Which comes first: understanding or belief?
As background for a serious challenge which faced Alma as the high priest over the church, Mormon describes some of the young people in the land of Zarahemla:
Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.
They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.
And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.
(Mosiah 26:1-3, italics added)
They didn’t believe because they couldn’t understand (when they were younger), and now that they were older, they couldn’t understand because they refused to believe.
The people described in this passage had participated in one of the most significant spiritual events recorded in the Book of Mormon: King Benjamin’s sermon. They were present when the people who heard Benjamin’s words prayed for a remission of their sins and subsequently testified that their hearts had been changed (Mosiah 4:2-3, Mosiah 5:2-4). They were there when the people entered a covenant to serve God for the rest of their lives (Mosiah 5:5). On that occasion, King Benjamin took down the names of everyone who had entered that covenant, and “there was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ” (Mosiah 6:2).
These were those little children. They saw what happened, but they were too young to understand it, so the experience did not have the same effect on them as it did on their parents and the other people who could understand.
Benjamin had already explained to these people that little children are blameless before God. Because God only holds us accountable for the things we can understand, the blood of Christ atones for the errors committed by small children who don’t know better (Mosiah 3:16-18). But now they were older; now they were capable of understanding, but they still didn’t understand because of their unbelief.
Just after King Benjamin’s sermon, the parents of these small children had testified: “It is the faith which we have had on the things which our king has spoken unto us that has brought us to this great knowledge” (Mosiah 5:4). They had come to know because they were willing to believe. Benjamin himself had warned them that something would be required of them. At the beginning of his sermon, he had admonished them to open their ears, their hearts, and their minds, so that they could understand his message (Mosiah 2:9). He knew that understanding would not occur without some effort and some trust on the part of his listeners. They had to be willing to at least accept the possibility that his words were true and to act on the invitations they received from him.
So which comes first, understanding or belief? It depends.
- If we are cognitively incapable of comprehending something, then it’s impossible for us to believe it. That lack of belief won’t hold us back, because God has promised that His grace will compensate for a lack of knowledge which is beyond our control.
- But if we are capable of understanding, we may still not understand if we are unwilling to open our hearts and minds to new information. This lack of understanding is within our control. We will only receive it when we lower the barriers we have erected and choose to believe.
Today, I will choose to believe. I will remember that I must be teachable in order to be taught, and that God can only enlighten my mind to the degree that I am open to receive new knowledge.