Faith: When in Doubt, How to Get Out
When Alma the Younger and his brethren split up and began to work to strengthen the various “stakes” in their faith, they encountered two kinds of unbelievers. First, Alma met Korihor, one of three labeled anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon. Korihor’s arguments were the classic existentialist fare: We can’t know anything for sure; man is mortal and will die and that is all we can know. The manifestations of the Spirit are the “effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:16), combined with false traditions that were handed down from past generations, and thus they cannot be trusted. There can be no Atonement and every man “fared in this life according to the management of the creature” (Alma 30:17).
Alma’s only response to these elaborate arguments was to testify that he knew there was a God. Then he showed God’s power after Korihor repeatedly asked for it! Korihor’s confession is revealing. After being struck dumb, he wrote that the devil appeared to him as an angel and taught him what to say. But here’s the interesting bit: “And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true” (Alma 30:53).
With Korihor’s arguments in mind, we head to Alma’s next adven- ture—a visit to the Zoramites. These folks had something called a Rameumptom, a stand that held one person at a time. Upon this tower, the designated “pray-er” stood and thanked God for the truth, for their special election to God’s grace, and for the fact that they knew there would be no Christ. Mormon tells us that Alma and his brethren were astonished by this strange worship. After a little “district meeting,” where Alma blessed everybody and got them all excited about the challenge, they split up and began preaching. And, as is the case in many missions, the poor listened to their message.
It’s in this context that Alma preached his great sermon about faith; in it, he answered both the nonbeliever, like Korihor, and the mistaken believer, who was worshipping incorrectly. His answer to all of it was to plant the seed of faith in our hearts, and then to nourish it until it grows into a tree of life.
What’s in a Seed?
A seed, according to the website Encyclopedia.com, “is a mature ovule, comprising an embryo or miniature plant along with food reserves, all within a protective seed coat.”6 In human conception terms, a seed is an embryo and its placenta wrapped into one. So what is the seed of faith? We might say it consists of the one or two things we believe—or just wish to believe—wrapped in the ideas and beliefs that will strengthen and nourish that one true idea. True is the operative word here because, according to Alma, if we have faith in things that aren’t true, they won’t grow any more than a dead seed will sprout.
So let’s see how this might work in real life. Say you believe in God. You’ve had a few experiences where you think that something spoke in your heart or mind. If you’ve been raised in the LDS faith, you connect these experiences to the Church and so believe that the Church is “true”—or in other words, God’s authorized organization on earth. And, by extension, that means Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is God’s word, just as is the Bible. And there you have a testimony.
But what is the foundation of that testimony? It may be a few nebulous moments in your life when you felt something beyond yourself. Or it may be a logical construction built upon the fact that the Church system has worked well for your family or for you. Or it may be moments of certainty you have had while reading your scriptures or praying. Whatever the case, at some point—unless you’re quite exceptional—you will suddenly begin to doubt all of it. Like a house of cards, when one of the foundation pillars of your testimony falters, the whole thing can come crashing down. What do you do then?
Is Doubt a Good Thing?
Philosophers and theologians differ on whether doubt is a good thing. Søren Kirkegaard said, “Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief, but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief that sustains thought and holds the world together.”7 In other words, doubters don’t have a positive impact on the world; believers do. Shakespeare chimed in with a similar sentiment: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”8
These two statements assert that if you doubt, you’re doing damage to your beliefs and you aren’t really going anywhere; you are paralyzed and thus unable to act. (Think of poor Hamlet.)
But others disagree and, in fact, see doubts as important compo- nents to faith. Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”9 And the great Buddha himself encouraged us, “Doubt everything. Find your own light.”10
So what is the answer here? Is doubt a good or bad thing? I think the answer is yes—it’s a good thing and a bad thing. Doubt can destroy a testimony or be the beginning of an unshakeable one. The symbol of the seed helps us understand how this works.
Die to Live
To germinate, a seed must break open and die. Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
It can be a painful thing when the beliefs we’ve held since childhood are challenged and even cracked open. This can be a time when the seed dies or when it really begins to live. The difference between life and death for the testimony is how we choose to nourish that seed when those cracks of doubt occur.
Alma said that faith can begin with nothing more than a “desire to believe” (Alma 32:27). This, at first, seems self-contradictory. How can we prove something empirically if we start by wanting it to be true? A fascinating wiki called “Feast Upon the Word” explains the conundrum this way:
It is significant that this is a desire to believe instead of a desire to know the truth. This minimum case begins with a desire that the gospel is true—we have to start by wanting it to be so. The experiment Alma teaches us then, is no impartial experiment. Those for whom truth means only those things we can discover through impartial analysis, will find no way here to discover these truths. In their eyes Alma begins the experiment by stacking the deck in his favor because the experiment only begins with those who want to believe that the gospel is true. We see here that God has set up this world up in such a way that the most important truths, [for example] God is a merciful god who wants to hear from all his children, rather than hearing only once a week, in a synagogue from the well-off, are revealed only to those who, at a minumum, want to believe in such. And, as we see in the surrounding chapters, those who want instead to believe in a God who elected just themselves to be holy “whilst all around [them] are elected to be cast by [God’s] wrath down to hell,” to such people, so long as their desires remain so, Alma has no way to give them faith.11
Korihor called the desire to believe the “effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:16), and certainly any thoughtful person questions his or her conclusions when they’re colored by the desire that they be true. But God’s science appears to have different rules than people’s; in God’s definition of knowledge, desire is tantamount. You have to want the gospel to be true and for Jesus to be the Savior; you have to be emotionally invested in the truth before it will be manifest to you. Alma isn’t worried by this because a principle that isn’t true will not germinate; it won’t grow and produce what he called “swelling motions” (Alma 32:28) that let you know what you are wanting to believe is something that is real and true. Thus, the Zoramites on their Rameumptom could recite a prayer filled with falsehoods, but it had no power to move or change their hearts. They wanted to believe it, but it was a dead thing, not an embryo filled with life, waiting to burst out.
What to Do with Doubt
Today, we often hear that people are quick to believe their doubts and doubt their beliefs. Once again, I worry when we make people feel bad for doubting. Many young members have encountered speculations on the Internet about the Prophet Joseph Smith or multiple accounts of the First Vision or other revelations about the early leaders of the Church that are different from the idealized portraits with which they were raised. Suddenly, doubt has cracked their seeds of faith—in many cases, they feel that if they have such doubts, it must mean that they don’t believe. Another fact about seeds is interesting: “Seeds often exhibit dormancy, meaning they fail to germinate even when provided with adequate water and suitable temperature conditions. Dormancy acts to prevent germination until conditions are right. This dormancy may be broken by proper exposure to light or darkness.”12
Notice that seeds can be jarred into germination by either light or darkness. We can grow through those times when we’re inspired and filled with certainty and also through those times when our beliefs are dashed upon the rocks of doubt. Doubting doesn’t mean you don’t believe; it means that your seed is cracking open, ready to grow. But that seed will die if, at this crucial moment, you don’t give it nourishment.
The Care and Feeding of Faith
What do we feed the seed to cause it to germinate? Alma said that it consists of “looking forward with an eye of faith” (Alma 32:40). And then he went on for the next few chapters teaching people to pray, to converse with God, and to involve Him in all their daily dilemmas. He encouraged them to understand true doctrine about Christ and His Atonement. He rehearsed the law of Moses and taught them how it pointed to Christ. He talked to them about soft hearts, continual repentance, humility, and complete reliance upon Christ. In other words, he encouraged them to concentrate on living the things they knew were true.
If it’s wrong to doubt, I’m in big trouble because that is the kind of person I am. I am encouraged that Jesus was so accepting of His Apostle Thomas. The Lord patiently said to him, “Be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:28). As a born doubter, I have learned to embrace my doubts as a part of my journey of faith. But I don’t allow them to determine my destiny. That is determined by my beliefs, and my beliefs are based in Alma’s definition of what is real. “O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good” (Alma 32:35).
Things may be factual and not be real. You may learn unsettling things about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon—and they may even be factual. But what is real about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is that they both ooze with light. There is so much inspiration, joy, love, and Christianity in the Book of Mormon and in the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that it is overwhelming. Just Alma 32 alone is a marvelous work and a wonder! To miss the treasure in the field, to bypass the rich vein of gold because it is surr- ounded by crude granite, is to miss something precious for the sake of a few facts.
Ask the hard questions. You don’t have to live a lie. If you can’t get satisfactory answers to all of them, keep thinking, praying, and doubting certain things! But nourish the seed—don’t let it die. Live the truths you’ve been given; and because this really is a good seed, your life will be filled with discernible light and real joy. And here we are, back at Lehi’s glorious tree of life, only what a surprise awaits— the tree is each one of us, a glorious receptacle of God’s own life:
“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)