Friday, February 08, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Spiritual Growth

If you’re religious and you’ve never experienced a faith crisis, then there’s something about your religion that you don’t know. (If you’re Mormon, there’s probably something you don’t know about Brigham Young. But that’s another matter.) This is a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. I’m left to wonder how important it is for people to go through a faith crisis. I’m hesitant to describe any of my own experiences as a crisis of faith, simply because I’m unsure of how people would interpret that. How near to abandoning your faith must you be in order for it to qualify as a faith crisis? Suffice it to say, I have wallowed (for days at a time) in despair at the thought that all of my religious beliefs are wrong. I have experienced an entire and total absence of confidence in their truthfulness, even as I felt no particular conviction of their falsity. I have stood in a place where I was unable to see any indication that the road on which I travelled leads anywhere, and I have felt zero hope that any road existed that could take me where I wanted to go. There are plenty of roads that can be travelled, of course. I simply lost (at least temporarily) all hope that my sought-after destination could be found at the end of any of them.

The purpose of this blog post is not to go into my own personal experience. Rather, it is to raise the question of what is necessary for spiritual growth. I come from a faith tradition where challenges and obstacles are considered essential learning tools. In my faith, we often speak of experiencing trials and of having our faith tested. But the general idea seems to be that we will face difficulties in our day-to-day lives that force us to rely more heavily on God, and that in doing so, we will draw nearer to Him. The so-called test of faith is really a test of patience. Put crudely, the question is, “How long will I be obedient without receiving any reward for that obedience?” Or, “How little complaining will I do as I undergo this difficulty?” Or, “How long will I persist in doing things that I don’t necessarily enjoy doing or that I don’t necessarily understand?” It is a test of our faith to pay tithing because we can’t say precisely what benefit will come of it every time we write the check, or because it literally seems like we don’t have enough money to afford tithing. It is a test of our faith when we are asked to devote our time and effort to teaching a class at church, because it’s not something we are all that excited about doing and we know it will be a strain on our resources (be they mental, emotional, or what have you).

The point I am dancing around is that many of these supposed trials of faith are anything but. What is being tested is not our faith so much as our willingness to live in accordance with that faith. There is a fine distinction to be made here. It certainly requires faith to overcome some of these challenges, and one can reasonably argue that the stronger your faith, the better able to accommodate these challenges you will be. But what is challenged is not your faith itself. At best, what is tested is your readiness to call upon that faith in the face of various temptations—temptations to complain, temptations to mock, temptations to shirk or avoid responsibility, temptations to rest when something needs to be done, temptations to be selfish, etc. In all such instances, the dilemma is practical, not epistemological; behavior-based, not philosophical or epistemological.

Adversity is essential for growth, according to my religious tradition. A familiar maxim in Mormonism is that there must be “opposition in all things.” We can see the seemingly universal application of this in the world around us. Without friction, we literally couldn’t walk. Without resistance, we couldn’t build muscle. Without making mistakes, we couldn’t improve and learn. Without putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations, we could never develop the character traits of courage, confidence, and compassion. These considerations seem to be the basis for viewing challenges in one’s life as a blessing. Challenges provide one with an opportunity to grow, and one can’t grow if one isn’t stretched.

If all of these things are true, does it follow that one’s faith must be tested in a way that involves serious doubt? My suspicion is that most people who share my faith tradition are not so welcoming of doubt. Any challenge or hardship God might throw at us is to be regarded as a blessing in disguise, but never can it be that seriously questioning the teachings of the Church is a good thing. If there is information to be found that might rattle one’s testimony, it should be avoided. Raising questions about chemistry, or history, or math, or social studies is a great way to learn. Raising questions about God or the Church is an affront to spirituality, is risky business, and is the first step toward apostasy. So seem to be the sentiments of my religious culture. Can they possibly be right?

Looking back, I now feel grateful for my time of spiritual bleakness. It came at a time when I was trying very hard to do things right, from a spiritual standpoint. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, mind you. Being wholeheartedly engaged in a sincere effort to better understand one’s religion is not supposed to plunge one into spiritual darkness. I was exercising my faith like crazy. I didn’t abandon my faith. I was doing everything in my power to walk with God. And suddenly, it was as if God totally disappeared. I didn’t stop talking to God, but it sure seemed as though God stopped talking to me. And it happened at a time when my prayers were all about becoming unshakeable in my faith, so I could better reach out to those people that do struggle with faith. And why would I be grateful for this trial of mine? Because in hindsight, I think God really did abandon me. And I think He did it as an answer to my prayers. In essence, it’s as though God was saying, “You want to be able to help those people that really struggle with their faith? Then you need to know what that’s really like. Here you go.”

While I still face challenges to my faith—in the real sense of having one’s faith challenged—I feel I am at one of the strongest points of my life, spiritually speaking. The challenges are never pleasant. It’s always disheartening to learn that things aren’t quite as you’d always assumed them to be. But as I peel back each onion layer of truth, no matter how many stinging tears it brings to my eyes, I am drawing nearer and nearer to its core. Bit by bit, I am doing away with the unnecessary and the false. In a religious sense, I am less orthodox. In a spiritual sense, I am more pure. And it’s worth it. And I don’t think I could have done it without wading into the onion patch, holding my breath, and dirtying my hands by doing some serious digging.

As Jesus never said: “I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it.”


  1. There are a lot of avenues to explore here. Looking back at my whole life presents me with a plethora of questions. ['Member that word..haha] There have been quite a few times when I seriously considered whether to stay with my faith. I don't think I ever doubted my faith. The question was whether to continue trying to stay true to it. I wonder if what each of us needs is an environmental support group. I rely on what I know of my ancestors to help me stay true, the ones who walked across the plains to get to Zion and continued the struggle to progress even after they got here. Whatever kept them going seems to be in my genes strongly enough to keep me going. A desire to continue to be with my children and my family has played a big part of staying on the said straight path.

    I have never had an amazing, enlightening, revelation. But I have had soft assurances and knowings. I do believe there is more we can know about what spirituality actually is, and how faith works, and is the string theory true. [I believe it is] I can't understand suffering and pain, or why the Atonement had to involve such punitive, horrible pain. Why?? What does that serve ?? Sometimes all I can say is this world shows us what it's like to be without God and how much we need Him. This life is a mess.

    I would enjoy seeing you post more here about this. It is a huge subject. Maybe it's time to realize just what we do know and why we believe what we do might be important or not. Keep typing.

  2. I really like that you wrote this. It feels so honest and real as well as thought out and educated.
    I guess I feel like any time you have serious questions or even doubts, it's a crisis. Not in the sense of facing destruction but because things have to be reorganized and restructured in your own mind and heart.
    I have recently (relatively speaking) felt panic wondering if everything I believe in is true. I suppose it comes from trying to raise and teach my children. I really start scrutinizing what I really feel and believe in. I feel good in my church and religion and especially with my relationship and belief in God. But can I really believe that a young farm boy saw God and angels etc? I feel like I've lost some of my romantic/supernatural senses and when I really want to teach my children about it, do I believe it more than I believed in Santa Claus or something. Or how do I know I believe it? And what really bothers me is that by believing it (I think you said something along these lines if I understood you correctly) it makes it more feasible that others have had "real" experiences, not just Joseph Smith, but Mohammad and Buddha. And if they did, then what about my beliefs?
    I've also had a hard time for a long time believing that God gives us our challenges. It's hard to believe he allows bad things to happen, but it makes sense. But to actually tailor our hardships to us? The way you have said it, like He gave you exactly what you were asking for, makes a lot of sense but also makes me hesitate- like be careful what you wish for.
    I feel like I start out with real good thoughts that might be interesting and then I just babble about my own train of thought. But, you asked for it. And I really like what you say and how you think, so thanks for listening :)
    Oh and I also really like your point about our faith being tested versus our willingness to live that faith.