Spencer W. McBride PhD Historian
February 28, 2023
"In the parts of life that are harder, in the parts of life in which the path ahead seems darker and harder to distinguish, it is in those times that we must “walk in the memory of the light."
Spencer W. McBride
Ensign College Devotional
February 28, 2023
Good afternoon. It is good to be with you today and I am thankful to Ensign College for inviting me to speak at this devotional.
As you heard in my introduction, I am a professional historian. Now, something interesting happens when people hear that I am a professional historian. They look at me funny. Their expressions seem to say something like, “That’s not a real job.”
Once I convince them that it is a real job and that I get paid real American dollars to do it, the next question usually goes something like this: “What do you do all day?” And I am sure that some of you are wondering the exact same thing.
Well, have you ever seen the Indiana Jones movies? My life is exactly like that!
I’m just kidding. Indiana Jones is an archaeologist. They have way more fun.
There are a lot of ways to answer the question of what I do as a historian, but I think my favorite, most succinct answer is this: “I read dead people’s mail.” And if that is not enough of a shock to people, I add, “and I read their diaries too.”
Specifically, as the Associate Managing Historian of the Joseph Smith Papers project, I spend my days immersed in Joseph Smith’s papers, studying and preparing for publication every document the prophet Joseph left behind. It turns out that you learn a lot about a person by reading their mail. (I’ll add here that this is not license for you to start reading the mail of your roommates or neighbors. Don’t do that!) What I mean is that, because of my job, I have learned more about the history of Joseph Smith, his family, and the men and women with whom he worked to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have learned a lot about the very first Latter-day Saints, the ways they were like us, and the ways that they worked to build and sustain their faith even when confronted with obstacles, obstacles that included challenges to their beliefs.
And that is what I am here to talk about today. I am here to talk about faith—and I am here to talk about doubt. More specifically, I am here to talk about what we should do when we feel besieged by unanswered doctrinal questions, some level of unbelief, and even doubt itself.
One story in the New Testament gives me tremendous reassurance that the blessings of the gospel are available to all those who place their faith in Jesus Christ—that Jesus can work miracles in the lives of anyone who chooses faith even when confronted by unbelief.
The story appears in Mark chapter nine. A man brought his afflicted child to Jesus, asking, “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.”Jesus responded, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”The man then gave a curious response, one that indicated that his faith existed alongside some degree of unbelief: “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
Can you put yourself in the shoes of the father for just a moment. Your child is sick. You are worried that he or she might not live. You are in front of Jesus, your child’s last and only hope. Can you imagine the father’s desperation? And then, Jesus asks you about your faith. In that instance, did the man take a personal inventory? Did he note places where his testimony was strong? Was he confronted by lingering questions he had long held about doctrine? Was he overwhelmed by the presence of unbelief? We will never know. But thinking about it in this way may help us better appreciate why the man gave his answer to the Savior through tears; why the man wept as he declared, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
I think you know what happened next. Jesus healed the child. (See Mark 9:14–27 .) Jesus did not demand of the man perfect knowledge before He performed a miracle. The man requesting the Savior’s healing touch upon his child expressed faith and, where that was lacking, a desire to believe. He expressed a desire to believe. And in this instance, that was enough for Jesus.
This lesson applies to those of us seeking the healing power of Christ in our lives today. As modern-day prophets and apostles have reminded us, the desire to believe is enough of a starting point. Sure, we aspire to strengthen our testimonies; we aim for a strong belief that grows into a perfect knowledge (see Alma 32:21–22, 26–34 ). But until then, a hope that the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ are true and a desire to believe that the gospel has been restored to the earth through modern-day prophets are enough for us to keep moving forward in faith. The desire to believe is enough, as a starting point, for God to work mighty miracles in our lives.
If you ever find yourself pondering your own faith journey, if you ever find yourself confronted by unanswered questions, by unbelief, and even by doubt, I hope you will remember this story. I hope you will lean on the areas where your testimony is strong and, where your testimony is perhaps not as strong, that you will do like the man in the story did, express your desire to believe.
Most likely because of my job with the Church History Department and the Joseph Smith Papers, as well as an easily discoverable presence on social media, from time to time I receive messages and emails from members of the church who are struggling with their testimonies. Often, it’s a point of church history that they don’t understand that bothers them. But usually there is more to it. They find themselves besieged by unbelief and are trying to navigate the unfamiliar and worrisome terrain ahead of them. In these instances, I always invite my correspondents to reach out to their local church leaders, for example their bishop, and their elders quorum or relief society president. Our local leaders are called by revelation to minister and I am confident that if we are honest and open with them about our struggles, we will find compassion and sympathy far more often than we will find judgement.
But I do not want my correspondents to walk away from me empty handed. It was hard for them to write to me. It required vulnerability on their parts. I want to give them something that will help. More often than not, I share with them five things I recommend that they do when confronted by unbelief; five things for them to do when they feel besieged by doubt. For the remainder of my time here today, I will share those five recommendations with you.
Number one: Don’t Panic. (Those of you who are fans of the science fiction writer Douglas Adams will surely recognize that I borrowed the phrasing for this first action from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) What I mean by “don’t panic” is twofold. First, don’t panic in thinking that there is something wrong with you because you are experiencing difficulty with unanswered questions or unbelief. This is not a character flaw. It is common. No matter where you come from your local ward and stake is filled with men and women who have experienced—and overcome—unbelief. The church is filled with people who are currently choosing faith in the face of doubt. You are not alone and, if you let it, the church can be a place filled with empathy and support for you. It is filled with people who can relate. It is filled with people who can help.
When I say, “don’t panic,” I also mean this: resist the urge to toss out all that is good about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and all the good that it has brought into your life, simply because of the points of doctrine or episodes of church history that cause you concern, or that have caused you to ask questions to which satisfactory answers are not immediately available. In this case, “don’t panic” does not mean “don’t worry about your unanswered questions, concerns, or doubts.” Not at all. What it means is, don’t cast off the light and truth you have received throughout your time as a disciple of Christ in His restored church just because you are confronted by doubt. I know that such moments are scary and can be disorienting. I get it. But I am here today to tell you that there is hope. There is a way to move forward even with unanswered questions and concerns. There is a way to move forward in faith.
Number two: Remember past spiritual experiences. Something happens to many who are confronted with unbelief. The road ahead becomes so hard to see that they forget the path they walked up to that point. They forget or discount the spiritual experiences that led them to a path of Christian discipleship in the first place, and they sometimes dismiss those experiences that, for so long, had kept them on that path.
To overcome doubt, it is vital that we remember the times that God spoke peace to our souls. It is vital that we remember the times the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus Christ and of the restoration of His gospel through modern-day prophets and apostles. It is vital that we do, as Moroni urged every single reader of the Book of Mormon to do, that we “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things and ponder them in your heart” (Moroni 10:3). That group that Moroni says that God has been merciful to is not limited to the people of the Book of Mormon. That group includes you and me. When you are confronted by doubt, I urge you to remember the times God has answered your prayers, the times He has sent the Holy Spirit to comfort you, the times He has given you personal revelation to guide your path for good. Those moments matter. And they matter a lot.
Treasuring up these memories may not resolve all of your doubts or answer all of the questions that keep you up at night, but they will provide you with a patience born of faith to persevere in your discipleship as you seek resolution to those matters.
One of my friends and colleagues, the late historian Kate Holbrook, said, “Sometimes you walk in the light. Sometimes you walk in the memory of the light.” In the parts of life that are harder, in the parts of life in which the path ahead seems darker and harder to distinguish, it is in those times that we must “walk in the memory of the light.” Only then can we learn how to re-illuminate the path in front of us.
Number three: Seek new spiritual experiences. This is where re-illuminating the path in front of you comes into play. People often ask me if spending nearly a decade immersed in Joseph Smith’s surviving documents has strengthened my testimony. The answer is unequivocally yes. But I should clarify something. Although my testimony has been strengthened by my academic study of church history, that study is not the foundation of my testimony. Like you, my testimony has come through a series of spiritual experiences throughout my life. Some of those spiritual experiences were quite grand, but by far most of them have been small, even subtle, but when put together, they become a strong foundation for faith.
I am confident that God wants us to be smart. He wants us to think about our faith. He wants us to ask questions so that we can learn more about His mind and will. If you don’t believe me, read that marvelous set of sincere questions and revelatory answers that is the Doctrine and Covenants. But I firmly believe that God wants us first and foremost to build our testimonies from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He wants us to feel our faith, and not simply to think about it.
I am a scholar. My scholarship bolsters my faith. But if ever my discipleship—if ever my gospel study—became purely intellectual, then I would be missing the most important part. I think that point is worth repeating: If our discipleship and our gospel study ever become a purely intellectual pursuit, then we are missing the most important part. Our discipleship and gospel study should include actions that bring the Spirit into our lives on a regular basis, actions that reestablish again and again our connection to heaven. Connecting with heaven is the key, and the actions that help us do this include scripture study, singing hymns, going to our church meetings, fellowshipping with our fellow Saints, temple worship, service, partaking of the sacrament, and prayer. And by prayer I mean real, fervent, sincere prayer. The type where we tell our Heavenly Father how we are feeling, the type of prayer where we tell Him what makes us sad, what makes us confused. The type of prayer where we let God communicate back to us through our minds and through our hearts. Do the things that bring the Spirit into your life, and you will renew your faith. This faith will re-illuminate that path ahead of you. And this renewed faith will empower you to persevere amid unanswered questions and unbelief.
Number four: Seek answers from good sources. So far, we have talked about how to maintain your faith and move forward in your discipleship even while you are grappling with unanswered questions, or while you are dealing with concerns about doctrine or church history. But how do we resolve those matters themselves? Please note that at no point in my remarks today have I said anything like, “Don’t worry about it?” It is okay to have questions and it is okay to seek answers. But not all paths will lead you to the answers you are seeking. The first step in finding those answers is relying on good sources.
Good sources are not limited to those published by the church. Now, as a historian who works for the church, I can assure you that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published—and will yet publish—many great and useful resources for people to use in their gospel study. These include a series of essays on events or matters in church history that often invoke concern. They include the Joseph Smith Papers. They include the four-volume history of the church titled, Saints, and so much more. These online and print sources help members understand the complexity of the past, to think about what we know and how we know it, and what we don’t know and why we don’t know it. But the church does not have a monopoly on resources that help men and women sort through the questions and concerns driving unbelief in their lives.
So, what do I mean when I urge you to seek answers from good sources? There is a clear difference between a source that is seeking to preserve and build faith and to increase understanding, and those sources that seek to tear down faith, to sow more seeds of doubt, and to bring about greater confusion. If you look at the sources available to you online to understand their intent, the difference will usually be clear. I urge you that as you seek answers to the matters that keep you up at night, rely on good sources, rely on sources that are sound in their research and designed to clarify and preserve faith, not those intended to confuse and destroy it.
On this topic, I would suggest that we keep in mind that while we experience mortal life, we will never know everything. A perfect understanding awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven, but not here on earth. This does not mean that we should not study and seek further light and knowledge. Rather, it means that we should do so with a sense of humility, with an acknowledgement and an acceptance that some answers may have to wait for heaven.
Number five: Share your testimony. Some of you might be thinking, “How can I share my testimony if I am experiencing doubt, if I have unanswered questions about doctrine, or concerns about church history?” It may help if I share with you how I think of my own testimony.
My testimony consists of two parts: things that I know are true and things that I believe are true. Know and believe: I use both words when I share my testimony. These words are important to me—not just because this varied language is an accurate reflection of my faith, but because it reminds me that I do not need a complete knowledge of every doctrine or a perfect answer to every question on Church history in order to profess my belief in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a place in the Church for all people, regardless of the strength of their testimonies. All that is required is a desire to believe. Yet some of us in the Church have a tendency to compare our testimonies to those of others—particularly if we are wrestling with questions or doubts in areas where others seem to testify with certainty. Sometimes when I hear Church members proclaim from the pulpit what they know to be true, it makes me reflect on testimonies in general. Maybe you have wondered, “What if I can’t say ‘I know’?”“What if I have unanswered questions about some aspects of the gospel?” “Is there a place for me in the Church?”
My answer to all these questions is an unequivocal “yes!” When you share your testimony, say “I know” about the things you know and “I believe” about the things you believe. The important thing is that you share your testimony because something real and powerful happens when you do so. When you share your testimony, the Holy Spirit will flood into your heart and mind and, in those moments, you will receive revelation upon revelation, including confirmation of the truth of the restored gospel and insights into the questions or doubts that have been unsettling to your soul. Whether you use the vocabulary of “know” or “believe,” or some combination of the two, if you share a sincere testimony, the Spirit will attend you. It will bring you clarifying revelation.
So, there you have it. One, don’t panic. Two, remember past spiritual experiences. Three, seek new spiritual experiences. Four, seek answers from good sources. And five, share your testimony. Those are the five things I urge people to do when they feel besieged by doubt. I am not saying that those are the only good actions to take, that I somehow have a monopoly on good advice. I do not. But it is my experience that those who sincerely take these steps are able to persevere. They are able to continue in their discipleship, even amid the challenges they face. They are able to say as the desperate father desperate said in the presence of the Savior in Mark chapter 9: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” And in such instances, then and now, I know what our perfectly empathetic Savior will do. I know how he will answer our pleas made with a mix of faith and a desire to believe. He will answer them with miracles. He will work miracles in your life, including the miracle of overcoming doubt. Of this I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.