One of my favorite gospel stories is about the father who brings his possessed son unto the Savior to be healed (Mark 9). After pleading with the Savior’s disciples “that they should cast him out; and they could not,” the Savior quickly rebuked His disciples. He then turns to the father and says, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” The father’s response has lead me to hours of pondering. The father says, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
In the same sentence, it seems that the father proclaims his faith in the Savior and then has a crisis of faith. In the beginning I can hear the conviction in his voice stating an unwavering testimony as he says, “Lord, I believe!” Then doubt snatches that conviction and turns the tone into a plead, “help thou mine unbelief.”
“Without a Shadow of a Doubt” Testimonies
As latter-day saints we experience something similar. We have a culture that highlights those that can stand at the lecterns of the Church and proclaim, “I know the Church is true without a shadow of a doubt!” Such conviction is inspiring, and deep within my own testimony I probably wouldn’t hesitate to use such an LDS cliché. I believe… I know… I have a witness… It doesn’t matter how we testify. As we testify, we sincerely want to communicate that we have received a spiritual witness and we want others to receive that same witness.
It has been decades of “without a shadow of a doubt” type of testimonies, or some form of them, announced from lecterns, tearfully shared in Sunday School, and even testified in bishop’s offices. However, my fear is that all these years of conviction has created a culture of “gold-stars-on-foreheads” or honoring those with the right kind of testimony—that you only belong if you have received such a dramatic witness and can stand with a broad chest and speak such words. The general believing membership of the Church didn’t intend for this. Of course, everyone sharing their testimony wants all to come unto Christ, and their only intent with sharing such a bold testimony is to produce other bold testimonies. But what about the individuals who showed up on Sunday with a prayer on his or her heart that says, “Lord, help thou mine unbelief?” Do they feel like they are among struggling saints seeking for sanctification? Or do they feel out of place because it seems everyone else has arrived?
The Leader Testifies
Now what about the local leaders of wards, Relief Societies, or quorums? Of course they have conviction of the gospel truths, and I count myself among them. They don’t hand out these leadership responsibilities to the public doubter. The Church needs leaders who can boldly proclaim their witness. And the last thing a leader should do is fake uncertainty of their faith in order to validate those that truly are uncertain. The doubter needs validation nonetheless. They need to know their leader not only understands their struggle to receive a testimony, but that the process of faith they are going through is normal and not a spiritual handicap.
So, what’s a leader to do? How can the leader make room for those that are not as far down the path of conviction as other members of the ward?
Invite Them to Share the Struggle
When I was bishop and I found myself initiating the fast and testimony meeting on 1st Sundays of the month by sharing my own testimony, I would make it a habit to invite all to stand and share their version of their testimony—even if that testimony contained overtones of struggle and delayed certainty.
It would be refreshing to hear in a testimony meeting the simple words, “I want to believe, but I’m not sure I’m there yet.” Or, “I thought there was no room for a shadow of a doubt in my heart, but this week was tough.”
These testimonies may cause the bishopric to squirm or wonder if the meeting is going off the rails, but, consider what it does for the skeptics in the audience. The person who stopped trying to believe long ago and now just comes to retain peace in his or her marriage—it gives them a feeling that there is a place for them at church, that others are still seeking faith as much as he or she wants to. And, when the deep believer hears this struggle they want nothing else but to love them so that they drink from the cup of sanctification as much as others do.
Consider the story of Peter when he denies the Savior three times (John 18), or the story of Thomas who is commonly known as the doubter (John 20). When those without perfect faith realize that apostles of Christ experienced a struggle on their road to conviction, they feel validated. They feel there is a place in the plan for them.
Now, it should be said that this invitation to share the struggle doesn’t always have to be in fast & testimony meeting. The last thing we want is for that special meeting to be full of deep and concerning doubt. Doubt is part of the testimony process, but the spirit of doubt should not be invited.
This invitation to share the struggle might need to happen in the bishop’s office. Reassuring the ward members that the bishop’s office isn’t only for ugly confessions but is also a place to validate where they are spiritually and talk about it in a safe manner. As a bishop I consistently made this invitation and was surprised at how many wanted to come talk to me but didn’t take action until the invitation was made.
Don’t Back Down from Conviction, Recognize Some Faith is Struggling
The purpose of this article is not meant to call for watered-down testimonies at the lectern so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. We need bold statements and we need to hear the miraculous experiences that have converted our hearts because strong testimony certainly breeds strong testimony. Nevertheless, I hope leaders take a moment before each sacrament meeting and consider the silent prayers in the audience that are in the middle of a faith struggle. The simple exercise of praying over those people and recognizing the struggle exists will go a long way. You will be more likely to speak to them and help them know they have a place in the room.
Share Your Struggle
I’ll be candid. I’ve never experienced a faith struggle so daunting that it caused me to question my commitment to the Church. I suspect I was given the gift of faith and belief and it has helped me build my faith maybe easier than others. That doesn’t mean I haven’t come across historic facts or doctrinal confusion that has caused me to pause and rebuild my faith in a new way. I’m definitely not immune to doubt and there has definitely still been a personal struggle for me when it comes to building a testimony. So, as a leader I look for opportunities to articulate this struggle to others.
Let me give you an example:
When I was a bishop, I had a good man set an appointment to meet with me. Up to this point I assumed he was an individual with a deep testimony of the gospel and the restored church even though I couldn’t remember a time when he had publicly shared his convictions. As the appointment got started he assured me that this was not the case. He explained how he has never really believed Joseph Smith to be a prophet. Even during his 2-year mission he struggled with teaching this principle. I was shocked. I know how hard a mission can be and I couldn’t imagine serving in such a way without a conviction of Joseph Smith. I was intrigued so I allowed him to continue sharing. He went on to talk about the constant struggle it is to be at church and among his believing extended family because he didn’t feel like he believed like them.
I let him finish and then I sat there praying to know what to say (that feeling came often during my time as a bishop). I felt impressed to share with him my testimony, but I set aside the routine clichés of “without a shadow of a doubt” and I did my best to explain to him why I believe using the most accurate language without hyperbole. I picked up my copy of the Book of Mormon on my desk and said:
I can’t imagine the frustration you must be going through. You are here in a church that requires so much of you and you struggle to find your faith in its principles. I’m not entirely sure how to articulate why I believe, but when I read the words in this book it somehow speaks to my soul. For some reason I am drawn to these scriptures daily and they buoy me up. I have yet to meet Joseph Smith but the fruits of his labor overwhelm the consequences of his mistakes. I feel a sincere love for Joseph Smith and no matter what some history books say about him, I can only feel good about giving him the title of ‘true prophet.’ There is a distant call to my heart that is cheering me on as I make covenants, as I strive daily to keep the commandments, and as I serve my fellowman. I’ve never heard an audible voice, or seen an angel, but I can find personal evidence that this gospel has changed me. You keep searching for truth and I am certain your witness will come at some point. Just keep pressing forward.
There is definitely more that I said, but the spirit of the interaction definitely changed. He felt encouraged but not alienated. I assured him that attending our ward and striving to keep his covenants was still the best plan. And as far as I know he continued in faith even though he thought he was continuing in the struggle. Following that appointment there were a handful of request he made to me for a priesthood blessing during times of trial and sickness. As I visited with him in his home I often grinned slightly because I felt like I knew a secret he didn’t know. That he actually did have a testimony and he wasn’t ready to admit it. He did attend weekly until the time came for his family to move from the ward. I’m not sure what happened to him in the long run, but in that year or so in my ward he felt like he had a place.
Constantly Examine the Ward Culture
You may be reading this article and nodding your head in agreement. Be careful because this agreement might create a false perception that this isn’t an issue in your ward organization. Even if you are the type of leader that welcomes the doubter doesn’t mean your ward culture is just as welcoming. Organizational culture is stubborn to control. It can’t be control by displaying a strong mission statement or publicly stating from the lectern that all sizes of testimony are welcome. For culture to be controlled it must be massaged each week into the minds of auxiliary leaders and ward members. You must remind them of it. You must view it from various perspectives by asking those you lead if they understand and feel the culture of the ward every time they attend. Maybe this type of culture is apparent in sacrament meeting, but are the doubters being alienated in Sunday School by others flexing their undoubting testimonies? Examine the ward culture weekly and make sure to adjust where needed.
What do you think?
I definitely don’t have this topic figured out. This is my perspective that I have formed over the years of presiding in church meetings. I’d be interested in having you comment below and sharing how you have made a place for those that doubt.
And to be clear, let me summarize what I am saying in this article and what I am not saying:
What I am saying:
- Leaders and members should strive to gain a bold conviction of the gospel and share it often.
- Leaders should encourage members to share how they were able to receive their witness rather than simply stating their witness.
- Leaders should find opportunity to validate concerns and doubts individuals have even though they might be extreme or hard to believe yourself.
- Struggling to gain a testimony is acceptable and is sometimes easier for some and harder for others.
- God is no respecter of persons (Act 10:34), so someone with a deep testimony of the gospel is not seen as a more valiant servant than someone who hasn’t yet received a strong witness.
- Leaders who agree with this type of approach does not mean the culture in their organization reflects that.
What I am not saying:
- I am not saying leaders should create a culture of doubt and encourage others to share why they doubt publicly.
- I am not saying members of the Church should avoid testifying boldly.
Please share your thoughts in the comments section and let’s see what we can learn from one another.