Questions: Indication of Doubt or Display of Faith?
Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. ~ Elder Holland, “Lord, I Believe”
Are questions an indication of doubt, or rather a display of faith?
It depends on the way we ask the questions.
Questions and Experiments
In the Book of Mormon, Alma taught that we should experiment on the word. There is a specific way of questioning that scientists use when performing an experiment. It is called the scientific method. If it has been a while since your last science class, let me refresh your memory.
Steps of the Scientific Method
1. Formulation of a Question
The two most important parts of the scientific method, in my opinion, are asking the question and formulating a hypothesis. When utilizing the scientific method it is important to ask the right question. The question we ask will determine the hypothesis that we come up with, the structure of our experiment, and whether or not we get useful data from which to obtain a conclusion.
Lead with Faith and Knowledge
There are several different ways to construct a hypothesis. A hypothesis, simply put, is an educated guess. More specifically, it is a conjecture based on information and knowledge one has already obtained.
In his April 2013 General Conference address, Elder Jeffery R. Holland taught us, “When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your ‘unbelief.’”
The hypothesis is not based on what you don’t know, but rather on what you do know. According to Alma, we should approach gospel and faith questions in the same way a scientist would approach the testing of a physical question. We should experiment on the word, which means that when we formulate our spiritual hypotheses we should lead with what we do know, rather than what we do not know. We should formulate our spiritual hypotheses with faith rather than with doubt.
I am a believer that we should “Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another.” (Elder Holland) If we do not question things, we will never learn. If scientists hadn’t asked questions about gravity, the stars, molecules, the body, or more, we would not have the technology we have today. If Joseph Smith had not followed the stirring advice given in James (“Let him ask of God”) we would not have the fullness of the gospel. Asking questions is vital for progression. It is the way we learn. However, Elder Holland also cautioned us not to “let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.”
The story of the father asking the Savior for a blessing for his son that Elder Holland used in his talk is one of my favorite stories of the Savior’s life. It’s probably because as a mother I cannot tell you how many times I have knelt in prayer and begged the Father to help me with my children, acknowledging my own lack of ability and lack of faith, but knowing that if I could “no more than desire to believe” the Lord would bless that desire and “help … mine unbelief“.
The key is to step forward with faith, with what faith you do have, and let the Lord take care of the rest.
Safe Gospel Inquiry
I don’t know if people are questioning more today than in the past, or if the internet just lets us all work out (or not work out) our questions in front of each other, but one thing is clear: there are a lot of questions to be asked, and hopefully answered. In his recent CES Devotional in January 2013, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said,
I believe that our Father in Heaven is pleased with His children when they use their talents and mental faculties to earnestly discover truth. Over the centuries many wise men and women—through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration—have discovered truth. These discoveries have enriched mankind, improved our lives, and inspired joy, wonder, and awe.
Even so, the things we once thought we knew are continually being enhanced, modified, or even contradicted by enterprising scholars who seek to understand truth.
As we all know, it is difficult enough to sort out the truth from our own experiences. To make matters worse, we have an adversary, “the devil, [who] as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
It is interesting to me that so many prophets and apostles have taught us of the importance of asking questions, looking for more light and truth, and in fact our very religion was restored and organized by a boy who asked a question; and yet so many members of the Church think that it is inappropriate to ask question about anything. This idea couldn’t be farther from the truth. The gospel of Jesus Christ encourages us to use our “talents and mental faculties to earnestly discover truth … through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration.” It is not inappropriate to ask questions, but the way we approach those questions, and finding the answers to those questions, is significant.
Elder Holland counseled us to beware of the adversary’s attacks on truth and the process of asking questions,
For those who already embrace the truth, [Satan's] primary strategy is to spread the seeds of doubt. For example, he has caused many members of the Church to stumble when they discover information about the Church that seems to contradict what they had learned previously. If you experience such a moment, remember that in this age of information there are many who create doubt about anything and everything, at any time and every place. (emphasis added)
It is easy to fall into this trap of Satan’s. Rather than leading with faith, “I believe!” we allow the doubt to fester and destroy what faith we had to begin with.
Infinite Oil for Finite Vessels
It is easy to become disillusioned with what we believe to be the “true Church,” led by prophets and inspiration and revelation, especially if we don’t remember that even prophets and apostles are imperfect humans just like us. If you think of a prophet as infallible, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. At the same time, we should not use the imperfection of our leaders as grounds to dismiss their counsel, saying that it might not be revelation or inspiration. Whenever I get the itching to judge someone I always try to stop and say “What would I do if I had the same background as they (not my own background) and were in the same position?” Either I recognize that I have no idea what I would do, and so I must withhold judgment, or I realize that in that circumstance, with the same background, upbringing, and experiences, I would do the exact same thing, and so I must withhold judgment.
In his talk, Elder Holland reminded us that this is “a divine work in progress.” First of all, everything has not been revealed. We say so in the ninth article of faith, “we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) Elder Holland counseled us not to “hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will.” When these things do come up, we should proceed with faith and lead with what we do know.
I Know It, and You Can Know It
I had a hard time not just quoting Elder Holland’s entire talk. I always love the way he speaks. He just has a way with words, and I love listening to his inflections and his humor. At the same time, he tells it like it is, with no apology. Since this was supposed to be my essay, and not a reposting of the transcript of his talk, I highly recommend you read, listen to, and study Elder Holland’s words. I have a testimony of his divine appointment as a special witness of Christ. I know that his counsel about faith and belief is timely and true, and I invite you to get that witness for yourself.
- When you have questions do you lead with faith, or do you allow doubt to stand in the way of finding answers?
- How do you ask questions about the Church and the gospel without drifting into the “criticism of Church leaders” side of the line?
- How do you figure out the right questions to ask?
- What other thoughts did you have about Elder Holland’s sermon?