Help Thou Mine Unbelief

In the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference, Elder Holland (hereafter “EH”) gave an address with the title “Lord, I Believe.”  He sets the stage by recounting the story of the father of an afflicted child, desperate for whatever help might be afforded.  The disciples were not able to provide the needed blessing.  The father then appealed to Jesus with last-resort desperation:

“If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

EH tells us that the man’s initial conviction, by his own admission, is limited, but he has an urgent, emphatic desire on behalf of his only child.  And we are then told that that is good enough for a beginning.

EH astutely notes the plural pronouns the father uses in his plea:  “have compassion on us, and help us.”  The help needed was not for the child alone, but for the father himself as well.  And in response to this new and still partial faith, Jesus heals the boy.

At this point EH states that he is addressing the youth of the Church, but then he clarifies that he is including under that rubric those young in age, young in years of membership or young in faith, which one way or another probably includes most of us.

He then offers a series of observations.  Observation No. 1: Hold fast the ground already won.  He observes how the father asserts his strength first, and only then acknowledges his limitation.  “Hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.”

Observation No. 2: Lead with Your Faith.  Do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.”  In an image that is sure to become a classic, EH tells us “That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak!”  He makes clear that he is not asking us to pretend to faith we do not have, but he is asking us to be true to the faith we 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.”  We should be as candid about our questions as we need to be; life is full of such questions on one subject or another, but don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.

A third observation (introduced by “Furthermore“) is that we need to realize that we have more faith than we may think if we will but pay attention to the fruits we experience from living the Gospel.

Don’t Freak Out!  Well, that’s my way of saying it.  EH says “don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved.”  They do and we will.  “In this Church what we know will always trump what we do not know.  And remember in this telestial world everyone is to walk by faith.”

So, EH observes, we need to be patient with human frailty, both our own and that of others.  “Except in the case of his only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with since time began.”

Last Observation:  Ask for help.  When doubt or difficulty comes, do not be afraid to ask for help.  If we seek it as honestly and humbly as that father did, we can get it.

Know v. Believe.  EH then tells the story of a 14-year old boy who recently said to him, a little hesitantly, “Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.”  EH then hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out.  EH explained that “belief” is a precious word, and an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for “only believing.”  Christ himself said, “Be not afraid, only believe,” a phrase that sent GBH into the mission field.  Our AoF each begin with “We believe…”  EH told the boy how proud he was of him for the honesty of his quest. 

Then, with the advantage of an additional 60 years since he too was a newly believing 14-year old, he went on to tell some things he knows, and conveyed an Apostolic testimony, finally inviting us, if our faith is ever tested in this or any season, to lean on his.

“Hang on.  Hope on.  Honestly acknowledge your concerns but first fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.”

So in summary:

  • Hold fast to the ground already won.
  • Lead with your faith.
  • Upon reflection, you may realize that you have more faith than you thought.
  • Don’t freak out.  BREATHE!
  • Ask for help.
  • If you have to, lean on his faith.

I was particularly pleased to see EH’s allowance and even encouragement for framing one’s testimony in the language of faith (“I believe, I trust, I have faith that”) in contrast with the language of absolute assurance (“I know”), since my own practice has long been the former and not the latter.  That may mean that I’m closer to that 14-year old boy than to an EH, but I can live with that.

Comments

  1. I definitely feel like I, as one of many members going through a faith crisis, was the target audience for this talk. But I’ll admit, I hear “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief” and wonder… what if the Lord doesn’t respond? Or doesn’t help your unbelief? In my case, it felt like the Lord was helping STRENGTHEN my unbelief in the LDS gospel, and led me elsewhere to places where there was more peace for me, less cognitive dissonance so I could focus my energy on better things than the mental gymnastics belief in the church was requiring of me.
    I get frustrated when I feel like the message to doubters is “pray harder” or “believe in what you don’t believe in, so you can believe in it better”. It just…. isn’t helpful. I prayed. HARD. This was not the path of least resistance. Each item in that bulleted list, I tried. But when all the evidence- both empirical and spiritual (as in, the spiritual promptings I was receiving) pointed to unbelief… I just don’t know how to fight that. And after a while, I don’t know WHY I should fight it, other than to prove to those who still believe that my unbelief is not the result of a lack of effort, prayer or faith on my part.

  2. I was also very moved by this talk.

    Jenn, sometimes the answer is to explore a different path for awhile and see if that works for you. Psalm 139 says God will be with us wherever we go, which includes out of the church.

    My 12 years away from Mormonism before I returned last year were wonderful years of growth in Buddhism, meditation, and 12-step recovery.

    Trust your heart.

  3. As someone who has always struggled with not having received that “I Know” kind of witness, this talk touched me deeply. I have always taken strength from D&C 46:13-14

    13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
    14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

    There are many, many things that I do not know. Most I expect to never “know”, But it was a powerful moment to hear Elder Holland confirm that belief is a precious act.

  4. Jenn, I’m sorry for your struggles. In my own experience with faith in myself and others it’s been helpful sometimes to see faith as less a question of belief/knowledge and more a question of commitment and community. If it remains a question of belief/knowledge then some may still struggle because faith remains a conversation about “what collection of doctrines is empirically true” rather than a conversation about Zion, the community of Saints. Another way of reading Elder Holland’s talk is of saying that there is room in the body of Christ/Zion for people whose main attachment to the Church is not hope that they will one day have perfect knowledge of Church doctrines but those who can find divinity in the community of the Saints.
    I really enjoyed Elder Holland’s talk on both levels.

  5. Really liked this talk and hope that it helps encourage a shift in Mormon culture that honors belief over declarations of “knowing.” I felt like it opened up space for conversations and ways of being in the Church. Of course, other talks closed down space.

  6. I wonder if EH would agree that many who struggle are often wrongly judged in the Church as sampling a few “cultural hors d’oeuvres”. This talk seems to suggest as much.

    I also, really, really liked his emphasis on the frailty of those in leadership and his call to “be kind” to them. The last thing our local or general leaders need is the added pressure of unreasonable expectations.

  7. Jenn, I think you were addressed pretty clearly in Pres. Uchtdorf’s Priesthood session talk and in Pres. Monson’s closing remarks, particularly, when they called for the membership to be more Christ-like in how we view and treat those who are different than we are. I also think Elder Holland’s words can apply equally to those outside the LDS Church, and, thus, can apply to you, as well. Hold on to your own belief, whatever it is. If, in your case, that means, for now or for the long run, you hold on to your belief outside the LDS Church, so be it.

    The principle he taught has universal application, even if it runs contrary to how many members see missionary work. (I see no conflict, but I know others who do.)

    I absolutely loved this talk. I was leaning forward, listening intently, smiling the whole time he was speaking. It’s a message that is needed so badly in the Church (and elsewhere), and it was a healing balm to many people I know and love and for whom I hurt on a regular basis. In that regard, it was a wonderful companion to Pres. Uchtdorf’s Priesthood session talk.

  8. This is my constant prayer because it is the best I can do, and, it is enough. I believe. Help Thou Mine Unbelief.
    What I know is that I have experienced God in this Church, notwithstanding every other doubt, dry spell, stupid thing someone has done, painful points of our history–I have experienced God. I’ll keep that. I have question marks in my scriptures all over the place. I add new ones all the time. Over time, my question marks become periods and even exclamation points as answers or peace finally come.

  9. I honestly didn’t care for this talk. I have watched it again and still can’t figure out the appeal. He looks very tired and seems to be quite angry.
    I prefer the mild, loving, gentle delivery of an Elder Maxwell.

  10. He does seem to have a strident tone of late, even when he is saying kind things. But the message shone through for me.

  11. I like the passionate Elder Holland. He’s been that way lately. I was quite touched by his message, and I certainly didn’t get the impression that he was angry.

  12. Lao-Tzu says:

    To know that you do not know is the best.
    To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.

  13. lizzylu says:

    Jen: I, too, wonder what I’m doing in this church sometimes. It is the religion of my family and ancestors so I won’t leave but would I chose this religion? I doubt it. That said, this talk gave me chills and I think may give me the strength, peace and purpose to stay. I have, for now, landed on the belief that any religion that brings you closer to God and Jesus, and helps us be more Christ like, is a good thing. Some people find it in the Mormon church, others Catholic, others Protestant… You get the picture. While I can’t say I find God very often in our Sunday meetings, I do think that the moral values and clean living is not a bad place to be or to raise my children. Being surrounded by people who are generally trying to do good and be better is not a bad thing either. So maybe, just maybe, I can put my anger, distrust and questions/doubts on a shelf and just cleave hard to my close relationship with God and love for my Savior and that will be enough. So I will stay in this church and just look for the good and do my best to ignore the “not so good”. Thank you, EH. It was a lovely, inspiring, and much-needed talk.

  14. If that talk sounded angry in any way, it says far more about you than it does about him.

  15. Fred–pertaining to EH tone and facial expression, my dad was accused of that too and a kinder man I have never known. I think EH is trying to convey his feelings with passion and compassion. I wonder if just reading the talk would help you because the words are powerful.

    I have heard other parents tell their kids to lean on their testimony and then watch as both they–and subsequently their kids–leave the church. I was hesitant to say it to my own children even though I like to think mine is pretty solid. However, I have no problem telling them to lean on an apostle’s testimony!

  16. I was especially moved by his last bit of advice, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As someone who has lived silently with depression for years, it has really helped to reach out for help. In like manner some church history questions that left me unsettled were resolved by some of the good folks at FAIR. It was nice to have someone kind to help me through a rough time.

  17. Fred, I am with you in missing Elder Maxwell’s voice and delivery. His cadence is still alive inside me, even now years after his death.

    Having said that, I loved Elder Holland’s talk. Though I can about some things honestly say “I know,” I have many many loved ones who do not “know,” and explicitly emphasizing that there is a welcoming space for them inside the Gospel tent was a beautiful and powerful thing to do. I also found it to be appropriately challenging and passionate; though he did not emphasize this as much, giving room for “believers” (as opposed to “knowers”) actually freights the former group with heightened responsibility–that is, not “knowing” is not reason enough to hold back in terms of the service we offer to God and our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom.

    His talk also called to my mind this passage from “The God Who Weeps:”

    “Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.”

    In the end, after all, all “knowers” were once “believers,” and there is no shame–indeed, there is great honor–in working one’s way along the path from the latter toward the former. Since we all find ourselves as fellow-pilgrims somewhere on that journey, perhaps the most important message we can take home from what EH said is that no matter where we find ourselves and our fellow travelers, this is one of our greatest opportunities to “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”

  18. jared91 says:

    Kevin-

    I really enjoyed this thoughtful post. Thanks

    I thought Elder Holland gave the keynote address for the entire conference.

    Just today, I talked with someone I love who is struggling with his faith. I encouraged him and used some of the thoughts from Elder Hollands talk.

    I will just add one thing more thought, faith is elastic. It can be increased to the point that we can honestly say, “I know”. The Book of Mormon is a handbook that teaches those who hunger and thirst how to arrive at the point where they can grow from believing to knowing.

  19. Great post, Kevin! It really was a beautiful, thought-provoking talk. I’m not completely convinced that a sure knowledge should necessarily be our goal. Having faith in and believing in Jesus Christ is very powerful and, when it leads to repentance and obedience, is sufficient for our salvation. Lucifer *knows* that Jesus is the Christ, but because of his rebellion, it does him no good. All of us who exercise our faith unto repentance, enduring to the end are far better off than the unrepentant who know.

  20. Naismith says:

    I had no idea there was such pressure to be a “knower.” Um, where I live, we might not have bishops if one had to be a “knower.” Belief is plenty to get most jobs done.

    This seems to tie in with Elder Andersen’s “You Know Enough” talk from a few years back.

    Also, I think that we each know different aspects of the gospel. Testimony meeting can be like a potluck meal, where each of us bring our ingredient to the table.

  21. Lao-Tzu says:
    To know that you do not know is the best.
    To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.

    I agree with Lao-Tzu. It is disingenuous to say you know when you really believe-and it is just as disingenuous to say you believe when you really know.

    Should someone who knows be afraid to say they know? Should someone who believes be afraid to say they believe?

    As a parent who believes, what advice would you give to your son or daughter who has received a manifestation of the Spirit to the extend that it would be dishonest to say they believe?

  22. I had Brother Holland for freshman Book of Mormon at the Y in 1975. He got worked up like that in those days in a class of 30 students and I think it’s the Spirit working on him with his passionate preaching. I sat on the front row in rapt attention. That had its downside too as in his passionate preaching, he sometimes spit. Such are the foibles of great men. And I love that guy. He helped mold my testimony of what I believe and what I know. It is so wonderful that the whole Church and even the world can experience that preaching now – fortunately without the spit coming through the cable or internets.

  23. Thanks Kevin for your summary. I took EH’s impassioned plea to be a genuine expression of concern; I did not sense any anger. I love it when GAs do not hide behind a calm facade of professional demeanor and let us know what passionately moves them.

    I suspect that even those of us who are “knowers” walk by faith. I know what I have experienced. But I continue to learn from and reassess my prior spiritual experiences on a continual basis. At times I stand in sure knowledge, but other times I do not. My experience is that the spirit waxes and wanes, ranges from sure knowledge to less evident. Because one only knows when standing in the present experience of the spiritual witness, when I am not in the spirit I have memories of having been once in the spirit — and these are very different experiences for me.

    Jenn: I took the time to read your blog. I wish you the best in your journey. I was aware of the issues that troubled you much earlier in age than most. I worked through them knowing what I had already experienced as a context for assessing them. At this point I have arrived at explanations and perspectives that work well for me. I consider myself as one knowledgeable about Mormon history and issues with Mormon scriptures and also as a believer in the basic truth-claims of the restored gospel.

    I suspect that the real mistake is made when we think that we know some matter of historical or scientific “fact” through the spirit. My experience is that what I know is that God is in this, it speaks to my heart and passionately gives me life and opens me to insights and break-throughs in understanding. I feel the spirit in my heart often as I read the scriptures and ponder the deep truths of the restored gospel.

    I have found that an honest assessment of the limits of what I really know (and can know) based on the historical artifacts left to us and epistemic humility to be essential at least for my walk. The key in my experience at least is to not be a “head case” in the sense that the head silences the heart. It serves us to be alive not merely from the neck up, but also from the neck down.

  24. ” In my own experience with faith in myself and others it’s been helpful sometimes to see faith as less a question of belief/knowledge and more a question of commitment and community. If it remains a question of belief/knowledge then some may still struggle because faith remains a conversation about “what collection of doctrines is empirically true” rather than a conversation about Zion, the community of Saints. Another way of reading Elder Holland’s talk is of saying that there is room in the body of Christ/Zion for people whose main attachment to the Church is not hope that they will one day have perfect knowledge of Church doctrines but those who can find divinity in the community of the Saints.”

    Thanks Sam. Amen.

    It is tough for me to decide, “know” or “believe” whether any perspective or understanding of “history”–or any prophecy of the future or description of an afterlife–is “true” or “more true” than any other. I don’t disbelieve in time travel, but I doubt it will be available in my lifetime for me or others to travel back and see which pivotal events of “history” have really occurred, which haven’t, and which if any are “frauds”. Nor will I likely know before my own death what the afterlife really is or means.

    All I have are the here and now (and my memories, as inaccurate as they may be). While I may not have the same certainty as others in various faith or nonfaith traditions about the past or future, I have an ability to “believe” or ‘know” in the here and now.

    And yes, I can and do find divinity among the community of the Saints in the Church and Kingdom to which I belong. And I experience that Divine personally and in interactions with God’s creations, and am grateful for that. Particular “collection[s] of doctrines” interest me greatly, but by and large they do not particularly move me one way or the other, as much as interacting with others and with the Numinous, one day at a time, one person or being at a time.

    And that is a big part of what I mean when I say that I “know” the Church is “true”. In my experience and observation and heart, it is true.

    And since I have come to define, personally, the Church and gospel to encompass all things that are true and good (whether or not those things are part of the correlated teachings), I rejoice in the faith and nonfaith journeys of all God’s creations. My mother once said that she didn’t worry if her children questioned or explored other belief systems, “truth is truth”, she said” and “God will lead them each in his/her own way to find it.” And I am grateful for her confidence, and I share that same confidence. And I believe God has that same confidence is God’s children.

  25. EH has always been an extremely passionate guy. He tries (and sometimes fails) to bottle it up, tone it down a bit for GC, but in smaller meetings (missionary conference, local stake conference, MTC) he’s energetic. Peter like.

  26. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I really loved Elder holland’s talk myself. In a way it was not directed at me because I am long past having any doubts about thetruthfulnessof the restored gospel. My doubts are mostly, if not all, self doubts.

    The talk, and others did help me resolve to do a better job in helping those who are struggling, to find waysto help them without pushing them further away. That is not always an easy task. But I am committed to try.

    Lastly, I have always found this particular phrase to be of a curious makeup. I believe but I don’t. I accept Elder Holland’s take on it, but have often wondered if this was translated correctly.

    Glenn

  27. Glenn, when I was a young teen my college brother wrote a poem with this scripture (which I had never heard before) so I have always liked it.
    As an adult 30 years later, I still love the scripture. And I liked the talk. Perhaps I am not the norm, but to me things like love and belief are a choice. I am not subject to the whims that other people seem to be when talking about love. So then I start to think perhaps I am not normal that a “choose” to love my children, my parents and my spouse since everyone else seems to be helpless in the face of their feeling. But then I remember that there are plenty of people who actually DON’T love their children or their spouses or their families. So then I think that perhaps I am not so unique. I choose to love them and refuse to stop.
    It is the same with belief. I choose to believe. I rely on God to help me choose belief over unbelief. Every day I choose to believe and almost never give unbelief any real thought. I have made my decision and remake it every day to be committed to the Lord.

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