To Some It Is Given: Knowledge, Doubt, Mercy

Today’s thread over at BCC arguing that the loss of faith is ultimately a choice included a comment that wrenched my heart.

Subsequent discussion made reference to a passage in D&C 46 that has haunted me for most of my life, particularly these strange words:

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 might also have eternal life if they continue faithful.

How many people I know and love and respect and admire, who live upright and moral lives and who grace my life with their kindness and generosity to whom, evidently, it has not been given to know. The depth of devotion, the desire, the unrequited love, and the profound loneliness Lost describe speak to me deeply. And yet the terrible irony is that my problem is the opposite. With fear and trepidation I am forced to confess that to me it has been given to me to know. I utter that word which has, perhaps rightly, been called into such question in our secular and skeptical times in awe and humility and unworthiness, thinking of the piercing reach of God’s grace into my life on occasions more real than anything else I have ever known with my eyes, my mind, even my heart–a direct experience of a truth at once so intimate and so utterly beyond me that it has changed everything.

I sometimes read in places like Sunstone and FMH that the Mormon claim to knowledge is profoundly illogical, or even smug, self-deluded, and infuriating to others. I can understand such concerns, I think. I certainly don’t want to be smug or self-righteous. I don’t want to claim to know more than I do, and such knowledge as I have been granted has been the basis for far more questions than answers, and often for more pain than peace. And it has come to me so unmerited, often in the moments of my life when I was least worthy of it. And yet for all that I simply cannot dishonor what I’ve experienced by calling it anything other than knowledge, a knowledge that throws into shadow every other knowledge I have ever known.

This knowledge has often been a source of pain. In so may ways, on so many levels I am ill-suited for this Church, in my blunt, fierce, unfeminine and chronically sinful nature, in my solitary and prickly ways, and in my unconventional life. Other than my brother and sisters I have no close friends who are Mormon; I’ve almost always found my deepest emotional connections outside the Church community, and I’ve found much within it that leaves me by turns miserable, exasperated, and cold. Maybe hardest of all over the years I’ve watched so many people I care for, the people I really love and respect and who are vital to my life, the people who feel like my people, the people who matter most, leave one by one. I have come to a place where heaven, specifically the Mormon heaven of family and community, is empty for me. Too many people I love will not, evidently, be there–and the people who are set to arrive are often not people I can see myself associating with for eternity. And so I have to struggle to do the good for other reasons entirely, having no hope of heaven and little fear of hell. I have to love the good because it is good and for no other reason. Because for me it sometimes seems there no longer are any other reasons. And even so there is something in that empty heaven that calls me, forces me to learn to love the good here on earth, now, the only time and place over which I have any power, and to love it utterly without ulterior motive. Perhaps for me honoring the call of the empty heaven is the more profound fidelity.

And so, while I don’t want to presume to understand Lost’s or anyone else’s experience, I sometimes wonder if I haven’t ended up in a strangely parallel place to the legions of closet doubters who seek refuge on the Bloggernacle. For so many it seems that everyone around them, everyone they know knows. They feel largely or utterly alone in their doubts and disbelief. Some long for, seek after, pray desperately for spiritual confirmations, for months, for years, that never seem to come. For me the spiritual confirmations have come. And yet everything in my life seems to conspire to pull me away from them, and they become the tortured and undeniable extremities of my life which, for all my sorrow, I can never let go.

For some doubt is a deeply lonely place. For some, like me, faith is the place of loneliness.

I have no idea to what extent faith is a choice, although I confess I’m skeptical of the model John C. offers. But more importantly, I have no idea whatsoever why to some it is given to know, to others to believe, to still others, it would seem, to suffer long periods of doubt. But this I do know: that in this life we all suffer, whether in and for our knowledge or in and for our disbelief, and that the nature and depth of our suffering is rarely, if ever, apparent to the casual observer.

Lost says, “People like me aren’t supposed to exist, so they have to invent some theory to explain us away.” Heartbreaking comments like this remind me of other fundamental truths of human and of religious existence: that we are all so different, maybe ultimately incomprehensible to one another, and yet also somehow the same in our need for one another’s mercy. Such little knowledge as I have, real and true as it is, is not the end but the beginning. Let that knowledge, frail and imperfect and ultimately transitory as it is, never impede the pursuit of charity, which is, after all, the eternal virtue. Instead let it call me to exercise more faith, faith in the reality of others’ experiences, however different they may be from mine, and to seek more knowledge, above all that indispensable knowledge of another’s heart.

24 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This was a beautiful post and I really needed to read it right now. I will honestly say that this is something that I struggle with as well. I’ve always felt a strong faith and a strong desire to keep the commandments. And yet most people in my family and my husband have fallen away from the church. Some of our shared experiences strengthed my testimony while at the same time fueling my husband’s doubts and skepticism. I don’t know how to reconcile this, for now I just figure that living with paradox is how I manifest my faith. My patriarchal blessing tells me I am blessed with a believing and responsive spirit, but it often feels like a burden rather than a blessing.

  2. Eve,
    Thank you. This is powerful. Sometimes I don’t know which is worse, knowing or losing faith. Both can leave you feeling lost. You captured this beautifully.

  3. I have no idea to what extent faith is a choice, although I confess I’m skeptical of the model John C. offers.

    If I may be so bold, why?

    But more importantly, I have no idea whatsoever why to some it is given to know, to others to believe, to still others, it would seem, to suffer long periods of doubt. But this I do know: that in this life we all suffer, whether in and for our knowledge or in and for our disbelief, and that the nature and depth of our suffering is rarely, if ever, apparent to the casual observer.

    I completely agree.

  4. I guess I have a different interpretation of the scripture.

    I have never received a “witness” to the question as to whether or not the Church was true. I know many other people who never “received” a “witness”. We just “knew” and “believed”. My mother-in-law didn’t receive a witness until AFTER she came out of the baptismal waters — she had to rely on belief and faith and trust before that.

    I went on my mission questioning how effectively I could promise people to pray and that they would receive an answer, and this scripture spoke volumes to me. I see all people as being in one or the other class — some receive an answer by the HG, and some don’t require a special witness, because they believe.

    I just don’t believe, however, that anyone is destined to not fall into either category.

  5. I think this line in John’s post has not received enough attention:

    So, to recap, your testimony is a product of your interactions with and expectations of God.

    This seems to absolutely apply to you Eve. (It applies to me as well.) Your testimony is built on the only solid foundation I know of — personal interaction with God.

  6. “For so many it seems that everyone around them, everyone they know knows. They feel largely or utterly alone in their doubts and disbelief.”

    They would probably be wrong. The select persons who mount the pulpit regularly fast and testimony meeting time are vocal and visible. But they are not “most people” in the ward. There are a lot of faces out there in the congregation and each has his or her own story. I think the number of people in a given LDS congregation who really know is much smaller than you’d think. There are hidden doubts and troubles in every ward. We just don’t know about them.

  7. But more importantly, I have no idea whatsoever why to some it is given to know, to others to believe, to still others, it would seem, to suffer long periods of doubt. But this I do know: that in this life we all suffer, whether in and for our knowledge or in and for our disbelief, and that the nature and depth of our suffering is rarely, if ever, apparent to the casual observer.

    I recently read the new book that is excerpts of Mother Teresa’s letters called Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light : The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, and what you wrote here reminds me exactly of her experience, decades and decades of doubt that she kept to herself while she went about doing her work and clinging to the knowledge that God is love and God called her, even if she could no longer experience and feel it. Fascinating.

  8. Wow, this is just a terrific post. There is so much here, I’m afraid my response will be somewhat incoherent.

    My own experience also indicates that there is very little connection between my choices and the extent to which I feel connected to God. In fact, if I were going to generalize, I would say that the times I have been most unworthy ar the time I have been most aware of God’s love. The Savior compared the Holy Spirit to the wind, which “bloweth whithersoever it listeth”. Even though I think we can tilt the odds a little by righteous living, we really don’t have much control over these things.

    Don’t we all know many reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-informed, reasonably non-crazy people whose experiences with faith and doubt differ from our own? If we don’t, our lives are poorer than they could be. Our attempt to turn Moroni 10:4 into the theological equivalent of a vending machine has the sad result of contributing to the isolation of people like Lost. When people put in the right combination of coins but don’t get the Snickers bar, they have a right to feel cheated, and so it is hard to blame post-Mormons for sometimes feeling like the patsy in a shell game.

    And yet, and yet ….

    If faith, or the loss of it, is something which mostly just happens to us, there really is no need for explanation, right? Nobody needs to explain being 6’2″, or having brown eyes. So why all the bitterness in the exit stories? Why all the claims of deception, and the denigration of believers as sheeple being led around by the nose?

    There is one sense, though, in which I think it is mostly a matter of choosing to be a believer or a non-believer. Imagine a spectrum going from 1 to 100, with 1 being a complete atheist who cannot understand why anybody would believe in God and 100 being a person who believes every single thing about the church is true. Just about everybody falls somewhere between 2 and 99. I don’t think anybody, including Thomas S. Monson, is a 100. (Church ball? Mia Maid makeover night? High council Sunday? Please.) And very few people are a 1. I know a couple where the woman converted to the Restoration but the man is comfortable in his agnosticism/atheism. Tithing was understandably a problem for them, but when he heard about how the church administers the fast offering and the PEF, he enthusiastically began to participate in those donations. I would peg him at about a 5. So, where is the cutoff for believers and unbelievers? Someone who starts out at 85 and drops to a 60 might feel a great loss of faith. And someone who starts out at 10 but goes to a 25 might think of himself as a True Believer. Some of the very best church members I know are in the 15-30 range. They feel they have sorted through the non-essentials and found the pearl of great price.

  9. I’ve enjoyed this post and the comments. This is real life and each of you have touched on some tender spots. For those who it is given to know, there is a reason for this, and for those who are required to borrow from them, it take humility, and yes, there is a reason for it. The reason isn’t as important as you might think.

    I’ve lived a long time and have been working through these issues and have concluded that whatever hand you’ve been dealt, use it to your best advantage. Be thankful you’re in the game.

  10. Thanks for a beautiful post, Eve. As one who leans more toward Lost’s end of the spectrum–feeling like I’m alone in not knowing (although I hope Seth is right that I’m not alone)–I find it fascinating to hear your dilemma of knowing expressed so eloquently.

  11. My dad was baptized when I was 15. The rest of my family had been members of the church for about 10 years. He didn’t tell me he was going to be baptized.

    I found out he’d chosen to be baptized at a stake conference. One of speakers came back to our row before the meeting. My family stood up and we each shook the speaker’s hand. He looked at my dad and said something like, “so, I hear you’ve decided to be baptized. Would you mind telling me how you decided to be baptized?” I nearly fell over. My dad was not supposed to be LDS. There was never anything about my dad that I associated with being LDS.

    What on earth would convince my dad to be a member of this church? He said, “I’ve seen the good that this church has brought into my family and I want to be a part of it.” No revelations. Not even the “quiet promptings of the spirit.” Just a simple statement about how he’d seen good come from being LDS.

    This probably isn’t a satisfactory answer for most. Certainly not to the caliber of “I know …” or “the only true ….” My dad’s simple statement doesn’t resolve the doubts I struggle with. But it does something for me. I’ve seen a church that strives to teach the Gospel change my family, my dad, and me. That’s sufficient for me today.

    Thanks for the post.

  12. I’ve never participated in this kind of on line discussion, so I hope I’m doing this right.

    I just wanted to thank Eve for describing so well the burden that comes with knowing. I’ve felt as she does, longing to move to the humanist, non-Mormon world I feel I really belong in– but cannot go to, because of the knowledge that would make my life there a lie. When Joseph tells the world that he cannot deny his visions because he knows they were real, and he knows that God knows they were real, I feel some of his anguish. It’s so hard to explain this divine difficulty, this transcendental struggle, when it is, in fact, the gift so many desperately long to receive.

    Many times in my life, I have wished I did not know. But I believe a merciful Father has forgiven me each time; perhaps because there may have been days when even his Son, our Advocate, wished he did not know.

  13. Thanks to all who’ve responded, and I do apologize for my delay in getting back here this week. I especially appreciate the thoughtful observations you’ve added about your own experiences–thanks to FoxyJ, Doc, Ethesis, and Jared for your kind words. Heather makes a very nice connection to the hidden doubt and anguish of Mother Theresa, and Mark IV makes the excellent points that spiritual experience often has no correlation (or maybe even a negative correlation) with what we generally consider righteous behavior, and that belief is certainly a continuum, and very individual. His final comments about the relativism of what we consider true belief are well taken, and we’re back to that perennial chestnut about what’s essential to our belief. Would we even want to be at 100? And in any case, is it even possible to be at 100 given that doctrines change over time and that certain orthodoxies of the nineteenth century are scarcely discernible in the church of the 21st? Josh’s subsequent observations about his father’s conversion certainly illustrate the individuality of our relationships to the church. And Seth’s point about the likely substantial amount of doubt that any number of people are carrying around quietly is an excellent one.

    John C., it may be that we’re basically in agreement. I think where I would disagree with your original post would be in the suggestion you make (as I understand you) that loss of belief has nothing to do with encounters with scholarly material or anti-Mormon material or other flawed human beings, that testimony is, as you put it, “a product of your interactions with and expectations of God.” Indeed it is, but I can’t agree that a testimony and faith stand in complete isolation from the constant, ongoing complexities of our human existences.

    For example, because the church makes powerful claims for the reality of certain historical events, for example, articles or blog posts that call those events into question do shake and sometimes destroy people’s faith. The church implicitly recognizes this in its counsel not to immerse ourselves in anti-Mormon literature, for instance–as well as in the counsel to immerse ourselves in the scriptures, which strengthen our faith. And of course we have power, sometimes terrifying power, in each others’ lives. We can and do invite each other in and drive each other away, and we can and do leave our indelible footprints on one another’s faith. We simply don’t live the lives of isolated monads in which all that influences us are our spiritual experiences. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be enjoined to the almost constant community interaction at which we Mormons excel. Nearly every issue of the Ensign features stories about how a Relief Society lesson or a visiting-teaching visit or a ward activity or simply observing the behavior of a faithful Mormon strengthened someone’s faith. The unavoidable obverse is that our interactions with one another also have the power to weaken and destroy. That’s just the nature of community.

    In short, I do think there are choices available to us in believing our doubting, but I think we need a much more complicated model than simple free will. We’re all acting under constraints, and the range in which we may exercise our choice varies enormously, sometimes for reasons that are completely inaccessible to the casual observer.

    Geoff, as you observe, quoting John C., interactions with God are the foundation of my testimony, personally. But then there are people like Josh’s father (and in certain ways my husband) who appreciate the church community’s power for good without necessarily subscribing to its truth claims. There are people like Mark IV’s friend whose entire testimony, we might say, consists of a testimony of fast offerings and the PEF. Then there are people like Lost and like Ziff, to some extent, who are probably–OK, undoubtedly–more active and devoted than I am, but who can’t find the confirmation they seek (whereas I often feel that I can’t live up the confirmation I’ve had).

    Things that make you go huh.

    E. Victoria, you’re doing beautifully! We hope you feel welcome here and that you feel free to return and comment anytime. I particularly like your connection to Joseph Smith’s anguish at his inability to deny his own vision. And I too often feel I belong to the secular academic world much better than I do to the Mormon one.

  14. Thank you, Eve, for this thoughtful post. I regret that I did not see it earlier, but I am genuinely touched that you noticed me in the barrage of posts that followed John C’s initial post on BCC. Thank you for that.

    I can understand how difficult it must be from your perspective and it is a perspective that I had not considered before. I don’t think I would want to trade places with you.

    I don’t pretend to completely understand faith and its source. I have had it, and I have lost it. Perhaps I will have it again some day–who can say for sure? But I don’t recognize myself or others whose stories I know in John C’s post. It seemed so utterly foreign to my own experience. There is much more involved than a simple “choice”. Perhaps it is true that it is solely a function of our personal interactions with God. But if that is the case, God is a capricious God indeed.

  15. Lost, I’m glad you saw stopped by, saw this, and took the time to comment. One of the reasons I think your description of your experience in John C’s thread over at BCC spoke to me so deeply was that although at some level we have opposite dilemmas, the raw, lonely religious struggle is one I recognize well, even if it’s played out in different terms in my own life. As you say, I don’t recognize myself or those I care about most in much of the religious discourse I hear. And I’m more or less constantly fighting off the dread that God is utterly capricious and utterly inhuman and incomprehensible.

    A number of people I love, including my husband, are in similar situations to yours, and it’s been my observation that much of the discourse aimed at doubters is not helpful and is sometimes downright hurtful, however well-intentioned it generally is.

    In any case, the very best of luck to you.

  16. Eve,

    Thank you for the thought provoking post. Isn’t their some consolation to your distress in understanding that certainty is just an emotion? (as in the FMH post you linked to) Doesn’t accepting your own fallibility as a human being alleviate the burden of responsibility?

    Mark IV,

    So why all the bitterness in the exit stories? Why all the claims of deception, and the denigration of believers as sheeple being led around by the nose?

    I think you answered your own question. No one likes to feel like they’ve been made to play the fool. No one like to feel like they’ve been lied to, especially when they’ve invested so much in believing the lie. That bitterness and anger are the natural response to betrayal, something that most probably move beyond with time.

  17. I just reread my comment when it popped up in my feed reader, and it sounds harsher than I intended. I was asking Eve a sincere question, and offering what I intended to be a helpful answer to Mark IV. Instead, it sounds like a leading question and my answer sounds like I’m still pretty bitter.

  18. Not to worry, Jonathan, at least on my account. Your comment didn’t sound harsh to me, and it even helped me realize how I didn’t say something quite in the way I meant it. There are people like you who do feel misled and lied to, and there are others who don’t, but who just lost their faith somehow. I can see now that my comment could have mismatched the wrong behavior with the wrong group, when they really are separate. Maybe we need a Venn diagram (Ziff?) to help us see how much the groups overlap, if at all.

    Anyway, I’m glad you have found your way to a measure of peace.

  19. Jonathan, thanks for the clarification, but you didn’t sound harsh to me either.

    To answer your question: I guess where I’d disagree with your analysis, and the some of the analysis referenced over at FMH, is the phrase “just a feeling.” I think that our post-Enlightment and scientistic culture continues, unfortunately, to make a certain limited rationality the model for all knowledge and understanding. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favor of throwing rationality to the wolves, and it has gotten some undeservedly bad press among literary critics who’ve imbibed a little Derrida–or worse, Lacan–and run amok gleefully finding bad faith in all my favorite literature, to my ongoing irritation. But what is the reason for reason? And why is feeling “mere”? Its at those points I’d take issue with a certain strain of rationalist religious critique, a rationalism that–in my humble opinion–often fails to recognize its own limitations.

    However, I do take comfort, as well as despair, in my immense human fallibility and regularly pray the grace of God thereupon.

    (Oh, people, people, why am I blogging??? I should be filling out my state income taxes. I’ve even got the thrilling website all cued up and the stack of forms right here by my laptop. My husband did the federals weeks ago. I find myself wondering just how is it that a human being can manage to be an accountant all day. That, my friends, is a deep and abiding mystery.)


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