Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon leader says doubt is dangerous, of Satan

Two years ago, I wrote a column praising the April 2015 General Conference for its compassionate and sensible approach to doubt. In particular I lauded Rosemary Wixom’s talk as a great step forward in how Mormons talk about doubt and relate to loved ones who are doubting.

It feels like this month’s Ensign has taken us two steps back after that bold step forward.

In a piece by Elder Hugo Montoya of the Seventy, just about every good and helpful thing that was a balm from Sister Wixom has been turned on its head, so that doubt is once again a danger to be overcome, doubters who are honest about their feelings are merely “so-called” friends, and the source of doubt can be traced right back to Satan, who “tempts us to place insidious doubts in our hearts and minds.”

There is some powerful personal testimony in this article about how a strong faith helped Elder Montoya when violence and poverty threatened his family, and how the LDS church community came through with needed support. I don’t want to minimize his experience. But the way he pathologizes doubts that are a wholly natural and expected part of adult faith development is difficult for me to understand.

Doubt, he says, can originate from “so-called friends” who are “asking hurtful questions.” It can be exacerbated by Internet information that is taken out of context. Most of all, though, it happens when we don’t close our ears sufficiently to the “father of lies” and “his sinister purpose,” which is to weaken “our certainty that we are God’s children.”

The best thing to do, he says, is simply to erase doubt from our minds. We can do that by praying harder, remembering past spiritual experiences, and never giving up our testimony:

This is particularly true for those who have returned from full-time missionary service and then allowed doubts to creep in, for longtime members who have grown tired of enduring, and for recent converts who initially felt great joy but have not nourished their faith.

What I notice particularly about this statement is the way it places blame squarely on the shoulders of weary people who are experiencing a faith transition. RMs have “allowed” doubts to creep in, the faithful have “grown tired of enduring,” and new converts have failed to nourish belief.

There’s never a recognition that if people are feeling doubts, that’s an important – and for some of us indispensible – step in growing their faith. Instead, it is a “danger,” as the title suggests, and needs to be stamped out. He goes on:

If such is your case, I would like to say: If the gospel was true when you sent in your missionary application (and it was!), if it was true when you entered the temple (and it was!), if it was true when you were converted and baptized or when you converted and baptized others (and it was!), if it was true when you were sealed (and it was!), then it is equally true today!

But here’s the thing. If the gospel is no longer true in exactly the same way it was when you were nineteen years old, that is probably a very good thing. That means you are growing up, and that you are facing your faith with a spirit of love rather than a terror of change.

And change is necessary to growth. Asking the deepest questions enables us to deepen the faith that was being kindled during all of those dramatic “firsts”—conversion, temple, mission, sealing.

Rich faith is not a matter of stasis, of always remaining the same, hoping to cryogenically freeze an early iteration of belief as the gold standard forevermore.

That is not a true and living faith. It may still be true, but it is certainly not living.

Instead we can be brave enough to recognize that when doubts occur, they are a natural sign that growth wants to happen inside our souls. That we have outgrown some trapping of that soul’s clothing, and need to do the hard work of figuring out what will be deeper and truer and better.

(And yes, it is hard work. But take heart, because it’s actually not as much hard work as shoving those impulses far, far away and trying to maintain a doubt-free stasis because we are so deeply afraid of growing. Ongoing denial ultimately takes more energy than trusting God to walk with us toward greater maturity.)

I’m struck by how different the counsel of Jesus is to “Doubting” Thomas in the Gospel of John, who can’t come to belief without a period of doubt and a display of evidence. The other disciples’ testimony of the resurrection is not enough for him. Jesus doesn’t tell Thomas, “Get with the program! Stop listening to Satan and letting your doubts infect the other disciples.”

No, he first says, “Peace be with you.” Isn’t that wonderful? He recognizes, first, that Thomas’s is a soul in turmoil. Then he instructs Thomas to do whatever he needs to do to learn the truth—even sticking a finger in Jesus’ side, if necessary. Only then does he tell Thomas not to doubt, but to believe—after Jesus has calmed his follower’s fear and helped him gather answers to his specific questions.

One problem in Mormon culture is that we are generally so fearful of the natural process of faith formation, which includes doubt and change, that we have little guidance on how to go about it. When leaders tell us that doubt is born of Satan and that those who vulnerably voice such feelings are only “so-called friends,” it’s hard to believe the truth that doubt can be one of our best catalysts to genuine, mature faith. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in Learning to Walk in the Dark,

“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

So have more trust in the process of letting go of childish things and learning to accept a more robust spiritual path. Wrestle that angel through the dark night of the soul, and do not let go until it blesses you.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

38 Comments

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  • Why do you leave out Jesus’ comment afterwards “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. Jesus puts a premium on faith and puts Thomas’ doubt in perspective: “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Does that not apply to all of our doubts no matter the source. I believe that is what Elder Montoya is trying to say.

  • As Jeff Holland advised, “Doubt your doubts.” Another perspective on doubt won’t sink the boat.

  • What?…You mean some people doubt the Book of Mormon. I can’t think of any reason why? Yep, must be Satan !!

  • HIgh control groups like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. discourage critical thinking. Doubts can be a warning from the Holy Spirit and Scripture that one is deceived by false religions/cults. LDS leaders have basically said to trust them and the church no matter what. Mormonism is based on a subjective apologetic of feelings about the BOM, LDS Church, Joseph Smith, etc. If one hears from God (as I have) that Mormonism is false, then it is wrongly assumed one was not sincere or misled. Feelings can be counterfeited by demons and the flesh and should be doubted/questioned. An objective examination of the history, founder, writings of JW, Mormon, etc. shows them to not be biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity.

  • “The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers.”

  • Jana, I am reminded of how sensitively Terryl and Fiona Givens’ treated the issue of doubt in their ‘Crucible of Doubt’ which you read on this blog in ‘book club’ form a few years ago.
    I think the Givens have a perspective which might benefit Mr. Montoya, especially in the second chapter. A couple quotes from them that I thought were very valuable:
    “Self-revelation and self-formation take place only in the presence of the seemingly insoluble, the wrenchingly vexing, the genuine question” – Crucible of Doubt, Ch 2
    “Like the sand in the oyster shell, the torment of uncertainty is at the same time the spur to our spiritual vitality and growth” – Ch 2

  • Actually I see the leadership on a more local level actually encouraging examination and discussion, encouraging members to read all of the new essays on gospel topics on the church website and to give them equal weight in the discussions.

  • So if one wants to know what is the true religion to join, then what is the correct feeling or spiritual experience to receive if the devil can counterfeit those things.

    Such was my dilemma sharing the gospel on my mission ?

  • The apologetic must be objective with facts, knowledge, evidence, persuasion. Feelings can be a part of things, but are unreliable and common to most true and false religious experiences. Feelings must be consistent with facts. The LDS approach to pray about the BOM is wrong and leads to deception.

  • Which faith do you belong to? answer that, and you will know that all of the others are false.

  • The big problem with doubt is that it can end up being a very large boulder plopped down right in the middle of your stream of income.

  • The LDS approach is to be objective with facts, knowledge, evidence, persuasion. Thats what you learn from reading the BOM. Then it asks you to pray in faith if the BOM is truth and to expect a spiritual experience for confirmation via the Holy Ghost. Thus filling the gap of your search for the true religion.

    How is that deceptive?

  • The praying and feeling is put over facts. There is a wealth of information against Mormonism. The BOM does not contain unique LDS teaching (see DandC, etc.). I read the BOM and it was a boring, manmade story except where it anachronistically plagiarizes KJV passages?! When I pray in faith, I am pointed to the facts about Smith, history LDS church, beliefs, practices, etc. and am told to be a Berean and compare with older revelation of the Bible/Scripture. LDS is plurality of gods/polytheism, not biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity/monotheism (Judaism too). This proves Smith is a false prophet and has no credibility. Saying all the churches are an abomination, there was an apostasy and restoration by one flawed man is typical new North American cults. Your leaders admit it rises/falls on first vision, Smith, etc. True Christianity rises/falls on the person and work of Christ alone, not frauds centuries later (Muhammad included).

  • So you decide on what facts you can gather over spiritual experiences? thats what I’m taking on what you’ve said. Earlier you said that you’ve heard from God that Mormonism is false, what exactly do mean by that I’m curious.

    The Book of Mormon quotes (not plagiarizes) from books in the bible i.e. many chapters of Isaiah and a little of Malachi. And I disagree strongly on you saying that biblical/orthodox Christianity/Judaism is a monotheistic religion because there is overwhelming evidence that is isn’t.

    -James

  • As Mormons we have a tendency to read into this passage a sense that Jesus is here saying that uninformed or blind faith is somehow better than one that needs to be tested before belief. And perhaps this is a valid interpretation of the text. But as N T Wright points out, the deeper thing that is going on here is Jesus’ acknowledgment that going forward, the coming disciples — which is us! — would not have Thomas’s chance to put our hands in his side and examine his wounds for ourselves. We would have no choice but to believe the testimony of others. And Jesus wants us to know that this path, too, is valid and blessed. “This isn’t, then, so much a rebuke to Thomas; it’s more an encouragement to those who come later, to people of subsequent generations. We are all ‘blessed’ when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, we nevertheless believe in him.” (Wright, John for Everyone Pt 2, 153–154)

  • The Bible is the primary way God speaks. We are hearing from God about strict monotheism throughout the Bible and then we have Smith mocking this in favour of plurality of gods. Mormonism is a new, false religion without historical or biblical precedent. It relies on specious new revelation. As a Pentecostal, I also know the still small voice of God in relationship and have the illumination and discernment to know truth from error. I would never say my subjective feelings are definitive, but rely on the revealed Word of God.

    Based on the supposed Urim/Thummim translation method and supposed perfection of BOM over corrupted Bible, there should not be KJV extended passages that actually include known translation errors!?

    Only liberal, pseudo-scholarship tries to talk about polytheism leading to monotheism. Every credible sacred and secular source does not dispute that Islam, Judaism, Christianity are monotheistic religions. When cornered, Mormons play semantical games to try to retain their false plurality of gods within a pseudo-monotheistic view. If you deny the undisputed monotheism issues, I cannot help that kind of ignorance.

  • When they talk about Satan being the “father of all liars” they are neglecting to mention themselves being under said “Satan’s” spell. This church was founded on lies. Golden plates weren’t used in the translation process, it was a hat in a rock. Joseph Smith was actively participating in polygamy/polyandry/statutory rape despite the church’s 160 years of denying it ever happened. As I’m sure anyone who has done even the slightest research can easily see, the church has no shame in lying about even the most innocent stuff. If you care even the slightest about the truth… read the CESletter. These “so-called” profits(sp) are only interested in your money and obedience, and the source of doubt can be traced right back to Satan (and his liars), who “tempts us to place insidious faith in our hearts and minds.” in an effort to maintain the con.

  • Because if you asked the same people to read it and determine if it was a fraud, many, if not most would determine that just because of the way the question was ponderized. This is human psychology 101.

  • “The Bible is the primary way God speaks.” Says who? I think tens of millions of Hindus, Buddhists, or other non-Abrahamic religions might not agree with that unprovable assertion. Frankly, arguing against Mormonism from a pentecostal Christian perspective is not arguing from a position of strength. Sort of like listening to one purveyor of patent medicine calling another’s bottle of brew “snake oil”.

  • The Bible is the Word of God, divine, authoritative revelation. This can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism, etc. contradict the BIble and can be falsified with various arguments and evidence. Likewise, Jesus, God in the flesh, is the only way to eternal life. The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God for those being saved (I Cor. 1:18). There are no end to false religions, counterfeits, etc. Pentecostalism is rooted in Scripture, unlike Mormonism.

  • Oh come on, are you not being ignorant yourself by saying things like “Only liberal, pseudo-scholarship tries to talk about polytheism lead to monotheism” thats says to me you have set beliefs and will not stagger from it contrary to evidence. Do you know what cognitive dissidence is? you reek of it. You belt out beliefs instead of discussing them.

    But hey if thats part of your religion then I’m happy for you. Joesph Smith would also claim he knows the still small voice of God and can discern truth from error, does that make him a pentecostal? He took the Word of God from James 1:5 and then asked God which Church to join thus started the Restoration.

    -James

  • That’s an excellent answer! I taught a psychologist on my mission who practiced hypnotism and told me some of ways of proselyting were a type of hypnotism.

  • The context of James is not about praying to know if a religion is true (it is about wisdom in the midst of persecution, etc.). The Berean test of searching Scripture is the objective vs subjective apologetic. It is a fact that monotheism predated polytheism despite what liberal and Mormon scholarship says. Minimally, this is certainly the biblical record (Deut. 6:4 Shema). Smith was open to spiritual gifts, but lacked discernment and was a known fraudster. The Book of Abraham Egyptian fiasco is sufficient proof of this. Smith was deceived and deceived others. Like other one man cultists (JW Russell, Herbert Armstrong, etc.), they had to negate historical Christianity, claim apostasy, and coincidental restoration through them (despite their lack of credibility). Jude 3 is solid, not Smith.

    It is not cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias to embrace evidence based research. A few posts do not prove or disprove anything. My assertions are defensible, but no use going on and on when the most basic issue of monotheism vs polytheism/plurality of gods is not even grasped by you and Mormons.

  • Quoting scripture from your bible isn’t an argument winner. The bible is the word of god because its the word of god. Circular arguments abound in religion. Ultimately it comes back to “I worship the correct Jesus and you don’t.” Blah.

  • There are evidences for the Bible being the Word of God. It is not circular if it is true. Using your logic, we cannot quote any book claiming to explain science, medicine, etc. Even if one rejects the Bible, we should not misrepresent it. It warns about false gods, false gospels, counterfeit Christs (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4). Either Jesus is God Almighty (evangelical Christians; trinity), Michael the Archangel, created being (JWs), one of many gods, not always god, spirit brother of Lucifer (Mormonism), mere human (Islam), etc. Either He rose from the dead or He did not. These are truth claims, propositions that may be based on evidence or falsifiable. Are you wrongly assuming 1+1=2 and 3 at the same time or that truth is relative vs absolute or unknowable?

  • What other things that have not been empirically demonstrated might it be dangerous to doubt…?

  • It sets you up for only an affirmative answer… otherwise you aren’t trying hard enough. Try again with an even opener mind. Self fulfilling prophesy.

  • The mormon “Book of Abraham” came about when Joseph Smith “translated” an ancient Egyptian document, proclaiming it to be the story of Abraham. Years later when Egyptologists who could actually read hieroglyphics viewed the document in the Salt Lake City temple they said it had nothing to do with Abraham, but was instead a funeral ceremony for a pharaoh. And yet the sheep go on believing in their corporation. People who don’t think for themselves don’t doubt things.

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