I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps the greatest difference between Mormons along all points of the spectrum is not the degree of faith they have in God, or Joseph Smith, or the Church, or its leaders, but rather, is in the degree of faith they have in themselves.
When it comes to the question of how mortals can discover unseen, divine truths, Mormons typically respond that such truths can be discovered by personal revelation from God through the Holy Spirit. Although Mormons vary in their views about what that means exactly, it seems Mormons generally agree it is a process that involves: (1) information gathering and analysis (“study it out in your mind”); (2) praying to God for guidance or for a confirmation of your studied conclusion; (3) perceiving and interpreting God’s response in the form of “spiritual impressions” in our hearts and minds; and (4) using scripture and the words of living prophets as a standard by which to judge the authenticity and accuracy of what we believe the Holy Spirit has told us.
Although Mormons seem to generally agree that is the correct process for receiving personal revelation, they seem to differ more widely in their level of self-confidence or self-doubt about whether they are able to successfully distinguish between authentic spiritual impressions from the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and inauthentic imaginations of their own hearts and minds on the other. It seems we seldom recognize or call attention to this issue of our self-confidence in our spiritual discernment, but that it frequently lays beneath the surface of our religious discourse.
For example, I think we can often overlook the fact that whenever we say we “know” an unseen truth because it has been “revealed” to us “by the Holy Spirit,” we are necessarily basing that statement on an unstated but extraordinary leap of faith. That leap of faith is our supreme confidence in our own ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit, and to separate or distinguish it from our own thoughts or feelings that might be acting as “impostor” spiritual impressions.
I think we often regard statements like “I know the Church is true” as being strong expressions of a person’s belief in someone or something else. But I wonder whether we realize that such statements are just as much a statement of belief in ourselves; specifically, in our ability to discern the Holy Spirit with a high enough degree of accuracy to say that we “know” the thing that we believe has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
For example, the statement “I know that Joseph Smith is a true Prophet because the Holy Spirit revealed it to me” inherently contains another unstated profession of belief: “I am capable of discerning and interpreting the Holy Spirit with such a high degree of accuracy that I can be certain about the conclusions I’ve reached about what I believe it has told me.” Mormons who have a high degree of self-confidence in their powers of spiritual discernment are comfortable making that second silent statement (assuming they realize they are doing so), while others who experience self-doubt may not be.
Those who feel comfortable making professions about what they “know” though the Holy Spirit are often encouraged, commended, and affirmed in their professions of certainty (assuming they are doctrinally sound). But those who do not feel comfortable professing their beliefs in terms of “knowledge” and “certainty” are often viewed as spiritually weak or deficient. They are seen as doubting God, or the Church, or Joseph Smith. But perhaps the main person they doubt is themselves.
I must admit I’ve had to think twice about whether it is truly a virtue to be supremely confident in one’s own ability to discern the Holy Spirit, and about whether it is truly a vice to have self-doubt. Because from the perspective of a faithful, active Mormon, both of these mindsets have significant downsides, such that neither seems obviously superior to the other.
In short, the problem with having a supreme confidence in your ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit is that you’re less likely to recognize when you’re wrong; and the problem with having self-doubt in your ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit is that you’re less likely to recognize when you’re right.
Ironically, some of the scariest skeletons in the closet of Mormonism have come from individuals whose supreme self-confidence in their ability to discern the Holy Spirit led them to make statements, sometimes in books bearing titles suggesting they constituted official Church doctrine, that in retrospect turned out to be dead wrong. These individuals were admired for their strong, unflinching expressions of their convictions. But one wonders if a little less self-confidence on the part of those individuals might have dissuaded them from purporting to speak for the entire Church in certain terms about the many “mysteries of the kingdom.” And perhaps a little self-doubt would have opened minds and hearts enough to challenge some traditional but questionable policies so they could be discarded sooner than they ultimately were?
But of course, self-doubt has its drawbacks as well. If we have too much self-doubt, we may find ourselves among that class of persons that is ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. We may be eternally seeking to re-invent the wheel that we’ve already discovered, but have failed to recognize.
I’d love to hear your perspective on these thoughts I’ve been having lately, and I’d particularly be interested in hearing your suggestions about how we can balance our level of self-confidence and self-doubt in our own powers of spiritual discernment with an eye toward maximizing their benefits and minimizing their drawbacks, if that’s possible. And if forced to choose between self-confidence and self-doubt, which do you prefer?