Elder Holland’s conference talk is the most significant sermon on doubt and faith in recent LDS history


I can be prone to exaggeration, but after being blown away by Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk last weekend, its dust has been settling on my mind throughout the week, I listened to it again, and my initial reaction has ossified into a genuine feeling that something significant happened last week at that pulpit. Bridges were built, others were left unburned, misconceptions were clarified and most excitingly, new possibilities for constructive dialogue between believers and non-believers (and all those in between) in the Mormon community were opened up. So here’s my analysis.

A different scriptural interpretation

Elder Holland started his talk by referring to the Biblical passage in which the man with the sick son says, “Lord I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” I’ve always thought of this as a contradiction, a desire to believe but ultimately a recognition of unbelief. And in the Church-produced film Finding Faith in Christ, the man’s declaration of faith is portrayed as impetuous and urgent, but also dishonest. Jesus gives him this look, like, “do you really believe?” And the man looks kind of defeated and says, “help thou mine unbelief.” I mean, just look at that judgy look the guy gets:

That’s always been how I’ve read that verse: a desire to believe, but, in reality, a recognition of doubt’s predominance in the person’s heart.

And that interpretation is actually still pretty useful and interesting: the acknowledgement that those who doubt can simultaneously hope. But it also makes doubt to be something to be first hidden, then ashamed of. Elder Holland’s approach to the scripture is much more interesting. He brings in the Book of Mormon and then posits that what is going on here is not a contradiction, but a complete image: the man does believe, some things, maybe that Jesus can help his son. But he also doesn’t believe, other things, perhaps that Jesus can perform a miraculous healing. It’s not a question of does he believe or not — it is a matter of, what does he believe, and what does he not.

To me, this changes everything. So often, in church, we think of testimony as a binary answer to a simple question. Do I believe in the church? Yes or no. Did Joseph see what he said he saw? If so, it’s all true, if not, it’s all a fraud. This binary thinking has permeated our culture (and those in the highest authority have subscribed to it and passed it along as well). But what Elder Holland reminds us is that, actually, the question is multi-multi-multi-part. It’s not a matter of all-truth or all-false.

A fresh understanding of integrity

As I have grown in my own spiritual understanding, and doubts have shaped my own religious imagination like water beating against a cliff, one of the strongest reasons I had to pay attention to doubt, despite its danger, was integrity. It is not dishonesty or selfishness that has caused so many intellectuals throughout history to turn from their religious upbringing, but integrity: they must remain true to the truth that they have discovered.

But what Elder Holland reminds us is that integrity also demands we be true to the faith that we have. Never at the expense of truth. And always, in fact, seeking more and more truth. The goal of faith is not to keep us from truth, but to help us get there.

I’m not a big fan of the message of the book The Polar Express. That book says, just believe, even if it isn’t true. I disagree with that message. Belief for the sake of belief, faith for the sake of faith, is only useful if it is true. So I recoil at devotional messages that suggest faith is a good substitute for walking in the light of hard evidence or truth.

Elder Holland says it this way:

I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.

This idea that you should pretend to believe has sometimes boiled up as “the testimony is found in the bearing of it.” When a person fakes it till they make it, they have not grown in faith but shrunk in integrity. Instead, I believe in the strategy given in Alma 32: start with the faith that you have and go from there.

Myth: “I know” > “I believe”

Another game-changing position that Elder Holland gives our culture is the idea that those who don’t feel comfortable saying “I know” are not quite as good as those who say “I believe.” As a missionary, many of my colleagues believed that unless they said “I know” their message would be meaningless. Elder Holland:

A 14-year-old boy recently said to me a little hesitantly, “Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.” I hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out. I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for “only believing.” I told him that Christ Himself said, “Be not afraid, only believe,” a phrase which, by the way, carried young Gordon B. Hinckley into the mission field. I told this boy that belief was always the first step toward conviction and that the definitive articles of our collective faith forcefully reiterate the phrase “We believe.” And I told him how very proud I was of him for the honesty of his quest.

“I know” is the cultural lingo for “I believe,” but for those of us who have been frustrated by the imprecision of that lingo, that statement came as a relief.

All of us are imperfect

Finally, the last point that I find incredibly significant to Mormon culture is Elder Holland’s assertion that even church leaders make mistakes in carrying out what they think is God’s will:

As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.

That’s all we can expect in the first place, but sometimes we demand that the mantle of apostle or prophet completely erase the human limitations that we all carry.

Adding to the conversation

Unlike other talks over the years about faith and doubt, Elder Holland did not undermine the legitimacy of doubters or their doubts. He didn’t call them to repentance for doubting, but instead he thoughtfully validated their position and then helpfully suggested a path to take.

That path is one that I find myself on, and for me, it was a fantastic reminder that both my doubts and my faith are significant parts of my soul. I will never replace one with the other, but instead allow both to shape the other until what I ultimately I have is a full understanding of reality. Doubt may be the steering wheel, but faith is the engine, and both need to be working in order for me to go anywhere.

I look forward to referring back to this talk in many future lessons and talks. You can watch the whole thing here:

Original comments:

  3. KatherineKatherKathersays:
  4. April 13, 2013 at 8:31 PMDerrick! I totally thought of you during this talk. Loved it so so SOOO much….Also remember what I texted you before: “doubt is not the opposite of faith-it is the very essence of it.”And I think you are awesome…
  7. Starsays:
  8. April 20, 2013 at 8:22 PMHi, I was preparing a lesson on Elder Holland’s talk and happily found your blog. This was such a wonderful way of expressing what I’ve been trying to put into words. I cannot thank you enough for your insight on Elder Hollad’s incredible talk. I especially appreciate how eloquently you expressed the integrity aspect. I had nearly missed it.Thanks again!
    • Derrick Clementssays:
    • April 22, 2013 at 6:31 PMThanks so much Star! And I apologize for missing your comment until now!
  11. Johannasays:
  12. September 20, 2013 at 11:18 PMHi, I’m preparing a lesson too, and wanted to say thanks too, for the same wonderful reasons. Thank you.
  15. dúvidassays:
  16. October 5, 2013 at 11:05 AMElder Holland’s talk was refreshing. However, there was a dynamic that Elder Holland didn’t address: his motivation for the talk.The dogged BBC investigative reporter John Sweeney had interviewed Elder Holland as part of series called “The Mormon Candidate” in early 2012. John Sweeney didn’t give Elder Holland of the obeisance that members do their leaders. Sweeney treated Elder Holland like an ordinary person which is also different from members. Sweeney put tough questions to Elder Holland and he was evasive, put off, and reviled at having to face tough questions. Elder Holland was shown to have become visibly complacent with the “aura” of prophet, seer, and revelator that members give him.When questioned about the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, Elder Holland was unable to defend the book. He dodged the question claiming personal ignorance of Egyptian hieroglyphics. When Sweeney said he had interviewed 30 ex-mormons, apostates and dissidents and they unanimously claimed the LDS Church was a cult, Elder Holland became visibly annoyed and stated that if such persons have that belief it is better that they leave. Really? Where was the love, compassion, and understanding of their doubts? His response was essentially that such persons can piss off which is the disdain that church leaders show to those who put their tough line of questioning to them. Elder Holland was shown to be pudgy with the complacency that comes from entitlement and lack of challenge.What bothered me the most about the Sweeney interview was how Elder Holland was respectful to Sweeney. Had any member had even tried to address such questions with Elder Holland, someone from his staff would have directed them to see their Stake President. Had any member managed to reach Elder Holland and ask him such questions he would have told them that such a line of questioning was “inappropriate” IE of the devil. Such a person would likely lose their temple recommend. Why should those who have entered into a covenant be treated with such disregard?Following that, the Church’s PR firm went straight to the BBC offices to hand deliver a letter of complaint that Sweeney had “ambused” Elder Holland. Ambushed? Really? Elder Holland gets his rear-end handed to him and it’s the reporters fault? Sweeney confirmed that Elder Holland was told beforehand what questions he would be asked. Despite that, Elder Holland gave such a pitiful performance. While Elder Holland confirmed that the church has group employing former FBI & CIA agents to spy on groups and individuals the church considers threatening (something which is alarming by the way), he played ignorance of all their activities because he doesn’t chair the committee which overseas that group.This occurred roughly one year prior to Elder Holland’s talk. So the “humility” he took on in his conference address wasn’t so inspired by wanting to help members deal with doubts as much as it was helping them deal with their doubts about his competency. He was actually covering his rear-end. Yes, Elder Holland did make good points in his conference address. However, anyone can do well from a pulpit when they are unchallenged. When he faced a well-informed reporter who allowed him no double-talk or wiggle room, he was “ambushed” by solid reasoning and bluntly truthful questioning.It would have been much better for Elder Holland to have confessed in his conference talk that he performed poorly when interviewed by a top-notch reporter. It would have been better to admit that given the “thumping” he took he has been humbled and then ask members not to be critical of him. These are the things he was actually alluding to with his talk.
  19. aharon smithsays:
  20. November 5, 2013 at 8:30 AMI thought that something had happened I’m elder Holland s personal life that inspired him to give this talk. I could see the passion in his eyes as if he had been struggling on this very subject. Perhaps the reporter rattled him, and he struggled a bit with faith. Perhaps he felt embarrassed, ashamed that he let his annoyance and weakness get the best of him, to show a poor performance in the interview. He says he is not perfect, and asks us to be forgiving. A very powerful talk and great counsel for us to deal with the doubts That satan uses as a tool to pacify our testimonies when we see the mistakes or leaders have made.
  23. aharon smithsays:
  24. November 5, 2013 at 11:49 PMhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ws4vgihE3Q0I found the interview here. Judge for yourself if you think Holland was out of place or took a ‘thumping’. I think he handled himself very well and disagree with duvidas’s comment.