The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,
In that fear doubteth thee.George MacDonald, The Disciple, 1867
I accept the truth of John’s statement about perfect love. I think my made-up version about perfect faith is probably true as well. But to date I have found neither perfect love nor perfect faith in myself. Maybe there have been a few exceptional moments of fleeting near-perfection scattered through the decades of my life, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Yet I have some faith, and I do love — amid my doubts and fears.
You and I live our lives in imperfect love and imperfect faith. We hope both virtues are maturing in us, but perfection is a distant goal, and our progress depends utterly on abundant grace from a Source outside ourselves.
Meanwhile, remember that “grain of mustard seed”? (See Matthew 17:20.) Our faith doesn’t have to be perfect to be real. A small amount, amid our doubts, can be enough for today.
Surely doubt is no great treasure. But the presence of doubt does not require the absence of faith, only faith’s imperfection. We mortals typically act in faith despite our doubt, not because we have no doubt. If we doubted less, perhaps we would need less faith.
Why do I belabor the point? I’ve seen too many believers and aspiring believers — not just the guy in the mirror — lose courage and hope, because they know they have doubts, and someone said that means they have no faith.
We readily accept that courage is not the absence of fear. It is doing what must be done despite our fears. Faith works that way too. So stop telling yourself otherwise. If you’re trying at all, you’re doing better than you think. How do I know? Because I see us pressing forward, toward Christ, though part of our present burden is doubt. Doing that is among the most common and most necessary acts of faith.
Doubt Is Not Sin
We’re prone to think that doubt and faith cannot exist simultaneously in the same mind because we sometimes hear it at church, over pulpits and in classrooms.
It’s important to glimpse and understand the ideal, to conceive of perfection. But we make it harder, not easier, for good people to be good, when we tell them that having some doubts means they have no faith — or when we say that doubt itself is sin.
Doubt is not sin. It’s not ideal either — we might fairly call it weakness — but it’s not sin. Doubt is like temptation. Being tempted is not sinning. Seeking temptation, entertaining it, cultivating it, encouraging it, spreading it, and of course yielding to it — these are sins.
As we’re to resist temptation, so we’re to press forward in faith — and knowledge, where we can get it — amid our doubts. However, to seek doubt, to cultivate doubt, to spread doubt, to encourage doubt, and to ask questions intended to sow doubt, as opposed to advancing knowledge and faith — these are destructive. These are sins.
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Why It Matters
Let’s consider the epigraph to this essay, in which George MacDonald asserts that fearing to doubt manifests a lack of faith.
If I’m afraid to doubt, perhaps because I’ve been taught that I can’t have any faith while I still have any doubt, do I not deny God’s power and intention to raise me gradually to greater faith? In a larger sense, do I not question God’s power and intention to rescue me forever from my fallen state?
By contrast, if I understand that doubt will be with me while my faith grows, until God has managed to perfect my faith (at some vanishly distant point in the future), I can press forward with less worry and more confidence — more faith, if you please — in his ability and determination to save me.
This is not just theoretical. If you teach me that faith and doubt cannot coexist, you tempt me toward a profoundly dispiriting view of myself. In my darkest hours, when I am most vulnerable to doubt and other ills, when my meager but essential supplies of faith and hope are at their most precarious, you would have me believe that I cannot have or act in faith, while I yet doubt. Without intending to, I am sure, you tempt me to give up on myself and God.
We sometimes prescribe a dubious remedy for my doubt. We say that I should focus on getting rid of it. But the best thing I can do is to press forward in faith, letting my doubts shrink and fall away if and when they will, and not giving them power by obsessing over them in the meantime.
Good souls with kind intentions sometimes offer another temptation. When it’s time for this Christian to teach or testify, they would have me deny, to myself and others, that I have doubts at all, when I know that I do. They want me to declare that I know, even in cases where the best I can truthfully say is that I believe or merely that I hope.
I do claim to know some things in the realm of religion, some precious things, with a certainty which transcends belief. But there are other things I only believe, and still others for which, at best, I hope.
We often say this: Even if you don’t know, you should say that you do, so the Holy Spirit can testify, as you say it, that it’s true — and then you’ll know!
Certainly, there are crucial things we cannot know without the Holy Spirit’s testimony. And I’m quite certain that God doesn’t routinely wait to send a blessing until we’ve approached the subject with flawless reasoning and comprehensive analysis. We’d be in a world of hurt if he did. I’m sure the say-you-know-until-you-know approach has worked for some. But to me it sounds like a hasty prescription from a careless or overworked physician, who thinks only to mask symptoms rather than to discover and address underlying illness or injury.
In fairness I must admit that we sometimes know things without realizing that we know them. So say-you-know-until-you-know-you-know is a happier, more legitimate proposition.
These are strong words, perhaps, but I ask no apology. I ask only that we all think a little more deeply before we speak, and speak a little more carefully, in order to teach true principles with a minimum of collateral damage.
Here’s what works for me: If you know, say you know. If you believe, say you believe. If you’re trying your best to believe but you don’t yet, confess that instead. Tell us the truth, not what everyone else says or what you think we want to hear, and trust that the Holy Spirit knows how to reach your mind and heart anyway. In other words, with a hat tip to George MacDonald, have the faith that does not fear to doubt.
We justly admire the desperate father of an ailing child, who turned to Jesus with his own mix of real faith and real doubt, and didn’t whitewash anything:
23 Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
24 And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:23-24)
After the miracle, Jesus explained how far a little faith can go.
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)
I would rather cling to my grain of mustard seed — my quarter-grain, perhaps — and acknowledge my doubts than contemplate a hopeless universe in which no faith is possible for me until all my doubt is banished.
Sermons and Lessons
In recent years, when I’ve heard sermons and lessons which say that doubt and faith cannot coexist, I’ve noted with amazement the teachings people quote to make that point. I’ve heard three sources cited repeatedly; none of them says that doubt and imperfect faith cannot coexist — but all of them are worth quoting for what they do say.
We’ll look at these three sources in this order: an address by a current leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a lecture attributed to the Church’s founder, and a joint address by another current leader and his wife.
Jeffrey R. Holland
In 2013 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:
In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won…. When … issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.
… The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know. (“Lord, I Believe,” April 2013 General Conference; emphasis added)
He didn’t say I couldn’t have faith amid doubt. He said I should cling to whatever faith I have. This was even clearer as he continued:
I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. (Emphasis added.)
We’re to act on our faith, not our doubts, when both exist; to apply our strengths, not our limitations. He continued:
Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.
But Joseph Smith Said …
Since long before the recent addresses I quote here, teachers trying to make the point that doubt and faith cannot coexist have quoted the Lectures on Faith, which date to 1834 and 1835 and either were delivered by Joseph Smith directly or were very much under his influence.
Where doubt and uncertainty are … faith is not, nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time.
As usual, we must read further. When we do, we see that the faith (or confidence) of which these lines speak is unshaken (perfect), as opposed to weak (imperfect).
Persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence; and where unshaken confidence is not, there faith is weak. (Lectures on Faith, 1985, p. 71)
So I agree with the Prophet Joseph after all, if it was he. Perfect faith casteth out doubt. But doubt can accompany imperfect faith — weak faith — and weak faith is still some faith.
In a much-quoted January 2019 joint address, Elder Dale G. Renlund and Sister Ruth L. Renlund quoted those lines from the Lectures on Faith and spoke of the dangers of letting our doubt lead us. But they also said:
Faith is the key that unlocks God’s mercy. A person needs to decide that he or she wants to have faith and then act in faith before faith can grow. Alma taught: “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties … and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” [See Alma 32:27.]
For faith to grow, one must choose to have faith and then act on it.
If we’re to take seriously that “particle of faith” of which Alma wrote, let alone that “desire to believe,” we cannot think that Elder and Sister Renlund were speaking of perfect faith. We can begin with “a particle” of faith amid our doubts, or even less, a “desire to believe” — which means that a useful measure of imperfect faith can coexist with doubt.
I am still not extolling doubt. Nor did they. They paraphrased the late John A. Widtsoe:
Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end in and of itself. That doubt which feeds and grows upon itself, and breeds more doubt, is evil. (See John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations , 31–33; emphasis added.)
Their overall message was that we should act on our faith, not our doubt — not that we cannot have any of one if we have any of the other.
Faith Amid Doubt
If we are wise, we don’t celebrate or cultivate doubt in ourselves or in others. Doubt is ultimately to be overcome entirely, by the grace of God — through faith, patience, knowledge, obedience, and whatever else the project may require.
Until that perfect day, if we choose to pursue faith, we will live with doubt and faith together. We will act in faith amid our doubts.
Faith and doubt are not matter and antimatter; they do not annihilate each other the instant they collide. At length one may crowd out the other — and we want it to be faith that wins. So we nod to doubt in passing, as we walk by whatever bits of faith we can gather, small or large. But we don’t bow to doubt, and we don’t let it persuade us that we have no faith at all.
Even if our faith, for now, is dwarfed by that tiny grain of mustard seed, it’s still faith, and — given time — faith works wonders in us.
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