[Languages of the Spirit] Doubt

My husband frequently says of our team dynamic that he is the historian and I am the theologian, and that before I talk about anything I lay a theological framework for it. This is clearly interesting and endearing of me. The last couple of posts have been me laying the theological framework for this series, and now we get to get into actual examples of spiritual divergence. Just one last thing, though. A few comments in a previous post pointed out that I have not clarified what exactly I mean by spirit. This is a really good point because, frankly, the concept of spirit isn’t always clear. There is the Holy Ghost (which is talked about as a power by which our mind is connected with God[1] but is also described as a person). There is the Light of Christ which sometimes is the conscience with which everyone is born and is secondary to the holy spirit which is the source of greater truth[2], but other times is the source of all light and truth and makes the role of the Holy Ghost a little more ambiguous[3]. There is the spirit that is inside our bodies and the spiritual creation inside everything and the spirit of different powers and principles. So what does “the spirit” mean? Firstly, I think this is a really important question and I am grateful for the comments that brought it to my attention. Secondly, I am not going to try to answer because I don’t know. Are there differences? Maybe we just have different terms for what is actually the same thing. Or maybe it is all fundamentally different somehow and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. This deserves more attention, but for the purpose of this series I am talking about the spirit as the connection between us and God.


A number of years ago I started out on what now gets referred to as a faith crisis. It was pretty early on in what has become a more widespread phenomenon (I like to be cutting edge). There was really no community for it, and there was a lot of discomfort in how people responded. To have doubt was a sign of loss of the spirit and it needed to be lovingly—or not—shamed out of you. Though I didn’t accept the idea that I was just being faithless, I did believe that I wasn’t feeling the spirit. I felt deep sorrow and emptiness and according to what I had been taught that could only have meant one thing: absence of spirit. I didn’t exactly want to go back to life before doubt because I thought my questions mattered, but I missed feeling the spirit (or at least feeling it in the way I had been used to). I had no idea how to reconcile those things, and I didn’t know anyone who could help me.

There’s a lot of discussion about how God can speak to us in spite of doubt, loves us in spite of doubt, that the spirit can save us from doubt. Even still, after all the years of more openly speaking of doubt, many people’s response to doubters is to try to help them make the doubt go away, either by just “having faith”, or by leaving the church. In these cases doubt is something that needs to be put to rest. That is not what I am talking about. I am not going to tell you how to make doubt go away so that you can feel the spirit again. I am saying that there are circumstances where doubt is the spirit, and it may be that actual loss of the spirit would not come from listening to doubt, but from refusing to.

God taught me this one day a few years ago. I had been wrestling for decades and I couldn’t take it anymore. As I sat under this unbearable burden I finally thought, “Fine! God, I will stay, but I am done with mental gymnastics and putting things on shelves. If there is something that I think is wrong or that doesn’t make sense I’m not going to pretend it must be right or that it doesn’t matter. I won’t lie to look like I fit into someone else’s idea of faith.” God immediately responded and asked, “What made you think I wanted you to do that in the first place?”

I was shocked. Frankly I suppose I assumed God would, if anything, respond to me like I was a child throwing a tantrum. Isn’t that how we tend to imagine that God thinks of us? It took me a while to absorb this question, and that God was taking me and asking it seriously. Why did I think that I had to be unquestioningly agreeable in order to be right (or look right) with God? Why did I think that was a sign of the spirit? I won’t go into the reasons here; some of them would be glaringly obvious to anyone who has spent any time in any faith community, others are more personal. What is important for this discussion is that is not what God wanted from me. My Heavenly Parents wanted me to wrestle and ask questions! They actually liked that about me!

After this I started noticing a lot more how many times in scripture that a revelation comes because of a person pushing back and asking questions; that God doesn’t actually answer questions we don’t ask. I was deeply moved by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ posit that the reason Abraham was chosen to be the father of the covenant was because he was the first person who walked with God and was willing to question something that God said that he didn’t agree with (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Before that there were others who walked with God, but who were unwilling to wrestle with him. When they had problems they snuck behind his back, took it out on a sibling, lied, or just did exactly what they were told without thought or question. Abraham was the first person who struggled with something God said and talked to God about it. And, according to Rabbi Sacks, that was exactly what God wanted. God didn’t want obedience that came at the cost of thoughtlessness or sneakiness or resentment. Abraham’s faith didn’t come because he mindlessly obeyed, but because he was willing to question God to his face. Because God doesn’t want slaves.

Doubt is the realization that there is something that is unknown that not only can but should be known. That what satisfied us as infants may no longer be enough to satisfy us as adults, because God doesn’t want us to stay in a perpetual infancy. What we call doubt may actually be the spirit prodding us, prompting us to ask God questions because our Heavenly Parents are eager to teach us what they know. This is one of the things that is so amazing about the gospel—our Heavenly Parents, the God of the universe, want us to understand them! Stop and really let that sink in for a moment. Let it dig deep and develop roots. God wants us to understand. Do we really think this is going to be a comfortable, easily walkable road where everything always makes perfect sense and if it doesn’t it’s “not pertinent to our eternal salvation”? How can we possibly expect that learning the mysteries of Godliness will never be hard and confusing and require us to deeply and seriously rethink what we think we know? How can we be so arrogant as to assume that because something doesn’t make sense to us it must not matter or is even bad? To think that truth only needs to be pursued as long as it doesn’t cause us to loose any sleep over it?

Doubt can come from all kinds of things. Being disoriented by some of our own history, trusting another member and being betrayed by them, seeing the light of someone you love slowly fade away because they don’t fit into the church mold, experiences or learning that contradict what you have always been taught. These are life events when the old trite phrases that used to be so comforting no longer cut it. (You know, “everything happens for a reason”, “it’s policy or culture not doctrine”, “it will all make sense someday”, “just have faith”. All those pat answers that are meant to comfort but do so by silencing difficult questions.) But what if those difficult questions are themselves revelations? What if there is more God wants to teach us now but, like so many things, it requires a certain level of discomfort to be able to learn?

It may lack the reassurance we have been trained to look for; there is no question but that it can be unpleasant and lonely. But it can also be the opening of what was once a locked door. Doubt can be a powerful language of the spirit, acting as the impetus to push  us right into the heart and mind of God.

[1] Lectures on Faith 5

[2] Moroni 7

[3]D&C 88

16 comments for “[Languages of the Spirit] Doubt

  1. Each of us reacts to doubt in different ways. “To doubt your doubt” doesn’t work for me. After doing some study, I came to the realization that it was unlikely I was going to reach any level of certainty about the Church. Eventually I decided that the issue was no longer interesting. I decided that Christ’s basic message was to love your neighbor. This message replaced any interest I had in organized religion. Christianity is easy. Why do we make it so complicated? Instead of trying to resolve our doubt, why not choose Christ-like actions? The world provides many opportunities for loving your neighbor.

  2. This is lovely, Mary. Thank you. I’ve harbored doubts for many, many years. I still have doubts and am skeptical, and I’ve gone long stretches without feeling strong promptings of any kind. But I’ve had several paradigm shifts that have helped me live comfortably with my doubt. My first major shift was studying the Hebrew Bible, and realizing we had canonized records of doubt or despair or skepticism–Psalm 88, or the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. These helped me see that God was okay with my doubts and wrestlings, much like your experience with Abraham. (I love the Rabbi Sacks quote!)

    I also started to learn about faith not so much as assent to propositions, but faith as loyalty and allegiance. I realized that doctrines and principles and covenants might change, and that revelation is always accommodated, and that prophets are fallible. But my faith was a “who” question, not a “what.” Now I can distinguish between my “faith-as-loyalty crisis” and my “faith-as-belief crisis.” The latter is common, but in the context of faith as a LOYALTY to a loving God, it’s more manageable.

    The discomfort of doubt has also helped me reframe “religion.” Loving God and our neighbors? I really do believe that’s the center of it all. Like you, Roger, I’ve stopped focusing on certainty. But I did reach a different conclusion with organized religion: I make sense of it the “Eugene England” way, and see it as an opportunity to be in close proximity with people who I can love and serve. I need that, at least, given my natural introversion.

  3. Bryan, the problem with high-demand religion is you direct too much of your energy to institutional maintenance and not enough toward “loving your neighbor.” I’m vain enough to think I can allocate my tithing money more efficiently than the GA’s. For example, I’m not a big fan of temple construction. And CES has become increasing problematic.

    I too am an introvert. But finding humanitarian connections outside the Church environment is not difficult. Many have Mormon connections.

  4. @rogerdhansen I think you make an important point that there are ways in which organized religion can be inefficient and sometimes even ineffective in its own support, and that can be a very serious risk that its members need to beware of. I don’t, however, necessarily believe that Christ’s teachings are all easy and we just overcomplicate them. It is true that there are aspects to kindness that are very straightforward, but Christ asks us to actually love people, ALL people, not just to be nice and kind to them. For someone who has been abused the commandment to love your enemy, for example, is neither easy nor simple, and may require a strong community to make it possible to attempt, much less achieve. There are risks that come with organized religion and they shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside, but there are also unique blessings that I believe make those risks worth facing. For me wrestling with doubt has not diverted energy that would have been better spent loving people; on the contrary, it has actually made me more empathetic and loving.

  5. Mary, thank you so much for your post. You wrote and published it at a critical moment for me, and it was an answer to a prayer that I *needed* to have answered.

  6. Faith is not belief. Many LDS belief systems masquerade as doctrine. Equivocation of faith=belief, and then belief=doctrine, sums with faith=doctrine. “Perpetual infancy,” the immaturity of LDS spiritual consciousness–is a consequence of our collective displacement of faith by belief and belief systems.

    Knowing that LDS conflate faith with belief, any adversary wishing to do harm can attack LDS belief systems. Consider the “CES Letter.” It stays far from faith, and focuses on belief systems–belief systems that most LDS automatically assume are either doctrine, or related to doctrine. Ironically, the Gospel Topic essays volley belief systems in much the same way (which is evidence that the CES is impotent). When belief systems clash and contradict, the conscience suffers a “belief crisis,” but because LDS are unable to discern faith from belief, we label the condition as a “faith crisis.” The collective inability to discern between faith and belief is a clear vulnerability of the Restored Church.

    The safe way out is to deconstruct doctrine by differentiating faith from belief. One can have much faith and little belief, or many beliefs and little faith. Choose faith, not belief. We can navigate from faith to ordinance to covenant without a single belief system: faith is informed by ordinance, and ordinance is informed by covenant. Doctrine deconstructed is defined as “the expounding of ordinance,” full stop. Everything else is man’s proffered belief system.

    Doubt derives from belief–one belief waxing and another belief waning. Deconstruct doctrine, discern faith from belief, recognize the matrix of creed and pledge and oath and belief system for what it is. The Spirit reveals by faith, not belief.

  7. I have a hard time celebrating doubt because it’s been associated with so much heartbreak in my family. But I completely agree that it should not be ignored, shamed, or hidden. “What made you think I wanted you to do that in the first place?” rings true to me.

    I think there’s value in doing things we *should* do even when we don’t feel it. But I don’t think it’s helpful to try to make ourselves think what we *should* think or feel what we *should* feel. When my younger brother died of cancer shortly after his 16th birthday, my Mother was angry with God–she was quite open about it with the people who were close to her, and with Him. I’m convinced that honesty and openness led to a deeper relationship when they did reconcile. Trying to pretend those feelings didn’t exist would have made it much harder to resolve them. I believe it’s the same with doubt.

    I also agree with Bryan S about separating faith as assenting to certain propositions from faith as loyalty. I’ve described the latter as trust (in fact I gave a talk on it yesterday) but trust and loyalty go hand-in-hand so I think we’re on the same page. Rejecting propositions we used to believe should be common–how can we expect to learn and grow if we aren’t ready to reject incomplete and partially incorrect understandings of the gospel? Sometimes it’s learning a better understanding that makes us see the problems with our old understanding; sometimes we see the problems and then have to struggle long and hard to find something better. It’s only when we start to doubt our loyalty to and trust in God (and his Church) that it becomes a “faith crisis.” Which is not to say that crises are not valid or that they should be ignored or hidden. But I do suspect what pleased God the most about your declaration was the “Fine! God, I will stay” part.

    On defining “spirit”: “Firstly, I think this is a really important question…. Secondly, I am not going to try to answer because I don’t know.” Fair enough–I don’t either! It does seem important to me when talking about “Languages of the Spirit” to identify whether we’re talking about how a part of ourselves communicates with the rest of ourselves, or talking about how something outside of us (and divine) communicates with us. For example, I don’t think the Holy Ghost ever encourages us to doubt our loyalty to God, though He could give us information that has that effect, at least temporarily. I’m not 100% sure how to categorize spirit as “the connection between us and God” but maybe I’m imposing a distinction you don’t think is important, and that’s okay too.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  8. @Bryan S, I like the idea of loyalty. That gives faith a foundation in a relationship that can give it great resilience. Thanks!
    @Lawrence, thanks for sharing, I’m so glad this helped.
    @Travis, I would be interested to know more about your definition of doctrine. I have tried to research that a little and I haven’t found anything that defines doctrine that way. I was wondering if you could suggest some reading material that could further explain that? I would be interested in better understanding that perspective. Deconstruction can be a valuable thought experiment, but complex systems are greater than the sum of their parts. Ordinances and covenants do not exist in a vacuum. They have value to their adherents because they are imbued with meaning that comes from belief–I believe that our Heavenly Parents are real, I believe they are certain kinds of beings, I believe they want me to be like them and so I need to understand them, I believe ordinances help me with that. Faith derives from my belief being strong enough that I actively participate in and live by those ordinances and covenants, even though I cannot see the outcome yet. I would even say that ordinances and covenants have no meaning outside of beliefs–without believing that the ordinances are doing what they claim to do within their stated belief system, what is their purpose? The temple ordinances, for example, have no meaning to my evangelical family because they don’t accept the beliefs upon which they are based. If I come to wonder whether or not the principles and beliefs that give meaning to ordinances and covenants are correct or efficacious then I may experience doubt. My contention is that that is not necessarily bad because, as you say, there may be things I believe within a true belief system that are not true, and so I need to keep learning and be willing to change. While there are important differences between ordinances, covenants, faith, belief, and doctrine, I think those differences are like the differences between the heart, brain, blood, and liver. Yes they perform different functions, but try taking one out and see whether or not the others are affected.
    @RLD, I agree that the hard thing with doubt is that it causes deep pain, often not just to the person experiencing it. Just that can make it hard to accept and I’m so sorry for the pain you and your family have experienced. I do think God was pleased that I stayed, and equally pleased that I was willing to keep wrestling and asking questions. Those questions have been some of the greatest blessings of my life, and brought me closer to God in a way nothing else could have. Again, I think your question about what the spirit is is very, very important. I am intentionally being ambiguous for this series because the whole purpose is to think outside of the box in terms of how we can connect with God, and that what may be normal and natural for one person may be totally foreign to another. I don’t think that exercise can work if I start out by being too specific, though, again, I think there is great value in that discussion being had.

  9. @Mary Grey: “I would be interested to know more about your definition of doctrine. I have tried to research that a little and I haven’t found anything that defines doctrine that way. I was wondering if you could suggest some reading material that could further explain that?”

    In almost every case, the word “doctrine” is synonomous with “belief, beliefs, belief systems, etc.” This makes it so almost anything and everything can be construed as doctrine. “Self-help” and “prosperity gospel” messages pervade the LDS pulpit as perfect “belief-system” placebo. Saints call all of it “doctrinal.” We have an out-of-print text still circulating that made the mistake of attempting to compile beliefs into a standard corpus: the author had the audacity to call the text “mormon doctrine.” The text expressed many positions that were “believed” to be doctrinal, but it turns out that our lens of belief was a bit racist, and that there is no substantial evidence to support, say, priesthood prohibition by any criteria other than unrighteousness. For a scholarly take, W. Cantwell Smith, Harvard Divinity, wrote a book entitled “Faith and Belief” (1978), where he compares interfaith constructs of faith and belief. He notes how Christian concept is uniquely Catholicised by its creed-over-conscience modality, and that the English words “faith” and “belief” derive from very different roots AND their usage has changed significantly from the original Latin, Greek, Old English, etc.

    On deconstructing the relationship of faith or belief to ordinance: It’s the difference between how a Catholic approaches eucharist and how a Jew approaches havdelah. The Catholic “believes” bread and wine transmutate into flesh and blood. The Jew sees idolatry, human sacrifice, and cannibalism in the Catholic’s liturgy. The Jew has faith but no beliefs–no fundamental creeds or propositions that “prove” loyalty, no subordination of one’s conscience to dogma. The Jew recites havdelah to remember, and the act of remembrance constitutes a returning, a unifying, a closer proximity, a communion [at-one-ment] with Adonai. The relationship the Jew has to ordinance is doctrinal, whereas, the relationship the Catholic has to ordinance is dogmatic.

  10. @Mary Grey: “I would even say that ordinances and covenants have no meaning outside of beliefs–without believing that the ordinances are doing what they claim to do within their stated belief system, what is their purpose? …temple ordinances, for example, have no meaning to my evangelical family because they don’t accept the beliefs upon which they are based… Ordinances and covenants do not exist in a vacuum. They have value to their adherents because they are imbued with meaning that comes from belief…”

    That would be to say that ordinances have no meaning except that which is put into them. It is a problem if we think ordinances do something beyond the task of “bringing us to remembrance.” The “doing” should be a “remembering.” Many LDS approach temple worship with what a Jew would criticize as an idolatrous appetite.

    Ordinances are symbolic representations of covenant. Why conflate ordinance and covenant? Covenant is not a belief, it is a proximity, a relationship. From covenant, we derive ordinance, not the other way around. To “believe in” temple ordinances is to put more into the image than the meaning behind the image. As a rule, when the symbol is more powerful than the symbolism it holds, it becomes an object of idolatry. Faith in ordinance is not the same as belief in ordinance.

    For example, if we “believe” that the act of immersion manufactures a cleansing of the soul in the ordinance of baptism, we commit idolatry. The baptismal ordinance, like all other ordinances, signifies a recognition and a remembrance. The initiate was prepared and clean before entering the water; the initiate has already received the Holy Ghost before laying on of hands. Ordinance is a type for group recognition and shared remembrance. Leaders who act like their raised-hand is some conduit that zaps the Holy Ghost into the initiate upon confirmation are mistaken in their Boy-Scout approach. By analogy, the same can be extended to temple ordinance.

  11. Just in case I was unclear, I strongly agree that questioning and caring deeply about getting the answers is an essential part of the process of becoming like our Heavenly Parents, even if it leads to doubt along the way. They don’t rely on someone else to tell them what’s true; They know and understand everything. In fact, as I read things like:

    “I started noticing a lot more how many times in scripture that a revelation comes because of a person pushing back and asking questions”

    “God doesn’t want slaves”

    “God wants us to understand”

    and especially:

    “My Heavenly Parents wanted me to wrestle and ask questions! They actually liked that about me!”

    I unexpectedly had the Spirit confirm to me that what you said was true. Unexpectedly, because I thought I knew that already–but apparently I needed a reminder. Thank you for providing it.

  12. @Travis Certainly there is great risk that belief can become dogma and develop a system that requires demonstrations of loyalty that often have to do with suppression of divergent thinking, and I absolutely agree that that is a bad thing. This is a danger in any faith tradition, including in Judaism which has a rich diversity of sects just like Christianity. We just all have different ideas between us as to what beliefs are unacceptable. Also, I am not arguing about belief in ordinance as such, I am arguing that covenant cannot be deconstructed from belief because our relationship with God itself is built on belief. Belief is not just creed and dogma, it is the basis of any relationship between God and humanity. Until God comes down and personally explains everything to us face to face we are left to base the relationship we have with God on belief. To have a relationship with God I must believe in God, I must believe in something about God’s nature, and I must believe in what is expected of me because of what I believe about God’s nature. For example, I believe that God is good, kind, just, and merciful. I believe that God wants me to be like that, too. I make a covenant with God, (my Heavenly Parents), that I will strive my whole life to be like them. I participate in ordinances to remind me of that. But it is all based in belief. God has never come down and told me in person that these covenants I am remembering and this nature I am striving to emulate are correct. God has never told me to my face that my family will be together forever. But I believe it. I trust in it. I have felt its truth. I act according to that belief and trust. The fact that belief can lead to dogma doesn’t mean that we need to seek for a post-belief existence. That’s not possible. Until we have absolute knowledge (which we can have about very few things, religious or otherwise) we are left with belief. I also don’t think that belief is a cheap consolation until we can know, which is much better. I think belief is a profound and adaptable good that we need to be able to grow. The nature of belief also means that we need to be extremely humble, and be responsive to the spirit when it nudges us that we may be wrong and there is more to learn. I think this is why God has a special love for belief. I don’t think belief on its own is the problem, the problem is when we can no longer see the difference between belief and knowledge–when we think that to believe is to know, and not only do we know, but we know everything that we need to know. THIS is where we get into trouble, no matter what the subject is.
    @RLD, just to clarify, I wasn’t meaning to suggest you were not supporting the idea of questioning, I just wanted to clarify I wasn’t trying to dismiss your question!

  13. @Mary Grey,

    I appreciate your testimony of what you “believe” the word “belief” means. I challenge you to explore and experiment a bit more. Consider a game to differentiate and discern between the following:

    Faith and Belief
    Liturgy and Ordinance
    Ordinance and Covenant
    Covenant and Commandment
    Doctrine and Dogma

    These binaries represent common conflations that obfuscate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many LDS are not able to differentiate these terms because we don’t really understand them. The equivocation of terms is intellectually sloppy and contributes to the infantilization of the congregation.

  14. @Travis, Just to clarify a few things:
    I’m glad that you would appreciate my testimony, though in this case I was not testifying as to what I “believe” about “belief”, I was stating that belief is integral to covenant. I am well aware, (without needing to play games), that all these terms have different meanings and those differences matter. My contention is that they cannot be completely deconstructed into discreet entities. While I agree that thoughtlessly equivocating them can make them loose much of their meaning, they have enough interconnection and overlap between them that attempting to completely separate them from each other would make them loose much of their meaning as well.

  15. @Mary Grey, first, I am grateful for your recent posts, your insight and your pushback:

    “My contention is that they cannot be completely deconstructed into discreet entities.”

    We don’t expect a complete deconstruction of terms, just enough to be able to clearly differentiate between them. The underlying argument is that proximity to the Spirit, like proximity to covenant, is a matter of faith and not belief. Our terms are faith and belief.

    One way to differentiate faith from belief is to triangulate from a synchronistic word, like “hope.” We find that faith aligns with hope, but the same congruency is not found between hope and belief. In fact, to express faith, the phrase “I hope…” is better aligned with a spirit of truth than is the phrase “I believe.” But it would sound funny if somebody bearing testimony said, “I hope the Gospel is true.” We overcompensate for belief and say “I know.” Why? Because belief kind of thinks it knows. Belief struggles with doubt especially because it fools itself by pretending to know.

    My first posted comment about doubt-deriving-from-belief (and from not from faith) fits here. When we encounter doubt, it corresponds to a belief, set of beliefs, or belief system. Doubt does not mingle with faith. Doubt employs as much “knowing” as belief. So doubt is kind of an oppositional or adversarial belief contrasting other belief(s). The attitude of knowingness is the end of knowing anything: belief is demonstratively stationary and set. To contrast, faith is not a knowing. Faith recognizes the odds-against (like a seasoned gambler, who proceeds for the prize. In this way, gambling is a type of counterfeit or perversion of faith). Nevertheless, we recognize how attitudinally, the not-knowing, not-believing, but hoping–with a mind and heart filled like a child given a promise–expresses faith that corresponds to reception of the Spirit.

    If we encounter doubt, we find refuge by identifying doubt’s corresponding belief system, make note of it, and remove to a faith-oriented construct. We navigate from faith to ordinance to covenant without a single belief system. Attitudinally, we approach the mercyseat with the heart of a child who has been given a promise. The child needs no belief where there is a promise-given. Where can greater faith be found, than with a child given a promise?

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