by Sharon Lindbloom
12 April 2021
During the Sunday morning session of the April 2021 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church President Russell M. Nelson gave an address about finding hope and help for all the problems (“mountains”) we face, through having increased faith in Jesus. In identifying doubt as one of the “mountains” people may need to “move,” President Nelson specifically mentioned doubts about “the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet.”
President Nelson characterized those who struggle with doubts (and other life-problems) — those whom he says have not done the “work” to overcome their challenges — as “lazy learners and lax disciples.”
“Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith. To do anything well requires effort. Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is no exception. Increasing your faith and trust in Him takes effort. May I offer five suggestions to help you develop that faith and trust.”
President Nelson’s first suggestion is “study,” which, ironically, is the thing that most often causes Latter-day Saints to begin doubting “the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet.” While President Nelson directs his listeners to “immerse [themselves] in the scriptures,” his principle of studying and becoming an “engaged learner” is broader than that. If people are trying to determine the validity of the so-called Restoration and Joseph Smith’s claim to be a true prophet of God, they must look at historical evidence as well as scripture.
But this is where President Nelson suggests that one’s study should have limits. His second recommendation is that doubters should “choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe…Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters” (italics in the original).
In other words, limit study and research to church-approved sources and don’t discuss your questions with anyone else who may also have questions; because to talk about them, to talk through the questions and doubts with others who are also looking for answers, is nothing more than “rehearsing” or practicing being a doubter, which can only lead to increased doubts.
This, of course, is not a fair assessment. Sharing questions (doubts) and discovering answers (research) with friends who are on the same path can be very helpful to everyone involved. We’ve all experienced this in various areas of life. So considering President Nelson’s comments and suggestions, I think what he has in mind here is not so much about directing doubters to find truthful answers to their questions, but rather directing doubters to “muster enough faith” to stay in the church despite their doubts. There’s no virtue in being “lazy learners and lax disciples.” Instead, “Choose to believe and stay faithful.”
This is strange advice coming from a man who claims, “Jesus Christ is our leader.” It was Jesus who said we must beware of false prophets. Jesus didn’t instruct His followers to choose to believe those who come to us in “sheep’s clothing,” but told us to examine the fruit of their lives and ministries which would thereby allow us to “recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
Likewise, Christ’s apostles filled their teachings with admonitions to “test everything [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). When the apostle Paul brought the gospel to Berea the people there “received the word with all eagerness,” but they didn’t merely “choose to believe.” Scripture commends them for “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). This same approach of “testing” (as distinct from just choosing to believe) is commanded in the Old Testament as well (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22). President Nelson’s notion that people who doubt are lazy, lax, and faithless has no ground in the Bible.
What a callous way to characterize people who, like the biblical apostle Thomas, struggle with doubt! Jesus lovingly gave Thomas the evidence he needed to believe, and rather than chastising him for his doubts, Jesus pronounced peace on Thomas and those who were with him (John 20:24-29). Following Jesus’ clear example, the apostle Jude later urged Christian believers, “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).
I don’t see any mercy in the way President Nelson addressed doubters in his conference talk. But his merciless perspective is not unique among current LDS leaders.
In 2016 LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland belittled people whose doubts caused them to leave the church. In Mr. Holland’s way of thinking, these Latter-day Saints were weak and unwilling to sacrifice or go through hard times as they insisted (he claimed) that the church be “just exactly the way I want it and answer every one of my questions.” Mr. Holland impugned, “What on earth kind of conviction is that? What kind of patty-cake, taffy-pull experience is that?” Much like President Nelson, Mr. Holland told those who doubt to just “stay in the boat.” Stay faithful to the LDS church. (see “God Loves Broken Things,” Tempe Arizona, 4/26/2016.)
In 2019 another LDS apostle, Dale Renlund, characterized doubters as “lazy scholars” while his wife warned that “doubting can become a form of ‘Church history whack-a-mole.’” The Renlunds trivialized the very real concerns with which doubters struggle and portrayed doubters as faithless people who find doubting more pleasing than “knowing.” Again, the message was for doubters to stay in the boat, even if the vessel is marked by “small dents and peeling paint.” (see “Doubt Not, but Be Believing,” BYU Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, 1/13/20019.)
While Russell Nelson, Jeffrey Holland, and Dale Renlund all seem to think it is good and right to shame those with doubts by labeling them faithless and lazy, while their “answer” to troubled questioners is “choose to believe and stay faithful,” the Bible presents things differently. Christians are not to shame doubters — they are to show them mercy. Spiritual doubts and questions are not to be ignored – they are to be explored and answered truthfully. Spiritual claims such as “Jesus Christ is our leader” are not to be accepted at face value – they are to be tested and proven (or exposed, whatever the case may be). And in this, Mormon leaders are clearly found wanting as their teaching does not accord with the written Word of God.
May all doubters pursue the truth with courage and tenacity. There’s nothing to fear from God in this endeavor. To doubting Thomas, Jesus Himself said, “Peace be with you.” And His peace is what you will find when you finally know the truth.
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