Faith - Dealing with Uncertainty in a Rational, Positive Way
Early in the year 1831, Lucy Mack Smith--the mother of Joseph Smith, Jr.--led a group of early Latter-day Saints from Waterloo, New York to Kirtland, Ohio. They travelled along the Erie Canal in very cold conditions until they reached Buffalo, where the way forward was blocked by ice. Another group of Saints, the Colesville Branch, was also stuck in Buffalo. The leaders from Colesville told Lucy that they had better keep their religion a secret, or no one would give them shelter, nor passage on a boat. Lucy answered, “I shall tell people precisely who I am, and if you are ashamed of Christ, you must not expect to be prospered; and I shall wonder if we do not get to Kirtland before you!”
Lucy did, indeed, find a boat for the Saints from Waterloo, but the way was still blocked by ice. The uncertainty of this pause in their journey was too much for some of these members, and they began to complain. In the tone of Nephi rebuking his brothers, Lucy felt impressed to prophecy, “You profess to put your trust in God, then how can you feel to murmur and complain as you do! You are even more unreasonable than the children of Israel were; for here are my sisters pining for their rocking chairs, and brethren from whom I expected firmness and energy, declare that they positively believe they shall starve to death before they get to the end of their journey. And why is it so? Have any of you lacked? Have not I set food before you every day, and made you… as welcome as my own children? Where is your faith? Where is your confidence in God? … Now brethren and sisters, if you will all of you raise your desires to heaven, that the ice may be broken up, and we be set at liberty, as sure as the Lord lives, it will be done” (as cited in Payne, 1972).
The Waterloo Saints exercised their faith wholeheartedly. Within moments, the ice parted just enough for their boat to get through, and then closed up again behind them, leaving the Colesville Branch and other waiting boats behind. The people watching from Buffalo were rather alarmed to see the Mormons’ boat disappearing into the ice, and when the Saints arrived at their next port, they got to read all about their own “deaths” in the newspaper (as cited in Payne, 1972).
We may or may not have faith to see these kinds of miracles. Speaking of the gifts of healing, the Lord said, “They who have not faith to do these things, but believe in me, have power to become my sons [and daughters]” (D&C 42:52). In other words, the most important kind of faith to develop is the kind that changes our hearts, not the kind that parts ice and moves mountains. However, all of us need to obtain greater faith than we possess today.
To do this, I would like to follow President Monson’s counsel: “When performance is measured, performance improves” (as cited in Preach My Gospel, 2004, p. 150). The purpose of my talk is to explain plainly what faith is, providing tools and examples to show how a disciple of Jesus Christ can measure and improve his or her faith in the Savior.
The seminary graduates in the room should be familiar with the following scripture: “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Faith is not certainty or knowledge; faith is a rational, positive way to deal with uncertainty. Alma goes on to explain that when we have felt the Spirit as we pray and live the gospel, our faith becomes knowledge, “for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:34). Because of the years I have devoted to studying the gospel, I know that God lives. “[My] knowledge is perfect in that thing, and [my] faith is dormant” (Alma 32:34). I can bear that testimony to you with complete certainty.
On the other hand, there are many gospel principles that I still take on faith. “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). I don’t know everything that God plans for my future. I don’t know why only men can hold Priesthood offices. I don’t know exactly what the Lord wants us to do about global warming or drug addiction or poverty. But I do know that he sees the end from the beginning, and that all things will work together for our good if we love God (Romans 8:28). Because I know these things, I can handle being uncertain about other things. In the Lectures on Faith, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “three things are necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, The idea that he actually exists. Secondly, A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes. Thirdly, An actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing, is according to his will” (Lectures on Faith 3:2-5).
When we are certain about something, that is knowledge; when we are uncertain but move forward as best we can, that is faith. In the words of Terryl and Fiona Givens, our religion requires “a leap not into the dark but into the still murky dawn,” based on “reasonable but not compelling evidence” (2014, loc. 2483). Our testimony is a piece of knowledge about Christ that anchors us, gives us hope, and confirms our faith, so that we can deal appropriately with the things we do not yet know.
In his talk “Seek Learning by Faith,” Elder David A. Bednar taught that faith is a cycle, a process, in which we are constantly learning and moving forward from grace to grace. He explained that this process includes action, evidence, and assurance (2007). We might hear the testimony of a prophet or missionary, believe their words, and act on it. As we act, we gain further evidence that what we are doing is from God. In other words, we believe, we act, and we learn.
If any part of this process is missing, we do not have genuine faith. For instance, if we believe and act on our beliefs without ever thinking about the spiritual or physical evidence, we have blind faith. We believe in that which is not seen (Alma 32:21), but we have no way of finding out if it is true. It is very easy to have blind faith in charismatic people who agree with us, such as the leaders of our favorite political party. Blind faith frequently keeps us from questioning the unrighteous traditions of our fathers, giving the father of all lies power over us (D&C 93:39). If we try to nurture our faith by just believing harder, then we are only developing blind faith. In contrast, genuine faith is taking a step into the darkness and expecting the light to expand and light our way--to teach us as we go. Most often, we receive revelation in this way. Elder Bednar said, “Receiving revelation is like a foggy day. There’s enough light that you can tell it’s not darkness anymore: it’s not night, but it’s not brilliantly illuminated. You can see just enough to take a few steps… and then the light continues” (2012). The difference between blind faith and genuine faith is our willingness to learn, and sometimes even to find out we were wrong.
If we collect evidence and then believe in it, but fail to act, then our faith is dead (James 2). Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the classic Biblical sermon on dead faith in James chapter 2, so I will say no more about it here.
The third way that the faith cycle can be incomplete is by acting, collecting evidence, and then refusing to believe in that evidence. This brand of infidelity involves being unfaithful to what we know to be true, or at least what deserves a reasonable amount of our confidence. We see this when people are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Sometimes, when people leave the Church, they dismiss all the spiritual witnesses they once received as figments of their imagination. Others claim that it is rational to believe nothing until we are absolutely certain, to be eternal skeptics. However, a perfectly rational approach to truth requires us to acknowledge all the evidence--spiritual, physical, and intellectual--even when that means that we don’t have all the answers yet.
Sometimes, two pieces of evidence seem to contradict each other, leaving us in a state of uncertainty as to what is true. This is precisely when we most need an attitude of faith--we need to continue learning, spurred on by our uncertainty into curiosity and investigation. By using every source of truth available to us, we can become enlightened by the light of Christ.
I would like to share three examples of how to apply our faith: faith in self, faith to be healed, and faith in others.
Faith in Self
First, if our faith in ourselves is to be of any lasting value, it must be rooted in Jesus Christ. Humility can be defined as embracing our dependence on Jesus Christ--humility is not thinking less of ourselves. In this way, faith in self is an attitude of humility--a confidence in the gifts and strengths that God has given us. “There are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (D&C 46:11). At the very least, all of us have the ability to learn, and to make choices that bring us closer to our Savior (2 Nephi 2:27). Even the addict can choose to ask for help.
While preparing this talk, I spent some time praying for the Lord to help me overcome a certain weakness, which I felt helpless to conquer. In response, I felt the distinct impression, “You need to have more faith in yourself.” I thought, “All right, Lord. I will try to believe harder in myself!”
Immediately, I saw my mistake--I was trying to boost my self-esteem with blind faith in myself. The Spirit chose to gently, lovingly point it out as well. “Michael, faith in yourself is not just believing harder in yourself. It is a rational, positive approach to uncertainty about yourself.”
Let me repeat that: Faith in yourself is a rational, positive approach to uncertainty about yourself. It is not unbridled self-confidence, but a belief that we can learn, repent, grow, and set new goals. It is anchored in our knowledge of our past successes, our strengths, and where to go for help, all of which come from our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Faith to be Healed
One of the Lord’s gifts to us is the promise of healing according to our faith and his will (D&C 42:48-52). The Lord gives healing freely throughout the New Testament, but always reminds the people that they were healed because of their faith.
Sickness creates a great deal of uncertainty in our lives. We try to plan for it by spending thousands of dollars on health insurance, disability insurance, government healthcare programs, and employer-paid sick days. We exercise and eat healthfully to try to avoid getting sick. However, it is even more important to use our sicknesses as an opportunity to exercise our faith in Jesus Christ. The more we trust his will and timing, the more freely he heals us.
Faith to be healed can never be blind faith, empty of learning and personal growth, and it will never be dead faith, requiring no action on our part. It is something we build, line upon line, precept upon precept, as we develop a relationship of trust with our Master. My first mission president and his eternal companion wrote to their missionaries, “On occasion I believe the Lord heals us in installments to see if we will be grateful for every small improvement, or instead, if we will become impatient and complain that our recovery is not speedier” (Callister & Callister, 2008).
It can be tempting to write off a lack of healing as the Lord’s will, to imagine that he has some unknown and unknowable reason for not taking away your pain. But unless the Lord has actually revealed to you that you are not to be healed, keep exercising your faith. Evaluate your ability to deal with the uncertainty of sickness by relying on him, and set goals to improve. Ask him what you are to learn from this experience. Ask him to heal you, in his own time and in his own way. If he chooses to heal you by degrees, thank him for every small improvement. The healing power of Jesus Christ is a spiritual gift that covers addictions and wounded souls as well as all other kinds of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual ills, and it is available to you today.
In the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, “We know not what lies ahead of us. We know not what the coming days will bring. We live in a world of uncertainty. For some, there will be great accomplishment. For others, disappointment. For some, much of rejoicing and gladness, good health, and gracious living. For others, perhaps sickness and a measure of sorrow. We do not know. But one thing we do know. Like the polar star in the heavens, regardless of what the future holds, there stands the Redeemer of the world, the Son of God, certain and sure as the anchor of our immortal lives. He is the rock of our salvation, our strength, our comfort, the very focus of our faith. In sunshine and in shadow we look to Him, and He is there to assure and smile upon us” (2002).
Faith in Others
My wife Nikki and I have been married for almost six years. In that time, she’s been upset with me once or twice. We came from different cultures, and we have had to learn each other’s expectations for how we should think and act. I’ve learned that even if my wife seems to be overreacting, or even if the disagreement is over something that seems small, like how to clean the house or what time to put our children to bed, there is always a kernel of wisdom in her words. No matter how good an argument I can think up against her, and even if she’s wrong about some things, I have learned that she is always worth listening to carefully. When I listen to my wife, the Lord speaks to me through her. I have developed faith in the portion of God’s Spirit that lives inside her. I sincerely listen, ponder, and pray about the advice my wife gives me, and the Lord answers with knowledge and assurance, which I can then act on with confidence.
In one of these disagreements, my wife and I had a fundamental conflict between what we thought was right and wrong, and I wasn’t listening very well. There were some things in my heart that weren’t right, which my wife could see, but that I was blind to. Finally, she wisely suggested that we go to our bishop for advice. The Spirit testified to me that if I went, I would learn something, so to the bishop’s office we went.
We talked it over, and our soft-hearted bishop began trying to give us relationship advice. He talked about communication and trying to see each other’s perspective. He talked about how it’s normal to have disagreements, and how he didn’t have an easy answer to our question. I thought, “Heavenly Father, you brought me here to learn something. Please, inspire him to say what I need to hear.”
A few minutes later, our bishop was in the middle of a long, rambling tangent, in which he told my wife that “sometimes men are just stupid and you have to be patient with us,” when suddenly he looked at me and said, “You will have to do something that feels unfair to you, in order to make it feel fair to your wife.” The Spirit washed over me. I felt a burning testimony in my heart that this was the mind and will of the Lord. My dear bishop seemed unaware that anything had happened. He had already turned back to my wife and was continuing to explain just how idiotic men can sometimes be. But I knew for myself what I had to do. I followed the prompting, making a sacrifice that felt unfair to me. Today, I am still reaping the blessings of that sacrifice, both in my personal life and in my relationship with my spouse. And, looking back, my bishop was right. I was being stupid. I have grown as a person, and now the Lord has shown me what my wife saw all those years ago.
When we mortals argue, I believe it is often out of a desire for certainty. We want to be right, and to prove that we are right. This attitude leads to contention. In contrast, faith is an approach to uncertainty that allows us to make ourselves emotionally vulnerable in healthy, intimate relationships. Terryl and Fiona Givens wrote, “Of course, to believe is to risk error. To trust in a man, or a cause, or a God, is to risk disappointment. To act in faith is to risk failure, betrayal, even humiliation… The question is, do we love what is true, what is good, what is beautiful more than we fear the possible error our embrace of those things risks? No human relationship can carry any guarantees of success, but the vulnerability to which we expose ourselves in love is to a large degree the measure of that love” (2014, loc. 2527).
When Elder Lawrence of the Seventy visited LDS Business College last week, President Richards challenged us to prepare ourselves in such a way that we could pull from Elder Lawrence things that we needed to hear. Likewise, the Lord told Emma Smith that even the Prophet gets revelation “according the [the church’s] faith” (D&C 25:9). Preparation is an act of faith, and there is no act of faith too small to escape the Lord’s notice. Next time you meet with a church leader, sit in a Family Home Evening lesson, or receive a Priesthood blessing, I challenge you to prepare in a way that will call down the powers of heaven through the speaker--whether it be by dressing up, praying, fasting, visiting the Temple, or just eating a good breakfast so you can focus. Many of you already do this before General Conference, or when preparing for your patriarchal blessing. Whatever the occasion, follow Nephi’s counsel to ask the Lord to consecrate your preparation to the welfare of your soul (2 Nephi 9:28-29).
Now, I’m going to bear my testimony, and I invite you to exercise your faith by having a prayer in your heart that the Spirit will testify to you that what I am saying is true. I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know for myself that he has a plan that includes healing for all of us--for our weaknesses, our sins, our pains, and death itself. He loves and watches over each of us. He is a person who deserves our faith. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Bednar, D. A. (2007, September). Seek learning by faith. Ensign. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/2007/09/seek-learning-by-faith?lang=eng
Bednar, D. A. (2012, September 4). Patterns of light: Spirit of revelation [Video file]. Mormon Channel. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slTa15a3mp0
Callister, T. & Callister, K. (2008, April). A message from President and Sister Callister: "I will plant seeds with a smile." The Harvest of the Canada Toronto East Mission.
Givens, T. and Givens, F. (2014, August 25). The crucible of doubt: Reflections on the quest for faith. Kindle edition.
Hinckley, G. B. (2002, April). We look to Christ. General Conference. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/04/we-look-to-christ?lang=engLectures on faith. (1835). Retrieved from http://lecturesonfaith.com/3.php
Payne, J. (1972, November). Lucy Mack Smith: Woman of great faith. Ensign. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/1972/11/lucy-mack-smith-woman-of-great-faith?lang=eng
Preach my Gospel. (2004). Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Introduction: Craig Nelson
Michael Davison is the director of academic and institutional assessment here on campus, and Joshua Burt is the director of learning enhancement programs here on our campus.
Let me introduce Brother Davison and Brother Burt to you. Brother Davison has been at the College just slightly less than a year, after earning his master’s degree from Western Illinois University, and we’re glad to have him here. Michael keeps us on task, and we’re grateful for his presence. We’re grateful that he could be here with his wife. They have two sons.
We’re also grateful for Joshua. Joshua has worked at the College for a little less than two years. He has had a great impact. His goal in life was to get married before he lost his hair, and he said he was successful in that endeavor. His wife Andrea is here. They have two boys and a girl. And Andrea and family are right there. Would you stand up, Andrea and kids, so we can see you.