The world has its counterfeits for faith. One way to decide what faith is, and why it is becoming so scarce in our world, is to first explore what it is not.
1. Faith is not gullibility or falling for anything.
Faithless people are sometimes quite critical of those who possess what they do not. They assume that people who live their lives by faith are naïve, easily swayed, and simple-minded. That is not faith. A faithful person is a thinking being, one who can judge, assess, and reason, one who can distinguish clearly between good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong. A faithful person does not fall prey to either the foolish or the perverse. Faith can be exercised only in that which is true.
President N. Eldon Tanner explained that faith “will avail us nothing unless it is based on true principles. This is illustrated in a story about the meeting of the Indians with the Europeans when they first began their explorations in the New World. The Indians were amazed at the power and explosive qualities of gunpowder and asked many questions about how it was produced. Taking advantage of the ignorance of [these people] and seeing an opportunity to increase their wealth through deception, the Europeans told them it came from the seed of a plant. The Indians believed them and purchased some seed in exchange for gold. They carefully planted the seed and watched it grow, but of course they did not get any gunpowder. No matter how sincere one’s belief may be in an error, it will not change the error into truth.”
2. Faith is neither weakness nor ignorance.
True faith is anything but weak. The early Brethren of this dispensation were, in fact, taught that faith is a principle of power, the same power by which God created the worlds. Further, “the principle of power which existed in the bosom of
God, by which the worlds were framed, was faith; and . . . it is by reason of this principle of power existing in the Deity, that all created things exist” (Lectures on Faith 1:15–16). Nor is faith the opposite of knowledge. A certain level of knowledge and understanding is needed before an individual can exercise faith. The School of the Elders learned, for example, that in order to exercise faith in God unto life and salvation, a person must (1) believe there is a God; (2) have a correct understanding of the character, perfections, and attributes of that divine Being; and (3) possess an actual knowledge that the course in life that he or she is pursuing is according to the will of God.
“Faith is the child of knowledge,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote. “It is reserved for those only who first have knowledge; there neither is nor can be any faith until there is knowledge. No one can have faith in a God of whom he knows nothing. Faith is founded on truth; it is the offspring of truth; it can never exist alone and apart from the truth.”
3. Faith is not blind.
In fact, those with faith are frequently able to see and discern things that a faithless person could never perceive. That is why some say believing is seeing, not the reverse. Nor are Latter-day Saints, who are presided over by prophets, seers, and revelators, expected to follow their leaders like blind sheep. President Harold B. Lee said, paraphrasing Brigham Young: “The greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.” One of the great strengths of the Church is that there are millions of people throughout the world who exercise bold, intelligent obedience.
Adam and Eve were commanded to “offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord.” The Mosaic account indicates that “after many days” an angel appeared to our first father and inquired as to why he was making an animal sacrifice. His answer was beautiful: “I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:5–6). Was Adam obeying blindly? Not at all. Adam and Eve had already had a great deal of experience with the Almighty. “God conversed with him face to face. In His presence he was permitted to stand, and from His own mouth he was permitted to receive instruction. He heard His voice, walked before Him and gazed upon His glory, while intelligence burst upon his understanding, and enabled him to give names to the vast assemblage of his Maker’s works” (Lectures on Faith 2:18). No blind obedience there.
4. Faith is not positive thinking, nor does it consist in willing something into existence.
Obviously it is a good thing to be positive, to be upward-looking, to be optimistic about now and the future. But faith is not positive thinking. Nor can one with a positive attitude will things into being.
Imagine a full-time missionary, a zone leader, serving, let’s say, in France, who turns to the missionaries under his charge and says, “Come on, elders and sisters, if we just had the faith we could baptize this whole country!” The Gospel of Mark records that while in His hometown, Nazareth, the people heard the Savior’s preaching and asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in His own house.” Now note this astounding verse: “And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them” (Mark 6:3–5; emphasis added). Now imagine that we heard someone standing 50 feet away from Jesus say, “Come on, Lord, just exercise your faith!” No, that would never be appropriate, not just because He is the Son of the living God, the second member of the Godhead. Jesus could not and did not reward faithlessness with a display of signs and wonders because “faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe” (D&C 63:9).
The Book of Mormon records that approximately 350 years after the birth of Christ, Mormon sought earnestly to lead his wayward people back to faith. He had been appointed the leader of the Nephite armies and at about this time won a battle against the Lamanites. Mormon explained that “the Nephites began to repent of their iniquity, and began to cry even as had been prophesied by Samuel the prophet; for behold no man could keep that which was his own [see Helaman 13:37]. . . . Thus there began to be a mourning and a lamentation in all the land because of these things, and more especially among the people of Nephi.”
Mormon was thrilled, hoping against hope that something, anything, could bring about a conversion among his people. “But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin. And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die” (Mormon 2:10–14). Now picture some positive-minded, goal-driven, 21st-century person on the sidelines sounding off: “Mormon, Mormon. Come on, you’ve got to put your heart in it. Let’s exercise some faith!”
In all three of these scenarios are factors over which the missionary, the Master Himself, and the prophet-editor Mormon had no control. One of these factors—and a deeply significant one at that—is the moral agency of the people, their right to choose what they will do with their lives. Being positive and upbeat is great, indeed so much better than being deflated or living like Eeyore the donkey. But it is not faith.
5. Faith is not absolute certainty as a result of tangible, observable evidence.
Alma remarked in his marvelous discourse on faith: “Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it” (Alma 32:17–18). These verses are crucial to our understanding what it means to have faith in these latter days, a taxing time of spreading unbelief. Far too many people today—and some of these people are Latter-day Saints—want tangible, empirical, scientifically verifiable evidence for the truthfulness of the restored gospel. If we could demonstrate through DNA research that the Nephites and Lamanites were actual, pre- Columbian people and that the Lehite colony did in fact come from Jerusalem, then this critic will believe. If in the near future adequate and substantial archaeological evidences for the Book of Mormon peoples could be found, then the naysayer would be persuaded of the historicity of this testament of Jesus Christ. If we could just prove convincingly that the 11 Egyptian papyri fragments held by the Church have something to do with Abraham the prophet, then that doubter will accept the book of Abraham as ancient holy scripture.
In using Thomas the apostle as an illustration, President Howard W. Hunter explained that “in a sense, Thomas represents the spirit of our age. He would not be satisfied with anything he could not see [John 20:19–29], even though he had been with the Master and knew His teachings concerning faith and doubt. . . . Faith does not take precedence over doubt when one must feel or see in order to believe.
“Thomas . . . wanted knowledge, not faith. Knowledge is related to the past because our experiences of the past are those things which give us knowledge, but faith is related to the future—to the unknown where we have not yet walked.” President Hunter wisely observed: “Thomas had said, ‘To see is to believe,’ but Christ answered, ‘To believe is to see.’”
If we were to take Thomas’s approach, we might well demand physical proof or a rational explanation for what Jesus did when He healed the lepers, the paralyzed, the woman with the issue of blood, blind Bartimaeus; when He multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed five thousand men; when He calmed the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee; when He raised from the dead the daughter of the Roman centurion, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Can we provide scientific evidence for such miracles? No, we cannot. Then how do we know that they actually took place?
Professor Hugh W. Nibley was a beloved 20th-century Latter-day Saint apologist, a defender of the faith. As many Saints know, he was a man of extraordinary intellect, but, perhaps more important, he was a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and a man of deep and abiding faith in the restored gospel. “The words of the prophets,” he testified well over a half century ago, “cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity.”
Faith is NOT many things. We must be grounded and settled spiritually to exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the power of redemption that comes only through the sufferings and death of Christ, faith in the Father’s perfect plan of salvation, faith in the restored Church of Jesus Christ and its apostolic leadership. This is vital, for it is only a solid faith, an enduring and fruitful faith that will empower us to “withstand the evil day” and to “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (D&C 27:15, 17). It is only through acting on a faith built on truth—“things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24)—that deep conversion takes place. Then we are able to face opposition calmly, encounter enemies kindly but boldly, and make our way through the mists of darkness to the tree of life.
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Get more fascinating insights in Whatever Happened to Faith?
Exercising faith isn't always easy to do. In a world where religion is being pushed to the margins of society, we find loyalty to scriptural teachings, adherence to time-honored values, and belief in absolute truths in short supply.
When respected religious educator and author Robert L. Millet talks with those who are troubled by newly public historical information, anti-Mormon propaganda, the Church's position on marriage, family, and gender issues, or other concerns, he's empathetic and wants to help. He pleads, "When did we lose our believing hearts and confidence in the Lord's servants? Whatever happened to faith?"
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