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Faith and Fear

Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth... Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him. (Mormon 9:21, 27)

Last Sunday, in a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, President Nelson invited us to increase our faith and decrease our doubts in order to move the mountains in our lives. I thought his message was powerful. My eldest daughter, who is no longer a church member, saw it very differently. She saw it as an appeal to exercising faith that is wilfully blind and unquestioning. She responded with these hymn lyrics by Unitarian minister Robert T. Weston:

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth.

Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.

A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let no one fear the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing:

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.

Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.

But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:

It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.

I actually love that counsel as well. And I don't see the two as incompatible. I think the appearance of incompatibility is a matter of semantics; that when Moroni and Pres. Nelson speak of doubt, they mean something very different from what Robert T. Weston means.

Words can be tricky. A single word may have a multitude of meanings, and those meanings may change over time. Webster's 1828 Dictionary (which provides a useful view to the meanings in use at the time the Book of Mormon was translated) lists two definitions for the intransitive verb "to doubt" as used in Mormon 9. They are:

  1. To waver or fluctuate in opinion; to hesitate; to be in suspense; to be in uncertainty... respecting the truth or fact; to be undetermined.

  2. To fear; to be apprehensive; to suspect.

I'd like to suggest that it's the second definition of the verb that applies in Moroni's exhortation to "doubt not, but be believing." I think we could replace the word "fear" for "doubt" in that passage and recover the meaning that may be obscured by modern usage.

I can see one objection. That is, the passage ends with an exhortation to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him." But maybe "fear" in the "fear and trembling" means something different from the "fear" that we are using as a substitute for "doubt."

Webster's 1828 lists 9 definitions of the noun "fear," four of which might apply in this context. My favourite says "In good men, the fear of God is a holy awe or reverence of God and his laws, which springs from a just view and real love of the divine character".

So, to rephrase this passage in modern usage, it might become "whoso believeth in Christ, fearing nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth... Fear not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with awe and trembling before him."

The question now becomes, how do we get to the point of believing in Christ, fearing nothing? Because, for many of us, there may be fears layered on top of fears. There may be, for example, fear that we aren't good enough, layered over fear of being misled or made a fool, over fear of rejection, on top of fear of being controlled, over fear that God isn't really there or doesn't really care. Are we supposed to stand in the swirl of such fears, push them down, assume a facade of certainty and command the mountains in our lives to move?

No. We're supposed to patiently and consciously nourish in ourselves an ever-growing faith in Jesus Christ, until it anchors us fully and casts out fear. For Enos, this was a process of wrestling before God, of hunger, diligent supplication, and struggle (Enos 1:2,4,10) until his "faith began to be unshaken in the Lord" (Enos 1:11). I think the struggle to overcome fear is part of the plan.

So how do we deal with our uncertainties, with observations or information that challenge our understanding and our faith? I think there are at least four responses. Three of them are fearful. They are:

  1. to deny troubling perspectives or information outright

  2. to lock them into a back room of our minds and barricade the door with a collection of dogmas or illusory certainties.

  3. to fixate on the fear that we've have been misled, rejected or controlled, etc, and abandon our faith.

President Nelson offered a fourth response that is remarkably harmonious with Pastor Weston's "Cherish Your Doubts" even though the first seems to discourage doubt while the second cherishes it. I think that's because Pres. Nelson is using the second definition of doubt referenced above (fear), while Pastor Weston is using the first. I think Pastor Weston's meaning is clearer in relation to Pres. Nelson's if we use the synonyms "questions" or "uncertainty" or "inquiry" in place of doubt. For example, "Cherish your questions, for uncertainty is the attendant of truth. Inquiry is the key to the door of knowledge. It is the servant of discovery."

President Nelson's invitation in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty is:

  1. "Study. Become an engaged learner." Study is not a passive or defensive posture. It involves asking questions, testing hypotheses and adjusting them as we draw closer to truth. In our study, Pres. Nelson recommends prioritizing the mission, ministry and doctrine of Jesus Christ. For myself, the better I understand His nature, the more easily I can trust Him with the things I don't understand. Like Nephi, I can say, "I know that he loveth his children, nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:17). The assurance of His love removes the threat from any of His mysteries.

  2. "Choose to believe." This does not mean "close your ears to uncomfortable information and push questions from your mind." Rather, I think it means a couple things:

    1. First: choose to believe there's a legitimate answer or explanation for that troubling issue. And then look for it. "Take your questions to God and to other faithful sources," Pres. Nelson advises. One of my favourite faithful sources is, where I get the feeling that questions are encouraged and treated with genuine respect and honest information. For me, that feels very different from taking an issue to sources that presume there is not a legitimate explanation, that assume malicious intent and conspiratorial behaviour on the part of past or present prophets and leaders.

    2. Second, when faithful seeking provides evidence for faith, but not proof, choose to believe again. On some issues, there comes a point where the evidence for our faith gets stacked up against the evidence against it, and neither position seems to be conclusively settled. We might struggle with questions like, did God really ordain the institution of plural marriage, or did Joseph Smith make that up as a cover for lechery? We may prayerfully read first-hand accounts of those who embraced the institution, sense their sincerity and their testimonies, and still struggle with aspects of the practice or its implementation and with questions that the records don't answer. Those uncertainties may trigger a host of fears. We might be blessed with a perspective on plural marriage that allows us to see the hand of God in it, we may love everything else the Prophet revealed, and yet we may be haunted by lingering anxieties that make us wonder if we've deceived ourselves. At that point, Pres. Nelson invites us to commit our faith instead of standing paralyzed, wavering between two opinions. Sometimes, the only way forward is to choose and move forward. Choosing is powerful. It is fundamentally why we came to Earth. If we want faith to move mountains, we will need to choose to believe.

  3. "Act in faith." Faith grows by exercise. Jesus said, "If any man will do [God's] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:17). Do, then know. I need to follow steps one and two so that I know God well enough to trust Him to catch me if I take a leap of faith. But until I actually take the leap and He catches me, I don't know for sure. Once He's caught me once, though, I can remember that the next time I'm asked to leap. And every time He catches me, my faith in Him grows, along with my readiness to leap again.

  4. "Partake of sacred ordinances worthily." Pres. Nelson says they unlock the power of God for our lives. I have felt that, especially with temple ordinances. And when I feel the power of God changing me, it deepens my faith. Moroni says that when the grace of God cleanses and changes us, we "can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ" (Moroni 10:32-33). Somewhere in this process, doubt falls away, replaced by steady certainty.

  5. Finally, we are to "ask [our] Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, for help." When Jesus returned with Peter, James and John from the Mount of Transfiguration, he found his disciples surrounded by a multitude, befuddled by their inability to cast out a spirit that was tormenting a boy. The boy's father pled with Jesus to have compassion and help them. Jesus said, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." The father wanted to believe, but he had reasons for doubt. He had come in faith, seeking healing for his son, and the Lord's imperfect apostles had been unable to help. Yet, he made a choice. "Lord, I believe," he cried out with tears. And then, "help thou mine unbelief." That was enough. Jesus rebuked the spirit and the boy was healed (Mark 9:14-27).

Moroni promises, "whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him" (Mormon 9: 21). There's no qualification on that, no "if it be according to the will of the Father." I think that's because we can't get to the point where we believe to the point of doubting (or fearing) nothing except by the process Pres. Nelson outlined. And that process is sanctifying; it deepens our knowledge of and trust in God to such a point that our will becomes fully aligned with His. Addressing our questions, liberating them from the closets in which they've been barricaded by false certainty, choosing to believe and asking God for help with our unbelief are all part of that process.

The glorious news is that mountains move with less than perfect faith. God helps our unbelief. We just need to start where we are, to exercise a particle of faith, and He will lead us the rest of the way.

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1 Comment

Apr 12, 2021

This essay is well thought out and clearly expressed. Language is often a factor in creating unintended misunderstanding and you demonstrated that well. Choosing is often risky, but doubt can be paralyzing. If I were to edit that poem, I would have replaced the word “doubt” with the the word “question” and would be in full agreement.

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