In the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, certainty is highly valued. Specifically, certainty about what is true. For some reason, over the years the LDS culture has come to equate certainty with faithfulness or righteousness. As a result, when someone is sharing their testimony or giving a talk or ending a lesson, it has come to be expected that they will use the words “I know” about everything they say. If not, they appear to others to be on shaky ground spiritually. So, you will hear them say “I know God lives. I know Jesus is the Savior. I know this church is true.”
This was problematic for me for the first several decades of my life. From the age of 12 I read the Book of Mormon at least once a year and studied my Bible faithfully. I tried to be obedient and follow the teachings of the scriptures and my church. And I prayed every day, including praying hundreds and hundreds of times over those decades for the promised witness from the Holy Ghost that the scriptures were true, that this church was God’s true church, that God loved me, and that Jesus was really my Savior.
But I never felt anything. I never felt a confirmation “Yes, this is true.” I never felt love from God. I never felt a burning-in-my-bosom. I never felt a sense of peace about it. I just continued to worry and doubt about whether the church was true and whether I was really doing what God wanted or not.
And I also felt incredibly ashamed. Every first Sunday of the month, I would see individuals stand and share their testimony and tell the congregation that they KNEW the church was true and that God loved them and that Jesus redeemed them. Even little kids would get up and say things like this. And I would wonder what was wrong with me. Does God not let me know whats true because He doesn’t love me? Am I not worth saving? Am I sinning in some way I haven’t figured out, and that’s stopping me from being worthy of the Spirit?
Every year on the last night of the annual Young Women’s camp we would have a testimony meeting around the fire. You’re all in a circle facing each other and it’s pretty obvious who doesn’t stand up and share their testimony. I was always a super active youth, and I remember leaders and other girls looking at me across the fire with encouraging or quizzical faces that said “go ahead, its your turn” or “why aren’t you getting up? That’s weird.”
But I didn’t KNOW, so I didn’t feel I could be dishonest and say that I knew. It was really difficult, and I just remember I felt a lot of shame. I felt like I was defective and didn’t belong, because although I was doing everything I should—being obedient, studying, and praying—I still didn’t KNOW. And everyone else around me was saying they KNEW.
This sense of shame and guilt followed me more than a decade. But finally, I gained new information and insight that have helped reduce my sense of stress and shame, helping me to finally begin feeling like I do fit in and belong in my church.
I wanted to share with you what has helped me, in case it may help any of you with your own struggles.
- First, I got a diagnosis. Something else I didn’t KNOW back when I was a teenager was that I had an anxiety disorder called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is often referred to as “the doubting disease” because it causes individuals with this disorder to experience frequent doubt about whatever category of experience the OCD focuses on in that individual.
For example, the malfunctioning brain in an individual with OCD could send signals that cause the individual to doubt that they cleaned their hands properly or that they cleaned their hands at all, resulting in them washing their hands over and over again.
Or the OCD could send signals causing them to doubt their memory of locking the door before they left the house. No matter how many times they assert that they did lock the door and they remember it clearly, the malfunctioning brain keeps sending the message of doubt “You may not have locked it!”
Realizing I had a disorder with a pathology that creates doubt helped me to understand that my inability to stop doubting about religious things wasn’t a moral or spiritual failing, it was the result of a brain abnormality that wasn’t my fault.
- As all individuals with OCD know, in addition to doubt, a hallmark of OCD is intense anxiety. It is the anxiety that the brain sends to accompany the obsessions that drives the compulsive behavior (double checking, excessing washing, etc.) in those with OCD. In 2009, Elder Scott taught in General Conference that :
“The inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit can be overcome or masked by strong emotions…When such influences are present, it is like trying to savor the delicate flavor of a grape while eating a jalapeño pepper. Both flavors are present, but one completely overpowers the other. In like manner, strong emotions overcome the delicate promptings of the Holy Spirit.”
This insight helped me to realize that maybe my disordered physiology that produces extreme levels of anxiety is a big factor that makes it difficult for me to feel the Holy Ghost, and thus difficult to receive a confirmation regarding what is true.
- Over the years I also came to realize that using the words “I know” was a cultural thing and that people in our church used those words even if the truth was that they ‘only’ believed or had faith.
It’s not likely that every 5-year-old who stands up and says “I know this church is true” has truly prayed and received that witness from God. These kids are following the word pattern they hear from the adults.
And many adults are also following the word pattern of other adults and of church leaders. We all want to fit in, right? There may be some people who have had some huge spiritual manifestation in which God told them directly “This is true” but many people are ‘just’ living by faith and belief, not knowledge. And nothing is wrong with that. Which leads me to….
- I realized through scripture study that KNOWING that any part of the gospel is true is not a requirement set forth by God in order for us to be saved or attain eternal life. Over and over again in the scriptures we are told to exercise faith and to be believing. I have never found a scripture that said sure knowledge was essential to salvation.
For example, John 3:16 teaches us:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
We only need to believe, to exercise faith. That is enough. That is pleasing unto God.
OCD can make life difficult. Culture can to. Combined, they can really cause stress. I hope some of these thoughts can help you or those you love if struggling with religious certainty is a problem you deal with as well.