Though the first principle of the gospel, faith seems to be among the more challenging doctrines to comprehend. Alma describes faith as “hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” While it is helpful to understand that faith does not require a perfect knowledge, the concept of faith seems intertwined with hope; and while faith and hope both share confidence in unseen truths, the two are distinct. Another definition says that faith is the substance of the things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Again, faith is connected with hope, but this verse at least clarifies that hope and faith are distinct concepts. Yet these two common definitions emphasize belief in the unseen, but do not describe the role of behavior in developing faith. A good friend once taught me that if faith does not lead to repentance, it is “bunk”. Repentance is action which signifies our faith in Christ. This definition also provides a nice bridge between the concepts of faith and hope. Consistent with Moroni’s progression in the 8th chapter of his book: the first fruits of repentance is baptism, which comes because of faith (v.25). This brings the remission of sins, which brings the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost fills people with hope and perfect love (v.26). Thus, faith represents the beginning point of a progression that leads people through the first principles and ordinances of the gospel and culminates in hope and love.
This working definition is sufficient for helping people being on the path to Christ, but it does not adequately account for all of the aspects of faith we read about in scripture. In addition, much of what people experience in life requires a definition of faith that encompasses more than motivation to repent. One of my favorite sections of scripture discusses divine intervention into our own lives. Mormon argues that if God is an unchanging being and if He once was a God of miracles, He is today a God of miracles. Then, he concludes with this promise, “I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all…” Simply reading those words fills me with hope and excitement because it suggests that God intends for our faith to lead us to something in addition to repentance. Those with sufficient faith can perform miracles in the name of the Lord and accomplish much more than their mortal capacity allows.
Not only are we to try to strengthen our own faith in Christ, but the scriptures suggest that we should strive to increase the collective faith of others. One promise is specifically contingent on collective faith. The brother of Jared experienced the “everything” vision. The antemortal Messiah showed him “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been and also all of them that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth.” Then, the Lord commanded the brother of Jared to write down everything he saw in that vision. Mosiah held on to a copy of that record and after Christ appeared to the Nephites in America the full account was made available to the Nephites. Moroni included this complete account of the “everything” vision and interpreters that would be necessary to translate the full account with the Book of Mormon. This record is now called the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon and access to this record is contingent on our collective faith. According to Moroni, the Lord said that “in that day that [the Gentiles] shall exercise faith in me… even as the brother of Jared did…then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw.”
This suggests that as a body, members of the LDS Church are living below their collective capacity. If we had faith comparable to that of the brother of Jared, we would have access to more scripture than we do presently. In addition, we are all likely living below our privilege individually. Elder Wirthlin explained: “Too often today we do not rely on faith so much as our own ability to reason to solve problems.” Many today wonder if the days of miracles have ceased. However, I believe that God is as anxious to work miracles in our lives as He was to work miracles in the lives of those who preceded us. If we do not see the hand of God consistently working in our lives it may be because we lack sufficient faith.
Belief in God is a Choice
My purpose is to build collective faith by enhancing our understanding of the concept of faith. When I say that someone lacks faith, it is not meant as a derogatory. In fact, the most persistent misconception of the concept of faith is that faith is a gift from God which one either possesses or does not. Like a sense of humor, intelligence, or good looks; some people think that faith is obtained by chance, good fortune, or by pleasing the Almighty. Many think that faith (or belief in God) is obtained through processes external to themselves. Perhaps they sympathize with former Apostle Lyman Johnson who lamented, “I would suffer my right hand to be cut off, if I could believe it again. Then I was full of joy and gladness…But now it is darkness, pain, sorrow, misery in the extreme.” However, this view is not consistent with the doctrine of faith expounded in the scriptures. More than a dozen scriptures talk about exercising faith, and one of them teaches that people exercised faith in the pre-mortal life. This suggests that faith is akin to an eternal muscle, which requires consistent effort to strengthen. And, while perfect knowledge of God makes it impossible to exercise faith in some contexts, faith seems to be an eternally essential companion of God in others. Thus, while a knowledge of God is a gift , this knowledge does not eliminate the need for faith, it simply alters the context in which faith is exercised. Regardless, if faith is a gift, we are counseled to seek earnestly for the best gifts.
Furthermore, God commands us to believe. In the 4th chapter of Mosiah, King Benjamin teaches his people what they should do if they would like to receive salvation. He commands them to believe in God, believe that He has all power and wisdom, believe that He created all things, and to believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend (v.9). In King Benjamin’s view, “…this is the means whereby salvation cometh.” (v.8). After we come to a knowledge of God, the path to salvation begins with our choice to believe in God.
If we accept that faith is like a muscle that weakens or strengthens according to the effort we give to it, what are the behaviors that strengthen or weaken our faith? The best definition of faith I have ever encountered comes from Joseph B. Wirthlin: “Faith exists when absolute confidence in that which we cannot see combines with action that is in absolute conformity to the will of our Heavenly Father.” This suggests that faith is strengthened through the interplay of two eternal concepts: confidence in the unseen and action consistent with the will of God.
This is consistent with the teachings of Joseph Smith in his lectures on faith. He taught that a “religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” This is because sacrifice of all earthly things is the medium through which men can actually know that they are doing the things that are pleasing in the sight of God. Joseph continues, “When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice because he seeks to do his will, he does know, most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not, nor will not seek his face in vain.” Joseph argues that those who make this sacrifice “will have the testimony that their course is pleasing in the sight of God” , while those who do not “do not know that the course which they pursue is pleasing in his sight.”
How to Choose Faith
Initially, it appears that knowledge of the will of God is the first step in exercising faith. However, Joseph makes it clear that behavior precedes knowledge. Only when one sacrifices (conforms to the will of God) do they obtain the testimony of the unseen. Thus, if we wait to act until we are confident in the will of God, we may find ourselves grouped with those who do not sacrifice (conform to God’s will) and never obtain the testimony.
This poses a significant challenge for those who earnestly seek to do the will of God, but do not feel confident in the promptings they receive. Though God promises to prompt us in our minds and in our hearts, temptations also fill our minds, as do random thoughts that are not always inspired of God. Acting on every thought that comes into our minds might lead us to evil. However, this could be why faith begins with action. First, because Satan is the great imitator, we must be constantly vigilant to allow the pathways for spiritual promptings to remain pure. If we choose to engage in activities that are known to strengthen Satan’s ability to block spiritual communications, we should expect spiritual communication to be less clear.
Second, we know enough to begin acting consistently with the will of God. Paul explained, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” The Prophet Joseph Smith clarified, “Faith comes by hearing the word of God, through the testimony of the servants of God.” This means that when the servants of God share testimony, it is accompanied by commitments to action that — if followed — will build faith. Richard G. Scott explained, “A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act… It is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions. These choices are made with trusting faith in things that are believed and, at least initially, are not seen.”
Thus, faith is born of action consistent with the will of the Lord. When we face decisions, the ultimate strength of our faith muscle depends on the degree to which we sacrifice our individual desires and conform to the will of God. Sometimes, the correct choice is clear and apparent, and sometimes the proper course is not at all clear. Regardless, it is equally important to conform to God’s will when the proper course is unclear. At the moment of decision, we often do not comprehend the enormity of the decision nor the likely consequences. Often, the most significant choices we make in life are only understood in retrospect. In addition, Satan is allowed significant influence in this world because it provides testing ground in which we can prove ourselves. Yet, the purpose of this life is to demonstrate that we will follow God in any circumstances. As we consistently choose to conform to God’s will in every circumstance, we will develop a testimony that our actions are pleasing to Him. Ultimately, this knowledge strengthens our faith, which helps us make the next right decision. This recursive process develops the faith we need in the present, and allows our faith to grow in the eternities
Choosing Faith in the Mundane
What emerges from this view of faith is that many of the important faith-challenging decisions are not strictly spiritual. As individuals, we face thousands of choices each day and it seems unlikely that many of these are crucial to our eternal salvation. Trivial matters — such as which brand of canned vegetables to purchase — do not need to be prayerfully considered. Yet, matters which seem trivial can be eternally important. For instance, if one of those cans of vegetables contains poison, it might be important for us to receive divine guidance before making the purchase. While we have been promised that the Lord will intervene and give us guidance when a choice will make a real difference in our lives, that promise is conditional on our living in tune with the Spirit and seeking His guidance. Unfortunately, most of us do not live close enough to the Lord to merit this kind of divine intervention into areas of our lives that do not seem to be directly related to our faith. As a result, many of us make automatic decisions about the seemingly mundane which may have eternal consequences on our faith muscle. Like most people we allow our lives to conform to our predispositions, which lead us to become like the natural man.
Although this may seem harmless, nothing could be further from the truth. Elder Scott taught that this course of action will ultimately lead to serious transgression. He explained, “You cannot be passive in life, or in time the natural man will undermine your efforts to live worthily. You become what you do and what you think about. Lack of character leads one under pressure to satisfy appetite or seek personal gain. You cannot successfully bolster a weak character with the cloak of pretense. In time one who makes decisions based upon circumstance is virtually assured to commit serious transgression.”
Many of us have miraculous faith-building experiences that are so personal that they are not appropriate to share publicly. However, many more of us have mundane life experiences that are just as essential to the growth of our faith that we do not share because we do not see them as faith-building experiences. President Benson taught that “for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life.” Most of us are doing better than we realize. Many of us are missing out on some daily faith strengthening exercises because we do not recognize them as such.