Doubt is a normal thing. Like the common cold, just about everyone comes down with it from time to time. We all come face-to-face with shadows and have a chance to decide what we are going to do about it. Facing a dark night of the soul is not easy.
I had to face a dark night of the soul before I ever joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’ll call it my pre-faith crisis. At 17, the bright light of the gospel showed up in my life, but my parents were violently opposed to it. I was so excited about it I could hardly contain myself, but my parents, especially my father, were apoplectic. They piled books and pamphlets in my lap that were, shall I say, less than complimentary of the Prophet Joseph, Brigham Young, the Book of Mormon, polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre . . . you get the idea.
I read that material with an open mind. I wasn’t afraid of it or particularly shocked. I literally knew nothing about Mormonism before that time. As I sorted through the criticism, negativity, grumbling, and accusations that shouted from those pages, I was also reading the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, feeling the warm presence of the Holy Spirit, hearing the voice of the Lord come to my heart, and experiencing miracles daily.
Even at that young age, I could discern the dissonant voices who spoke against the truth and the light that shined from scripture and from the lives and examples of my Latter-Day Saint friends. The contrast was crisp and beautiful. It brought everything into focus. I could choose the path of light or the path of darkness.
I also knew that God was not in the dark and that I wouldn’t find Him there for “that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:23). I also came to know that He will reach into the dark to pull you out, if you turn to Him.
Darkness versus Light
And what do I mean by dark? I mean criticism, mockery, sarcasm, blame, belittling, bitterness, disrespect, and contention. If any of these attributes are present in conversation or in something you’re reading, darkness is also present.
I made a simple commitment that unforgettable autumn, before I was baptized, to look to God and follow the light. In answer to my prayers, the Lord said to my spirit, “No one really knows what happened to Joseph Smith. I do. Do you believe Me?” That was over 40 years ago. I’ve been weak at times and have made many mistakes, but I have stayed true to that prompting from God.
It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. It hasn’t always been easy, to be sure. I’ve certainly had dark days—dark weeks and months—but I’ve hung on.
And I have always received clear answers, eventually, to whatever question I’ve asked. This promise works: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7).
I learned to not rely on the “arm of flesh” for my answers (see 2 Nephi 4:34). We’ve been counseled to “ask of God” who promises to give answers “to all men liberally.” He won’t rebuke us or treat us poorly for asking. He will simply give answers to us, if we ask sincerely and patiently (see James 1:5).
I want to share a verse that is very powerful to me. It’s short. So short, I memorized it during the first few months I was a member of the Church. It’s still one of my favorites:
Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not. (Doctrine and Covenants 6:36.)
Let’s talk about these ten words for a moment. This is the voice of Jesus Christ, pleading with you and me to look to Him in every thought; He is also commanding us (He’s using the imperative voice according to English grammar) to not doubt or fear.
Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart. . . . (Mormon 9:27.)
Yes, we will all struggle with doubt from time to time, but it doesn’t have to be our constant companion. We can do something about it.
A Rattlesnake in Your Sleeping Bag
Look at it this way. If a rattlesnake crawls into your sleeping bag, are you going to let it stay there? Are you going to stay there? I think not. You would put as much cleverness and energy into resolving doubt that you would put into getting away from that rattlesnake. It’s wise to move slowly in such a case, but by all means, it’s best to move.
No one is obligated to doubt. No one is forced to doubt. It is ultimately a choice. Like an addiction, it might be a hard habit to break. If we trust the wisdom of the world or our own wisdom above God’s, our doubts will bite with venom.
Unchecked, they’ll eventually infest our thoughts. We might wake up one morning doubting everything. Hearts will be troubled, if not embittered, and our outlook will be dark and at times contentious. These are signs that the rattlesnake is near or has already bitten you. But you don’t have to stay loyal to that snake. You can turn away from the serpent at any time.
I remember years ago hearing a friend quote the wise advice of his grandmother.
Don’t let the devil get into the car with you because pretty soon, he’s going to want to drive.
You don’t have to let doubt take the wheel; you don’t even have to let it get into your car.
You can turn your back on doubt and turn your whole heart to God, if you wish. Turn your whole heart to His light and the shadows will lose their strength. Trust that light and follow it. Don’t wait for complete and perfect answers before you choose to follow the light. Those answers will come after you choose to walk in the light. As you walk in the light and toward the light, the shadows always fall behind you.
And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy. (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12–13.)
We’re here to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). If you turn toward the light, “thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isaiah 30:21). You’ll know what to do. You’ll have peace in your heart. You’ll get your clear answers. Temptations will lose power. You won’t have to cling to your misunderstanding. You’ll find it easier to keep the commandments that have troubled you.
Have not I [the Lord] commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest. (Joshua 1:9.)
We in our times haven’t been asked to cross the plains of the American West, but we’ve been asked to cross the plains of doubt. We can do it. Of course we can. I know we can.
Make doubt your servant; don’t let it become your master. Let doubt be your acquaintance, but don’t invite it over for Christmas dinner.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
We’ll know who is walking in the light by their fruits (see Matthew 7:15–20)—that is, in the long run, they’ll produce joy instead of bitterness, unity not separation, love not disdain or hatred. Let His light lead you to the good fruit. He will not fail you if you put your trust in Him (see Mosiah 7:33).
And you’ll get that rattlesnake to find someplace else to curl up.
(First published as “When Doubt Crawls into Your Sleeping Bag” on October 24, 2016.)