Doubting Our Doubters

We have a problem with doubt. More specifically, we, LDSs, have a problem with how we conceptualize doubt and how we treat those who doubt. The short story is that we tend to employ an ambiguous notion of doubt and that we treat those with anything resembling doubt as insincere, as prideful, and as involved in sin. A prime example of this is the article entitled “When Doubts and Questions Arise” in the March 2015 Ensign

The author begins by attempting to create a distinction between questioning and doubting. The former is good, the latter is bad. Questioning, according to the author, entails “a sincere desire to increase one’s understanding and faith…. Sincere questions are those asked with the ‘real intent’ (Moroni 10:4) to better understand and more fully obey the will of the Lord.” Sincerity is measured by one’s continued obedience to the Church while questioning: “One problem with doubt is the intent to obey only after the uncertainty is resolved to the satisfaction of the doubter.” The primary example of doubt, of course, is Korihor in Alma 30. The author goes on to stress, “The power of doubt to destroy faith, hope, and even family is diminished the minute one sincerely says, ‘I will do the things the Lord has commanded, whether my questions are resolved quickly or ever, because I have covenanted to do so’” (emphasis added). So, in short, the difference between questioning and doubting is a willingness to endlessly adhere to the teachings of the Church.

The author continues, “[If] you seek an answer to a spiritual question from the Source of all knowledge, then you have to follow His rules to get the answer. This process requires at least a desire to understand the truth and a willingness to follow God’s will (see Alma 32:27). Otherwise, you run the risk of talking yourself into the answers you want to believe rather than receiving true answers from God.” If we want an answer, we must not only ask sincerely, but we must ask in the way predetermined by the Church. Otherwise we are “turn[ing] our back on God and then expect[ing] Him to answer our questions on our terms.”

Despite the caveat that “Some incorrectly suppose that having sincere concerns about Church history or doctrine is evidence that one is not living up to the standards of the Church,” the author goes on to say, “As doubts arise, it may be useful to honestly ask yourself, Is there something I am doing or desiring that is contrary to the gospel? If you answer yes, seek help from your bishop. It can make all the difference! Letting your doubts justify your sins is never a successful substitute for repenting.” This is a slightly different version of the same claim that doubters are really seeking to justify sin. In this version, instead of the sin serving as the justification for doubt, it serves to unintentionally foster doubt. The subtext is that if you have doubts you should really look inward and see if you’re doing anything sinful because sinful acts can compound doubt. This is not too far away from the notion that if you have doubts it’s your own fault.

Now, I take this article as representative of commonly held views about doubt among LDSs. Let me make a fairly bold claim: This is a recipe for an unhealthy relationship. If I were to treat my children like this I would be manipulating and likely emotionally abusing them. If my children were to tell me that these are the terms of the relationship they have with their boyfriend/girlfriend, I would encourage them to end the relationship. If this were their spouse (i.e., they’ve already made “covenants” with the person), I would not recommend that they endlessly remain in the relationship. Instead I would recommend serious counseling and the likelihood of ending the relationship. The fact that those who question are compelled into these kinds of relationships in the name of God does not make these relationships healthy. I can think of no circumstances under which the following can foster a healthy notion of oneself: You are free to question as long as you do it in the way I find meaningful, as long as you continue to live by my guidelines, and as long as you come up with the answers I determine to be correct, or you should at least accept that you may never have your questions answered. If you do not go along with this, you are insincere, prideful, and likely immoral.

The result of the situation we’ve created is multifold. For one, rather than actually engaging the concerns of questioners or treating doubters as a part of our community, we force them to suppress their doubts with the threat of marginalization. The implied message is this—if you doubt, you are a bad person, and bad people are not worthy in our community. With terms like this, it’s no wonder that people leave and are angry with the Church.

The problem with doubt is not simply the problem of the doubter. I would go so far as to even say that the primary problem with doubt is the way in which doubt is treated within our community. The way forward is not easy. It is easy to assume that the only alternative to the current situation is embracing an attitude that anything goes. It is not. I’ve tried to recommend a few thoughts here; yet I hope in forging the way ahead we can confirm that what we are currently doing needs some serious reconsideration.

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