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.

Throwback Thursday: Elder Holland on Faith

I’ve been listening to a number of talks from Apostle Jeffrey Holland lately. His most recent General Conference talk on depression and mental illness was excellent, which you can find here. The other day, however, I randomly listened to two of his talks given ten years apart and found a repeating theme:

From this talk in April 2003 on teaching children:

In matters of religion a skeptical mind is not a higher manifestation of virtue than is a believing heart…

And from this talk in April 2013 on the importance of faith:

Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not!

To be clear, he doesn’t say one should not have doubts, or not ask honest questions. Asking questions is paramount to discovering answers and receiving revelation. But his ultimate message is: don’t forfeit the faith you’ve already developed, even if it seems small. And don’t forget how often Jesus urged his followers to simply “believe.”

After all, in the eyes of God, Thomas’ doubts were not deemed superior to others’ choice to believe. Perhaps that’s the lesson Elder Holland is trying to teach us.