Even though we’ve probably never met, I feel like I know you—and I wish I knew you even better. You are not the first person in my life to face a crisis of faith in recent years. I understand that it can be frightening to find yourself questioning a faith you have accepted and embraced. Let me reassure you that there is nothing wrong with having serious questions about your faith. I say that, in part, because I am a questioner, too.
I appreciate your willingness to let me share some of my thoughts with you. I hope the things I write here will be helpful, and I hope you’ll sense the honesty of what I share. My prayer is that you’ll understand why I am so settled about my own religious convictions, my faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My convictions have never been deeper than they are today; I have never been more optimistic about the Church’s future than I am now.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I have never experienced a faith crisis myself. But don’t worry—it’s not that I have buried my head in the sand, ignoring the critics who challenge our beliefs. Instead, I have read voraciously and have tried to examine all the issues, old and new. That’s my nature. That’s part of what makes me love my job as a university professor; or more accurately, that’s part of what makes me love my job as a researcher. Careful examination is what we in academia like to think we specialize in. Perhaps it will surprise you that as I have confronted the positions of critics and skeptics, I have repeatedly discovered that honest inquiry ends up strengthening my faith, not shaking it.
Ok, now for my thoughts:
- First, I believe that the battle being waged for the souls of men and women today is very serious. The critics who seek to tear down or attack faith are becoming louder, even if the noise they make is mostly just that—noise. Don’t forget that misery loves company, and be careful about your sources. Be especially wary of professional skeptics; there are plenty of those out there today.
- I have noticed that the arguments against religious faith haven't changed much…in at least the last two thousand years. There isn’t much coming from our critics that is new, even though they often try to repackage old ideas. The ancient antagonists in the Book of Mormon used many of the same arguments critics are using today. With honest evaluation, those arguments weren’t convincing then. They’re not convincing now.
- Remember the importance of historical context. If we view a particular story or event from Church history through the lens of our current customs or culture, there’s a good chance we’ll see a distorted image. Although it’s more work, it’s important to evaluate elements of Church history within their proper historical context. Winston Churchill said it well: “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days” (Tribute to Neville Chamberlain, House of Commons, November 12, 1940). Once we acknowledge that our own “flickering lamps” are unable to perfectly illuminate all the details of what happened in some cases nearly two centuries ago, we give room for the Spirit to enlighten our understanding of key events and people in Church history.
- It is not the case that the things that are troubling you about our doctrine or history are things the rest of us don’t know about. Many of the critics you have encountered like to suggest that if believers knew half of what the critics know about our history or our beliefs, we would all end up in a faith crisis, too. They are simply wrong. The reality is that for many believers like me, the process of seeking to understand difficult or complex issues in Church history, for example, has deepened our faith in the reality of the Restoration.
- The Book of Mormon is amazing and there is no credible alternative explanation for its origin. The Book of Mormon has been examined for nearly two centuries, and no one has ever offered a credible alternative to what the Prophet Joseph Smith said about its origins. Reading daily from the Book of Mormon brings incredible peace and spiritual strength. I am a reader, and I believe the power and beauty of the Book of Mormon are unique in all literature. I am also a writer, and there is simply no way the Prophet Joseph Smith could have written that book.
- Beyond his divine calling, the Prophet Joseph Smith was an honest and decent man. I have found that those who knew Joseph Smith the best loved him the most. President Lorenzo Snow once said, “Perhaps there are very few men now living who were so well acquainted with Joseph Smith the Prophet as I was. I was with him oftentimes. I visited him in his family, sat at his table, associated with him under various circumstances, and had private interviews with him for counsel. I know that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God; I know that he was an honorable man, a moral man, and that he had the respect of those who were acquainted with him. The Lord has shown me most clearly and completely that he was a Prophet of God" (In Conference Report, Oct. 1900, 61).
- The presiding officers of the Church are good. They are selfless. We can trust them. One of the great blessings of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the feeling of closeness we have with our presiding authorities. It amazes me that in a worldwide church of more than 15 million members, through conferences, firesides, and broadcasts, we can still feel like the apostles and prophets are close friends. These leaders wear out their lives in church service, and they do it all for us. I have been lucky enough to shake hands and look into the eyes of several of the Brethren in my life. I met Elder Holland once on BYU campus and met Elder Bednar at a BYU alumni gathering in Austin, Texas. I ran into Elder Oaks in the Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, Elder Maxwell at Dairy Keen in Heber, and Elder Nelson at The Garden restaurant on top of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. I met President Monson once at a Jazz game. And I met Elder Scott at Café Rio—on two different occasions. (Elder Scott has great taste in restaurants!) In these brief encounters and in every occasion I’ve had to listen to General Authorities and other presiding officers, I have sensed a powerful witness that these leaders are good, faithful men and women with no ulterior motives. I know they are called of God.
- There is power in keeping our testimonies focused on the basics of the Restoration. The foundational story of the Restoration of the fullness of the gospel is simple and beautiful. Jesus did establish a church in the meridian of time. It did eventually fall into apostasy. The Lord did call a young prophet to help restore the fullness of the gospel in a part of the world where religious freedom was finally respected. The restoration of priesthood authority, the return of temple ordinances, and the coming forth of additional scripture are just a few of these foundational blessings. When we keep our focus on foundational truths, the Gospel fills our lives with light and truth.
- The restored gospel is ennobling and liberating. Everywhere I have been in the world, I have found Latter-day Saints to be some of the happiest, most wonderful people I’ve ever met. As a missionary in South Korea, I repeatedly witnessed the miraculous blessings the Church brought into the lives of converts I knew there. One recent study conducted in the United States found that Mormons are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives and content with their communities. Membership in the Church has brought incredible happiness to my family and me.
- We should all take heart that the Lord uses imperfect people to do His work. We do not believe our leaders are infallible in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Prophet Joseph Smith famously described himself as a “rough stone rolling.” He made mistakes that are well documented in our Standard Works. We should be grateful to know that the Lord can use imperfect people to do his work. President Lorenzo Snow once wrote in his journal, “I saw the imperfections in [Joseph Smith]. I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority He placed upon him…for I knew that I myself had weaknesses, [so] I thought there was a chance for me…I thanked God that I saw these imperfections” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Out of Obscurity,” The Ensign, November 1984).
- The Church doesn't have anything to hide. I admire how openly the Church has addressed questions about its history. The Church recently published a series of candid "Gospel Topics" essays that provide detailed discussions about several events in our history. Some of the topics of these essays include the Book of Mormon translation process, the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and plural marriage in early Church history. I have loved these essays! As a researcher myself, I can appreciate the monumental effort that must have been required to compose these exceptional essays.
- Give the Lord equal time. When I was in high school, confronting for the first time material given to me by a strong critic of the Church, a wise leader counseled me to be certain to “give the Lord equal time.” What he meant was that I shouldn’t spend more time reading what our critics say than what I was willing to spend studying the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. This counsel has been a tremendous blessing in my life, so I share the same advice with you.
- If the Church is ever true, it is always true. I love my mission president’s teaching that, “if the Church is ever true, it is always true.” That statement has stayed with me. If you have felt a confirmation of the truthfulness of the restored gospel before, you can trust in that confirmation now.
- Faith is always going to require conceding that we don't know every answer to every question. We are not going to have an answer to every conceivable question anyone can raise about our beliefs or doctrines or history. But there is no dishonor in accepting some things on faith, for now, trusting that a more complete understanding will come with time.
- The witness of the Holy Ghost is real. Finally, I hope you remember that the witness of the Holy Ghost is powerful and real. Trust in that eternal truth. If you have felt the Spirit confirm the truthfulness of the restored gospel in the past, you can rely on that confirmation throughout your life. No amount of logic or reason or history can ever provide the same powerful and lasting conviction that comes through the witness of the Holy Ghost. Never hesitate to ask in prayer for the spiritual reassurance you seek. You have the Lord’s promise that “by the power of the Holy Ghost, [you] may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).