Thoughts on faith

August 28th, 2008

Ether 12 and Hebrews 11 both contain fairly long lists of things accomplished by faith: Moses received the law; Alma and Amulek caused the prison to tumble to the earth; Ammon and his brethren taught thousands of Lamanites the gospel; the three disciples obtained a promise that they should not taste of death. By faith Enoch was translated; through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age; by faith the walls of Jericho fell down. We read of others who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, and stopped the mouths of lions.

Through these and other examples, we all know that faith is important. But sometimes it’s very difficult for someone to have faith – or rather, to feel like he or she has faith. Many times we have much more faith than we think we do.

There are many reasons an individual may feel like he or she lacks faith. But ultimately, anything that separates us from God can be reduced to a simple fear.

Fear that God won’t serve justice to others who so richly deserve it
Anger, jealousy, or other negative feelings indicate impatience, which is really an indication that we want to take on God’s role ourselves – that we’re afraid that God won’t teach people lessons we feel that they so desperately need. We want to be the person who enlightens and delivers justice (preferably with a terrible, swift sword) to people who park inconsiderately in Cambridge. However, the Lord has an answer for us: In 2 Ne 27: 20-21, he very pointedly says, twice, “I am able to do mine own work.” We can trust that God will take care of whomever we feel anger towards; when we do that, we can let go of the anger we feel, allowing room for peace to take over. We can also remind ourselves that we are as imperfect as others are.

Fear that a problem is too small to require real faith
The earlier list of the accomplishments of the faithful shows the power of faith in inherently stressful circumstances – going into battle, teaching the gospel to hostile crowds, longing for a promised blessing that hasn’t come yet. It’s easy to feel that we can ask for help when we’re in the middle of family difficulties or job interviews or final exams. It can be much harder to feel like something as trivial as the impatience we feel in rush hour traffic or a long checkout line or the pain of a simple disagreement with a friend warrants any kind of divine action, so we don’t ask for help. But it’s in these quotidian details that God does some of His best work. In the October 2002 General Conference, Neal A. Maxwell said “God, who oversees the interlacings of galaxies, stars, and worlds, asks us to confess His hand in our personal lives, too (see D&C 59:21). Have we not been reassured about the fall of one sparrow and that the very hairs of our heads are numbered? (see Matt. 10:29–30; D&C 84:80). God is in the details! Just as the Lord knows all of His vast creations, He also knows and loves each in any crowd—indeed, He knows and loves each and all of mankind! (see 1 Ne. 11:17).” Nothing that upsets us, no matter how insignificant we think it is, is insignificant to the Lord; it’s these small daily struggles that sometimes wear us down the most – and thus require faith that’s stronger in its own way than that required to face enemy armies.

Fear that God is as we are
Human nature frequently assumes that the way we personally react to situations is the same way that God will react to similar situations. Those of us who easily become impatient with what we see as the imperfections of others may fear that God becomes similarly angry and impatient and resentful with us.

But when we feel this way, we misunderstand the nature of God. God does not hold grudges; God does not engage in passive-aggressive seething; God does not secretly resent us for our imperfections. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God reassures us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We can trust that our Father in Heaven won’t treat us the way we would treat others, but rather with understanding and respect and love.

Fear that we won’t get what we want
A common fear is that God won’t grant us what we so desperately desire, whether that be marriage, a job, children, or another blessing. In some cases, it’s not that we feel that God can’t grant that blessing – after all, God rhetorically asks in Genesis 18:14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” – but we fear that God is going to withhold it, perhaps until the next life, so that He can help us Learn Something. Or worse yet, Develop Character. When Paul tells us “Be content with such things as ye have” in Hebrews 13:5, the advice may not seem all that reassuring at first. We may be afraid that God is going to make us settle for a consolation life because we didn’t quite do well enough to deserve the life that we want – that maybe He’s going to make us live with a disappointing Plan B so that we can learn to be less shallow, for example. However, in the same verse, Paul continues with a reassurance of our Father in Heaven’s fidelity: “for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” With the reassurance that God is always with us, we can learn that managing expectations is not the same thing as settling. We can also take heart from Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “[God] really loves the [people] He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”

Fear that God expects too much of us
Many of us fear that we won’t measure up to God’s expectations. We may see other people who seem to be much more faithful, spiritual, knowledgeable, or capable than we are. However, in Hebrews 12:1, Paul reminds us that God wants us to “run with patience the race that is set before us” – to run our own race, not someone else’s.

We may feel like God is frustrated with us because we should be better than we are in some way, and we may concentrate on what we see as our defects – a short temper, or even a more serious problem like an addiction. However, God sees these challenges not as inextricably connected with us, but rather as merely connected with where (and when) we are on our life’s path. Someone struggling to overcome an addiction, rather than being a bad person, is merely in the midst of the years of his or her life that are allocated to that particular problem. God doesn’t think we’re bad people just because we struggle with the challenges He has given us Himself, and because He gives us our challenges and knows our struggles intimately, He may not expect as much as we expect from ourselves. If we are sincere, God is willing to take what we offer – even if we’re not satisfied with our efforts and don’t think that He should be either.

Some may see God as a strict schoolmaster who is always looking to take away points from our score. But our Heavenly Father is like a voice teacher I had, who hates failing students so much that she gives students chance after chance to succeed – working with impossible schedules, calling to follow up, and only failing the student if the student flat-out says to her “I’m not going to make up the lessons, and I’m not going to do the coursework, and you’re just going to have to fail me.” God is doing everything He can to give us as many points as possible, not looking for every defect He can find.

Fear that the Savior can’t really understand
Some may feel that the Savior can’t relate to their situation because he was the Son of God, and thus surrounded by some kind of protective forcefield of impenetrable serenity. We recognize His suffering in Gethsemane, but because we can’t comprehend infinite suffering, we may think that the suffering was only for a short time – and we may think that it’s easier to suffer terribly for a few hours than to experience a long, drawn-out, soul-wearing lifelong trial. We don’t think of Jesus as having to deal with the innumerable and incessant little challenges of daily living. But the Savior’s daily life was just as full of inconveniences as ours are today—crowded streets, long checkout lines, missing tools (always just the one you happen to need right then), burned rice that takes forever to scrape out of the bottom of the pan. Jesus got tired and thirsty; he got rocks in His sandals and dust in His eyes, and He probably hit his head getting into the car and tripped over that blasted extension cord in the kitchen AGAIN. We don’t have to fear that our Savior only understands major trials; we can trust that He is familiar with minor ones as well.

Fear that God won’t respond to us
Some of us fear that God won’t respond to our particular problems. We may pray desperately for help but feel that the heavens are silent. In many cases, God is responding, but not in a way that we recognize; we may be unconsciously or even consciously looking for signs, but rejecting the many small signs that God sends us because we want something bigger or more convincing. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes that many people “estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling” – that is, he says, “When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven.” This is not unlike Korihor, who also sought a sign that he could recognize. Alma’s response to him is applicable here:

Alma 30: 44 Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

There are other reasons we may misunderstand God’s responses to us. Many think that having faith and patience means never feeling sad or angry; they view expressing sorrow as demonstrating a lack of faith. But faith is not an absence of feeling. If a situation isn’t difficult, it doesn’t require patience or faith. Feeling sad or hurt or sorrowful in a stressful situation does not indicate a lack of faith. We may not think we’re being patient or faithful when we truly are. Our determination to keep walking – or at least looking – forward demonstrates faith we may not know we have. In other situations we may not feel we have faith, but wish that we did. In that case, the desire for faith is itself a manifestation of real faith.

The Bible Dictionary promises that as we develop faith, we will (not can, but will) receive “an actual knowledge that the course of life [we are] pursuing is acceptable to the Lord (Heb 11: 4)” – that is, that we aren’t just living a life that God thinks is more or less OK for us but He’d really rather we were doing something else. God also promises in D&C 42: 49-51 other benefits of faith: “He who hath faith to see shall see. He who hath faith to hear shall hear. The lame who hath faith to leap shall leap.” Not just stand or walk, but leap.