To read more insights from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic Et Non.
One of the addresses that struck me most powerfully during the recently concluded annual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “Christ Is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains”, given by President Russell M. Nelson in the Sunday morning session. And yet, to my surprise, some have apparently been troubled by it, or even resisted it.
“Faith in Jesus Christ,” says President Nelson, “is the foundation of all belief and the conduit of divine power.” In support of that strong declaration, he cited Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
Continuing, President Nelson declares that “Everything good in life—every potential blessing of eternal significance—begins with faith. Allowing God to prevail in our lives begins with faith that He is willing to guide us. True repentance begins with faith that Jesus Christ has the power to cleanse, heal, and strengthen us.”
Faith is fundamentally important and, thus, deserves serious reflection. President Nelson’s remarks invite us to do just that.
First, though, a thought of my own: I have often wished that we could get rid of the word “faith” for just a little bit. Why? Because, since it’s become such a charged religious term, I think it can sometimes obscure discussion of the subject that it represents.
The Greek word that is translated as “faith” in the New Testament, “pistis,” can also mean, simply, “trust.” And if we think of faith as “trust,” some common misconceptions about the subject can be clarified.
The faith to which the scriptures summon us, for instance, certainly involves belief in certain facts (e.g., in the existence of God, in Christ as our divine redeemer, and in the Restoration of the Church and the Gospel). But saving faith isn’t merely or even mainly theoretical assent to a list of propositions. Even more importantly, it’s confidence in a Person. It’s trust in God and his promises. It’s confidence in the cleansing, redeeming, and resurrecting power of God’s Son.
In Gospel matters as in ordinary daily life, trust often demands demonstration in actions. (Which suggests, to me at least, that the perennial “faith versus works” debate is fundamentally misconceived.) If we say that we trust a teenager to drive but, when she asks for the car keys, we refuse to hand them over, we don’t really trust her. If we say that we trust a footbridge to bear our weight but, actually facing it, decline to cross that bridge, our inaction speaks louder than our words. If I declare that I would trust a man with my life but then balk at loaning him fifty dollars for fear of not getting the money back, my profession of faith in him is empty, vain, even fraudulent.
President Nelson calls our attention to the great sermon recorded in Alma 32, and particularly to Alma 32:27, where the prophet asks us to “experiment” upon the teachings of Christ, even if, at first, we’re only able to “exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if [we] can no more than desire to believe.”
This language of “experiment” should resonate with the Book of Mormon’s modern audience. Certainly it’s worth consideration. To point out just one rather plain implication of Alma’s teaching, it means that we can start small. And, says President Nelson, even if that’s all we can do, we should do it. If baby steps are the most we can muster, baby steps will serve as an excellent start: “The Lord does not require perfect faith for us to have access to His perfect power,” he points out. “But He does ask us to believe.”
So here is the invitation that President Nelson extended at general conference: “My dear brothers and sisters, my call to you this Easter morning is to start today to increase your faith.”
But how in the world does one go about doing such a thing? Isn’t faith something that one either has or doesn’t have? Is faith under our conscious control any more than falling in love is, or staying in love?
If we believe Hollywood, love just happens to us, as does falling out of love. (Taken in that sense, by the way, morality and moral choice are largely irrelevant to it. Again, the Hollywood view.) But the scriptures and ordinary human experience suggest otherwise—that love can be cultivated, developed (or starved). Many of us know that we often grow to love causes and people that we serve.
It’s much the same way with trust, with faith. “To do anything well requires effort,” says President Nelson, who is an experienced authority on both expending effort and doing many things well. “Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is no exception. Increasing your faith and trust in Him takes effort.”
So, he offers five suggestions to help us in developing faith and trust. The first is to study. I’ll scarcely comment about this suggestion here, though the benefits of study for faith will, I hope, be a major and recurrent theme of these Meridian columns. It’s important, I think, that “study” is President Nelson’s first listed suggestion.
Nor will I be discussing the fourth suggestion (to “partake of sacred ordinances worthily”) or the fifth (which advises us to “ask [our] Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, for help”), although they’re absolutely vital. Instead, I’ll concentrate on his second and third suggestions.
The second is to “choose to believe in Jesus Christ.”
Again, does it make any sense to think that we can choose such a thing? Isn’t the idea rather like “choosing” to love cod liver oil, when in fact you can’t stand it? In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 classic “Through the Looking-Glass,” Alice is conversing with the Red Queen. “There’s no use trying,” Alice says, laughing. “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” replies the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
I contend, though, that, in a very real and important way, choosing to believe does make entire sense. We often choose to trust people when, rationally, the evidence to support such trust isn’t strictly adequate. We commit our lives to someone in marriage (for sixty mortal years, perhaps, or for eternity) on the basis of, at most, a short period of getting acquainted. We entrust ourselves to surgeons who have a good enough record of success, but we can’t know with absolute certainty that, in our case, they won’t make a serious mistake. We invest in things for which we have hope and perhaps even good evidence. But we lack proof. Nonetheless, in these and hundreds of other cases, we make the best choices we can, and we move on.
“If you have doubts about God the Father and His Beloved Son or the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet,” advises President Nelson, “choose to believe and stay faithful.”
Part of this choice will impact what and how we study (his first suggestion): “Take your questions to the Lord,” President Nelson counsels, “and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures.”
I’ve encountered far too many once-faithful Latter-day Saints who came to revel in seeming inconsistencies and to delight in seeking out, often from increasingly dubious authors, what claims to be the real “inside story.” All too often, they develop an imbalance in their study, neglecting and sometimes even refusing to consider faithful approaches to the issues on which they’re focusing. We should be as careful regarding the books we read as of the company we keep.
So, what about those with whom we associate? It has been said that the principal difference between heaven and hell is the company we’ll have there. The same is true in this life. “Tell me with whom you associate,” remarked the great early nineteenth century German poet Goethe, “and I will tell you who you are.” “The key,” said the second-century Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
“Stop increasing your doubts,” says President Nelson, “by rehearsing them with other doubters.”
Is he advising us to ostracize family members, friends, and neighbors who aren’t faithful Latter-day Saints? Not at all. Elder Gary E. Stevenson’s fine Saturday morning talk, “Hearts Knit Together” powerfully teaches that the Gospel forbids us to do so.
But we do tend to adjust to the climate around us, to assimilate to our environment, and we need to be very careful about that. If we don’t wish to become like a given individual or group, that individual or group should not become a dominant element in our social ecology. If we’re hoping to save a troubled marriage, hanging around with misogynists or man-haters or those who are bitterly cynical about marriage as an institution is probably not the best course to further that hope. Inevitably, we’ll be influenced by those whom we put in a position to influence us.
And this has powerful implications for our activities online. Among the novel features of our modern environment are the so-called social media—which, all too often, supplant actual socializing with friends and real human beings. In the past, those who cut themselves off from family and congregation by apostasy commonly did so on their own, in some degree of isolation. Now, though, there are online pseudo-communities eager to welcome physically distant doubting Saints, wavering members, and not only to support them but to steer them further toward disbelief and the breaking of covenants. Those who go this way should be clear about what they’re doing and about what their course will very probably entail in the end.
The problem with such social media presences is not, I think, only or even primarily that they provide ready access to potentially doubt-inducing information (and pseudo-information) regarding the history of the Church and its truth-claims, often carefully cherry-picked and decontextualized. It’s that they provide readily accessible alternative “communities” that can seem almost to replace the Church, a cheering section that is only too eager to applaud expressions of doubt and anger, to jeer at faith and the faithful, and to gleefully welcome new fellow-recruits to the Great and Spacious Building.
But will those communities really be there in the most difficult moments of our lives? Can they really take the place of still-faithful family members, now at least somewhat estranged, and of a genuinely real and supportive, if inevitably flawed, community of Saints? Will they support their new recruits in times of tragedy, failure, and loss? Scripture suggests not: “The devil will not support his children at the last day,” says Alma 30:60, “but doth speedily drag them down to hell.”
I return now to President Nelson’s closely-related third suggestion, to “act in faith.” “What would you do,” he asks, “if you had more faith? Think about it. Write about it. Then receive more faith by doing something that requires more faith.”
If I dare say so, this strikes me as brilliantly insightful advice. We learn to trust by trusting. Perhaps we bite our nails with anxiety the first time our son takes the car out alone, or the first time our daughter goes on a date. However, the more they do so successfully, the more our confidence grows. We begin by entrusting a new employee with small tasks, but as she successfully completes her assignments, our trust increases and our assignments grow larger and more responsible. As we choose to trust the Lord and find his promises fulfilled and our lives improved, our faith in him grows stronger. In each case, though, we must first choose to trust.
“Faith takes work,” President Nelson declares. “Receiving revelation takes work. But “every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” God knows what will help your faith grow. Ask, and then ask again.” The effort, President Nelson promises, will be worthwhile. “Truly,” he says, “faith is the power that enables the unlikely to accomplish the impossible.”