The Death of Certainty: Embracing Faith and Doubt

You'd be hard pressed to find a person in my church who hasn't heard some variation of the pithy phrase "faith and doubt cannot coexist." You'd be equally hard-pressed to find a saying that bothers me more because of how much it contradicts what the scriptures teach about faith and doubt. 

I want to explore this today, because it's foundational to understanding what my relationship to Mormonism is like right now. Piecing these thoughts together has carried me through a lot, and I hope it can be helpful to others who need it.

If I had to describe this relationship in my life, I'd say I come by love for my faith honestly. I refuse to lie to myself, or accept bad rationality for unacceptable behavior anymore. But I also don't allow anyone to bully me into hating my religion either. I will keep what is worth keeping, because this represents so much of the good in my life. I will trash what is trash, without apologies to anyone. I am the boss of my own testimony. I have peace co-existing in spheres of faith and doubt, because I have embraced them both. I have no intentions of changing that, for reasons we'll explore momentarily.

Some would call my journey to get to this point a "faith crisis." I disagree. I never had a crisis of faith. That is not an accurate description of what happened to me. I had a crisis of certainty. And to understand the difference, let's take a look at Alma 32.

Faith, Doubt, and Certainty

Alma 32 is one of the most important chapters in holy writ to me. Everything I am, everything I believe, and how I approach God is wrapped up in this chapter. It was the first chapter of the Book of Mormon I ever read seriously. The spiritual experience I had with it is why I got baptized. It was the first time in my life faith as a principle made sense to me, because of how Alma separates it from everything faith is not.

As a background, Alma is serving as a missionary in the land of the Zoramites. He is preaching on the hill Onidah, when he is approached by a multitude of the poor. They want to be believers, but they've been rejected and turned away by everyone, especially the priests. Even though this group builds the houses of worship within this society, they are denied access to them. They are undesirable to allincluding those who claim to know and love God.

The question in their hearts is never spoken, but it's palpable in every word: How do I maintain faith in a God whose people are full of such prejudice, hatred, and blatant hypocrisy?

To answer their question, Alma speaks to the humility they've demonstrated by continuing to seek God in those circumstances. He acknowledges the dignity inherent to who they are, instead of defining their worth in being acceptable to others. Alma assures them it isn't necessary to worship God in a building, thereby dispelling any notion that these people are dependent on their oppressors to have a relationship with him. The priests and ruling classes do not, he argues, have the power or authority to remove God from their lives through compulsion. He then replaces those ideas with how to actually form a relationship with God.

At the forefront of that process are faith, doubt, and certainty. And the interplay between them in this chapter is completely inconsistent with the message that faith and doubt cannot coexist. Rather, Alma makes the argument that faith and certainty cannot coexist.

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
Alma 32:21

Faith, defined in verse 21, rests primarily in uncertainty. To hope for something we have never seen means entering and existing in the space where ambiguity, skepticism, and doubt exist. If we no longer have reason to doubt, it's because we have certainty born of knowledge and personal experience (see verse 18). He goes on to make analogies and allegories, and repeatedly asserts a single truth in every part of this process: if we still possess faith, we do not possess "a perfect knowledge," i.e. certainty.

So when do we finally obtain a perfect knowledge of anything in the gospel of Jesus Christ? When can we finally say, "I know this thing with a perfect knowledge, without any doubts whatsoever" and have it actually be the truth?

He answers that question in verses 42 and 43:

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
Alma 32:42-43

When we're dead, resurrected, have come into the presence of God, and have received eternal life. When our lives are complete. When we are finished. That's when we will have a perfect knowledge of anything. Short of that, there is no untouchable, unbreakable certainty that belongs to any person on this planetlet alone in the Church. Doubt belongs to all of us, and we belong to it. It is a necessary part of the mortal experience. 

We talk about "opposition in all things," and here it is. Without doubt, there can be no faith. And I don't mean that generally speakingthat doubt must exist abstractly somewhere, for someone else. If we have never personally experienced real, lasting, prolonged doubt, we cannot say we have mighty, unshakeable faith. Faith is a positive response to real doubt. Faith is not avoiding doubt by denying truth or reality. And it certainly is not pressuring others into silence to make that denial easier.

"Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."

So why, then, is so much of our church experience centered on convincing ourselves and others that we have any certainty regarding the foundational tenets of our faith?

Why do we have testimony meetings, where the format exists to assure everyone that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt the Church is "true"? Why do we have temple recommend interviews where we proclaim to know the tenets of our religion to be "true"? Why do we insist on hearing each other assert that we've achieved certainty in our beliefs and discipleship, when that isn't even possible at this stage of our spiritual development? 

If these experiences in the Church are supposed to be based on imperfect faith, not perfect knowledge, how does this change the way we see each other? What does this say about what God really expects from us when we worship together?

When you search for faith and doubt together in the scriptures, a variety of texts emerge where writers have analyzed the relationship between them. But for our purposes, let's examine Romans 14. It provides valuable insights into when faith and doubt were primary concerns to the apostle Paul. Who is strong, and who is weak in Christ? Who gets to decide, and what criteria is on that measuring stick? What obligations do we owe to each other as disciples in Christ? Take a few minutes to read the chapter, if you haven't recently. Some of the answers to these questions may surprise you.

As it turns out, developing a relationship with Christ in a community of other Saints has always worked best when... we mind our own business and don't take it upon ourselves to judge other people and their offerings to God. So much of what we define as discipleship is nothing more than personal preference, interpretation, and opinionwhich Paul acknowledges throughout this chapter. 

Note verse 1 where the very first instruction reads, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations." The person's doubts and hangups, however, are not the problem. The "disputations" are the issue, according to Paul. He compares those differences first to differences in eating habits (meat vs. herbs), then preferences in weather, then in how we choose to spend our time. In none of these things are there right and wrong answersjust differences in opinion and preference. These differences have no lasting value to God one way or the other, and no impact on our salvation.

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.

I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
Romans 14:13-15

Jesus Christ left much of what it means to be a disciple up to personal interpretation. Within the context of Mormonism, there are standards associated with receiving ordinances. But even after meeting these obligations, there is so much room for people to decide what discipleship means to them. What is compatible with your personal worship of Jesus Christ? That's a question we each get to decide how to answer. It's not for us to force our answers on others. In the words of Paul, there is no culture of conformity so precious that it is worth harming someone else in order to achieve it.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a message that demands for me to have a perfect knowledge of anyone or anything. Not here. Not yet. It is an invitation to have frail, human, imperfect faith in him. It is a message of flawed devotion, played out millions of times throughout my life. It is the hope to present myself inadequately before God, full of contradictions, and to marvel that I am acceptable anywayeach and every time. It is the reality of knowing every person in the pew beside me, no matter who they are, lives on the same hope and hypocrisy that sustains me.

Faith and doubt do not dispel each other. They dispel false pretenses. They forcefully remove the facades we learn to wear while comparing, competing, and reassuring others that everything is "just fine." They call our bluffs in each and every moment we spend trying to be perfect, or forcing others to be in our own sight. In the hands of God, faith and doubt are the great equalizersthe reminder that we are all the same exact distance away from being perfected. We all depend on the matchless love of Christ to get there.

When it Matters

It's one thing to talk about faith, doubt, and certainty in the abstract. It's another to view them personally through deep anguish. When the answers to questions like "Is God real?" and "Is there life after death?" were part of the debris of my former life crashing down around me, "faith and doubt cannot coexist" became all but meaningless to me. I now understand what it means to be dissatisfied with Instagram quote answers to profound questions born of grief.

I found myself asking these questions in the dark, knowing the impossible choices I would face the next morning. My mind was full of anguish, and I craved certainty in that moment. I must know there is life after death, that everything here isn't meaningless suffering amounting to nothing at all.

In the quiet that seeped slowly into my chest like morphine, my mind emptied and went still. An image of a sandy beach coalesced into my consciousness, blue water stretching before me in an endless horizon. I saw myself standing there, gazing at the line fixed between water and sky.

Imagine thinking there is no land anywhere else on earth, just because you can't see it.

Reality is not bound by what I have seen or experienced. I have not seen a corporeal God with my own two eyes. I have never seen the afterlife. There are endless numbers of people, living and dead, who I will never meet. Places I have never seen, and never will. My inability to see and interact with them does not logically turn them into fiction, cardboard cutouts and painted backdrops. A description of places I have never seen, of experiences I've never had, doesn't make them any less real.

There are some in my community who, after having an experience like this one, would infer or imply all kinds of certainty from it. Surely such an interaction was an answer to my questions! I've been given certain knowledge, beyond the shadow of all doubt, that God is real and there is an afterlife! Look more closely. I asked for certainty, and I didn't get it. I received a lesson on faith instead.

I'm realizing that the tendency to affix certainty upon spiritual experiences is a learned behavior on my part. It's what has set me up for so much frustration throughout my church experience. If my spiritual experiences are supposed to be vehicles of certainty, of course it would be wrong to question them. Of course doubt would be an undesirable experience, tarnishing what I already "know" to be true. Of course it would be devastating if the spiritual experiences at the heart of that "certainty" ever turned out to be incomplete or insufficient to bear me through the trials of my life. I can see why discovering the brittleness of certainty would be traumatic, a crisis, in the lives of some. The only reason I've never had a "faith crisis" is because I've never stopped giving myself the right to be fully human in the name of my religion.

I exist in a place where all that is real includes what I cannot see. Believing in the possibility that I may see God is faith. The acknowledgment that I can't/won't always do that is doubt—whether in God, or in people, or in myself, the impact is the same. Beyond my faith and doubt is a growing sense that claiming I will ever exist in any other state, at least here on earth, is the real delusion.

For me, it is the death of certainty. And it's in that place I'm becoming content to stay.

Christian vs. Christ-like: Why I Struggle and Why I Stay in the Church

I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for thirteen years. Lucky thirteen. Ten years... now add three. And I've had a lot of occasion lately to take stock of where I am, and where I'm going. How I got here, and where I want to be. And since these thoughts proven useful to people in the various places I've scattered them on the internet over the years, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share them here.

Why I Joined the Church

When I discovered the Church, I was already actively attending services at another congregation. I was about fifteen years old. A friend of mine had invited me to start attending services at the church where her father was a pastor, and I agreed to go. My mother's family was Catholic, but I wasn't raised in any particular religion. I had made a habit of always accepting these invitations when they were offered to me. As a result, I'd been to congregations that represent many corners of Christendom. Baptist, Wesleyan, Seventh-day Adventist, even an AME church a couple of times. I don't claim to be an expert on any of them, but I've seen the various kinds of welcome wagons that can be led out for a visitor, at least.

My friend's church was "non-denominational." This is a bit of a misnomer. Some might take this to mean a church that is doctrinally neutral and has no allegiance. What this actually means is it will be aligned to whatever the pastor's beliefs are, and that person is choosing not to make it obvious what they are. In this case, it was some flavor of Baptist.

To make a long story short, I wasn't being fed there. I wasn't satisfied with the answers I was getting to my questions. The people were nice, but were all too willing to throw civility and common sense out the window if the Bible (i.e. their interpretation of the Bible) gave them license to do so.

You're divorced? Bless your heart. You had a baby out of wedlock. We'll pray for you. That baby isn't baptized? Well, then it burns in the fiery depths of hell for all eternity.

Now, I've been told by many Baptists this isn't what they all believe. I am certainly willing to acknowledge that. There's diversity in all denominations, and Baptists are no different. But that doesn't change the fact that I was taught this and it was harmful. And it took me a long time to wrap my mind around it and say, "I just don't believe that." It was a skill I had to develop early in my life.

I was deeply unhappy in that church. I had questions they couldn't answer. I didn't feel like I was getting answers to my prayers. For all the services I attended, I didn't feel like I was getting any closer to God. Just spending a lot of time sticking my hands into the air for no reason. I was spiritually hungry and thirsty, and I realized they just didn't have what would fill me.

I met my first Latter-day Saints at that same time. I made some friends my age who were Mormon (yes, I still say Mormon; I earned that label by being bullied for it all through high school and I see no point in giving it up now). These kids were different. I didn't have to go to adults to get my questions answered. My new friends were literate enough in the scriptures to answer my questions for me. And the more they shared with me, the more it resonated with me. Every time I spoke to them, I left with more questions, but it felt like God wasn't just there listening. He was actually going to answer me. And that was all I ever wanted.

The first time I ever attended Sunday services at my friends' branch, I knew my search was over. I was home. I finally had my "burning bush," come to Jesus, personal experience with God. When I had my first sacred experience with the Book of Mormon, I knew I needed to be baptized. No missionaries, because we didn't have any. No pressure from other people to believe what they believedjust to explore it and know it for myself.

That's why I joined the Church. I had my own divine, personal experiencesindependent of anyone else's influencethat assured me it was the right decision.

Why I Struggle

When I was finally baptized (finally being the operative word because it's actually a struggle to get baptized when you don't have access to missionaries), I had another one of those sacred experiences that I didn't fully appreciate at the time. I had been fighting with everyone for so long to let me be baptized and to "just figure it out," I saw the preparation process as a formality. "Whatever, teach me your little lessons. I know I'm supposed to get baptized, so that's what I'm gonna do," was my attitude. The reality of the permanence, the absolute nature of what I was doing didn't hit me until I was standing at the font.

I was making a binding covenant with God not just to join the Church, but to stay in it. Even if people disappoint me. Even if they do something terrible that will hurt my feelings. No matter what. It isn't about them. I'm making this promise between me and God, and it's my choice whether or not to keep that promise.

That knowledge, that interaction with God, lasted less than a second. But time felt like it slowed down, and I thought about it. Was I willing to make that kind of commitment, especially since I had no idea what was ahead of me? It felt like signing a blank check to God, handing it over to him and saying, "Do whatever you want with this." It scared me, but I understood. I understood the nature of the transaction I was about to make.

It has been thirteen years. And God is still collecting off of that blank check. How? Because the amount he filled it in for was "Everything you've got." And I cannot possibly distill thirteen years of struggle into one blog post. I've been hurt and disappointed by members of my church. I've been insulted and ignored. I've been disrespected and disillusioned. I've been lied to. I've been cheated. I've had experiences that are so hurtful and traumatic, they are worth leaving the Church over. I could tell them to you in full, right now, and there is not a single person who would blame me for walking away and never looking back.

If I had to distill all of those experiences into one criticism, it would be this: we set ourselves apart in this church as being distinct and different from other Christian churches. And we do have our differences in beliefs, doctrine, and policy. But for as long as we are human, we have no right to believe we are, or to present ourselves as, perfect fulfillments of who God commands us to be. We are not finished. And in that human condition, we treat each other as poorly and with much carelessness as any other group. We believe we're special, but in many ways that matter we are no different than anyone else.

We can claim to be Christian, but we are not always Christ-like. Too often, members of the Church fail to understand the difference. We become experts at identifying the harmful behavior in others that we can't see in ourselves.

Because I refuse to conform to a culture that claims to be Christian, but is not always Christ-like, I don't always fit in. My honesty is not always welcome or well-received. And it leads to experiences I don't deserve to have. And based on the conversations I've had with many people on the outskirts of my faith, I know I'm not alone in that experience.

Why I Stay

So if I've had such a bad time of it over my thirteen years of church membership, why on earth would I stay? Why do I tolerate bad behavior when it's directed at me, at members of my family, and people I love? Who in their right mind would do that?

My answer is an ongoing discovery I'm still making. What I'm realizing is staying in the Church doesn't have to mean tolerating bad behavior. That doesn't mean I buy into the foolhardy assertion that "I can fix things." The Church is a big place, and I don't have the kind of institutional influence I would need to "fix things." Thankfully, I don't think anyone does because I certainly wouldn't want them using it on me. In the words of someone I don't like very much at the moment, I can "push back" against the world. I can recognize all the ways and moments the Church is part of the world, and never stop letting them forget it. I can't affect change without the consent of others. But I can draw strength from the importuning widow who never stopped knocking until she received what she knew she deserved, for as long as it was still owed to her.

I am grateful for every person to cross my path who was undeserving of my time, energy, and trust. They've made me wiser in all my relationships. I find it telling the first lesson Eve learns by her own experience in scripture is to be careful with her trust, because not every person has her best interests at heart.

It's one thing to say these things. It's another to live on them. And for a long time, I stopped actively going to church because I couldn't take in any more disappointment. I needed time to heal, to regroup. Like Christ, I had to go up on the mountain to pray. It has taken more than a year for me to come down, and I do so with an answer (emphasis my answer) that is every bit as real as the one I got when I was baptized.

Why do I stay? Because this is where Jesus Christ is. This is the foundation on which all of my knowledge of him rests. I'm still fed here, even if my fellow Saints in the buffet line need to (in the words of my mother) "straighten up and remember how to act right in public."

My testimony isn't based on the infallibility of prophets and apostles, or adherence to cultural homogeneity in the Church, or political stances based in hate and fear. That may pass for Christian among many, but it is not Christ-like to me. And like everything else that isn't Christ-like from the parable of the wise man who built his house upon the rock, it will eventually be blown away.

Sometimes, you find yourself in places that change your life, without fully understanding how you got there. That was my experience when I took a trip with my mom to the Florida panhandle, an area still largely in ruins from Hurricane Michael last year. I went to church while I was there, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The pews, the carpet, the ceiling tiles were gone. Panels of drywall were missing. The steeple was on the ground outside. For the first time, I was in a church building that was as battered by life as I felt inside. That sacrament meeting was the best one I had attended in so long. With every other distraction stripped away, their meeting was focused entirely on Jesus Christ and his power to rebuild our lives after devastation. They taught me, in the most literal way, what it means to build your house upon a rock. (Matt. 7:24-27) I left that meeting remembering why I had joined the Church, why it was worth it to me to stay. My foundation is in Christ, and it is strong enough to withstand the storms of life. I saw it in the faith and hearts those people, who helped me to see it again in myself. I was a stranger and a visitor to them, but they were the ward family I needed in that moment. I will always remember them for that. #lds #mormon #850strong #HurricaneMichael #JesusChrist #faith #hope #fixitjesus
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is my home. My messy, imperfect home where stuff isn't clean and I swear sometimes. I am not the be all and end all of Christianity, and neither is anyone else. And that's okay. Letting go of all the pressure to live up to a comfortable lie is probably the most Christ-like thing we can all do for each other right now. And it's a gift I'm going to start extending much more widely than I'm accustomed to doing.

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