For the past 6 years, interrupted by an 18 month mission abroad, I have been involved in the LDS ministry at my local county jail. This has been a unique and rewarding experience for me personally, and I have probably learned more than any of the students – hence the title of this series: “Lessons from the Jail”. (Read lesson 5 here) I hope and pray that you, readers, will find in them a perspective and an honesty that will brighten your own understanding of the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Lessons From the Jail #6 – Faith- The Cycle of Becoming
For the past few months, every time I start a lesson, I write on the white board the word “Dogma”. I then draw a circle with a line through it. I then define “dogma” as something that you are told to believe simply because someone else said it was true. A perusal of the dictionary.com definition confirms that this is a valid summary of the various definitions. I then say something like the following:
“It does no good for you to believe something because I or anyone else says it is true. I encourage you to listen to others, but you can only put it in your tool chest if you properly think about it, and make it your own truth. It is intellectually and spiritually lazy to do anything else. So – in my classes – we have 2 rules: 1) No Dogma, which means you must think for yourselves and 2) only one profanity allowed per class.”
I know from my own life experience that there are a few giant words that we use frequently, which we “throw around” as if we understand them, but which we really don’t understand as well as we think we do. Such words include “Judgment, God, Heaven, Hell, Repentance, etc.” I think it helps remove some of the “mystery” from religion, and thus lend greater reality and clarity to our relationship with God, if we better understand these giant words. The giant word to be discussed in this lesson is “faith”.
I have delivered this lesson several times now, and, after delivering the above prelude, it typically goes something like this:
…So, I want to talk about the giant word “Faith”. Few of us really understand what it means, although many will say, “It means to believe” and they are happy with that. Faith, however, is much more than belief. It is common to believe something without having faith; people do it every day. We often speak of believing in Christ, but there are many, including satan himself, who believe in Christ, but who do not exercise faith in Him. Probably the first thing I want to share with you about faith is that I can tell by your actions what you have faith in. If you are quiet, you have developed faith that being quiet typically keeps you out of trouble. If you are loud and brash, you have developed faith that your brashness keeps people at bay and prevents them from getting close. Am I right? Don’t you know people like that? I sure do. If you are violent or quick tempered, it is because you have developed faith that this protects you from being hurt by others. If you take drugs, you have developed faith that the drugs bring you comfort and protect you, no matter how temporary and ultimately costly that comfort and protection might be. These are just some examples. I’m sure your minds are racing with other examples from your own experience.
So, what is faith? The scriptures provide some pretty specific definitions, don’t they? Paul, in Hebrews 11:1, says:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.
Moroni, likewise, says in Ether 12:6:
And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.
The Bible Dictionary describes faith in the following terms:
Faith is a principle of action and of power, and by it one can command the elements, heal the sick, and influence any number of circumstances when occasion warrants (Jacob 4:4–7). Even more important, by faith one obtains a remission of sins and eventually can stand in the presence of God.
I don’t know about you, but that all still sounds pretty cryptic to me. … “substance of things hoped for”? What is that? One thing that is clear to me, though. There is no power in believing. Only faith can be converted into power.
So, if you’re still a little confused, like I was, let me offer an original definition which makes sense to me:
“Faith is believing that something is true, even though you cannot prove it empirically or to the satisfaction of others, and believing it to the point that you are willing to take action as if it were true”.
Notice how, in order for belief to become faith, we have to act on it. Let’s turn now to Alma, Chapter 32. How many of you are familiar with this chapter? (3-4 hands go up). Great! Will someone begin reading then with verse 27:
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, 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.
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
Alma here, and in the next 6 verses, tells us that the seed must be a good seed. In other words, our desire must be a righteous desire, and we have to recognize it as such so that we do not reject it. We must be humble, we must be willing to listen, and we must be willing to accept new possibilities. As a side note: it is very difficult to do all this in fear. We must have courage, and we must trust. In this example, we have taken the action to at least not reject this belief. We have taken the action to plant the seed.
Now, Alma switches gears on us. He starts talking in verses 35-37 about what comes next:
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 ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.
And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit
Clearly, more action is required of us, isn’t it? Alma is telling us that we must nourish this seed. We need to get excited! If we do not, it may yet die out, even though we know it is a good seed (verse 34).
Have any of you ever tried to grow an avocado in a glass of water? (3 or 4 hands go up again – not necessarily the same ones as before). Well, I remember – oh, probably about the 3rd grade – my teacher told me to get my mother to take me to the store and buy one of those nice, big California avocadoes. Then, with my mother’s help of course (3rd graders do not play with knives, right?), I was to cut it open, remove the seed, stick 4 toothpicks into it, and place it over a glass of water. So – what have we done here?
- We had a righteous desire to please our teacher
- We believed our teacher enough to ask Mom to take us to the store, etc. (Mom, of course, was thrilled, having performed the same experiment when she was in the 3rd grade and because…well, moms are like that).
- We took action to plant the seed (well, we sort of planted it)
- Then, if you were like me, you checked it every day! You got excited! Every morning before school, and every afternoon when you got home – maybe even at night before bed – you would check to see if it had sprouted. At first, you might have been disappointed, but you didn’t give up. You had hope and you had faith. Then, one day – after what seemed like an eternity – there was a little cream-colored sprout on the top of the seed. It had sprouted!!!! Now your faith had been converted into knowledge. You believed, you took action and you gained knowledge that the seed was good (the avocado was even delicious – if you like avocadoes.) because it grew – it swelled. Likewise, lest we forget the teacher, you learned to trust her (or him), because now you know she told the truth. Do you see where this is taking us? Who does the teacher represent? Right – she represents the Savior.
There’s one more factor in this process we’re describing though. The action needs to be a correct action. If we put the seed in upside down, it wouldn’t grow. If we let the water evaporate away, it won’t grow. Plus, what if we get really excited and decide we’re going to plant the tree in the back yard? What if your knowledge simply fueled the desire for greater knowledge? Well, if you live in Utah, the seed might grow for a few months, but it won’t survive the winter. Does that mean the seed wasn’t good? No, it just means you took it too far – you took incorrect action. You might need to try the experiment again, only next time plant it in a greenhouse (a very tall one) with heaters during the winter. Was your knowledge false? Should you abandon your faith? No – you just need to adjust your actions.
So, our picture of how faith works is almost complete. We have:
- Righteous desire (unrighteous desires will only yield unrighteous results)
- Belief that our desire can come true
- We apply action
- Appropriate action applied to belief becomes faith
- Faith fulfilled becomes knowledge
- Knowledge fuels desire for more knowledge
You might call this the “Cycle of Faith”. I prefer to call it the “Cycle of Becoming”. It is through this cycle that we seek to become more and more righteous; that we learn to discern between righteous and no-so-righteous desires; that we act on our desires; that we learn to fail and to succeed. It is through this cycle that we become the sum of our choices.
There is a relatively famous, and to me at least, mystifying story told in Matthew, Chapter 17:14-21:
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
I’ve often pondered how one can have faith no greater than a mustard seed – the tiniest of seeds (Mark 4:31) and still move mountains. I’m sure most of you who recall this scripture have wondered the same thing. Well, I believe this concept of the cycle of becoming explains it. Christ is not saying that if you have a tiny amount of faith, you can move a mountain right now. He is saying, instead, that if you have the tiniest amount of true faith, it can grow (like the mustard seed) into faith strong enough to move mountains or, if you take appropriate action by prayer and fasting, cast out even the most stubborn of devils. He is telling us that we can become even as He is.
So, guys, here’s the deal:
- We all have to have faith. Without faith in something, there is no basis for action. We are nothing. Heck, when God created the universe, He first had to believe He could do it, right? Then He had to try. He had to turn His belief into faith.
- What you have faith in very much defines who you are, and ultimately who you will become.
- Faith is not a great mystery, as you can now see, but it is a great power – a giant word if there ever was one.
- To have faith in Jesus Christ is to believe in Him, to believe in His teachings – even though you cannot prove anything about Him – and to believe in Him and His teachings to the point that you take action on them as if they were proven truth.
- The key, as you can see, to turning belief into faith is action.
- This is why James said in James 2:26, For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. Belief, then, is faith without action – it is dead faith.
I encourage you from now on to ask yourself regularly, humbly, without fear, what it is that you believe in, and whether or not your actions reflect that belief, that it might be converted into faith and power.
I testify in great love for each of you that these things are true, and I do so in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Brethren and Sisters,
I never understood the principle of the mustard see until one of the inmates asked about it while I was teaching this particular lesson. It was then that this interpretation fell into place for me. Similarly, it was while teaching an impromptu lesson on judgment (link above) that I came to understand the glory and overriding power of God’s love at a whole new level; that His ultimate judgment will be summed up with the question, “How much can I bless you?” I am often left to wonder – was the spirit helping me to teach them, or to be taught myself?
These are good men who have made mistakes – who have sinned against society (and most likely, of course, against God). Still, they are not that different from you and me. They desire goodness in their lives. They want to be good husbands, fathers, son and brothers – they have just forgotten how. They have been distracted by the events of life, and by the choices they have made. They need someone to show them the way back. I try very hard to teach them things that will help them remember the things that will strengthen and enlighten them, and especially to remember the love of Christ. Why am I saying this? It is because we all need to be reminded, taught, and encouraged. We all need, at one time or another, to remember the love of Christ. As my term(s) at the jail comes to an end in November, I realize that probably the greatest lesson I have learned is to genuinely love and care for those who have “strayed”. Some of these people are in jail. Some are on the streets. Some sit next to us in Sacrament. The Lord loves each of us equally and, if we are to become like Him, so must we.