The Burden of Belief and Pursuing Truth: Part 2

“Since truth is the only meaningful foundation upon which we can make wise decisions, how then can one establish what is really true?” –Elder Richard G. Scott

In part one of this blog post I explained my background (it got real – I even admitted to wearing a bolo tie), and I described a paradigm-shifting crisis of faith. I seriously questioned the existence of God and in so doing learned that with or without God there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. I learned that rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief, and I determined to make my best judgment after examining three things: my own experience, the experience of others, and the “facts”.

My Own Experience

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is designed to actively involve its members in spiritual pursuits. Being raised in that environment, I have always said regular prayers, read scripture, attended church meetings, and served others in various capacities. None of my varied experiences are undeniable proof of God, but all of them add up to strong personal evidence of his existence. When pursuing answers to big questions or guidance during turbulent times, I have found feelings combined with thoughts that seem to come from outside of me and confirm the existence of a Heavenly Father that is concerned with my well-being.

The Experience of Others

In addition to my own experiences, I find my belief in God strengthen by the experiences of others. For example, the Book of Mormon and the Bible are essentially the spiritual journals of men from long ago, and the stories they tell testify without hesitation of the existence of God and of his love for his children.  In more recent times Joseph Smith said he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and they spoke with him face to face, and modern-day apostles and prophets testify that God and Jesus Christ live. My own close friends and family members have had significant experiences that convince them of God’s existence.

The “Facts”

The “facts” as revealed by science are inconclusive. The materials that make up the Earth date back millions of years, and we can observe evolution in nature. But we don’t really know how dramatic leaps in evolution happen or how a habitable planet was formed from a big explosion of energy. In fact some non-religious scientists believe the evidence suggests an intelligent design as opposed to an accident. I believe at some point instructions were issued so that order could come from chaos. I believe God was the author of that intelligence. In short, while there is definitely no proof of God’s existence from science, there is plenty of room for belief in Him.

Pursuing Truth

Every one of my three pillars of belief can be discounted, argued, or contradicted. There is no easy answer. In fact I believe this Earth life was designed to allow us to make decisions without a sure knowledge so we could gain experience that only that type of environment could afford.

Truth be told (pun intended) I am not trying to convince you to believe in God, I am trying to convince you to pursue truth. Truth is the only meaningful foundation on which to make decisions, and identifying it is the first step to leading a peace-filled life. So pursue it. Relentlessly. And when you find it, or when you think you find it, take action! DO whatever it is that truth would suggest is right.

Your pursuit of truth may lead you to believe exactly what I believe. Or perhaps your pursuit of truth will lead you to something totally different. The God I believe in would not fault someone for honestly pursuing truth and not finding it. I believe our pursuit of truth and our best effort to act according to the truth we find makes this life meaningful and valuable and enjoyable.

I count my doubting the existence of God as one of the great blessings of my life because it forced me to think and to personally pursue truth. I am thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for it is in this church I have found answers to life’s most important questions and had experiences that convince me of God’s love and our eternal worth. May we continue to relentlessly pursue truth, even (especially) when it contradicts what is popular, what is tradition, or what is culture.

The Burden of Belief and Pursing Truth: Part 1

I was born into a strong Mormon family. Every Sunday I put on my tie, or in earlier years cinched up my bolo tie (hey don’t judge, I grew up in New Mexico… on second thought maybe you should judge), climbed into the “middle seat with the feet on the hump” in our 1976 Chevy Beauville Van, and went to church with my five older siblings and parents.

I learned about God, about revelation, about scripture and prayer, about Jesus, about being kind and responsible. Some Sundays I was bored, some Sundays I was engaged, and some Sundays I was excited to see if I could sit next to the new girl. During the week my parents made sure to pray and study with us regularly and hold weekly family nights complete with spiritual lessons, songs, treats, and family arguments (teenagers are just the worst).

I even practiced some of what I was taught. I prayed regularly, read scripture, attended church classes, and avoided most of the things I was taught to avoid (dating young, addictive substances, etc.).

At age 20, though, I encountered serious doubt. While serving as a full time volunteer for my church I learned that my oldest brother, a hero of mine, no longer believed in God. Frankly, I hadn’t considered that possibility, and now I was forced to. The implications of it all came crashing down. Had I been inadvertently brain washed by my own family and religion? Did I invent spiritual experiences and selectively remember convenient coincidence to match my conditioning? Was it all born of some human need to feel important and avoid the reality that we die and cease to exist?

For days I agonized over these questions. I prayed regularly asking God (if he was there) to make himself known to me, to remove my doubt, to solidify my foundation of faith so it could not be broken. I saw no angel, I heard no voice, and I did not climb a mountain to talk to a burning bush. No, I more or less felt nothing… nothing more than I had always felt – a calm, quiet peace that perhaps I had invented.

So for a few days I allowed myself to not believe and freed my mind to pursue existence without God. At first I felt fear – fear of being finite and unimportant, a temporary fixture on this accidental life-sustaining planet. Some believe that fear is the only reason religion exists, to give us weak humans a crutch to lean on. However, I found something even more shocking. Even without God I was confronted again with a need for belief.

The scientific method has done much to uncover truth, but it cannot answer many questions: Where did the energy to create the big bang come from? And what forces govern sub-atomic particles? And what is space? Does it have an end? What will all the space and planets look like in 100 billion years? And beyond that infinitely? And what set of instructions dictated leaps in evolution from single-celled organism to fish to mammal to human? What makes humans different than other life? Why are we so fallible? What is morality and conscience? With or without God, there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity and complexity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. Rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief.

I determined that the only way to justify my own belief, whether in a God or in the absence of God, was to examine as much evidence as I could. Ironically what was at first a crisis of faith became a firm foundation of enduring faith and confidence. I’ll tell you about it in the 2nd part of this two-part post…

Some Mormons Search the Web and Choose Faith

A lot has been written and discussed the last few months about Mormons who, upon finding unfavorable content on the internet, question their faith and leave the Church.

Likewise, writers and the individuals who comment at the New York Times seem to convey that those who express doubt or disaffect from the church should be celebrated, while those who express faith only do so because they live happily inside a bubble that resides somewhere between blind acceptance and sheltered naiveté.

I don’t mean to suggest that the crisis of faith experienced by members is not a serious matter. Having experienced a mild crisis of faith myself several years ago, I have sympathy for those who feel that they cannot find the answers they seek – either from others or from heaven itself. So without question, there are people who leave the Church. But a lot stay and stay informed. And a lot join too, having done a full load of honest investigating.

I recently read two sincere and candid conversion stories of two young adults who tell of their honest investigating and ultimate decision to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Why I Became a Mormon was posted a couple of weeks ago by Brittany, a good friend of mine, who spoke of her journey in becoming a Latter-day Saint. And the other came from a guy named Daniel, who went from being Jewish to being an atheist, and is now a full-fledged Latter-day Saint who served as a missionary in Russia and currently attends law school at BYU. Daniel maintains his own blog, symphonyofdissent, which contains thoughtful posts written before and after he was baptized.

Both Brittany and Daniel write how they read everything they could find about the church – both good and bad – and still felt confident in their decision to join the church. To me, their honest declarations of faith and testimony are more powerful, more convincing, and more encouraging than the expressions of skepticism by those who publicize their private doubts.

We will always have questions. And perhaps we will occasionally struggle with doubts. But Christ never seemed to place too much of a premium on the doubt or disbelief of skeptics. As I noted last week in my Throwback Thursday post on Elder Holland’s repeated message, in the eyes of God, Thomas’ publicized doubts were not deemed superior to the quiet faith of those who believe. Remember too, that Jesus promises to manifest himself by the power of the Holy Ghost to all those who believe in him (2 Nephi 26:13). Brittany’s and Daniel’s experiences underscore this point extremely well.

Does God Speak to People? Part II

The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes, which I have previously written about here, and which was the topic of a recent guest post here. Those two posts deal mostly with God’s communication through his prophets – both ancient and modern – and discuss the restoration of Christ’s gospel beginning in the 1820s.

But more personally, does God speak to ordinary individuals directly? Does he communicate with normal, everyday kind of folk to help us in our affairs? The Book of Mormon teaches that “God is mindful of every people” and that he “give[s] unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.”

Many times in life I have felt God gently communicating with me to help direct my path. Sometimes that communication has come as tender and loving feelings that bring me peace, specific knowledge, and insight. Other times, the communication has come in the form of distinct phrases, like dictated words into my mind. In fact, a couple of months ago in my personal prayers I asked a specific question and then made a note in my phone about what I had asked. Several weeks later, having forgotten about my prayer and the note, I suddenly had a phrase come very clearly into my mind. I wrote it down somewhere else in my phone and went on with what I was doing. A day or two later, I was reviewing all the notes in my phone and discovered that what I had sensed the day or two before was a direct answer to my recorded prayer several months earlier. 

Although it can burst upon us unexpectedly, revelation from God typically responds to direct questions that we ask him. Consider the following from Spencer W. Kimball:

Spencer_W._Kimball3When man begins to hunger, when arms begin to reach, when knees begin to bend and voices begin to articulate, then, and not until then, does the Lord make himself known. He pushes back the horizons, he breaks the curtain above us, and he makes it possible for us to come out of dim, uncertain stumbling into the sureness of the eternal light.

On another occasion, Spencer Kimball taught the importance of having pure motives and sincere desire:

…Do you want guidance? Have you prayed to the Lord for inspiration? Do you want to do right or do you want to do what you want to do whether or not it is right? Do you want to do what is best for you in the long run or what seems more desirable for the moment? Have you prayed? How much have you prayed? How did you pray? Have you prayed as did the Savior of the world in Gethsemane or did you ask for what you want regardless of its being proper? Do you say in your prayers: “Thy will be done”? Did you say, “Heavenly Father, if you will inspire and impress me with the right, I will do that right”? Or, did you pray, “Give me what I want or I will take it anyway”? Did you say: “Father in Heaven, I love you, I believe in you, I know you are omniscient. I am honest. I am sincerely desirous of doing right. I know you can see the end from the beginning. You can see the future. Tell me, please, loved Heavenly Father, and I promise to do what you tell me to do.” Have you prayed that way? Don’t you think it might be wise? Are you courageous enough to pray that prayer?

The key then, seems to be desire and asking the right question. Sarah Edwards, the wife of the 18th century Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, described one of her experiences with the divine this way. Once, when feeling a strong desire to be alone with God, she prayed earnestly, and

sarah edwardsin the moments that followed, ‘the presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of anything else. God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their

inconceivable loveliness and mildness, and gentleness, and their great immutable love to me…The peace and happiness, which I hereupon felt, was altogether inexpressible.’¹

My conviction is that God does speak to people and He is mindful of us and our needs. And the great news is that each of us can learn this for ourselves, for as the Lord said:

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.

And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

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¹ Givens, T. & Givens, F. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Ensign Peak (2012). 21.
For another account, check out this blog post.

Experiment upon the word – explaining fast and testimony meeting

Imagine you are a scientist. You’re in a room full of fellow-scientists holding an important meeting. In this meeting, each scientist stands and shares his or her latest experiments, how he or she applied scientific principles in those experiments, and what each scientist has learned as a result of those experiments. The purpose of the meeting is to share this acquired knowledge and experience with fellow-scientists, so that:

  1. the scientists gain additional insight into how they can further apply reliable scientific principles – perhaps in ways similar to that their peers – or perhaps in new circumstances suited to new phenomena, albeit with familiar principles; and, so that
  2. the scientists build a community with like-minded people working toward the same goal – to acquire knowledge and experience to better themselves and the world. 

If you can create a fairly clear picture of this type of meeting in your mind, then you’re not too far off from the intent of something called fast and testimony meeting in the Mormon tradition. Basically, fast and testimony meeting is a monthly Sunday service where, after the sacrament (bread and water) has been passed to attendees, members of the congregation can stand and share their testimonies – or, in other words, how they’ve applied gospel principles in their lives and what truths they’ve learned in the process.

Here’s a real life example from my ward’s fast and testimony meeting this last Sunday, 9/29:

  • Our lay bishop stood first and described how, when he first became bishop of our ward last year, he had a very busy work schedule, traveling across the country every week. That cramped little space on the airplane, it turns out, became “sacred ground” for him, because it’s where he opened his scriptures, read, thought about the needs of ward members, and received insights into how to best help certain individuals. As his life became busier, he explained, he grew so tired that he began falling asleep the second his head hit the back of that chair. As a result, he lost that sacred ground that for so long helped strengthen and sustain him. He felt that absence in his life and resolved to do something about it. Knowing he also needed adequate sleep (and that his seat on the airplane provided a pretty good setting for that, too), he created more time each morning and each evening in his hotel room to have that same contemplative, quiet time to study the scriptures and seek a spiritual center. The principle he learned (or relearned) was that we each need “sacred ground” in our lives to pray, read God’s word, and internalize gospel principles. If we make that time and create that sacred ground, we will draw closer to God, have a greater portion of His Spirit, and will not be “tossed, to and fro” with the challenges of life.

Others in the ward shared the joy they’ve felt as they’ve worked and served with one another in their responsibilities, even in the relatively mundane tasks – and especially in the more significant efforts, such as delivering meals to a new mother, preparing for a funeral, or visiting the sick and afflicted.

In this way, our scientists are ordinary people – some of them are well-educated, others dropped out of high school. Some are married and have children. Others are children themselves, while others are single, divorced, or widowed. Some struggle quietly under the weight of tremendous burdens, while others’ lives seem full of joy and relative ease. Their backgrounds, life stories, and current circumstances are all unique, but their principles are gospel principles, and their experiments are their daily lives and interactions with others – full of encounters, observations, and experiences as they strive to apply Christ’s teachings, the words of his prophets, and live the commandments.

This process of “experimenting” is even enshrined within our scriptural canon. The same prophet Alma, whom I wrote about the other day, taught this to a group of people:

if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words (Alma 32:27)

The promise Alma makes is that if I experiment upon the words of the prophets (what he calls “planting the seed”), I will know for myself whether their words are good, because those words will “enlarge my soul…enlighten my understanding…[and become] delicious to me” (Alma 32:28). Based on my experience, I can say that those experiments are worth attempting. As a very ordinary type of scientist, I’ve learned that those experiments yield light, goodness, and yes, a testimony of true principles. A good place to start is to carve out some sacred ground to assimilate those principles and plant the seed.