The Wheels of our Faith go ’round and ’round
The act of expressing doubt or questioning beliefs is stigmatized in our church culture. Ward leaders and members tend to show great patience and understanding to investigators, children, and new members who ask doctrinally difficult questions but in some cases, life-long or adult members working through their beliefs are not afforded the same compassion. Doubts are often seen as spiritual weakness or deficiency rather than as part of the natural process of cultivating belief and curating testimony.
What if our anxiety about hearing doubts expressed is unnecessary? What if the questions many of us perceive as spiritually threatening are actually gifts from a gracious God? When I heard Terryl Givens lecture about his newest book, The Crucible of Doubt, I was surprised when he listed doubting as a “hidden gift” among other gifts of the Spirit from D&C 46.
“To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” (emphasis added)
To those not given the gift of testimony of Jesus Christ, according to Givens, the gift of their doubt is to consciously make the choice to believe, and is every bit as worthy and valid as any other gift – that all may be profited thereby. We need doubters among us.
The poor and outcast Zoramites who approached Alma for help had been excluded from worshipping God in their synagogue. They were “despised of all men and priests, esteemed as dross, and cast out from the synagogues they labored to build with their own hands.” Likewise, today, many adult and teen members of the church who express doubts or ask questions have been shunned, released from callings, asked to turn in their temple recommends, excluded from class discussions, disqualified from serving in leadership positions, and forbidden from teaching, speaking or praying in church meetings. Some are asked to leave and not return. Facing such inhospitable reception among their church worship communities or families, many of these members justifiably find other places and people to nurture their spirituality, leaving a large, gaping wound in the Body of Christ with their absence. While understanding the choices and imperatives of those who no longer attend, my heart grieves their loss every day – their contributions of strength, virtue and wisdom are so needed and so missed.
When I hear missionaries explain their teaching process for new investigators, I envision a long domino train in the style of If you Give a Mouse a Cookie: read and pray about the Book of Mormon to know if it is true, and that will lead you to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, which will lead you to believe in priesthood restoration and keys, and modern revelation from our current prophet today, and therefore = The Church Is True.
Though I understand the intentions of the missionaries to use successfully acquired faith to build new faith, this approach unnecessarily links beliefs together in a line, making the whole train vulnerable to entire collapse if only one domino falls. A person’s discovery of Joseph Smith’s polygamy might derail their belief in his prophetic call, casting confusion about the Book of Mormon, priesthood restoration, right down to modern revelation and truthfulness of the Church itself.
A more effective faith model than a line or a train might be that of a wheel with spokes radiating outward from the center, where the hub of the wheel represents our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the love of our Heavenly Parents, freely given to all their children. Every other principle can be pondered individually and then related back to the hub directly instead of through adjacent principles, showing the straight connection to God’s love as its source. Spokes might include: the Atonement, the Golden Rule, repentance, forgiveness, service, charity, kindness, the Book of Mormon, the Bible, Joseph Smith, current prophets and apostles, and on and on, encompassing all the truths Mormonism can hold. The spokes work interdependently to strengthen the whole, but each is accountable for its own position on the wheel. When doubts and confusion arise, their impact might be easier to localize and absorb the ripples before traveling to other areas of belief. For example, a person debating the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom could separate that commandment from the injunction to love her neighbor as herself. Even a wheel with a few loose or missing spokes can still turn and go somewhere — and everyone will have their own set of loose or missing spokes, no matter who they are.
Consider the way Alma describes the difference between good seeds and bad seeds, and compare it to how you assess the sturdiness of your spokes. Good seeds swell, sprout, bring sweetness and enlightenment. Bad seeds don’t, and are to be cast out. If polygamy is a broken spoke for you, what would happen to your wheel if you set it aside for a time? Perhaps it’s a bad seed in your garden. In addition to giving us permission to cast out whatever doesn’t swell and grow, Alma is encouraging us to spend our gardening time in the gospel greenhouse working with what does sprout. It’s okay if some of your seeds don’t grow now, or ever.
Alma grants utmost patience to the germination process, stating that we are to experiment, exercise a particle of faith, desire to believe, and give place for a portion of the gospel word. In the buffet of beliefs, we’re free to go back for seconds on the words-of-Christ-whole-wheat-bread-with-honey, while guiltlessly passing by the pickled-pigs-feet-patriarchy and pimento-loaf-polygamy. A wise-woman elder once encouraged me, “You can be any kind of Mormon you want to be! Let’s not use ‘Cafeteria Mormon’ as an insult to anyone. We’re all Cafeteria Mormons.”
“…when thou art converted, strengthen thy sisters.”
How can we make our worship communities and extended families places where everyone can feel welcome, nurtured and accepted?
Prepare Christ-centered lessons, talks, testimonies and class discussions
Make comments that build unity rather than divisiveness
When teaching, invite divergent or uncommon points of view to be expressed in classes. Carefully moderate follow-up comments to avoid having unique ideas dismissed as invalid.
Respond with empathy to those who express sadness, anger, confusion or frustration.
Show love, never judgment or shaming.
Persist in friendship and acceptance. Let your kids play together. Eat together.
Ask questions, listen with concern, offer advice only when invited.
Invite participation in teaching, speaking, commenting and praying. Respect requests for time and space.
Understand that others’ divergent views are not threats to our own beliefs.
Accept that some principles, which may be clear-cut and easy for you to accept, might not be so for others.
Accept that others may have personal witnesses or deeply held beliefs contrary to your own, and that doesn’t make either of you wrong.
By making our wards safe places for everyone on the spectrum of faith and doubt, and by respecting doubt as an appropriate phase of testimony-building, we’ll include a wider array of members on the pews, all loving Jesus in their own ways and helping to build His kingdom. Diverse congregations are brimming with missionary potential because they show how any kind of God’s children can come together in love to make a ward family, a Zion family – black sheep, brown sheep, white sheep, rainbow colored sheep, Republican and Democratic sheep, all under the watchful care of the same Shepherd.