Monday, February 22, 2016

Some Thoughts About Faith--What Matters Most Is Obedience--George's Post

1.    What Matters Most Is Obedience

(a)  Leap of Faith; Experiment Upon the Word of God

When I was younger, frequently I would wonder about the leap of faith required of the believer.   “Leap of faith” is the term frequently used by Christians outside of the Church to represent the conscious, intentional decision of the believer to suspend doubt and to exercise faith.   It is regarded as an essential first step toward a rational belief in God and Christian faith, distinguished for the pre-cognitive faith of children and those with child-like faith that is acquired by them in their childhood, usually at their parent’s knees, before they ever think of, or are plagued by, personal doubts.    Occasionally, one hears Mormons also speak of the “leap of faith”—though it is not iconic Mormon theological “speak.”  What is more common is for Mormons, especially those versed in the Book of Alma, to speak in terms of an “experiment” upon the word of God.   The Prophet Alma, when giving his famous discourse on faith, says:   “Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words.   Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.   But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yet, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”[1]  
Faith requires, at a minimum, a desire to believe, a willingness to keep at bay doubts, coupled with some affirmative action showing “belief.”   Missionaries are constantly asking their investigators to exercise just such faith.   Investigators are asked to make “commitments”—to read passages of scripture; to come out to Church; to humble themselves in prayer; to ask if the Book of Mormon is true; to live by the Word of Wisdom.    This is what the scriptures mean when they speak of “faith” unto repentance.    And the conversion process is never complete, unless the investigator is prepared to bring these fruits of repentance.    Missionaries promise investigators that, if they truly repent, they will feel the fruits of repentance, one of which is increased faith, and another a great capacity to do good.    Repentance constitutes an act of faith, and at the same time softens the heart of the repentant, preparing him to receive the promptings of the Spirit.  

(b)  Subtle Shifts in Focus

It was not until I was in my mid-30s that I noticed a subtle, yet dramatic, shift in my thinking.   While I still thought about the “leap of faith,” and continued grappling with concerns about those elements of the Christian faith difficult to understand or accept, I found my focus shifting in at least three significant ways.   First, I found it much easier to be comfortable being a “believer.”   I felt as though my life of faith had been rewarded—even if it were in little personal ways, hard to explain to others.   God intends for men to live by faith, recognizing they will have questions, even doubts.   Men are expected to learn obedience, and to submit to God’s will, without the benefit of perfect knowledge.   There is nothing unusual or unhealthy in this; this is the natural consequence of having the earth covered by a veil, hiding from us a knowledge of the complete contours of God’s plan for His children.   No longer need I feel apologetic that my belief in God and Christianity is rooted in “faith.”    At the same time, I came to have a profound respect for all, who, in good conscience, seek earnestly for God, and try to be moral in their conduct.  
Second, I came to accept the inevitability of our having “questions” for which we don’t have answers.     Even if we come to find answers to some of the questions we have about God’s plan for his children, other questions are bound to arise.   God expects us to work through questions as best we can.   Having questions is not the sign of a diseased or corrupt or evil mind.   As long as we are conscious, self-reflective beings, and as long as the veil is drawn over our minds, there is much about this life that we will not understand.   Questions, as well as the doubts that may arise because of these questions, are inevitable.   It is relatively easy for anyone to ask questions for which we do not have ready answers, or at least have answers that make much sense to us or to others given our current imperfect level of understanding. 
There are several keys to going forward, even in the face of the questions that we may have: (i) remembering the lessons we have learned in the past, including remembering the times we felt the Spirit working in our life; (ii) keeping our questions in perspective, and not allowing side issues to derail us from focusing on the “key” principles of the restored gospel; (iii) remaining humble—none of us is nearly as clever or as smart or as unique as we think we are; (iv) accepting that God’s time is not ours, often we must endure a period of testing or tribulation or struggle, before coming to a greater understanding of God’s purpose for us; and (v) most importantly, staying the course, being obedient and faithful as best we can, keeping doubts from sapping our commitment and strength.  
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have come to believe that the key to faith is being obedient.   What is likely the greatest danger in harboring questions is that they may, if not managed, undermine our commitment to stay true to gospel principles.  A number of years ago I came across this short, but powerful, passage in the Gospel of John:   “Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.   And the Jews marveled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?  Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.   If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.”[2]   Jesus provides a simple means for testing the message He brought.   If one wants to know whether the gospel message is true, one must live the commandments—loving God and one’s neighbor; keeping the Sabbath holy; being morally clean.   Through obedience comes truth.    It was no more complicated than that, however much men might like it to be.   It requires men to do what they so often don’t want to do---bring forth “fruits of repentance.”   “And this is the condemnation that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.   For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.   But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”[3]   Interestingly, the truth of the gospel is tested indirectly through obedience. 

(c)   Consequences of Obedience

Each of us has learned a few basic lessons, painfully in some cases, through a life of trial and error.    We feel as passionately about those lessons, finding them to be true—in whatever way truth is revealed to us--as we do anything else we have learned in life.   These are the truths that move us, that we cherish and hold tight, that we would be prepared to share with another in private, when speaking of what is most important to us.  For me this is one of those life lessons.  The more obedient I am to the basic commandments of God, the easier it is for me to believe.[4]    Similarly, the less obedient to the commandments, the harder it is for me to believe.[5]   However it might otherwise be dressed up—for me it is that simple, and the correlation between obedience and belief is quite straight-forward.   The more obedient I am, the easier it is for me to believe in God; the more casual I am in my obedience, the harder it is for me to believe in God.   What are the commandments of which I speak?   There is no mystery here: they are the commandments found in the ancient and modern scriptures: loving God and one’s neighbors; forgiving others; keeping the Sabbath holy; paying tithes and offerings, faithfully and without reluctance; staying morally chaste; exercising, as best I can, faith; learning patience, long-suffering; showing charity to others; and providing for my family.
How exactly do I find “obedience” to strengthen my faith?   The following are four ways in which I find myself changed through obedience.   First, through obedience men are blessed to enjoy, to a far greater degree, the “fruits of the Spirit” in their lives.   As described by the Apostle Paul in the 5th Chapter of Galatians, the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”[6]   These fruits are contrasted with what the Apostle Paul calls the works of the flesh:  “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”[7]    Since the fall of Adam, men are not naturally endowed with the “fruits of the Spirit,” in order to enjoy those blessings, they must humble themselves and submit to the promptings of the Spirit.   “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be , forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man, and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”[8]  When I am most obedient, I find myself changing, even if slowly, and imperfectly, as I shed the old natural man in favor of a new man, who is enjoys to a greater degree the fruits of the Spirit.   In this sense, faith is “transformative.”
Second, greater obedience leads to increased confidence.   Most of us struggle to be comfortable in our own skin.   Rarely are we at peace; we are bothered but what we have done wrong or what we have left undone.   It is all too easy for us to remember how, in the past, we have fallen short or failed or given offense.  We find our relationships with others unsatisfying.   It is hard for us to feel “reconciled” with God.   Yet, I have found greater obedience to lead to increased confidence in our standing before the Lord.   The Lord promises such confidence to those who are diligent and allow the gospel to transform them:   “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of the God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.   The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”[9]
Third, over time the obedient are blessed to receive more light and knowledge.  The process is incremental—a little here and little there.   Several scriptures describe this process, often speaking in terms of “light.”   “That which is of God is light; and he that received light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”[10]  And, although the language is metaphorical, and full of imagery, somehow it captures the essence of the experience—the feeling of spiritual enlightenment emanating for a life of obedience.  
Lastly, it has been my experience that when I am obedient, my life goes better.    This does not mean that we are spared life problems, but I do think it means that we have endowed with a greater capacity to deal with the problems we do face.       

(d)  An Iterative Process 

If faith leads to obedience, and greater obedience to greater faith, one might expect this to lead a mutually reinforcing cycle.   Indeed, the scriptures speak of just such cycle, evidence how the word of God transforms human nature.   As noted above, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”   Alma compares the word of God, as it works upon our souls, to a seed, which will “begin to swell within” our breasts, enlarging our understanding, and becoming delicious to us.   And as that seed swells, sprouts, and grows, man can know of the “goodness” of the seed.  “O then, is not this real?  I say unto you, Yea, because it is light, and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after y have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect.”[11]  And, if the good seed is permitted to grow, and not cast out by unbelief or lack of nourishment, it will take root, and bring forth fruit, “which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure,”[12] and be a “tree springing up unto everlasting life.”[13]
This mutual reinforcing cycle is not however inevitable.   It can be broken.   Consistent with his metaphor, Alma speaks of the cycle being broken if the seed is cast by unbelief, is not nourished, falls on barren ground, or is neglected.   One might wonder why men, once blessed by the faith, would fall away.   Likely the answer is owing to human frailty.  It is hard to be consistent—hard to stay on point—hard to control the “natural man.”    Scripturally, the need to be ever vigilant is captured, at least in part, by the concept of “enduring” to the end.

[1] Alma 32: 27.
[2] John 7: 14-17.
[3] John 3: 19-21.
[4] I am not speaking of serious transgression, requiring confession, when talking of the struggles to be obedient.   I am speaking of the little, but significant, things that affect daily life—trying harder to keep the Sabbath holy; being consistent in reading the scriptures; being patient when dealing with others; forgiving others, knowing how much we need their forgiveness; recognizing our imperfections; trying a little harder to be nice at home and work.   The most serious transgression may so erode the Spirit that it is very hard for men to recognize truth.
[5] Perhaps, less intuitive is the fact that I have also found my faith strengthened when I have been less obedient.    When that occurs, if I am honest with myself, I feel as though my life is slipping out of control.   I am less confident, I find my faith weakened, I am less sure of my standing with the Lord, I have fewer promptings of the Spirit.   Sure—the process is subtle, at times hard to see, but I believe discernible, especially if viewed over time.   I do not mean to suggest that disobedience is a way to increase faith.   Such a proposition is nonsense.    If one is casual for too long, the Spirit can be lost.   Yet, I believe, for those brutally honest with themselves, they can sense the differences in quality of their lives, as their level of obedience ebbs and flows.
[6] Gal. 5: 22-23.
[7] Gal. 5: 19-21.
[8] Mosiah 3: 19.
[9] D&C 121: 45-46.
[10] D&C 50: 24.
[11] Alma 32: 35.
[12] Alma 32: 42.
[13] Alma 32: 41.