On Faith and Choice

Faith doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has, and I suspect it never will.[fn1]

And still I go, every week, and teach and learn and take part in ordinances and community and church culture and all the rest. And why?

Because I’ve chosen to believe.

Canonically, the church is amenable to a tremendous array of styles of belief. The Doctrine and Covenants recognizes this variation in styles of belief:

To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

Note that the D&C doesn’t rank knowledge above belief on their words (or, for that matter, belief on their words over knowledge). Both can ultimately provide eternal life.

Now, just like scripture doesn’t seem to weight and rank different ways of believing, I’m not trying to. I have tremendous respect for people who are capable of straight-up faith. Moreover, I don’t think faith and choice are mutually exclusive; in fact, I suspect that every one of us internalizes some mixture of the two.

But in my life, the choice side of things presses more heavily on the scale than the faith side of things.

That’s not to say that I don’t have faith, or that I haven’t had (occassional) experiences with the divine. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that as those ineffable experiences fade into the past, they become more and more effable, the indelible experiences easier to dismiss or forget.

I don’t really have a point here, other than that it’s fine if part of our religious belief isn’t a perfect fit. Because it won’t be a perfect fit—there are things about the church that bug me, and I suspect that there are things that bug you, too. But those things notwithstanding, the church provides me with relationships, questions, answers, and dissonance than I need and, at least on good days, crave.

And even though faith may not come naturally, I’ve found it worth the effort of believing. And so I believe.

[fn1] I was debating starting this with an extended metaphor about how I can’t keep houseplants alive, and tie that in to Alma 32, but the metaphor didn’t really do the work I wanted it to do; I do, in fact, grow my faith, unlike the multiple African violets I’ve managed to kill. So forget I even mentioned it. (The African violeticide, btw, is partly me, but it’s also partly that we have a limited number of windows in our apartment, and none of them get very good light. Also, subzero temperatures make windowsills cold places, even with a good heating system.)


  1. I have similar thoughts. One way I look at it is faith already has a choice element because it is belief plus action. By choose to act on a belief, however weak and small that belief may feel, it can be great faith. Another way I think about it is that faith is things that are hoped for which are not seen but are true. In that definition faith is hope in the true things, not pure knowledge. Hope definitely implies an attitude…like glass being half full view of things…so choosing hope or belief over disbelief is again a choice.
    Faith is described as having opposites like fear and doubt. As someone who deals with anxiety, I often deal with managing anxiety and still moving ahead and accomplishing what the real me chooses. If accomplishing things were boxes and I am limited by my strength, I pick up the boxes I choose to pick up that I am actually strong enough to pick up. If a box is too heavy to pick up I don’t. If it is difficult but I want to pick it up I do. Lot’s of choice. Faith is the same way. I choose to pick up the faith boxes if I possibly can.

  2. While I can understand your desire to choose to believe, doing so in the face of facts can be fraught with cognitive dissonance.

    I can choose to believe that 2+2=5, but that doesn’t make it so – regardless of how many self-affirming memes I post to facebook about it.

  3. anon4now, that’s the great thing: I’m not choosing to believe in the face of any facts. Certainly, the church and it’s leaders are imperfect, but then, so am I.

    I’m not terribly patient with the 2+2=5 hypothetical, because it’s thoroughly inapposite to religious, philosophical, or even political belief. Sure, there are better and worse choices, but the church is not capital-T Truth, nor is it a mathematical equation capable of rigorous proof. Instead, it’s a pathway, sometimes with ill-defined borders, sometimes with wrong or winding turns. But ultimately, I believe (to mercilessly mix metaphors), it is the best vehicle for getting where I want to go and, further, it is a divinely-approved one.

  4. I should add: facts don’t do a lot of work on their own in forming our worldview. They become relevant only when we contextualize them, and incorporate them ideologically. So, for example, the fact that DNA studies in Native Americans haven’t found Middle Eastern heritage doesn’t tell us anything at all by itself about the truth or falsity of the Book of Mormon, until we take into account our assumptions. If we assume that the Lehites were the first non-Jaredites to have arrived in the Americas, and are the ancestors of all Native Americans, the DNA evidence clearly discredits the Book of Mormon. But if we assume that the Lehites showed up in one little corner, and represented a miniscule percentage of the people living on the American continents, the DNA evidence doesn’t prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. (FWIW, if there were clear Middle Eastern DNA markers in the Native American population, that would also not provide us with incontrovertible evidence that the Book of Mormon was true.)

  5. And 2+2 IS 5, for relatively large values of “2.”

  6. +1

  7. I think this is an important and meaningful post, though I would argue the virtue you exhibit by working faithfully in the church in face of uncertainty is the very definition of faith.

    I think we sometimes have an unfortunate tendency in the church to act as though not having been compelled to believe–by a powerful emotional experience, for example–indicates that an individual has morally failed. Instead, I believe you are correct to cite the verse from D&C, which seems clearly to indicate that walking by faith–rather than knowledge–is not just acceptable but a gift of the spirit. Those who walk by faith have important contributions to make to the body of the church and teach those who walk by knowledge important lessons that cannot be learned from anyone else. Indeed, I think Alma 32 speaks to just this point; that chapter seems deliberately calibrated to speak to a skeptical, empirical, scientific audience. True, when the fruit finally becomes available, the experience of eating it may be overwhelming and spiritual, but every step leading up to that is, instead, a matter of incremental experience and empirical understanding. I agree with Terryl and Fiona Givens, choosing to walk by faith in the face of uncertainty is a choice freighted with moral meaning and the utmost gravity and allows us to demonstrate the virtues that matter most to us.

    So, all of that is to say: I’m glad for all the church’s members who keep walking just like Sam.

  8. Thanks, tyler.

  9. So if one “believes” something, they still don’t “Know”. So how is that different from faith? And all the people that get up during F&T meeting and say they “know the BofM is true”, and they “know JS saw God and Jesus”, don’t have faith in these events, because the definition of faith is not knowing. If one knows something, they have no faith because they know it. Does belief fall somewhere between Faith and knowledge?

  10. No, that is most certainly NOT the definition of faith, Surf40, at least not among the people I know and trust and respect.

    I’m reading through some James E. Talmage materials this week and found this paragraph, from 1892. Please forgive the cut and paste rather than my making the effort to summarize. The part I like the best is bolded, but it needs the context of the full quotation. I think what Sam describes if very much an exercise/experience of faith.

    James E. Talmage: In a general sense, “FAITH” and “BELIEF” are almost synonymous terms; indeed the word “faith,” as used in the Bible, is translated from the Greek noun “pistis,” while “believe” is translated from the corresponding verb “pisteuo.” In a theological sense, however, there is a distinction between the terms. Belief may be a passive condition of the mind; while faith signifies a positive state capable of impelling to action. A person may be made to believe in a particular principle or doctrine through fear, and yet he may exercise no abiding faith or trust in the same. Faith we know to be an essential principle of the Gospel of Christ, for without it no man can be saved. We are told, “The devils also believe and tremble” (James II, 19.) yet we cannot believe that the devils exercise true faith in God, else they would not be wholly bad. Faith, we are taught is a gift of God. – “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God.” (Ephesians II, 8.) This priceless boon is bestowed only on those who are worthy of it; we cannot think that it has been given to Satan and his associates. A person may believe in God as all Christian people profess to do; yet many so designated have not faith in the word of the almighty, sufficient to induce them to do His will and so become worthy of his other gifts. As an illustration, consider the following case – A person being convicted of a crime is sentenced to a long term of imprisonment; he may believe fully, indeed he may know that the Governor of his State possesses the pardoning power and could by a word liberate him from his confinement; yet if he has no faith that the Governor would be interested in his behalf, – through a consideration of the facts in his case or by other means, – he will not expect pardon and will make no effort to reach the executive ear. Belief may be a foreign growth, transplanted from one mind to another. A man possessed of powerful argument, or of strong persuasive ability, may induce another to believe as he believes; but faith cannot be so transferred, it must germinate and develop from a seed within each one’s mind. A person with strong faith, exhibited by works may encourage others to give his faith to another. Faith includes belief; indeed pure faith carries with it an absolute knowledge. Faith in God causes man to trust his Maker so implicitly that though the Creator may afflict and chasten him, he recognises that all is for his own good; and in his heart he declares “Though he slay me yet will I trust in Him.” Wholesome belief may be made a stepping-stone to faith, but it is not necessarily so.

  11. As someone who has transitioned from one who ‘knows beyond a shadow of a doubt’ to one who has a lot of questions and chooses to believe . . . I appreciate this post. I feel like my faith is strengthened when I choose to believe – because faith is a principle of action. Me showing up is evidence of my faith. I believe that science points to intelligent design, evidence of a Creator; I know Jesus Christ lived and believe he died for me and I can be saved through the atonement. I choose to access the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the LDS church. It’s not perfect, and I don’t believe a perfect religion/belief system exists. I haven’t read crucible of doubt yet, but it sounds like I fit in that category.

  12. I like what Tyler, Ardis, and Kristine A say here. (Steve Evans: +1? Ouch.) Along that line, jks speaks wise words, but notes, Faith is described as having opposites like fear and doubt. I agree with her overall sentiment, and I love the entire first paragraph (. . . faith already has a choice element because it is belief plus action !), but as to faith, although I know that is often the description, I disagree. The opposites of faith are cynicism and apathy. Fear and doubt go hand in hand with faith, and (we hope) eventually lead us to knowledge. Kristine A expresses this beautifully: I feel like my faith is strengthened when I choose to believe – because faith is a principle of action, echoing Talmage: . . . faith signifies a positive state capable of impelling to action.

    It takes courage – overcoming fear – to choose to believe. To choose to believe also means that we have doubts, else why would a choice be necessary? “Belief” in and of itself is not enough, as Talmage explains, since it doesn’t necessarily motivate to action; James says more succinctly that “the devils also believe, and tremble,” but “faith without works is dead.”

    Kristine speaks generally of her transition from “I Know” to “I Choose to Believe,” and I think we all go through something like that at some point. For me, some things I know, “nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” Some things I still only have faith in. Some things I still merely believe. Some things I probably don’t want to believe at all. I have lots of little Pinewood Derby cars of faith, tooling down the track of read/ponder/pray at different rates, with a good shot of Spirit in the wheels, toward the goal of Sure Knowledge and Eternal Life.

    And that, friends, is the stupidest metaphor I will come up with this month. Promise.

  13. I definitely appreciate those who walk the path of choosing to believe. For myself, I haven’t been able to do it, thought I have faith that I am better for being a part of the community. I guess I could agree with NI that choosing to believe is an act of courage, but the same could be said for anyone of any religious community who chooses to believe despite their doubts and concerns. We all walk our own path and thus I try to practice mercy and understanding for those who differ from my own beliefs and I hope for the same in return. Thanks for the post.

  14. Ardis, please help me understand this.

    Alma 32 says
    33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
    34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

    This says that once your knowledge is perfect (i.e., you know it is true), then your faith is dormant (i.e there is no more faith)

    So where am I wrong with believing that when one knows something, they no longer have faith?

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