“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.