Satan loves to attack and undermine the principles with the greatest power. It is no wonder that the evil one wants to distort or undermine faith. Healthy, vibrant faith has immense power.
Often we view growing our faith as a process of working things through in our minds. There are a number of ways we approach faith through logic.
One popular version of faith is naïve belief. It may take the form, “If the prophet says it, that’s good enough for me!” On the surface, that appears to be a good approach—to have faith in the prophet. At the same time, it might suggest a simplistic, narrow form of faith. It might suppose that we don’t have any responsibility to reflect more deeply upon the principle the prophet is advocating or consider how it applies to us individually. We may not implement the truths in our lives but instead just passively accept them. Though naïve belief is surely better than skepticism and cynicism, if our lives aren’t changed by the truths, we are missing out on the benefits of vibrant faith.
Another version of faith is to study an idea or principle. Gather data. Pray about it. Get heavenly confirmation. This is the popular testimony path. Having a testimony is great—but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to change us, enlarge us, and uplift us. It is not enough to know that the gospel is true. We need to act on the knowledge that we have received in order to experience the fruits of the gospel. We need to become disciples and messengers of light because of the truths we have discovered.
Another version of faith might be called critical reflection. “The Church teaches such-and-such. I’m not sure if I believe it. So, I will only have faith in this principle if I am convinced of it.” It is quite popular to stand on an academic pedestal measuring truth by our own self-developed standards. We see the good and we also condemn the errors. We may not see our fundamental assumption: I know enough to judge the brethren and God’s work. I know more than they. You can see the danger. When we presume to give a critical commentary on their teachings, we set ourselves up as judges rather than disciples. It is good to be thinkers. It is dangerous to presume that we know more than God and the people He has called.
Intriguingly, Alma recommends a different definition of faith with his planting-of-a-seed teaching (Alma 32-33). The word—a truth, a commandment, a doctrine, a principle—is like a seed. We plant it and watch to see if it grows. But planting is not merely placing the seed in soil and sitting back to watch its progress. No, planting involves living it—watering it, weeding around it, fertilizing it, and caring for it.
For example, if I wonder whether the Restoration plan of redemption is true, I start by learning about it—about God’s fatherly care, our premortal growth, our mortal learning, a spirit world where any mortal gaps are remedied, being presented to Father by our advocate, and living forever in our joy-chosen career. Then, if I am to test the doctrine, I must live as if its elements were true. I see others as children of God. I see myself as a student in God’s mentoring program. I recognize God’s relentless redemptiveness and infinite graciousness. I test the doctrine with my life. As I live the plan of redemption, I come to know it is true. How do I know? “It beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (Alma 32:28). When I live the doctrine, God transforms my soul, my mind, and my tastes. I start to become a new creature in Christ.
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The test of living the doctrine can be applied to other truths. The divinity of Jesus. The beauty of the atonement. God’s willingness to guide us. The power of charity.
This kind of test can even be applied to doctrines as seemingly academic as “Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.” Rather than simply studying his life history searching for clues as to whether or not he is credible, I can plant Joseph’s teachings in my heart. I can live as if Joseph were a prophet and see the fruits of the doctrines he taught blossom in my life. For me, Joseph’s example and teachings have enlarged my soul, enlightened my understanding, and have been delicious to me.
Some might object: “But what about Joseph’s failings?” He knew he was a “huge, rough stone” being refined by knocking into things along the way. He was human. Given the humanness of all of God’s messengers, I prefer to test him by his central religious notions—his revelations and doctrines. I find his revelations to be littered with remarkable gems. I find his teachings to be godly and inspiring. When I live Joseph’s teachings, they lead me to Jesus Christ, and I become a better disciple.
It is not enough to dry-lab principles without actually doing the work. God wants us to live them. This might be compared to riding a bike. We do not need to understand metallurgy, engineering, and production to evaluate a bike. We ride it. When it runs smoothly and we enjoy the wind in our faces, we know that the bike is good.
Dismounting our bike and returning to Alma’s metaphor, if the seed does not grow, there are at least two possibilities. Maybe it is a bad seed—perhaps I have not yet found and planted a true doctrine. Or maybe our “ground is barren” (Alma 32:39); maybe my hard heart or blind mind have been inhospitable to growth.
Notice that Alma’s recommendation is not to first gain a testimony and then act in accordance with it. No—we only get a conviction after we have been willing to live the principle. Spiritual tentativity does not grow crops.
I have previously described the distress Nancy and I felt with many miscarriages. We resolutely did all the things that made sense. None of them worked. In desperation, we tried faith. We simply decided to trust God and be grateful for every experience—even those we did not prefer or could not understand. As soon as we made that choice, we felt immense joy. I know the seed of trusting God is a good seed. We have tested it by living it and “the word hath swelled [our] souls, and . . . [our] understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and [our] mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:34). Our lives have been changed by trusting God with our afflictions.
While Alma used an agricultural metaphor, God uses light to teach us His process.
And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. (D&C 50:23-24)
The things I extract from this passage:
1. If something does not edify and inspire, it is not from God who only uplifts. Darkness does not lead us to God.
2. When we receive the light He sends, and we test it in our lives, we receive more light which grows brighter and brighter.
God asks us to take the most radiant truths we have heard and test them in our lives. We may be far too inclined to test truth in the lab of logic. He wants us to test truth in the lab of our lives. As we experience illumination and clarity, we may know that the doctrines are true. Those times when we test an idea and do not feel illumination, we should not despair. Coming to a clear conviction will often require time and patience. We should hold to the truths we have while considering whether we need to further prepare our soil or learn more about the principle.
If we are earnest gardeners, we will look over the whole garden. We will notice weeds and vacant areas. We will take the actions that remove weeds, fill in empty places, and create a beautiful garden. In like manner, the earnest truth seeker will look over their plot of belief and be watchful for weeds and empty places. Do we have beliefs that are not consistent with the noble and holy character of God? Have we neglected areas of understanding and conviction that should be cultivated? A conscientious gardener will work with God to create a complete and verdant landscape—one that leaves us adoring God and loving His children.
When we live this kind of faith—the kind of faith where we actually live the doctrines—the truth will begin to enlarge our souls, enlighten our understandings, and be delicious to us (Alma 32:28).
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annie Foster for their substantial contributions to this article.
Acknowledgment: Many insights about faith were drawn from Mark A. Wrathall’s Alma 30-63, a Brief Theological Introduction.