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Students and leaders share their experiences with overcoming personal doubts at a Church university

Graphic of two individuals on a bendy tree. One with bright blue/purple hair offers her hand to help the other individual with green hair up the tree.

Doubt that I am good enough. Doubt that I will ever find a healthy, lasting relationship. Doubt that what I was taught really is true. For many 20-somethings, college is a vulnerable era, brimming with similar versions of these doubts and many more.  

How these doubts fare in a heavily religious and faith-centered environment is all up to the individual, according to three BYU–Hawaii students, a religious leader and professor who shared their own thoughts and experiences with doubt. 

“Doubt has a bright side and a dark side. It really depends how you deal with it,” said Dan Bradshaw, a professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts. He is also the second counselor in the Laie Hawaii Stake, a local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

The dark side of doubt

For Zoe Chang, a senior from Taiwan majoring in biochemistry, it was the darker side of doubt she experienced. Two years ago, she was faced with what she said was one of the biggest challenges of her life. 

“I was too eager. I was rushing to find the answer and actually missed a lot of people God sent to help me because I was only focused on my doubts. 

“I doubted if there was a God and [wondered] why He didn’t help me right away.”

Bradshaw explained doubt becomes damaging when it becomes the focus. “If you dwell on doubts and allow those to be your defining characteristics or your defining attributes, then you’re always leading with doubt rather than belief or faith. And that can lead you to some dark places, academically as well as spiritually.” 

In her experience, Chang said she began to not only doubt her faith but doubt herself too. It was not until she heard a talk in General Conference, a semi-annual worldwide gathering of members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Chang said she began to feel inspired again. 

“When I doubted my faith, part of me thought Heavenly Father didn’t want me anymore. I just thought I already did a lot of bad things so … He was probably disappointed in me. But when I heard that talk, I realized again, no, He’s always there. He always loves everyone no matter who you are or what you did. He is still the same.”

Changing the lens 

For Sara Danielle Nelson, a senior from Utah majoring in psychology, her crisis of faith came when she felt God had deliberately led her into a situation that caused her pain. 

“My doubt was not necessarily that God wasn’t there because I knew He was, but it was more like, ‘How could you do this to me when I have tried so hard to be good and loving? I served a mission. I’ve always been a good kid, and then you ask me to do something that really hurt me a lot.’ That just destroyed my self-esteem and the way I saw myself and the world.” 

Nelson said what helped her during that time was reflecting on good experiences she had with God in the past and realizing the negative experiences – times when she followed God, but things didn’t work out – still made her a better person.  

Through these reflections, Nelson said she learned what God really cares about, saying, “God doesn’t only care about our righteousness and our ability to keep the commandments. He cares about everything that happens to us.

“And sometimes we do have to go through these hard periods, or times when we kind of turn away from him, or [we have] a lot of confusion and being angry… God cares about that side of us too.” 

When it comes to doubts of faith, Bradshaw explained it is best to be “really open and honest with yourself… You need to see your doubt for what it is and don’t say that it’s necessarily bad or good, but say, ‘Okay, well I’m doubting this. What does that mean I need to do?’”

Bradshaw shared how to then assess the situation by examining study habits, determining a potential need for increased spiritual nourishment or a possible change in a person’s circle of associates. This assessment of circumstances, Bradshaw explained, can allow for an exploration of doubt through the “lens of faith.”   

“If you deal with doubt in a healthy way, it can be a catalyst to true learning. It can help you be open-minded to different ways of looking at the world,” said Bradshaw. 

If you deal with doubt in a healthy way, it can be a catalyst to true learning.
Dan Bradshaw

“And in education, especially at the university level, you’re going to be learning things that will challenge the way that you see the world, or at least you should. That’s what education is supposed to do. In that process, you’re bound to run into some doubts. Or you’re bound to have to throw away some assumptions or past beliefs that you might have had and find a new way to look at the world.”

Doubt is normal, perfection is not

Chang, who joined the Church about 10 years ago after being introduced through English classes in Taiwan, said her advice to those struggling with doubts is to remember they are normal. “[Whether] you are a convert or you were born in the Church, no matter what, because we are human, it’s always okay to have doubts.”

McKaylah Shea Conlon, an alumna from Laie who graduated with a degree in intercultural peacebuilding, is a certified life coach. She said she focuses on helping people let go of the past and learn to “embrace being unapologetically whoever [they] are.” She has noticed pressures within the Church that seem to contribute to a lot of the challenges her clients’ face. 

“There’s just kind of this pressure, this internal and external pressure to be perfect. That we can’t doubt, and if we do have doubts, or we are attracted to the same gender, or we have different political standings than what’s popular, it’s just horrifying. I’ve seen it eat away at my friends. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve experienced a lot of these things myself as well.”

Conlon added being at a church school with things like an Honor Code – a code of conduct all students are expected to live by – and leaders’ opinions sometimes being mistaken or falsely construed for doctrine can also impact the overall campus environment. 

“We’re not supposed to be perfect in this life. We’re supposed to be as perfect as we can be as individuals, but your perfect isn’t going to look the same as my perfect.”

Bradshaw added, “Historically, we maybe haven’t been really great about dealing with doubt in the Church, and I think that’s a place where we can still improve, to be accepting of those with doubts, and to allow them to be open and honest, but still searching.”

Despite this, Bradshaw said in his 13 years of teaching, he has noticed an increase in the “openness and acceptance” of his students.

“There should be room for everyone within the tent of faith. And to really have a growing faith, you’ve got to have doubts, or at least areas of exploration along the way because faith needs to be living to really help you in your life.” 

There should be room for everyone within the tent of faith.
Dan Bradshaw

Choosing action in patience

Bradshaw shared one of his own experiences with doubt involved waiting for a specific promised blessing – his youngest son, Quinn. After a series of miscarriages, Bradshaw said he and his wife felt every evidence was telling them they would not have another child, despite promises from God that indicated otherwise.  

“It was really hard to keep from doubting. And it was a really important experience for both my wife and me to come to the place where we really trusted in God, despite all the evidence that things [wouldn’t go] the way He was telling us they were going to go,” said Bradshaw.

“A lot of the experience I have with doubt is really tied in with patience. Sometimes it’s just doubting for a time that a certain blessing will come about … Doubt sometimes can really come down to doubting the Lord’s timing.” 

Opapo Fonoimoana, second counselor in the Laie YSA 5th Ward, an on-campus congregation for single students, said he has had many experiences in his life where he wasn’t sure what to do, but felt the most unsure during his single years in his mid-thirties. At that time, he felt the norm in the Church was to be married with one child by age 25.

When he did meet his wife, Fonoimoana explained they did not date for very long before she broke up with him, leaving him devastated. A couple of years later, she came back into his life, and within six months, said Fonoimoana, he was married and living a totally different life. 

He explained even after that he has experienced moments of uncertainty, but always the answer is the same: “Everything is going to be all right.” 

Fonoimoana explained how this gave him comfort but never an exact direction. “In my life, there have been plenty of times when I wasn’t too sure what the right thing for me to do was. No matter how hard I prayed, how many times I fasted or went to the temple, it just didn’t seem like I was getting an answer or a direction.

“And so I just decided one day that you can’t just wait for an answer. I’m just going to try and do the most that I can and try to be the best me that I can be, so when Heavenly Father decides to give me an answer, I’ll be ready to run with it.”

Graphic of peoples faces in background with text: "When facing doubt yourself:
Be open and honest with yourself
See doubts for what they are rather than labeling them as good or bad 
Be specific: Don’t globalize your doubt
Hold on to hope
Remember you are always good enough
Be proactive in the search for answers
Sit with your emotions through meditation and prayer
Be patient with yourself: Practice Christlike   self-compassion
Trust in the Lord
Remember doubts are normal
When helping another facing doubt: 
Show unconditional love and support
Pray for guidance and strength
Be a good listener: Stay present
Validate their experience
Reserve judgement
Seek to understand context
Refrain from reacting emotionally 
Be honest and sensitive with your response
Be a good example."