“Lord, I Believe, Help Thou My Unbelief”: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith

Note: An effort to recreate the talk that I gave using the quotes contained herein as a base on 21 July 2019, in the Provo UT 32nd Married Student Ward. 

INTRO

If you were here the last time that Cec and I spoke, about a year and a half ago, you know that we have very different strategies when it comes to titling our talks. Hers is once again called, “church talk” and mine is “‘Lord, I Believe, Help Thou Mine Unbelief’: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith”. So let’s begin with the verse referenced in that title, Mark 9:24:

“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

For the past seven years or so, and on and off since I was 16, my faith has been this sort of faith–a faith simultaneously composed of doubt and belief, that the two coexist in varying degrees and amounts at any given time. The past few years have been fairly stable, but those early years just after my mission were hard. 

I felt as though the faith that I had as a missionary and a young man in the church had died. That it was gone and with it, my sense of certainty and purpose and morality. Yet, I think now that that death was needed. After all, as Christians, we’re in the Resurrection business. Paul teaches over and over throughout the epistles that we must die to be born again in Christ. 

Rachel Held Evans, an Evangelical author that I find inspiring and powerful who I mentioned in a testimony a few months ago when she unexpectedly passed away, wrote of a Church experience that:

“It was a death, but it was a good death.”

Searching for Sunday, 229

I believe that we can make the inevitable death of our faith, a good death. Or as Mary sings in Rob Gardner’s Lamb of God:

“Hope did not die here, but here was given.”

“Here is Hope”

Not all deaths are inherently good deaths and not all give us hope. But they can. I hope that I can help you find hope in the midst of your faith dying, as it dies again and again. That your faith too can be reborn, as mine has been and continues to be, for the work is not done. 

BELONGING

The foundational idea that has helped me to keep the faith, is the idea of belonging. Particularly as Brene Brown explores the idea and contrasts it with “fitting in”. She writes that: 

“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 25

Much of my experience at Church was that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong. I thought because I believed different things or because I looked a little different that I couldn’t really be a part of the organization. I’ve always felt a little different than others and never felt a strong sense of community at Church, though that was at its peak in YSA wards in Provo, in the years immediately after my mission.

Not only did I experience all the pressures that come for almost all people in a YSA ward, but I layered on top of those this sense of confusion and frustration that I couldn’t really be who I was. I thought that everyone else knew for sure that all these things were true, that everyone had different political beliefs from me, that no one else had questions. That everyone else was dumb and judgmental, which ironically made me dumb and judgmental.  

As I started to be vulnerable and authentic at Church, sharing my own real expression of belief and doubt in testimony meeting and comments, I started to discover that I was wrong. All sorts of people came up to me and would thank me for being open and honest, for saying what they’d always felt and never felt able to say. I felt welcomed. Truly. For ME.

And I felt able to grant others that same space. Brene Brown describes this phenomenon like this:

“When we don’t give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate that freedom in others. We put them down, make fun of them, ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes shame them. We can do this intentionally or unconsciously. Either way the message is, ‘Geez man. Don’t be so uncool.’”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 123

When I was unwilling to extend myself the grace to be real and authentic at Church, I turned that pain and suffering into ridicule of everyone else. And perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, as I refused to fit in, as I decided to stop trying to be like everyone else and to bring my whole self, difference and everything, to the table, I was suddenly much more comfortable with everyone else doing the same. 

Fast and Testimony meeting went from one of the worst, most painful, frustrating Sundays to consistently some of my favorite Sundays. If I want to be accepted and loved and welcomed for who I am, in all my weirdness and fringey-believing doubt or doubting-belief, then I need to extend that same grace and acceptance and love to those with faith that looks different from mine. 

Interlude: Epistemic Humility

For me, this idea is encapsulated in “epistemic humility”, which is a fancy, academic jargon-y way of saying, “recognizing that you’re wrong”. I believe that I am wrong about all sorts of things. Just like you. Everyone believes that everyone else is wrong about at least some things, and in some cases many things, but we have to believe that about ourselves as well. 

It could be easy to simply dismiss everything as unknowable and to reach a state of apathy and passivity, but I think that’s misguided. I recognize that I am likely wrong about all sorts of things, but I believe that my beliefs currently lead me to be a good person that helps others. 

ACCOUNTABILITY/RESPONSIBILITY/CLAIMING/INDIVIDUAL

I believe we must couple this sense of humility with claiming our own spiritual authority. 

Claiming our spiritual authority I think is often described in terms that actually describe spiritual autonomy, that people want to believe what they want and to choose the consequences. To me, spiritual authority is believing what you believe to be true and facing the consequences. I don’t see this as a competition with prophetic authority, after all, when Moses was confronted by someone who believed that he should be concerned with the Israelites prophesying, Moses responded:

“Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Numbers 11:29

Moses wanted all his people to be filled with the Spirit, to be prophets, to claim their own spiritual authority. And if Moses wasn’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t be either. 

To claim your spiritual authority is not only to seek revelation and to do what you feel God calls you to do, but also to face the consequences of that course of action, whatever they may be. If you aren’t willing to face the consequences of your beliefs, what good are they?

Esther is a powerful example of claiming spiritual authority and maintaining epistemic humility. When Mordecai comes to her and tells her of the plot that Haman put into motion to kill all the Jews, she says to Mordecai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day : I also and my maidens will fast like-wise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law : and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 4:16

Esther is willing to die for her beliefs. She doesn’t know if what she’s going to do will save her or her people, but she believes in it. She believes so strongly that she’s willing to put her own life on the line. I don’t know about you, but my convictions have never been tested quite that much, dying for my beliefs is not really in the realm of possibility. 

I’m also struck by the fact that Esther maintains this conviction even though God is entirely absent from the text. The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible where God is not mentioned, not even once. Esther is living in the silences that I, and we all, experience. Yet, she believes. She sticks to her belief, in the face of uncertainty, in the silence from God, unto death.

Interlude: Weakness is Strength

I wonder if we misunderstand what strength means in the Kingdom of God. Ether reminds us that the Lord taught:

“… if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Ether 12:27

This teaching seems to be in line with what Christ taught us about the Kingdom of Heaven–that it’s a topsy-turvy place, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Where it’s not like an empire or a palace or a political entity, but a mustard seed and yeast. 

The sort of faith that holds doubt and belief together that I experience may sound or look weak, but perhaps it’s exactly the sort of strength that God is looking for?

The Lord, importantly, instructs us to come to Him, and that takes us to the necessity of community, that we cannot isolate ourselves and be made strong. 

COMMUNITY

Rachel Held Evans describes the nature of and power of community and Church like this:

“We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

Searching for Sunday, 258

I’ve felt this. Here. With all of you. 

Often Church is kinda boring and mundane, but every once in awhile, in the midst of that quotidian mundanity, God is here. 

As we wrestle with the scriptures, share our struggles, ask our questions, air our doubts and concerns, strive toward the light, strain to see through the glass darkly, this ground and these carpeted walls are made holy. God is here. 

The need for community meets epistemic humility and spiritual authority in my favorite quote from Joseph Smith:

“And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society.” 

Joseph Smith was willing to die and go to hell for his beliefs. That’s how open to being wrong he was. That he’d end up in hell. He was willing to face eternal consequences for his beliefs. 

Yet, he maintained hope and faith in the power and goodness of his beliefs and the beliefs that he shared with his fellow Saints. He would kick out those devils and transform hell into heaven. 

CONCLUSION

As we go throughout life we often pass through times where God feels distant or absent or silent, where the glass we see through is darker than usual, where we wonder how we fit in or where we belong. 

The words of General Princess Leia Organa guide me through those moments:

“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

Darkness and silence are part of mortality. But they don’t erase the light that we’ve seen. 

“For I, [like Paul,] am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:38-39

No matter what you believe or don’t believe, what you do or don’t do, nothing can separate you from the Love of God. And if we strive to divide ourselves to build walls to deny others our love, then we are trying to do what even God will not. If God’s love is never denied us, then who are we to deny others of our love?

I don’t know much. I believe much. I hope for quite a bit. But I know that God lives, that God loves each and every one of us and I say with Brother Joe that if I go to hell, I’ll turn the devils out and make a heaven of it because where you are, there is good society. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jesus: A Wednesday Speculative Profile

Nothing was ever quite the same after I met Joshua. He had a knack for upending life, bringing in the unexpected.

I was in the middle of teaching a class when he first came in. We were talking about rhetoric and the ethics of persuasion and finding common ground, when all of a sudden the door opens, which wasn’t that unusual, and this guy looks in. He’s a little wild looking, but overall, he’s fairly nondescript. I couldn’t give you a clear physical description of him.

I stop and turn, leaving space for him to jump in with his question if he had one and there’s nothing. I wait expectantly.

Nothing.

I turn back to my students, “So, how can you use appeals to pathos ethically?”

“Come,” the stranger at the door beckons, “follow me.”

He then bounds off, the last thing I saw of him before he was out of the classroom, was a knowing smile, with a twinkle in his eye.

I didn’t.

*

I was out with some friends on the lake. We were sorta fishing, but mostly just wanted to hang and laze about in our boat. I kinda hated fishing, to be totally honest. I’d fished a handful of times with scouting as a kid, but it was so boring (and then you had to kill and gut the fish, which was gross and smelled awful). Anyway. We were fishing.

We’d been out all day and were about to come in. Nothing to show for our efforts. Which is the absolute worst. Usually, we at least had some fresh fish to fry, but nothing. Just vaguely smelling like worms and lakewater.

Then, suddenly, there’s a guy on the shore. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t totally recognize him at the distance (not to mention the angle the sun was at).

He calls out to us, “How’s the fishing?”

“Rubbish!” I yell back, as my friends mock my persistent and haphazard use of British slang.

“Try it once more! Cast all your rods on the left side.”

We all look at each other, rolling our eyes, but something about this exuberant guy made me want to humor him.

So we did. Expecting nothing.

I held my rod lacklusterly, not paying attention, until it suddenly jerked and pulled me forward before I caught myself.

As I braced myself against the deck, I looked around and realized that everyone else was experiencing the same thing. We started to reel in our respective catches. As we’re all reeling and reeling, straining against what felt like a blue whale, I look back at the shore and the man has his hand to his mouth, trying (and failing) to stifle laughter.

I land what I think is going to be some monster fish, as do all of my friends. The deck is groaning under the collective weight of these massive fish, when an entire school of fish leaps out of the lake and onto the deck, flopping everywhere. Where suddenly swimming in fish. Slipping and sliding as I try to get out of the ankle-deep pile of fish. The boat is now taking on water, and we’re desperately trying to navigate back to shore, fighting off untold numbers of fish, and the man is now doubled over in laughter.

We land the boat and all manage to get off, pulling fish out of our pockets and sleeves.

As we struggle to figure out what is going on, I finally got a look at this stranger, wearing bermuda shorts, sandals, and a floral shirt, unbuttoned showing his dark brown chest. He had some sunglasses that he pushed up to rest on his black, flowing, shoulder-length hair, revealing the same face that peeked into my classroom. He reached out his hand, saying through an ear to ear grin and barely recovered from his laughter, “Hey, I’m Joshua.”

“Get the hell away from me, man. I cannot handle whatever it is you’ve got going on,” I retort, pushing his hand away.

“Oh, come on, I’ll make you fishers,” he paused, that twinkle in his eye back, suggesting he was very pleased with what he was about to say, “of men.”

I left.

*

This was a mistake.

The storm raged all around us. Shit. We’re going to die.

We were stranded in the midst of a wild snowstorm, off road, wind and snow blowing in all directions. I couldn’t see anything. Anywhere. We’d tried to walk through it earlier, but fell through the snow banks that were everywhere, not to mention, just being utterly unable to keep our feet steady with the wind and snow.

The snow was starting to bury our truck. Soon we would be unable to open the doors.

A figure was up ahead. Somehow walking eerily through the storm.

“Uh, guys, you see that?” I ask, nudging Andrew next to me, pointing out at this vague person-like figure moving in our direction.

I don’t believe in the abominable snowman or yetis, but damn, what else could be here?
As the figure got closer, the colors were bright, florals maybe?

“Shhhhhhhiiiiiiiit.”

Everyone looks at me slightly shocked, but awaiting my explanation of what could possibly cause such an exclamation given the near-rock-bottom place we already were.

“It’s that Joshua dude.”

“No way, it can’t be. No human could possibly survive this storm, especially be walking like that. Ask him.”

I look incredulous, but after some more cajoling, figure, what do I have to lose?

I roll down the window and stick my head out and yell, “Who are you?”

“C’mon, man, I’m Joshua! Just look at me!”

He had a point.

But for some reason, felt possessed to say what came out of my mouth next.

“If it’s really you, Joshua, ask me to come to you.”

“Alright, Conor. Come.”

I did.