In the April 2021 general conference, President Russel M. Nelson gave a talk entitled Christ is risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains. Most of the talk is an appeal to members to increase faith. He utilizes the keywords common to this subject, such as faith, belief, and doubt. But the cultural implications that these words carry may differ from their usage outside of the Church.
All of the following unattributed quotes below are from Nelson’s sermon.
My dear brothers and sisters, my call to you this Easter morning is to start today to increase your faith. Through your faith, Jesus Christ will increase your ability to move the mountains in your life, even though your personal challenges may loom as large as Mount Everest.
Your mountains may be loneliness, doubt, illness, or other personal problems. Your mountains will vary, and yet the answer to each of your challenges is to increase your faith. That takes work. Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith.
To do anything well requires effort. Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is no exception. Increasing your faith and trust in Him takes effort. May I offer five suggestions to help you develop that faith and trust.
President Nelson appeals to us to increase our faith and trust. He also suggests that those that lack faith are “lazy learners and lax disciples.” His use of this pejorative is contextualized in to different ways, first it relates to those that have problems and second to those that have “doubts.”
Circle of Shame
Isolating his comments, President Nelson speaks of leveraging faith to “move mountains” of “loneliness, doubt, illness, or other personal problems.” He continues, “Your mountains will vary, and yet the answer to each of your challenges is to increase your faith.”
There are three implications of this perspective:
1) You have problems because you lack faith.
2) Your problems will be resolved if you increase your faith.
3) If you don’t have “personal problems,” it is because you already have faith.
Situation 3 is a priviledged position. The idea that God blesses us with ease and prosperity as a result of our faith and righteousness works well for the middle and upper economic classes, but not so much for others. This perspective can lead to arrogance and complacency. Or, we fake it so that we can be perceived as having great faith. In some cases, it is not a lasting condition.
Situations 1 and 2 likely apply to many people in the church; we have problems which we’d like to resolve. We are supposed to be blessed because of our faithfulness, so our problems must be our fault. If we just have more faith, our problems would go away. Even President Nelson is telling us this.
If we have applied, or continue to apply, the “blessing formula” and our problems remain, we must not be doing it right. So, we try harder and harder. Each time, we feel ashamed or abandoned because God is not resolving our problems. We recommit to be more righteous and try harder to be even more obedient and spiritual. We must not have enough faith. We are still poor, depressed, lonely, gay, sick, unmarried, or don’t have a calling in the church.
I wrote about this blessing fallacy a couple of years ago in God on a Leash. This perspective can keep us perpetually buried with shame and inadequacy. It is depressing to even think about.
So, let’s go on to a second implication of President Nelson’s talk.
First, a little clarification is needed.
Faith v. Faith
“Faith” is often a synonym for religious belief in general. In a more technical context, “faith” can be defined as the willingness to act when one lacks knowledge. This logic is derived from Hebrews 11:1. The corollary is that as knowledge is gained, faith is displaced. This is analogous to air that is displaced when pouring water into a glass.
Ironically, faith is a condition that requires ignorance or, better, un-falsifiability. In other words, typical religious claims cannot be demonstrated objectively and faith is required; we act on a hope that our belief is objectively true.
Of course, there are times when religion makes falsifiable claims, such as when asserting that the earth was created in six 24-hr days. Believers may hold fast to a religious claim by ignoring evidence to the contrary, or emphasizing possibility over probability.
Faith is not just a religious condition. Taking medication prescribed by our doctor is an act of faith based on a belief in the superior knowledge of the doctor and a hope that a medication will resolve our ailment. If we chose to gain more knowledge of biochemistry and the relevant pharmaceutical studies, knowledge supplants our former faith. This may lead to greater or lesser confidence in the efficacy of the treatment.
Mormons have a scriptural injunction to: “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118 and D&C 109:7).
The injunction extends to subjects outside of religion and scripture:
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms (D&C 88:78-79)
So, the following advice from President Nelson is natural.
First, study. Become an engaged learner. Immerse yourself in the scriptures to understand better Christ’s mission and ministry. Know the doctrine of Christ so that you understand its power for your life. Internalize the truth that the Atonement of Jesus Christ applies to you.
While President Nelson’s advice is restricted to the scriptures, becoming an “engaged learner” of scripture will necessarily involve seeking information from commentaries, histories, and scholarly sources in order to understand the context of scripture. Engaged members will naturally seek more information on LDS Church history and doctrine when studying the restoration scriptures, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Moses, and The Book of Abraham.
In practice, this first suggestion from Pres. Nelson encourages members to increase knowledge and understanding. This essentially shifts the boundaries of our faith as we displace former ignorance (which required faith) with knowledge and understanding.
Second, choose to believe in Jesus Christ. If you have doubts about God the Father and His Beloved Son or the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet, choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources.
The nature of belief is often misunderstood and requires much more context than I can include here, but there are some good articles (1, 2, 3). A common misconception is perpetuated in Pres. Nelson’s injunction to “choose to believe.”
Simply, belief is not a choice. You can chose to act in faith, based on hope. You can chose to ignore contradictions that challenge your belief. But, you cannot chose to believe when such belief is contrary to your knowledge.
A common example would be to ask an adult to choose to believe in Santa Claus. The world of a child is filled with things that they do not yet understand. Consequently, belief in magical things comes naturally. As an adult, knowledge and experience have displaced magical assumptions. A restoration of belief in Santa Claus would require the negation of our objective (and subjective) worldview.
If we hold a belief that is later shown to be objectively questionable or false, we are confronted with cognitive dissonance, mental confusion and a dark feelings. Lawrence Corbridge spoke of this in a BYU devotional.
It is interesting to note that we are not troubled by what we think is ridiculous. In other words, cognitive dissonance primarily occurs when the new information presents a credible challenge to our world view. If I claim that the president of the United States is a space alien in disguise, you would not be bothered. (At least I hope so.) But, if I say that he is showing symptoms of dementia, you might begin to feel stress over the implications.
Returning to Nelson:
Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters. Allow the Lord to lead you on your journey of spiritual discovery.
Believing members that devote themselves to study and understanding, are generally not searching for flaws or discrepancies. Nevertheless, the flaws are there; they will naturally become evident as we understand more and more. Scriptures are not perfect anymore than people are.
The question isn’t whether we will find flaws, but whether those flaws have significant bearing on the truth claims of our faith.
The LDS Church uses the word “doubt” in a unique way. In non-religious settings, doubt occurs when an explanation or observation lacks credibility or cannot be verified. I’ve heard doubt described as being a companion to faith. Faith (acting without knowledge) can only exists where there is doubt; they are two sides of the same coin.
“Doubter” is a pejorative in the Church. Doubt is vilified and is generally used as a euphemism for critical questioning (as in, analytical or thoughtful questions) regarding the foundational truth claims of the church. For example, when a serious student of LDS teachings encounters deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, she may recognize this as an anachronism (something that is out of place for the time period claimed by the book). Exploration of the issue requires interaction with (or reading from) those that have knowledge regarding the book of Isaiah. The resulting explanation will contradict church narratives. This is generally what leaders in the church define as “doubt;” the identification of contrary evidence that counters traditional truth claims.
The LDS Church enforces clear boundaries for acceptable belief. The placement of those boundaries may be somewhat different from one congregation to another. But, those that express “doubts” to LDS leaders are likely to find not only ignorance of the issues at hand, but dismissive or antagonistic reactions. A member in good standing that raises questions over the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the damage of polygamy, or similar subjects will typically be marginalized; removed from any teaching positions before they poison the pool with “doubt.”
While President Nelson may not like doubters talking to other doubters, it is really the only safe place to go. The Church has no allowance for uncertainty, contradiction, inclusion, tension, disagreement, error, and complexity encountered in Church history and scripture. There is no allowance for normal adult development. There is only one Sunday school.
Call to Action
Third, act in faith. What would you do if you had more faith? Think about it. Write about it. Then receive more faith by doing something that requires more faith.
In practice, President Nelson is asking to reinforce a bias towards faith. This is not a bad thing, positive reinforcement is a common and necessary practice to improve our desired behavior patterns.
Fourth, partake of sacred ordinances worthily. Ordinances unlock the power of God for your life.
Participation in “sacred ordinances” requires conformity to church practices. In this role, the church positions itself between the individual and “the power of God.” Those that are found to be unworthy by the Church may feel that they are barred from participation or shamed and, thus, may feel remove the access to God.
And fifth, ask your Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, for help.
Faith takes work. Receiving revelation takes work. But “every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” God knows what will help your faith grow. Ask, and then ask again.
A nonbeliever might say that faith is for the weak. But this assertion overlooks the power of faith. Would the Savior’s Apostles have continued to teach His doctrine after His death, at the peril of their lives, if they had doubted Him? Would Joseph and Hyrum Smith have suffered martyrs’ deaths defending the Restoration of the Lord’s Church unless they had a sure witness that it was true? Would nearly 2,000 Saints have died along the pioneer trail if they did not have faith that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored? Truly, faith is the power that enables the unlikely to accomplish the impossible.
There have been many people that have made great sacrifices for the LDS Church, even in my own ancestry. However, this is not uncommon. Millions of people have died for, or even killed others, because of their respective certainty and the hope they have in their religious ideology. Even religious groups that hold beliefs that seem utterly crazy are willing to die for their cause and “drink the Kool-aid.”
Personal sacrifice and even martyrdom does not mean correctness. However, emphasizing these sacrifices can reinforce our loyalty to a cause and bind us to our group.
The use of petty labels such as “lazy learner,” “lax disciple,” and “doubter” by the president of the church sets a low bar for church members; it effectively gives members permission to continue to judge and marginalize those that don’t fit the mold. It shames those that have struggled with personal problems, in spite of their faithful observance.
There are many members that leave the Church without any significant depth of knowledge. They may find Church participation unfulfilling or they may have only a surface knowledge of the doctrines and perplexities, thus leveraging minor issues into greater offenses than warranted. But, I also think that this shallow state of knowledge is the norm for most members; which I recently heard described as “cotton candy Mormonism.”
A frequent complaint from Church members is that church is boring. People expect to be enriched and engaged on Sunday. They want information that is credible and relevant to their lives. However, the level of sermons and instruction provided through Church materials is uniformly low; there is no progression in Sunday instruction from basic to sophisticated (unless a motivated instructor intentionally expands the content beyond the lesson outlines). Those who wish a richer context are left to their own devices and curiosity.
Historically, very few members were willing or able to delve into Biblical scholarship, historical information, theology, and related issues. Now, however, deeper information is readily available and more members are accessing it. Credible scholarship regarding everything from Adam and Eve to the circumstances of the priesthood restoration can be easily investigated. The result is that people can quickly find Sunday material to be shallow, incomplete, and even misleading.
So, in one sense, I agree with President Nelson, the Church does have a problem with lazy learners and lax disciples, but reading scriptures, praying, and attending the temple may not resolve the situation of those that have problems or “doubts.” Speaking to CES teachers, Elder Ballard suggested that the traditional responses of redirection were no longer adequate:
“If you are to build unwavering faith in the lives of our precious youth,” Elder Ballard said. “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.” (lds.org)