The Substance of Things Hoped For: Where Faith and Works Meet
I prayed earnestly over what I might say to you today. During my active years of general authority service, it was my privilege to speak to a number of Latter-day Saint congregations of students at various institutions—BYU, University of Utah, Weber College, elsewhere—and I’m very much aware of the fact that, at this stage of your life as students and coming to devotionals like this, you’re very accustomed to receiving advice. Being a student, particularly at a Church school where we have a significant group of LDS students, is much like going on a mission or getting married—there is just no shortage of advice that’s available to you at that time. So I thought I might take something of a bit of a different tack with you this morning. Rather than present yet another sermon or more advice, I thought that I would like to share with you today a perspective gleaned over seven decades now, on the principle of faith.
I wish to present to you this morning something of a smorgasbord of scriptural perspectives, personal experiences, that I hope may provide each of you a takeaway of one kind or another that is valuable to you personally. I’ve entitled these remarks “The Substance of Things Hoped For: Where Faith and Works Meet,” and I begin with a scriptural perspective.
For all of the attention that it gets in Church meetings and classes, it is my experience that the principle of faith is not well understood. In fact, it may be most accurate to say that it is imperfectly understood by members of the Church. For instance, I have sometimes heard faith referred to as “a strong belief.” Well, I think to a limited degree that’s true. But there is a fundamental difference between faith and belief. Belief is an intellectual idea; it’s a rather passive notion. To believe something is to think it is true. And in that sense, it’s a one-dimensional concept. But faith is dynamic. It’s a process more than a condition or a state of mind, as such. And it’s an interactive process at that.
In its essence, faith is the very nature of the relationship that you and I have with the Lord. The power of the dynamism of faith, this dynamic principle, the power of it, the extent of it, is really an expression of the relationship that you or I have with the Lord.
Alma referred to that dynamism as an “experiment upon” the word. (Alma 32:27) He also said that “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things.” (v. 21) Rather, faith is a process of relying on the knowledge of the Lord and His goodness that we have obtained in the past, while reaching for additional knowledge and assurance. In fact, Alma further says that faith is hoping for things “which are not seen, which are true.” (v. 21)
Hence, faith could also be referred to as a confidence from the Lord, a confidence that He will “reach our reaching,” to borrow a phrase from a beloved Latter-day Saint hymn. (“Where Can I Turn for Peace?” Hymn 129) “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward,” is a statement attributed to Paul. (Hebrews 10:35)
Moroni used a different phrase to refer to this confidence. He said that faith is “a firm mind in every form of godliness.” (Moroni 7:30) But my favorite definition is one that comes from Paul and has really lent itself to the title I’ve given to these remarks. Paul said that faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. At first blush, this expression can almost seem like a brain teaser. How can things that are merely hoped for have a substance, a materiality? How can there be evidence or proof of that which isn’t seen?
These are natural enough questions for you and me, who come from a rationally oriented culture. “Seeing is believing” is a simple phrase that captures the essence of our secular world. As college students, you find in your secular coursework that great emphasis is placed on the power of logic, building from a known premise to a reasoned conclusion. The premise is usually something discernible by one of our five senses—taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight—and the premise established. Then deductive reason takes over and leads to a measured conclusion. And so it is that we decide things, and reach conclusions in our secular, rational world.
This may be fine enough in a secular setting, but it has serious limitations when we seek to apply that methodology to the transcendental things of the Spirit. As Paul also said, “The natural man receiveth not the things of… God: for they are foolishness unto him:… because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
It is these secular, or natural man limitations that we run smack into when first we seek to exercise our faith. Hamstrung with the ingrained notion that seeing is believing, we struggle to find confidence in that we cannot see or cannot be experienced by our normal physical powers. It can be difficult for us to accept the notion that in matters of the Spirit, it is not “seeing is believing” but “believing is seeing.” That is the essence of spiritual discernment.
The words of the distraught father to the Master, when he implored Him to cast an evil spirit out of his child, resonate with all of us. In response to the Savior’s admonition to believe, the father replied, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
Help thou mine unbelief. Recognizing this common phenomenon and being a brilliant man possessed with enormous deductive powers himself, Paul beckons us to reach beyond this touchy-feely “seeing is believing” world to a higher plane. And he does that with phrasing that, again, I’ve referenced as the title of my talk—phrasing that’s intended to bridge the divide between our secular, rational way of looking at things and the Lord’s way of dealing with us through matters of the Spirit. And faith, he says, is “the substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things not seen.”
It is in the believing, the hoping, that the first real seeing is done. All well and good, you say, but how do I know what to believe in? How do I know that what I’m hoping for is right? It is at this point that Alma rides to the rescue. For it is Alma that best describes the dynamic process that, when followed, cultivates an increasing closeness with the Lord that is the essence of faith.
Now, every returned missionary here in this audience has taught Alma 32. You remember the circumstance: Alma and Amulek were teaching among the Zoramites. The Zoramites were an apostate people. They were a materialistic people, and their worship had deteriorated to an empty ritual. Initial efforts by these missionaries to have an impact amongst the Zoramites failed. But then they were approached by some that we are told were the poorer class of people, and as Alma was teaching one group, this other group came. They had a question for Alma; they wanted to know where they could worship. Their idea was that, in order to worship God, they needed a place; they needed a sanctuary of their own. And we’re told that when Alma saw them, he beheld them with great joy, because he realized that they were in a state of mind and heart where they could be taught effectively.
And what follows, then, in Alma 32 to 34 is one of the great dissertations ever preached—a tag-team dissertation, by the way, between Alma and Amulek, on what and how to worship, because it is, as we know, how to worship that we learn how to gain and strengthen our faith.
Alma begins by telling the people that they were humble. He says that’s good. He says you’re compelled to be humble by your circumstances. He says that’s good; he says it’s better if you’re not compelled to be humble, but humble is good however it comes, because that’s the seedbed for faith. A person who is humble has an awareness of his appropriate stature with the Lord—also, a person who is willing to recognize within himself the need for change, the need for what we call repentance. And as a person is thus humbled, he is then prepared to embark on this great adventure of developing this interactive process of faith.
Now Alma continues to say that faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things. Rather, he says, faith is experimenting on the word. And you know the dynamic principle that he then explains in Alma 32, where you take a principle, you live in accordance with its principles, and over time as you do so, you realize in your life the promised blessings that are associated with it. And as you do that, that becomes an awareness.
On the first Sunday of the month, and at other times, we stand and bear testimony. What are we bearing testimony of when we stand up? We are basically testifying to those things that we have come to know through the Spirit, things that have not come to us necessarily—in fact, not usually—through these five basic physical senses that we have, but through spiritual senses—things we have experienced in our lives, which may or may not be tangible things. And that is all this process of experimentation. This is a process, the dynamic process of faith, of developing faith.
Now Alma’s choice of wording is very significant, I think. He says to “experiment upon” the word. What does he mean by that phrase, “the word”? Well, I would suggest to you, brothers and sisters, that there are really two levels of meaning. One is, with respect to “the word” with a lower-case w, just has reference to the teachings and principles of the gospel. As we hear these things, as we read about them, as we then try to incorporate them into our lives, we are experimenting upon those teachings and principles. We are experimenting upon the word.
But there is a deeper, more profound meaning in the use of that phrase, “the word.” And I’m speaking of “the Word” with a capital W. Remember that the Apostle John, in the gospel of John, referred to the Lord by that phrase, “the Word.” So in a very real sense, when we experiment upon the word—the teachings—we are also putting to the test, experimenting if you will, the Word—upon the Lord Himself. Because as in this process we come to understand and experience for ourselves the reality of the truth of these principles, we also come to realize the reality and the truth of God, of the Lord Himself. And thus, with each subsequent experiment—just like a man or a woman ascending a mountain one fingerhold and one toehold at a time—we proceed from a footing or fingerhold of that which we know by reaching still further. And that’s the process of really ascending the “mountain of the Lord,” if you will, and coming to develop a faith and a confidence in Him.
I love this phrase in the 123rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants; I commend it to you: “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power.” Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power, “and then…stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” Incidentally, that’s the 17th verse in section 123, if you’re taking notes about this.
And thus we climb, hand over hand, one toehold at a time. And in the process of so doing, we come to experience what Paul meant when he used that phrase, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But we learn it not through our physical senses so much, those five physical senses, but through a sixth sense—a spiritual sense which is within us as well. And the process of developing our faith and developing a greater confidence in the Lord is simply a process of learning to rely more and more upon that sixth spiritual sense, which exists in harmony with the other five.
I turn now to some personal experiences in this applied laboratory of faith we call mortality. I received one very powerful lesson in this principle of developing faith and learning to rely on the Lord when I was about your age, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley.
It was the Sunday before I started my sophomore year. I had already had one year at the university. It was the Sunday before I started my sophomore year. I attended our ward—we met in the institute building just off the campus, we held our sacrament and other meetings there. And there I met a wonderful, beautiful Latter-day Saint girl. She was a year younger than I, and I met her in the entryway to the institute building following sacrament meeting. I remember the encounter vividly. I can remember what she was wearing, what her hair looked like. She can’t remember it at all. But the next day, I met her again, in a most unusual coincidence.
I had enrolled in a large survey course in physical anthropology, one of those undergraduate courses in a large university like Cal or BYU or the U, which have several hundred students. And I used to like to sit toward the back of the room in these classes, but this day as I came in a little bit late, the classroom was filled, and I kept moving closer and closer to the front until I found one seat in the second row, and it was next to her. That came to be the best class I ever took—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00. That’s when it met. And when I say it was the best class I ever took, it had nothing to do with the subject matter of the course. It had everything to do with the girl I sat next to. And we dated and we had a wonderful time.
But then it became time for me to answer the call to serve as a full-time missionary, that I would serve as a full-time missionary. But as it grew closer to the time that I was going to go, the other young men in our university ward made no secret of the fact that they were absolutely delighted that I was going to be leaving for a couple of years. And in my relatively tender years, I confess that I didn’t have a lot of sense, but I had enough to know that it wouldn’t be appropriate, and it would certainly be counterproductive to ask her to put her social life in the deep freeze for two years while I went away. But nonetheless and therefore, it became rich fodder for very fervent conversations with the Lord over the matter.
Finally the day of departure came. We bade goodbye and I left. Now, in those days—ancient times, you know, Parley Pratt was our mission president—in those days, there was no MTC. Instead, all departing missionaries went to the mission home up on north Main Street here in Salt Lake City, for eight days of orientation before we departed into the field. I’ll never forget the first morning that I was there. The wife of the mission home president arose. Her name was Sister Richards. And she said, “Now you missionaries”—this is an exact quote, by the way. This was a long time ago. This was fifty years ago, so this will give you an idea of what a striking impression this made. She said, “Now you missionaries, let me reason with you. Do you really think that if you go out and serve the Lord with all of your heart for the next two years, that He will let you down in the most important decision you’ll ever make in your life?”
At that moment, my awareness of everyone and everything faded. There was me and there was Sister Richards, and there was the power of her words. I thought to myself, and the power of the Spirit bore profound witness to me of the truthfulness. I thought, “Of course. If I go out and do the best I can as a missionary, the Lord won’t let me down.” I understood even then that she wasn’t promising me that any particular girl was going to be waiting, only that when the time came for that phase of life, the Lord wouldn’t let me down.
I can honestly tell you that I didn’t worry about it again. I went out, I wrote her a letter each week. She wrote a letter. She went about having a rich experience with classes, with social life, held prominent offices on campus. When she graduated from the university as I was nearing the end of my mission, she was selected as the outstanding senior woman in the graduating class at the University of California. And, as has already been announced by President Richards, immediately upon my return we were engaged, and married a few months later. Dear, will you stand up please? Please. She’s saying no. I’m in real trouble after this. Thank you, dear. For going on 48 years now, she has been my bride.
I’d like to tell you that there were never any speed bumps in the road in my own journey to develop faith, but I must confess that on occasion I have forgotten things that I already knew. Some years later, as I was practicing law in Los Angeles, I was kneeling in prayer one morning as was my custom, as it is yours, when I had a very profound, strong feeling that I would be asked by our law firm to move to San Diego with my family to help open a new office for our law firm in San Diego. It was a very powerful feeling. Notwithstanding that feeling, then what happened after that over the period of weeks, I began to see-saw back and forth in my mind as to whether this was a good thing to do or not. And I think it was a miserable experience for me, I know for Pat, but eventually I am pleased to say that at long last, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen that I felt in that prayer reasserted themselves, and we accepted the invitation and went.
It proved to be a great experience. There were many wonderful things that happened for our family because of that. In due course, opportunities for significant service in the Church were extended, and we were living in San Diego when we received the call to serve as a general authority. So I tell you that experience so that, if you’ve ever had an experience like that in your own journey of faith, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. Most of us have those from some time or another. But that doesn’t mean the basic principles aren’t true. And usually when those things happen, it’s because you or I have departed from them.
Now in the King James version of the Bible, the Latter-day Saint version, there’s a footnote to Hebrews 11:1. That’s the verse where Paul says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The footnote says, instead of “substance” it uses the word “assurance.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.
I think that’s a really valuable word for you and me, because from my experience, and certainly for most Latter-day Saints, our experience of experimenting upon the word is seldom with a principle of the gospel. I think I would dare say that most here already have a conviction about the law of tithing and the Word of Wisdom and so forth. Most often what we are seeking is assurance. Most often what we want is some certainty about a future that seems so very uncertain. And those are the kinds of things that we take to the Lord. And yet, it is in those things that the wisdom of Alma’s counsel about experimenting upon the word and about Paul’s use of that phrase, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” can be most significant.
Time is short, and I’m going to close with one more personal experience which has driven home to me the importance of this principle of understanding that this matter of “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” that the Lord is there, He is watching over us, He is responsive to our prayers, He hears our prayers, and that He will help us in our hour of need.
President Richards mentioned that I served in Vietnam. I did. I served there twice. On my first tour of duty, I was an infantry platoon leader. It’s difficult to describe the experience of being a combat soldier. We were supposedly in Vietnam on a one-year tour of duty, but it might just as well have been for an eternity, because that’s the way it seemed. You quickly realized you couldn’t think in terms of days or weeks or months, much less a year. You learned to think about today. It was a very existential experience. You learned to be grateful for each morning and each evening. That’s just the way it is; it is the nature of it. And there’s an anxiety that’s always with you as a combat soldier. Every bend in the jungle trail, every stand of bamboo, every mortar barrage—everything that happened, it’s just there all the time. And when you see others die and be terribly wounded, it only reinforces those feelings. It’s just part of that experience.
Our battalion had been out in the jungle for many weeks, and we returned to our base camp for some rest and relaxation. We had taken the first showers we’d had in weeks, and we were sitting around on our bunks, cleaning our weapons. It was a Saturday night, and we were listening to music on the Armed Forces Radio Network, when suddenly there came over our battalion radio an urgent message. It was from another battalion that was still out in the jungle, and it was being overrun by a large enemy force. We were needed to go right then to the rescue.
That feeling of anxiety that I described to you, in my case just seemed to blossom into a dark sense of foreboding. I just had a bad feeling about this. But there was no opportunity to go pray about it, much less to fast about it. All there was time to do was to grab helmet and rifle and move out. But as I did so, I uttered a silent prayer in my heart. And as I uttered the words of that prayer, there came to my mind literally a still, small voice, just as clear as can be. And the voice recited a passage of scripture—you will be familiar with it. It’s out of the book of Proverbs, the 3rd chapter: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (v. 5-6)
With that, there came a feeling of peace that just settled over me. That anxiety dissipated. We were gone for another several weeks. It was a dangerous operation. Finally it was the last day that we were to be out on this operation. I was riding an armored personnel carrier, and we were moving through a lightly forested area of jungle, which was the only kind of terrain you could use those vehicles in. And we rolled over an enormous enemy landmine. It was command detonated by enemy soldiers who were nearby. The force of the explosion was so great that it blew the engine out of the vehicle. It blew the tracks and all the road wheels off the vehicle. Everyone inside was wounded, including me, but no one died. And no sooner did that mine explode than there again came to my mind that same voice, that same passage of scripture: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
My dear brothers and sisters, I testify to you that the Lord is nearby. I realize that that’s a rather dramatic experience. In fact, I tell it for that reason, because it’s an illustration that the Lord is nearby. He is there whether our problems are great or not so great. I commend to you the wonderful counsel we got in that inspired message from Elder Bednar just last Sunday in his conference message, as he talked about revelation and the way it comes. But I use it because…I use it as evidence of the fact that the Lord is nearby; He is mindful of each one of us. I testify to you, my dear brethren and sisters, that if you and I strive to exercise our faith, to realize that it is a process, it’s not a destination, it’s a process. It’s a developing of a closer, more intimate relationship with the Lord, that He will be there, that you will feel Him more closely in your life. And that as you go along, that you will be more sensitive to His promptings, and He will lead you along.
And you will truly find, then, what Paul meant when he said that “faith is the substance—or assurance—or things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” May He bless you. May He be with you, in your academic career and in your careers beyond. Those things that are so much chambered away in the intimate chambers of your heart, may those prayers be answered. May you feel that reassurance, know that He is near you, is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.