Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Creative Power of Faith

In his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul explains that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). Paul emphasizes the materiality of faith when he describes it as a “substance” with “actual [physical] existence” and an “evidence” or physical “proof” of that which is “hoped for” and “not seen,” but too often we treat this foundational description of faith as though it meant simply a mental belief in things hoped for and not seen. Alma reminds us that faith requires that we, as believers, take physical action and conduct an “experiment” (Alma 32:27) that will give substance to our beliefs and eventually lead to “a perfect knowledge” (32:26). Faith is, as Elder Richard G. Scott taught us in his most recent General Conference address, “a principle of action and power.”

During my years as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I spent many nights wooing the woman who would eventually become the beautiful Mrs. Monk, and I remember one night in which she taught me a powerful object lesson regarding the active character of faith. As we walked through an on-campus parking lot on our way to some event, the future Mrs. Monk and I found ourselves asking one another a series of hypothetical questions. She queried, “If I was falling, do you think you could catch me?”

Without much thought I replied in the affirmative—after all, she was a foot shorter than me, and couldn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds—before following up with a question of my own: “Do you believe I could catch you?” She likewise replied in the affirmative, but I must have heard some hesitation in her voice, because I immediately challenged her to demonstrate her belief. Pointing to a nearby pickup truck, I invited this girl whom I had known for all of a week to prove that she really believed I could catch her: “You climb up,” I said, “face forward, so that your back is to me, and fall backwards off the truck. I’ll catch you.”

I could tell from the look on her face that this was the not the anticipated or desired result of her question. But, to her credit, she gamely climbed up into the truck bed and perched herself precariously on the tailgate’s edge. Craning her neck, she inquired if I was ready. I confidently replied in the affirmative and invited her to look forward and fall back blindly. After several seconds which, she later confessed, were quite nerve-wracking, she allowed the substance of her body to fall backwards into space, hoping that someone she could not see would catch her and provide evidence that her trust had not been wholly misplaced. I did, in fact, safely catch her in my arms and found her face just inches from my own—which was exactly the result that I had anticipated and desired.

I set her down gently, and we quickly left the parking lot, but the powerful object lesson that she provided to me that night has never left my thoughts. It was easy for her to verbally express a mental belief in me and my ability to catch her. It was much more difficult for her to physically climb into the waiting truck, let her body fall backwards, and exercise her faith in me, but until she began to take action, she had no faith, and only through an exercise of faith could she come to a perfect knowledge of my ability to catch her. In order to exercise our faith we must physically act; for this reason James teaches that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” because “by works [is] faith made [a] perfect” knowledge (James 2:17-18, 22).

As we appropriately exercise faith, our actions make a substantial difference in the physical world around us. When a man exercises faith in the commandment to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), he acts by finding the best books and reading from them. As a result of this physical act, new chemical pathways will develop in his brain to record the information he has learned; he will literally become a different person. When a woman exercises faith in the word of wisdom, she acts by eating “every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof” (D&C 89:11). As a result of this varied diet, she will acquire a fullness of the nutrients which our Father in Heaven has provided on this earth; the very cells of her body will change, and she will literally become a different person. When we act on our beliefs and exercise faith, we impose the internal order of our minds onto external matter.

Clement of Alexandria, the earliest of the post-apostolic Christian fathers, once observed that “The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material" (from Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods "counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth" before they actually "came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth" (Abraham 5:3-4). The act of creation is the act of translating mental images and understandings onto physical matter; it is an act of faith.

Paul testifies that “we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God [through faith]” (Heb. 11:1), and Elder Scott recently added his witness that “[f]aith is a foundation building block of creation. . . . The Master used it to create the most remote galaxies as well as to compose quarks, the smallest elements of matter we know of today.” As children of our Heavenly Father, we enjoy the opportunity to exercise our faith in mortality and to become, with Him, co-creators. The “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and as we actively seek to “become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become,”we participate in the creation of our future bodies and souls (Scott).

When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and President Packer recently testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full” (D&C 59:9, 13). In the scriptures, being full of joy—or having a fullness of joy—is a phrase used to describe exaltation, when the body and soul are perfectly united. The Doctrine and Covenants explain that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93: 33). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions, when we fast, when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with a perfect, immortal body inseparably connected to our spirits.

The appropriate exercise of faith in Jesus Christ will literally change our very natures, as we experience his grace and “receive strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (BD, “Grace”). When we act in faith and obey the commandments of Jesus Christ, we create ourselves—or at least our future selves—by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie's suggestion that "[i]n a real though figurative sense, the book of life is the record of the acts of men as such record is written in their own bodies. It is the record engraven on the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is, every thought, word, and deed has an affect on the human body; all these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is Eternal as easily as the words in a book can be read" (Mormon Doctrine 97).

If we believe Paul; if we believe Elder Scott; if we believe that the exercise of faith is an act of creation, then we are practicing all the time for a future as gods and goddesses who will advance in their capacity for action from internal, physiological creations to external, cosmological creations. Understanding this truth provides insight into just why it is that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:19). The advantage that comes to those who exercise their faith by studying the best books, by obeying the Word of Wisdom, by bridling their passions, by obeying the law of the fast is not a reward or prize, a place at the head of the heavenly bread line; it is a natural expansion of their abilities as creators that will allow them to use their faith in the same way that God uses his sooner than those who have not exercised their faith to the same extent during their time on earth.

When we understand that an active “[f]aith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character,” that our “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and that our character is the only product of mortality which we can take with us to the judgment bar, the true relationship between faith and salvation, between faith and exaltation, becomes clear (Scott). Peter taught that “the end of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9), and Elder Scott explains why: “In the next life your righteous character will be evaluated to assess how well you used the privilege of mortality.” When we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we qualify ourselves for the blessings of eternity; when our actions evince a lack of faith, we condemn ourselves to a lesser kingdom of glory.

During my time as a ward missionary in Raleigh, North Carolina, I met many individuals struggling to reconcile common Protestant interpretations of scripture with the revealed truths of the Book of Mormon. John Wycliffe and other Protestant reformers who objected to the corrupt Catholic practices of selling indulgences for sin taught their followers that they could be saved by faith alone, and pointed to Paul’s letters as proof: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). I remember one particular young man named Jacob whose belief in this Pauline doctrine of faith made it particularly difficult for him to accept the words of Nephi, who teaches that “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God, for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). What Jacob failed to comprehend—because he did not understand that “faith in the Savior is a principle of action and power”—is that Paul and Nephi teach the same doctrine. Salvation “through faith” is not, as Jacob supposed, salvation ‘through belief’; rather, salvation “through faith” comes as we “labor” to express our faith in Jesus Christ through meaningful service and produce the “works” that James teaches are the inevitable fruit of true faith.

As we do so, we build righteous character. We discipline the natural man and our physical bodies. We experience a brief foretaste of the fullness of joy that characterizes the existence of exalted beings. We begin to exercise the powers of creation that are ours by birthright, as sons and daughters of God. Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the active engagement (D&C 58:27) that faith implies, these blessings and all other blessings of the gospel are available to us.

I have faith that this is so.


Amazon Mama said...

Nice. I especially like the story about your wife. I can totally see you two doing that.

Jo Jo said...

I'm glad she was caught. I had faith. Catching me? Not so sure.