Faith begins with a question. We hope. We want to believe. But we are not sure. As Alma states, faith is not knowledge (Alma 32:26). It is a desire to believe. So, we make room in our hearts for the seed, and in so doing we trust that if it is indeed a “good seed,” it will sprout and grow and our hearts and minds will expand with “light.”
Because faith is always about what we don’t know yet, we can never be sure what we will learn next. As the seed matures, we cannot always know how the branches will bend or where the roots will twist. We learn line upon line, and every question answered leads to a greater question, just as the Restoration itself began when a simple young man asked a simple, earnest question.
Questions are the basis of healthy faith. The disciples were—and are—full of them. Questions can build faith and lead to enlightenment, but they can also lead to spiritual decline. It depends on how strong our roots are, how resilient our spiritual immune system is. A healthy spirit, like a healthy body, encounters any number of threatening intrusions from the outside world. Questions that unsettle our faith can be disruptive if our spiritual immune system is weak.
For example, early convert Ezra Booth left the Church in part because he found Joseph’s “proneness to jesting and joking” incompatible with prophetic behavior. His colleague Simonds Ryder left because Joseph’s misspelling of Ryder’s name seemed inconsistent with prophetic inspiration. Sometimes the charges are more serious, but the problem of expectations is the same. President Uchtdorf recently lamented those who begin to doubt when they learn that modern prophets have “said things inconsistent with our values.”
In this article, I have identified four pathogens that can attack our spiritual immune system by distorting faithful questions. Instead of creating light and growth, they can send us in the other direction. If left unchecked, such questions can lead to frustration, misdirection, and spiritual decline.
Pathogen #1: The Nature of God
Joseph Smith once said that “in order to exercise faith unto salvation,” we needed to know that God exists and know His correct character and attributes. The Prophet Joseph revealed that many plain and precious things had been removed from the Bible. The Old Testament, for example, has had many plain and precious doctrines replaced by things that are harmful to spiritual growth. The Old Testament frequently displays a God who is judgmental, wrathful, and condemning. If that is the only way we think of God, how can we seek Him earnestly?
The aptly named Pearl of Great Price describes an important conversation between God the Father and Enoch. As they are gazing upon the world, Enoch notices that God the Father is weeping tears of grief. This is a shocking revelation for Enoch, and so he asks God not once but three times: “How is it thou canst weep?” The Father answers Enoch’s inquiry with an even more stunning question: “Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”
Sigmund Freud wrote that “we are never more defenseless against suffering as when we love.” Our God chose to love us. He chose to set His heart upon us and in so doing made Himself vulnerable to suffering. But in that love resides God’s power to rescue and to heal. Our Father in Heaven’s vulnerability is His power to save the entire human family.
For more from Fiona Givens on faith, doubt, and how Mormonism makes sense of life, check out The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith and The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life at deseretbook.com.
Pathogens #2 and 3: The Fall and the Nature of Sin
In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam is told that since he has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” If we understand that the ground is cursed for Adam’s sake, then we can see how labor and sorrow could teach us to “prize the good”—the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
In order to prize the good, however, it is necessary to taste the bitter. Eve knew that in order to value peace and joy, it is necessary to experience sin and pain. Sin, like the Fall itself, is not an unexpected catastrophe but rather a necessary part of the plan of happiness.
If children are born “whole” and Christ’s Atonement has cleansed us all from Adam’s “transgression in the Garden of Eden” and of “original guilt,” we then understand that “sin,” in this instance, is not some malevolent force but is the spiritual equivalent of the thorns and briars spoken of in the Garden of Eden. Satan is nowhere mentioned in connection with “sin” in these two verses, which leads us to understand that “sin” in this context describes our genetic, chemical, and hormonal predispositions, which we inherit from our parents and forebears upon entrance into this mortal sphere. It is comforting to realize that we all share, as Paul lamented, those “thorns in the flesh” with which we struggle throughout our lives. No one is exempt. Added to our basic makeup are all the heartaches we experience throughout life. No wonder that God, in His infinite mercy, ensured that this terrestrial life would be of short duration.
Instead of evidence of our failure, sin and the struggle to overcome tendencies toward impatience, unkindness, rage,
and frustration make up our spiritual education. It is why we have come to Earth, and in this we follow Christ who “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” We can find comfort in the life of the Savior.
When we understand that we are incapable of overcoming “the natural man” on our own, then we stand all amazed that God wants to be intimately connected with each of us. As the Father states: “This is my work and my glory”—to help us cut through the thorny tangles of our minds and hearts, enabling each of us to return home to Him.
Pathogen #4: The Nature of Leadership
The modern world has very definite assumptions about leadership, and foremost of those is the assumption that the best lead. The best violinist plays first chair, the best players start each game, and the CEO is the smartest man in the room. The world rewards merit; the Church, however, does not. This is a lesson that Heavenly Father has taught many, many times. In the Old Testament, Gideon prepares to lead an army to free Israel, but the Lord commands him to reduce the number of troops to 22,000, then to 10,000, and finally to just 300. With such a tiny force, surely the people would understand that it was the Lord who had saved them and not their own cleverness or might. Alas, the men of Israel failed to see God behind the miraculous victory and said unto Gideon, “Rule thou over us.”
The Savior reiterated this message in our dispensation, choosing the boy Joseph not because of his spiritual brilliance or any other strength, but to show what He could do through “the weak things of the earth.” Modern scriptures include numerous chastisements from the Lord to Joseph in order to illustrate that His prophet was just a man, fallible as any other.
This flawed assumption continues today. Many of us believe that leadership callings in the Church are the Lord’s version of merit badges. This causes some to strive in vain for callings that will ease a nagging sense of doubt, and it causes others to be far less forgiving with their leaders than they would be with themselves. This dangerous assumption creates resentment and bitterness where there should be unity, patience, and support for the weak among us who are called to serve--not lead. We have only one leader, and that is Christ, the Lord, who spent His entire life in service, not leadership.