If the last General Conference conveyed anything to me, it was that there continues to be a real concern about member of the Church losing faith, particularly as access to information critical of the Church becomes increasingly and more easily available. As a parent and a seminary teacher, I have become well-aware of the effect that the Internet is having on the testimony of some members, especially the youth, whose testimonies have had less time to develop and may be more easily choked by weeds of misinformation. As someone who has wrestled at times with doubt, I’d like to offer five suggestions that have helped me to deal with the discordant voices of those critical of our faith.
- SLOW DOWN. Impatience is one of the most powerful enemies of spiritual development. On the one hand, we want testimonies to come quickly, preferably with lots of bright lights, trumpets and angels. For most of us, things don’t work that way. Our testimonies grow gradually as we nurture them with good habits (like studying the scriptures, meditating on their message, praying, and attending regular worship services) and enhance them through spiritual experiences. We want something more than to just “feel good” about the gospel, but that’s where a testimony begins. Rather than reject those feelings as inadequate evidence, we should recognize them as the seeds of a testimony and nourish them accordingly. On the other hand, we need to be more patient when we come across information critical of the Church. Sometimes we are much quicker to accept critical information than we are supportive information, jumping to conclusions as soon as we come across something that feeds our doubts.
- BACK UP. Occasionally looking at one piece of information too closely causes us to lose our perspective. If we examined the Mona Lisa with a microscope, all we would see is ugly gobs of paint. The masterpiece only can be appreciated when we step back and see how all of the gobs fit together. In the same way we need to look at the history of the Church with some degree of distant perspective. We need to remember that the Church likely has developed in its growth much like we have. In my youth, I had a testimony of the Church, but to be completely honest, it was sprinkled with some weird doctrinal ideas I had cooked up for myself, and it was flavored with intolerant exuberance that led me to treat people with less compassion than they deserved. Time and experience were great teachers for me. They have been for the Church as well. Early Church leaders weren’t raised with Primary classes and Mutual activities. They came from varied religious cultures and levels of education. They struggled to put in order a flood of revelations that were entirely different from what they had known before. As a result, there were plenty of brushstrokes that had to be reconsidered or painted over. I’m sure even Picasso sometimes looked at his works halfway through and thought, “Boy, that really stinks.”
- EASE OFF. We tend to hold our Church leaders in high regard, often to the point of unrealistic expectations. Some of that is the fault of the Church, in my opinion. In the past, I think our Primary and Sunday School lessons did too much deifying of the presidents of the Church, turning them into spiritual superheroes. I greatly admire and sustain our Church leaders, but at the same time I’m uncomfortable with how giddy people get when they find out that a General Authority is coming to a stake conference or other meeting. These folk aren’t perfect. And when we set our expectations too high, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Spend a little time in the scriptures looking for examples of the Lord’s chosen servants who have royally screwed up. There are plenty of them. They include some heavy hitters, like Noah, Jacob, Moses, and Peter. Check out the Book of Mormon for a false prophecy by the ineffable Captain Moroni. Peruse the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants for all of the chew-out sessions issued to Joseph Smith by the Lord. The Lord never has hidden the fact that He is working through (sometimes deeply) flawed people. If we don’t expect our leaders to walk on water, we won’t get quite so upset with their wet feet.
- TRY AGAIN. Do you know why the castaways never got off of Gilligan’s Island? It was because they never tried anything twice. Every episode they came up with a new plan to escape the island. Often, that plan had a reasonable chance for success, but when an extraordinary set of unexpected events (usually the result of some bad decision by Gilligan) derails the effort, they give up on the plan…forever. Many of us approach our testimonies the same way. If we don’t get the answers we want right away, or if we come across unsettling information, we throw up our hands and quit. Oftentimes, that means abandoning very real spiritual experiences and confirmations that we have had in the past. Always it means abandoning the spiritual moments we will have in the future. So try again. Sacrament meeting was a spiritual bust this week? Try again next week. Your prayers bounced back from the ceiling last night? Try getting on your knees again tonight. Your bishop was insensitive to a problem you expressed to him? Give him another chance. Trust that tomorrow things might be more clear.
- BE WORTHY. Let me be clear from the outset: Not all testimony problems are the result of disobedience. But some of them are. If your are plagued by doubts, give yourself a quick worthiness check. Are you living in a manner in which the Spirit can communicate with you, or have you put yourself in a soundproof room and then started complaining that you can’t hear anything? Testimonies are fragile things, and the slightest blow from the outside can be devastating if we have been battering them from the inside by not living the principles of the gospel and honoring the ordinances and covenants we have received. I feel better about the gospel when I am living it. Simple as that.
Struggling with doubts is hard. I know. Been there, done that, and have worn the t-shirt down to threads. There is no quick fix or easy path to gaining–or reclaiming–a testimony of Christ and His gospel. But the things I’ve discussed above have helped to keep me grounded in what I believe and less likely to have spiritual apoplexy every time I hear some new criticism of the Church or its leaders.
A testimony is worth having, and like any good thing, it is earned only through sincere and sometimes frustrating effort. Trust the process, and endure the doubts. As you persevere, you will find that light dispels darkness and faith triumphs over doubt.