraid, weak, and anxious in the face of doubt, and yet have chosen to respond in a way other than my doubt is urging me.  Then, AFTER I have made the positive choice, positive feelings come.  This seems consistent with the pattern in Ether 12, where Moroni says: “Doubt not because ye see not, for you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

(For the record, there have been plenty of times when I have acted in faith and positive feelings haven’t come, yet I am still comfortable with my choice because I know it was not based in fear.)

 Third, faith is NOT knowledge.  Alma is careful to make this distinction explicitly in his wonderful sermon on faith in Alma 32.  He says, “Faith is NOT to have a perfect knowledge of things; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.  Is this faith?  I say unto you, nay.”

 What, then, is faith?  It is a proactive choice to respond and live in a certain way based on certain things that you believe in your heart are true and good.

Or, as Paul says in Hebrews 11: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

I want to share with you three of the pillars of my faith — the substance of some of the things that I hope for, the evidences that I have discovered for things not seen.  These three pillars really help me in the face of doubt.  Do I have concrete proof for the three pillars I’m about to share?  No.  But that’s the nature of faith.

First, I choose to believe that God is good.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but it is actually quite subtle.  I think that many of us say that we believe in the goodness of God, but we constantly protect ourselves or hide ourselves from Him — just as Adam and Eve hid their nakedness from God in the Garden of Eden and created coverings of fig leaves.  I think a lot of times we craft own fig leaves, because we don’t trust God to be good enough to take us as we are.

It reminds me of a wonderful book by Stephen Robinson called Believing Christ. The premiseis this distinction: so many of us believe IN Christ, but we don’t actually BELIEVE Him — we don’t believe that His promises are real.

Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of choosing to believe that God is good is this: it makes it possible to accept difficult trials.  We all have our inner heartaches, pain that we’ve endured, losses: death, disease, mental illness, sin.  And in such difficult moments, it is possible to decide that God isn’t very good after all.  However, there is a power and beauty that comes from choosing to believe that even your difficulties are gifts from a good God, given for His glory and your benefit.

In my life, I have discovered that when I feel distant from God, it is because I do not fully trust His goodness.

The second pillar of my faith is that I choose to believe that good means love.

For years, I believed that good meant “doing everything perfectly.”  For those of us who are prone to doubt – especially self-doubt – this is a recipe for disaster.  Fortunately, it is also completely contrary to the scriptures!  Perfection is a charge we are given in the scriptures, but it is something that we often misunderstand deeply.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is NOT a checklist gospel.  It is a gospel of BECOMING.  Christ’s Sermon on the Mount explains this clearly.  He says, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; but I say unto you that whosever is angry with his brother without cause is in danger of the judgment.  Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

He is telling us that the gospel isn’t about obeying the rules; it’s about what’s at the heart of the rules.

And what is at the heart of the rules?  What is behind all the commandments?  Matthew 22:35-40:  “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS.”

Love is the core of the Master’s message.  It is the center of a Christian life.  If you can get this one thing right, you can let go of so many of the things you doubt and beat yourself up over.  As Moroni said, “For charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”

This is the perfection of which He speaks.  This is much more difficult, at times, than just following the rules.  It requires a deeper commitment, a slower tongue, a more compassionate ear.  But when you walk with the Savior, everything changes.  When you allow Him to penetrate and change your heart, suddenly you see the world with new eyes.  You see people  in a new way.  You respond to situations with more mindfulness and caring. Love has a way of silencing doubt and fear like nothing else I have ever found.  When I doubt, I often discover it is because I have lost my connection to the pure love of Christ.

Finally, the third pillar of my faith is that I choose to believe that the grace of Christ is sufficient.

The call to walk after the manner of love is difficult.  As I mentioned, I believe it is far more difficult than ticking items off a list.  And when we realize the magnitude of what we are called to be as disciples of Christ, doubt and discouragement can truly set in.  Because as you see the world with new eyes, you also see yourself with new eyes, and you discover that the distance between you and Jesus is huge. You find yourself looking at the disparity and asking questions like: What if I’m not good enough?  What if I fail?  What if I embarrass myself or get it wrong?

Let me reassure you: you will.  You will get it wrong.  You will fail.  You will embarrass yourself.  And sometimes, your very best is not going to be good enough.  (Feel better?)

And yet: the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient for you.

My choice to believe this has been the single most empowering concept I have ever encountered.  More than anything else, it has allowed me to accept what is.  And until we’re willing and able to do that, we can’t improve — because we’re operating from a place that isn’t real.

C.S. Lewis wrote a beautiful book called Till We Have Faces.  The first part is a complaint against the gods by the main character.  She argues that the gods have done her wrong, that they have taken away everything that she loved and that she wanted.  In the end, she has an encounter with the Divine, and she realizes that everything she’d been complaining about was full of self-deception and lies.  And she says, “How can the gods meet us face to face until we have faces?”

Grace, more than anything else, has allowed me to come through my roughest battles with doubt.  Because I know that when I fall – and fall I have, and fall I will – I have a safe spot to land: in the arms of my Savior.

That we are given grace, so freely, is a cause for celebration; an impetus to quietly consider what we’re doing with it; a reminder of how precious we are in the eyes of our Father in Heaven; a promise that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us; and an empowering truth that can defeat doubt and fear.

Finally, I want to talk a bit about the actual act of choosing faith.  I’ve shared the pillars of my faith – the things that I believe are the most empowering as I confront doubt’s sharp cries.  Are there moments that I doubt even these pillars?

Yes.  Constantly.

And yet, I have made a commitment to act as if they are true.

 This is the experiment upon the word that Alma talks about.  A favorite author of mine, who wrote a wonderful book called When in Doubt, Make Belief, said that you must put your commitments ahead of your comfort in order to defeat fear-based doubt.  The truth is that some things will hurt and be difficult.  The truth is that some questions will never be fully resolved.  Part of a mature faith is accepting that and acting anyway.

I can tell you from my personal experience that when you do, your seed will swell and sprout and begin to grow.  And that even through the hardship and difficulty, you will be able to pluck the fruit of your faith – “a fruit which is most precious, sweet above all that is sweet, pure above all that is pure; and you shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.”

(If you are struggling with OCD, please see my books recommendations page for 5 books that helped transform my life and made a dramatic impact on my ability to successfully manage my OCD.  If you need someone to talk to, you are welcome to private message me on Facebook or email me at katie_in_logan [at] yahoo [dot] com).

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About Katie L

Thirtysomething wife, mother, writer, runner, believer, and lover of good food and bad movies.

Posted on May 22, 2011, in Mental Health, Mormonism, Personal, Thoughts on God and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. wonderful talk!!! I am going to share this with my son AND my son-in-law, daughter-in-law and daughters. Also made a copy for myself. Thank you, thank you.
    As a nurse, I can say that there are SO many people who doubt themselves and receive no indication that others do as well.

  2. This is so wonderful, Katie. Thank you so much! I keep thinking about the two kinds of doubt you talk about…

  3. Excellent! I’m going to share it too.

  4. Bishop Nielsen

    Great talk, Katie! I’m glad I gave you “free reign” to speak on a topic that means so much to you — this was clearly from the heart. Thanks for making it availble here.

  5. Thanks for the glimpse into your heart. It made me understand you a little better. Indeed, you have consciously chosen faith over doubt although you still doubt. I admire you so much and am inspired to choose faith more in my own life.

  6. Very awesome message! Bookmarked, shared, and will be revisited, I am sure!

  7. I enjoyed reading this, as I saw it linked on a friend’s blog. However, there is one thing that hit me the wrong way … Faith is not the absence of fear? We learn time and time again that faith and fear cannot coexist {http://lds.org/general-conference/2009/04/faith-in-the-lord-jesus-christ?lang=eng&noLang=true&path=/general-conference/2009/04/faith-in-the-lord-jesus-christ}. Hence, faith is the absence of fear {and that is what makes it the antidote}. The more faith we have the more fear is subsided so that if we have a perfect faith in something, there is no fear. Just my thoughts. And maybe that is what you were trying to say but faith IS the absence of fear …

  8. Hi Mindy,

    Thanks for stopping by! I think I understand what you’re saying.

    Perhaps we have a semantic misunderstanding here. I am saying that fear is a feeling — an actual physical response your body releases when it perceives a threat — but faith is a choice.

    If you are saying that both faith and fear are choices, then I agree with you — they cannot co-exist, at least not in the same choice. But I speak from years and years of experience battling clinical doubt when I say that the feeling of fear most certainly CAN co-exist with the choice of faith. It happens to me on a daily basis, often dozens of times per day.

    Likewise, I also know what it is to feel faithful AND fearful simultaneously, much like the man in the Bible who cried out with tears to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!”

    However, your point is well-taken that in general, as we act in faith, feelings of fear tend to decrease. That has been my experience as well. But they don’t always. And we don’t need to beat ourselves up for that. We can’t always control how we feel. We CAN, however, control how we respond, and that was the heart of my message.

  9. This is a hell of a great talk Katie if I can use the vernacular. I really appreciated reading it and, as a doubter and questioner by nature and inclination, it was just what I needed to hear right now. I’m with you on the grace issue, I just wish I could have thought of it as succinctly as you did.

  10. I’m glad you liked it, Jack. 🙂 And yes. You may say “hell” on my blog. 😉

  1. Pingback: On Managing OCD and Being Emotionally Healthy « Standing, Sitting, Lying Down

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