11: The Landscape of Faith
Stories in this episode: When an undercover rescue operation takes a dangerous turn, Tim rediscovers a truth about how faith works in his life; Davi gets a prompting to do something that seems counterintuitive as she prays to receive healing in depression; A friend’s loss of faith offers Adam an opportunity to search out where to focus his own doubts and faith.
KARYN LAY: Welcome to This is the Gospel an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
When we really dig into it, the word faith can feel pretty complicated. It can mean totally different things to different people and it can even mean totally different things to us at different times in our lives. In fact, our understanding of faith is something that will absolutely shift and deepen as we draw closer to the Savior, and have new experiences. The stories in today's episode are all about those moments when our personal understanding of what it means to have faith and to live faithfully evolves and grows in our practice of discipleship. Our first story today comes from Tim Ballard. You probably know Tim from his work with Operation Underground Railroad, a group that rescues kids around the world from human trafficking. It's pretty amazing. Tim's experience in training with the CIA prepared him for extreme situations in the field. But it was actually his faith and preparation in the Gospel that saved his life on one particular operation. Here's Tim.
TIM BALLARD: So I have a really crazy job. I've worked as an undercover operator for the last 15 years. And that puts me in some crazy, crazy experiences, planning operations going undercover against wicked people who are holding children captive, having to talk your way in and not get killed on the way out. It's very intense. And of course, I'm constantly trying to figure out how faith works in all this. How do I employ my faith to keep myself safe?
It was one operation in particular that I really learned an important lesson. We were in one of the most dangerous regions in the world for trafficking. It was a place outside of the sovereignty, really of the nation, we are working in. These traffickers ran the place and they were armed. And we were undercover, we were undercover, pretending to be doctors doing a medical clinic. That was the only way we could get into this particular region to find the kids who were being trafficked. And it was an intel-gathering mission and we'd gather the intel we needed, and on our way out the traffickers who brought the kids to us to be medically cleared, they themselves were, you know, served by this medical clinic. But then when they were done, they decided, why not just kill them and take their cars and take their money and take everything they have, because there's no repercussion for us, there's no legal system that can hurt us. And so they surrounded us and they recruited, they forced the children and the men and the women who were crying, saying thank you and our earlier, force them to turn on us as well. And we had shotguns and machetes pointed at us, there's about 10 of us, and they told us, "You're up. You're going to die." And there was nothing we could do. We did have law enforcement with us but they even said I can't, if they know who I am, who we are, we'll all be killed. And so we had nothing. It was just us and them. Us with nothing, them with 400 weapons pointed at us. And I didn't know what to do. And I sent some of my former operated-- former Navy SEALs, former law enforcement folks who had some experience in this realm, to go out and try to calm the crowd as best they could. And it wasn't being successful. And so I did something that was not necessarily technically sound, but I felt I should. I went into one of our cars, I closed the door, I pulled out my tattered copy, my missionary copy of the Book of Mormon and I just held it. And I thought of every miracle story of the Book of Mormon, every Angel story because that's what we needed, we needed an angel, we needed a miracle. And I remember consciously thinking to myself, "Is this it? Am I going to leave my wife a widow? Am I going to leave my children without a father? Is this it?" And then I remembered this scripture. The Scripture is in Alma 58, verse 11 and it's the story of the sons of Helaman, and he leads them into battle. And they were, they were inexperienced, they should have died, a lot of them should have died in that first major battle, and yet none of them died. And when Helaman is recounting the story, in Alma 58, he says that "we had been given assurances by God, and that we can have faith in those assurances." And so he knew that none of them would be killed. And I remember thinking to myself, this is a true principle. I have been given assurances of the Lord, that this work is to go on. This is one of our very first operations and he had sent me-- I know he had called us to leave our jobs and start our child rescue foundation. It wasn't going to end right now, I had received those assurances and so I could put my faith in those assurances. And when I stepped out of the car, I looked up after this state of prayer and meditation and pondering this scripture, and everyone had gone.
Operators told me, we don't know what happened, they just walked away. One man standing with a gun pointed into the ground, was just looking at us. And we got in the cars and I said, "Guys, let's just go I don't know where everybody went their gone. And I said, if that guy gets in the way, just run them over. And we'll be on our way." And he didn't, he just stood there and watched us like this. And then we just drove out.
And I've thought a lot about that experience and about that scripture. And it's become even more real to me as I've pondered what that meant, to seek assurances of the Lord. I think sometimes, in my past, I was confused about what faith was, for example, someone gets sick and I just say, if I have enough faith, that person will be healed. And I just have faith in that, then it's going to happen. But I skipped that part of the assurances, you need the assurance first, pray for the assurance. Once you have that, now you have a true principle. The true principle might be he will be healed or she will be healed. Now put your faith in that.
I can pay my tithing, for example, because I've been given an assurance that the gospel is true, that this is the Church of Jesus Christ. And because I have that assurance, now I can employ my faith into it. I didn't just make it up. I think we all have great ideas sometimes, but they might be false ideas, innocent but false ideas. For example, this person will be healed, I will get this job, my kid will go on a mission if I just have faith in it. And I don't think it really works exactly that way, unless you first have the assurance, pray for the assurance. Helaman had the assurance in that momentum, in that dangerous anti-trafficking situation, I had an assurance I could put my faith into. It's about seeking first those assurances. Now what happens when you say, but I sought the assurance that my father wouldn't die of his disease. or you know, I never got it. Now, what do I do? Well, that's the good news of the gospel, that even when you don't have an assurance, you can always employ your faith. You can always put your faith in the one assurance that you have, and that is that Jesus lives, that he's real. You can always put your faith in Him, knowing that he'll take care of whatever he needs to take care of, for there to be a happy ending in all this.
But what I learned is, seek those assurances. Now I can use that principle and I do all the time. Before I do a rescue operation, I need that assurance from the Lord. And he says, "Yes, this plan is a good one." Now I have all the confidence in the world to employ my faith into that. Spend the money, call the operators, take the risk by going into that child brothel and meeting with this dangerous person, even though he's armed and I'm not. If I got the assurance, I can go and I can go forward with true faith.
KARYN LAY: That was Tim Ballard. And that was an amazing story. Our next story comes from Davi Johnson, one of the producers of this podcast. Davi's understanding of what faithful looks like changed when she received a unique prompting during a difficult time in her life. Here's Davy
DAVI JOHNSON: I hesitate to tell this story because if I had heard this story five years ago, I wouldn't have understood. But that's because I'd grown up thinking that faith had to look a certain way, that there were a set of choices that I could make, that would mean that I was a good person. So when I was going through a really tough depression my last year of college and I found myself really not being able to dedicate myself to reading scriptures, to praying, I started to worry that I wasn't a faithful person. And I mean, those feelings already exist in depression and then combined with this belief that if I'm not doing certain things, that I'm not good, that just made it worse. So then when I would open my Book of Mormon that used to be kind of a safe haven for me, I just felt I felt guilty. I would read about Nephi and think I'm not doing anything like that. And I would think about how much worse I am now than I used to be and think about, well I used to be faithful like that, but I'm not anymore. And it became a little bit too hard for me because of that mindset and because of that cyclical nature of detrimental thoughts.
So, my prayers at that time, I wasn't totally feeling like I was getting strong answers to prayer, which anyone who's experienced that, I know they understand. It's difficult to feel the spirit in times like that. But I remember praying and telling God, "I think I need to stop reading my scriptures for a little bit." And I felt some kind of an affirmation. So I decided to not read my scriptures, which seems like really not the choice, right? That didn't seem like the right choice. Everything I know about what to do in a difficult time tells me "No, try harder, put more effort into reading your scriptures." It wasn't a forever decision, I just realized I needed to take a break from reading my scriptures for a few weeks. I don't think I decided exactly, but in my head, it was like a week or two. It was kind of scary. Checking those boxes had become safety to me, but I just, I felt like it was something that I needed to do. And it wasn't-- I wasn't choosing that because I wanted to get away from God. And I wasn't choosing it out of fear. I was choosing it because I actually wanted to become closer to God.
I remember about four days after I had decided to stop reading my scriptures, I was praying and I felt like there's this conversation with God. And I kind of felt him say well, "How's it going?" I said, "Fine, actually. I'm shocked, I'm honestly shocked. But I'm totally fine. I thought that things were going to kind of fall apart but they didn't."
And I sort of felt him respond. "Do you know why?"
And I said, "Because you've got me."
And he said, "Yeah, because I've got you."
It was such a simple answer but something that helped me rework this whole understanding of my relationship with him, that I don't earn a relationship with God. It simply exists based off of the nature of Him and the nature of me. I think what he showed me there was that growing in your faith means leaving the safe territory. It doesn't always mean stop reading your scriptures, I definitely don't think that that's what it means. But I think it does mean having to step out of a box and not feel safe.
I'm so grateful to be able to read scriptures because they remind me of my worth and they don't give me worth. And I'm grateful too, that faith looks different than I thought it did. I think where faith is found is in the choices that you aren't sure about. And where to everyone else that might look like you're doing something wrong, but in your gut and in your heart, you know that you're doing the right thing.
KARYN LAY: That was Davi Johnson. And don't worry, Davi faithfully reads her scriptures just like the rest of us. And we're so glad that she is part of the "This is the Gospel" team. Our final story in this episode comes from author and philosophy professor, Adam Miller whose story of finding faith in the midst of his doubt, definitely struck a personal chord with me. Here's Adam.
ADAM MILLER: I would define faith, especially in terms of fidelity. I think faith has less to do with my ability to assent to a series of propositions, I believe this or I believe this or I believe that, there's less to do with that. I think, then being faithful, like faithful in this sense of relationship, like you'll be faithful to your wife or a faithful to your community. That practice of extending trust to other people to God and accepting their trust in return.
You know, as I thought about particular experiences, I thought about a moment 10 or 15 years ago, I was at a conference and I had lunch with a friend, who was also a scholar who specialized in philosophy of religion. And we had a long talk at lunch about how he intended to leave the church and that he just didn't believe it anymore and what all of his problems and concerns were. And that conversation left me, that day, with a kind of hole inside. Not just because it felt like I was losing him, in a certain sense, because I was, but also because it was obvious to me that I was already deeply familiar with all of the problems and concerns that he had. And I had them too, right? I shared them. I shared those problems and questions and concerns.
So I spent, I mean, I spent a lot of time that night, on my knees in my hotel room in the dark, kind of wrestling with what, if anything was different for me than it was for him. And eventually, I reached that point in my ongoing prayer, as you do I think in any really successful prayer, where you give up or you surrender, you turn it over to God.
I reached the kind of moment where I acknowledged to God that I couldn't be responsible for many of the things that I was trying to be responsible for. I thought if God wanted to exist, that's his business. I can't make him exist or not. And then if God wanted the Book of Mormon to be historical, that's his business. I can't make it be historical or not. And that moment of surrender came for me with an immense feeling of relief, right, that these were not the kinds of things that were my responsibility, and that what it would mean to trust God, would be to trust him with his own existence.
To trust him with the Book of Mormon's historicity. For example, I mean, if he wants to exist, he's gonna have to do it and what on my end, is required is instead something much more modest, something much more local, something much more practical. And what would be required on my end, would not be to guarantee that all of those things were true. But then what would be required on my end would be to keep the promises that I've made, regardless. To show up on Sunday, to have Family Home Evening, to go to the temple, to be faithful to my wife, that's my responsibility. That's what I promised and my intention is to keep that promise. And if the other half of the promise is kept, that's not my business, it's not up to me. God will have to make good on the rest.
To someone who is in that space between believing and doubting, I would say, maybe get used to it. It seems like a place where you live rather than a place where you visit for a lot of people a lot of the time. I think doubt is just an ordinary thing. I think it's just a normal part of being a human being, the way but breathing is part of being a human being or getting hungry is part of being a human being. Doubt is your heart and mind saying that you're hungry for more, that you're hungry for more information, that you're hungry for a better understanding, is life's way of signaling that you need something. And rather than avoiding that signal, or pretending you don't have it, or being ashamed of it, it's best to respond to it and take stock of it and see what it is. Doubt can go wrong, it can go bad, it can curdle and turn black and be dangerous in that respect. Like any kind of human hunger, they can go wrong and end up hurting us and hurting the people around us. But I think it's a mistake to, in general, pathologize, doubt, as in itself a problem when it's just a normal part of being a human being when it's just a normal part of not knowing a lot of things. You know, in Zen Buddhism they have a saying that you need three things to wake up to the nature of reality. You need great faith and you need great doubt and you need great effort. And you need them in conjunction with each other, to strengthen and purify each other, great faith, great doubt, both, and great effort.
KARYN LAY: That was Adam Miller. I don't know about you but I hate that feeling of not knowing something. It is so humbling to realize that my path, our path towards Christ will always invite us to redefine our faith, to step into that space between the known and the unknown, and to move through the discomfort and choose Christ despite our lack of understanding. When we have the courage to accept that our not knowing is just as much a part of our discipleship as our sure knowledge, that's the place where God can show us miracles and that is where we find our true definition of faith.
That's it for this episode of This is the Gospel. Thank you to Tim, Davi, and Adam for their stories and their faith. And thank you for listening. If you have a story to share, call our pitch line at 515-519-6179 and leave us a message with a short synopsis of your story. And of course, be sure to check out our past episodes of this podcast at LDSliving.com/thisisthegospel. And if you love the stories we've shared, please leave us a review on the Apple Podcast app or anywhere you listen to your podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends. It helps more people find us and helps us to keep making great stories. Have a great week.